Blood Red Sunrise
Big Bang 2009.   Anything goes.
Being abducted by aliens, stuck with an implant, experimented upon, and then returned to his room in the morning? For John, it was just too classic a story to actually be true - the stuff of alien abduction scifi movies everywhere - until evidence begins to surface that what he thought he was only dreaming about might actually be happening to him, with dangerous consequences.
Word Count
66976 words
This story has warnings; they are listed at the end of the story.
Jump to the warnings.
Companion Artwork
  • Blood Red Suns by Oran

Chapter 1

The fog was thick. John Sheppard stepped forward, stretching his hands out in front of him. He watched as his fingers disappeared behind a swirl of white. Was he alone? He couldn't tell. He took another step and kicked a rock. It clattered against the ground, the sound echoing up into… into where? He looked up. Nothing but white.

It wasn't cold or warm. It wasn't really anything. He waved his hands, seeing the smoky white haze swirl around the motion. Fog should feel wet or humid, or something. He felt nothing.

"Anybody there?" he yelled out, belatedly reaching for the gun in his holster. When his hand met air, he looked down and cringed. Nothing. No holster, no gun. Not even his knife. He was wearing sweat pants and a long-sleeve t-shirt. No shoes.

The sound of his voice echoed away without reply. He took another step forward, this time feeling rough, stony ground underfoot. He winced as he moved, looking for the smooth ground again.

"Hello? Ronon? Teyla?"

No answer.


Now it was getting cold. A stiff wind was blowing toward him, growing stronger by the second. It hit him dead on, ripping his hair back. John fought to keep his eyes open and leaned into the wind. He took a step forward and felt the air surge, the fog howling. His clothes rippled and snapped as he moved. His bare feet forgotten, he leaned forward and took another step, determined.

The wind pushed back, stronger. With a final shrieking cry, it gusted, ripping John off his feet. He felt his body lift in the air, tumbling end over end, spinning faster and faster. All he could see was white all around him. And the spinning. His stomach flipped and churned at the motion.

He landed hard on his back and the air whooshed out of his lungs. His chest seized and he lifted his head, pounding his ribs with his hands in desperation. A long moment later, his muscles relaxed and he pulled in a desperate breath. Then another. Then another. His back throbbed.

The wind had stopped but he felt like he was moving again. He was still lying down, but he could feel himself floating along the ground. He turned his head, seeing small, blinking lights through the white haze, and reached out to touch them.

Someone grabbed his arm, pushing his sleeve up. John watched long, black fingers slide a needle into his skin. It stung, and he squirmed. He opened his mouth to yell but no sound came out. His limbs felt heavy and awkward, like they belonged to someone else. The stony ground beneath him faded, and he felt a soft mattress take shape. He sank into it.

So tired. He was so tired. He just wanted to sleep. He closed his eyes, but another hand grabbed his other arm, stretching it out to the side. John opened his eyes to look and saw a thin figure with black leathery skin. It strapped one arm down, then moved to the other side and strapped the other. The bindings were tight over his wrist, cutting into the skin. One arm still had a needle in it with a long tube running up to an IV bag.

"What…?" he said, or tried to say. The sound came out disjointed and muffled. He felt a cool sheet being draped over his body and realized he was naked. Where were his clothes? He'd had clothes a second ago.

"No," he yelled, his voice sounding hollow and faint to the point where he wasn't sure he'd actually yelled anything. He kicked at the sheet, but the black figure caught his feet and strapped them down, then moved forward and pulled a tight band across his chest. Its arms were thin, its head too large for its body.


Its black skin shimmered as it suddenly leaned over him and John looked up into graphite orbs. They glistened back, unreadable. The hands reached out, gripping the sides of his head and tilting it backward, then strapping it in place until he was frozen.

He couldn't move. What were they doing? He looked around, seeing white and gray and small flashing lights. Something roared in his ears, blocking out all other sounds. The black figure disappeared then reappeared, holding a barbaric looking contraption.

When the alien shoved its fingers into John's mouth and pried his jaw open, John bucked against the straps, writhing on the bed. The alien was strong, stronger than it looked for something so thin. Its head grew larger, stretching and distorting the mouth and eyes, and it jammed the device into John's mouth. It didn't hurt exactly, but it was damn uncomfortable and he whimpered against the alien's steel grip on his face.

The hands disappeared an instant later. John could feel his heart pounding, his ribcage heaving. Sweat beaded on his forehead and poured off his face, slid down his chest and stomach. He pulled against the bindings but he was weak, too weak to even close his hand into a fist. He felt a wave of dizziness wash over him, and the alien brushed his hair back.

Was it trying to soothe him? The contraption in his mouth forced his jaw open until John was sure the skin around his mouth would rip and the bone would displace.

And then the alien disappeared. He lay there for who knew how long. Time crept by. He could feel his body, but it felt odd. Tingly. Not unlike being hit with a Wraith stunner. He tried to turn his head but he couldn't move. Couldn't even twitch his fingers.

The alien returned, holding the longest needle John had ever seen. The tip of it glowed, a pinprick of neon blue. John would have screamed, but something in his mouth pinned his tongue down. The muscles in his neck contracted and he could vaguely feel something hard and foreign in his throat, but even his gag reflex was paralyzed.

He couldn't close his eyes. Couldn't blink. He watched the point of the needle move closer through half-lidded, unresponsive eyelids. He was helpless. Completely helpless. His heart thudded loudly in his chest, the only sound he could hear beyond the continuous rushing roar filling his ears.

The alien rested a hand on his face and slid the needle toward his nose, up into his nostril. John could feel the cold metal sliding along the nasal passage. Deeper. Deeper. Deeper. It should hurt, but it didn't.

The alien glanced behind it, pausing, then turned back to John. Something shifted in its eyes, but John couldn't quite make it out, and its face remained otherwise expressionless. With one final shove, the alien forced the needle all way through his nose, piercing his brain, and his head exploded into raw, shredding agony—

John woke up abruptly, blinking into the dark room. He saw his desk and a small blue light flashing at him. His laptop, recharging. His bed was behind him and he lifted his head. He was on the floor, curled up in a shaking ball.

He sucked in a ragged breath. The nightmarish images of the alien shoving a needle into his brain lingered. He was dressed, though, in sweats and a long-sleeve t-shirt. He was also freezing. He climbed back into bed, pulling the sheet up around his shoulders. His pillow and thicker blanket had disappeared, but he didn't care. He'd barely had the energy to make it this far. He huddled on the bed, feeling lethargy sweep over him.

Weird dream. Freakishly creepy weird dream. He glanced up at the clock and sighed. It was not quite 5 am. In another hour or so, Ronon would be at his door, ready for a jog. John curled into himself, letting warmth slowly collect around him.

He was up and dressed in a fresh t-shirt and track pants by the time the Satedan came around. He'd even shaved, feeling somewhat refreshed. He let Ronon lead the way, taking one of the five-mile routes he had mapped out his first year in Atlantis. John padded along behind him, listening to their footsteps echo in the empty hallways. Ronon had and always would be faster than John—unless John was souped up on some metamorphosing bug virus, but he could do without that.

Let Ronon run faster. He didn't care.

His legs felt heavy, the events revolving around the replicator takeover of Atlantis and the subsequent exhaustion weighing on him. After twenty minutes, he could feel his muscles shaking. After thirty, his legs were threatening to give out on him. He forced his feet to move, step after step, but he knew he was slowing down. Ronon kept getting farther and farther ahead of him, shooting worried glances over his shoulder.

John stopped, all at once. He leaned over, resting his hands on his knees and trying to ignore the way his arms were trembling. He could hardly breathe, but he forced his lungs to expand, taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly. Sweat dripped off the tip of his nose.

He felt a hand on his elbow and he flinched, pulling away. Ronon stepped back, holding his hands up.

"You okay?" he asked.

"Sorry," John muttered between breaths. "Little tired today."

"You've gotten soft. Did you do any exercise while you were on Earth?"

John scowled, grabbing the water bottle Ronon held out to him and taking a long swig. "Don't let me hold you up," he said, tossing the water bottle back. "You can keep going."

Ronon smirked at him, but his expression softened as he studied John. "Are you sure you're okay?"

"I'm fine, Ronon. Just tired. It's been a busy few weeks."

He started walking, and Ronon fell into step beside him. They'd run for a little over two miles at the most. He should have been going strong, barely breaking a sweat at this point. A five-mile run was an everyday affair.

The trembling in his body was finally easing up, replaced with a little lightheadedness. The muscles were stiffening up around his eyes as well, promising a whopping headache later on.

"You want to keep running?" Ronon asked, his voice tinged with concern.

John almost said yes. He looked up at his friend, opening his mouth to do so, then changed his mind. "Nah, think I'm good for today. Didn't sleep well last night."

"I noticed."

"Thanks," he growled, but he'd seen his face in the mirror before he'd left that morning. He knew what he looked like. "Had this really weird dream."

They walked back toward his room, and he described the black alien and the wind and the needle being shoved through his nose and into his brain. It sounded ridiculous out loud, and by the time he was done, he'd filed it away as another bizarre dream among many.

"I'll meet up with you for breakfast," he said when they reached his door. His forehead twinged, and he rubbed it absently. The headache was growing by the minute.

"Yeah, okay," Ronon answered. He still looked skeptical, but he gave John a wave and ran off down the hall, back toward the five-mile route.

John entered his quarters, staring at his bed with longing. He didn't dare. Instead, he shed his sweaty t-shirt and pants, jumping into the shower. There was no rush yet, so he let the hot water spill over him. He leaned against the wall, closing his eyes.

The heat from the water rose up, swirling around him. John felt himself sway and he jerked his eyes open. His vision filled with white haze and he braced himself, waiting for the wind.

"Steam, you idiot," he muttered a moment later, and the foggy images from his nightmare faded. He shut the water off and stepped out, watching with some relief as the steam immediately began to dissipate.

John's next stop was breakfast, hoping a little food would ease the growing ache in his forehead. Ronon was already there, halfway through his breakfast and looking bored out of his mind—always a precursor to trouble.

He understood the man's restlessness. After the Ancients they'd rescued had kicked the expedition out of Altantis, Ronon hadn't had much of a chance to fight the Wraith; hunting had only occupied him for so long during his stay with Teyla and the other Athosians. By the time he was finishing breakfast, John had agreed to let Ronon run training sessions for the new and returning Marines. Ronon ran out of the mess hall for the gym, almost hopping with giddiness, and John laughed out loud.

God, he loved this place and these people. Especially the people.

He left the mess, trying to remember what he needed to do that day. He knew he had a list a mile long, but he couldn't for the life of him remember whether he'd planned anything specific. His feet automatically took him down toward McKay's lab, and he smiled at the sound of McKay's voice reverberating through the hallway, ordering his "minions" to move this, unpack that, don't touch this.

The man was in his element, setting up his old lab to new, exacting standards. John's appearance at his door was apparently a silent request to touch Ancient things, although John did not realize this until it was too late. McKay put him to work immediately, and when he finally managed to escape hours later, his headache was so bad it felt like his brain was trying to bleed out of his ears.

The infirmary was no less chaotic, though there was a lot less yelling and griping. John hovered in the doorway, searching for Carson Beckett. If he was going to get through the rest of his day, he really needed something to take the edge off the pounding in his head. He spotted the doctor in the corner, going through a cabinet, and he ambled over as casually as he could.

"Hey, doc," he said.

Carson looked up in surprise, then smiled at the sight of John. They'd spent the last six weeks together at the SGC, and while they hadn't seen each other on a daily basis, they'd run into each other enough. A lot of the Atlantis personnel had taken assignments all over the world, so the few still at the SGC had stuck together.

The doctor had known what leaving Atlantis had really meant for John more than anyone else at Cheyenne, and vice-versa. They'd always been friends before, but being at the SGC together had made the last six weeks a little more bearable. John smiled at the Scot, genuinely happy to see him.

"How are you settling in?"

"Slowly but surely," Carson replied. "It only took 48 hours to pack all this up and leave, but it's taking weeks to reverse that process. I don't think I'll ever get this finished."

John nodded. His room was still only half unpacked, and his stuff had arrived over a week earlier. "You'll get there," he said.

"Aye, we will," Carson agreed.

John bit his lip, bouncing on the balls of his feet a little. Carson narrowed his eyes at him, perceptive as always. "Are you alright, lad?"

"Bit of a headache. Think maybe I could get some Tylenol or something?"

"I'm sure I can find it in one of these boxes. Take a seat."

Carson gave him no choice, grabbing him by the elbow and guiding him over to a nearby gurney. He patted the bed and waited for John to hop up.

John sighed. He knew Carson wouldn't just hand him the pills, but one could always hope. His headache was bad enough that he didn't grumble. He jumped up on the bed, almost missing the edge, and blushed when Carson grabbed his arm as he flailed for balance.

"Sorry," John muttered.

Carson fished his penlight out of his pocket and John slumped on the bed, letting the man go through his check. He flinched as the light hit his retinas, breathed when the stethoscope was pressed against his chest, and sighed through the blood pressure cuff and temperature check. Carson fished around in a box behind him for a few minutes, and reemerged holding a few packets of Tylenol.

"Here you go. Take two every four to six hours, as needed. If you still have a headache tomorrow—even a slight one—I want you back here."

"Got it," John answered, grabbing the packets and hopping off the bed.

"And try to get some rest, Colonel," Carson called out to him as he made a quick getaway toward the infirmary doors. "You look just about done in."

The Tylenol worked to a degree, dialing back the throb to a dull ache. John pushed through the rest of the day, coordinating replicator cleanup crews, organizing Ronon's training classes, and helping both the military and civilian personnel settle into their quarters. By late afternoon, he was starving. He grabbed dinner on the run, realized he'd missed lunch, and hid himself away in his office.

By evening, he was staring at the endless stacks of folders on his desk. His eyes were starting to cross, the black print blurring and dancing together. He pinched the bridge of his nose and closed his eyes. It was just a matter of time before his headache returned.

He sat up, brightening at the thought that if his headache did come back, Beckett would take him off of paperwork duty. That just might be worth a trip down to the infirmary. As quickly as the thought crossed his mind, he shook it off. Eventually, the paperwork would have to be done—by him. He'd dumped more than enough on Lorne for the time being.

He grabbed the top folder and flipped through the pages. Another engineer—Aleksandar Ljubicic.

"Le-juu… Llluujj… Jullbi…"

Screw it. He'd have to ask the man one day. Aleksandar, material engineer. He searched his desk for the right pile. The folders had begun the afternoon in nice neat piles, but now they were strewn all over the desk in what appeared to be a chaotic jumble.

The floor! That was where the engineers/physicists were going. John leaned back in his chair and dropped Aleksandar's file on top of a mess of others. On the other side of his desk were the new chemists and biologists. One of the biologist's folders—a Maria Rizzo, if he was reading her name correctly upside down—was slinking toward the engineers' pile, and he kicked it with his foot, nodding in satisfaction when it slid back to its proper place.

His desk held medical personnel, non-engineering technical specialists, military personnel-enlisted, military personnel-officer, and miscellaneous scientists that didn't warrant a pile of their own. Technically, he was only responsible for the new military personnel, but he'd insisted on copies of all new personnel files. He grabbed another folder off the yet-to-be-sorted pile, flipping through the brief synopsis of the woman's life before throwing it onto the military personnel-officer pile.

One hundred and forty two people were now on Atlantis, thirty-nine percent of which were brand-new. They'd lost quite a few people in their two-month interim on Earth, either to new jobs or the allure of relative safety on Earth. In another month or so, the Daedalus would bring another wave of newbies, and John vowed to at least know the names and faces of everyone here before then.

He glanced at his watch, surprised to see it was past eight o'clock. He stared at the remaining untouched pile and then jumped out of his chair.

"Forget it," he mumbled.

He ran into Teyla halfway to his quarters.

"Hey, I didn't know you were back," he said, his mood brightening considerably.

"I returned just after dinner," she answered.

John felt a tension in his shoulders loosening at the sound of her voice. If they'd nuked Atlantis, if he'd never had a chance to walk and talk with her or Ronon again…he shook his head. It was unimaginable. "How are your people doing?"

"Well enough, given the circumstances. The news of the Ancestors' deaths has been difficult for many."

"Even after they kicked you all off the planet?"

"Even then. We are happy to be back, though. It will take many more weeks for my people to finally be resettled, but I am glad for the work. It means you have returned home."

"Yeah," John said, grinning.

"I was going to meditate in the gym. Would you care to join me?"

Normally, John would have declined, and the refusal was on the tip of his tongue until he looked more closely at Teyla's face. She looked happy—thrilled that they had returned against all odds—but there was something else there. A sadness or a desperation. John wasn't quite sure what it was, but he wondered if she included herself among the Athosians struggling with the death of the Ancients. She'd been so excited about their return when they'd first found them.

"Sure, okay," he acquiesced. "Not for too long, though."

Teyla led the way to the gym, sitting on the floor with an envious degree of poise. John dropped a little less gracefully, crossing his legs and cringing at their stiffness. He looked over at Teyla, waiting for her to tell him what to do next. He flashed to Teer and her people, and their endless meditations, but all he remembered was sore knees.

"I'm not very good at this," he finally said.

Teyla had closed her eyes, and she cocked her head at his voice. "Begin by breathing deeply. In, out, in, out. Feel the air move through you."

John let his eyes close. Teyla's voice slid over him, washing away his usual discomfort at this sort of thing. A thousand items on his to-do list rushed through his mind, but he pushed them away. It felt good just to sit.

"Clear your mind. Imagine you are alone, with nothing but clear skies around you."

That was easy enough. John's mind drifted through memories of flying through blue skies, cloudy skies, starry nights. He was happiest when he was flying—always had been. He felt the stress of the last several weeks begin to leech out of him. Maybe there was something to this whole meditation thing after all.

An alien, black and slick, leapt into his mind. It was tall with long spindly arms. The top of its head was too wide, the chin too long. And its eyes—gaping pits stared back at him, expressionless.

John gasped, jolting at the image, and realized too late that he was falling over. He flung his hands out to catch himself, but his movements were uncoordinated. His mind felt foggy, like he'd just been wrenched out of a deep sleep. He landed hard on his back, grunting at the impact.

He'd been sitting, so he hadn't exactly fallen far, but it still jarred him. He stared up at the ceiling in surprise for a minute before finally pushing himself upright.

"John, are you alright?" Teyla asked. She was kneeling next to him, a hand on his shoulder.

"Yeah, sorry," he said, blushing. "Think I fell asleep."

"You seem very tired. Perhaps we should continue this another time."

"Sounds like a good idea," John said, standing up. He could see Teyla watching him, so he smiled and gave her a wave. "I think I'll hit the sack. Good night, Teyla."

"Good night, John."

He made it back to his quarters without seeing anyone else, and sighed in relief. It was barely nine o'clock. Too early to actually go to bed. He booted up his laptop, intent on doing a bit more work, and gathered the blanket and pillow still on the floor from that morning.

Thirty-seven emails. He rubbed the back of his neck as the tension returned. Over an hour later, his headache was back, a sharp pinpoint of pain in the center of his forehead. He reclined in his chair and rubbed his face, giving up on the remaining dozen emails. They would have to wait until morning.

He popped the last packet of Tylenol then stretched out on the bed. How was it possible to be this exhausted? It had been a busy day, but he felt like he'd just run a marathon. He glanced at the clock.


At least he was getting to bed early. With any luck, he'd get a full night's sleep, refreshed and ready to go in the morning.

Chapter 2

John blinked up at the vortex swirling around his head. It hadn't been there a minute go, had it? It filled the sky, twisting blues and whites together until they rippled like an open stargate. He was lying on the ground. A soft, foamy surface. Heat emanated from the vortex and he reached a hand out.

His finger touched the edge of the sky and the world flashed white. John spun around, recognizing the Daedalus taking shape around him. The hallways were empty, bubbling in and out of focus like he was walking underwater. His legs dragged along the floor, but he pressed forward.

A door. At the end of the hall. He knew that door, knew where it would take him. Engineering. He could already hear Rodney McKay's voice. It echoed around him.

"How's it coming, Rodney?" he asked, because suddenly he was in the room, watching McKay work.

The physicist didn't look up. "It's going to take a while."

What would take awhile? The question floated through his mind, but then, he already knew. This had already happened. Over a year ago. The Daedalus, the Wraith computer virus. He'd flown an F-302 toward a sun to fry it.

He looked over at the Asgard. He'd never seen one before—no, he had. But he hadn't then. It…he—Hermiod—had looked like half the aliens he'd seen in the movies. Little green men.

"Don't stare—he hates it when people stare," McKay whispered in his ear. And Hermiod wasn't green. More of a pale gray.

"Am I the only one who thinks it's strange we're working with an alien?" he had whispered back then and he whispered again.

McKay ignored him, retracing his exact steps through John's memory. He moved to another console, still working. "Intergalactic hyperdrive technology's kind of new to us, so we need his help."

John couldn't help it. He stared at Hermiod. The alien glanced up at him, and though there was no expression on his face, John felt a shiver of apprehension run down his spine.

"Is he supposed to be naked like that?"

McKay had kept talking the first time. He didn't this time. John looked up to find the man had disappeared. He was alone in the engineering room. He spun around, looking for Hermiod. Another alien stood in his place—same round head, unsettling large eyes, ambiguous expression. But this one was taller and all black, and its eyes glinted as it turned its head toward him.

"John?" Teyla called out, and John blinked against a flare of light. She sounded different, like she didn't know who he was. "We do not trade with strangers."

The firelight danced off her eyes. The air outside had been brisk, almost cold, but the tent was warm and inviting. He could smell Athosian tea brewing, and some kind of hot soup bubbled and stewed in the corner. The aroma was spicy, tingeing the air.

"Well then, we'll just have to get to know each other," John replied, reciting his response. Sumner's eyes burned into the back of his head and he could hear the man's voice snarling, Let me make myself clear, Major. You are not here by my choice.

"Me, I like Ferris wheels, college football, and anything that goes more than two hundred miles per hour." The words tumbled out of his mouth. He couldn't help himself.

"Each morning before dawn, our people drink a stout tea to brace us for the coming day."

John remembered her saying that, remembered her inviting him to join them. But this Teyla grew taller, her head reaching the top of the tent, blocking the firelight. She grew dark until all he could see were shadows. Her eyes glinted, too large in her head.

"I'm just seeing what this baby can do," McKay said, and the world jilted, crumbling around him. He was sitting in a jumper, flying through space. McKay shot him a pained grimace, too tense to pull off his casual act, and then John was on the floor of a cave, his hands tied up behind his back. He twisted around, heard a rushing roar behind him.

"I am Teyla Emmagen."

The cave faded, but not before John saw Ronon stand up. Ronon the runner—dirty, smelly, tired, hopeless. He stood, and his skin grew dark and his eyes morphed in his head. Doubling. Tripling.

"So people just sit and watch this box for hours at a time?"

Ronon asked, but Rodney answered. "That's perfectly appropriate space pilot parlance."

The jumper. Two jumpers. No, same jumper—different times.

"It feeds on your strength, like a Wraith."

Three jumpers—this one stuck, liquid blue bleeding out from under the edge of the door.

"I am flying in a straight line."

The jumper disappeared in a flash, and John blinked. Atlantis. It was dark and his heart was pumping too fast. He glanced around, seeing Marines on either side of him creeping forward. A door slid open, bursting with Wraith stunner blasts and the sound of rushing water, and then he was staring up at the ceiling.

"We got it, Major. You are going to be okay."

Teyla stood over him, then a Wraith, then Teyla, then the Wraith again. He shook his head, feeling his stomach flip as the images swirled and switched, faster and faster and faster. The vortex spun out of control in front of him. The Wraith raised its feeding hand with a snarl, then disappeared into the spinning whirlpool above his head.

He stood there—face to face with the coiling, flashing lights. Not daring to reach his hand out again. A soft, gurgling sound beckoned him forward.

"What's it feel like?" he asked, his voice echoing in the room. He was standing. He could feel cement walls on all sides of him, pushing in, pressing him forward.

"Hurts like hell, sir," Ford answered, solemn.

John looked up to see the young lieutenant's serious face break out into a grin, whooping as he jumped through the event horizon. He stared at the wormhole, and for a second he thought he caught a reflection of someone staring back at him. Tall. Thin. Large round head. Eyes that swallowed half its face.


His breath caught in his throat and he blinked, but there was nothing there. No alien. No Ford.

"Hurts like hell, sir," Ford's voice said again.

John closed his eyes and stepped forward, and it did hurt like hell. He felt the wormhole wrap around his face and chest, pulling and stretching, ripping every muscle from every bone, every cell from every part of his body. John opened his mouth to scream—

He jerked upright, sending his pillow flying in one direction and his blanket in the other. The scream was there, almost choking him as it tried to claw its way out of his throat. He clamped his jaw shut, and the cry slithered out as a moan instead.

He sat there, breathing. He'd had his fair share of weird dreams before, but that one… he shook his head, pressing his hand against his chest. His heart was pounding, and his breaths came out in ragged gasps. It hadn't been a scary dream, really. Less creepy than the one from the night before, and certainly not one worthy of a blood-curdling scream. His hands were shaking and he forced himself to lie back on the bed.

His pillow was gone, and all the blankets, but he lay on the bare mattress and forced himself to calm down. He must have moved around quite a bit. He rolled his head and glanced at the clock, squinting at the neon lights to bring them into focus.

"Ah, crap," he muttered.

He'd overslept. He flew up out of bed, a new surge of adrenaline pumping through his veins. He had a department head meeting with Elizabeth in ten minutes, and if he was late, she would kill him. The excitement at returning to Atlantis had given way to the daily grind of actually returning to Atlantis, and Elizabeth was bearing the brunt of everyone's stress in that regard. John had no intention of adding to it. He stumbled across his room, bringing the lights up only after he tripped on his pillow. The bathroom light glared too brightly and he squinted at the haggard face staring back at him in the mirror.

He was exhausted. How could he oversleep and still feel like he'd never gone to bed at all? He shed his sweat pants and t-shirt and flipped the shower on, letting the hot water beat down on the back of his neck. He could have spent half the morning in the hot spray, but he forced his body to move—washing, drying, shaving, brushing his teeth. By the time he'd pulled on his uniform and stepped into the hall, he had exactly one minute to reach the conference room.

"Just in time," Elizabeth smiled at him as he burst through the conference room door. He nodded back, smoothing out his shirt as he walked straight for the coffee pot in the back of the room. He could feel the other department heads staring at him but then Elizabeth cleared her throat and the meeting began.

John slid into the empty chair next to McKay, pointedly ignoring the man's sidelong glance. He could feel a bead of sweat dripping down his back. It might have been water, actually. His hair was still soaking wet from his shower.

His mind drifted back to the night before, the dream images still vibrant. Even awake, they coalesced into each other, making no sense whatsoever. Dreams rarely made sense, though. At least to him. He certainly didn't believe in dream interpretation or anything like that. Just random images and memories firing off from one end of his brain to the next.

"How are we doing with cleanup?" Elizabeth asked.

John was staring at the table, lost in thought, when he realized everyone in the room was once again looking at him.

"What? Oh, uh…cleanup," he stuttered, his mind belatedly catching up with the discussion around him. "Right. It's going well, I guess. We've got most of the living areas and main work areas cleaned up. We're still finding little piles of replicator cells everywhere, but it shouldn't take us that much longer."

"That's good. The sooner we get them out of here, the better."

There was a general murmur of agreement around the table, and John nodded his head. The battle against the replicators for control of Atlantis had been a little too close for him. He still couldn't believe their plan had worked. Not only that, they'd saved O'Neill and Woolsey's butts and his military career was still miraculously intact.

The discussion shifted, moving around the room as each department head talked about what they needed to settle into Atlantis again. John sat back in his chair. He'd give just about anything to close his eyes for a minute, but the likelihood of him falling asleep was way too high to risk it.

By the time the meeting was over, the beginning of a headache was building behind his eyes. He stood up slowly, trailing the others out of the room and trying to calculate whether he had enough time to hit the infirmary before the next meeting.


"Huh?" he spun toward the sound of Elizabeth's voice, wincing as the headache blossomed into a steady throb.

"Are you okay?"

He shrugged. She wouldn't be asking if he didn't already look like crap. "Just tired. Sorry I was late—overslept a little."

"Yes, I gathered that," she said, smiling up at his hair. It was dry now, but it must have been obvious he'd fallen out of the shower only minutes before. "By my watch, you were right on time."

"Thanks," he grinned.

"The mission briefing is in one hour."

He waved a hand in acknowledgement then walked across the control room toward the transporter on the far side.

"Don't be late," Elizabeth called out after him.

His head pulsed, the pain centering right behind his eyes. He'd downed the last of his Tylenol the night before, and he couldn't very well go out on a mission with a pounding headache, not one this distracting. He sighed, then groaned when the transporter flashed and carried him to the hallway just outside the infirmary.

"Good morning, Colonel. Didn't expect to see you here," the doctor said as John walked through the doors, smiling even as he looked John up and down.

"I was in the neighborhood," John quipped. "Missed you at the meeting this morning."

"There was a bit of a mishap down in the chemistry wing. Elizabeth promised me extensive notes later on."

"That should be very exciting reading. Did our chemists survive their mishap?"

"Some cuts and bruises," he answered. He stared at John a moment longer. "How's that headache?"

"Comes and goes," John answered. "The Tylenol seemed to do the trick. Think I can get another pack or two?"

"Do you have a headache now?"

"Uh…," he stuttered, then shrugged at Carson's look. "Small one. I was fine when I woke up, but after that meeting…"

"Aye, meetings tend to do that." Carson was still watching him, and for a second John wondered if the man was trying to read his mind. "Have a seat over here," the doctor said, signaling an empty bed, "and I'll see what I can round up for you."

John climbed up on the bed, resisting the urge to lay down. If Carson came back to find him passed out on the bed, he'd never make it out of the infirmary in time for the briefing, let alone the mission. The doctor came back a minute later, running through his usual checks and peppering John with questions.

Where was the headache? Was the pain dull or sharp? How long did it last? What were you doing when it first came on? Have you eaten anything? How much water have you had in the last two hours? And on and on and on. John answered the questions patiently, finally tapping his watch.

"I've got a mission briefing in about twenty minutes," he prodded, eyeing the Tylenol packets Carson had set on the table next to the bed.

Carson rubbed his chin, then shook his head. "I want to run a scan, just to be safe."

"Come on, doc…"

"No complaints," he interrupted. "It will only take a few minutes. We can't have you dropping from a brain aneurysm in the middle of some unknown planet."

"You think it's a brain aneurysm?" John repeated, wide-eyed. Carson took advantage of the moment of shock to lead John over to the scanner and push him back onto the bed.

"No, but better safe than sorry," the doctor replied pleasantly.

John would have argued if he wasn't already lying back on the scanner bed, and damn if it didn't feel good to lie down. He closed his eyes as the hum of the machine started, flinching only slightly when a green light flared through his eyelids.

Seconds later, Carson was shaking his arm. Had he dozed off? He sat up automatically, letting the doctor help him upright. "So? What's the verdict?" he asked, stifling a yawn.

"Blood pressure's a little high, but otherwise the scan looked clean. There's a bit of pressure in your sinus cavities which could be a pre-cursor to sinusitis, but I believe you'll live."

"Always good to hear," John said, clapping Carson on the shoulder and hopping off the scanner bed.

"Here's your Tylenol," Carson replied, handing him a small paper cup containing two large yellow pills. "These are a bit stronger than the over-the-counter ones, so it should knock your headache out completely. And these," he said, handing John two small packets, "are regular Tylenol, in case that headache rears its ugly head while you're offworld."

"Thanks, Carson." John downed the pills in the cup and pocketed the ones the doctor had handed him. He stepped away, intent on leaving when Beckett grabbed his arm.

"I thought I told you to get some sleep. Are you having trouble nodding off?"

John shook his head. Nodding off certainly wasn't the problem. "I'm sleeping fine, doc. It's just been a long couple of weeks." He almost told him about the dreams then changed his mind. The dreams were bizarre, but nothing more than that. Just dreams. Not something Tylenol could do anything about.

He escaped the infirmary before Beckett changed his mind and decided to run more scans and tests. By the time he'd grabbed a quick breakfast and reached the conference room, his headache was gone and the thought of a mission with his team pushed the remaining fatigue to the back of his mind.

Standing in front of the open wormhole, his team by his side and his nightmares fading memories, he almost felt normal.

"Alright, Colonel. You're good to go."

John flashed a smile at the curly-haired nurse as she folded up her stethoscope. Another day, another mission. This one had been about as uneventful as they came, apart from McKay's little accident. He hopped off the gurney just as Teyla and Ronon walked up.

"We have just finished our post-mission checks and were heading for dinner," Teyla said. "Would you like to join us?"

"I am hungry, but—"

"Ow! Ow! Ow! Ow! Ow!"

"Rodney, will you please stop squirming and crying like a wee baby? This would all go a lot faster."

McKay and Beckett's voices floated out from behind the pulled curtain of another exam bed. John could see the shadows of the doctor and nurses moving around the bed attempting to treat the scientist. He smiled and shook his head then turned back to his other two teammates, both of whom were also smiling and trying not to laugh. Ronon was on the verge of losing that battle.

"You two go on ahead. I'll wait here for McKay."

"Are you sure?" Teyla asked.

"Yeah, no problem."

"Suit yourself, Sheppard," Ronon said. He clapped John on the shoulder and shot a grin in McKay's direction at the sound of another high-pitched squeal. With a wave, the two of them exited the infirmary and John made his way back to the gurney. He jumped up and folded his arms, watching the shadows behind the curtain move around the adjacent bed.

"Are you okay, sir?" The nurse who had done his post-mission check stopped, concern creasing her face. What was her name? She was new, fresh off the Daedalus just the week before.

"I'm fine," John said quickly. The nurse had moved toward him, reaching for the stethoscope in her pocket like she was going to do another check. "I'm just waiting for McKay."

"What are you using, a shovel?" McKay's strident voice tore through the quiet room. It was late, and other than himself and McKay, there were only a few nurses and Beckett in the infirmary, covering the evening shift.

John almost laughed as the shadow near the head of the bed threw up his arms in disgust.

"For the love of all that is holy…" Beckett started.

"Don't you start your voodoo chanting on me!"


McKay screeched again, and John's nurse moved toward the chaos behind the curtain, evidently deciding her services were in more demand on that side. What the hell was her name? He was pretty sure someone had mentioned it earlier. He leaned back on his arms, swinging his legs over the edge of the gurney and feeling the activity of the day catching up to him.

There'd been a little hiking, a little staring at ruins obviously thousands of years old and no more than a pile of rocks, a little more hiking, a little McKay ranting at the waste of time he'd spent on finding nothing. The rant itself had been cut short when McKay had slipped on a smooth boulder face underfoot and slid on his back down the short incline.

Well, not so smooth. John had acted appropriately concerned, particularly when he'd gotten a look at the bloodied raspberry patches of scraped skin along McKay's back. Ronon and John had divvied up his belongings, carrying them the rest of the way to the gate, and Teyla had walked slowly at McKay's side, nodding sympathetically in regular intervals to his litany of complaints.

They'd made it back to Atlantis without further incident. It had been late evening then, and that had been hours ago. John rolled his neck, feeling a stiffness in his muscles. Exhaustion was beginning to nip at him to the point where he was considering skipping dinner completely and just heading back to his room.

"What happened to Do no harm? You're killing me!"

"Would you prefer we stop and let all these little bits of gravel in your skin cause an infection?"

"You could at least give me drugs. Painkillers. Morphine. Anything. My back is permanently ruined."

"We're almost done here."

"Tell that to my back!"

John rubbed a hand over his face, glad the curtain was pulled so McKay wouldn't see him grinning. He could feel himself sinking heavily into the mattress, the weight of fatigue pressing down on him. He rolled his shoulder and rubbed his face again. They'd spent most of the day hiking, but he really shouldn't be this tired. He hadn't exerted himself any more than usual. He thought vaguely of the exhaustion he'd felt waking up that morning.

John blinked and discovered he was lying on his side, facing a white curtain without people moving around behind it. He didn't actually remember stretching out on the gurney, but he had, obviously. He was lying down now. No one was moving on the other side of the curtain, and he was wondering where Beckett, McKay and the nurses had gone to when he heard McKay hiss in pain behind him.

"Please, don't you have some numbing spray you can put on that while you dig around in my flesh?"

"I did spray your back, but if it will make you happy, I'll spray again. Ellen?"

Ellen. That was the name of that new nurse. He heard Beckett and McKay talking behind him, but their voices sounded muffled. Somehow John had gone from sitting up to lying down and rolling over. He really must be more tired than he thought.

He couldn't see anything beyond the curtain in front of him. Its white, folded surface consumed most of his vision. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see the light green of the infirmary bed's sheets, the crinkled corner of a pillow. An arm lay splayed alongside it, the pale flesh of the underside of the forearm facing upward. The fingers were limp and curled inward.

It occurred to John after a few minutes that he was staring at his arm. It hadn't felt like his arm at first, but he could now just make the fingers twitch. He tried to lift it, but that was like trying to pick up a two-ton block of concrete. The rest of his body was heavy and numb, sinking into the mattress.

Wrong. Something's wrong. Get help, John. Get up! The urgent thought wisped through his mind, there then gone again so fast he could hardly catch hold of it. He blinked and just barely managed to open his eyes again. He needed to sleep. At least for a few minutes. He could take a nap, then McKay would be done, then they'd both go get some dinner and call it a night.

He looked at the pale skin of the arm again. His arm. He tried to curl the fingers like he had before, but nothing moved. A splash of red dotted the white skin, appearing out of nowhere. It glistened in the soft light. It was a perfect circle, but the edges sprayed out in jagged lines, reminding John of pictures of suns and solar flares.

Blood red suns.

Blood red.

Chapter 3

"There, finished," Carson snapped, ripping off his gloves and tossing them in a nearby bin. He really shouldn't let Rodney get under his skin like that, but it was late and he was tired, and some days the man just did not know when to quit.

Rodney pushed himself up carefully, grimacing. He twisted his head around, trying to get a look at the massive bandage taped to his entire back, and sighed deeply. Carson could almost hear his thoughts about a permanently ruined back, despite assurances that he would heal up just fine within a few days.

"Painkillers," Rodney muttered, and Carson just managed to check himself mid-eye roll. He signaled a nurse to give him another dose of Tylenol.

She was ready for the request and immediately stepped up with a glass of water and a small paper cup, two yellow pills rolling along the bottom.

"Only two?" Rodney looked genuinely shocked.

"Doctor Beckett said two should be plenty."

"Well, Doctor Beckett is not the one with a horribly disfiguring back injury."

The nurse had no reply to this, and Carson purposefully ignored the conversation, gathering the tools he'd used to clean out Rodney's scrapes. A second later, the injured man handed the glass back to the woman and eased himself off the gurney, moaning at the agony that appeared to be raking its fingernails across his tender skin.

"Go grab yourself some food and then to bed. No stopping at your lab," Carson ordered.

"Like I could work in my condition," Rodney responded. Carson threw his hands up in the air again, muttering under his breath. He headed back toward his office and shut the door, hoping Rodney would get the hint. The scraping had been extensive along his back, but not that deep. It would pull and ache for a few days and, in the end, wouldn't even leave a scar.

Despite that, Carson watched Rodney from his office. One of his nurses helped pull a clean t-shirt over the man's head, and then he walked across the infirmary in an exaggerated waddle, shooting a glare in Carson's direction and then, as if summing up the contradictions the man embodied, a friendly wave. He disappeared out the door, and Carson smiled as he hunkered down to the work spread out over his desk.

His peace didn't last long. He jerked up at the sound coming from his radio earpiece, blinking a few times and trying to focus on the voice in his ear. It was Teyla, and she sounded worried.

"Carson, are you there?"

"Beckett here. What can I help you with, love?"

"We were looking for John. He was waiting for Rodney and then was going to join us in the mess hall, but Rodney arrived without him. Is he still in the infirmary?"

John? Carson shook his head. "I don't think so. The nurse checked him out awhile ago and gave him the all clear. Maybe he went to his room? He's been fairly tired the last couple of days."

"He's not answering his radio," Ronon cut in.

Carson had learned from long experience that if John's team was worried, then he should be too. "I'll check here for you. Just a second. I'm in my office…"

The infirmary was quiet. Rodney's scraped back had been the only excitement of the night so far, but he could feel a sense of trepidation building in his gut. "You're sure he's not in his room?" he asked, knowing they wouldn't have called him if he was.

"He is not, nor is he responding to our radio calls."

Carson glanced around the dark infirmary. There were no patients for once, and the two nurses still on duty sat at their desk at the far end of the room, their heads bent close to one another in private conversation. Carson walked toward them, scanning the dark room.

He got about halfway across the infirmary before he caught sight of John's boots at the end of a gurney hidden by curtains on both sides. It was the gurney that he'd had his post-mission check on. Had he been waiting there for Rodney?

He probably laid down and drifted off to sleep, oblivious to the panic he's now causing in his teammates. Carson wanted to believe that, he really did, but he quickened his pace anyway.

"John?" He reached a hand out to the Colonel's shoulder, turning the light over the bed on with his other hand.

John was curled up on his side and seemed to be deeply asleep. It took another second for Carson's eyes to adjust to the bright light, and to realize that the shadow near the sleeping man's head was not a shadow but an alarmingly large and growing puddle of blood.

"What the hell?" he cried out. He stepped away from the bed long enough to signal the nurses to come over, then moved back to John's side. "Colonel? Wake up, John."

Carson shook John's shoulder, gently at first but then with more and more force. John lay completely unresponsive. "Bloody hell," he muttered.

The nurses ran up, stopping at the foot of the bed and staring at the unconscious and bleeding man who shouldn't have been in the infirmary in the first place. Carson snapped his fingers at them, feeling a bit like Rodney for a split second but managing to gain their attention.

"Help me roll him over. We need to figure out where this blood is coming from."

They moved quickly, but it didn't seem fast enough. John was pale and limp, and his skin felt icy to the touch. The light overhead immediately revealed the source of the bleeding. Blood continued to drip out of both nostrils, running over his mouth and cheek, down his neck and into the bed sheets.

"Rodney, Teyla, Ronon—I need you in the infirmary right away," Carson said, slapping his earpiece.

"Did you find him? Is he okay?" Rodney's voice was stringent, cutting into Carson's ear like a knife.

"He's here. I'll fill you in when you arrive."

"Doctor Beckett, he's got blood in his mouth as well."

"I was afraid of that. It looks like it's coming from his nose, but who knows how much he's swallowed."

McKay's voice continued to yell in his ear, but he pulled the radio earwig out and shoved it into his pocket. He felt his attention zoning in on his patient, blocking out all other sounds. Part of his mind screamed, terrified at what it didn't know about John's condition, but he detached, forcing the clinical side to take over. He'd made the decision long ago to be a doctor first and a friend second.

"Respirations are rapid and shallow," he reported, forcing a calmness over the situation. He glanced up at the two nurses on duty. "His airway is clear for the moment, but keep a close eye on it. Ellen, be ready to intubate just in case. Melanie—"

The young woman was already moving, cutting John's uniform away. Ellen disappeared, reappearing a few minutes later with an intubation tray. She set it to the side, then helped them get John hooked up to the monitors. His heartbeat blared out of the machine, too fast. Carson grimaced at the numbers that came up and pressed a hand against John's clammy skin.

"John, wake up," he called out. "Colonel?" He snapped his fingers, then rubbed his knuckles against John's sternum. He was rewarded with a slight frown, but nothing more.

"Let's get him upright so we can deal with this nosebleed. How's his airway?"

"Still clear, doctor."

"Come on, John. Wake up now," Carson continued to call out to no avail. Between the three of them, they managed to lift the unconscious man. Carson held him by the armpits while the nurses raised the back of the bed.

"What the hell is going on?" Rodney's voice rang out. Carson glanced over his shoulder and saw the scientist, along with Ronon and Teyla, standing at the foot of the bed in shock.

"Did something happen on your mission that might explain this?" Carson asked, ignoring Rodney's question. "Did he get hit in the head or face? Or fall?"

"No, nothing like that at all," Rodney answered.

"He had a headache earlier. I saw him taking some pills for it on our mission," Ronon piped up.

"And you're just now deciding to inform us of this?"

"Rodney, hush," Carson said. "John talked to me about the headache this morning."

He leaned John back against the gurney, letting Ellen take over.

"Lean his head forward. There's still a bit of blood flowing and I don't want him swallowing it. Melanie, two ice packs please. Ellen, let's see if we can stop this the old-fashioned way, but call in Doctor Cole and whoever else is on-call tonight."

"Old-fashioned way? What's the old-fashioned way?" Rodney sounded near panic, and Carson turned around to see him staring at the blood all over the bed and dripping down onto the floor.

"What your mother used to do when you got a nosebleed—pinch it and hope it clots. Now all of you need to step back and let us work. I want Doctor Cole to come up and examine the three of you again. If this is related to something on the planet you visited, I need to know as soon as possible."

Whatever else Rodney might have said was stopped when Ronon grabbed his arm and yanked him away. The three of them began backing up but froze when an alarm started beeping frantically behind them.

"Doctor Beckett, his pressure is dropping," Ellen called out.

"Aye, I was afraid of that." He waved the others away and turned back to John. His team hovered just out of the way, watching the drama unfold with riveted horror.

"I want two large bore IV lines started, and get a full CBC. There's a lot of blood on the bed and floor, and who knows how much he's swallowed. I want to know exactly how much blood loss we're dealing with."

Fifteen minutes later, the blood flow had slowed but hadn't quite stopped. Cole and three other nurses had appeared at a run, immediately moving in to help Carson and to check Ronon, Teyla, and Rodney. John's pallor had grown worse, shifting from pale to white to a washed-out gray. Carson leaned forward, once again rapping his knuckles against John's chest, and felt his heart leap when John finally began showing signs of consciousness.

"Colonel, are you with us?" he called out.

John groaned, lifting his head slightly.

"John, wake up now, lad."

"Whaa…?" His voice was soft, barely audible beneath the bustle around him. Carson grabbed his hand, squeezing the fingers, and almost smiled when John grunted and blinked open dazed eyes.

"You've given us a bit of scare, but we'll get you sorted."

"Ss'rry…" John mumbled. "Sssick…"

He started gagging immediately, and Carson cringed at the blood he spit up. Nosebleeds were rarely serious when they started, but they could rapidly become so under certain conditions. He ran through the list in his head of what might have happened to cause such a massive bleed, but nothing fit the situation.

John was semi-conscious for the rest of the exam, grunting incoherently to Carson's constant questions. Eventually the doctor settled on the best treatment option to control the bleeding and called out the orders, then patted John on the shoulder to get his attention.

"John, we're going to have to insert a nasal pack to stop the bleeding. It's not very comfortable, so we're going to apply a local anesthetic and give you a mild sedative. Do you understand?"

John grunted, though his eyes fluttered and Carson wondered how much of the explanation he'd understood. Melanie was holding him up now, trying to keep the blood from dripping back down into his throat. Ellen appeared at his side, holding everything they needed for the nasal pack. Carson nodded, injecting the sedative. A moment later, John's already slack body relaxed even more.

"Alright, let's get this in fast as we can. Ellen, get the scanner started. I want to get him under there as soon as we're done."

"Yes, doctor."

"How are the rest of his team?"

The nurse smiled slightly. "Doctor Cole said they're all fine."

"Good. That's good," Carson answered, swinging the tray of equipment closer to him. Now if he could just figure out what was going on with John.

Rodney walked into the infirmary, rubbing his stomach. He knew better than to try to out-eat Ronon, and yet, when the man challenged him directly—and belligerently, he might add—he always gave in. It hadn't seemed like a bad idea at first, and he'd been starving. Fourteen pancakes later, he needed Carson's help. Badly.

That was his excuse anyway. He glanced around, spotting Sheppard's bed in the corner. He flashed back to the night before. The image of Sheppard surrounded by all that blood would be haunting his nightmares for months to come.

He paused just outside the curtain, not sure he wanted to actually see Sheppard after all. That was stupid, though—they would have him cleaned up by now. He took a step forward then stopped again. Unless the man had had another nosebleed. He could be bleeding to death and no one was around to notice. He would find Sheppard, dead, in all that blood.

"M'kay…'sth't you…" a voice slurred from behind the curtain.

Okay, so not dead. That was a good sign. Rodney peeked around the curtain before he could talk himself out of it again, and sighed in relief at the clean, groggy man sitting in the bed.

Very groggy. And pale as a ghost. Rodney grimaced at Sheppard, who only seemed vaguely aware of his presence. Dark circles smudged the skin under his eyes.

"Uh, yeah, it's me," he said. He looked around the infirmary, half wishing someone would show up and interrupt him. He didn't really handle sick people very well, even if they were friends.

Sheppard waved at him, kind of. More like lifted his hand off the bed and held it up for a second before letting the too-heavy limb drop.

"So, how are you feeling?" It was the dumbest question in the world but, Rodney rationalized, Sheppard didn't exactly seem like he was up to anything more challenging.

"Tired," Sheppard whispered. "Hurts."

"What hurts?"

Sheppard did his heavy waving thing again, as if that answered everything. Rodney rolled his eyes, pulling up a chair and sitting down carefully. His scraped-up back ached abominably. "Your nose hurts?"

Sheppard nodded. "Head too. Pressure."

Rodney nodded back, drumming his fingers on his leg. Where the hell were all the nurses and doctors? He bit his lip, trying to think of something to say. Sheppard, however, seemed entirely at ease with the silence, sitting almost completely upright in the bed with his eyes closed.

"Are you comfortable?" Rodney asked.


"Do you…uh…need anything?"

"Good morning, Rodney," Carson said brightly before Sheppard could answer. He arrived carrying a tray of food, which he set on the swing table next to the bed. He shook the groggy man awake. "Here's your breakfast, John. Eat what you can."

"Isn't that a nurse's job?" Rodney asked, pointing to the tray of food.

"I was down there eating breakfast and thought I'd save one of my nurses the extra trip." Carson glanced at John, who was blinking in confusion at the plate of eggs that had suddenly appeared in front of him. "Here you go, lad," he said, grabbing the fork and wrapping John's fingers around the handle.

"What's wrong with him?" Rodney asked. The words brain damaged flashed through his mind.

"He lost a lot of blood last night, and he's still got a bit of sedative in him."

Carson moved around the bed, studying the monitors and writing stuff down on the chart. Rodney's gaze bounced from him to Sheppard, whose attention was focused entirely on his eggs. Carson pulled out another syringe, inserting it into the sick man's IV.

"Is that another sedative?" Rodney asked, incredulous. Sheppard was only on his second bite of eggs. At this rate, he'd only be half done by the time lunch rolled around.

"Antibiotics," Carson replied, writing something else on Sheppard's chart. Rodney sat up and leaned forward, trying for a glimpse at the doctor's illegible scrawl. "We'll have to keep that nasal pack in for about three days, and I want to avoid a sinus infection, if possible."

"Thirsty," Sheppard drawled, interrupting. Rodney stared at the glass of water sitting right in front of the colonel.

"Here you go, lad," Carson said. He handed the glass to Sheppard and held it steady as he gulped down the water. "Easy now."

God, that man was patient. Rodney squirmed in his seat, feeling the bandages on his back pulling against raw skin. "He's going to be okay, right?"

"Yes, Rodney. He'll be fine. He'll be feeling tired and weak and a little out of it for a few days, but he'll bounce back." Carson said it as if he was humoring Rodney. As if Rodney had asked the dumbest question in the world. And yet…

"What is it?"

"What is what?"

"Don't give me that, Carson. I know you're worried. What's wrong with him? I mean, what happened to him last night? He was fine, joking around, hiking all over that damn planet, and then we turn away for five minutes and he almost bleeds to death. From his nose."

Carson sighed, shaking his head. "Honestly, I don't know. We ran a scan last night and it didn't show anything wrong—no indication as to why his nose bled the way it did. We'll run another scan later, but…" He trailed off, shrugging.

"Maybe something's wrong with the scanner. Someone doesn't just bleed for no reason."

"You may be right."

Rodney looked up in surprise. "Really?"

"Aye. It wouldn't hurt to have someone look over the scanner just in case. Run a diagnostic or whatever it is you do."

"Yeah, okay. I can do that."

Carson smiled, although he still looked worried. Sheppard set his fork down and pushed the tray away, leaning his head back. He looked exhausted. Carson swung the tray of half-eaten food away then grabbed a blanket off the bed next to them. He spread it out over Sheppard's legs, then pulled it up and tucked it in around his shoulders.

"How's your back this morning?"

"Hurts like hell," Rodney muttered, staring at Sheppard's shivering form. He hadn't even noticed he'd been shivering until Carson had given him another blanket.

"Come on, then. I believe we need to change the bandages anyway."

Rodney stood up and rested a hand on Sheppard's shoulder. He wanted to say something but what? Get well soon? That sounded so…cliché. So lame. He didn't do lame with Sheppard. He shook himself out of his thoughts and turned away. Sheppard was asleep anyway.

"I need painkillers too. And not Tylenol. Something stronger. Oh, and my stomach is killing me. Have you got something for that?"

"What's wrong with your stomach?"

"Pancakes. Way too many pancakes."

"You don't have to walk me all the way back to my room," John said, padding slowly down the hall. He glanced over his shoulder just in time to catch Ronon's one-shoulder shrug.

"Beckett made me."

"Oh. Thanks…I think." John turned forward, swinging his head just a little too fast. A wave of vertigo sloshed through him and he reached a hand out to grab the wall. He felt Ronon's hand on his other arm a second later. He took a deep breath, letting his head hang while he got his bearings again.


"I'm okay, just need a second."

He didn't dare look up yet, but a moment later the world settled down around him and he began his slow progress forward again. He didn't remember his quarters being so far from the infirmary. Ronon dropped his hand, but he stayed close, shadowing John's steps. John might have been annoyed at the hovering, but at the moment he just wanted to get back to his room and lay down.

He had no memory of his massive nosebleed. Who knew they could be so dangerous? He remembered getting McKay back to Atlantis and vaguely recalled his own post-mission check. His next clear memory was of waking up two days later in the infirmary with a raging headache.

He'd apparently woken up a few times before then, but Beckett had kept him mildly sedated for the most part. Memories of his team and the medical staff mixed in with bizarre dream images of aliens and jumpers and howling fog. The doctor had finally removed the pack he'd stuffed up John's nose the day before, but he'd kept John under observation just to make sure the bleeding didn't restart.

John hadn't been all that anxious to leave anyway. If he could almost bleed to death in the infirmary… he shook his head, then staggered, grateful for Ronon's steadying hand. A second later, he pushed away from the man and continued walking.

"You sure you're allowed out of the infirmary?"

"Guess so."

"Beckett figure out what happened?"

John almost shook his head, then checked himself. "Not yet," he answered. The most disturbing element to this whole experience was Beckett's inability to explain how or why it had happened. It was always the little innocuous things that, when they turned deadly, became the most terrifying. Sometimes these things just happen, the doctor had said, though neither of them had believed it.

"Here we go," Ronon announced. He grabbed John's arm and led him through the open door of his quarters.

John started, glancing around. He hadn't been paying attention to where they were, and the sight of his quarters filled him with a sudden sense of unease. He glanced around the room, searching the shadows and corners for…

He didn't know what. His room was clearly empty and he shrugged off the disquiet. He shivered despite the hooded sweatshirt he was wearing and longed to curl up in bed under thick covers. The bed was made—he'd have to thank Teyla for that later—and Ronon pushed him toward it.

John sat down, almost groaning in relief to be off his feet. The doctor had warned him that it was going to take some time for his body to recover completely from the blood loss, and John was feeling every lost drop at the moment. He sat there, too tired to think about what to do next.

Ronon worked quietly, pulling John's shoes off and pushing him back on the bed. He draped the covers over him, including a thick Athosian blanket John had seen in Teyla's quarters. His eyes were already drifting closed, and he relaxed further into the cocooning warmth.

"Thanks," he mumbled as Ronon stood up to leave.

"Need anything else?"


Ronon pulled the drapes over the window closed and John just barely caught the man's outline in the door. "Get some rest. I'll stop by later."

John waved, or tried to. His hand caught in the blanket and by the time he'd extricated it, Ronon was gone. He lay perfectly still, straining for a sound, but the room was quiet. He was alone and safe, and he sighed as he fell asleep.

Chapter 4

Teyla spotted John and Rodney sitting in the corner of the mess hall, a game set up between them. Neither one was speaking or even looking at the other, their faces pinched in concentration as they stared at the white and black pieces on the checkered board. John zipped his fleece pullover a little higher despite the warm air blowing through a nearby open window, then moved one of his pieces.

She grabbed a bowl of soup—minestrone, she believed it was called. It was one of her favorite Earth soups, similar to an Athosian soup Charin used to make. She weaved her way through the lunch crowd toward her teammates. Even from a distance, she could see how drawn and tired John looked despite having been released from the infirmary two days before.

But, he had a little more color in his face, and he was here in the mess hall versus sleeping in his room. She would take whatever improvement she could. She shivered slightly at the memory of John bleeding in the infirmary. It had shaken her to the core. She'd laid in bed for hours that night searching to understand why this had unnerved her so much. There was always an element of risk, particularly when they went off-world, but here on Atlantis…

She had dropped the walls and assumed her friends were safe only to find John had almost bled to death in the infirmary.

She shook her head, forcing the dark thoughts from her mind, and stepped up to the table. Both John and Rodney glanced up at her as she sat down, John shooting her a small smile.

"How are you today?" she asked John.

"Good," he answered. "Beating Rodney."

Rodney didn't look up, but Teyla could see the scowl on his face. "Game's not over yet, Sheppard."

"It will be in about six moves."


John smiled again, a mischievous glint in his eye. Teyla relaxed and watched John and Rodney finish their game while she ate. She was only vaguely familiar with the rules of chess—John had tried to teach it to her once—but watching her teammates' reactions to each move was just as entertaining. John's eyes narrowed, his eyebrows pulling down as he calculated his moves. Rodney tended to bite his lip and blink frequently when it was his turn to move, and then grit his teeth while he watched John move his piece.

John did in fact beat Rodney in six moves and Rodney immediately challenged him to a rematch.

"Can't right now," John answered. "It'll have to wait for later."

"What do you mean you can't right now? You're not on active duty yet. You're supposed to be resting."

"And you're supposed to be working. Besides, I'm on light duty. I'm allowed to do paperwork, go to meetings, and all that fun and exciting stuff."

"Where is Ronon?" Teyla asked, glancing around the bustling room.

"The gym," John answered. "He's starting a training class for the new Marines and wanted to set some things set up before they arrived."

"Did you warn Carson? I'm not sure the infirmary is ready to handle a Ronon training class."

Teyla smiled, knowing there was a kernel of truth in what Rodney was saying. Ronon did not "pull his punches" when he trained the Marines. She sipped the last of her soup then stood up from the table.

"Heading out?" John asked. When Teyla nodded, John stood up as well. "I'll walk with you. Later, McKay."

"Fine, whatever. You owe me a game of chess," Rodney yelled at them as they turned away. He might have said more, but Zelenka waved at them as he walked by and sat down in John's chair, and Teyla heard the two scientists launch into a technical debate they had clearly started hours or maybe even days before, the chess game forgotten already.

Teyla and John walked through the hallways in a leisurely stroll, and the unease twisting in her heart unwound at the quiet pace. She had a sudden urge to grab onto his arm just to feel him warm and alive under her fingers, but she fought it, crossing her arms instead. People bustled back and forth, making the city feel lived in and normal again, the sharp edge of their abrupt departure two months earlier dulling slowly.

"Ronon's class should be starting soon," John said, turning toward the gym. "Want to check it out?"

"I would like that."

By the time they reached the gym, the training session was in full swing. Ronon had divided the Marines up into groups, running them through a complex disarming technique he had taught Teyla the year before. She grimaced as one of the Marines moved the wrong way and ended up on the floor with his arm twisted behind him.

"Step left," Ronon yelled from the side. "Keep your hands loose until your shoulders are lined up with his."

The Marine grunted, accepting a hand up by the Marine partnered with him. Teyla and John moved along the side of the wall as everyone squared off to try again.

"How's it going?" John asked.

"They're weak," Ronon growled. "They won't last a day out there."

John grimaced at the pained look the nearby Marines shot toward them, and Teyla held back a sigh. Ronon was bluntly honest, a trait not everyone appreciated.

"Give them time to settle in. They'll find their feet," John soothed, and Teyla noticed he said it loud enough for the men still shooting disgruntled looks at Ronon to overhear. He made his way to the bench at the back and sat down, looking suddenly very tired.

"You beat McKay at that game today?"


Ronon nodded, then strode across the gym to a pair who'd gotten themselves tangled up with each other and had fallen to the ground. Ronon's shouts echoed around the room as the pairs of Marines squared off again, going back and forth as they tried to master the technique. When one of them finally pulled it off successfully, he stood up and whooped.

"What's your name?" Ronon asked, marching over to him.

The Marine sergeant looked cowed for a second even though he was about as tall as Ronon and broader through the shoulders. As Ronon stopped in front of him, he stood straighter and met Ronon's gaze. "Erickson, sir."

"Do it again."

Erickson and his partner—Furtelli, if she was reading his name tag correctly—stood facing each other, crouching as they prepared to move. The other Marines had circled around them to watch. Teyla leaned forward on the bench as they began. Furtelli made the first move, lunging forward with a rubber training knife toward Erickson's stomach. Erickson held his ground, then stepped left at the last second.

Teyla cringed as they hit each other, and from her vantage point, they appeared to freeze in place as they grappled with each other, fighting for possession of the knife. She had a clear view of Erickson's face as they wrestled, and it grew increasingly red the longer they struggled. A thin scar just above his eyebrow slowly turned white, matching the color of his hair.

Erickson finally lunged to the side, and the two of them stepped back then collided again with a symphony of groans. He pushed into Furtelli, using his height and upper body strength to overpower his smaller opponent. A few grunts later, he managed to twist the fake knife away and send it flying across the room.

He and Furtelli stepped back, panting and red-faced. Ronon picked up the knife that had fallen near his feet and stared at it for a moment.

"I don't like where this is going," John whispered, leaning close to her ear.

She nodded, shooting him a pained smile.

"That wasn't pretty, but you got the knife away from him," Ronon conceded. He threw it in the air, and Teyla watched it flip end over end before he caught it by the hilt. "You were successful because you're bigger than he is, but that won't work against a Wraith."

Ronon turned around slowly, every eye in the room on him. "Don't ever forget, the Wraith will always be bigger and stronger than you. If you want to win against them, you've got to learn how to turn their advantages over you into a disadvantage. Teyla—"

Ronon jabbed a finger at her beckoning her over. John patted her on the back as she stood up. "Good luck," he said, grinning.

"The success of this move is not dependent on your size or the amount of muscle you may have," Ronon was saying. Teyla stepped up to his side, already knowing what he was going to have her do.

"Teyla, line up with Erickson and disarm his attack."

She bit back a sigh. It had taken her a few days to get the move down, but once learned, she'd realized it really was valuable. The Marines were all effective fighters, but this particular move was just different enough that it threw them off at first, and they'd benefit from the practice.

Still, she was not relishing wrestling with the larger man in front of her. He was crouching down now, the muscles in his neck and shoulders bulging. She wondered briefly if he was trying to intimidate her. She could see the determination in his eyes to not be defeated by a much smaller woman.

He lunged, but Teyla was prepared, seeing him tense up a second before he moved. She stepped toward him, dancing around his body as she swung her arm down toward his wrist. As he came up alongside her, she stepped around him, twisting her arms and her body.

Erickson might have been a big man, but he moved fast, and Teyla fought to keep her center of balance. Her senses zoned in on what he was doing, and the second she sensed him slide off kilter she pushed against him, pinching his wrist away from her body and weaving her legs behind him.

She moved without conscious thought, and the fight ended within seconds. Teyla found herself kneeling on the mat and she stood up slowly, holding the knife. Erickson lay sprawled on the ground at her feet, looking a little dazed. She turned toward Ronon and couldn't help but smile at the grin on his face. The other Marines stared at her in awe and newfound respect.

John stood just behind them, giving her a thumbs up. She handed the knife to Ronon then helped Erickson back to his feet. As Ronon began yelling at them to form up again, she made her way over to John's side.

"Nicely done," he said.

"Thank you," she answered, not sure what she was more satisfied about—taking down a larger opponent or impressing her teammates.

Erickson had moved off to the side of the mat and stood a few feet away from them, his hands on his knees. John turned toward him.

"Sergeant, you okay?"

The man stood up slowly, his shaved head glistening with sweat. "Yes, sir. Just got the wind knocked out of me."

"You actually didn't do too bad, considering."

"Considering what, sir?"

"Considering you just went up against the best hand-to-hand combatant in this entire city."

Teyla rolled her eyes at the exaggeration. She was good—that she did not doubt—but she wouldn't go so far as claiming to be the best. That was just asking for trouble. She shot a glance across the room toward Ronon, hoping he had not heard John's declaration. He was near the far wall, demonstrating the technique again and she sighed in relief. When he did find out what John had said, he'd be at her door, prepared to spar until they collapsed to test the theory.

Erickson was looking at Teyla with ill-masked disbelief, and she turned a steely gaze on him. He had the courtesy to break eye contact and John shook his head.

"The problem is, you give yourself away before you move, and a good fighter will pick up on it and use that against you. You've relied on your strength and size too much and, as Ronon said, that won't work out here."

"Yes, sir," Erickson replied.

John waved him away, and the man met up with his fighting partner. Shouts and grunts could be heard all over the room as groups fought and grappled. Teyla watched them for a few minutes, impressed when a few of the Marines started to grasp the steps.

"Don't think he liked what I said," John murmured.

Teyla glanced over at Erickson and Furtelli. The large Marine lunged and Furtelli bobbed to the side. He overstepped but managed to get his arms up in time, and almost succeeded in pulling off Ronon's move. The man was lean but strong, shorter than Erickson but more agile. When it was clear he'd messed up the move, he stepped back, switching places with his partner.

Erickson crouched down, raising his arms, but Teyla caught him glancing over at her and Sheppard. His face was expressionless, but there was a hardness in his eyes as he looked over at his commanding officer.

"He will learn," Teyla said.

"Hope so," John sighed.

Erickson's gaze flickered away from them as Furtelli attacked. They grappled a few seconds before both falling to the mat. The large man slammed his fist into the mat in frustration and pushed back up to his feet.

"Come on," John said, grabbing Teyla by the arm.

They moved around the room, watching the groups fight each other. A handful of rubber knives sailed through the air, evidence that at least some of them were successful in disarming their opponents, if not ultimately gaining possession of the weapons. They had almost reached the door when a young man stepped up in front of them, blocking their path.

"Excuse me, Colonel Sheppard?"


"Sergeant Foster, sir. You flew choppers in Afghanistan, right sir?"

Teyla saw the muscles across John's back ripple in sudden tension. It was almost imperceptible, visible only if one knew what to look for.

"I did," John answered, his tone even. Teyla saw Ronon glance over at them, his eyes narrowing.

"You were a hell of a pilot, sir. I was there on my first tour of duty at the same time, and I just wanted to say it's an honor to be able to serve under you."

John didn't relax much, and Teyla knew how much he hated the attention, but he gave the Marine a brief smile and nodded.

"Thank you, Sergeant."

John stepped toward the door and the sergeant back-pedaled, smiling slightly as he turned back toward the mat and his opponent. Teyla followed John out of the room, and noted that he didn't relax completely until the door had slid shut behind them.

"I've got some work to do. See you at dinner?"

"Of course," Teyla answered. John reached out, gripping her arm for a second before smiling and stepping past her, disappearing around the hall. Behind her, she heard Ronon roaring at the Marines to line up for the next move, and she darted down the hall before he pulled her back in to help.

A low rumble of thunder outside John's office had him twisting in his chair and glancing over his shoulder toward the narrow window behind him. Dark clouds were building near the edge of the horizon. The skies over Atlantis were still blue, but if those clouds headed their way, they might be in for a nasty night.

"Colonel Sheppard, please report to the control room," a voice erupted in his ear.

He jumped up from his chair as he tapped his earpiece, acknowledging the request. There were still a few dozen personnel folders left, but he could deal with them tomorrow. A few minutes later, he walked into the control tower and searched the room for a familiar face.

"Excuse me, Colonel Sheppard?"

He looked over at the gate tech sitting behind the console. He was new, and John raked his memory for the man's name. He'd just seen his file and had thrown it in the middle right pile on his desk. The man had a round face and thin mustache, making him look like a mouse on the verge of puberty.

"Yes?" he asked.

"Doctor Weir has called a meeting in the conference room, and asked me to page you," Mouse-man said. Ryan something.

"They in there now?" John asked, lingering. Dammit, he would remember this man's name.

"Yes, sir."

"Great. Thank you, Mister…Groesbeck."

The gate tech brightened at the mention of his name, and John smiled, satisfied. He walked toward the conference room, nodding at the guard near the door. Haswell. Enlisted. Infantry, with a shot almost as good as a sniper's.

If the military could walk around with their names on their shirts, why couldn't the civilians? Really, was that too much to ask?

McKay, Radek, and Elizabeth were already in the room, and Teyla and Beckett entered from the opposite direction at the same time as John. Teyla gave him a brief smile, then raised an eyebrow, shooting him a silent question.

What is this about?

John shrugged, grabbing the nearest chair. He thought of the files all over his desk and floor and grinned in relief. For once, he was glad to be stuck in a meeting.

"What's up?" he asked, turning toward Elizabeth.

"Actually, Rodney's the one who called this meeting."

"Yes, thank you all for coming," McKay began, but John held a hand up.

"Where's Ronon?"

"Infirmary," Beckett answered.

"Is he okay?" Elizabeth asked.

"Oh, aye. He's fine. Those Marines he was training on the other hand…"

"I told you," McKay said in a mock whisper. John glared at him a second before turning to the doctor.

"What happened?"

"Oh, the usual. They'll be fine—just a bunch of bruises, mostly. A few needed stitches. About a dozen of them flooded my infirmary a short time ago, and we're still getting organized. Ronon's making sure they all get treated. Or making sure they don't start crying as soon as he turns his back—not sure which."

John smiled. If the new Marines could handle Ronon or one of his training classes, they were well on their way to surviving the Pegasus Galaxy. Based on the way Beckett was lounging in his chair, their injuries couldn't have been anything but minor.

"Good to hear," John said. "I think…"

"If you don't mind," McKay interrupted, "we've got serious business to attend to. I don't just call these meetings out of boredom."

"Sorry, Rodney. Please, continue," Elizabeth soothed, and John caught Teyla's eye, grinning.

McKay sat forward, tapping his computer and bringing up an image on the large screen behind him. He scooted back to tap it. John tilted his head, trying to make sense of the images. It looked almost like a nautical map, but with a foggy patch dotting one corner.

"I apologize for the graphics. I didn't have time to create anything more engaging."

"What are we looking at?" Teyla asked, also tilting her head and frowning at the screen.

McKay opened his mouth to answer, but Zelenka beat him to it.

"A storm."

John's eyes darted to the foggy patch in the corner of the screen. It looked bigger than it had a second earlier.

"A storm?" Elizabeth asked.

"A big one," McKay answered.

"Big one," John repeated.

McKay and Zelenka were already shaking their heads. "Not like the storm we had a couple of years ago," McKay finally said. "Atlantis should be more than capable of protecting us from the worst of it, and the grounding stations should handle the lightning strikes that do hit."

John glanced around the table, noting Teyla and Elizabeth's confusion. Beckett looked a little pale, most likely at the memory of the last big storm and the subsequent Genii invasion.

"Thank you for telling us," John started.

McKay scowled at him. "It will still be a big storm. Zelenka and I have been tracking it for the last hour. While it won't reach the size of that other storm, we're still going to get a deluge of rain. The thunder and lightning looks to be fairly intense as well."

"We thought it wise to warn people it was coming," Zelenka managed to break in. "Take measures to protect their equipment and lab experiments from any surges, no matter how unlikely that is. Also, to be prepared for…loudness. Thunder and such."

"That's good thinking," Elizabeth said. "I suggest we have everyone buckle down for the night, stay out of the far edges of the city no matter what they're working on."

The others nodded in agreement, and Elizabeth waved a hand at McKay and Zelenka. "I'll make a general announcement over the speakers if you two could pass the word on to the civilian contingent." They nodded and Elizabeth turned to John. "And Colonel, if you could—"

"Roll the windows up on the jumper?"

"Let the military contingent know to stay within the central tower at least until the storm passes."

John waved a hand in acknowledgment at the same time as a crack of thunder erupted over them; he felt his sinuses throb in sympathy. He glanced at McKay's rudimentary graphic and saw the foggy patch had filled half the screen, fluttering on the edge of Atlantis.

"Doctor Beckett, warn your staff you may get a few calls tonight," Elizabeth said. The lights flickered, plunging the room into darkness for a split second before clicking back on. "Rodney?"

"Working on it," the physicist mumbled. He and Zelenka were bent over the tablet, whispering.

John leaned forward to stand up and felt something warm drip onto his upper lip. He lifted a hand automatically to wipe it away and started in surprise when his fingertips came away red. Another drip splashed down and he pinched his nose, patting his shirt pockets for a Kleenex.

"John!" Teyla called out, and everyone in the room turned to look at him.

"Uh…" he muttered under his hand. The blood was starting to gush more freely now, and his fingers weren't doing much to stem the flow.

Beckett jumped up, opening the small first aid kit they kept in the conference room. John scooted back from the table, prepared to stand up, but then thought better of it. Maybe he should just sit still for a moment. The others sat frozen in their seats, staring at him, and he felt a warm blush creep up his neck and color his cheeks.

"Here we go," Beckett said, moving John's hand out of the way and holding a Kleenex to his nose. He pushed John's shoulder until John was leaning forward, and held the Kleenex with one hand, putting a hand on the back of John's neck with the other.

John couldn't remember the first nosebleed, but he did remember waking up in the infirmary and being told he'd almost bled to death. He also remembered feeling like crap for days afterward. Mostly, he remembered that no one had had any idea what had caused it in the first place.

What if he'd been asleep? What if the power had gone out and he'd gotten stuck somewhere, alone?

He felt his heart begin to pound, and he took as deep a breath as he could manage, willing himself to calm down. Yes, his nose was bleeding, but Beckett was right there, and it was just a nosebleed. If it became anything more serious, they could get him down to the infirmary in less than a minute.

"That's it, John, just relax," Beckett whispered.

John nodded his head, risking a glance up at the others. McKay and Zelenka were back to working on their computer, occasionally glancing behind them at the larger screen tracking the storm. They were also carefully not looking at him. Elizabeth had disappeared but before John could ask, he heard her voice over the loudspeakers, warning people of the approaching bad weather.

That left Teyla. She appeared next to him almost immediately, grabbing his hand.

"I'm okay," John said, his voice sounding even more nasally than usual. "No problem."

"I am glad to hear it, John."

"Need to warn the military contingent—" he started to say, attempting to sit straight.

"No you don't, John. Be still for a moment until we get this under control," Beckett said, forcing him to stay bent over in the chair.

"I will talk to Major Lorne and we will handle it."

"Thanks, Teyla," he said.

He caught her smile as she stood and headed toward the control room, and then the pressure on the back of his neck eased. He sat up slowly as Beckett pulled the Kleenex away.

"Let me take a look," the doctor muttered, tilting John's head to peer up into his nostrils. John sat as immobile as he could while the doctor gently prodded. "Looks like it clotted quickly—just a minor anterior bleed."

"Not like before?" McKay asked from across the room. John looked over in time to see his own fear reflected in the scientist's eyes and he hoped he wasn't quite so transparent.

"No, I don't believe so," Beckett said, patting John on the shoulder and making John wonder if maybe he was more transparent than he wanted to be. "I'd like to check you over down in the infirmary, just the same."

John nodded carefully and stood up from the chair. The blood on his lip and hand was drying, pulling taut against his skin. Beckett stayed close but didn't grab him by the arm or lead him out of the room. They waved at McKay and Zelenka, and John cringed at another thunderous crack.

An exam, a scan, and another exam later, Beckett deemed him healthy enough to leave. It was late enough—and John was tired enough—that he acquiesced immediately to the doctor's demand that he go to bed and get some rest. The nosebleed, he explained, was likely caused by the changing weather. The storm had hit fast and furiously, after all.

By the time he made it back to his room, the storm was directly over Atlantis. Rain pelted against the window in a steady, drumming beat. John pulled the curtains shut, flinching a little at the brightness of the lightning. The thunder rumbled and fractured across the sky, the sound mingling in with the cascading downpour. He pulled an extra blanket over him as he settled into bed, the steady drone against the windows relaxing him, and he slipped off to sleep almost immediately.

Chapter 5

John stared out the windows he passed as he ran, mesmerized by the rain. It drummed against the side of the tower, a relentless beating of elements against the city. It should have been pitch black out, but he could see every tower of Atlantis and the rough ocean waves beyond. Lightning fractured the sky, a hundred bolts zig-zagging out from each other, each one interconnected and revealing swirling dark clouds.

The wind howled between the buildings and John shivered despite the heat and sweat peeling off his body. Hadn't he been asleep? He remembered going to bed, falling asleep to the sound of rain pelting the window. He always slept better when it rained.

He passed a stretch of windowless corridor, running faster to reach the next turn. His body burned with the need to see the storm. White light flickered farther ahead and he sped up, straining to look out into the night sky again. Another bolt of lightning blazed over the far edge of the city as he reached the window, striking a tower near the edge of a pier. In the brief illumination, he recognized where he was. The west pier—near grounding station three.

McKay's voice was suddenly in his ear, asking him if he was there yet. His voice wove around the rumbling thunder from outside. Grounding station three and four. That was his job. He could hear the wind howling outside the door at the end of the corridor, and he stood in front of it, pausing a moment before opening himself up to the elements then steeling himself and darting outside. The grounding station sat on the edge of an outer balcony, exposed to the foul weather. John could hear the waves crashing up against the side, angry and ferocious.

He was instantly drenched by the rain. He blinked his eyes, wiping the moisture away, then tapped his earpiece. "I'm here, McKay."

"I told you to contact me when you got to the first one, Major."

"I am at the first one, Rodney," he snapped back. Major? He wasn't a major anymore. It was colonel, had been for awhile now.

"There were a lot of people in the Air Force who never thought I'd make it past captain," he said out loud, and the wind and rain shrieked back at him. He shook his head, staring around the ground station. Something was off. He could feel eyes drilling into the back of his head.

"There should be a keypad right on the console of the station," McKay said.

John stared down at the life-signs detector suddenly in his hand. Where the hell did that just come from? The wind whipped through his hair, snapping at his t-shirt and jogging pants. He was barefoot, and icy cold seeped into the soles of his feet.

Two dots were sneaking up behind him. He spun around, looking for them, but they were lost in the shadows. He had no weapons, either. They were going to shoot him and the ground station, and then they would all be screwed, vulnerable to the coming tsunami wave. He ducked behind the podium, his back to the intruders, and braced himself against the full brunt of the storm.

He could hear them now, creeping closer, but he didn't dare look around. Hiding was his only chance. He took a deep, steadying breath, grateful the sound of the rain was masking his pounding heart.

Lightning flashed directly above him, brighter than any before it. John flinched, rubbing his eyes at the white afterimage it left. Cold seeped into his back and he opened his eyes to find himself lying on the ground, the edge of the balcony only inches away. Water dripped off his face and into his hair, and he shook from the icy ache spreading over him.

He flinched at another explosion of lightning above his head and turned away. The white afterimage of the lightning burst followed him, hovering in his vision. He could just make out shadows moving around behind the light, and he blinked his eyes. A long spindly arm appeared then disappeared. Eyes glinted then faded into the darkness, a fist inhumanly strong grabbed his body, lifting him up, and then the white light in his eyes flared to a thunderous crack, washing out everything.

"I said don't touch anything!"

John jerked around at the sound of the voice, startled more at the lack of rain and howling wind. General O'Neill stood in the small room of the Antarctic outpost, half-irritated, half-amazed. Other people filed in behind him—people he didn't know then, but would later.

"I just sat down," he said, but he didn't remember sitting down. He stared down at himself, in awe at the chair glowing beneath him.

"We're getting something."

The voice was faint and unfamiliar. John looked around for its source and his eyes landed on a figure standing with its back to him, studying a set of monitors.

"I think this is what we're looking for."

"What?" John asked.

"Major, think about where we are in the solar system."

John did automatically, remembering the vista of stars and planets that had suddenly appeared over his head.

"Go back and zero in on this section."

The strange voice spoke again, and John looked over at the dark figure in time to see it turn around. It was tall with glistening black skin, like the exoskeleton of a giant insect. The creature leaned forward, and John flinched at the eyes swallowing its face, obscuring any possible human expression.

Lightning flashed above them, and John jerked in the chair, feeling the bolt run the length of his body. The nerves under his skin crackled and hissed, and he gasped at the pain.

"I said don't touch anything!" O'Neill screamed at him again.

John's chest constricted and his jaw locked, blocking any attempt at a response he might have tried to make.

"Look at these readings," the alien said, towering over John's body, and for a second John felt a smooth metal table against his back and straps over his arms and legs and chest. He sucked in a desperate breath and grimaced at the smell of ammonia and burning rubber.

"That storm is getting bad out there," a voice said, and he knew that voice. He could almost place it. Familiar, yet not.

"Again," the black alien commanded, and the lightning flashed, exploding in his head. John screamed, bucking against the restraints.

And then he was standing on the balcony above the gate room, watching McKay fly over the edge. A second later, the physicist popped up with a grin, tapping his chest triumphantly.

"It's a personal shield device."

"Go back, the readings are flattening out," the alien said, and John spun around on the balcony in time to see the black alien punch its hand out. Air whooshed out of his lungs and John stumbled backward, realizing too late that he'd somehow broken through the railing and was freefalling toward the gate room floor.

He landed an instant later, and pain ripped through his back, crushing his vertebrae. His head exploded in agony, and his vision whited out.

"I don't think he can take much more tonight," the unfamiliar-familiar voice said. "Look at his vitals."

His entire body throbbed and he wanted nothing more than to roll over and curl onto his side, but he couldn't move. Oh God, he was paralyzed. He jerked against the bands of numbness holding him down, cursed an unresponsive spinal cord. Pain radiated along every nerve and he felt water on his face, dripping into his hair.

"I told you to contact me when you got to the first one, Major," McKay's voice rang out, and John's eyes flew open. Sheets of rain sprayed against him, the wind cutting through his thin t-shirt.

Paralyzed. He was paralyzed. The ocean crept up the side of Atlantis, flooding the balcony. John felt the water wrap itself around his body and fling him away from Atlantis, out into the depths of the ocean.

He screamed, breaking the surface with a splash and almost cried in relief to see one of Atlantis's piers just a few feet away. The floor of the pier was only a few inches above the surface of the water. He could make it. He could climb to safety. The water threw him back and forth, a few feet closer then a few feet farther away. He tried to swim but his body refused to obey his mental commands. He could still feel his arms and legs, but otherwise…

When his head dipped below the water, he cried out, coming up with a gasp seconds later. Out of the corner of his eyes, he saw boots on the pier.

"Help," he whispered. He was sinking. The water was to his jaw line, his mouth and nose barely above the surface. His arms and legs floated lifelessly, utterly still.

The man on the pier did not move. John managed to look over at him, his head the only part of his body still under his control, then reared back at the sight of the black alien, thin and tall. The water went eerily calm, the surface of the surrounding ocean impossibly smooth. The storm and the pitch black of night gave way instantly to a calm midday. John sank a little more, and the water pried at closed lips. The alien stared at him, watching him, making no move to help him or even acknowledge him. The water lapped against John's nostrils, and he held his breath. The eyes were too big—large black orbs. Were they seeing him?

The water rose above his head, submerging him completely, but he could still see the alien standing on the shore. Where was Atlantis? His team? They would get him out of this. His chest burned with the need for air. The water was cold, something was pounding in his chest. He could feel his fingers going numb.

He couldn't feel his legs any more. Somewhere in all of this, his legs had lost all sensation. He stared at his hands and arms. They floated there—hanging suspended in the water like they'd belonged to someone else all along. He'd opened his mouth without even realizing it.

The water grew darker and thicker, pressing in from all sides. His heart was pounding against his ribs, but he could feel it slowing down. He looked up one last time and saw the alien still standing in the same position. Watching him die. John blinked and his lungs and heart jerked in his chest, the pain agonizing enough that he screamed—

The sound of the scream reverberated around him, leaping seamlessly from his dream to reality. As the sound died out, he realized his mouth was still open, his jaw locked as lungs squeezed every last molecule of air out of his body. He'd flown up off the ground, sitting ramrod straight as he'd screamed, but then his body flopped over in exhaustion. He lay face down, gasping, his hands clawing at the wet floor as his body shuddered.

What the hell? He was shaking, shivering as cold air tickled across his back. A sheen of moisture covered his skin, completely soaking through both his t-shirt and jogging pants.

"Breathe, just breathe," he mumbled. The floor smelled of metal and salt water. He pressed his forehead against the smooth surface, his eyes squeezed shut as he mentally willed his heart to settle back into his chest. The minutes dragged on, and his heart gradually dialed back from its frantic thumping.

He opened his eyes and stared at the gray-black surface beneath him, frowning. This wasn't his room. He pushed against the ground to sit up and looked around. He was outside, a gray misty morning surrounding him. The air was damp and heavy, on the verge of another torrential downpour.

His arms were already shaking so he pushed back toward a wall and collapsed against it. The fog was heavy, turning the world a hazy white. He shivered at the sudden memory of his nightmare from a few days earlier and braced himself for the coming gust of wind.


The morning was unnaturally still. He could just hear water lapping from nearby, and a steady drizzle pattered against him. He closed his eyes, sifting through the events of the day before. He'd had lunch with Teyla, played chess with McKay, watched Ronon's training class. He'd spent hours sorting through personnel files, and then McKay had called a meeting. He'd watched the storm creep its way toward Atlantis on the conference room screen, and then his nose had bled—again.

He shivered against the cold air, feeling goosebumps break out all over his arms. Carson had checked him out, given him the all-clear. Told him he was fine and sent him off to bed.

But he wasn't fine. He was… he looked around again. He had no idea where he was. There was no sound besides the occasional soft, gurgling splash of water, and no buildings in sight. He was outside, clearly. And freezing. Was he even still on Atlantis? He reached a shaking hand up to his ear, hoping he had a radio, but there was nothing there.

He was alone. Completely. He pulled his legs into his body and huddled against the wall. He had to get inside, at least, out of the elements. He had to get warm. His legs still felt shaky, like they weren't quite ready to support him if he tried to stand up. He ran a hand over his face, feeling cold, clammy skin.

Another nightmare. John took a deep breath, trying to forget the dream, but the image of the black alien rose so vividly in his mind that he recoiled, glancing around him in anticipation. He could almost hear it breathing, but that was impossible. There was no one else there.

"Not real," he mumbled.

He didn't believe dreams meant anything, but the nightmarish images came back to him—pulled from his room, strapped down and experimented upon, flashing lights, and always the black alien standing over him. He'd watched enough movies to know those were classic signs of an alien abduction.

John laughed out loud, his voice echoing around him and dissipating into the thick fog. Ridiculous. He shook his head, but something twisted in his chest, cold and hard. Alien abduction. Experimentation. Nosebleeds. Could it be…

Thunder cracked and rolled, shaking the wall he was leaning against. John's heart leapt in his chest, pounding too fast again. He pressed a hand against his ribcage and forced himself to take a deep breath. Rain began to spit down in larger drops, and the dark, almost black clouds high above him threatened a downpour.

McKay had been right about this storm. It wasn't as big as the one that had nearly taken out Atlantis their first year, but it was big enough. He was already soaked to the bone and his fingers were going numb. His breath puffed out, visible and cold.

Inside. He had to get inside. He climbed to his feet, gripping the side of the wall at the wave of dizziness that almost knocked him over. Too lightheaded to stand, he dropped to his knees, breathing deeply. His stomach flip-flopped and he leaned forward.

"Crap," he murmured.

He forced his head up and stared at the wall. The wall would lead somewhere. He had to still be on Atlantis. Isn't that what happened with alien abductions? They took you from your room and then returned you back to the same place the next morning. Well, almost the same place.

He climbed to his feet again, leaning into the wall and using it to keep himself upright. His feet felt like lead weights, but he forced them forward, one at time. He kept his shoulder on the wall and managed to stay mostly upright.

The fog in front of him dissipated and he saw another wall jutting out from the one he was following, a sliding door beckoning to him. Atlantis. He was on Atlantis. He huffed out a breath in relief and almost slipped when he tried to move too fast. His feet were numb and his full-body shivering had almost stopped. In the back of his mind, he knew that was bad and he wondered if he was cold enough to be hypothermic.

The rain bombarded against him, trying to knock him down but John trudged forward. An interminable time later, he reached the door and stumbled when it suddenly slid open. His legs folded beneath him two steps into the building. His knees jarred as he hit the ground, but the sensation was distant and easily ignored.

The door slid shut behind him, cutting off the wind and rain, but he was still cold. It wasn't enough. He pulled himself up again and staggered down the hall, grabbing onto a small console attached to the wall to hold himself up. Radio—McKay had had them installed all over the inhabited areas of Atlantis and at the entrances of the piers, where people tended to flock to during the warmer, sunnier months.

John reached a shaking hand up to activate the voice box then froze. Who should he contact? His first thought had been McKay, but the man had a tendency of panicking and yelling, both of which took more energy than John had at the moment to handle. He could call Beckett—he knew already he was going to end up in the infirmary.

He shook his head. He was a wreck, and Beckett would show up with a full medical team. He didn't want anyone to see him like this. Maybe if he could just warm up a bit, gather his wits…

"Ronon," he called out, activating the radio. There was a pause and a burst of static, and John belatedly realized the number flashing on the console was the time: 0521. Was Ronon even up? He felt his legs shudder, his muscles rapidly devolving to jelly, and he gripped the console box harder. Someone would be up.


"Ronon, thank God," John breathed out, the relief leaving him dizzy.

"What's wrong?" Regardless of what McKay liked to say, Ronon was smart and perceptive.

"D-don't know," John answered. Being out of the storm was letting him warm up a little, but the end result was a return of the teeth-rattling shivers.

"Where are you?"

Ronon was running. John could hear it in the way his voice shook rhythmically, with pounding steps. Maybe he'd already been out running? He always had his radio with him, even when he was asleep.

"Uh…n-not sure," he stammered, and he heard Ronon's voice huff faster and louder as the man picked up speed. "M-maybe near the w-west p-pier."

"Hold on, buddy. I'm on my way."

"K-kay," John answered and then his legs finally gave out. He threw his arms out and twisted, and managed to slide against the wall to the floor. His skin was a purplish blue color, and he wrapped his arms around his chest, pulling his legs in.

Ronon appeared at the end of the hall a minute or two later. It couldn't have been long, but one second John was alone and the next Ronon was sprinting toward him. John watched his friend skid to a stop in front of him and kneel on the ground.

"What's going on? What are you doing out here?"

John shook his head, his teeth clattering too hard for him to speak. Ronon reached out to touch his arm and his eyebrows rose in surprise. Before John knew it, Ronon had shed his long sleeve pullover and was draping it around John's shoulders.

"Ronon to infirmary," he called out, tapping the radio earpiece. "I need a medical team near the outer doors of the west pier."

John watched him through half-lidded eyes as he tilted his head, listening to the response.

"I don't know. I found Sheppard out here and he's freezing."

There was another long pause and then Ronon scowled.

"He doesn't know, either. Just get out here." He leaned forward, clapping John on the shoulder. "Hang on. They're coming."

John nodded. Now that he wasn't alone, he felt exhaustion sweep over him, and his body began to slide to the floor.

"Whoa, easy, buddy," Ronon cried. He slid down next to John to prop him upright, and John shivered at the heat emanating from the other man. "How'd you get down here?"

"I d-don't know," John repeated. "W-woke up out h-here."

Ronon gave him a sidelong glance, unable to keep the concern from his expression. The conversation was cut short when the medical team burst into the hallway, Beckett leading the way. The doctor ran ahead, kneeling next to John.

"H-hey, d-doc," John stuttered.

"Bloody hell, lad. What's going on?"

John shrugged. How many times was he going to have to say he didn't know? He felt hands on his arms, checking his pulse. A stethoscope was pressed to his chest while he breathed. He was vaguely aware of more questions being thrown at him that he thought he might have answered.

The next thing he was aware of was being lifted onto the gurney. His muscles had given up any pretense of supporting him, and he heard Ronon and the medical personnel grunting as they heaved his dead weight and stretched him out. He closed his eyes when the gurney began to move, moaning at an onslaught of dizziness.

They arrived at the infirmary in a swirl of chaos. John closed his eyes, beyond tired but unable to actually fall asleep. He half listened to the people moving around him, flinching when they began peeling off his wet clothes only to relax again when he was cocooned in dry scrubs and warm blankets.

Time passed as thick and hazy as the fog he'd woken up to until voices jarred him out of his fugue. He rubbed his eyes as his team, Beckett, and Elizabeth approached. He was half-sitting up in bed, wrapped in a mound of blankets.

"John, how are you feeling?" Elizabeth asked.

"Okay, I guess," John answered. The memory of waking up on the pier was beginning to fade, merging with the images from his nightmare.

"Do you remember anything about what might have happened to you?" she asked.

John shook his head, reaching for the glass of water on the table next to the bed. His fingers trembled but he grit his teeth, determined to grab the cup. Beckett handed it to him, holding on an extra second until he was sure John had it firmly in his grasp.

"I remember going to bed last night, then I woke up outside."

"We checked the security footage," McKay piped up, shooting anxious glances at John. "It doesn't cover the corridors leading to the west pier, but it does cover the residential wing. It shows Sheppard going to his room last night shortly after leaving the infirmary but never shows him leaving."

"Could the tapes be wrong?" Teyla asked. She moved around the side of the bed, resting a hand on John's arm.

McKay paused, considering the idea, then shook his head. "No, the tapes were seamless. I would have noticed if they'd been messed around with, but I'll check them again just in case. Really, Sheppard? You have no idea how you got out there?"

John was about to shake his head again when he flashed to the nightmare and the black alien. Always the black alien. He felt his head begin to throb, a dull ache on the top of his head that dug deep into his skull.

"Sheppard?" Ronon asked, jarring John out of his thoughts.

Did he tell them about the nightmare? All the nightmares? He took a shuddering breath and glanced around the room.

"I don't know what happened. I just… I had a really weird dream last night, then woke up outside. Maybe I've started sleepwalking?"

He shot a glance at Beckett, who shrugged his shoulders, but McKay was already shaking his head.

"We would have seen you on the video footage."

"What was your dream about?"

John glanced at Teyla and cringed. If any of them were going to believe the dream meant something more than just a series of disturbing images, it would be Teyla. John shook his head. It was nothing more than a dream. He wouldn't believe anything else. Couldn't believe it.

"It was the alien, wasn't it?" Ronon asked.

John jerked his head up in surprise, then remembered. He'd told Ronon about the first dream. The man had remembered?

"What alien?" McKay asked, sounding almost panicky.

"It was just a dream," John said. "It was nothing."

Ronon was giving him a look. Did he believe the dreams meant something? If they did, if there was any truth to them at all… John shivered, unwilling to even consider it. Beckett turned away, returning a moment later to drape another blanket over him and grab the empty glass out of his hand.

"Whatever it is, son, it might help us," the doctor said. "You were hypothermic and on the verge of shock when we found you, and I can't just dismiss that—particularly given your new tendency toward nosebleeds."

"John, please. Talk to us," Elizabeth begged.

John sighed. He was exhausted and he scrunched down in the bed. He just wanted to sleep, and if telling them about the dreams meant they left him in peace for a few hours, then fine.

"I've had a few nightmares in the last week or so—well, not really nightmares. Weird dreams. There's nothing inherently scary about them, usually, but…"

The others stayed quiet, waiting for him to continue. He sighed again and began recounting the dreams, starting with the first one. By the time he was done, Elizabeth and Beckett were looking sympathetic, Teyla and Ronon concerned, and McKay completely freaked out.

"You think you're being abducted by aliens, here on Atlantis?" the scientist cried out.

"What? No, I don't think that," John responded, glaring at his teammate, but there was small part of him—a growing part of him—that was beginning to wonder if maybe he was. He shivered again, but this time it had nothing to do with the cold.

"We should let you get some rest, Colonel," Beckett said, interrupting any further discussion.

"We'll figure out what happened, John," Elizabeth said, giving him a small smile. The others withdrew, waving their goodbyes.

"You're sure you're not being abducted by aliens, because that sounds like a classic case," McKay whispered, hanging back after everyone else had left.

The denial was on the tip of his tongue again, but there was an earnestness to McKay's question that he couldn't dismiss. And McKay was right—the story was classic. In all his time in the Pegasus Galaxy, he'd seen more than enough evidence of the strange and bizarre, and what once might have seemed an impossibility was entirely possible now.

"I—" he started, then shook his head. "I don't know," he answered honestly, feeling his mask of indifference slip at the paralyzing fear that he was, in fact, being abducted by aliens, that they were experimenting on him, and that they were responsible for his present condition.

"McKay, I need…maybe… I mean, if you could…" he stammered, then shook his head, taking a deep breath. "Is there a way for you to… look into this?"

"Look into your abductions?"

"Or prove they're not abductions," John returned. "I need you to tell me these dreams are nothing more than weird…dreams. I can't… I don't want…"

"Yeah, I know what you mean," McKay interrupted. "I'll see what I can find—aliens have technology, technology uses energy, which should register at some level on our sensors. No strange energy readings means, probably, no aliens."

John smiled, the relief overwhelming. He felt his head droop and his eyes pull down. His body was worn out, like he'd been running on nothing but fumes for weeks, and he was desperate to get some sleep. McKay said something else to him, but John was too drained to understand him. He grunted a response and surrendered to warm, quiet oblivion.

Chapter 6

John woke up hours later, feeling warm and rested for the first time in a while. Beckett made him stay for another scan and round of tests, and for lunch, which he ate heartily. When all results came back normal, he reluctantly let John go, ordering him to take it easy for the next few days.

John had no intention of doing otherwise. He made his way back to his room, swiping his hand across the door controls. He took one step into the dark room, then froze. His heart began to beat double-time in his chest.

"Hey, Sheppard," McKay called from behind him, and John back-pedaled so fast out of the room that he tripped and would have fallen if his teammate hadn't grabbed his arm. "Geez, Sheppard. What's your problem?"

"Sorry," John mumbled. "You startled me."

McKay narrowed his eyes. "Aren't you supposed to be in the infirmary?"

He felt a flash of irritation at the question and shot the scientist a disgruntled look. "Beckett just released me. I was coming back to my room to change my clothes."

McKay looked him up and down, and John blushed, feeling suddenly self-conscious in the pale blue scrubs. "What's up, McKay?"

"Meeting," he answered, jabbing a thumb over his shoulder. "We had a number of lightning strikes all over the city that are causing some problems. Elizabeth wants a full debrief before we start sending out repair teams."

John forced himself to step back into his quarters while McKay spoke, bringing up the lights. His eyes darted around the room, searching out the corners and shadows. Empty, as it should be. He shook his head and made his way over to his chest of drawers, pulling out a fresh shirt and pair of track pants.

"I'd like to be there for that," he said, ducking into the bathroom to change clothes. When he emerged, McKay was leaning against the open door.

"Well, hurry up," he snapped. "I don't have all day."

"Right," John answered, smiling at the normalcy of the impatient tone. He slid his feet into his running shoes and pulled a thick hooded sweatshirt over his head.

"Are you cold?" McKay asked as they headed out the door and down the hall.

"As a matter of fact, yes, I am."

They hit the transporter at the end of the hall, stepping into the confined space. John felt a sudden panicked sense of claustrophobia as the doors slid shut. The light flashed and he gasped as he remembered lying in the cold rain in his dreams, bolts of white lightning flaring across his vision.

"What's wrong? Are you okay?" McKay asked. He'd grabbed both of John's arms and was shaking him.

John pushed him away and stumbled out of the transporter, and the relatively open space of the hallway immediately set him at ease. Weird. He'd never been claustrophobic before.

"Yeah, I'm fine," he said. "Head aches a little, and the light from the transporter didn't help it much."

"Maybe you should head back to the infirmary…"

"McKay, I'm fine. Beckett can't find anything wrong."

"Just because he can't find it, doesn't mean everything's all hunky-dory," McKay mumbled. They reached the conference room before John had a chance to respond, and the scientist bustled past him, waving his arms at the din of conversation and apparently satisfied John wasn't going to immediately drop dead. John slipped in behind him, hoping his entry was a little less noticeable.

"John, are you okay?" Elizabeth whispered as he slid into a seat next to her.

He nodded, knowing he looked like crap. He hadn't been lying about the headache—it had hit almost as soon as he'd stepped into the transporter—but it wasn't bad enough to even warrant a request for Tylenol. Not yet, anyway.

"Yeah," he whispered back. "Beckett just released me and then I ran into McKay. Thought I'd at least sit in on the meeting."

McKay shushed the room, cutting off any more questions from Elizabeth. She stared at John for a moment longer then nodded. John relaxed in the chair as McKay began talking about the damage spread out over the city. The damage McKay was describing didn't sound like it was likely to sink Atlantis in the next few days, so he tuned the man out.

He stared at the others, mostly engineers, and mentally ran through their names. Callister and Harris were sitting immediately to his right—they'd been here since the very beginning, and their on-again-off-again relationship was almost legendary. The guy with the stringy dark hair—he was newer, but he'd been here before the replicators had kicked them all out. What was it McKay and Zelenka called him? Snape, like that wizard character from those books. His real name was Shapiro.

John turned his head to glance at the row of people on his other side. Next to Elizabeth was… crap. A new engineer. He vaguely recognized her face but—

She glanced over at him, catching him staring and he looked away. He could feel his cheeks turning red and he forced himself to concentrate on what McKay was saying. Something about a satellite receptor that had been blown into the ocean. Or blown up into a million charred pieces. He looked up, trying to act inconspicuous.

Damn, she was still looking at him. She shot him a small smile, tilting her head a little. Was she… flirting? John smiled back and was rewarded with a wide grin. Her eyes were a dark green. Contacts? Couldn't be natural.

"Doctor Mazerek, did you hear what I just said?" McKay's voice broke through, jarring John out of his thoughts. He snapped his head back to see his teammate glaring at the flirting woman.

Mazerek. Yep, he would never have remembered that name on his own.

"Sorry, Doctor McKay. You were saying we might not have to replace the entire antenna receiver, depending on whether or not it was hit by lightning or partially blown out into the ocean."

"Yes, thank you for repeating exactly what I just said," McKay grumbled. He pointed a finger at her. "And thank you for volunteering to repair or replace it." He glowered at her until she nodded, then pulled up another schematic on his computer screen, shooting a dark look John's way in the process.

John leaned back in his chair, covering his mouth with his hand as he struggled not to laugh. He let his eyes rove down the line to the next person. Dark curly hair. Dark eyes. He didn't look familiar at all—must be part of the pile of folders still waiting for John's review.

"The last area we need to cover is the west pier."

"West pier?" John repeated, giving McKay his full attention.

"Most of the lightning hits from last night's storm were concentrated in that part of the city."

"How bad is the damage?" Elizabeth asked.

"Minimal. That area—as you know—is uninhabited. We haven't explored every room in every building over there, so it's impossible to say what was damaged by last night's storm and what was already broken. This morning, however, I found an intermittent energy signal from this area over here."

He glanced at John, meeting his gaze for a brief second before he turned around. He tapped on the computer console below the screen on the wall and brought up an image of the western half of the city. John felt his skin begin to crawl, and he shivered, wrapping his arms around his stomach.

The image zeroed in on a small, white blip, the outline of the west pier just beyond it. A second later, the blip disappeared and the screen pulled back.

"What are we—" John started to ask but McKay held up his finger.

"Wait for it."

The blip reappeared in another area, disappeared a few seconds later, then appeared again in a third location.

"What is that?"

"That is our energy signal. It's been doing that all morning, bouncing from location to location to location."

"It appears to be multiple energy signals—" the dark curly-haired engineer started to say, and John tightened his arms around his stomach. He could feel his heart pounding in his chest, and he glanced around to make sure no one else was hearing it either. An image of the black alien flashed through his mind but he forced it back.

"Or it could be one signal bouncing around," McKay interrupted. "We don't even know if it's there at all, or if it's just our scanners malfunctioning."

The engineer McKay had interrupted opened his mouth to add more, looking put off that he'd been interrupted in the first place. John tore his eyes away from the man. He'd never seen him before. He was sure of it.

"Rodney, we need our scanners working," Elizabeth said, alarmed.

"I know, I know. Look—Zelenka is pulling the scanners in the control tower apart right now. We know there were lightning strikes here, here, and here," he said, pointing to three locations around the west pier. "It's no coincidence that this energy blip started bouncing around right as the storm hit. Maybe it fried a few active systems out there, or turned on some systems enough for us to pick up on."

"We should check it out just to be sure," John said, though his voice sounded hollow. He scratched his cheek, feeling rough overgrowth and remembered he hadn't shaved since the morning before.

"I agree," McKay said. "Since it is uninhabited, protocol dictates that each team of engineers should be accompanied by a Marine unit. I'll take one team; Harris, you've got another; and… Lipkin, take the third."

Lipkin. John was sure he'd never heard of him, but he couldn't bring himself to look at the dark-haired man again. Stupid, really, but the dark hair was reminding him too much of the black alien. McKay continued to dole out instructions as the scientists rose from the table. John glanced around in surprise, not noticing that the meeting had come to an end.

"I'll talk to Lorne," Elizabeth said, a hand on his shoulder. "You get some rest."

He nodded dumbly, not thinking of a response until she was out the door. He rubbed a hand over his face. When he glanced at Lipkin's seat, the chair was empty. His hands began to shake from the overwhelming, inexplicable relief and he shook his head, fighting the sudden urge to laugh hysterically. He was falling apart.

He stood up, rubbing his lower back and feeling the dull ache in his head spread. Maybe his problem was sleeping too much. That could wreak havoc on a body, making a person feel hung over all the time.

"John, you look terrible," McKay whispered, walking over to him. He'd at least been careful not to say it loud enough for the handful of engineers still in the room to overhear.

John sighed. "Gee, thanks."

"I told you I'd look into your… little problem. I'll let you know if I find anything. In the meantime, try to relax or something."


"Or, you know, not think about it."

He blew out a frustrated breath, rolling his shoulders. "Right."

"Look, I'm heading to the west pier right now. Why don't you wander by in a couple of hours? I should have something by then."

"Thanks," John said, nodding. He was hungry again anyway and, he realized, he was going to need that Tylenol sooner rather than later. "See you then."

It had stopped raining by the time John made it out to the west pier. The cloud cover was still thick, but nothing like the fog of that morning. People were scattered across the pier and it took John a minute to pick out McKay's form.

He walked across the slick, black surface carefully, wary of falling. That was the last thing he needed on top of everything else that had happened to him. His footsteps seemed to echo across the pier. He glanced around, seeing people moving and talking in the distance but not hearing a sound—like the clouds had descended just far enough to isolate him in a bubble of silence.

McKay was standing near the far edge of the pier, waving his arms around, and his voice finally drifted across the open space to reach John's ears. John smiled at the sound of his friend, who was telling someone to go work somewhere else.

Lipkin—that dark-haired engineer. Something about his voice made the hair on the back of John's neck stand on end. He shivered, burying his fists into the front pocket of his hoodie, and wondered if he should have worn a coat.

"Ah, there you are," McKay said, waving him over.

John tried not to look like he was hurrying, but his heart had picked up its pace. "Find anything?"

"Not exactly," McKay said. "We're mostly just trying to fix some of the areas struck by lightning. You know, if you were out here during the storm, it's amazing you weren't struck by lightning as well."

John shrugged, having no idea how long he'd been out there.

"I can tell you this, though," McKay continued. "That energy signal out here can't possibly be from more than one source. I haven't had much time to look at it, but I'd bet money that it's one energy signal bouncing around."

"You're sure it's not the scanners?"

"I've caught it twice on my handheld scanner since I've been out here, most recently from this box here."

John glanced down at the nondescript metal box bolted into the ground. "What is it?"

"The Ancients' version of a transformer box. Nothing of any note, except that it shouldn't have given off a signal as strong as what I picked up."

"Something to do with the lightning?" John asked. He glanced around the pier, mentally noting where each person was standing. Most of them were in groups of twos, a few stood alone. He could hear ocean waves crashing rhythmically against the side of the pier and he took a step away from the edge.

"I don't think so. I'll have to look further into it, but…"

"You think it might have something to do with… you know," John said, pointing a finger up toward the sky.

"Your alien abduction issue?" McKay asked, much louder than John would have liked. "I have no idea, John. I really wish I did. If there is a connection, I'll find it."

John nodded, sighing. The foul weather seemed to press down on him, darkening his mood even more. He was about to turn away when McKay suddenly reached out and grabbed his arm.

"Look, if there is a connection, that means it's something going on here, in Atlantis, and not aliens."

"Thanks," John muttered. Nearby footsteps ended any further discussion, and John inched away as a couple of engineers approached and began discussing repair priorities with McKay.

A sharp wind gusted across the pier, and John flinched against the biting cold. He hunkered down into his sweatshirt a little more and waved to McKay, then turned back toward the city. His headache—the one he'd intended to ask Beckett for some Tylenol for but hadn't—renewed its pounding, drilling through the crown of his head and into his neck.

He walked as quickly as he dared across the wet surface and felt the first raindrops spatter against his face before he ducked through the doors and into the city. He sagged against the wall for a moment, letting the warm air seep into him. With a start, he realized this was the exact spot he'd staggered to that morning and called Ronon for help.

He pushed away from the wall and headed toward the transporter at the end of the hallway, overcome with the sudden urge to be surrounded by people. He would stop by the infirmary for some Tylenol, then maybe the gym. Ronon and Teyla usually sparred in the late afternoons, and watching them would be a welcome distraction.

He tripped, lurching into the wall as the floor beneath him tilted. He threw a hand out to catch himself and closed his eyes. The entire ocean seemed to be swirling around the inside of his head, and his heart was beating too fast. He swallowed, opening his eyes to make sure the ground had stopped moving and found himself fighting back black dots that suddenly flickered across his vision.

Lie down. He just needed to lie down for a minute. He took a deep breath and continued down the hall. He trailed a hand on the wall for balance and made it to the transporter. He hit the station near his quarters without thinking and found himself tottering through the empty residential corridor until he reached his room.

He entered without thinking, and immediately dropped into his bed. The blankets were rumpled and the pillow was nowhere to be seen. Again. He sighed, closing his eyes—

Only to fly up off his mattress a split second later. The room spun around him, and he groaned, digging the heels of his hands into his eyes at the spike of pain behind them. This is where they came to get him. No matter how stupid the whole idea of alien abductions sounded to him, he couldn't discount the fact that something was wrong. Something was happening to him—here, in this room.

He rolled off the bed and grabbed the edge of the desk to pull himself upright. He couldn't stay here. If he fell asleep… if they came while he was… No—he had to go.

Headache. Beckett. He had planned on going there anyway. He pushed away from the desk and flung himself out of his quarters. The hallways twisted and turned in front of him, splitting into twos and threes the harder he tried to focus. He took a tentative step forward, one hand on the wall.

"Sir, are you okay?"

John jumped, not expecting anyone to be around. He spun around then lurched, slamming his shoulder into the wall. He bit his lip at the whimper of pain threatening to escape. His brain was on the verge of melting out through his eyes. He took a deep breath, willing the ground to stop moving and for the throbbing headache to dial back just enough for him to get to Beckett.


John looked up slowly into the concerned face of one of his men. Erickson, he thought, remembering Ronon's training class from the day before. The Marine sergeant, however, was dressed in civvies and looked like he was either going to or returning from the gym.

"Yeah, I'm fine," John ground out. His legs had begun to shake, but like hell was he going to fall flat on his face in front of one his men—particularly a newbie.

"Are you sure, sir? You look pretty pale—"

"Sergeant," John interrupted, pulling himself up to his full height. The Marine was as tall as Ronon. He met Erickson's gaze, fighting back a sigh. The momentary dizziness seemed to have passed and his legs were solidifying beneath him. "I said I was fine."

"Yes, sir."

The man stepped back, but he didn't leave and he didn't hide the skeptical look on his face. John turned away, pushing off from the wall, and somehow managed the rest of the trip to the transporter.

He resisted the urge to sag against the transporter doors, but he brought a shaky hand up to wipe the sheen of cold sweat on his forehead. The hall to the infirmary was empty. The light-headed dizziness seemed to have passed for good. His head still ached, but it had stopped sending bolts of pain into his neck and exploding out of his eyes with every step.

The infirmary was equally as quiet, though a nurse popped her head out from around a corner as he walked in. He waved at her as he trudged over to the bed and pulled himself up, telling himself they were going to want him to sit up there anyway and that it wasn't like he needed to sit down.

"Colonel Sheppard? What can I do for you?" the nurse asked. Melanie. He recognized her from when he'd been in here with the massive nosebleed.

"Head hurts," he said. "Think I can get something for it?"

"I'm sure you can," she answered, smiling. She had long brown hair pulled back into a braid, something John decided he might appreciate more once the jackhammer in his head let up a little. "I believe Doctor Beckett is just in his office. Let me go grab him for you."

John grunted a reply then let his head hang as the nurse walked away, closing his eyes. Beneath the headache was a general achiness and fatigue, and he wondered if he was starting to come down with something. He sat up, brightening at the thought that a flu virus might be a more plausible explanation than alien abduction. The room swayed and he moaned at the wave of dizziness, gripping the sides of the gurney until his knuckles turned white.

It passed quickly, but Beckett didn't seem to be in any kind of hurry to deliver the needed pain meds, so he swung his legs up and eased himself back. The gurney was tilted at a forty-five degree angle, so it wasn't that much different than just sitting in a chair. Beckett would probably want him to lean back anyway—he was just saving the man from having to make the request.

And it did feel good. He closed his eyes, feeling the steady drumbeat of his headache dial back to a more manageable level. Maybe he just needed to lie down after all. He heard footsteps coming from across the infirmary and opened his eyes to see Beckett walking toward him.

Something warm dripped from his nose, splashing against his lip. He reached a hand up automatically, although he already knew what he was going to find. He scowled at the blood coating the tips of his fingers.


Chapter 7

"John, wake up," Carson commanded, shaking the sleeping man's shoulder.

John made no response at first, but after another, harder shake, Carson smiled at the pained groan emanating from the pillow. He felt relief wash through him. John had showed up in the infirmary the night before, blood smearing his lip, but that had been a minor thing, clearing up almost as fast as it had presented.

More pressing had been the pounding headache from the crown of his head down to the base of his neck. John's responses to Carson's questioning and examining had been incoherent mumblings at best, and by the time the doctor had returned with the needed painkillers, John had fallen asleep sitting up in the bed.

"Come on, John. I need you to wake up for me. You've been asleep for a long time now," Carson prodded, earning a slightly louder moan. John had looked exhausted even in sleep, so Carson had opted to let the man nap it out in the infirmary, leaving the nursing staff and Doctor Cole—the late-shift physician last night—with instructions that John could be released if he woke up later and was feeling better.

He hadn't woken up. In fact, he'd been unresponsive most of the night to all but the most painful of stimuli. Doctor Cole had been worried enough that she'd run a scan, and Carson had run another one when he'd arrived early that morning. Both times, they'd come up showing everything was normal.

"John, open your eyes," Carson said more forcefully. John was curled up on his side and trying to bury his head deeper into the pillow. Carson grabbed his arm and pulled, rolling him onto his back.

John groaned, squirming in the bed. He was still pale, but he looked a little more rested than he had the night before. Carson tapped the man's chest with his fingers and smiled when John scowled and blinked open groggy eyes.

"What?" he mumbled.

"There you are," Carson said. "Wake up now."

"'mm…wwake," John slurred, yawning.


He went through the usual vital checks, despite the fact that he'd just done them less than half an hour earlier. John had slept solidly for fourteen hours straight. Carson knew the man hadn't intended to spend the night in the infirmary, but he'd been relieved that it had worked out that way. Nothing had happened—John had slept deeply and was now waking up.

But there was something off, no matter what the scanner kept telling him. Which reminded him, he needed to have Rodney check it out.

"How are you feeling this morning?"

John shifted in the bed again, rolling onto his side toward Carson this time. His eyes had drifted closed again, but Carson shook his shoulder until John dragged his lids open.

"How's the headache?" Carson asked, bending down to peer closer at John's face.

"Gone," John mumbled. "Feel fine. Tired."

"I can see that." He pulled his penlight out, flashing it across each of John's eyes and eliciting another pained groan. "Are you hungry at all? How about some breakfast?"


"A little after eight in the morning."

"Hmmm," John answered. His eyes fluttered closed and his breathing began to even out.

"Not so fast, Colonel," Carson called out. He shook his shoulder and just barely missed being swatted. "I'll assume you didn't just intend to smack me," he said, smiling to take out any bite in the words.

"Sss'rrry," John replied, yawning again. This time he made a concerted effort to stay awake, rolling onto to his back and rubbing his face with this hands.

Carson raised the back of the bed to a bit more of an angle and watched as John looked around the infirmary in confusion.


"Aye, it is. You slept through the night here."

"Huh," John answered. "No scrubs?"

Carson glanced at his black t-shirt and knew he was still wearing track pants under the covers. He pointed to the small nightstand and the thick pullover one of the nurses had removed and folded there. "Your sweater is over there. You seemed comfortable enough so we thought it best to leave you be. Now, breakfast?"

"Okay," John answered. He looked a little more awake. "Actually, I need to use the bathroom."

Carson stepped back, letting John sit up. He grabbed his arm as he slid off of the bed but John didn't waver at all. He shot Carson a small grin and shrugged off his grip, then plodded across the infirmary to the restrooms, dragging his feet. His hair was a little more disheveled than usual, and Carson smiled as he updated John's chart.

By the time John had trudged back across the infirmary and climbed into bed again, breakfast was on its way. He'd hardly said a word, still looking half-asleep, but Carson dismissed it. Normally, the colonel would be itching to leave the infirmary, but he seemed in no rush this morning.

Just as well. The man had needed a good night's sleep, and he'd certainly gotten it the night before. He hovered, close enough to jump in if something happened but still out of John's sight. Not that he was expecting something to happen, it was just…

He shook his head. Something was wrong with his friend—he felt it instinctively despite what all the test results were telling him. He supposed it was a bit like being a pilot and knowing something was off with your craft despite the fact that all your instruments were telling you everything was normal.

He waited a few minutes more then peeked around the corner. John was asleep again, his fork in his hand and his head sliding off the pillow. Carson sighed and moved the half-eaten breakfast out of the way, then lowered the bed and readjusted John's head. He was relieved when John grunted at the movement; he wasn't as deep asleep as he had been the night before. Once again, he decided to just let the man rest.

John's bed was close enough to his office that he would hear anything from his desk, so he retreated back to his computer, pulling up John's file. There had to be something in all the scans and tests they'd run over the last several weeks that would tell him what was going on with his friend. He would get to the bottom of this if it was the last thing he did.

Something metal clattered to the floor, jarring John awake. He jerked at the sound, gasping in surprise. The room was bright—it had to be the middle of the day. Had he really slept in that late? He blinked up at the ceiling, frowning. It looked different…

"I'm sorry, Colonel. I didn't mean to wake you," a woman said from somewhere off to his right.

He jerked again, feeling his heart beat double-time. He rolled his head in time to see a red-headed woman blush slightly as she gathered up the handful of trays she'd dropped.

"Is everything alright?" Beckett called out, emerging from his office. He glanced at the woman kneeling on the floor and moved toward her.

"Everything's fine. I'm really sorry," the woman replied, her cheeks flushing an even deeper red. "I've got it."

She gathered the rest of the trays and stood quickly, almost dropping them again. Beckett lunged a second time, only to pull up when the woman shook her head and almost ran out of the infirmary. He stared at the door she'd disappeared through before his eyes drifted back to John's bed.

"Hey, doc," John said, waving a hand. He rolled onto his side and burrowed deeper into the blankets.

"Good morning, John—actually," he corrected, checking his watch, "I suppose it would be more accurate to say good afternoon."

"What time is it?"

"Ten minutes till one. In the afternoon."

John blew out a breath in surprise. He hadn't actually believed he'd slept in that late. He rubbed his head, trying to remember what had landed him in the infirmary. He remembered waking up on the pier, getting a headache later that afternoon, and then…

"How are you feeling?" Beckett said, moving to his side.

"Uh, okay, I guess," John answered, his mind still trying to catch up. He let the doctor grab his wrist to check his pulse, knowing the penlight, stethoscope and thermometer would be next.

"Any pain or achiness?"

"No, actually. I feel pretty good," John answered, and he did. He felt an invisible weight lift from his shoulders. No headache whatsoever, and he actually felt rested, like he'd finally gotten a full night of sleep. He vaguely recalled waking up earlier. "I woke up earlier, didn't I?"

"Aye, you did. A little over four hours ago."

"Yeah, remember that now."

"Do you? You were a little out of it."

"Hmmm," John mumbled. His body felt heavy, his muscles completely relaxed. He wasn't tired enough to fall asleep again, but he closed his eyes, enjoying the warmth and comfort of the moment as Beckett finished checking him over.

"Are you falling asleep on me again?"

"No, doc. I'm awake." John opened his eyes and rolled his head toward Beckett. "Feels good just to lie here, though."

"Well, everything checks out. You were exhausted last night, but after the last eighteen hours or so of sleep, I'd say you're doing much better."

"I feel good. I really do." He smiled as Beckett raised the head of the bed, grinning even more widely when no headache or dizziness flared. The anxiety of the day before seemed like it had happened a lifetime ago, and thoughts of alien abductions were almost laughable.

Almost laughable.

"I'd like you to eat some lunch before you go," Beckett said, sounding cautious.

"Okay, sounds good," John agreed.

He was on the verge of being giddy, and he half wondered if Beckett had him on some kind of pain medication after all, but he shrugged it off. The more he woke up, the more he was able to push away the fatigue. It wasn't gone completely, though. He felt rested now, but he was sure that by evening, he'd be ready to sleep again.

The thought of returning to his room that night to sleep dampened his spirits somewhat. Beckett patted him on the shoulder, promising to return soon with food just as Ronon and Teyla walked into the infirmary, and John relaxed at the sight of his visitors, hoping they would be enough of a distraction from whatever the night might hold.

John stood in front of the door to his quarters, willing himself to move forward. The day had passed easily enough, but it was long past dinner now, and he was exhausted enough that he had no doubt he could sleep for another solid twelve hours.

The trick was opening his door and walking into his room.

"Stupid, stupid, stupid," John mumbled, berating himself. He banged a fist against his thigh, as if that would be enough to motivate his legs to move forward. He glanced up and down the hall, grateful he was alone for the moment.

He could always go back to the infirmary, tell Beckett he wasn't feeling well. The doctor would find nothing wrong with him, but that seemed to be par for the course lately. He bit his lip. He could hang out with McKay in his lab—that was another option. The physicist would be up for hours and John knew he had a cot in the corner of his office.

He shook his head. He was tired—he needed to sleep, and that wouldn't happen in McKay's lab. Ronon or Teyla… he dismissed any option connected with those two immediately. They were too perceptive, and the last thing John wanted was for people to start thinking he was afraid of sleeping in his own bed.

Kate Heightmeyer? He almost laughed out loud at that. Definitely not. Beckett had suggested—not ordered, but suggested—he stop by Kate's office earlier that afternoon, and John had. He wasn't opposed to the entire psychiatric profession; he just wasn't convinced they could always help. Sometimes, yes. But not always.

He'd told Kate about the dreams and she'd probed as deep as she dared. In the end, she could offer no more than platitudes and an invitation to return whenever he needed it. If they'd been on Earth—if they'd never even heard of the Pegasus galaxy—John was sure she would have had all kinds of theories on what his dreams of alien abduction meant, but out here… The possibility of being abducted by aliens was too real and not so easily discounted as stress manifesting itself in his subconscious.

When she'd told him to come back anytime, he didn't think she'd meant that night, to sleep.

Laughter bubbled up from down the hall, and John flinched in surprise. It would only be a matter of seconds before whoever was coming rounded the corner and found him standing in front of his door, literally quaking in his boots. He took a deep breath and waved his hand over the door control before he could talk himself out of it.

The door slid open soundlessly, and light from the hallway spilled into the dark room. He glanced over his shoulder and saw a scientist—botanist, he wanted to say—and one of his lieutenants who had been with the expedition since the first year appear at the far end of the hall, walking toward him. He leapt into the room, bringing the lights up as bright as possible as he did so.

He squinted, glancing around the room and only lowering the lights to a more tolerable level when he was positive there was no one else in the room. He let the door slide shut behind him and took a tentative step forward.

He was alone—he was sure of it—but that didn't stop him from checking the bathroom, the closets, and even under the bed.

"Buck up, John," he muttered. He was wired now, adrenaline coursing through his veins and masking the fatigue he knew was still there.

He walked to the windows and pulled open the curtains, staring out across the cityscape to the ocean beyond. The storm had blown out, leaving a clear, starry sky. Moonlight glittered in the dark water.

He eased back, sitting down on the bed and staring up at the night sky. At any other time, it would have been beautiful, but there was something ominous in the darkness this time. He glanced at his reflection in the window and cringed at the image staring back at him. He was sure the window was distorting his reflection—he couldn't possibly look that small and… and vulnerable.

He looked away and stared around the room. The silence was getting to him, digging under his skin and making his flesh crawl. The bed was a tangled mess—he couldn't remember the last time he'd made it.

Sleep! He just wanted to sleep, to lie down somewhere and not have to worry about dreams or abductions or any other weird crap like that. His pillow was in the corner of the room and he walked over to grab it. He wasn't sleeping here. He would find somewhere to go, but not here.

The jumper bay. The thought came to him instantly and he felt his body melt with relief. Of course! He could hole up in a jumper, raise the shield or the cloak. If the black alien could reach him in there then he might as well just give up now—there'd be nowhere safe for him after that.

He grabbed the blanket at the foot of the bed and ducked out of his room, locking the door behind him. The hall was empty again, and he all but ran to the transporter, hoping his luck would hold. He had no idea how he'd be able to explain why he was taking a pillow and blanket to the jumper bay.

He saw a handful of people in the distance, but no one close enough to ask him what he was doing or give him any odd looks. It was nearing 2200 hours by the time he reached the jumper bay. He slipped down a side corridor, knowing a Marine patrol was almost always walking the main corridor near the bay.

The bay itself was dark and he treaded silently toward the first jumper. The voice in the back of his head was nagging him again, telling him not to be so stupid and to just go back to his room already. John released the back hatch of the jumper and shrugged it off. He was being childish, terrified of nonexistent monsters in his closet, but he was here. As stupid as it looked, he didn't want to risk walking back through the corridors and having to explain that yes, he'd been scared to sleep in his room and had planned to sleep in the jumper bay, but then he had chickened out of that as well.

He stepped into the jumper as soon as the door was low enough and scanned the small space. The front window faced the wall, so no one could accidently peer in and see him curled up on the bench. He shut the hatch behind him and sat down. It was quiet—as quiet as his room had been—but it felt different. Safer. He threw his pillow and blanket on the bench then pulled out a sleeping bag from the supplies they kept in all the jumpers.

Once he had his bed all laid out, he sat down in the pilot chair, debating. Shield or cloak? The cloak would make him invisible but the shield was stronger, less penetrable from… alien beaming rays? He hunched forward, resting his head in his hands.

"What the hell have you turned into?"

His voice drifted through the small space of the jumper. The muscles in his neck and shoulders were getting stiff and he sat up, twisting in his seat to pop his back. His headache was starting to creep back as well. So far it was just a slight sensation of pressure in his sinus cavities, but if he didn't go to sleep soon, he had no doubt the ache would grow to migraine proportions.

"Fine," he yelled at the jumper. "Shield it is."

He was rewarded a few seconds later by a soft hum, letting him know the shield around the jumper was active. He rose from the pilot's chair and made his way to the back bench, crawling into the sleeping bag and pulling the blanket up around his shoulders. It wasn't exactly comfortable, but close enough.

He let the lights flicker off, plunging the small craft into darkness. It was pitch black, except for the small flashing lights from the cockpit. He could still hear the faint hum of the shield, and he hoped no one stumbled into it before he woke up in the morning.

"Good morning, John," Teyla called out as John stepped out of his room.

John jerked his head around, plastering a smile on his face and hoping he didn't look either guilty or inexplicably relieved. He waved, stepping away from his quarters and letting the door slide shut.

"How did you sleep last night?"

He almost did a double-take at the question, but he managed to hold himself back at the last minute. Did she know he'd spent the night in the jumper? She couldn't have. He'd been lucky and hadn't run into anyone either on his way to the jumper last night nor on his way back this morning.

"Fine," he answered, rubbing the smooth skin on his jaw. "Slept great, actually."

"I am happy to hear that. You look well this morning."

"I feel well," he replied. "Totally recovered."

They fell into step side by side, heading automatically for the mess hall. Despite feeling a little foolish at spending the night in a jumper with the shield raised, John felt healthier than he had in days. Rested, showered, shaved, fresh uniform.

Teyla grabbed his arm, squeezing it affectionately before letting him go. "That is a great relief," she said.

"Yeah, it is."

Breakfast was in full swing by the time they arrived. John loaded up his tray, feeling half-starved, and made his way over to the far table on the balcony. Ronon and McKay were already there, eating in silence. They smiled as John and Teyla arrived, and John could feel them staring at him as he sat down.

"I'm fine," he said.

"You look… relatively normal, actually," McKay responded. Ronon clapped John on the shoulder and grinned, then returned to inhaling his breakfast. John followed suit, enjoying the stack of French toast more than he had any food in a long time. They chatted about everything and nothing, each one latching on to the normalcy. It had been awhile since they'd had a breakfast like this.

Beckett joined them later, shooting John an appraising glance and looking pleased with what he saw. By the time they'd all finished eating, John had talked the doctor into releasing him back to full active duty. The doctor had capitulated on the promise that John return with him to the infirmary for a final check-up, which John had agreed to with enthusiasm. Anything to move on and get back to the way things had been.

After that, John lost himself in his work for most of the morning, emerging only when Ronon showed up at his office door and announced it was time for lunch. John had a stack of paperwork to catch up on, but he'd finally made it through the rest of the personnel folders. He ate quickly and returned to it, intent on finishing it all before dinner but by mid-afternoon, his eyes were straining from filling out so many reports.

The prospect of night and where he was going to sleep was also starting to loom, niggling in the back of his mind and distracting him from everything else he was trying to do. He eventually shoved the forms to the side and began searching the Ancient database.

He couldn't sleep in the jumper again—that was just ridiculous. And it was too risky. He'd been lucky no one had caught him the night before, but he didn't dare try again. His room was still out of the question. He didn't even consider it. Beckett had returned him to active duty, so sleeping in the infirmary for the night was liable to get him bumped back to half-duty or off-duty completely.

McKay's cot? Still didn't sound like a great option. Camping with Ronon? Or a visit to the Athosians on the mainland? It would sound a little odd if he initiated the request to visit Teyla's people. Camping with Ronon, though—that was sounding pretty good. He was sure Elizabeth would let them do that.

He had his hand raised halfway to his radio before he thought of the night sky he'd seen from his bedroom window. The stars had stared down at him, gleaming maliciously in the darkness like they'd been waiting for him to fall asleep before they pounced.

It was a stupid thought, but he couldn't shake it. He dropped his hand. The thought of sleeping out in the open like that—even with Ronon by his side—was too overwhelming. He'd spend the whole night staring up at that sky, waiting for it to morph into the black alien.

Atlantis, then. Somewhere out of the way. He flipped through the database, searching all the locations that his teams had cleared and deemed safe. He felt a flicker of unease at the buildings around the west pier so he moved east, as far away as possible.

"There," he said aloud, pulling up the schematics for one of the buildings he had walked through just a few months before. It sat on edge of the east pier, as far out from the central tower as was possible. At the time, John had dismissed the building quickly—it had been nothing more than an apartment building.

It was the perfect option now. The bottom levels had some water damage, but if he went higher up, it would be alright. The apartments were large, holding two or three bedrooms each on top of the usual bathroom-living-dining-kitchen areas. They were still mostly furnished as well, the beds, sofas, and larger tables built into the floor.

He stood up from his desk abruptly. If he set things up now, he could just say he was doing inventory or something. He walked quickly to his quarters, barely hesitating as he walked into the room and gathered his bedding. He had his own sleeping bag, which he pulled down from the top of his closet, as well as a fresh t-shirt and jogging pants for that night.

He shoved them all into a backpack then made his way quickly to the transporter, waving or nodding at people as he passed. Minutes later, he found himself on the far edge of the city, looking out over the ocean from the living room of a tenth floor apartment. The water was a brilliant, calming blue.

He opted to sleep in the living room and set his bags on the sofa. One of the beds might have been more comfortable, but the sofa was soft even after ten thousand years of disuse, and the living room somehow felt a little more protected—less open to the outside world. A layer of dust had settled over everything, and he brushed it off as well as he could.

Night was still hours away, so John made the trip back to the inhabited parts of the city. It took three different transporter rides, but he was back among civilization within ten minutes. He tracked down Ronon and dragged the man into the gym for a workout, spending the next hour working on the disarming technique the Satedan had been showing his Marines a few days earlier. John had already learned it once, but he was rusty and the exercise felt good.

The tension over where he was sleeping and what might happen during the night bled away as he and Ronon then worked through a half dozen other drills for another couple of hours. All he had to do for the rest of the day would be to stay away from his quarters. That way, when it was time for bed, he'd just have to hop into the nearest transporter, and no one would be the wiser—including the black alien.

Chapter 8

John stepped into the dark living room of the vacant apartment and glanced around. It was nearing 2300 hours and he was almost looking forward to going to sleep. He walked through the residence, double-checking that he was, in fact, alone, then moved toward the window.

It was another clear night, and the full moon shone brightly in the sky. He searched for the ominous darkness he'd seen the night before, but everything looked ordinary—stars, moon, ocean, Atlantis pier. There were no curtains on the windows but it was dark enough that the moonlight wouldn't keep him awake. In fact, it was a little reassuring.

He'd managed to stay busy all day, and stay away from the residence wing. He'd seen Lorne as he'd left his office, chatted with him for a few minutes, then stepped into the transporter like he was heading to his quarters.

Exactly as planned.

He changed into the jogging pants and t-shirt, then spread the sleeping bag out on the sofa. He debated a moment on where to stash his handgun and opted to leave it on the floor next to the sofa, within easy reach. He snuggled back into the pillow, feeling tired muscles pull across his chest and arms, and he wondered as he drifted off whether working out for three hours with Ronon had really been such a bright idea after all.

He wasn't sure what woke him up. He wasn't even sure he'd fallen asleep at first, but the light in the room had changed. It was darker, like a bank of clouds had drifted over the moon. He stared up at the unfamiliar ceiling and remembered a half second later that he was in the uninhabited part of the city, near the east pier.

He heard a sound, a soft scraping creak. He hadn't moved much yet but he froze, letting his eyes close halfway. Without moving his head, he tried to scan the room through his eyelashes, hoping he looked like he was still asleep.

He could feel his heart beginning to race and he fought to control his breathing. The room was dead quiet again. The nagging voice in his head berated him, telling him he was being paranoid and that he'd end up in a mental institution if he kept this up. He was alone—he couldn't see anyone in the vicinity of the sofa at least.

He forced himself to take a deep breath and then let it out slowly, inwardly cursing how loud it sounded. He heard another sound, different from the last, like a muffled tap from somewhere behind him.

And then a whistle of air, the sound of someone breathing quietly. He held his breath, hearing another soft exhale and muffled tap. A footstep.

Moonlight suddenly broke through the cloud cover, pouring into the room and lighting up the darker corners. John rolled his head on his pillow to look behind him, reaching for his gun at the same time. He'd barely managed to lift his head up when he saw dark shadows dart across the wall.

Thin arms reached over his head, grabbing at the arm reaching for the gun, and large oval eyes flashed in the moonlight. He lurched up as strong fingers wrapped around his wrist, and then a knee was shoved into his chest.

He cried out, or tried to, but the air whooshed out of his lungs as the black alien pressed its full weight into his ribcage. John brought his other hand up, intent on punching the creature. His fist landed in the side of the thing's chest, not the strongest of punches he'd ever thrown, but he'd half expected to hit a hard exoskeleton. The black skin was soft and for a split second he thought he might have a chance to fight it off.

He wasn't dreaming. No way in hell was he dreaming. He kicked his legs in desperation to free them from the sleeping bag just as the alien shifted its weight. John brought both fists up, giving up on his attempt to reach his gun. He hadn't moved fast enough—or the black alien had moved too fast—for that.

Something hard and smelling of plastic was shoved over his mouth and nose, and he twisted his head to get out from under the pressure. The alien used both its hands to grip his head and keep whatever it was pressing into his face in place, and John pounded his fists against the creature's arms and ribs.

To no avail. The moon disappeared again behind more clouds, plunging the small room into darkness, and the alien's face melted into shadow. John's chest bucked as he tried to breathe but the creature had yet to move its hands, and white dots began dancing across his vision.

It had found him, and now it was going to kill him. He sucked in a ragged breath, tasting plastic and rotten eggs, and the haze of white dots expanded. John felt his arms fall limply at his sides, and the alien's knee on his chest lifted.

It was the perfect chance to roll away, to swing at the creature and gain the upper hand, but even as the thought crossed his mind, he felt himself sink into unconsciousness.

The chair was hard, digging into his shoulder blades and the backs of his legs. He squirmed and felt a band tighten around his wrists and ankles, squeezing until they cut into the skin. He screamed and tried to stand up, but another band weaved its way around his chest with crushing strength.

"No," he whispered, gasping to pull in another breath. He felt a hand pull his head up by the hair, and he flinched, expecting the looming face of the black alien.

"Kolya?" he rasped. The walls came into focus around him—dirty cement walls, a video camera that looked like it came from the 1940s, and a handful of Genii guards.

"It's been some time," Kolya smiled, though the movement was stiff and John could sense the hatred and anger burning just below the surface.

He shook his head. "Not real, not real," he breathed out. "This is not happening."

"To capture an extraordinary soldier takes extraordinary measures," the Genii commander continued, as if John had played his part and spoken his side of a conversation that had taken place almost six months earlier.

John shook his head again. "I'm not playing along this time." He turned around in the chair as far as the bindings would let him. "I'm not doing it! I'm not playing your sick little game!"

Kolya continued to smile, oblivious to John's ranting. He signaled to someone behind him, and John heard a metal door swing open and the faint rattling of chains. He faced back toward the camera, pulling at the bindings on his arms again.

"Shit. Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit," he breathed out.

"As you can see, he's his usual charming self."

Kolya was speaking into the camera again, and John bucked against the chair. The rattling sound of chains trudged closer. Not again—this was not happening again. He could not go through this again. He would wake up. This wasn't real. All he had to do was wake up.

"Allow me to help expedite your decision."

John closed his eyes, but his heart was pounding in his chest and blood roared in his ears. The clink of metal next to his head caused him to jerk his eyes open, and he looked up into the sallow face of a Wraith. Todd—exactly the way he had looked the first time he'd seen him.

The Wraith hesitated a moment, then slammed its palm into John's chest. John reared his head back at the onslaught of pain, fire racing along every nerve ending. He screamed, convulsing against the agony and turned pleading eyes toward Todd…

Only to see the black alien instead. Its small mouth was pulled back in a sneer as it fed and it leaned forward, pressing harder. A surge of electricity pulsed out of its palm and John screamed again at the molten glass digging its claws into his chest.

The pain snapped out at once. John rolled his head across the chair and opened bleary eyes. Kolya was gone, as was Todd and the black alien and the underground Genii holding cell. The chair was softer beneath him and glowing a faint blue.


"Okay, Colonel. We're just about ready to get started here," McKay's voice floated over him. He turned to see the physicist standing in front of a nearby console, his back to him. Zelenka was peering over his shoulder, typing on a computer tablet in his hand.

"Rodney?" John whispered. Phantom tentacles of pain pulsed behind his chest and he looked down to see his shirt ripped down the middle and an oozing, bloody handprint. A cool breeze from somewhere wafted through the room, brushing against the open wound and igniting raw nerves.

"Alright," McKay said, spinning around. "As far as we can tell, the power fluctuations seem to be clustered directly beneath the main control tower. I need you to bring up a schematic of the main grid in that area."

Sweat dripped down John's face and his stomach clenched with nausea. He remembered this—it had happened a few months ago, right before they'd been forced to leave the city, but he hadn't been sick then. He hadn't been injured. He'd sat in the Ancient chair for half the day, trying to help McKay and Zelenka pinpoint the exact systems causing the unexplained power surges and drops.

"Stop this, please," he begged, but the physicist turned around oblivious, playing out his part of the memory the same way Kolya had.

"Radek, are you tracking this?"

"This is good—this is exactly what we need."

"His heart rate just jumped."

"What?" John breathed out. "Who…?"

He looked around, and the room morphed back into the Genii holding cell. John jerked against the restraints just as Kolya nodded to someone behind him.

"Take your fill."

The black alien appeared in front of him and slammed the palm of his hand into his chest. John saw sparks of electricity dance out of its fingertips. He jerked and seized against the onslaught, watching the bolts of white light wrap around his entire body, squeezing until he couldn't breathe.

"Respiration is dropping," the alien cried out, pulling its hand back and sounding almost concerned.

John's head dropped forward on a rubbery neck and he stared at the gaping wound dripping blood down his shirt. It pooled around the waistband of his jogging pants, warm and thick in his lap. His chest stuttered, expanding and pulling in oxygen almost against its will, and agony shrieked across his skin.

"Go to section A, level 1127-B. Got that, Colonel?" McKay asked, staring up at the laser lights streaking incoherently above them. John stared up at them, unable to move or speak, not remembering when the chair had suddenly tilted him backward. The lights began to swirl, coalescing into a single entity.

The light shot down from the ceiling, striking John in the center of his sternum. He felt his body shake and tremble against the chair as energy poured through him, and his heart stumbled in his chest.

"You need to pull back now or we're going to kill him before we finish."

"We're so close."

"And if he dies before we get the readings we need, we'll never finish our work. How much longer do you think we have before we're discovered?"

John opened his eyes and stared up at the dull cement ceiling. The Genii cell. At least he was lying on the ground, safely ensconced in a prison cell of his own. He could hear Todd pacing in the cell next to his. His body trembled and shook, rattling against the hard floor.

"Wake up, wake up, wake up," John mumbled.

He closed his eyes, sucking in a ragged breath, then opened them again to find himself sprawled in the Ancient chair. McKay and Zelenka were still working by the consoles but a flash of black on the other side caught his attention. He jerked, expecting to fly out of the chair but found his arms, chest and legs were once again tied down.

No, this was wrong. He wasn't supposed to be tied down in the Ancient chair. McKay and Zelenka jabbered on, speaking without actually saying anything. The room began to spin as John breathed faster and faster, hyperventilating.

The black alien stepped up to him, folding its long body in half until its face was only inches from John's. John turned his head away, but the creature grabbed his chin, pinning him in place. The eyes were dark and unreadable.

This time it reached its hand into John's chest, breaking through the ribcage to wrap its fingers around his heart. John's eyes flew open as the alien began to twist and pull, and the pain of being fed upon paled in comparison. He opened his mouth to scream, but choked instead, warm liquid splashing from his nose, dripping over his mouth and chin.

"I think he's waking up."

"Give him another dose. We've got to keep going."

John squirmed against the hands pinning him down. The hard surface behind his back was unrelenting. He blinked, feeling sweat run down his forehead and into his eyes, and a white room formed around him. It didn't look like Atlantis or the Genii prison structure. Dark shadows floated in a distant white haze, tall and thin with heads disproportionately large.

He moaned, twisting against the straps holding him down and felt a hand brush through his hair. He turned to look at whoever was behind him, but something hard was pressed against his face.

His eyes flew open in surprise and he arched his back, attempting to dislodge the thing digging into his cheeks. Cries erupted around him and a soft hiss blew against his face, smelling of melting plastic and sulfur. He thought of the safe house on the far eastern edge of the city, of the black alien kneeling into his chest and pressing something against his mouth and nose.

"No!" he mumbled, jerking his head, but already his vision was beginning to dim and he felt his eyelids flutter close.

"Is he under?"


"Hurry—it's getting late. We can't keep him here for much longer."

"As you can see, he's his usual charming self."

"I need you to bring up a schematic of the main grid in that area."

Kolya and McKay walked in circles around him, repeating the dead words. The black alien climbed onto the chair, its eyes reflecting the blue glow of the Ancient technology. It straddled John and slammed its fist into his chest.

"Go to section A, level 1127-B," McKay called out. "Think of it as an onion—how deeply can you peel back the layers?"

"To capture an extraordinary soldier takes extraordinary measures," Kolya replied, his arms behind his back as he paced around the room.

The alien released another blast of energy, and a thousand sharp knives twisted through John, burrowing into his stomach and legs, then flowing back up, slicing through his arms and chest and neck and head. He heard a rhythmic thudding of flesh against metal, and realized belatedly that it was his body seizing, spasming against a cement floor, an Ancient chair, a metal table.

The locations flashed through him, switching with dizzying speed. The alien still straddled him, pounding its fist into his chest and stomach over and over again. John gagged at the sensation of his ribs and sternum cracking under the onslaught. He threw his head back, screaming until his voice went hoarse.

The alien screeched back, bolts of lightning exploding in a shower of sparks behind it, and slammed its hand into him again.

Ronon knew Sheppard would be pissed if he found him camped out in front of his room, but things were getting out of hand. Whatever was going on with his friend—whether it was mental or actual alien abductions—had to stop. He lounged on the bench next to the Colonel's door, ignoring everyone who passed and stared.

Not that there'd been that many people out roaming the halls. Sheppard had hidden away in his office after their training session, and Ronon had lost track of time watching a war movie with a crowd of other Marines in the rec room. By the time he'd swung by Sheppard's office, it had been almost midnight and the room had been dark.

He'd checked the jumper bay and nodded in satisfaction that his friend wasn't sleeping in one of the small ships again. He was sure Sheppard had no idea that he'd spotted him the night before—not that he would say anything. If he'd needed to sleep in a jumper to feel safe, Ronon would not judge the man. He'd slept in plenty of weird places himself for the same reason.

"Hey," he called out, catching a passing scientist by surprise. He rolled his head on the bench to look at the startled man. "What time is it?"

"Um, it's…uh…a little after six in the morning."

Ronon settled back on the bench, closing his eyes. He heard the scientist linger for another second before hurrying off down the hallway. Six o'clock. If Sheppard had been healthy these last few weeks, Ronon would have had no qualms about waking him up. The man was an early riser anyway. Lately, though, he'd looked exhausted and Ronon was hesitant to cut into any sleep he might be getting.

He'd looked better the day before, which was reassuring. Maybe Sheppard had finally figured out how to deal with whatever was going on. Ronon had seen a lot as a runner, but secret alien abductions that returned you the next morning? On Atlantis, right under McKay's nose? That seemed a little too far-fetched.

He dozed, hearing more people pass as the morning grew later. He guessed another hour had gone by and was about to ask someone for the time again, when his radio chirped in his ear.

"Ronon!" McKay's voice screeched into his ear. "Is that you loitering outside Sheppard's quarters?"

"What do you want, McKay?"

"I just picked up that weird bouncing energy signal again—from inside Sheppard's room. I'm on my way down there now, but if you're already there—"

"On it," Ronon said, jumping up from the bench. He stepped up to the door and pounded against the metal frame. "Sheppard?"

There was no answer. He pounded harder, resisting the urge to kick. "Sheppard, open up, buddy."

Sheppard should have heard him, should have woken up no matter how tired he was. Something was wrong. He could feel it. "McKay, he's not answering."

"I'm coming," McKay called out. "The scanner shows he's in there."

"Ronon, what is going on?"

Ronon spun around, grateful to see Teyla running toward him. He turned back to the door and waved his hand fruitlessly in front of the door control.

"McKay just picked up an energy thing in Sheppard's room and now Sheppard's not answering his door."

"Are you sure he slept there last night?"

Ronon eyed her, wondering how much she knew. "I checked the jumper bay last night. He wasn't there."

Teyla nodded, not looking at all surprised by Ronon's mention of the jumpers. She knocked on the door, calling out for Sheppard, but again, there was no answer.

"Where the hell is McKay?" Ronon bellowed, frustrated.

"I think I remember how Rodney bypasses the door control," Teyla said, stepping around him. She pried open the small box and rearranged the crystals, nodding in satisfaction when the door slid open a second later.

Ronon flew into the room, his blaster in hand. He scanned the room, relaxing only slightly when he saw the room was clearly empty of aliens or other potential enemies. Light streamed in through the open windows. The bed was stripped of its blankets, and Sheppard lay sprawled across its surface, the top half of his body hanging precariously off the edge. He looked like he was about to slide off and crash to the floor head first.

"John!" Teyla called, running toward the bed.

Ronon holstered his weapon and ran forward, feeling his stomach lurch at the sight of his friend. Sheppard was barefoot, wearing jogging pants and a t-shirt that looked soaked through with sweat. Teyla knelt by his head and reached a tentative hand out for the pulse point in his neck.

"Come on, Sheppard," Ronon mumbled. "Come on, buddy."

Teyla pressed her fingers into the man's neck, sagging to the floor a second later. "I have found a pulse but it is weak and rapid."

"Let's slide him back onto the bed," Ronon said. He stepped around Teyla and dug his hands under Sheppard's back before she could say anything. He lifted the dead weight and pulled until Sheppard was fully on the bed, letting Teyla support the unconscious man's head. She sat down on one end of the bed while Ronon lowered Sheppard onto the mattress. Sheppard's face was ashen with dark circles under his eyes, and his skin was covered in a sheen of sweat. Teyla eased his head back into her lap and looked up in alarm at Ronon.

"Sheppard, buddy, wake up," Ronon prodded, sitting on the edge of the bed and rapping his knuckles into the man's chest. Sheppard didn't respond at all. Ronon rested a hand over his chest and felt the rapid rise and fall of his ribs.

"John?" Teyla called out, brushing back the hair matted to his forehead.

Ronon peered more closely at his friend's face and frowned at the spots of red appearing on his cheeks. He reached out, brushing the growing bruises with his fingertips.

"What has happened to him?"

"Don't know," Ronon answered. He reached down for Sheppard's arm, holding it up for a better view and fingering the bruises appearing around his wrist. "Maybe this alien abduction stuff wasn't just all in his head after all."

There were more bruises on his arms, but before Ronon could check for other injuries, McKay appeared at the door, panting, with Beckett right behind him.

"Did you…see…anything?" McKay gasped out.

"Doc, get over here," Ronon said instead, ignoring the question.

Beckett raced forward, kneeling on Sheppard's other side. "Dear God, what happened to him?"

"We cannot wake him," Teyla answered, her voice quavering.

Ronon vaguely heard McKay calling for a security team while Beckett called for a medical team. He let the doctor check his friend's breathing and pulse first, then pointed out the bruising on his arm. Beckett nodded and tapped the side of Sheppard's face, but Sheppard's head lolled limply in Teyla's lap. He reached down for his t-shirt and pulled it up.

Ronon curled his hands into fists at the sight of Sheppard's chest and stomach, mottled with bruises. He could feel his fingernails digging into the palms of his hand and he zeroed in on the pain, letting it sharpen his attention as he fought for control over his temper.

He would kill whoever had done this to Sheppard. With his bare hands if need be.

Beckett palpated Sheppard's chest and stomach, finally getting Sheppard to stir a little. "John, wake up," he commanded, his voice loud and forceful. He tugged the shirt back over Sheppard's torso, covering up the damaged flesh.

"John?" Teyla called out again, smoothing back his hair.

Sheppard's eyes flew open so quickly that all three of them flinched and reared back. For a second, the man lay staring unseeing at the ceiling and Beckett grabbed onto his wrist, about to call out to him again.

Before any of them could say anything else, Sheppard began writhing, struggling to get up or get away—Ronon wasn't sure. None of them were exactly holding him down.

"John," Teyla said, leaning over his head to bring her face into view. John lurched upright, almost smacking his head against hers. He screamed, a ragged wheezing sound that made Ronon's throat ache in sympathy.

Ronon reacted instinctively, grabbing hold of Sheppard's arm when the man started to sag back to the mattress. The touch awakened some primeval instinct in his friend, however, and Sheppard jerked, screaming again. It took all three of them to hold him still until Sheppard's strength eventually began to wane.

"Sheppard, buddy, it's me. Ronon."

Sheppard's eyes darted toward him then rolled away, and Ronon wondered whether the man was actually awake. His friend was panting, spittle flying from his lips.

"Sheppard?" Ronon called out again.

"Colonel, lad. You need to calm down," Beckett said. He shot a glance over Ronon's shoulder to the open door behind him. "Where's that medical team?" he hissed.

Ronon heard McKay step out into the hall, yelling at someone over the radio. He turned his attention back to Sheppard and was happy to see Teyla had finally caught his attention. She was still sitting behind him and had his head cradled in the crook of her arm.

"Where are the blankets for his bed?" Beckett asked, looking around the room.

Ronon shrugged, peering more closely at Sheppard. He could see the man trembling, shudders wracking through his entire body. When Teyla leaned back, Sheppard's hand suddenly flailed, and Ronon grabbed it.


"I am right here, John," she soothed, leaning back into his line of sight.

"You're okay, buddy. We're here."



"R-real…it's real…rrr-reall…ssaw 'im…not asleep…nn-not drea-dreaming…" Sheppard whispered, his voice hoarse like he'd been screaming all night.

And yet Ronon hadn't heard a thing. If Sheppard had screamed, he hadn't done so in his quarters.

"What's real, John?" Beckett asked, resting a hand over the injured man's stomach.

Sheppard flinched, then turned toward the doctor. "Alien…saw it…awake…s-saw it…real…"

McKay was back in the room and he sat on the edge of the desk behind them. Ronon looked over at him, seeing the same horror he was feeling reflected in the physicist's eyes.

"W-wake up…wwakeuppwakeuppwwake…"

"You are awake, John," Teyla soothed, quieting the frantic rasp.

There was noise down the hall, the distinctive clatter of a gurney and a half dozen pairs of boots pounding against the floor. Finally. Ronon scooted back in anticipation, knowing the room was about to be swarmed with people.

"No!" Sheppard cried out, though his voice was hardly more than a scraping whisper. "R-ronon…Teyla…w-where?" His arms flailed again, grabbing at whatever he could reach. One hand wrapped around the fabric of Beckett's jacket. Ronon grabbed the other one, squeezing Sheppard's hand as tightly as he dared.

"We're right here, Sheppard," Ronon said. He swallowed back the torrent of rage threatening to explode out of him, knowing Sheppard wouldn't understand at the moment that it wasn't directed at him.


"I'm here, too."

"We all are, John."

"Aye, rest easy, lad. We'll take care of you."

Sheppard was still shaking, jerking in Teyla's arms uncontrollably. The medical team appeared at the door, hesitating a second until Beckett stood up and waved them over.

"D-don't…Don't g-go."

"We won't," Ronon answered.

Sheppard coughed and Teyla lifted him up a little higher just as a splash of red sprayed out of his nose. He heard McKay stumble backward and he tightened his grip on his friend's hand.

"Doc," he called out, staring mesmerized at the blood flowing freely now from both nostrils. "Doc, his nose…"

Beckett moved in quickly, yelling out orders. Ronon felt Sheppard's hand go suddenly lax in his, and then he was being pushed back, out of the way, while his teammate was loaded onto a gurney and rushed to the infirmary.

Only then did Ronon unleash the howl of fury burning in his chest.

Chapter 9

A muffled moan pulled Teyla out of her meditation and she turned toward the man on the bed. John was curled up on his side, still asleep, but his face twitched in response to whatever dreams were flowing through his mind. He shivered, moaning again, then settled into the bed.

Teyla stood, stretching her legs and glancing around the quiet infirmary. There were a few people wandering around at the other end, but Carson had tucked John away into the corner where it was quieter in the hopes that he would be able to get a little more rest. She leaned forward, pulling the blanket up around John's shoulders. He looked exhausted, and like he'd been severely beaten. The dark circles under his eyes were not actually bruises, but they still made him look haunted and beaten down.

He is haunted, Teyla amended. She flashed to the day before and the memory of finding him unconscious in his room, then waking up in shock and terrified—convinced that he had been taken by the black alien from his dreams.

John jerked again, gasping, but he did not wake. Teyla pulled the chair closer to him and grabbed his arm, rubbing her thumb over the smooth skin of his underarm. She studied his face, relaxing a bit when the pained expression on his face eased. The bruises around his mouth had been small and a day and a half later were already fading. They were hardly more than shadows now. The bruising on his arms and torso were deeper, but not much.

Hardly life threatening injuries, but she still felt her heart twist painfully in her chest. Regardless of their seriousness, the question remained: how had he gotten the bruises in the first place? Had they happened in the night, caused by the mysterious black alien? Or had they happened earlier? Most of them could easily have happened from working out with Ronon.

John shuddered, a whimper escaping through parted lips. His brow was pulled forward into a frown and his eyes flickered behind closed lids. Whatever he was dreaming was gaining strength. Teyla gripped his arm a little harder and ran her other hand through his hair, whispering calming words, but John continued to jerk and moan, caught up in another nightmare.

It had been the same thing for the last day and a half. John had been whisked away toward the infirmary, limp and bleeding, and she'd been left in his room, staring at the space on the bed where they'd found him. By the time she'd forced her legs to bring her to the infirmary, Carson had managed to get the nosebleed under control—it had been more serious than a few of the recent ones, but not as bad as the first one—but John had been in and out of consciousness ever since, and only semi-coherent when he had been awake. The remainder of his time had been spent in agitated slumber filled with nightmares.

She heard a soft patter of steps coming toward her and looked up at Ronon, who gave her a small wave and leaned against the edge of the bed, staring down at John's restless figure.

"How's he doing?" he asked softly.

"He is beginning to dream again."

Ronon scowled, shaking his head. Teyla watched the larger man bite his lip at the sound of another whimpering moan then turned back to John, brushing back his hair in what she hoped was a soothing, calming gesture. It reminded her of the times she'd soothed Jinto and some of the other children and babies, particularly after a Wraith attack. While John was not a child, the action usually had the same calming effect on adults.

"Found his stuff," Ronon suddenly said and Teyla looked up at him in confusion. "The blankets from his bed, his gun, the clothes he was wearing the day before yesterday," he clarified.

"Where were they?"

"In a room on the far side of the city, in one of the uninhabited buildings near the east pier. Looked like he was camped out there."

"Why would he sleep so far away?"

"Why did he sleep in the jumper?" Ronon returned.

Teyla nodded. She glanced at John and saw that his face had smoothed out again. His mouth hung open and he seemed to sink into the mattress, retreating into a deeper sleep. She felt relief wash over her. Perhaps he would be able to sleep a little bit longer without her or Ronon having to yank him from the grip of a nightmare.

"Do you believe this black alien is responsible?"

"Who else could it be?"

Teyla shrugged. She didn't know—no one did—and that was the crux of the problem. She looked over at the Ancient scanner and the group of engineers digging through its innards. Carson had run two more scans in the last day, and still they'd found nothing wrong with John despite the fact that they could all clearly see something was going on. McKay had been searching relentlessly for any sign of an alien presence, either in the city or in the space around the planet, but he too as coming up empty-handed.

"Weir's called a meeting for tomorrow morning—she wants us, McKay, Beckett and Heightmeyer there."

"To talk about John?"

Ronon nodded. "To figure out what to do. McKay can't find proof that a black alien exists, so they want to talk about it being all in his head, like he's going crazy."

His tone of voice made it clear what he thought of the idea that John was just imagining it, and Teyla found herself agreeing with him. Maybe not with the same intensity, but there were times when she felt the Milky Way natives gave in too easily to the idea that there was something wrong with a person's mind versus exploring the possibility that what they were saying was real.

"Sheppard wouldn't freak out like this," Ronon murmured, his voice so soft that for a second Teyla wondered if he realized he was talking out loud.

"I agree," she said, catching his eye. She would not abandon John.

"I heard Heightmeyer talking to Weir—she wants to send him to Earth."


Ronon shrugged. "Maybe not right away, but I think she's going to want to talk about that today."

"That is…" She trailed off, searching for the word. Giving up? Rushed? Lazy? John was strong. He had been through a lot in the last several years and she found it hard to believe that he would suddenly fall apart for no apparent reason. With all that had happened to him, why would this particular dream have such an affect?

Ronon was right—who else could be causing this other than the black alien itself?

"I've got to go," Ronon said, breaking through her thoughts. He walked forward, resting a hand on John's shoulder for a moment before stepping back.

"Where are you going?"

"Gonna find this black alien."

Teyla nodded, torn between going with him and searching the city—doing something to help John—or staying by John's side, watching over him as he slept and pulling him out of his nightmares when they hit. John squirmed on the bed, mumbling something she could not understand and curling more tightly into a ball. The small movement settled the question in Teyla's mind. Ronon was the best tracker she had ever met, and if there was evidence of the alien on Atlantis, he would find it. In the meantime, John needed her by his side.

She began running her hand through his hair again, frowning when John only grew more agitated. She could hear his heartbeat on the monitor picking up speed, and he cried out again.

"John," she whispered, leaning close to his ear.

His face twitched and he sucked in a startled gasp, but still he did not wake. Teyla grabbed his shoulder, shaking it, and watched his eyes flutter behind his lids.

"John, wake up. You are only dreaming,"

"No," he breathed out, shuddering. He rolled part way onto his back, kicking out his leg and bringing his arms up protectively toward his chest. "Not…'gain… nnnttaggainnn…"

"John, you are safe, on Atlantis," Teyla said, louder. She stood up, gripping his head in both her hands. "John?"

He whimpered, sounding absolutely terrified. His hands pushed clumsily at his chest as if something was pressed against it and he was trying to dislodge it. Teyla's breath caught in her throat as she realized what he must be dreaming about.

"You are home, John. There is no Wraith here," she said. "Please, wake up."

A cold sweat had broken out all over his face and the racing beat on the heart monitor had drawn the attention of the attending nurse. Teyla waved her away, then grabbed John's shoulders and shook hard.

John woke up with a cry, flying half off the bed, his arms and legs flailing. His breaths came out in panicked gasps and his eyes darted around the room, wide and unfocused.

"John," Teyla said, her voice quiet but firm.

He was writhing under her grip with both hands covering the center of his chest, but gradually he stopped moving. He blinked as he focused up at her, and the heart monitor settled back to its steady rhythm.

"Teyla?" he whispered.

Teyla smiled, letting go of his shoulders. She placed a hand over his hands still covering his chest and brushed matted locks of hair from his damp forehead. "Yes, John. You are home, safe."


"It was a nightmare. He is not here."

John nodded, rubbing his sternum. He was still breathing rapidly and he shivered, rolling onto his side and drawing his knees up. Teyla straightened the blankets he'd kicked off, then grabbed another one and spread it over his shaking form.

"Teyla?" he whispered again. His eyes were drooping closed already but he fought against the pull of sleep.

"I am right here, John."

"Bad dream."

"I know."

"Wraith—Todd—trying to feed again. Black alien is there, hurting, pounding on my chest…" John mumbled. He seemed on the verge of going back to sleep when he suddenly rolled onto his back and rubbed at his face.

"John, what's wrong?"

"Gotta try and stay awake for a little bit," he answered.

Teyla stood, raising the bed and pouring him a glass of water from the pitcher on the nightstand. She handed it to him, glad that despite his shaking hands, he was still able to hold the glass on his own. He drank about half of it before he handed it back to her, then relaxed into the pillow.

"Rodney find anything yet?"

His voice was still hoarse, but not as painful sounding as it had been. Too many things were not adding up for his fears of abduction to not all be just in his head. Carson had said his throat had been red and irritated, but Ronon had not heard any screaming from his room.

"He is still searching. The energy signal that appeared in your room shortly before Ronon and I arrived also appeared in a dozen other rooms throughout the inhabited parts of the city, though no one else reported any ill effects."

"Great," John mumbled, scowling.

"How are you feeling, John?"

John turned to look at her, the lines in his face deeper than normal. He looked as if he'd aged in the last several days, and for a split second she wondered if a Wraith had fed on him after all.

He shrugged his shoulders. "Not great," he answered, "but not terrible, either. I've felt worse." He grabbed the edge of the blanket, picking at a loose string and pulling. "Head feels kind of weird, like it's full of water or something. Doesn't hurt, really. Just pressure."

Teyla grabbed his hand, calming the agitated gesture. "I am sorry we cannot do more for you."

"We have to find this black alien, or whatever the hell it is."

"Ronon is out searching right now," Teyla said, glad she could tell him they were at least trying. "He found your bedding and your weapon in a room out near the east pier."

John glanced over at her then looked away, his cheeks flushing pink. "It was a stupid idea. Thought that thing wouldn't find me if I wasn't in my own room."

"Are you sure—"

"I saw it, Teyla. I wasn't asleep. I don't know how it found me, maybe it picked up on my sub-q transmitter or something, but it was there. I woke up and it jumped on me."

His heart rate had picked up again, and he took a deep breath, visibly trying to calm himself. He rubbed his chest and leaned back on the pillow, letting a small, half-hearted smile flit across his face. "Chest and stomach are kind of sore—probably shouldn't have worked out with Ronon for so long."

"That is never a wise idea," Teyla said with a smile of her own.

"You believe me, right?" John asked suddenly.

"Do you remember the end of our first year here, right before the Wraith attacked the city?"

John frowned, looking puzzled at the direction the conversation had turned. He nodded and waited for her to continue.

"I began dreaming of the Wraith, and became convinced there was one in the city. No one believed me at first. I believe you sent Doctor Heightmeyer after me." She smiled again to take the edge off the words. She didn't want to sound like she was accusing him of anything. She grabbed his hand in both of his, squeezing it tightly. She saw guilt flash across his face but she pressed on.

"You were correct in doing so. Kate has helped me many times since and I consider her a good friend now."

John looked up at her in surprise and with a little bit of trepidation.

"I am not trying to tell you that you should also talk to Kate, although I believe it might be beneficial. I am simply saying that I would be the last person in this city to disbelieve you."

John relaxed, melting into the pillow. "We've seen some weird stuff out here, haven't we?"

"Most definitely."

His eyes were beginning to droop closed again, and she knew it wouldn't be long before he drifted back to sleep. She paused, wondering if she should tell him about the meeting this afternoon, then plowed forward, deciding that if their situations were reversed, she would want to know that they were discussing her future.

"John," she started, rubbing his arm to get his attention. His eyes had slid shut but he opened them again with some effort.


"You should know, Elizabeth has called a meeting—with myself, Ronon, Rodney, Carson, and Kate."

"About me."

It wasn't a question, but Teyla nodded anyway. "Yes, about you. About the possibility of this black alien. Ronon and I believe it exists, and I think Rodney does as well, but he has been unable to find any definitive proof. Carson and Kate are concerned about your health and the fact that they have thus far been unable to discover what is ailing you. I think Elizabeth just wants to know how best to help you."

John said nothing at first, and Teyla wondered if he was angry or upset. They weren't purposefully leaving him out of the discussion, but his inability to stay awake for more than a few minutes was precluding him from attending. Either he was much more exhausted than even she had realized, or he was desperately afraid of what was happening, but he didn't get angry. He sighed deeply, sagging into the bed.

"Put in a good word me," he whispered, his eyes once again drifting closed.

Teyla squeezed his hand. "We will solve this, John. We will not rest until we do."

John's head slid off the side of the pillow as he nodded off to sleep. Teyla lowered the bed and pulled the covers up around his shoulders, watching him. He was quiet for now, but she knew it wouldn't be long before the nightmares returned. With one final squeeze of John's hand, she settled back into the chair and returned to her meditation.

John woke up to a buzzing sound in his head, like an insect had somehow managed to crawl into his ear and settle next to the eardrum. It was almost like the background hum of Atlantis, only louder and more intense. He clawed at it, relaxing only when the sound seemed to recede. He was in the infirmary—he could tell that by the smell more than anything else.

He squirmed on the bed, trying to get comfortable again. The buzzing was still there, just not right in his head. It was farther away, in the corner of the room. He opened his eyes and searched the ceiling of the infirmary.


The bug was large, its black exoskeleton expanding with tiny breaths. Its soft red pouch of a stomach was unmistakable. Iratus.

"I hate those things," he mumbled out loud. He slid from the bed, grateful that Beckett had removed all of the monitoring pads and IVs the night before in an effort to make him more comfortable. He'd even offered to let John return to his room, but no way in hell was he doing that. The infirmary was fine by him—lots of people around all the time, specifically, lots of guards.

And his team. Someone from his team was usually sitting with him when he woke up, but he was alone at the moment. In fact, the entire infirmary seemed to be abandoned. Because of the iratus bug? Maybe.

The creature buzzed, bouncing against the ceiling a couple of times before crawling over the top of the door frame and disappearing out into the hall. John staggered forward, squinting in the light. It was morning, but it felt early. Maybe that's why no one was around. It was too early.

He ducked his head out the door, peering into the hallway to check for unwanted aliens or bugs, but it was empty. The iratus had moved away, toward the transporter. John trailed a hand along the wall, walking slowly. The bug bounced and buzzed along the ceiling, disappearing around another corner.

He rubbed his eyes, grimacing. The buzzing was back inside his head, along with a steady, painful thumping. When he pulled his hand away, he had the distinct sensation of being underwater, like when he opened his eyes in a swimming pool—he could see the hall and the nearby potted plant and the bench but everything had a faintly fuzzy look to it.

He kept walking, following the buzzing in his head. At every fork and turn, the buzzing and thumping would grow louder in one direction, and his feet would automatically stumble that way. The hall drifted in and out of focus.

"Gun," he mumbled, when the iratus appeared again a few feet in front of him. "Should have brought a gun."

He punched a location on the map of the transporter and felt himself whisked away in a flash, but when he looked back at the map he couldn't remember where he'd decided to go. The thumping grew exponentially, vibrating from the crown of his head to deep into his neck.

He fell out of the transporter into an unfamiliar hallway smelling of wet metal and mold. Patches of light were laid out in front of him in square blocks. He had the sudden urge to turn back, but the bug reappeared two squares in front of him.

He had to kill the bug. He hated those bugs. He walked forward into the first square of light and glanced to his side, catching a glimpse of the ocean through the large window. The setting sun sparkled on the water.

Like a postcard, he had thought. So cliché, and yet, so beautiful, no matter how many times that particular photo was snapped and sold.

He pressed forward, ignoring the way the hallway wove and sloped in front of him. The wall was steady enough, and he had yet to fall. He would just go a little farther, to where the bug was sitting. Then he would smash it. Then he would stop.

The blow, when it came, came out of nowhere. He had been focused completely on the insect twittering on the floor and wondering if crushing it with his bare heel would be enough to kill it, when he'd caught a blur of movement out of the corner of his eye. The only reaction he'd had time for was to blink, and then his head exploded with a rush of white and red and pain. And then nothing.

Chapter 10

Rodney slumped back in his chair, holding in a sigh. Why were they sitting here talking about Sheppard when they could be doing something? Generally speaking, he had no issues with talking as long as everyone was working while they were talking. He fingered the computer tablet in his lap, pulling up the data on the bouncing energy signal. There was something there—he could sense it but he couldn't quite put his finger on it.

Elizabeth, Ronon, Teyla, Carson and Kate talked around him, updating each other on Sheppard's condition. Rodney had already heard it—they all had, in fact, they just couldn't stop talking about it. Sheppard was exhausted. Sheppard had recurring, unexplained nosebleeds. Sheppard was convinced that an alien was abducting him from his room. Sheppard was having horrendous nightmares. Sheppard was hallucinating—

"Whoa, what?" Rodney asked, his voice cutting through the babble in the room. He hadn't heard the hallucinating bit. The others stopped, turning to look at him. "What's this about hallucinating?"

Eyes flickered toward Kate, waiting for her to respond. It was clear by the expression on Ronon's face that he didn't believe it and he wasn't happy that it had even been suggested. Teyla, usually all diplomatic and calm, also didn't look too pleased with the idea. Elizabeth and Carson were concerned and a little desperate, the same desperate that Rodney himself was feeling. He hated not knowing, because not knowing meant not being able to help.

"I'm just suggesting that based on the intensity of John's nightmares that Carson and I have observed over the last two days in the infirmary, this black alien he claims to have seen could be a hallucination. With the level of stress that he's been under—"

"It's not true," Ronon broke in, cutting Kate off. "If he says he saw a black alien, then he saw it. He's not making it up."

"I'm not saying he's making it up. I believe that he really believes he's seeing… something."

Rodney's eyes flickered back to Ronon, seeing the larger man gear up to retort. Before he could say anything, however, Elizabeth jumped in.

"This is not going to help John," she said, and everyone in the room deflated. "Let's start over. We know what John is claiming and as I see it, that leaves us two alternatives: either there really is a black alien or there is not."

"It's not in his head," Ronon ground out.

Elizabeth nodded. "I hear what you're saying, Ronon, but for the moment, let's keep all options under consideration on the table."

Ronon leaned back in his chair, scowling, with his arms crossed. For a second, Rodney thought he might say something else, or storm from the room completely, but Teyla grabbed his arm, at once supporting him and telling him to stay calm. Rodney had seen her do that to both Ronon and Sheppard a number of times in the past. She'd even done it to him, now that he thought about it.

The energy signal blipped on his computer screen, hitting the corner of the mess hall near the kitchen. It lasted no more than a second before it disappeared again. Bizarre. There had to be some kind of pattern. Completely random was… well, there wasn't much he could with that.

Unless it was completely random on purpose. Then… then there still wasn't much he could do, at least until he figured out who or what was behind it to begin with.

"What evidence do we have, other than John's word, that what he has described is actually happening to him?"

"The bruises," Ronon answered.

"Carson?" Elizabeth asked, looking toward him.

Carson leaned forward, resting his elbows on the table. "It's a possibility. Some of the bruising could be explained from sparring or from simply falling down. The ones on his wrists and ankles are a little more troubling, however. They aren't very deep, but they are consistent with what you might see on someone who's been tied down. I suppose the nosebleeds could be also an effect of the abduction, but not necessarily."

"What else?"

There was a pause as the room considered the question. Rodney's mind raced. He believed Sheppard, and the idea of an alien abducting people at will terrified him, but he could see where Elizabeth was going with this. There wasn't a lot of physical evidence. The energy blip appeared and disappeared again, somewhere near the edge of the south pier.

"The bouncing energy signal could be related," Rodney said, "but that's more of a hunch on my part than anything else. Not that we should go around discounting my hunches, because more often than not, they end up being right and saving the city and everyone in it—"

"What can you tell us about the energy signal?" Elizabeth asked, and Rodney snapped his jaw shut. He always started to ramble when he got nervous, and he was nervous now because he really couldn't back up what he was saying.

"Um, not much," he answered, shrugging. "The energy signal appeared about the same time Sheppard started dreaming about alien abduction, less frequently at first but more and more often now. It's almost constant, showing up all over the city—inhabited and uninhabited parts of the city."

"It was there only a few moments before we found John unconscious in his room," Teyla piped up.

"Yeah, but it also appeared in a dozen other rooms over the next hour, and no one else reported any weird dreams or strange visitors in their rooms," Rodney returned. He could see already where this conversation was going and he didn't like it.

"Anything else?"

When no one said anything, Elizabeth took a deep breath, delaying the next question by sipping her coffee. Rodney resisted the urge to hurry her along, knowing this was where the meeting had basically been heading all along and wanting to get it over with as fast as possible.

"If the alien is not real, where does that leave us?" she finally asked.

Carson was the first one to speak up, though he shot a nervous glance in Ronon's direction before he started. "Either there is something physically wrong with him, or it's a product of…"

"A mental breakdown?" Rodney shot out, unable to hold himself back. He saw Carson wince but the doctor eventually nodded.

"Aye, possibly."

"No way," Ronon growled.

Teyla had her hand on Ronon's arm again, but it didn't look like it would be enough to stifle the impending Satedan eruption. Elizabeth was on the verge of standing up, like she might have to throw herself in front of Carson for his own protection. Rodney could feel his own anger and helplessness warring with each other. He knew on an intellectual level that what Carson was suggesting was valid, and that pissed him off all the more. Ronon was growling—a deep, guttural sound—and Rodney looked down at his computer tablet. For all their differences, Rodney saw eye-to-eye on Ronon with this one, and if the Satedan needed to go ape-man ballistic, he wasn't going to stop him.

Voices erupted around him, the calmer ones inciting even angrier responses, but even in the midst of the uproar, the tiny warning beep from his computer was jarring. Rodney sucked in a breath, his attention narrowing to the small screen. The mysterious energy signal was coming from right there, in the middle of the conference room.

"Huh," Rodney muttered, digging out the handheld scanner from his pocket. He'd calibrated it specifically to the bouncing signal in hopes that it would show up in the same room as him. He dropped to the floor, crawling toward where the signal was supposedly coming from.

"Uh, Rodney?" Elizabeth asked, and Rodney looked up to see everyone in the room staring down at him. The angry clamor of a minute before had suddenly ceased.

"Energy signal," he said to the now quiet room, pointing to the floor with the scanner. He looked back down at the readout, just in time to see it wink out. "Dammit."

Rodney crawled back under the table to his chair, sitting down with a sigh and tossing the scanner on the table. He looked up to see all eyes on him.

"What?" he snapped.

"Are you done?"

"The signal's gone anyway. Carry on." He waved his hand at the group, wondering why they'd stopped talking in the first place. Dammit, it had been right there. If he could just pinpoint what exactly that energy signal was latching onto, he'd be able to trace it back to its source.

There was a moment of silence as everyone in the room tried to re-gather. What had they been talking about again? Oh, right—Sheppard, nutso.

"As I was saying, I think we need to at least look at the possibility that this black alien is not real," Carson finally said again. "I'm not saying he's crazy or he's lost his mind or anything like that. There could be a number of physical reasons, like sickness, that might explain it."

"But none of the tests you've run show anything wrong with him," Elizabeth said.

"Aye, I know, which doesn't make sense. I can see with my own eyes that something is going on. As of last night, he's been running a low-grade fever, and yet the blood work and scans all come back completely normal."

"I've had that scanner examined!" Rodney burst out.

"Then maybe it's not physical," Kate piped up. "If there's no physical evidence of abduction and no evidence of illness or disease, then maybe it is mental. I don't want to believe it any more than the rest of you," she added quickly, "but it could be harmful to Colonel Sheppard if we don't pursue the possibility."

"And then what?" Teyla asked, who had remained fairly quiet throughout the entire meeting. "We cannot blame this on John simply because we cannot find another explanation."

"No one is saying this is John's fault," Kate said, though Ronon was shaking his head in disagreement, and Rodney had to admit, despite what anyone said, Sheppard would take it that way. He would think he'd failed everyone somehow, that he wasn't strong enough.

"What course of action does—" Elizabeth started, but was cut off by a frantic voice over the radio speakers in the room.

"Doctor Beckett, this is Melanie Stinson. Colonel Sheppard is gone."

"What do you mean, gone?" Carson asked, staring up at the ceiling.

Rodney grabbed his computer tablet, pulling up a map of the city. He should be able to get a location on each sub-q transmitter, although it would be helpful if those things transmitted particular, unique frequencies. He filed the thought away for another day—he'd have to work on a way to give each transmitter its own identifying frequency so it would be easier to find people.

"I was doing rounds and when I stopped by his bed, he was gone. I checked the bathrooms and the rest of the infirmary, and he's not here."

"Thank you, Melanie. We'll find him," Carson said. He stood up, as did Ronon and Teyla.

"Weir to Sheppard. Come in."

There was a collective holding of breath as they waited for a response, but the chance that he had a radio in the first place was slim. Had he been abducted again, right from under their noses? Rodney pulled up the last half hour's worth of readings on the bouncing energy signal, but all of the blips were in the main tower. Nowhere that Sheppard or some black alien wouldn't be quickly spotted.

"Colonel Sheppard, do you read me?" Elizabeth called again, fear tightening across her face. "John?"

So much for no physical evidence. The silence was all the motivation Ronon needed. He whipped out his blaster and ran from the room, though Rodney had no idea where he thought he would even start. Teyla followed him after waiting for Elizabeth's go-ahead. Rodney spun around, plugging his computer into the main network and pulling up the city plan on the large screen. He grimaced at the hundreds of dots that appeared all over Atlantis.

This might take awhile.

John's eyes snapped open and he found himself staring at a dark gray ceiling. He lay there for a moment trying to figure out where he was. The ceiling looked familiar, yet not familiar. It definitely wasn't the infirmary; he'd woken up to that ceiling way too many times recently.

A hallway. The memory came back, slowly. He'd woken up and had seen an iratus bug…no, that couldn't be right. There wouldn't be any iratus bugs on Atlantis—certainly not any roaming freely through the halls. He'd wandered through the halls, though, heading somewhere. He knew where, he just couldn't quite wrap his head around it. Toward one of the piers, maybe? He was definitely on Atlantis.

John breathed a sigh of relief. He was on Atlantis. He'd been walking, and then…

He lifted his head, suddenly curious as to why he was lying in the hall and not walking down it, and a wave of pain exploded in his head. White spots danced in front of his eyes and he felt nausea surge up. He rolled as quickly as he could, and just managed to get to his knees before he threw up all over the floor. When his stomach was done heaving, he managed to fall away from the pile of vomit before losing consciousness again.

He must have only been unconscious for a few seconds. The second time he opened his eyes, the throbbing pain in his head had not diminished. He felt the bile rising again, and only managed to not throw up by sheer willpower. He clenched his teeth, panting through the nausea and pain. This time he noticed a sharp, agonizing pain shooting up his left arm.

"Carson," John mumbled, reaching for the radio he almost always had in his ear. He closed his eyes against the waves of dizziness. His fingers fumbled for the small earpiece that should have been there and found nothing.


He lay there for a few more minutes. At least, he thought it was a few minutes.

Infirmary. I have to get to the infirmary.

He steeled himself and tried to prepare his battered body to sit up and save itself. He made it to his knees before he was overcome with nausea and threw up again. He gripped the side of the corridor wall and managed to hang onto consciousness this time, but the pain in his head, if anything, grew worse.

Infirmary. Pain. Beckett.

He used his right hand to drag himself upright then closed his eyes, swaying against the dizziness and nausea. Leaning heavily against the wall, he staggered down the hallway, fighting with all his strength to keep upright. He vaguely recalled a transporter along this corridor, but he couldn't remember exactly how far along it was. If he could make it to the transporter, he could go almost straight to the infirmary.

The journey was agonizing. John stumbled a few times, losing consciousness each time, waking up a few seconds later to find himself gagging and retching bile. Whatever he'd eaten the night before was long gone. He repeated the word infirmary in his mind over and over again, like a mantra. He had to make it to the infirmary.

Elizabeth watched as Zelenka joined Rodney at the computer and the two of them began scanning Atlantis for signs of the colonel. He had failed to respond to anyone's radio call, and no one had seen him in at least a couple of hours, based on the last time one of the medical personnel had checked him. Teyla and Ronon were back with Major Lorne, organizing the security teams to begin a systematic search.

Maybe she should have given more credence to this alien abduction theory. She shook her head at the thought, trying to stifle the worry that everyone in the room felt. Whatever had happened, they would find an explanation. She watched as Teyla, Ronon, and Lorne headed out to begin the search.

"Wait for me!" Rodney yelled. "I'm coming with you."

"What about the city scans?" Lorne asked.

"Radek can handle that. I'm coming with you," Rodney stated. He stared at Lorne as if daring him to not let Rodney join in the actual search.

"Fine. Let's go," Lorne shrugged his shoulders and headed out the door, Sheppard's team close on his heels.

When John reached the transporter, he almost missed it. He'd been focusing so hard on putting one foot in front of the other that he only barely noticed the slight indent in the opposite wall indicating a door.

Relief flowed through him. He stumbled into the transporter and punched the map with his finger, and he was immediately taken up to the transporter near the infirmary. Amazingly enough, he managed to hold onto consciousness for the short ride, but he could feel the nausea rising again. His arm hurt almost as much as his head, and his vision grayed in and out continuously.

He stumbled into the hallway. Only thirty more feet or so and he'd be at the infirmary. He pushed away from the wall and made it a few steps before sliding to his knees. Spots danced in front of his eyes and he felt himself falling forward.

No! Don't give up yet. Just a few more feet. The thought came to his mind suddenly, and with it a flash of anger at himself. He could do this. He could make it the last few feet. He gripped the wall with his right arm and began stumbling toward the infirmary doors. The hallway seemed to grow longer with every step he took. He stumbled again five feet later, gasping in pain, and realized he was leaning against a door.

Carson's lab. He sucked in a deep breath, closing his eyes when the hallway blurred and split into two. Close enough.

John opened the door, took two steps and crashed face first to the floor.

Carson stood in the middle of the infirmary watching his nurses work around him. They were all monitoring the search over the radio, waiting for any sign of Colonel Sheppard. Carson looked down at his watch. 7:37. They'd begun the search over two and a half hours earlier, calling for the colonel periodically with no response. Whatever was going on, Carson knew he'd have his hands full soon enough.

"Where are you, lad? Come on, answer us," he muttered. One of his nursed looked up at him.

"Jane, are we ready?"

The nurse nodded. They'd already been preparing, knowing that the longer it took for them to find the colonel the worse his situation probably was. Carson moved around the infirmary, ensuring everything was in order, but all they could do at this point was wait.

"I'll be in my lab. I'll continue to monitor the search, but call me right away if you need me."

"Yes, Doctor Beckett," she replied.

Carson walked out of the infirmary and down the hall toward his lab. He rubbed his eyes in frustration. The day had been progressing so quietly. John had finally fallen asleep that afternoon without any disrupting nightmares and had seemed to be resting peacefully despite the slight increase in his temperature. All off-world teams were home for the time being, the military or Ronon weren't running any training exercises, and as far as he knew, none of the scientists were in the middle of something spectacularly dangerous. Carson was sure he'd have a quiet day in the infirmary today.

About halfway to his lab, Rodney McKay's panicked voice sounded on the radio. "We found something."

Carson stopped, waiting for Rodney to continue and felt his gut clench in apprehension.

"There's a nasty, reeking pile of vomit in a side hall just off the main hall that leads to the west pier."

"Any sign of Colonel Sheppard?" Carson cut in.

"Um, yeah. That would be the nasty, reeking pile of vomit. Fresh vomit. Relatively speaking, anyway. I'm mean I'm pretty sure it's not 10,000 years old."

"Any idea how old it is?" Carson asked.

"Are you kidding me? What am I, a Mountie? Do you want me crawl around on the ground and sniff it? Of all the—"

"There's more vomit," Ronon's voice cut off Rodney's. "It looks like he went this way, back toward the city."

"What makes you think he's going in that direction? I don't see any arrows."

"Footprints. Stop talking."

"Major Lorne, are you following this?" Elizabeth suddenly sounded on the radio.

"Yes, ma'am. I'm coordinating the search teams right now. We'll concentrate on that area."

"Dr. Weir, Major Lorne," Zelenka's unmistakable voice piped up, "I have a scanner working in that area. I am not detecting any single life signs. Life signs are only in groups."

"Meaning only the search teams?" Elizabeth asked. Carson could hear the disappointment in her voice.

"Yes. But perhaps Colonel Sheppard went to the transporter. There is one in the hallway, back towards the city from where Ronon, Teyla, and Rodney are standing," Zelenka said, hopefully.

"We're on our way," Rodney said, and signed out of the conversation.

Carson shook his head. Sheppard was obviously in bad shape. He stood in the hallway, contemplating going back to the main part of the infirmary, but then forced his legs to take him to his lab. He had no idea how long it would take to find Colonel Sheppard, and he'd be of no use sitting around the infirmary pestering his nurses until the emergency finally hit. He waved his hand in front of the lab's door and stepped inside.

Then froze in shock at the scene before him.

It took him a few seconds to snap into action, but he finally staggered in and dropped to the floor next to the unconscious, face-down form of John Sheppard. He reached out with a shaking hand to take the man's pulse.

"Get a grip, man," he chastised himself. He took a deep breath and steadied his hand and his mind. He felt for John's pulse, found it quickly, and breathed a sigh of relief. He stood up and stepped into the hallway.

"Jane, Melanie, David!" Carson yelled at the top of his lungs. Two of the three nurses popped their heads out of the infirmary door.

"Colonel Sheppard is in my lab. Grab the emergency kit and get down here." The two heads popped back into the infirmary and Carson turned back into his lab. He knelt next to John's prone figure.

"John? Can you hear me, son?" Carson said, kneeling by the prone form and getting no response. Carson bent forward to check John's breathing. His brow creased in concern at the heavy panting he could hear as John tried to pull in oxygen. At that moment, the nurses came in with the emergency gear, a backboard, a neck brace, and a gurney.

Carson ignored the sudden commotion around him, concentration solely on his patient. He felt the back of John's head, then the sides, and noted the large welt that had formed just above his left ear. It was warm and sticky, and when he pulled his fingers away, his hand was covered in blood.

"All right, let's turn him over. David, keep his head and neck steady."

The nurses jumped into action, bracing John's neck and securing him to the backboard. They carefully turned him over and Carson began checking vital signs, barking out orders. The deep gash across the left side of his head was bleeding heavily, and Carson mentally tried to calculate how much blood he'd lost. It covered his face and neck, soaked into the top part of his t-shirt, and had pooled on the ground where he'd laid for who knew how long.

"Nonresponsive, shallow breathing…" he muttered as he went through his checks. "Jane, oxygen," he ordered and Jane immediately put the oxygen mask over John's face. Carson noted the discoloration and swelling around Sheppard's left wrist.

"Let's get him up to the infirmary. Watch that left arm. I think it may be broken. Melanie, contact Dr. Weir and let her know we found Colonel Sheppard. I'll contact her as soon as I can." Melanie nodded and walked toward the wall radio near the door. "Oh, and have her send a security team down here right away." Carson added as they secured John to the gurney and began to wheel it away.

"A security team, Dr. Beckett?" the young woman asked.

"Yes. Colonel Sheppard was attacked."

Chapter 11

Ronon watched McKay pace back and forth in front of him. Weir and Teyla sat nearby, lost in their thoughts. Ronon fought the urge to join McKay, or to run screaming through the halls, or even to dive into the mess of people surrounding Sheppard's bed.

He glanced toward the far side of the infirmary. He could see Beckett moving around the bed working on Sheppard, but no one had any idea what his condition was or how badly he was hurt, and it was driving all of them crazy.

"Rodney, sit down for a minute. You're making me tense," Weir said.

"You're not tense already?" McKay snapped back, jerking around. Weir raised her eyebrow, staring at him until he dropped into the chair across from her.

Teyla moved to sit next to him, putting her hand on his arm. Ronon assumed at first that it was meant to reassure the physicist, but one glance at her face and he wasn't so sure. Ronon pushed away from the wall, rolling out rigid muscles. He needed to know that Sheppard was okay, but he also needed to know what had happened, to find the one responsible. There was no way anyone could say the whole black alien thing was just in Sheppard's head now.

The call from the nurse saying Sheppard had been found had caused him to sag in relief, but the request for a security team and the statement that he had been attacked cranked the tension back up immediately. Ronon had almost expected him to be hurt, especially after what had happened in the last few days, but hearing that he had in fact been attacked had still been difficult to swallow. They were on Atlantis, and while Ronon had tried to not let that fact lower his guard, he realized he'd given into it at least a little bit.

Major Lorne had immediately changed the search for Sheppard into a hunt for an attacker, but so far had come up with nothing. The problem was the attack could have taken place hours ago, and the attacker long gone. And that was assuming the attack had even taken place on Atlantis. If this alien had a ship somewhere…

There were too many questions, too many variables. He shook his head, slamming his fist into the wall and ignoring the stares from Weir and his teammates. Teyla looked like she was about to say something, but Beckett's sudden approach jerked everyone around. All four of them gathered around the Scottish doctor, and Ronon felt a lump of dread at the thought of hearing what he had been, until a few seconds ago, unable to wait to find out.

"What happened to him, Carson? How is he?" McKay burst out before Beckett had a chance to open his mouth.

The doctor held up his hands to stop the impending barrage of questions. Ronon watched the doctor's face, searching for the answers and preparing to hear the worst, but he caught McKay biting his lip to stop the flow of words forever on the verge of flooding out.

"He's alive, but he's in serious condition right now. He has a head injury that bled profusely before we found him. My concern right now is the seriousness of it—I would say it's at best a concussion, at worst something as serious as an intracranial hemorrhage. We're getting ready to put him under the scanner now to check for both that and any spinal injuries."

"Spinal injuries?" McKay repeated, his voice high with fear.

"Aye. He took a blow to the side of the head. We've got to assume there are neck injuries in addition to the head injury. "

"Was he conscious at all? Were you able to talk to him?" Weir asked.

"No, I'm sorry. He was unconscious the whole time. It might be awhile before he wakes up."

"But he will wake up, right?"

Ronon glanced at McKay, feeling his throat close at the scientist's question. That hadn't occurred to him. He looked back at Beckett and noticed the man's hesitation before answering.

"We're doing everything we can for him. I'll notify you, all of you, as soon as anything changes."

"When he does wake up," Weir said, and Ronon heard the emphasis on the word when, "we need to find out if he remembers who or what attacked him."

"That we do, but don't be surprised if he can't remember any part of this attack."

Ronon nodded, realizing that the likelihood that Sheppard would remember any of this was slim to none. "Can we see him?" he asked.

Beckett shook his head. "Not yet, I'm afraid. Give us a few hours to get him settled. I promise, I'll call you as soon as you can go in."

The others nodded. Weir was the first to file out of the infirmary, followed by Teyla. Ronon was about to leave when he saw McKay standing with his arms crossed and his chin jutting out. He knew that look, and if McKay managed to bully his way past, maybe he could too.

"Och, don't you look at me that way. I was going to ask you to stay anyway."

"You were?" McKay's arms dropped to his sides in surprise, and Ronon stepped forward.

"I know you sent a team of engineers to look over that scanner, but I don't trust what it's been telling me. I want you there, watching the machine while we run the scan. If there's anything even the slightest bit off, I need to know. I need to know what's going with John."

McKay nodded, breezing past the doctor without another glance and heading straight for the scanner. Ronon watched him go and for a moment, he found himself envious of the scientist.

"Sorry, Ronon—I can't let you in just yet."

"I know, doc," Ronon sighed, fighting the urge to make his stand the way McKay had been about to. He knew he'd be in the way, though, and that Beckett needed to focus his attention on Sheppard, but he still couldn't help the flood of disappointment that ran through him. He could see Sheppard's gurney moving toward the scanner, but Sheppard himself was lost behind a mass of people and equipment.

"I'll be back," he said, then spun on his heel and darted out of the infirmary.

Carson stood over John, watching the heart monitor and listening to the man's slow steady breaths. While his immediate condition was still serious, it could have been much worse, and Carson was grateful for that small bit of good news. The blow to the head had been a glancing one, looking worse than it actually was. He'd lost a fair amount of blood, but that was currently being replenished. The least serious injury looked the worse, and the worst had gone unnoticed.

John's continued unconsciousness had more to do with his condition prior to the attack, and it was that previous condition that was the bad news, more so than any of them had realized. In retrospect, Carson had known ever since the first nosebleed that something was off. That something was wrong. He still had no idea why the scanner hadn't shown anything sooner. He sat down on the lone chair next to the bed, watching John's pale face and mentally running through a checklist of everything he had done or could still do for his patient.

It had been over six hours since he'd found him in his lab, and he was still unconscious. The longer he was unconscious, the more worried Carson was becoming, and yet it delayed a conversation he did not want to have. If John didn't wake up soon, he'd have to deal with the other condition, the one the head injury and resultant scan had finally revealed, without talking to John first. At the very least, he'd have to talk to Elizabeth and John's team.

How much is one man expected to deal with?

"I'm sorry, Dr. Beckett. I thought you might want a cup of tea," a nurse said, coming up behind him with a mug in her hand. He jumped in surprise, then smiled sheepishly as he took the tea. It had to be close to two o'clock in the morning now.

"Thank you, Ellen. I didn't hear you come up behind me."

She smiled at him then walked quietly back to her station. Carson sat back in the chair and sipped at his drink for a few minutes, unable to not watch John sleep. The bruising around his mouth was almost invisible compared to the ugly black and blue bleeding from under the thick white bandage wrapped around his head. The bruise encompassed his eye and half his forehead, disappearing into his hairline. His neck was encased in a brace, supporting muscles that would be sore for days, if not weeks.

Rodney had monitored the Ancient scanner as they'd examined John, resetting the machine then running the data through his own computer pad first. Carson was sure the physicist hadn't caught what Carson had seen right away—a mass deep behind John's mouth and nose, near the sphenoid sinus cavities. Much, much too close to his brain.

By some miracle, he'd managed to school his reaction, keeping his face neutral. As soon as the scan was over, he'd chased Rodney out. The expression on the faces of the nurses in attendance let him know that they'd seen the mass as well, but they'd stayed quiet, following Carson's lead.

In the hours since, he'd studied the test results, and John's symptoms and behavior began to click into place. The nosebleeds. The constant headaches. The dizziness and double vision. Even the hallucinations of the black alien could be explained by the presence of a brain tumor.

How the hell was he supposed to tell this to John? To his friend? He'd been a doctor for a long time, and delivering bad news came with the territory. Some days, with some people, it was easier. With John, he knew it would be one of the most difficult conversations he'd had with a patient.

He was still sitting by the bed, lost in thought, when the rhythm of the heart monitor changed slightly. He jumped up immediately, bending over John's limp form.

"Come on, lad, wake up for me," Carson muttered. He noticed John's eyes moving rapidly beneath the closed lids, struggling to flutter open. John's breathing increased as well, coming out in quick, pained gasps.

"Colonel, can you hear me?" Carson asked, loud but distinct. He watched as the man continued to struggle. "Come on, son, open your eyes. Wake up, John," he coaxed.

When John finally did manage to peel his eyes open, he lay still on the bed and stared up at the ceiling, seemingly oblivious to Carson standing next to him trying to get him to look at him. He blinked a few times, then slowly began to close his eyes again.

"Not yet, lad. Look at me," Carson commanded.

John shifted his eyes slightly toward the doctor. Carson winced at the glassy, unfocused look. John's lips opened and closed, but Carson held up a finger. "Ssshhh. Don't try to speak just yet. Give yourself a chance to catch your bearings."

John's eyes widened farther, confusion warring across his features. Carson grabbed his right hand and squeezed gently. John suddenly groaned, squeezing his eyes tight, and beads of sweat broke out across his forehead.

"Hold on, son. Just stay with me for another minute," Carson said, gripping his shoulder. He watched as John breathed deeply, pleased when his racing heartbeat slowly dropped into a more normal range.

"Wh…wh't…" John breathed out, barely audible.

"What's the last thing you remember?"

John closed his eyes in concentration and Carson waited.



John started to nod despite the brace on his neck, then froze with a groan. His face had already been pale, but it went ashen at the movement. Carson kept one hand on John's arm but moved toward the nightstand where a tray of syringes had been left, grabbing one of them with his other hand. He injected the medicine quickly and nodded when John's demeanor relaxed.

"Stay with me, Colonel," he called out when John's eyes began to flutter closed.

John moaned in response but made a concerted effort to open his eyes again.

"You remember a bug?"

"Yeah," John whispered. "I-iratus. How…poss'ble?"

"I have no idea. Do you remember how you were hurt?"

"…mmm…nn-no…wh'ttt…team? Okay?"

"Your team's fine, John. You were alone when you were hurt." John's eyes had slid closed at the mention of his team, and Carson could see it was only going to be a matter of seconds before the man lost his battle against consciousness. "Get some rest. We'll talk more later."

John relaxed into sleep, the twitching muscles in his face growing still again. Carson watched the man's stats settle back down then pulled out the chart to update it. They'd have to wake him every couple of hours for the next day or so, but it would be hours before he was awake long enough to be completely coherent, and coherent enough to have the conversation Carson needed to have with him.

He left John's side and checked in with the nursing desk, then headed to his office. John's team was John's family, and he'd left written orders giving them the ability to make medical decisions on his behalf if he was incapable of doing so. He sat down at his desk, resting his head in his hands. He'd have to call John's team in first thing in the morning. He couldn't delay this for too long, and John would need all the support he could get in the next few weeks.

Elizabeth was the last to arrive at Carson's office early the following morning, and she forced herself to slow down as she walked through the door. She could feel a cold vise gripping her heart, and she took a deep breath. She glanced at John's teammates and nodded, seeing open concern on all of their faces.

"Is he awake?" she asked. Carson waved her to a chair, and she grabbed a seat between Teyla and Rodney. Ronon stood behind them, his large figure jammed into the corner of the room.

"He woke up last night, briefly," Carson began. She watched the doctor's face closely. She'd worked with Carson long enough to know something was up. Something not good.

"So he's okay?" Rodney asked.

"He has a concussion—not as bad as I expected but it will make him feel rotten enough for the next few weeks. He's also got a badly bruised face, a gash along the side of his head that we had to stitch up, and a broken wrist. We're going to have to wake him up periodically for the next day or two, but for now he's resting quietly," he said, then paused.

There was more. Elizabeth could see it in the doctor's entire demeanor. Why had he called them all down here? The tension in the room was thick, no one daring to move or make a sound, as if that would shatter the illusion that there was nothing else wrong.

"I don't know why John's scans over the last few weeks continued to show that there was nothing wrong with him," Carson picked up again, managing to keep his face expressionless, which only caused all kinds of alarm bells to go off in Elizabeth's head. "With Rodney watching the machine this afternoon, I believe we got an accurate picture of his current state of health and possibly an explanation to what has been ailing him."

"What did you find?" Elizabeth whispered, feeling her throat tighten.

Carson took a deep breath, meeting her eyes briefly, then plowed forward. "We found a mass. It appears to be in the sphenoid sinus cavities, though it has somehow broken through the bone into the nasal passage. Our concern right now is that it has grown backward into the brain as well."

"A mass?" Rodney squeaked out.

Elizabeth's heart was pounding in her chest, the sound threatening to block out all else. She felt her face flush with sudden heat, and she forced herself to take a deep breath. Calm down—she needed to calm down.

"What about John? Will he be alright?" Teyla asked. Elizabeth glanced over at the Athosian woman. Behind her, Ronon had gone still, his face pale. She sometimes forgot that Sateda had been more advanced than a lot of the planets they came across. Ronon seemed to know exactly what Carson was talking about.

"These types of tumors in that area are generally benign. The chances of it being cancerous are slim but we won't know for sure until we do a biopsy."

"When will you do that?" Elizabeth asked at the same time that Teyla leaned forward in her chair.

"What is a biopsy?" the other woman asked.

"We'll go in, surgically, and take a small sample of the tumor to test it," Carson said, answering Teyla's question first. "We'll have to wait a few days until John's a bit stronger to do it, but from there, we'll decide on treatment options depending on whether it is benign or malignant. Most likely, we'll be able to remove it completely through surgery, but John might have to undergo radiation and/or chemotherapy afterward."

"Oh, God," Rodney muttered, hunching forward in his chair and burying his face in his hands.

"What about the black alien?" Ronon asked, though his voice was quiet, almost tentative. Elizabeth wasn't sure she'd ever heard that from the Satedan.

"The nosebleeds, fatigue, and headaches can clearly be attributed to John's current condition. Tumors or masses in that location generally cause those types of symptoms. The black alien may be part of it—given its proximity to his brain, it is possible that it has been causing hallucinations, both auditory and visual."

"But he was attacked. The bruises—" Ronon started, but Carson raised a hand, cutting him off.

"I'm not saying it explains everything perfectly, but if the tumor has reached the pituitary gland and affected his hormone levels—depending on which hormones we're talking about—that can cause easy bruising and a weakening of the bones leading to easy breaks. As for the attack, it's possible he fell and hit the side of his head on something. I'm not saying we should stop looking for an attacker, but…"

"Back to square one—was he attacked or not? Is there an alien or is it all in his head?" Rodney said so quietly Elizabeth almost didn't hear him. "How can we help him if we don't know what's going on?"

"I'm still waiting on the results for the hormone levels, and the scan was a little…fuzzy…around the mass. I couldn't get a clear idea of exactly how big it is and how far it reached."

"Fuzzy?" the scientist repeated, narrowing his eyes.

Carson shrugged. "I can't explain it. Something is interfering with the scanner's ability to accurately measure the size of the mass. I'm just glad it picked it up at all. Maybe now we can do something about it."

Everyone sat back, digesting the information. Elizabeth felt a deep sadness come over her, followed by a flash of anger. Of all the things they had gone through—of all the things John had done for them, had sacrificed for the safety of this city—to be taken down by a disease…

"You all need to understand that despite the seriousness of this, there is hope. A lot of hope," Carson said. Elizabeth jerked up in response, wondering if the doctor was talking directly to her. She looked up at him and he smiled gently, but his gaze encompassed all of them.

"I have full confidence that John will get through this," he continued, "but this is not going to be easy for him. He's going to need all of our support and understanding and encouragement."

"He does not know yet?" Teyla asked.

Carson shook his head. "Not yet. I'll talk to him tomorrow sometime, or maybe the next day, after he's had a chance to recover a little from the blow to his head. I've talked to Kate already as well, so if any of you need to talk to her about what you're feeling, or about how John might react and what you can do to help, she said her door is always open—day or night."

They sat in silence for another moment, but Carson had no more information to give them. Ronon left first, heading straight for John. Elizabeth could just see John's still form lying in the bed. Ronon leaned over the bed, whispering something into the sleeping man's ear then straightened abruptly and took off, almost running a passing nurse over. Teyla moved next, also going to John's side but pulling a chair up and sitting down.

"You said the scan was fuzzy?" Rodney said, and Elizabeth started in surprise, forgetting the physicist was still there. She turned around, dragging her attention back to the two men still in the office.

"I have no idea why," Carson said, blowing out a frustrated breath. "It makes no sense—almost as if something in or around the tumor itself is throwing off the readings, but I can't think of what that might be. It might explain why we didn't pick this up in earlier scans—maybe now it's finally big enough to detect despite the effect it's having on the equipment."

"Weird," Rodney mumbled, his eyes distant. He stood up slowly, stretching out his back. "I'll take another look at the scanner…" he wandered out of the office, his gaze lingering on John and Teyla as he headed for the scanner bed.

Elizabeth watched him go, her mind drifting. Emotions churned inside her to the point where she was starting to feel physically sick. She had to get a grip—she had to be focused—particularly if she was going to help John.


She turned around, trying and failing to smile up at Carson. She bit her lip, fighting back the sudden urge to cry. Why John? Why now?

"I know this is a lot to take in," the doctor said, sitting down next to her. He grabbed her hands and waited until she was looking at him. "You've got to believe that he'll be fine. We can treat this. And it's much better than the alternative."

"What alternative?"

"That John's black alien actually exists. I'd much rather fight this than an unknown alien who has somehow managed to elude all of our attempts to track it down, and who has the ability to get around our security, sneak into John's room, and steal him away."

Elizabeth nodded, finally managing to smile a little bit. "Well, when you put it that way…"

"We can do this," Carson said again, his voice confident and his hands warm and strong in hers. "John can do this."

Chapter 12

John woke up alone, vague memories of people prodding him and asking him inane questions floating through his mind. He stared at the ceiling for a moment, recognizing the infirmary, though it seemed hazy and out of focus. The sun was setting, throwing shadows across the walls. Pain in his head and arm began to throb, and he suddenly felt hot and nauseous. What the hell? He clenched his teeth, willing his stomach to settle down.

He felt more than saw movement off to his right, but he didn't dare move his head. He could feel something pressing into his collarbone and jaw simultaneously. A blurry head suddenly appeared above him, and he blinked to bring the man's face into focus.


"D-doc?" John whispered, recognizing Carson's voice.

"Yes, I'm right here. Are you in pain?"

"Head…ah…arm," John forced the words through his still clenched teeth, "…feel sick."

"Aye, I'll get you something for that."

Carson didn't leave but John heard feet coming from some other direction toward them, a nurse maybe. A second later, Carson was fiddling with the IV in his hand and he waited for the medicine to kick in. He closed his eyes, forcing himself to breathe slowly. It took a few minutes, but the pain in his head and arm ebbed back a little. It was still there, but not quite so agonizing that it took all of John's attention and energy to deal with it.

He opened his eyes, saw the doctor clearly for a split second before his image blurred and split.


"Is that better, son?"

"…l'ttle…" John swallowed, blinked his eyes a few times. "You…you're…all blurry."

"Am I?" John could hear the concern in Carson voice. "Tell me how many fingers."

John saw the blur of movement and assumed it was Carson's hand. He squeezed his eyes shut tight, then opened them again, trying to bring his world back into focus. Carson waved his hand in front of John's face. John groaned, feeling the nausea beginning to creep back up.

"Can you follow my finger with your eyes?" Carson asked, and he began to move his hand slowly back and forth across John's vision.

John tried to follow, but after a few seconds he had to close his eyes. He gripped the side of the bed with his good hand, trying to ground himself. It felt like the entire city of Atlantis was sloshing around like a raft in a hurricane. He clenched his teeth, desperate not to throw up, knowing the pain that would burst in his head if he gave in to it.

He felt something press against his face, and he flashed on the black alien. His eyes flew open and he threw his arm out, crying out at the radiating pain in his left one. Carson reappeared, in focus this time, surprise stamped across his features. He held an oxygen mask in one hand, which he'd pulled back when John had panicked.

John forced himself to relax, letting Carson strap the mask over his face. He gulped in the air, grateful when it did seem to help, and hardly noticed the doctor raising the back of the bed. The pain ebbed, and the sloshing, spinning world settled down.

"Better?" the doctor asked.

"Yeah," John said, his voice muffled behind the mask. He remembered being in the infirmary before, after the black alien had kidnapped him from the far edge of the city, but he felt worse now. Had the alien returned? Had something else happened to him?

"What happened?" he asked, pulling the mask away from his face. Carson took it out of his hands and held a glass of water to his lips.

"Sip slowly," the doctor encouraged.

John did, and the cool water soaked into his dry mouth. It tasted good, but he felt his stomach flip as he swallowed another mouthful and he pulled his lips away, pressing a hand into his gut.

"Doc?" he said again, pinning Carson with a stare. The man was nervous, fidgeting around John. He always tended to mother-hen him, but this time John could tell something else was going on.

"What do you remember?"

John blinked. He remembered…he remembered being here in the infirmary, talking to Teyla. He'd felt tired and washed out, but nothing like this. He lifted his left arm and stared at the cast in confusion, then fingered the brace around his neck with the other hand.

"I… I don't…" he stumbled, hearing his heart rate beginning to pound on one of the myriad of monitors around him. The thumping in his head wasn't making it easier to think clearly either. "The alien… did it come back? What did it do?"

"Deep breaths, John. You need to stay calm."

Carson had pulled up a chair and was staring at him with way more worry and concern than he usually did. Whatever was going on was bad news. Very bad news. John let himself lean back into the bed and realized his head was wrapped in gauze. The pain seemed to be centered on one side of his head.

"Last thing I remember," John ground out, breathless, "was being here. Ate dinner, got tired early. Think I fell asleep."

"Do you remember the iratus bug?"

"What?" he cried out. He jerked up in the bed, scanning the room for a second before his body revolted at the movement. Pain shot through his head and neck, and he collapsed back down, panting against the agony. He could feel sweat breaking out on his face and chest, and his stomach churned.

"Whoa, easy, lad. I'm sorry," Carson said. "There's no bug, at least as far as I know."

"Then… then why…" John panted.

"The last time we talked, you said you'd seen an Iratus bug here in the infirmary."

"Don't remember."

"I'm not surprised. I didn't mean to startle you like that."

"Hate those bugs," John mumbled, closing his eyes.

"I know," the doctor answered quietly.

John could hear him fidgeting in the chair and he shifted his eyes toward the doctor, attempting to look at him without moving his head. "What's wrong with me?"

Carson sighed, worry and fear screaming from his face. "You've got a nasty gash in the side of your head and a concussion to go with it. You've strained the muscles in your neck as well. We stitched your head up but you lost a fair amount of blood. And you've broken your left wrist."


"We're not sure, exactly. You managed to slip out of the infirmary. From what we can tell, you headed down toward the west pier. You either fell and hit your head or you were attacked. You managed to get back to the infirmary on your own, but you've been mostly unconscious since it happened."


"Yesterday evening. Not quite 24 hours ago."

"The alien… did it…? Did Rodney find…?"

"John," Carson started then stopped.

John glanced over and saw the doctor lean forward in his chair. Carson was trying to look confident or optimistic or something, trying to bury the fear and anxiety of a moment earlier behind a neutral façade. Ah, crap.

"Carson, just tell me," John said quietly.

"We ran another scan."

"You found something."

"Yes, I'm sorry. John—we found a tumor in your sphenoid…in the sinus cavities at the back of your nasal passage."

John's heart was starting to pound again. He could almost hear it thumping wildly in the echoing space of his chest. He grabbed the railing of the bed with his right hand, hoping the cold metal would ground him.

Tumor. Of all the things to bring him down…


"What… I mean, how bad…" he tried to force the question out, but his throat was closing in on him, and he heard a hollow rushing sound in his ears. Pull yourself together, John, he chided.

"We won't know for sure until we do a biopsy, though the chances of it being benign are very high. It explains the nosebleeds, headaches, fatigue, dizziness, maybe even the black alien."

"How?" he whispered.

"The tumor is close to your brain. It's possible that the black alien you've been seeing has actually been a hallucination."

"But I felt it…"

"Depending on how much of your brain has been affected, the alien could look and sound and feel very real."

John blinked, numb. His head and neck were still pounding and his stomach was twisting itself in knots, but he pushed it all to the side. A tumor. Were they going to send him back to Earth? Discharge him? Would he be able to continue his job as commander of Atlantis?

"I know this is a lot to take in at once. If you have any questions for me, at any time, I'm happy to try to explain as much of this as possible. You've got to understand that I am fully confident that you can recover from this and go back to living your life as normally as before."

John swallowed, unable to bring himself to look up at the doctor. He knew Carson was trying to encourage him, to make him feel better after dropping the mother of all bombshells on him, but it was too much at the moment. He was tired and in pain and he needed to be alone. He needed to process this and he didn't need an audience for that. He finally looked up at the doctor.

"I just… I need some time, to think."

"Of course, lad. I understand."

"Does my team…?"

Carson was already nodding. "They know—I wasn't sure if I'd be able to talk to you before doing the biopsy, and—"

"No, it's okay," John interrupted. At least he wouldn't have to tell them, or watch them find out from Carson. It was easier this way, actually. "When, uh…when are you going to do the biopsy thing?"

Carson sighed, scratching the side of his head. "I'd like to do it tomorrow. It's a fairly minor operation, but if you're not feeling up to it yet, we can delay another day, maybe two."

John shook his head, wincing at the flash of pain through his neck. His stomach was starting to clench as well, but he wasn't sure if it was from pain or the news Carson had just dropped on him. He swallowed and forced himself to look back at the doctor. "No, tomorrow's good."

Carson nodded, standing up as he patted John on the shoulder. "You're looking a little paler than you were a minute ago."

"Feel a little sick," John whispered.

The doctor turned away and John listened to the small clicks and hums of late afternoon in the infirmary as a thousand thoughts raced through his mind. A moment later, Carson returned, injecting something into his IV. He could feel the drug race up his arm, leaving a numbing drowsiness in its wake.

"Try to get some rest," Carson whispered, pulling the blanket up around John's shoulders. "I'm afraid I can't give you anything to eat if we're going to do the surgery tomorrow morning…"

"Not hungry," John murmured. He blinked, watching the doctor and the infirmary around him slowly lose its focus. The cold dread and fear twisting through his insides faded as well, and he almost sighed in relief. He wanted to feel nothing at the moment, and he gave in easily to the medication pulling him into sleep.

Teyla arrived at the infirmary early the following morning, and was humming quietly to herself when she sensed more than heard John shift restlessly in the bed. She looked up, half expecting him to be caught in the throes of a nightmare, but instead he groaned, his eyes fluttering.

"John?" she whispered.

He opened his eyes briefly, then immediately shut them again, and groaned louder. His face was a rainbow of blues and greens and purples, the white bandages hiding most of the swelling on the side of his head. He attempted to roll over, flapping one arm over his chest, then groaned again when that pulled at the muscles in his neck. His arm grabbed at the brace, and a sheen of sweat broke out over his face.

Teyla reached above him, dimming the light over the bed. "I have turned the lights down," she whispered, acutely aware of the frown that creased his brow when she spoke.

She thought she saw his eyes shift under his eyelids toward her at the sound of her voice, but he didn't move his head. "Teyla?" he mumbled.

"Yes." She grabbed his hand, squeezing it, and watched as he carefully let his eyes slide open halfway. "How are you feeling this morning?"

He shrugged, wincing again. "Headache. Neck hurts."

"Do you need me to get Carson?"

"No, not yet," he answered. "You okay?" He opened his eyes fully, and she stood so he could look at her without moving. He reached for the bed controls blindly, and smiled slightly when Teyla grabbed it and put it in his hand.

"I am fine," she said.

"Rodney, Ronon?" he asked, raising the bed until he could look around the infirmary without straining his neck.

She sat back down in the chair. "They are fine, John. Just worried about you."

"Good, that's good."

They were interrupted by a nurse, who checked John over then wrote something down in the chart at the end of the bed. "Doctor Beckett will be over to talk to you in a few minutes," she said. She pulled out a syringe and injected it into the IV port in his arm. "This will help you relax. Won't be long now."

John blinked in acknowledgement, staring up at the ceiling. The lines of tension in his face began to ease as the medication kicked in.


"Hmmm?" he asked.

"What is happening?" She glanced around the infirmary, seeing many more people and movement than normal for that hour. More than one nurse glanced over at them.

"Biopsy," John answered. "Gonna take a piece out of that thing in my head."

"So soon?" She remembered Carson talking about the procedure, but she'd had no idea that he was planning it for this morning.

John nodded. "Yeah, talked to him last night and this morning. Need to get this over with."

His mask of nonchalance slipped just a little bit, and she saw fear and uncertainty building behind his eyes. She grabbed his arm, taking a steadying breath. This is what Carson had meant when he'd said John would need them to get through this. She reached for his hand, rubbing his palm with her thumb. "Would you like me to leave?"

John paused, considering, then wrapped his hand over hers with a slight shake of his head. "No," he choked out. "Maybe if you could… just for a little while…"

"I will stay," she answered.

John nodded, or tried to given the restrictions of the neck brace, looking relieved. He closed his eyes, wriggling in the bed a little as he tried to make himself comfortable. Teyla could hear his heart beating on the monitor above his head, its steady pace slowing as the nurse's medication flowed through his veins.

Just when she thought he had drifted back to sleep, he jerked suddenly, his eyes flying open.

"What is wrong?"

"Rodney and Ronon—I haven't talked to either of them since… since all this…" he waved his hand, encompassing himself and the infirmary. "Should I… um… before…" He bit his lip, cutting himself off, a rush of pink giving his face some welcome color.

"Do not concern yourself with this, John," Teyla said, carefully wrapping his uninjured hand in both of hers. "I will let them know, if you'd like."

John relaxed instantly, though that might have had more to do with whatever the nurse had given him. He breathed out a thanks, tightening his grip on her hand. From across the infirmary, Carson appeared, heading directly for them.

"Colonel? How are you feeling this morning?" he asked. He scanned the monitors displaying John's vitals before looking down at John and Teyla and smiling.

"Ready to get this over with," John mumbled.

"I imagine you are." The doctor turned around, signaling to a crew of people behind him. "Let's get started, shall we?"

"Good luck, John," Teyla whispered, standing up and pressing her forehead to his. A moment later, the bed was moved away from the wall and John and his medical entourage disappeared into the surgery bay.

There was no reason for her to stay in the infirmary. John could be in surgery for hours, and after that, he'd be moved to a recovery area. She stood up, stretching her lower back. She imagined that Rodney and Ronon, like her, had not known the biopsy surgery would happen so quickly. She glanced at her watch and realized they would probably both be in the mess hall for breakfast by now, and she made her way toward them.

Hours later, the three of them sat in the small waiting area. Attempts at conversation had long since died out, and they'd all resigned themselves to sitting quietly, lost in their own thoughts. Rodney looked exhausted, like he'd hardly slept the night before, while Ronon looked restless.

She'd managed to sleep a little, but it had taken hours for her mind to settle, and even then she'd woken up sporadically throughout the night thinking of John. Her other two teammates were just as worried and she had no doubt they'd probably spent their night much the same way.

Rodney glanced at his watch and sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose.

"What is it?" Ronon asked.

"It's been over four hours now. That surgery usually only takes about three."

"Perhaps we could ask someone for information," Teyla said.

Ronon jumped up immediately. "I'll go."

He disappeared through the infirmary doors and Teyla leaned back in her chair. She was feeling as fidgety as Rodney and she needed to find some calm in this situation. She would do well to meditate later on in the day, after John's surgery.

Ronon burst back through the doors, much too soon. He couldn't have been gone for more than thirty seconds.

"Ronon—" she started, then stopped at Carson's appearance behind her. Her heart caught in her throat at the stricken look on the doctor's face.

Rodney jumped to his feet, and Teyla scrambled to hers.

"Carson?" Rodney asked, his voice breaking. "Sheppard… is he…?"

"He's fine," the doctor answered, waving them back to their seats. He signaled them to lean forward, and he glanced around to make sure they were alone.

"Carson?" Teyla prompted.

The doctor rubbed a hand over his face. "This doesn't get out to anyone, do you hear? I just called Elizabeth so she should be arriving any minute."

"John's tumor, was it—" Teyla started but Carson cut her off.

"It wasn't a tumor. Bloody hell, I think the lad was right."

"What do you mean it wasn't a tumor?" Rodney sputtered, then glanced around in fear when Carson suddenly shushed him. "What the hell is going on?"

"We went in, and everything was normal at first. The so-called tumor was bloody easy to spot. No wonder John's nose kept bleeding. I went to grab a small sample of it for testing when I saw… when I pulled…" He shook his head.

"What?" Ronon hissed.

Carson dug into pocket, pulling out a small, clear container. Inside was a thin, metallic cylinder covered in minute wires.

"What is that?"

"This was in John. It was encased by some odd tissue that I'm having tested right now. I only saw this after a piece of the tissue broke away. John's tumor—that mass—was this thing."

"Is it active?" Rodney squeaked.

"How the bloody hell should I know?" Carson whispered back. "I don't know what this is."

Teyla felt her breath catch in her throat, remember the first dream John had told them about—the one with the black alien implanting something into his brain through his nose. Cold dread wrapped around her stomach, digging its claws into the very core of her being.

"John was right," Ronon said, and even he looked shaken.

Carson could only nod.

"So the dreams, and the story of the alien jumping him in the middle of the night…" Rodney's eyes grew wide. "Oh, God—the abductions. All this time, someone's been grabbing him right from under our noses?"

Ronon jumped up, pulling his blaster and checking the setting. Teyla leaned back, startled, but it was Rodney who sputtered out, "What are you doing?"

"Someone or something's been attacking Sheppard. We need to figure out what so we can stop it."

"Obviously," Rodney answered. "Where are you going?"

Ronon paused, tilting his head. "I'll start with his room. He was always brought back to his room." He turned around and took off running without another glance back before anyone could say anything else. Rodney stood up more slowly, looking toward the infirmary.

"I should start searching as well," he said. "Don't you think we should contact security or something? If this alien is here on Atlantis…"

"And how is it getting onto Atlantis? Or staying hidden from everyone in this city? How do we know it's working alone?" Carson shot back. "I'll let Elizabeth make that call, but if this alien is able to get into John's room without being noticed, then it could be connected into any of our communications networks. The second we announce that we have evidence that it's here, it could take off or retaliate or…do something drastic."

"Good point," Rodney mumbled, looking more and more alarmed.

Carson handed over the small jar, the small device rattling inside of it. "Take this. It might help you figure out what's going on."

"Yeah, good thinking." Rodney took the jar and stood up. He stared at it for a moment then shoved it into his pocket, glancing around him to ensure no one had seen him. "I'll be in my lab if there's any news."

Teyla and Carson nodded, sitting together in momentary silence as Rodney disappeared down the hall. Eventually, Carson stood up, straightening his lab coat.

"Does John know yet?" Teyla asked.

The doctor shook his head. "No, not yet. He's still out from the surgery. We've got him in recovery right now, but we'll move him to the main ward in about an hour or so. I think, under the circumstances, we should post a guard. If what John has been saying all along has been true…"

"I will do it," she said. Elizabeth appeared at the end of the hall, walking quickly toward them. Teyla stood, patting Carson's shoulder and headed into the infirmary.

Chapter 13

John woke up slowly, his body feeling heavy and numb. He was surrounded by white, and it took another minute for him to remember he was in the infirmary. He vaguely recalled talking to Teyla, then being wheeled into the surgical bay.

It must be over—his head felt like it had been stuffed full of cotton. Maybe it had. At least his nose. He remembered Carson saying something about putting in nasal packs, like when he'd had his major nosebleed.

He glanced around. The bed he was lying on was propped up but surrounded by drawn curtains, hence all the white. His neck was still in a brace and one side of the oxygen mask over his mouth was digging into his cheek, but his arms felt like they weighed a ton. The thought of lifting one of them to readjust the mask was too much.

It was relaxing in a painfree kind of way—no headache, no throbbing arm or neck or head. Whatever Carson had used to knock him out was still strumming through him. The pain would be back eventually, and the stuffy pressure in his sinuses would supposedly last a week or two. Not to mention the whole brain tumor thing.

He closed his eyes, pushing that particular thought away. Nope, not yet. Not thinking about that right now.

The drugs made it easy to slip back into relaxed ignorance. He took a deep breath, relishing the cool air blowing through the mask. He could hear people moving around beyond the curtain, their clothes rustling. The soft murmur of voices reached him, but not loud enough for him to understand what they were saying, and he was too tired to care much anyway.

He took another deep breath, but his body was drifting further and further from its drug-induced haze. He was waking up and he did not want to wake up yet. He heard footsteps tap against the floor, and he opened his eyes to see a shadow fall across the curtain.

"I knew they would find it," a man whispered, his shadow looming. He shifted on his feet, and the figure grew and stretched across the fabric.

"What do we do now? We can't continue without the interface," a woman hissed back.

"We might be able to hook him up directly. It's more dangerous, but we're so close."

"I don't know…"

"We've got minutes before they start searching this city. If we're going to get what we were sent here to get, we have to act now. Is he awake?"

John jolted at that. Up until then, he'd followed the conversation almost lazily, like he was overhearing a movie playing on someone else's TV. Was who awake? Him? He flashed to the black alien, and the attack, and the dreams.

That wasn't real, he screamed at himself. Carson had told him it wasn't—that it was just an effect of the tumor. That everything had been in his head. He heard the monitor beep faster, giving him away.

The curtain was flung backward and John jerked, wincing at the pain in his head the movement awakened. A nurse was staring at him, wide-eyed. If he'd been thinking, he would have closed his eyes—at least attempted to pretend to be asleep. His reflexes were too slow, however, and he stared back at her. He caught a flicker of movement behind her, and the shadow behind the curtain leaned over her shoulder, becoming a man.

He knew that man. He was an engineer—he'd seen him around Atlantis a lot in the last few days. Dark hair, dark eyes. He'd been at that meeting with McKay, when they'd talked about the damage on the west pier. Lipkin.

John swallowed, feeling his heart pound harder. He had the urge to rip the wires connecting him to the heart monitor off his chest just to silence the machine.

"Colonel?" the nurse stepped forward, plastering a smile on her face. He knew her too. Ellen something.

She moved to the side of his bed, grabbing his wrist. John's eyes shifted from her to Lipkin, and he caught the man scowling before he ducked away from the curtain and disappeared.

"Wh'tt…" he started, then frowned at the way his voice slurred. He dragged in another deep breath. "What…happ'nnnin'?"

"Ssshh, it's okay," Ellen soothed, brushing his hair away from his forehead.

His head was starting to pound, a sharp, biting throb running the length of the gash Carson had stitched back together just two days before. He licked his lips, blinking at his white curtained world. Ellen was doing something next to him, fiddling with something on the nightstand, but he couldn't turn his head to look at her.

He needed to call Carson. Or Ronon. He was still in recovery and Lipkin should not have been in this area. Where were the other staff members? He felt around on the bed for the call button, and sighed in relief when his fingers fumbled over it.

He'd barely managed to wrap his hand around it when Ellen turned suddenly and ripped it from his grasp before he'd had a chance to push the button. She tried to smile at him, but her face was pale and her hands shook. She set John's arm back on the bed, dropping the call button over the side of the mattress. John was too weak to pull it back up. Ellen could do anything to him at that moment, and he would be completely defenseless.

Scream. He could scream. Maybe someone else would be close enough to hear him. He opened his mouth to do so when Ellen was back, pulling the mask off his face and pressing a hand over his lips.

"Don't," she whispered, and she looked terrified.

John twisted his head to get out from under the pressure of her fingers, but she was way too strong, and the neck brace hampered his movements. He was also struggling just to keep his eyes open. Her hand shifted slightly, covering his mouth and nose, and he felt his chest jerk as it was suddenly unable to pull in any oxygen. Ellen was whispering something, a steady stream of words that were supposed to offer him comfort but only made his heart pound harder.

He threw his head back against the pillow, flailing his arms. He had to get her hand away from his mouth. She pressed harder in response, pinning him place, and a second later, he felt a sharp pinprick in his shoulder. Cold burned through his arm, racing up into his shoulder and chest and the pressure on his face eased.

Ellen was breathing hard as she stood up, shifting her weight off of John. When she pulled her hand away, he gulped in deep breaths of air. His chest heaved with the effort. Both Ellen and the curtained space of the recovery area were fading from his awareness but he was too distracted by his renewed ability to breathe to notice.

Now was the time to scream. Ellen had turned away again, back toward the nightstand. John blinked, feeling heavy lethargy sweep across his body in a wave. He couldn't even curl his fingers, let alone lift his arm. Ellen appeared in front of him, her eyes shimmering. Her mouth moved but the sound was washed out by a hollow, humming rush in his ears.

He felt his eyes slide closed, not even managing to react when the oxygen mask was pulled back up over his mouth. The steady beep of the heart monitor suddenly clicked off and his skin pinched as the woman disconnected him from the machine. He could have sworn he felt the bed moving a second later, but then the numbing lethargy spread up his neck and into his head, and he let go, sinking into unconsciousness.

Teyla walked quickly back to the infirmary, thoughts of intruders in Atlantis filling her mind. She'd run into the infirmary almost immediately after Carson had told them of the implant, intent on protecting John from the black alien or any other dangers, then realized she had no weapons with her. The recovery room itself was small with limited and easily controlled access points, and the threat to John while he was there seemed minimal.

There was always a Marine patrol near the infirmary, and she'd told them to watch the small hallway between the recovery area and the main part of the infirmary without telling them anything more than that. They'd looked at her strangely but hadn't questioned her further, and she'd run toward the armory for a weapon.

She flew into the infirmary a few minutes later and headed for the far door. Beyond it lay a back corridor leading to the surgery area and the recovery room. The guards were still there but they left as soon as she arrived, returning to their usual patrol route.

Teyla hovered in the hallway, not wanting to intrude on the medical staff. She knew she shouldn't go into the recovery area—she understood the reason for it and she didn't want to jeopardize John's health at all. She could feel her heart pounding, but the initial flood of adrenaline was settling—she was wired, but in a good way. More aware of her surroundings, more prepared to defend John from whatever was out to do him harm.

She moved down the hall and stood in front of the doors of the recovery room for a moment but all seemed quiet. She stepped back, returning toward the main part of the infirmary. She could stand in the doorway of the main ward and keep an eye on both areas.

She stepped into the main part of the infirmary and glanced around. All seemed quiet. She could see Carson and Elizabeth talking in his office, Elizabeth's arms wrapped tightly around her body and Carson looking much like Rodney, red-faced and waving his arms over his head as he explained what he had found.

She heard a soft scraping sound behind her and a hiss of air—a door opening. She moved back toward the small hallway and peered around the corner, expecting to see John being wheeled toward her. Instead, a man was rushing in the opposite direction. He looked vaguely familiar, one of hundreds in Atlantis. She couldn't remember who he was though—at least not from behind.

She glanced back into the main ward toward Carson's office. The doctor had said John would be in recovery for another hour. Perhaps the man was a doctor. Teyla bit her lip—something felt off. The man had not looked like a member of Carson's medical staff.

There was another hissing scrape as the door opened again, and Teyla glanced carefully around the corner, suddenly wary. A bed emerged, and she just managed to spot John in it, before the bed turned down the hall, away from the infirmary and moving in the same direction as the man who'd emerged a minute earlier.

Teyla ducked away from the door, her instincts telling her to stay out of sight. When she glanced around the corner again, she saw a nurse pushing the bed. She recognized the woman—she'd seen her around the infirmary a number of times recently. The nurse and the bed disappeared as it rounded the far corner, and Teyla slipped into the hallway.

She kept the woman within sight, but stayed back far enough that she wasn't spotted. The woman glanced around a few times but otherwise seemed unaware of Teyla's presence. Teyla's instincts were screaming now. They were moving farther away from the medical wing of Atlantis, and Teyla could think of no good reason for taking John away from that area, especially considering John had just come out of surgery.

Was there a connection to the black alien? Was this woman somehow involved? Did she know what had been happening to John all this time? Whatever this woman was up to, Teyla resolved to find out.

She almost lost them at the transporter, but she sprinted silently down the hall and managed to get close enough to see the spot on the map the nurse pressed before the doors slid shut. She reached for her radio, realizing she needed to tell someone what was going on, then froze. Carson's fears came back to her—was the alien monitoring their radios? Would she tip it off if she called for help now?

She shook her head. Better to find out where they were taking John first. She jumped into the transporter and punched the location on the map with her finger. The transporter flashed, and she raised her P90 as the doors slid open.

The hallway outside the transporter was empty. She stepped out, considering. Where had the nurse gone? It couldn't have been far. One direction stretched out for at least a couple hundred feet, while the other ended abruptly a dozen or so feet away, turning a corner. She moved down the shorter side, straining for any sound. As she got closer to the corner, she heard the soft squeak of a wheel moving away from her, and she looked down the next hallway, blowing out a relieved breath when she saw the nurse pushing the bed.

Teyla glanced around then stepped into the hallway, creeping closer.

Carson glanced at his watch, biting his lip. Elizabeth had headed immediately toward her office after he'd told her about the implant, calling Major Lorne to meet her there. Ronon was searching John's quarters and Rodney was examining the implant. Between all of them, they should be able to figure out what was going on before any unknown aliens showed up again to kidnap John.

He hoped. He glanced around the quiet infirmary. He'd feel a lot better once John was settled in the main part of his infirmary where he could see the man, keep an eye on him. His patient should be coming out of recovery fairly soon, at any rate. Maybe he would just check in on him, see that everything was alright.

He walked across the main ward, expecting to see Teyla pop out of the shadows at any moment. He knew she wouldn't go into the recovery area itself, but she was probably hovering outside the doors.

As freaky as the thought of an alien intruder on Atlantis was, Carson was almost excited to talk to John. Tell him his brain tumor had not actually been a brain tumor, and that when this was all over, he would most likely be fine. He remembered the expression on John's face the night before, a haunted desperate look if he'd ever seen one.

He turned into the small corridor toward the recovery room and stopped in surprise. Empty. Maybe Teyla had gone into the recovery room after all. He'd seen her dart out of the infirmary, returning a few minutes later with a weapon. Surely she hadn't left again?

He stepped carefully into the recovery area, listening for any unusual sound and was struck almost immediately by the complete lack of sound. There should have been monitors beeping, keeping watch over John. He walked quickly through the small room, throwing back the curtains though he knew he wasn't going to find anyone.

His heart sunk. The room was empty. No John. No Teyla. None of his nurses. He walked to the far door of the recovery area that led directly into the surgical bay, but it was empty as well. He spun around, heading back toward the main part of the infirmary. Had he missed them? He was sure he hadn't but…

He darted down the hallway and back to the infirmary but it was empty. This wasn't right. He tapped his radio.

"Beckett to Teyla."

He waited, holding his breath. He thought he heard the radio click twice, but no voice sounded. He pulled the piece out of his ear, studying it. It looked fine, but he was no engineer.

"Teyla, are you there?"

Again, no answer. He waited for as long as he could, then called Ronon.

"Yeah." Ronon answered right away, and Carson had to literally bite his tongue to keep from gushing in relief. For a second, he thought his radio had stopped working completely, that somehow the alien had cut him off from the rest of Atlantis and was just biding its time before it pounced on him.

"I can't find John or Teyla," he said, cringing a little at the bluntness.


"John was in recovery, from his surgery, and Teyla was waiting for him. I was talking to Elizabeth in my office for a few minutes and when I came out to check on John's status, he was just… gone. No sign of him or Teyla."

"I'm on my… huh."


"I'm in Sheppard's room. Think I found something."

"You'll have to give me a little more than that, lad," Carson said, giving up all pretense of radio silence or whatever it was the military did. Ronon didn't seem overly concerned about it, so Carson took that as a sign that he shouldn't either.

"I was trying to figure out a way the alien was getting in here. There's a vent in the ceiling."

"You think it climbed through the vent."

"No," Ronon answered, simply enough and Carson pinched the bridge of his nose. For once, he wished the quieter man would be a little more like Rodney when it came to talking.

"Huh," Ronon said again, and Carson rolled his eyes. "There's some kind of tube in here. Can't see what it's attached to…"

Carson waited. John and Teyla were missing and yet whatever Ronon had found seemed important. He didn't think the former runner would dismiss the disappearance of his teammates if he wasn't on to something.

He jerked in surprise when Ronon suddenly cussed in his ear. "What's going on?" he called out.

"The tube… hissing something… some kind of gas," Ronon answered.

Carson ran toward his office, grabbing the medical bag he always kept within easy reach. "Maybe you should get away from the vent."

There was no answer, and Carson ran into the hall toward the transporter. He heard Ronon cough, then a crashing sound and more cursing.


His heart pounded in his chest, the adrenaline rush of a medical emergency compounded by the fact that the threat could still be on Atlantis. In fact, it could be in John's room. He jumped into the transporter, hitting the residential wing then tapping his earpiece again.

"Beckett to security. We have a situation in Colonel Sheppard's quarters," he called out.

He vaguely heard an answering reply, and a stream of questions about the nature of the situation and what was going on. He thought he might have heard Elizabeth's voice in the mix as well, but he ignored them all, pounding down the hallway toward John's room.

He slowed down as he approached the room. The hallway was empty of people, not unusual in and of itself, but nerve-wracking at the moment. He should wait for the security team, but Ronon could be in serious trouble with gas hissing into his face.

The decision was made for him when John's door suddenly slid open and Ronon staggered out. The man's face was red and sweating, and he coughed as he swayed, slamming his shoulder into the wall and sliding to his knees.

"Ronon!" Carson screamed, running toward him. There was no visible sign of the gas, but that didn't mean it wasn't pouring into the hallway. He grabbed Ronon's arm and pulled him up to his feet, adrenaline giving him the strength he needed to heft Ronon's larger weight. They moved a dozen or so feet away from the door before Ronon's legs folded underneath him and he slid to the floor.

Feet pounded behind them and Carson looked up as a security team arrived. "There's some kind of gas leak in the Colonel's room. I don't know what it is but it's strong. We need to keep people away from here."

The two men nodded, calling for more help and banging on the doors of the adjacent rooms. Carson knelt down next to Ronon, lifting the man's head. Ronon seemed barely conscious, his breathing ragged. He was sitting against the wall but his body kept trying to slide over and onto the floor. Carson managed to keep him upright with one hand while digging out an oxygen mask with his other one.

"Ronon," he called out. He flipped the oxygen on and pushed the mask against Ronon's face, then shifted his grip so he could get his pulse. Ronon's eyes rolled and fluttered in his head, not quite unconscious but not exactly conscious either.

His heart rate was rapid, but slowing down perceptibly. His breathing also seemed to even out. Carson managed to secure the mask on his face and was calling for a medical team when the Satedan's eyes flew open. He jerked under Carson's grip, suddenly combative.

"Ronon, it's me, Beckett. Ronon, calm down," Carson called out.

Ronon scanned the hallway, looking a little too wild-eyed and out-of-control for Carson. He tensed, waiting for Ronon to take a swing at him then sighed in relief when the man relaxed instead, sagging back against the wall. He probably would have fallen over had the doctor not grabbed him by both shoulders and held him up.

"Are you with me?"

"What?" Ronon breathed out, coughing again. The confusion was fading, though.

Carson patted him on the shoulder and glanced down the hallway. More security teams had arrived, including a pair in gas masks entering John's room. Ronon was starting to move beneath his grip, struggling to sit up straighter and pull the mask off his face. Carson wrestled with him, trying to keep him calm but watching the security teams work around him.

Ronon finally ripped the oxygen mask off his face and pushed himself up to his feet at the sight of an approaching medical team. Carson could tell by the man's stance that there was no way in hell he was going to get him to the infirmary for a check-up. Behind him, the masked security team emerged from John's room, holding a small canister and tube.

Whatever that gas had been, it had been strong. If John had been exposed to it without knowing, it would have knocked him out quickly before he'd even realized there was a danger. He glanced over at Ronon and saw the man staring at the contraption he'd found in the vent.

There was something odd about the gas canister and tube. Carson frowned, trying to pinpoint what bothered him about it. It was certainly an effective way to knock someone out, but it seemed so… ordinary. They had an alien abducting John from his room without a trace, and it was using a gas tank and rubber tubing that probably wouldn't look that out of place in any of the labs here in Atlantis. Or Earth, for that matter.

The medical team approached tentatively but he waved them off. He'd wrangle Ronon into the infirmary for a check-up later, but he seemed fine now, and they still had two missing people to find.

Teyla held her breath as the nurse reached the end of another narrow hallway, pausing in front of what looked like a smooth wall. Teyla had caught a few glimpses of John in the bed, but he was clearly unconscious. She felt a lance of fury at the nurse and whoever else was involved.

She hovered in the shadows, waiting. The nurse glanced around her but not very closely, clearly believing she was alone. A second later, the wall dissolved, revealing a dark room. The nurse—Ellen, she believed—pushed John into the room, and the wall reformed behind her.

Teyla stepped back, reaching for her radio. Whatever was going on in that room, she knew it held the answers they'd all been searching for. She had barely clicked her radio on when she heard a footstep behind her and the sound of something rushing through the air, and then an explosion of pain erupted in her head with a sharp crack.

Chapter 14

Rodney ran through the hallways of Atlantis, the thrill of discovery pumping through his veins. He held the small implant in one hand and his laptop in the other, and he fought against the urge to whoop in triumph.

The fact that he was running should have been indication enough of his level of excitement. He did not generally run of his own accord. He caught a flash on his computer screen, but he only gave it a cursory glance. He needed to get to the control room and the city-wide sensors.

"Elizabeth!" he cried out as he rushed into the room, pushing past an abnormal amount of people. He caught a glimpse of Elizabeth's head in the middle of the crowd, which he realized belatedly consisted entirely of Marines. She'd told them about the implant already? He'd just figured it out.

The group parted, letting him through, and Elizabeth and Lorne stared back at him. There was something in their faces he knew he should notice or ask about, but his most recent discovery outweighed everything else. He waved his laptop at them and continued toward one of the main consoles. He snapped at the gate technician on duty, shooing him out of the way, then sat down, attaching his computer to the Atlantis' mainframe.

"Please tell me you've got something," Elizabeth said, pushing her way through the Marines until she was standing across from Rodney.

"I've got something," he answered, only peripherally aware of Lorne barking out orders. The group standing in the control room dispersed and Rodney sat back in relief. This room was way too small for that many people loitering around.

"Something's come up. We've got another problem."

Rodney froze, glancing up at Elizabeth and finally noticing that her face was pale and her lips were pressed together in a thin line. A valiant effort at looking like she was in charge of the situation when she really felt like everything was falling apart around her—Rodney had seen that look before. Crap.

"Um…would this be related to…" he pointed up toward the ceiling, hoping she understood the universal sign for aliens.

"John is gone, and Teyla."

"What?" Rodney flew out of his chair, hearing it shoot across the small space behind him and ram into another console. "Why didn't you say so?"

"Rodney," Elizabeth snapped, then took a deep breath. "You said you had something?"

Rodney stared at her for a moment, his mind racing. Sheppard and Teyla were gone? Was it the black alien? Wait. He snapped his fingers, grabbing his chair and pulling up the data he'd weaned from the implant. "The im…uh…the thing Carson wanted me to check out," he started, glancing around the room. Was he still supposed to keep this under wraps? Given what he'd found, it seemed imperative that they do so.

"The implant?"

He cringed. So much for that. He waved Elizabeth over, acutely aware of everyone staring at him. "Don't you people have work to do?" he yelled, and was momentarily satisfied when they all jerked and turned back to their own consoles.

"What did you find, Rodney?" Elizabeth urged, though she had the common sense to lower her voice a little.

"The…device…in Sheppard, it's not alien. It was made on Earth."

"Are you sure?" And now Elizabeth was whispering, looking around her in sudden suspicion.

"Of course, I'm sure. Look at this," Rodney hissed. He clicked on the corner of the screen and pulled up an image of the implant, magnified until all they could see was a small edge of the device. In the metal, just barely visible, was a series of letters and numbers. English letters and numbers. Latin alphabet, if one wanted to get technical.

Elizabeth sucked in a breath, grabbing the edge of the laptop and peering closer. "Then that means the alien…"

"…doesn't exist. Whoever's responsible for this is probably right here, on Atlantis. Wandering among us. It could be anyone."

Elizabeth was about to say something else when she suddenly straightened, pushing her earpiece deeper into her ear. Rodney reached for his own then realized he wasn't wearing it. Damn. He scrambled, digging through his pockets until he found it and it shoved it in his ear.

"Carson, what's going?" Elizabeth called out, her voice high and tense. A babble of voices streamed over the radio, too confusing for Rodney to make any sense out of them. He caught the doctor's high-pitched voice yelling something about Ronon in Sheppard's room.

His computer flashed at him, waiting for him to do something. He pulled the earpiece back out, silencing the voices. Whatever was going sounded like it was under control, and it probably had something to do with Sheppard's implant. He began typing furiously. The implant had a small energy signature, but if he amplified it, then programmed the city scanners to look for something similar…

It wouldn't help them much if they were taking Sheppard off of Atlantis, but that didn't seem likely. The simplest solution to a problem was usually the answer, if Occam's razor could be applied in this particular instance. The large screen behind him lit up, showing a map of the city. With a deep breath, he hit enter.



The small word flashed back at him, taunting him. This wasn't right—it was a simple connection. Implant to laptop, laptop to Atlantis console. He scrolled up, back to the commands he'd imputed. He could do this kind of thing in his sleep, and he knew right away he hadn't made an error. He hit enter again, daring the laptop to deny him access.


"What kind of error?" he yelled, smacking his fist on the console. "You don't just flash error at me. You tell me what the error is."

"Rodney?" Elizabeth said, crossing her arms.

"What?" he snapped. "Oh, sorry, um…I'm getting an error. I shouldn't be getting an error. This is a simple, straightforward connection. Wait—" He snapped his fingers. Connection. Maybe something was wrong with the physical connections. The implant was small; the leads could have been dislodged at some point.

He scrunched forward, examining it. It had taken a bit of dexterity to get the leads attached to the thing in the first place, but they were still clearly attached. He followed the wires down to the plug, but nothing had been ripped out. The plug itself was firmly connected to one of his USB ports…

"What is that?" someone asked behind him. He glanced over at the woman, vaguely recognizing her.

Rodney scowled and reconnected his laptop to the interface he'd built into the Atlantis system. Once he was sure that was correct, he re-typed the coding that would cue the sensors to recognize the signal. He paused before hitting enter again, and smiled when text scrolled across the screen. In a few seconds, the city-wide sensors would know what to look for, and then—

Something popped next to him, sending out a stream of smoke and sparks. He ducked instinctively, wrapping one arm around his head and grabbing his computer with the other. He yanked on the plug a split second before the entire console shorted out, blowing out one of the panels underneath.

Smoke billowed into the room, sending everyone to the floor. The console continued to spark and the lights flickered overhead. Rodney glanced at his computer screen and was relieved to see he hadn't fried anything on his laptop. He could hear someone crawling around behind him, finally cutting power to the smoking console.

The room was silent for a moment, then people gradually shuffled to their feet. Rodney pushed himself to his knees and scrunched his nose, smelling burning plastic and rubber. Elizabeth stood up next to him and looked around.

"Everyone okay?" she asked. There was a general murmur of assent and she turned to Rodney, one eyebrow raised.

"I didn't do it," he said before she had a chance to ask him anything. And he hadn't. He was sure of it.

Well, pretty sure.

The sound of metal clanging to the floor followed by muffled cursing jerked Teyla out of unconsciousness. She gasped at the lance of pain in her head and leaned back, looking up at arms pulled straight above her head and bound at the wrist. She was sitting on a bench, so it wasn't painfully uncomfortable, but she could feel her fingers tingling.

She had been unconscious for at least a few minutes then. She looked around, blinking back the pounding headache to focus on her surroundings. The room she was in looked like any other empty lab room in Atlantis. White drapes hung from the far wall and boxes of equipment had been brought in, stacked haphazardly around the edges of the room, but it was otherwise empty.

She shifted, searching for a more comfortable position. She had waited too long to call for help and now she and John were paying for it. She heard a faint murmur of voices coming from one of two doors across from her and she froze, straining to hear what they were saying. There was more than one person, maybe even more than two. The nurse and the dark-haired man were the most likely candidates, but someone had snuck up behind her before she'd had a chance to call for help.

Which meant no one knew where she or John was. She pulled on the ropes around her wrists again, wincing at their tightness. Whoever had tied her up had known what they were doing. She glanced around her to see if there was anything she could reach to cut through the bindings, then cursed quietly to herself. Even if she could have reached a knife with her foot, there was no way she could bring it up to her hands.

One of the doors across from her slid open, revealing the dark-haired man. Teyla stopped moving to glare at him but he hardly looked in her direction. He pushed a box closer to the wall with his foot then turned around. A wheeled table appeared, and he guided one end of it out of the door.

Teyla's heart caught in her throat, and she pulled again against the ropes. John lay on the metal surface, a sheet pulled down to his waist. His chest was bare, the gown he'd been wearing gone. The nurse appeared pushing the other end of the table and they moved John to one side of the room.

"What are you doing?" Teyla demanded. Fear quivered through her, but she would not give into it. All she needed was a small, sharp edge, and then she'd be able to wear away the bindings on her wrists.

Neither the dark-haired man nor the nurse answered her. John's head lolled on the table as they stopped, and Teyla realized they'd removed the neck brace as well. His head was still bandaged, and his face looked pale and bruised.

The dark-haired man left and the door slid shut behind him. Teyla could hear the rumble of two low voices talking again. So there were three of them for sure—she'd deduced that before, but now she knew. She looked over at the nurse who was attaching leads to John's chest.

"Why are you doing this?" she asked quietly.

The woman jerked at the question, her face flushing red. She didn't answer, but her hands shook as she taped the leads down. She moved to John's head next, cutting the bandage away. The gash was on the opposite side of Teyla, so she couldn't see it, but she saw the nurse grimace when the last of the bandages had been pulled away. She pulled out another set of wires and began attaching them to John's head and the back of his neck.

"Ready?" a voice called out and Teyla's head whipped back to the door. It had slid open without her noticing, but no one had emerged.

"Almost," the nurse replied.

"Hurry up."

The woman moved faster, connecting the wires to machines along the wall. The last thing she did was grab soft restraints. She tied John's limp wrists down, then moved to his ankles.

"Please," Teyla begged. If she could reach the woman, they might have a chance of getting out of this alive.

A man rushed into the room, heading straight for Teyla. She barely had time to look up before he was standing right in front of her, the gun in his hand pressed against her head. "Stop talking," he hissed.

Erickson. She recognized the Marine immediately, remembering how she'd disarmed him in Ronon's class in front of everyone. She closed her eyes, forcing herself to take a deep breath. She had to remain calm, now more than ever.

"We're ready," the nurse said, her voice sounding small and shaky. Teyla glanced over to see her sitting on a stool next to John's head.

Erickson stepped back, still sneering at Teyla. "Do it. We've almost got what we need."

Teyla had to bite her lip to stop herself from asking them what they needed. Erickson moved back toward the other room, where the hum of machines had started. He stood in the doorframe, glancing between John and whatever the dark-haired man was doing.

John's body suddenly twitched, and the nurse went stiff in her seat. "It's starting already."

"Lipkin?" Erickson yelled.

Lipkin—that must be the name of the dark-haired man. Teyla filed the information away, hoping it would be useful later. She tugged on the bindings in vain. She would not get out of them without help.

John's body spasmed then grew still, and the nurse leaned over, pressing a hand against his forehead. She looked terrified, and Teyla hoped it didn't have to do with John's current condition. Lipkin cursed from the other room, and Erickson ducked away.

"Your name is Ellen, is it not?" Teyla whispered, hoping her memory was correct. The woman glanced up in surprise, then nodded.

"What are you doing to John?" Teyla asked.

"I can't," Ellen answered, glancing toward the door. Erickson and Lipkin were talking, and though Teyla picked out a handful of words, she could make no sense of what they were discussing.

"Please, help us. Help John. He is sick."

"I know," she hissed back, then turned away from Teyla to study a monitor behind her.

Teyla sighed. She could reach this woman, she was sure of it. Despite what she appeared to be involved in, Teyla had seen the way she was handling John. She was careful, taking pains not to hurt him any more than necessary. And she seemed genuinely worried about his condition.

John twitched again, his arms jerking against the restraints. He opened his mouth, and for a second Teyla thought he might scream, but he relaxed again silently. Ellen smoothed his hair away from his face, wiping off the sheen of perspiration that had broken out, then whispered something softly into his ear.

Teyla forced herself to think. John's black alien had been a lie, possibly perpetuated by the three people in the room. They were running some kind of experiment, but she couldn't even begin to figure out what. Whatever it was, John was integral. Why him? Of all the people they could have abducted, why John?

John twitched and jerked again, throwing his head back against the metal table with a thump. For a brief second, Teyla thought he'd regained consciousness, but then his eyelids slid halfway shut again. His mouth opened and closed in what appeared to be a reflexive action and then he stilled on the table.

The heart monitor behind him was picking up speed, and Ellen glanced up at it. John spasmed, causing the heart rate to double, the number turning red and flashing. Teyla stood up, hoping that would give her a little more leverage with the bands around her arms, but they were still tied too high above her.

"Lipkin, take it easy," Ellen called out, sounding almost commanding. Far different from the timid nervousness of a second before.

"I'm trying," Lipkin yelled back. "We're almost back to where we left off last time, but without the implant, I'm having a hard time holding the readings. Wait, wait, wait…okay, here we go…"

Teyla heard an electronic beep from the other room at the same time as John arched his back, throwing his head into the exam table. His arms and legs shuddered against the bindings, and Ellen jumped up, pressing her hands into his chest and stomach to pin him to the table. He relaxed suddenly, though the nurse didn't move, and then his body repeated the cycle again.

It was gut-wrenching to watch. Teyla could hear the heart monitor blaring in the small room, and the sound of flesh hitting metal as he convulsed rhythmically, like he was being electrocuted by short bursts of energy. She turned away, unable to watch. She could hear Ellen whispering to him to hold on, promising him that it was almost over, and she felt her stomach clench in anger.

"What?" Erickson screamed, bursting into the room. He had a hand to his ear, listening intently to a voice in the radio and oblivious to what John was going through right under his nose. A second later, he turned toward Ellen. "Something's happening. Keep him alive—Lipkin's almost there."

He left through the other door without waiting for a response from Ellen, and Teyla saw that the second door opened out into the corridor. She couldn't pinpoint Erickson's exact expression—irritation, anxiety, impatience? She guessed it was some combination of those and had to believe that either Rodney had discovered something with the implant, or Ronon was tracking them. She had no doubt Carson would have noticed fairly quickly that both she and John had gone missing.

John's body finally stilled on the table, and for a split second Teyla thought he had stopped breathing completely, but then his chest jerked and his lungs expanded, pulling in a ragged breath. He was ashen and covered in sweat.

"He cannot survive much more of this," Teyla whispered quietly. Ellen shuddered, rubbing her face with her hands.

"I know," she answered.

"Why are you doing this?"

"I had no choice. They made me," Ellen responded, her voice flat and emotionless.

"Who did? What are they after?"

Ellen stared down at John's lax face, brushing her fingers against his bruised cheek. "I was a good nurse, I really was," she said, almost as if she was talking to herself. Or maybe to John. "I just…the pressure got to me, and it was so easy to grab a pill here and there from the hospital store room. No one even noticed they were missing. After awhile, I couldn't do my job without the pills."

Teyla fought the urge to hurry the woman along. She felt the bindings around her left wrist give a little and she pulled, twisting her hand around in vain. John's heart rate had dropped in speed, but she knew it was still too high to be considered safe.

"Someone found out," Ellen whispered. "I don't know who they are, but they had enough evidence to get me fired and have my license revoked permanently. I couldn't lose my job. My sister has two kids—she can't work. She was depending on me for rent and food and school expenses. They said if I helped them that they wouldn't tell anyone. They even gave me extra money, enough to take my little nephews to a movie or a ballgame every once in awhile."

"What did they ask you to do?"

Ellen glanced up, startled. She stared at Teyla's arms stretched out above her head, then glanced at the door where Erickson had disappeared. The machines were still humming loudly in the other room, and Teyla hoped it was enough to mask her and Ellen's conversation from Lipkin.

"Small things at first," she answered, the words coming out in a rush now that the gates of confession had opened. "Inconsequential stuff. I even managed to stop taking the pills, got my life back in order. Things were going really well. I really thought I'd managed to avoid something disastrous." She paused, shaking her head. "I was so stupid. I found out about this traveling nurse program and filled out an application. It seemed like an incredible opportunity, even more so when I realized just how far they wanted me to travel."

"Here to Atlantis?"

"Yes. I actually believed I got in on my own merits, then a few weeks before I was supposed to leave, they started getting more demanding. They said there was a group of us going to Atlantis together and they needed us to collect information." She laughed, her voice hollow. "That's what they called it—collect information. They said I'd be contacted by someone when I got here, and then one night, Erickson showed up at my door."

"You keep saying they," Teyla interrupted. "Who are they? What do they want with John?"

Ellen glanced around, lowering her voice even more. "I'm not sure who the group is—I've only caught bits and pieces of it from Erickson. From what I understand, there was a group called the Trust on Earth. They knew all about the stargate program and they were trying to ensure that Earth was protected. Then something happened to them—the group was infiltrated. A few people managed to get out and lay low, then they banded together to form a new group, still human, still loyal to the original goal of protecting Earth. It all sounds so noble until you see it up close." She had grabbed John's hand as she'd spoken, and she stared down at him now.

She wasn't in love—Teyla could see that much—but it was clear she cared deeply for John. Whether it was as a medical professional or in the hopes of something more some day, she couldn't say, but it might be enough for Teyla to use.

"What are they looking for?" she asked.

Ellen leaned forward, glancing at the doors beside her before speaking. "It's the gene—well, not the gene specifically, but Colonel Sheppard's ability to use the gene to manipulate Ancient technology. The new Trust has managed to get their hands on some of this technology but they lack the gene to use it. Since we know there's a mental component involved, they want to see if it's possible to recreate that connection in people who don't necessarily have the ATA gene."

"And all this…"

"Honestly, I'm not sure exactly how it works. Lipkin's in charge of it. They knew it was going to be hard, physically, on Colonel Sheppard, not to mention the implant we had to insert into the sinus cavity near his brain. They needed me to ensure he stayed alive."

She looked as if she was about to say more, but the door leading to the corridor slid open and Erickson marched in. He glanced at John's motionless form with a scowl, then ducked into Lipkin's room.

"Why have you stopped? What the hell is going on in here?"

"I had to re-set—" Lipkin started, but Erickson cut him off.

"Never mind that. We've got a problem. Mike's on his way, said McKay is close to pinpointing our location. We need to get whatever we can while he's still alive and then get out of here."

Teyla's eyes grew wide, her heart thudding at the cold tone. She'd known they would never let John survive in the end—from their point of view there was no need, and it was more risky to let him live in case he had seen something that might lead Atlantis or Stargate Command back to these three.

And Mike. She had no idea who Mike was. Another member of their group? How many more were involved? How deep did the infiltration go? Her hands were almost completely numb, the tingling in her fingers making them feel swollen.

"Alright, alright—I'm starting again," Lipkin muttered, and the hum of the machines increased.

The door slid open and a young man ran in, out of breath. He glanced at Teyla then John in alarm, then headed toward Lipkin's room. Teyla recognized him—he was often in the control room. One of the gate technicians. He and Erickson reappeared a moment later, each holding P90s.

"How far behind you were they?" the Marine asked.

"It won't be long now. McKay was connecting the implant's energy signal to the city-wide sensors. I overloaded one of the consoles but that won't distract him for long. I also heard Ronon found the gas canister in Sheppard's room."

Help was on the way. Teyla glanced at John, wincing at the way his chest flailed rapidly in and out, and hoped it wasn't too late. John was still alive for now, but if they tried one last push for information, it might be too much for his already over-stressed body. She could almost see the same thought cross Ellen's face.

"Ellen, get ready," Lipkin called out, and John's body began to spasm again.

Chapter 15

"What happened?" Elizabeth asked, her voice stringent.

"The console overloaded," Rodney answered, his concentration focused on his laptop.

Elizabeth bit her lip to hold back the retort. She knew the console had overloaded. She took a deep breath, blowing it out slowly through her teeth. "Obviously. Why?" she managed to say with a little less of a bite.

Rodney moved away from the burning, smoking machine and grabbed a chair, sitting down at a new console and plugging in his laptop. Elizabeth walked around to look over his shoulder and saw numbers streaming across his screen. It looked like the antivirus scan she had on her own laptop and assumed it was something similar, though a little more involved. A system's diagnostic? Rodney held up a finger, taking in the flashing words and numbers.

"Rodney?" she prompted.

The scientist frowned, his expression growing suspicious. She'd seen that look on his face before. She glanced around the room and saw everyone looking around in confusion and a little bit of shock. The soft murmur of voices grew as they recovered and moved back to their seats.

"Rodney!" she yelled.

He jerked his head up, his face a mixture of indignation and horror. "It was deliberate!"


"The overload. Someone did it on purpose."

"Where's McPhee?" a woman asked, looking around the room.

Elizabeth glanced up, looking at the woman then over toward the console that had overloaded. McPhee—Mike McPhee. He was a new gate technician. She'd seen him around a lot in the last month or so. He worked mainly the night shift but he was eager, coming in on his off-shifts to learn as much as he could.

"McPhee?" Rodney asked, perplexed.

"Mike McPhee, one of the gate techs," Elizabeth answered. She looked back at the woman and noticed she looked a little dazed, her hair sticking up wildly from where it had come out of her ponytail.

"He was here a few minutes ago, near that console," the woman said. She pointed to the burning console and Rodney and Elizabeth followed her finger, flinching when someone finally had the presence of mind to spray the remaining smoking bits with the fire extinguisher.

Rodney turned back to his laptop, snapping his fingers. He began typing, though what he was suddenly looking for was beyond Elizabeth. Elizabeth stepped back, tapping the radio piece on her ear.

"Weir to Lorne."

"Lorne here," he answered immediately. He sounded like he was breathing hard.

"What's going on in Colonel Sheppard's quarters?"

"Ronon found a gas canister—pretty strong stuff. Beckett thinks that the Colonel was being knocked out by the gas before being taken. We've found nothing in the infirmary. Is McKay making any progress?"

"Not yet. He was working on something when one of the consoles overloaded, purposely, it would seem."

"Are you okay?"

"Everyone's fine," Elizabeth said. "One of the gate technicians—Mike McPhee—is missing, however, and it was his console that overloaded."

"We'll keep a lookout for him. And I'll send another team up to the gate room just to be on the safe side."

"We'll let you know as soon as we've got something up here."

"Roger that. Lorne out."

Elizabeth moved back toward the main part of the control room, scanning the workstations. Everyone looked like they were working frantically, with Rodney standing in the middle barking out orders. A second later, he pointed toward the large screen at the back, and a map of the city appeared.

"Rodney, please tell me you've found something."

Rodney glanced up at her, nodding. "You could say that. This is unbelievable."


"That McPhee character—he's up to his neck in whatever's been going on. He's tampered with all kinds of files. He even hacked into the medical systems. It looks like he's embedded a program into the system that connects the Ancient scanner to our own computers. It's… wow. It's ingenious. Evil and malicious of course, but still brilliant. Every time Carson ran a scan on Sheppard, this program would start. Somehow it would merge an old scan of Sheppard's taken about four months ago when he was perfectly healthy with the new one, making it look current but masking the implant. No wonder Carson could never find anything wrong with Sheppard."

"How did we not catch this?"

"His little fingers were in all of these programs. Every time the system picked up on an anomaly, McPhee would cover it up. It's going to take weeks to figure out what he did and restore all the data he either skewed or deleted."

"Does it give us any clue as to where John and Teyla might have been taken?"

Rodney sat down, typing again. "That error I was getting before—not an error. McPhee was trying to block me from programming the scanners to search for an energy signal connected to the implant. I've almost managed to get past it now…"

He trailed off, moving from console to console as he worked. Elizabeth glanced over to see Lorne's extra security team run into the control room, and she nodded in acknowledgement. They spread out around the room, taking up positions near all of the entryways.

The gate tech was involved. So was one of the nurses. Rodney had said the implant was at least partly manufactured with materials from Earth. Who else was involved? She looked at the faces of the Marines guarding the doors, then at all the other scientists and technicians in the room. They were all focused on the task at hand, not noticing Elizabeth's glance.

Who could they trust? There were so many new people on Atlantis, and at least two of them were involved in some kind of conspiracy. She wasn't just being paranoid now. But then again, what choice did they have? John and Teyla were missing, possibly in danger. The conspiracy couldn't include the entire base, and they had to trust people to a certain extent if they had any hope of reaching her missing people in time.

That was the problem with conspiracies and paranoia. Everyone became a suspect.

"Got it!" Rodney crowed, spinning around toward the large screen. He held his laptop in one hand, and hit a few final keys with the other. A flashing dot appeared in the military barracks.

"Is that where they're at?" Elizabeth asked.

"No, that's my bouncing energy signal—the one I couldn't figure out earlier. It's not actually bouncing, just made to look like it is. If I eliminate that…"

The signal disappeared, then reappeared again a few seconds later in an abandoned building on the edge of the west pier. Elizabeth glanced at Rodney, waiting for him to explain.

"There we go," the scientist said, and the spot grew more intense on the map. "Whatever they're doing, they're using a lot of power."

"John and Teyla?"

"I can't pick up any life signs in that area, but I think that has more to do with the power spike. They've brought their own generator, and it's messing with our ability to pick up their sub-q transmitters—maybe on purpose."

"So we have no idea how many people are there?"

Rodney shrugged. "Sorry, no. But that's where they are—I'm sure of it."

Elizabeth nodded, trusting Rodney was right about the location. He usually was. She reached up toward her ear piece.

"Major Lorne, we've got a location."

A burst of gunfire erupted in the hallway, and everyone ducked instinctively. Erickson lay on the floor, returning fire without actually looking. Teyla dropped back down to the bench, her eyes never leaving John's form. He was starting to convulse again, his body shuddering against whatever the machine was doing to him. No wonder he had been so terrified of the black alien. Had this happened to him every time?

Ellen and Lipkin had both mentioned the implant, and she wondered if it had made this process easier for John—not so hard on his body. The heart monitor blared out an alarm and Erickson spun around.

"Turn that damn thing off!" he yelled, spit flying from his mouth. He sat up, kneeling on one side of the door and signaling Mike to move to the other side. The Marine looked ready to fight to the death, but the gate tech was pale, holding his weapon in a white-knuckled grip. They leaned out into the hallway simultaneously, unleashing another burst of weapons fire.

John arched his back, throwing his head into the table. Beneath the constant report of P90 fire, Teyla could hear him choking, and she screamed as she pulled the bindings. Ellen grabbed John's head, tilting it upright and holding it steady. Tears flowed down both her cheeks as John's body relaxed again against the table.

Teyla had little sympathy for the woman. Certainly not at the moment. John was dying in front of her. She pinned Ellen with a stare, wanting to beg her again to save John but unable to come up with the words. She could talk nonstop, but eventually Ellen would have to make a decision, choose a course of action, and Teyla could only hope she chose the right one.

The heart monitor wailed, and John began jerking against the bindings again. It wasn't quite as intense as the last one, but it was enough to get Ellen's attention. She tore her gaze away from Teyla and looked down at the unconscious man. Erickson was yelling again, as was Lipkin in the other room, but Teyla couldn't understand any of what they were saying.

An echoing boom rolled through the hallway, and Erickson whooped in triumph. Teyla cringed, hoping the grenade had not hit anyone. Amongst the bursts of P90 fire she had heard the whine of Ronon's blaster and knew he was nearby.

"Turn that alarm off!" Erickson screamed, and Ellen jumped, slapping the volume button on the machine off. The room didn't seem much quieter, however, as a myriad of other alarms continued to go off amidst the gun battle in the hallway. Ellen glanced over at the Marine and the gate tech, but Teyla could see the attention of the two men was focused entirely on what was happening in the hallway.

She pulled the heart leads first, ripping them off of John's chest. The sound was turned off but the monitor had still been on. The jagged line suddenly flat-lined, and Teyla tore her gaze away from the reading, forcing herself to look at John's chest. He was breathing, his ribs expanding rapidly as he panted, and she sagged in relief.

Ellen pulled the wires attached to his head next, then moved to the restraints at his wrists and ankles. Teyla felt hope surge through her. There was another clatter of something being thrown down the hallway, then the muffled boom of a grenade.

"How many of those do we have?" Mike screamed, firing a burst into the hallway before jerking back.

"Half a dozen. Enough to hold them off for awhile," Erickson answered. Teyla begged whatever deity watched over Atlantis to keep the two men occupied, to stop them from turning toward Ellen and catch her freeing John.

They didn't look. More gunfire pelted the walls above their heads, some of the bullets finding their way into the room. Ellen ducked instinctively. John was free of the machines but he was still unconscious, and she moved up toward his face, tilting it toward her.

"Wake up," she whispered, just loud enough for Teyla to hear. Lipkin was cursing from the other room, and Teyla suspected that some of the stray bullets from the hallway had hit his equipment.

John's eyes rolled under closed lids. Ellen dug through a box next to her, pulling out a small vial. She filled a syringe then plunged into John's arm. A second later, John jerked under her hands, like he was still attached to Lipkin's machine, but his eyes fluttered open.

Teyla bit her lip, resisting the urge to call out to him. She turned her head toward the door and saw Erickson reloading his P90. He still hadn't glanced back at her or John. Ellen was leaning over John, whispering something into his ear. John looked around the room, his eyes glassy and unfocused. He blinked, licking his lips when Ellen turned his head toward Teyla and whispered something else to him.

Whatever she said, it was enough to spur John into action. Ellen wrapped his fingers around a scalpel and John rolled off the table. He landed on his hands and knees with a grunt, dragging the sheet tangled in his legs with him. Another wave of bullets and the tell-tale flash of red from Ronon's gun sprayed across the wall above their heads, singeing one of the white curtains. They were getting closer. Teyla flinched as Erickson tossed another grenade into the hallway and covered his head.

Ellen pulled John up to his feet and pushed him in Teyla's direction, then began crawling toward Erickson and the gate tech. Teyla wanted to scream at her to stay back, but she knew that would have given them away.

John stumbled across the room, catching himself on the wall next to Teyla. He was breathing heavily through his mouth, and Teyla could see his entire body was trembling. Without a word, he began sawing at the bindings on her arms with the scalpel still gripped tightly in his hands.

It seemed to take him forever, but in reality it couldn't have been more than a few seconds. One arm dropped, fiery pain racing up the nerves as blood began pumping back into her hand and fingers. John slid to floor, dropping his arm.

"John," she whispered, relieved when he looked up at her. "The knife."

He held it up to her, and she grabbed it out of his hand. She cut through the ropes around her other arm, and within seconds she was free, but they were still trapped. Ellen was kneeling next to the exam table, staring at the corridor but otherwise frozen. Erickson and the gate tech unleashed another hail of bullets toward their rescuers.

"Dammit!" Lipkin's voice ripped the room.

"What is it?" Erickson yelled back, glancing briefly into the other room.

"One of the damn bullets hit the machine."

Teyla looked frantically around the room. They had to find a place to hide if they had any hope of getting out of here alive. She stood up and scanned the walls, running her fingers along the seams. The Ancients had built hidden alcoves into most of the rooms and hallways—probably for storage space, but if there was such a room here…

"Yes," she hissed, pushing against the door. It was square cupboard, about three feet off the ground. She swung the door open and peered inside. A few items had been shoved into the large space, but there was enough room for her and John to squeeze into it. She bent down, grabbing John by the arms and heaving him upward.

"Teyla?" he whispered.

"Please, John, you must hold on for a little bit longer," she whispered back.

John's muscles were lax, and his legs began to fold under him as soon as she got him on his feet, but he tried. He managed to brace himself against the edge of the cupboard while she climbed inside, and even had the presence of mind to hold onto the sheet around his waist. As soon as Teyla was inside, she pulled him up, gathering him in her arms and closing the door.

It was cramped, and she couldn't get the door to close all the way. If Erickson spent any time searching the room, he would find them anyway. John's head was leaning against her shoulder and he was breathing heavily. She pressed a hand against his forehead, scowling at the slick heat pouring off his skin. The gunfight continued outside, but it was muffled now, and she allowed herself a brief moment to relax.

John suddenly stiffened in her arms, kicking his legs and choking on a scream. The sound gurgled out of his throat as he began to thrash.

"John?" Teyla whispered, holding onto him and willing him to be quiet. John was staring at something in the corner of the cupboard, illuminated by the light spilling in through the crack in the door. She looked over and felt her heart thrash in her chest at the expressionless face staring back at her.

She'd dropped the scalpel somewhere, set it down when she was looking for a place to hide. She patted the ground around her for a weapon of some kind. In the time it took for her to realize there was nothing to grab, she noticed that the face hadn't moved or reacted in anyway to them.

John was still kicking and flailing, but his strength was quickly flooding out of him. He was breathing too fast, and Teyla could feel his ribs jerking under her arm. She needed to calm him down.

"John, it is okay. It is nothing," she whispered.

"A-Alien," he stuttered, trying to roll away from the corner and toward the door. He kicked his foot out and the door swung wide open.

"No, John. There is no alien," she soothed, wrapping her arms more tightly around his body. "You must be still. You must calm down."


She reached over and grabbed at the expressionless face. It was a mask with large goggles for the eyes and a long plastic box where the mouth should be. The hood was black and would cover a person's entire head. Behind it, she could see a black rubber suit. It did look like an alien, the kind so many of the Earth movies portrayed. She recognized it as protection against gas leaks, similar to a row of suits she'd seen in one of the offices in the chemistry wing.

The gate tech had mentioned something about a gas canister in John's room. It would make sense that they had been knocking him out to kidnap him and had had to wear protection in order to retrieve him. She still wasn't sure how they had managed to get him down here without anyone noticing, but she was relieved to find evidence that the black alien had never existed.

She threw the mask in the corner of the cupboard, out of sight. John quieted down almost immediately, but that might have had more to do with his relative weakness. Only a few hours ago, he'd been in surgery. She lifted him up in her arms and re-settled his head against her shoulder. He moaned slightly, but otherwise didn't react, and she leaned forward to close the cupboard door as much as she could again. John shook in her arms, and she pulled the sheet up until she'd covered him from feet to shoulders.

A dozen bullets pounded into the far wall, and Teyla jolted at the sound of a gurgling cry. She slid her head as close to the door as she could, and saw the gate technician, Mike, on his back staring up at the ceiling. Blood soaked through a wound in his chest. Erickson was screaming but still firing into the hallway, tossing his P90 and pulling a 9mm out of his side holster. He tossed two more grenades and ducked.

The hallway shook from the blast. Teyla closed her eyes instinctively, and opened them to see Ellen crawling toward the gate tech. She pressed her hands into his chest, but it was too late. His eyes had turned glassy and dull, the muscles in his face lax in death. Erickson turned to see what Ellen was doing, and Teyla saw him glance toward the exam table.

"Where the hell did Sheppard go? And the Athosian?" he roared. Teyla pulled back, holding her breath. John lay still in her arms, and she wondered if he was conscious at all. She hoped he wasn't.

"I got all I could," Lipkin suddenly yelled, his voice overriding the chaos. Teyla peered through the crack again and saw the engineer appear from the other room, holding a small disc in his hand. He glanced down at the dead gate tech and paled, and Erickson ripped the disc from him. "Hey!"

"I've only got two grenades and a smoke bomb left. Either you're coming with me or you're not."

Ellen jumped up, blood covering her arms. She took a step forward, but Erickson shook his head. "Not you," he said, raising his hand gun.

Lipkin lurched forward just as Erickson pulled the trigger, bumping the gun enough that it didn't kill the nurse immediately. She staggered backward, tripping over the gate technician's body and falling into the metal table. Teyla watched wide-eyed as she slid to the floor, blood pouring out of a gunshot wound through her shoulder.

"What the hell!" Lipkin screamed, only to be knocked to the ground when Erickson spun around and smashed the butt of his gun into the side of the man's head. The engineer crashed to the floor, moaning but still semi-conscious.

Erickson tossed the smoke grenade into the hallway, followed a second later by his last two grenades. In a move Teyla could only describe as desperate madness, he darted into the corridor, emptying the clip on his hand gun. He had just disappeared from sight when Teyla saw a flash of red, then heard a startled cry and the thump of a body hitting the ground.

"Got him," Ronon called out, his voice cutting through the suddenly quiet space.

Teyla closed her eyes, relief flooding through her. She hugged John closer to her, feeling his heart beating under her fingers and his chest rising and falling with every steady inhale and exhale.

Chapter 16

John sat on the edge of the bench, willing his body to stop trembling. Security and medical personnel swarmed around the room, chattering away, yelling commands and calling in reports. Teyla sat next to him, rubbing a hand absently across his back. He tried not to sag into her, but he was exhausted, wanting nothing more than to lay down.

He forced himself to sit up a little straighter. Not yet. This was almost over, but not quite. He vaguely recalled waking up on the exam table and crawling over to Teyla, then the two of them climbing into the cupboard until Ronon and the security teams had burst into the room.

The next few minutes had been a rush of chaos. Ronon had helped him out of the cupboard and set him on the bench, and Teyla had climbed out immediately afterward. Medical teams had arrived within minutes, and someone had found a clean pair of scrubs in one of the boxes around the room, which he had gratefully pulled on.

He and Teyla sat in silence, watching the medics work on the nurse. There was a lot of blood, the puddle growing beneath her regardless of what the emergency personnel did. Her face grew steadily paler as well. John overheard enough to know she had been shot at almost point blank range and the bullet had passed through the upper part of her chest. The engineer sat against the wall with his hands tied behind him, his gaze riveted to the chaos surrounding the nurse. A sheet covered a third man—a gate technician, according to Teyla.

Carson rushed into the room, taking in the scene. He glanced over at John and Teyla, nodding in relief, then immediately knelt next to Ellen to help with their resuscitation efforts. One of the medics slid back and made his way over to John.

"Sir—" he started but John shook his head.

"I'm okay," he said, hearing his voice shake.

"Sir, I really don't think—"

"Please, just give me a minute," he hissed, and he felt Teyla grab his arm, squeezing it with reassurance.

"We are fine for now," she said. "I will call you if you are needed."

The medic nodded, though he still looked skeptical, and moved back toward the chaos around the nurse. Ronon appeared at the door, sliding along the wall to stay out of the way and moving toward John and Teyla.

"You okay?"

John nodded. He wasn't okay, exactly, but he would be, and knowing that made him more than okay. The black alien hadn't been real. Just images his drugged mind had conjured when he'd seen someone—Erickson, he presumed—wearing the gas mask and suit. The abductions had been real, but all very much bounded to Atlantis. McKay was in the far room where the engineer had been set up, trying to figure out what they had done and how they had managed to pull it off.

He shivered, remembering Teyla's recounting of what had happened while he'd been unconscious—the experiments and the nurse's explanation of what they had been looking for. Ronon leaned over, grabbing a blanket from a stack next to the bench and handing it to John.

John grabbed it, letting Teyla help him wrap it around his shoulders. He told himself he was cold, but the blanket hid the trembling coursing through him. He was really going to need to lie down soon, but he knew he'd be asleep within seconds and he needed to know everyone was caught and in the brig—that this was truly over.

"Where's Erickson?" John asked, glancing over at Ellen when a heart monitor was attached. The machine beeped frantically, and John wished Carson would turn the damn thing off.

"In the hall, still unconscious," Ronon answered, glaring at the scene on the floor.

The heart monitor stuttered then flat-lined, and Carson cursed. Medics leaned in, moving with controlled fear as they began CPR. John closed his eyes, turning away from the sight. He knew she'd ultimately saved his life, but he was having a hard time feeling any kind of sympathy for her at the moment.

"Tied up?" he asked, just to say something over the drone of the flat line.

Ronon just stared at him. Of course he was tied up. He was lucky he wasn't dead. Ronon looked ready to offer that as an option, but they needed Erickson alive. They needed to know how deep this group had infiltrated Atlantis. He jolted in surprise at the whining clap of a defibrillator and looked over to see the nurse's body jerk against the floor. Teyla's grasp on his arm had tightened, but he wasn't sure if she was trying to reassure him or if it was because of the scene in front of them.

The monitor picked up her heart beat again, weak as it was, and the medical personnel seemed to relax a little. John was having a hard time figuring out if he wanted her to live or not, and thinking about it was starting to give him a headache. Two Marines moved around behind Carson, loading the dead gate technician onto a gurney and pushing him out of sight into the hallway.

McKay appeared and scanned the room, snapping his fingers and pointing when he spotted Ronon. "Need your help," he yelled out. "I need you to make him help us," he said, pointing at the engineer sitting on the floor. The man in question jerked his head up in surprise, his face blanching, and Ronon stepped toward him with grinning snarl.

"How are you, John?" Teyla whispered.

"Okay," he answered.

"Perhaps you should lie down."

He shook his head, swallowing against a growing queasiness in his gut. "Not yet," he answered. "I just need to know everything's under control."

"John," Teyla said, grabbing his face and turning it toward her. "You are safe. I would not say that if I did not believe it. When they were running their experiment, I thought you…I didn't think you would be able to survive." Her voice caught in her throat and she took a deep breath. "We need you to be healed. There is a gurney in the hallway—I will tell the medics there that you are not to be taken from this place until I say so, but please, go lay down."

He found himself nodding, unable to turn down her pleading request. She smiled, helping him stand up and then holding onto him when he swayed. They shuffled toward the door, walking as far away from the gaggle of people around the nurse as they could and slipped out into the hall.

It was quieter there, although John could still hear Carson trying to save the nurse's life. Her heartbeat stuttered erratically, and the whine of the defibrillator charging echoed out into the hallway. He sat down on the gurney, relieved he'd managed to stay on his feet the entire way. The gate technician had presumably been taken to the morgue—there was no sign of him in the hallway. Erickson lay unconscious on his stomach a dozen or so feet away, his hands secured behind his back, still stunned from Ronon's blast.

"Dammit! Ronon, stop him—"

There was a crash, and a chorus of screams intermingled with the electric thumping of the defibrillator paddles. Teyla spun around, but kept one hand on John's shoulder.

"Go," he ordered, his voice rough.

She hurried into the room, along with the two Marines standing guard in the hallway. John could hear more yelling and crashing, and he pushed himself off the edge of the gurney. He glanced up and down the hallway, seeing no one and took a tentative step forward.

Then froze. He glanced down the hall where Erickson should have been laying, but the man was gone. Crap. Another crash sounded in the lab rooms and the distinctive tone of a flat line hummed around him.

He heard something clatter to the floor, not far from where he was standing and originating from somewhere down the hall. It had to be Erickson. Adrenaline surged through him, shoving back the weak shakiness permeating his body. He turned to the door, seeing smoke billowing out of the lab room, and people yelling. He was about to yell for help, then stopped, wondering if that would tip Erickson off that he'd been noticed.

He turned back to the long corridor and staggered toward the sound, hoping one of the Marines, or Ronon, or Teyla would reappear behind him and follow him. His vision swam in and out of focus, and he trailed a hand along the wall, trusting the sensation of solidity against his fingers. As long as the wall didn't move, he would be okay. He just had to go straight. He had stumbled a couple dozen feet when he spotted a small corridor branching off of the main one.

That had to be where Erickson had gone. He approached it quietly, leaning his shoulder into the wall. He blinked, taking a deep breath to chase away the black spots dancing across his vision. Pain pounded through his temples and behind his eyes, the pressure in his sinuses making his head feel swollen. He reached a hand up, fingering the line of stitches along the side of his skull. It wasn't bleeding, but it was hot to the touch, and he winced at the sharp sting the slightest contact caused.

He peered around the corner, straining his ears for any sign of Erickson. He thought he could hear a soft scraping or clicking sound somewhere down the hall, and he sighed in relief when he saw Erickson kneeling in front of a door, the opening mechanism in pieces as he worked to override the lock.

The area looked vaguely like the main hallways leading to the west pier, but John had no sense of where he was or what direction they were moving in. Back toward the city? Out to the pier? Erickson clearly had some kind of plan.

He'd also managed to get himself out of the wrist ties. John would have to have a talk with the security forces about that. He glanced back down the hallway toward the lab, hearing an explosive pop and more yelling, but no one appeared in the hallway. A hydraulic hiss told him Erickson had managed to get his door open, and John glanced around the corner in time to see the Marine stand up and run through it.

Damn. He pushed away from the wall and forced his legs to move. Without shoes, his feet padded almost silently along the short corridor. Erickson's jimmying with the door looked like it had broken it completely. The doors slid shut a few inches then stuck, leaving ample room for John to slide through.

His legs wobbled beneath him, but he grit his teeth. Erickson was getting away. The door opened up into a small open bay connected to the pier. Large open doors on the far wall lit every corner of the empty room, the sunlight almost painfully bright. John ran toward the bay, squinting as he stepped into the sun. Erickson was only a few dozen feet ahead of him, closer than he expected.

"Erickson!" John screamed. The sight of the man ignited a twisting mass of fury inside his chest, and he sprinted toward the large Marine as fast as his rubbery legs would carry him.

Erickson spun around in shock, staring at John like he was seeing a dead man suddenly brought to life. The momentary fear quickly shifted into a sneer.

"Sheppard," he said, the smile pulling at his lips making him look deranged. "You trying to stop me?"

"It's over, Erickson." John slowed down, coming to a stop less than ten feet away and acutely aware that he had no weapons. He resisted glancing over his shoulder, and hoped Teyla or someone would come out to check on him and figure out where he'd gone. Soon.

"Hardly." Erickson took a step back, digging into the front pocket of his uniform shirt. He pulled out a small, silver disc. "We got what we needed. Well, almost. Enough for us to continue our work, and the fact that you survived will go over very well with my superiors."

"I doubt they care whether I live or die," John said, mind racing. Erickson was huge and strong. He thought of Ronon's training class—the man knew how to fight. Even on a good day, John wasn't sure he could take the man down in a hand-to-hand match.

"Oh, but they do. You've been very useful to us, Sheppard. I imagine they'll want to use you again in the future, especially since we didn't quite finish what we started." He waved the disc in the air.

John swallowed, feeling dread sweep through him. His heart was starting to pound as well. This had to end now. The thought of Erickson escaping, of being out there to kidnap him again and repeat the same hell of the last couple of weeks was too horrifying. He shook his head. Not gonna happen.

Erickson grinned, glancing down at his shirt pocket for a split second as he started to put the disc away. John launched himself at the man, lowering his shoulder and hoping the complete insanity of trying to tackle the healthy Marine would catch the man off-guard and give John a slight chance at success. He impacted a second later, feeling his shoulder ram into Erickson's gut, and his momentum sent both of them flying to the ground.

John landed on top of Erickson, and while his body was a little softer than the floor of the pier, it still jarred painfully. John's breath whooshed out of him in a rush, and agony blossomed in his already aching head. He lay still for a second, his brain screaming at his lungs to remember how to breathe.

Erickson squirmed underneath him, and John felt the man grab him by the scrub top. He latched onto the Marine's arms and held on, unable to do much else. Erickson tried to shove him away, but John clung to him and they rolled. He found himself pinned to the ground, the Marine straddling him, and he looked up just as Erickson cocked his fist back. He twisted, bringing his arms up to deflect the blow and felt the man's knuckles graze the side of his cheek.

It hurt, but not as badly as he had expected. Had Erickson hit him full on, he probably would have killed him. Instead, the fist slid past John's face and slammed into the ground. Erickson howled, jerking backward and cradling his arm. John rolled away from him and pushed himself to his knees, closing his eyes when the world suddenly tilted.

Where the hell are Teyla and Ronon? Erickson was on the ground, his face red as he rocked. A few feet behind him, John spotted the silver disc glinting in the sunlight. He surged toward it on hands and knees, sensing more than seeing Erickson climb to his knees, John's movement drawing him back into the fight.

John grabbed the disc and twisted toward the Marine, but he was still on his knees, hampering his agility. Erickson rammed into him, one hand reaching for the disc. His face was a mask of fury, his focus entirely on the disc. They rolled, and John caught a glimpse of the edge of the pier less than ten feet away.

Erickson brought his knee up, burying it into John's stomach. John grunted, feeling his grip on the disc loosen. Some sense of rationality finally seemed to descend on the Marine, and he paused, pushing himself to his knees. One hand was still cradled against his body, and John could see blood dripping from the knuckles.

"You're a fool, Sheppard," Erickson sneered, digging into the side pocket of his pants.

John's body shook as he struggled to breath. He'd known he wouldn't be able to last long, and he was reaching the end of his stamina now. He glanced behind him, toward the city, and heard Erickson laugh.

"Looking for your friends? I'm afraid they're a little late."

John looked back just as the man pulled a small knife. The wrist ties fell out of his pocket at the same time, cut in two. He had seconds, maybe less, before Erickson stabbed him and grabbed the disc, then escaped to…wherever. The Marine narrowed his eyes, wrapping his hand tightly around the hilt of the blade.

Erickson gives himself away before he moves. The thought flashed through his mind and John remembered watching him fight Teyla, seeing how his eyes shifted and his muscles tensed right before he made his move. With a hoarse yell, John flung the disc behind him toward the edge of the pier and nodded in satisfaction at the small splash, all of the data sinking into the depths of the ocean.

Erickson followed the disc as it sailed through the air and hit the water, and John used the split second of distraction to push himself away from the Marine, managing to move mere inches. Erickson's face dropped in horror, then morphed into blinding rage. He glanced back down at John and raised the knife above his head.

He tensed, his eyes twitching, and John twisted, jabbing a fist out toward Erickson's broken hand. The knife plunged down toward him, but it sliced across his stomach rather than plunged into his chest. Erickson screamed a second later as the pain of being punched in his hand registered, and John scooted back farther, putting as much distance as he could between himself and his crazed attacker.

He couldn't get up. He could barely roll away. Pain radiated out from the cut on his torso and he pressed a hand against the bleeding wound. His heart pounded from the exertion, his lungs working overtime. Dark spots floated across his vision and John knew he wouldn't be able to stop Erickson again.

He heard a clatter of steps behind him, but the sound was muffled. Rushing wind wrapped around his head, threatening to suffocate him. He could still see Erickson curled up over his hand, but then the Marine suddenly straightened to stare at something behind John. He glanced toward the ocean a moment later, and John watched him jump to his feet and sprint toward the edge of the pier.

The familiar blast of red caught him in the chest, but he was too close to the edge and running too fast. His body pitched forward, sliding along the ground the last few feet then spilling over the edge into the water. John heard shouts from behind him but his strength had deserted him and he lay sprawled on the ground.

"John?" a voice echoed above him and he blinked open his eyes, realizing belatedly that they had slid shut. Teyla's face appeared above him, her eyes wide as she looked down at him.

"Hey," his whispered.

"Just hold on. Carson is on his way."

John nodded, grimacing when Teyla pressed her hand into the gash on his stomach. More steps pounded across the pier, and John heard people jumping into the water. Ronon appeared at his side, resting a hand on John's shoulder.

"Thanks," John breathed out, and Ronon nodded, grinning.

Carson's brogue suddenly overrode the chaos around them, his voice growing louder as he got closer. John smiled, feeling almost giddy. "It's over."

"Yes, it is," Teyla answered, grabbing his hand.

She continued to press the bandage into his stomach with her other hand, but the pain of it was dimming, growing numb. John sighed at the relief. He felt his eyes drifting close and the effort of keeping them open was more than he could manage. Darkness rushed in, chasing away the voices of his friends begging him to hold on.

The sun was rising, setting the ocean on fire and the sky ablaze. It was one of the more spectacular views John had seen in a while, and he was glad he'd woken up early enough to catch it. Carson was going to kill him when he discovered John missing from bed, but the moment of peace and beauty would be worth the Scottish ire he knew he would incite.

He hadn't realized how much he'd needed this until he'd gotten out here. The infirmary balcony faced the rising sun, and John snuggled into the reclining chair, pulling the lone blanket he'd dragged with him up around his shoulders. The morning was cold, but clear skies promised a warm day later. Wincing as the stitches in his stomach pulled, he hoped Carson wouldn't be so upset with him that he didn't let him out again later.

He reveled in the silence. He remembered little after passing out on the pier, only that Teyla and Ronon had arrived in time to stop Erickson, but the infirmary had been a rush of chaos over the last couple of days, so much so that John had managed to get little sleep despite his and Carson's best efforts. He wasn't quite healthy enough to be released to his room—or so the doctors kept telling him—but he knew that all he needed was some space and a little quiet.

Erickson had been stunned as he'd flown off the edge of the pier and into the ocean. By the time rescue teams had brought him up to the surface, he'd stopped breathing. They'd saved him, at least initially. John had lain unconscious in the infirmary for more than a day, and by the time he'd been coherent enough to know what was going on, Erickson had been declining rapidly.

He sighed, his warm breath huffing out into the morning chill, and shifted again, his movement stilted by the foam neck brace he still had to wear for another day or two. Carson had rambled on and on about his brainwaves, his explanation doing more to exacerbate John's headache than assuage it. All John knew was he was exhausted. Beyond exhausted. He'd been rescued from the pier four days earlier, and he'd spent most of that time sleeping.

And when he wasn't sleeping, he was thinking, and that wasn't doing him much good either. The bottom of the sun pulled away from the water and began its slow crawl across the sky, muting the reds and oranges into softer hues. From this height, he couldn't hear anything but the faint whistle of air through the city's towers, but he could imagine ocean waves splashing against each other, lapping up against the city.

Erickson had died the day after being fished out of the water, the strain of the cold water and too many minutes without oxygen finally overwhelming him. He hadn't woken up once, so none of them had gotten a chance to talk to him. John had woken to the shrill of the heart monitor and the medical staff's frantic efforts to save him. When one of the doctors had finally called out a time of death, he'd clamped a hand over his mouth to keep from yelling out in triumph at the same time as a heaviness had settled in his chest with seemingly permanent gravity.

The gate tech had been killed in the shoot-out. John hadn't known him at all, so his death had been relatively easy to accept. Lipkin had nearly blown up the entire building when McKay had tried to get him to help with his alien mind-scan machine—whatever the hell it was. In the chaos that had followed, he'd managed to swallow a suicide pill, dying before any information could be forced from him.

And then there was Ellen. He had no idea what to do with her. Teyla had told him what she'd done for him, how she'd been instrumental in saving both of their lives, but she'd also been at the center of the abductions and experimentations. She'd been just as responsible as Lipkin, Erickson and the gate technician. Though Carson's team had worked for more than an hour trying to save her, she'd died at the scene.

John leaned his head back against the chair and shivered. Too many thoughts and memories wouldn't stay shoved away in their dark little hole. The rising sun threw rays of warmth at him, but it wasn't nearly enough. He shivered harder. Damn, he should have brought another blanket out. He was constantly cold, something about Lipkin's machine shocking his system badly enough that it had thrown his internal temperature control out of whack. Cold, fatigue, headaches.


He sucked in a deep breath, forcing his eyes open, and shook his head. Not depression—something about brainwaves and brain chemistry and shock. Carson had explained it to him, told him it would pass as his body recovered. What he was feeling was just as much a result of his physical condition as anything, though Kate had stopped by the day before and John had been around long enough to know that wouldn't be her last visit before he was finally released to active duty.

The doors slid open, and John braced himself, expecting Carson or one of the nurses to come out in a rage to bring him back inside. He was AWOL, and that never went over well with the medical staff, but he didn't want to go inside yet. He just needed to sit out here a little while longer. He turned away from the footsteps, facing the sun with closed eyes.


Teyla. Her voice was soft, almost hesitant, but the hand on his arm was warm. He turned toward her and smiled. "Hey."

"Am I disturbing you?"

"No," he said, shaking his head. "Thought you were Beckett come to tell me to go back inside." He paused, narrowing his eyes. "You aren't here to take me inside, are you?"

Teyla laughed, her voice light and floating on the breeze. "I am not," she said. "In fact, I was told to bring you an extra blanket."

She flipped open the blanket she'd brought and spread it out over him. John shifted his weight as she tucked it in around him and grimaced at the throb in his stomach. The trek out to the balcony had been a little more movement than what his body was ready for. Warmth immediately began to pool around him, and he let himself relax back into the chair. Glancing up at Teyla's concerned gaze, he nodded at her silent question and let the scowl of pain drop from his face.

It must have worked. Rather than call for help, Teyla sighed, patting him on the arm and pulling up a chair next to him. They gazed out across the ocean and the flecks of gold shimmering across its rough surface.

"It is beautiful," she breathed.


They sat in silence a little while longer before he felt her eyes on him, studying him.

"How are you doing?" she finally asked. "Carson said he removed the nasal packs yesterday evening."

"Yeah, he did," John answered, smiling. One more step in his recovery. "Doc says I'll be out of here in a couple more days."

"That is good news," Teyla said, squeezing his arm. "Ronon tells me he has searched every inch of your room and can find no more sign of the New Trust's work."

"That's good."

"Rodney said he has found the remains of the device he believed was used to beam you out of your room at night. He was quite impressed with it, actually, and thoroughly disappointed that the entire machine was so completely destroyed by Doctor Lipkin in the end."

"Kind of glad it was destroyed," John murmured. Maybe knowing that would help keep some of the nightmares at bay. He was making great strides, physically, but he wasn't there yet. He had to keep reminding himself that it had only been four days since he'd had the biopsy, which had turned into minor surgery to remove the implant. Carson had given him more details than he'd wanted about the small device and the organic matter it had been encased in to stay lodged in his sinus cavity, but it hadn't been a brain tumor. It hadn't even required brain surgery, per se, just little clampy things to pull the mass out through his nose.

John felt his stomach flip at the memory of that particular conversation—Way too many details, Doc!—and pushed it out of his mind. As if the surgery and the discovery of the implant hadn't been enough, he'd then been kidnapped and brutally experimented upon for the last time. Teyla's descriptions of what had been done to him had been horrifying, providing yet more fodder for his persistent nightmares. These last few weeks were going to take a while for him to get over.

But he would get over it—of that, he was confident. He had seen and experienced a lot of crap over the last several years, and this was yet one more of those to work through and then move on.

"Was he able to pull any data from Lipkin's machine?"

Teyla paused, frowning. John knew the easy answer to his question was yes, but based on her expression, the data they were able to get couldn't be pleasant. He swallowed, balling his hands into fists under the blankets.

"Teyla?" he urged. He needed to know—not knowing had been the worst part of the last few weeks.

"There was a log tracking the number of times you were abducted."

"How many?" he whispered. He remembered three, maybe four, if the dreams were anything to go by.

"The log is incomplete, but Rodney estimates it was at least six times. It began soon after we returned to Atlantis with the first wave of expedition members. Lipkin, Erickson, the nurse, and the gate technician were all on that first trip."

Six. He had no memory of at least half of those times, and the others were mingled with bizarre, horrifying dream images that didn't make sense and couldn't possibly be true. At least he knew, though.

"Oh, I spoke to Elizabeth right before I came to see you. She has been discussing this situation with the SGC and they are running their own investigation. They believe they found a member of the New Trust working within Cheyenne Mountain, and they are in the process of questioning him now. They seem to believe he has information on the names of many of this group's members. He was integral in getting the four Trust members to Atlantis."

"That's good news. Really good news," John said. They'd been left with no one—all four known New Trust members on Atlantis had been killed. There was no one to tell them who else was in the group, who their contact was on Earth, what else they'd been up to. McKay's teams and the security teams were still searching every avenue they had, but without the perpetrators alive to question, there was only so much they could uncover.

"It was also discovered that Sergeant Erickson was not actually the man he claimed to be. The real sergeant was killed a number of months ago, and the man claiming to be the Marine took his place. They are still working to identify who he was, but he was not one of your men."

The sun hit the edge of a cloud, and the sky turned a purplish blue. It would be a brilliant day—perfect for flying. He closed his eyes, suddenly seeing himself standing on a tarmac and facing the rising sun, a brisk wind in his face and his chopper gleaming and waiting for him. It wasn't just a perfect day for flying—it was one of those days when he wished with every cell of his body that Atlantis had a Pave Hawk lying around. Jumpers were amazing crafts, but sometimes he missed the wind on his face, the thudding sound of spinning blades overhead, the kick of dust as he landed and took off, the pull of gravity and momentum.

He let his mind drift back to what Teyla had said, mulling over the information. They were inching slowly toward uncovering the deception completely, and John began to feel like they were that much closer to resolving it once and for all.

His body sank into the recliner. He was tired, and despite the growing daylight, his body was urging him to give in to the desire to sleep and to hell with the nightmares he knew would be waiting for him for days to come. Carson was doing his best to help him fight them off—as were his teammates—and he knew that the stronger he got, the easier it would be to move on, but for now, they were still there, prowling the edges of consciousness.

"I should warn you," Teyla said, breaking the silence and grabbing his hand, "Ronon is growing bored again."

John smiled at the image. "Maybe Ronon needs to go on a little field trip."

"I concur. He was a little disappointed that he did not get to question any of the people involved in your abductions. I believe a hunting trip on the mainland might be a good idea, for the sake of the Marines in his training class at the very least."

He laughed, shaking his head then wincing at the aching twinge in his neck the movement caused. He brought a hand up to his neck to knead the muscles and scowled when his fingers brushed against the brace. "I recall McKay saying Zelenka wanted to go to the main land to do some geological tests in a week or two. Maybe Ronon can tag along with him."

"That sounds like an excellent idea," Teyla replied, a mischievous glint in her eye.

John smiled, then shivered at the brisk wind picking up off the ocean. Blue skies hovered over them, bright and majestic. When Carson appeared a few minutes later to bring him back inside, he gave in without argument, his thoughts already coasting ahead to what the following days would bring.

The End
Mild profanity and violence; Takes place immediately after The Return I and II and before Echoes, so spoilers up to that point in season 3
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