Whipping Boy
Big Bang 2009.   Anything goes.
McKay, Lorne, and three teams of Marines head out on a research mission to a planet on the edge of the galaxy, and disappear without a trace.  Eight months later Lorne returns with two injured team members, a counterfeit McKay, and no explanations.  What the hell happened eight months ago, and where's McKay?
Word Count
45754 words
Thank you to my betas, goblie and cali0623!
This story has warnings; they are listed at the end of the story.
Jump to the warnings.
Companion Artwork
  • Ascension and Simon by soloproject
  • Whipping Boy cover by soloproject

The incoming wormhole klaxon blared through the Atlantis gate room. Instantly, the gate techs leaped into motion, fingers flying over the Ancient consoles as they checked for an IDC or potentially other signals. Team Six was out, and though they weren't due to call in yet it was possible they were coming in early. Woolsey strolled out of his office to lean on the railing overlooking the gate room.

"Unscheduled off world activation!" Chuck announced.

"Thank you, Mr Campbell. I see that," Woolsey said calmly. "Are they broadcasting an IDC?"

When there was no response, he turned to stare at the Canadian gate tech. "Mr. Campbell?"

Chuck was white faced and staring. "Y-yes," he stuttered, more shaken than Woolsey had ever seen him. "There is." He turned wide eyes towards the gate. "It's Major Lorne, sir!"

At the announcement, all of the personnel on duty froze in place. One of the Marines stationed at the foot of the steps lifted his hand to his radio, tapping it three times in quick succession.

Woolsey straightened, tugging a little on his expedition jacket. The strain around his eyes showed his fight to keep whatever he was feeling off his face. "Very well," he said slowly. "Notify Colonel Sheppard." He gave a quick glance at the Marine who had tapped his radio, and the man looked away, vaguely shamefaced. "Additional guards to the gate room, please." Two full squads flooded in through the lower level doors, taking up protective positions around the gate. "Mr. Campbell, lower the iris and let Major Lorne know we're waiting for him."

John burst into the gate room at a full run, skidding to a halt just inside the doors and barely before he would have bowled over one of his Marines. They were positioned in a semi-circle around the gate, spread out just enough to ensure full coverage of the wormhole while avoiding the potential for a friendly crossfire that could take them all out. A small part of his mind approved; the greater part by far was holding his breath waiting for Lorne and his team to step through the gate.

Eight months late for check-in.

The iris flicked out, and they heard the distinctive deep sound signifying something coming through.

John gritted his teeth, focussing intently on the gate. Teyla's hand on his arm startled him badly, but he managed to bring himself back to stillness before his reflex to strike out got away from him. He glanced down at her to see the same intensity he felt echoed on her face, and on Ronon's when he appeared over Teyla's shoulder an instant later. A movement on the steps caught his eye and he saw Zelenka start to plunge down them, only to be stopped by Sergeant Georges' hand on his arm. A look up showed him Woolsey, self-contained as always, calm and collected at the railing. Only the white-knuckles of his grasp on the metal showed that he felt something entirely different.

The first Marine stepped out of the gate; Sergeant Jarvath. He stopped at the sight of all the guns levelled at him, then stepped precisely to the side to clear the gate and dropped to his knees. He lifted his hands to his head in a gesture so smooth it had the echo of much practice. He carried no visible weapons. John's gut lurched.

Jarvath's shoulders sagged in what looked like exhaustion. His face was grey, but clean-shaven. John saw the glint of silver at his wrist, almost hidden by the cuff of his long-sleeved black BDU shirt. His attention was diverted by the next arrival.

Lieutenant Dorovici was next. She too stopped at the sight of the guns, moved behind Jarvath, and knelt gracefully. She looked as fatigued as Jarvath, her clothes similarly rumpled. Her dark hair had been cut short, and her cheekbones stood out starkly under her dark skin. She wore her shirtsleeves rolled up, and a heavy, wide metal bracelet encircled her left wrist. The light rippled strangely across it, making John's eyes skitter away. It was like it didn't want to be seen.

Lorne stepped out of the gate.

The gate room was completely silent as he looked around carefully, nodding at the soldiers pointing their weapons at him. He glanced at Jarvath and Dorovici, who were staring straight ahead, stared again around the room as if drinking it all in. His eyes fell on John, and a broad smile crossed his face. "Colonel Sheppard," he said softly, "It's really good to see you, sir."

John eased his way around the Marine in front of him, careful not to step into the line of fire. "Hey, Lorne," he said carefully. "It's been a long time." He ran his eyes over Lorne closely, noting the clean BDUs and the same signs of exhaustion as the other two.

The smile left Lorne's eyes and his face hardened. "Yes, sir. It has." He gestured at the Marines. "I know it won't matter, but this is unnecessary."

"It's good to see you, Major," Woolsey spoke from the upper railing. As Lorne tilted his head back to look at him, John saw silver around his wrist. His gut was all out churning now. "I know you appreciate our need for caution."

"Of course." Lorne nodded.

"I must also ask, Major," Woolsey paused as if to find a tactful way of putting his question, then continued delicately. "Where is the rest of your team?"

"And Doctor McKay," Teyla interrupted. "Evan, please… Where is Rodney?"

Lorne's face tightened into a blank mask. He opened his mouth, and then closed it. His lips compressed. "They're fine," he finally said expressionlessly. "Doctor McKay…" He stopped, his head cocked to the side as if he were listening to a radio. John checked, but both of Lorne's ears were empty of devices. As one, Lorne and his team turned their heads to look at the gate.

The low burble of wormhole travel came again. The Marines, who had relaxed ever so slightly, snapped back into full attention, barrels trained unwaveringly on the gate. John felt the muscles in his back tighten into hard balls of tension under his tac vest. He couldn't even have said what made him put it on in the city today.

Rodney stepped out of the gate.

It whooshed out of existence behind him.

"Ah," he said. "Atlantis."

Lorne loved taking his team through the gate.

There was absolutely nothing like it, that thrill of stepping into the unknown. Even when they were heading to a planet they'd been to plenty of times, walking into an active gate was still like jumping off a cliff into treacherous waters.

He loved leading a team. He could understand why General O'Neill still struggled, and he couldn't imagine giving it up himself. His team was family in a way that his real family never was, despite how close he'd been to his mom.

He loved Atlantis. Being in the city made him itch to paint, and it was the kind of home where he could indulge himself and no one would care.

He loved the look of the gate, the way that the silver and blue rippled like water on a struck drum. The way it sounded; the faint barely noticeable vibration surrounding it that ran over his skin like electrified silk. It made the hair stand up on his arms and turned gate travel into something like foreplay. He could always tell the people who felt that little tingle from the ones who didn't. The ones who felt it would hover near the gate, usually on the verge of just too close. They'd use excuses to approach it when it was live, and they'd volunteer for off world whenever they could.

The ones who didn't feel it viewed the gate as either an artefact or a chore, or something to be feared. His very first trip with Doctor Zelenka he knew the man had zero feel for the gate, or possibly even a negative one.

Today's mission was somewhere in between the unknown and the comfortable. A trip to a planet that had advanced to basic flight, only maybe thirty years behind Earth's level of technology. The planet was on the very edge of Pegasus, to the point that their sky was largely barren of stars for half the night. Lorne tried to imagine being positioned right on the edge of the void, wondered how that would shape the culture of the people who lived there. Would they chase the stars all the harder, or would they huddle in fear against the darkness?

This was Lorne and Team Two's first time to Akarym, though Team Six had surveyed it pretty thoroughly and had set up the first trading agreements. This was a straightforward follow up, technology trading at their level.

Lorne checked the buckles on Lieutenant Dorovici's vest and gave her a thumbs-up and a smile. She grinned back then ran competent hands over his before tightening one pointedly. She turned away to check on Parrish and Sergeant Jarvath, slim straight shoulders making him long for his paintbrush.

"Rodney, are you sure…" Colonel Sheppard hobbled into view beside McKay, trying to check him over as McKay half-jogged for the gate platform. The cast encasing Sheppard's left leg from knee to toes hampered him but he still managed to make good speed, practically Lorne scratched his chin and turned away to hide his grimace, half humour and half resignation.

He liked Doctor McKay, he did, but the man was still a lot more tolerable with the rest of his team around to act as a buffer. Unfortunately for everyone involved, this time he was joining Lorne, and the rest of SGA-1 was staying behind.

"This place is on the very edge of intergalactic space, Sheppard. Of course I'm going," McKay declared. "Or have you forgotten the 'astro' part of 'astro-physicist'?"

"This place will still be there in six weeks," Sheppard shot back.

"Ha!" McKay checked his vest rapidly, likely counting his power bars. Sheppard swatted his hands away and started to check him over himself, carefully going through each pocket and verifying nothing was missed. McKay let him and started double checking his back pack and tablet.

Now, McKay was a strange one. Lorne would have thought he would be someone who hated the gate, but instead he'd developed an addiction for off world that easily equalled any Lorne had seen. He also hid it the best of anyone Lorne had met.

But Lorne always knew who loved the gate.

Sheppard had insisted on two extra squads for additional support on the mission, declaring loudly that McKay was a walking trouble magnet and that the additional guns were just a smart precaution. The two teams were Kilo and Bravo, both fully experienced teams who also happened to have the best marksmanship scores of any group other than the first-years.

Kilo was the top team, led by Lieutenant Martin. Martin was a good man to have at your back, solid and absolutely loyal. He was also easy to pick out of a group, his pale skin prone to practically glowing in the dark and his thick shock of auburn hair habitually messy enough to give the Colonel's serious competition for least-military. He was standing by the side of the gate, waiting patiently for the stragglers to arrive. Beside him stood Sergeant Keely Jessop. Her height, rich dark hair and deep brown eyes had come in useful on many missions, where simply putting her in the path of the male leaders could lead to a favourable trade agreement. The fact that she was possibly the deadliest knife fighter Lorne had ever seen was a bonus.

Kilo was rounded out by Sergeant Hyram Juliard, a short dark haired, dark eyed, suave Creole with a Louisiana drawl and an incredible facility for poker, and Corporal Nick Julian, Kilo's medic. Julian had a quick wit and a crooked smile, that combined with green eyes, dark hair and a slim face to make him a very popular man with the women of Atlantis – and everywhere else Lorne had ever seen him.

The second team was Bravo, one of the few teams comprised of five members. It was led by Captain Vesna Terovic, a petite redheaded dynamo who knit in her spare time, barely came up to Lorne's shoulder, and could kick his ass twice a day without breaking a sweat. Perhaps to make up for her diminutive size, she had two of the largest marines in Atlantis on her team. Sergeant Blaine was more a black haired, brown eyed, dark-skinned mountain than a man, and was the only person Lorne could ever remember making Ronon look small. Sergeant Georges was only a few inches shorter, but where Blaine was built like a barrel Georges was built like a sprinter. Together they looked a little like a before and after shot of a steroids ad.

Corporal Elena Kristova, whose tiny stature, blond hair and blue eyes made her look like she should be cheerleading at a high-school football game but who was one of Atlantis' top explosives experts. jogged into the gate room and up to the gate platform. She was followed by Corporal Rafael Ophelio. Like with Dorovici, every time Lorne saw Ophelio it made him want to pick up his paintbrush. Possibly the best medic in the Atlantis marine contingent, Ophelio looked like he should be on the pages of some fantasy magazine, 'Latin Lovers R Us' maybe. If he'd known his effect or played to it the way Julian did, Lorne was pretty sure someone would have killed him by now, but Lorne had never met anyone less aware of his looks.

Lorne nodded at Lieutenant Dorovici, who trotted over to double check their equipment and readiness. He understood why Sheppard would insist on extra support when McKay was heading out with them, and he didn't mind the help. He just wished that McKay had simply waited until the rest of his team could join him before remembering the 'astro' in his degree. Dorovici finished her check and gave him the thumbs-up, which he turned and passed on to Chuck.

Chuck lifted a hand in acknowledgement and stated out loud for Mr. Woolsey's benefit, "All ready, sir."

"Ok, team, ready positions," Lorne said loudly to cut through the usual soft chatter. Immediately the teams marshalled up into loose groups of four, plus Doctor McKay near the middle. McKay hurriedly stuck his life signs detector cum energy signature analyser to his vest. Lorne couldn't help the smile that crossed his face as he remembered the argument over naming it. For his own part, he had fifty bucks on them settling on 'Tricorder'. It was what he called it in his own head already. He'd gotten his team calling it that too. It was just a matter of time before McKay caved.

He glanced up at Woolsey, wondering at the delay. Normally the gate would be dialled pretty much instantly on the ready signal. Woolsey's eyes were on Sheppard, who hadn't cleared the gate platform yet. When Ronon jogged into the room, holstering his energy pistol, Lorne understood.

"Oh, come on," McKay glared at Sheppard, who looked utterly unrepentant. "What's he doing here?"

"Coming with you," Ronon said blandly. He reached out and grabbed McKay by one shoulder of his tac vest, bodily turning him around. "Gate's that way," he said helpfully. Someone snickered, and Lorne grinned right up to the point that McKay saw him. Quickly he swallowed it. Sheppard clapped Ronon on the back and flipped his hand at Chuck, who quickly dialled. "Good luck," he said.

"Ha! They don't need 'luck'," McKay shot back. "They've got me!"

The wormhole whooshed into existence. Lorne felt the familiar tingle start playing over his skin, caressing him like a familiar lover. Damn, it felt good.

He lifted his gun and led the way into this iteration of the unknown.

"That is not McKay," Ronon stated flatly in John's ear. Looking at the man who had walked through the gate, John could only agree.

Oh, he looked like Rodney, albeit dressed in a way that John could never have imagined until now. A long flowing robe like a burnoose covered him from shoulders to toes. The light sand colour reminded John uncomfortably of the uniforms worn by the Ancients on the Aurora. A blue mantle was draped over the robe, and the fabric shimmered slightly in the bright lights. The blue was good for Rodney's eyes, John noted absently before the man craned his neck to look up at the ceiling of the gate room and John was reminded again that this was not him.

Jarvath and Dorovici remained on their knees to the side of the gate, still except for their heads turning in unison to watch the man wearing Rodney's face stroll around the platform and their eyes flicking nervously to the marines covering them all with their P-90s. Lorne had taken in John's consternation, and that of the Marines, and hurried over to the fake Rodney's side to shield him from the weapons. John noted he was careful not to touch the other man, though.

The fake Rodney's gaze fell on John, and he tilted his head. "Lieutenant Colonel Sheppard," he said, and if John had any remaining doubts of who the man wasn't, they were gone. This man spoke coolly, emotionlessly; with a lack of vivacity that Rodney McKay was simply incapable of. Christ, Rodney talked in his sleep with more verve than this guy showed.

Which wasn't to say that the man was robotic or dull. In fact, he radiated a kind of cold tension that John had no idea how to relate to.

Lorne nodded at the fake Rodney. "And Mr. Woolsey, above us at the railing," he said.

Woolsey looked faintly ill, but gathered himself together enough to speak. His voice grew stronger as he talked, apparently finding strength in the familiar patter of diplomacy. "Yes, I'm Richard Woolsey," he said. "And how…" He coughed a little into his fist but recovered. "How shall I refer to you?"

"You may call me McKay," the fake Rodney suggested matter-of-factly.

Lorne winced. Ronon shifted angrily at John's back, and he felt Teyla's fingers dig into his forearm painfully. To restrain him, or herself, John couldn't say.

"Yeah," he found himself saying over the roaring in his ears. "No, I really don't think we can."

The fake Rodney tilted his head, a faint look of confusion crossing his face.

"I too would prefer you choose another name," Woolsey interjected smoothly, bringing the fake Rodney's attention back to him.

The fake Rodney looked at Lorne, who took a deep breath and said, "You can call him Simon."

Simon frowned. "That is informal," he said flatly. "We have not reached a point where informality is warranted."

"It is informal," Lorne agreed. "But calling you McKay would cause confusion."

"Very well," Simon returned to his examination of the gate platform, ignoring all of them.

John shook his head, the sense of unreality that had dropped over him the instant he realised that Simon wasn't Rodney still shrouding him. He had the feeling that he didn't really want that sensation to go away, that it might be the only thing keeping him from completely losing it and attacking this imposter with his bare hands. The fact that Teyla's grip hadn't eased and Ronon was shifting his weight behind them just reinforced that feeling.

Sergeant Jarvath swayed on his knees, his eyes fluttering closed before he forced them back open. His hands remained on his head, but his face had paled even further.

"Mr. Woolsey," Lorne called up, his eyes on Jarvath and Dorovici. "My team requires medical treatment."

Woolsey started a little, brought back from his fascinated appraisal of Simon. "Of course, Major." He waved, and Chuck opened the sealed doors to the corridor leading to the infirmary. "We'll provide a guard to escort them and to ensure their safety."

Lorne nodded, the corners of his mouth turning up in a faint smile that didn't reach his eyes. "I understand," he said calmly. A couple of the Marines climbed the steps, sliding their P-90s down into 'safe' positions as they did so.

"If you wish them to be truly secure, you should remove your loose weapons," Simon spoke up, never looking away from his close examination of the gate. He was running his fingers lightly over the designs etched into the metal. "Theoretically, Sergeant Jarvath and Lieutenant Dorovici could easily take possession of your P-90s and spray the room, killing many including Lieutenant Colonel Sheppard and Mr. Woolsey." He moved over to the opposite side of the gate, fingers never ceasing their careful tracing.

Lorne bit his lip.

The two Marines froze, staring at Simon blankly. John stared too, the unease in his stomach now a constant churn of acid.

Woolsey coughed.

The two Marines quickly stripped off their P-90s and checked the holsters of their side arms, handing off their weapons to their waiting team mates. They were joined by two more, who were taking the potential threat a lot more seriously now, John noted. Jarvath and Dorovici were assisted to their feet and cautiously led from the gate room. A quick look to his left showed Ronon with his pistol in his hand, and a nod had the big man following the group to the infirmary.

"They aren't a threat," Lorne said tiredly. "Just treat them carefully, please."

"Define 'carefully'," John demanded. Somehow he managed to keep the anger out of his voice. Lorne knew it was there, though.

"Carefully," he repeated. "They've been through a lot. They're tired, they're hurt and they need to be treated… carefully."

Woolsey nodded and tapped his radio earpiece, speaking softly into it. John reached up to find he'd lost his somewhere on the mad race to the gate. He took a moment to wonder how Keller was taking the news of Lorne's return. A new warm presence at his side had him looking down, and Zelenka pressed a radio into his hand.

"This is very strange, is it not?" He muttered with his eyes on Simon, who had moved on to the wall behind the gate. Lorne remained close by the other man's side, staying carefully between him and the guns that were still trained their way.

"No fucking kidding," John growled back, twisting the radio over his ear.

".. they could be in a fragile state," he heard Woolsey say. "Please use caution."

"I understand." Keller's voice replied. She sounded shaken. "What about Major Lorne? And the… visitor?"

"Major Lorne. Do you also require medical assistance?" Woolsey asked.

Lorne hesitated then bit his lip again. It was a completely new mannerism and it kept throwing John to see him do it. "No," he finally said.

An ear-splitting scream sounded over the radio, followed by the clear sounds of a struggle. More screaming had the Marines in the gate room brandishing their weapons threateningly. John tapped his radio and demanded a status.

"It's the patients!" Keller shouted back over the fracas. "They're completely losing it!"

"Damn it!" Lorne looked between the door and Simon, clearly torn. "Sim…"

"You may go, Lorne. I will remain here peacefully," Simon told him without interrupting his examination of the lowest level of Ancient stained glass. "They clearly require reassurance." He looked up suddenly, catching Lorne in a piercing gaze. "I don't believe the Atlantis personnel took proper care in their treatment of the team, Lorne. They are very distressed."

Lorne paled and turned beseechingly to John. "Let me go down to the infirmary and deal with this, Colonel. Whatever guards you feel necessary. This could really get out of hand."

A loud crash over the radio made John wince as it echoed in his ear. "I think it's already there," he said, but waved at Lorne to go. One of the Marine squads followed the Major as he headed out of the gate room at a fast trot, heading for the infirmary.

Simon's eyes turned to John, gazing at him intently for a long moment before he blinked and returned to his petting the glass. Less than a minute later, John heard Lorne's voice in soothing mode through Keller's radio, and the hubbub from the infirmary subsided. Woolsey edged his way to Chuck and began speaking to him quietly; likely asking him to run whatever scans could be done from the control consoles. John saw Chuck shrug, but his hands started moving across the console.

"I would very much," said Zelenka from his side, with the exaggerated calm of the extremely freaked out, "like to know what is going on here."

Simon crouched to study the join where the gate met the floor. He ran a finger along the seam, humming slightly under his breath.

"Me too," John admitted unhappily. "Cause that is just creepy."

Teyla stepped onto the platform, gently pushing aside Corporal Hyran's P-90. "Excuse me," she said politely. Simon stopped and turned his head to face her squarely.

"For what?" He asked.

Teyla gave him a careful smile. "It is a phrase to denote an apology for interrupting, and a request for attention."

"Very well." Simon waited, still crouched.

"Do you bring word of Doctor McKay, Simon?"

John could feel the entire room hold its breath, waiting for Simon's response.

"I do not," Simon replied.

Teyla blinked. "Very well," she said slowly. Taking it as a confirmation that their brief conversation was complete, Simon re-focussed on the gate. Teyla stepped back to John's side, her eyes wide.

"Yeah," John replied to her silence. "I know."

"It is disorienting," she told him softly. "He looks so like Rod…"

Simon's head came up, turning smoothly to face towards the infirmary. He stood, suddenly radiating cold menace. The Marines edged forward in unison, muzzles snapped back to attention. Teyla broke off what she'd been about to say and stepped back reflexively, pressing against John's arm.

The sound of Ronon's energy pistol charging came clearly over the radio, making John jump and reach for his ear.

"That," Simon said coldly, eyes fixed on the wall as if he could look right through it, "is enough."

Lorne stumbled as he emerged from the gate, remembering too late that Akarym's gate platform ended abruptly right at the edge of the wormhole, leaving a significant drop to the ground. He managed to recover smoothly enough and hustled to the side to let the rest of his unusually large team through. He could tell which of his team had paid attention in the briefing and which hadn't simply by watching them trip.

To his surprise, McKay stepped down on his way through like a pro. He caught Lorne's surprise and smirked. "I repaired the first MALP we sent through after it wrecked a wheel," he explained. Lorne nodded his understanding then jumped forward as Ronon came through and tripped heavily. McKay grabbed Ronon's other arm, trying to help him right himself. "Careful!"

It was too late. Ronon landed hard on the only rock Lorne could see anywhere around, turning over on his ankle and collapsing with as little grace as he'd ever seen in the man. Rodney's attempt to be helpful made it worse by blocking Ronon's ability to flail back into balance.

"Are you ok?" Rodney went down on one knee beside his friend, hands already scrabbling at his tac vest for a Tensor bandage. Ronon swatted him.

"Keep it. The boot'll do a better job of keeping the ankle supported anyway," he said gruffly.

Lorne frowned at him as the rest of the team finished coming through, managing somehow not to trip over McKay who was blocking half the gate. He sighed and tapped his radio. "All arrived," he said simply. "We'll be dialling right back though. One minor injury, an ankle sprain or break."

There was a long pause, and Lorne could see in his head the exchange of looks that would be going on between everyone in the control section. He tried to imagine the expression on Sheppard's face when he saw it was Ronon who'd been hurt, and the same leg as Sheppard too. He managed not to smile, but the glare Ronon was giving him told him the other man guessed at his thoughts.

"Understood, Major," Woolsey's voice was slightly tinny in transmission. McKay was heaving Ronon to his one good foot, and Lorne hastened forward to help. The wormhole rippled out.

Ronon towered over him, pretty much using him as a crutch. Lorne shook his head at what they must look like. He waved his hand at Dorovici to tell her they were ready for her to dial back in to Atlantis as he and McKay manoeuvred Ronon out of the splash zone. Lorne glanced around, his eyes falling on Sergeant Georges, who was rubbing his knee kind of ruefully.

"Send your IDC, Lieutenant," he told Dorovici then waved Georges over to take his place at Ronon's side. "Sergeant, you're Mr. Dex's escort back to Atlantis." Georges nodded his understanding, crestfallen. "Ensure he reaches the infirmary." He spared them both a quick, impish grin. "On the way through, mind the step."

Ronon glared at him. "Good luck," he gritted out, clearly trying to be gracious and failing pretty miserably at it.

"Oh, we don't need luck." Captain Terovic told him gravely, trying to hide her amusement. "We have Doctor McKay."

John's heart stopped in his chest.

Teyla's hand gripped John's forearm so tightly he felt her fingernails digging into his arm. The rest of the personnel in the larger gate room had all frozen in place, staring at Simon with pale faces and wide eyes. The Marines were spooked too; John could see white knuckles along the whole semi-circle of P-90s. He found his own hand on the butt of his sidearm.

Woolsey returned to the railing in a couple of hurried steps. "What is enough, Simon?" he asked courteously, though John could hear a tremor.

Simon ignored them all. He extended one arm straight in front of him and snapped his fingers imperiously once. Immediately a small console lifted out of the floor, stopping precisely at the height of Simon's fingertips. Simon placed his hand in the centre of the console and pressed, closing his eyes.

The world slowed. John felt each beat of his heart in his chest, each thud longer and deeper than the last, and coming further and further apart. He blinked and it seemed to take an eternity for his eyes to re-open.

It reminded him of a time he'd been drunk on sambucca. Even as he passed out the world had moved in front of his eyes with a weird clarity completely out of his control. That experience had felt remarkably like this one. He forced his eyes open wide, afraid that if he blinked again, his eyes wouldn't open at all.

He didn't think that Simon had actually stopped time, since he continued to think at what felt like a normal rate. Instead, it seemed more like he'd triggered a room-wide, or possibly Atlantis-wide, stasis field. Now, that would be a useful defence mechanism.


Simon strode across the platform with confident steps, pausing at the top of the stairs to look around. Behind him the console sank back into the floor, merging once again seamlessly with the Ancient metal. He lifted his hand, pointed at John. "You," he said. The sudden return of control over his body was disorienting and he jerked hard in Teyla's grasp, almost falling. Simon's finger moved, to point in turn at Woolsey and surprisingly, Chuck. "You, and you," he said coldly. "Will accompany me to the infirmary."

John's hand dropped to his gun. He drew it smoothly, getting a bead in the centre of Simon's forehead. "Release the rest, now!" He gritted. Jesus, it was hard to hold a gun on that face.

Simon ignored him, moving down the steps with a grace that Rodney had never owned. "Your guns have been rendered inoperative," he said over his shoulder. "Now, come."

John squeezed the trigger, and it stuck. He squeezed again harder, with no change. "Fuck," he said aloud, holstered the weapon, and started to prise Teyla's fingers from around his forearm as gently as he could. The look he exchanged with Woolsey said everything.

They caught up with Simon about ten metres from the infirmary. Woolsey tried to regain control of the situation. "Excuse me, Simon, but placing the Atlantis personnel in some kind of frozen state is not acceptable. I demand you release my people at once."

The infirmary doors swept open and Simon continued through them without pause, and without so much as acknowledging Woolsey's words.

"Simon," Woolsey said firmly. "You will listen to me, and you will release…." His words trailed off as he took in the scene in front of them.

Dorovici was half-on and half-off an exam table, being held down by two orderlies and one of the Marines. She'd plainly been fighting them, and they had equally plainly been winning. One wrist was encircled by a padded restraint, the other in the process of being tied. The Marine fastening the cuff was holding on so tightly that her chocolate skin was a pale grey under his fingers. Doctor Biro stood to the side, half-way through drawing a syringe of a clear colourless liquid.

Jarvath was almost fully restrained and was clearly unconscious. One of the nurses was fastening the last restraint around his ankle, and Doctor Srivanthangam was in the process of discarding the syringe in a nearby sharps container.

Lorne was in the centre of the room, hands out at his sides in a calming gesture. Ronon stood behind him, his energy weapon out and pointed at Lorne's back. Keller was standing to his left, her face tight and grim, poised to step forward and catch Lorne when he fell.

"No," said Simon. His mouth was twisted downward in the first emotion John had seen cross his face, and it was anger. "I don't believe I will."

"OK, girls and boys," Lorne gave a small smile as Lieutenant Dorovici counted off heads to make sure that everyone who was supposed to be there was still with them. She nodded and flashed a quick smile. "Time to check in is twenty four hours." Jarvath ostentatiously held up his wrist and clicked the timer on his watch. "Let's go meet our hosts."

He waved at Lieutenant Martin to lead the way. Martin nodded his understanding and started off at a moderate walk to the east. Sergeants Jessop and Juliard followed him promptly, with Corporal Julian closing their diamond formation. As Kilo headed out, Lorne took the opportunity to check out his surroundings.

The planet itself was a large one, maybe ten percent larger than Earth but with a slightly less dense mineral makeup that made it feel very similar to walking on Earth. It was slightly further out from their sun than Earth, and the air was correspondingly cooler on average. The gate was set in one of the temperate regions, a largely arid section of the main continent. It meant that the gate was in a largely exposed location with a wide-open view in all directions. There was very little cover other than small scrub brush and thigh-high grass.

All of this was deceptive, of course. Less than a mile away, the ground opened in a subtle widening crack, turning into a network of deep ravines and canyons that reminded Lorne of the Badlands. He'd once seen a careless driver go right over the edge of a canyon and never see the lip. It was these canyons that the Akaryim used as the building blocks of their cities.

A high, thin whistle and a low, deep rumble overhead brought his head up, eyes searching the sky away from the sound. Aha! A small dot in the distance rapidly grew larger, resolving into the Akaryim version of a plane. The design was fascinating, like a Stealth re-envisioned as a biplane, and Lorne had been itching to fly one since he'd first seen the photos.

"Huh," grunted McKay from beside him. "Interesting design." He was shading his eyes, head tilted back to get a good look at the plane. "I wonder how they…" He fell silent. Lorne could almost feel the furious pace of his thoughts. It was actually a little weird to see McKay so still, even lost in thought. "Huh."

The plane rocketed past waggling its wings only about two hundred meters overhead, and they both reflexively put their hands over their ears just before the boom cracked over them and made their bones jump in their skins.

"They know we're here," Sergeant Blaine observed unnecessarily as he moved out past them.

"Glad you're paying such close attention," Corporal Kristova called. She'd dropped to one knee and taken a bead on the plane with her P-90, just in case it was hostile. Captain Terovic and Corporal Ophelio stood from where they'd taken covering positions. Blaine blushed. Lorne gave a quick look around to see that pretty much the entire party had properly dropped and hidden, with the exceptions of Blaine, McKay, and himself. He and McKay exchanged a look of embarrassment.

"I'm going to head for the city. See if they also solved the mystery of how bumblebees fly," McKay muttered. Lorne nodded, looking around again. "He's over there," McKay pointed to the left, where Lorne could just make out the top of Parrish's humped back above the grass as he bent over to examine some… thing or another. McKay resettled his pack with an irritated grunt and stomped off towards the city. Captain Terovic and the rest of Bravo followed, leaving Lorne to go get his wayward botanist.

Simon lifted a hand and pointed at Lorne, who stumbled down to one knee before wrenching himself back to his feet. Lorne looked around and closed his eyes in despair. "Oh, shit," he whispered before looking around rapidly. He sagged visibly with relief when he saw Simon. "You ok?" he demanded urgently.

"I am unharmed," Simon said.

"Good." Lorne huffed out a breath, mind clearly racing for paths forward. "Please release her," he said, pointing. "That's Doctor Keller."

Simon nodded, though the anger on his face didn't abate. John glanced at Woolsey, wondering at the uncharacteristic silence, but saw the same look on his face as on Lorne's; thinking hard and trying to figure out the right way to defuse this whole thing.

"Simon," Woolsey finally said, clearly striving to sound conciliatory. "These people were operating under my orders…"

"You gave orders for them to be restrained and drugged against their will?" Simon demanded. Lorne winced like something hurt and stepped to Simon's side, placing a hand on his shoulder.

"It's a harmless sedative," Keller interjected. "It's merely to help them calm down."

Lorne had been about to speak, but turned on her now. "And the restraints?" He asked with calm rage. "And the gun?" He gestured at Ronon, frozen in the act of firing.

"We have no idea what the situation is here, Major," Woolsey said smoothly. "You may be contaminated, you may be," his eyes flicked to Simon, "under an alien influence. You've been gone for over eight months, and you've come back with only two members of your team and a complete stranger. Protocol dictates that our first step will be to render the possible threats harmless and then discover the events of the past months."

Lorne stared at him.

"Major Lorne," Woolsey continued softly, inexorably, "would already know this."

John hadn't thought his stomach could drop any further, but it did. This wasn't Lorne?

"Major Lorne did anticipate this," Simon said. "Doctor McKay insisted there was no other way."

John's head snapped around so fast he thought for a moment he'd strained something. "What did you say?" he heard his voice demand.

"McKay insisted," Lorne said tiredly. He gave a tiny gesture with his hand, and Simon released Dorovici, who immediately resumed kicking. She knocked the first orderly across the room before Lorne reached her. Instantly she calmed, looking around and blinking rapidly. Lorne released her bound wrist and reached for the Marine's hand. "Lieutenant Dorovici and Sergeant Jarvath need medical attention." He pried the last of the Marine's fingers loose and pushed down the man's arm. "It was time for them to return to Atlantis, permanently."

"What?" Dorovici stared up at Lorne, shock and betrayal warring on her face. "What? No… Evan. No. We're needed. Medical attention, sure… sure. The docs can give me something, and I'll be fine. Ready to go."

"No, you won't," Lorne said gently, reaching for the bracelet around her wrist. "You've taken too much."

"No!" Dorovici snatched her arm away, though John noticed she wasn't fighting him, just evading. "I can't leave him there."

"Yes, you can." Lorne told her intensely. "Because it's your duty to protect those who can't protect themselves. Sergeant Jarvath is going to need you. And McKay said…" He broke off, looking away.

"Doctor McKay indicated that you have become a drain," Simon finished for him, not unkindly. He crooked a finger at Keller. "Lieutenant Dorovici will require significant and urgent medical treatment when the bracelet is removed, as will Sergeant Jarvath. They will need to be treated carefully," and the tone of his voice expressed clearly what he thought of their interpretation of 'carefully' the first time. "No sedatives." His brows drew together in a dark frown. "Try simply asking for co-operation."

Keller nodded, her mouth set mulishly. John could read the mental bitching out she was giving the other man all over her face.

"I have disabled your scans of my person," Simon continued. Keller's lips compressed even further. "It is sufficient that you know that I am not Doctor McKay, and that Major Lorne and I will be leaving momentarily.

"I haven't given Major Lorne leave to go," John said crisply. "You're welcome to get out and not come back, but Major Lorne is a member of my command, and he's not going."

Lorne bit his lip then straightened his shoulders and looked dead ahead. "I am going, sir."

"No, Major. You aren't." John heard his voice bleed down into the growl that meant, 'no more fucking around'.

"With respect, Colonel Sheppard, I am." He turned enough to look John dead in the eye. "Ordering me otherwise isn't going to change anything."

Simon stretched out his hand to Lieutenant Dorovici, who was still staring at him beseechingly. Her face crumpled, but she held out her wrist for him to take. "This is going to hurt," he told her and she nodded, clearly steeling herself. He placed his fingers carefully against the curve of the metal bracelet and pushed.

Dorovici screamed; her back bowing as she writhed in pain. John jerked forward in reaction, automatically reaching for his weapon before remembering it was useless. "Stop!" he shouted.

"No," Simon said, and pulled the bracelet off Dorovici's wrist. She collapsed, and would have fallen in a heap on the floor if Simon hadn't caught her in one arm, still holding the bracelet away from her with his other. Keller jumped to his side and helped him lift her onto the gurney-bed. John stared at her in shock.

Huge, thick welts had appeared on Dorovici's skin, criss-crossing her face and bare arms. A deep band of crimson encircled her wrist where the bracelet had rested. Even as he watched, bruises began to bloom, turning her dark skin a deeper, vicious purple.

"Oh, my God!" Keller's hands fluttered as if she didn't know where to put them first. "What is happening to her?"

Simon tucked the bracelet under his robes then placed his hand on Dorovici's shoulder. Immediately the bruises stopped spreading. "Accumulated injuries," he said, impassive. "I have returned her to stasis. Sergeant Jarvath will be worse." He turned to Woolsey, who was looking sick but still resolute. "I accept your explanation," he said slowly. "Your reaction was, as Major Lorne indicates, not unexpected." Woolsey nodded. "Though that does not excuse your deceptions." Woolsey's eyes narrowed. "Or the harm done to my team."

Simon gestured to Lorne, who immediately began releasing the bonds holding Sergeant Jarvath. He moved up to take the Sergeant's hand in his. "I had intended to ensure his agreement before doing this," he shot Woolsey a glare, "but it seems you have forced this to occur otherwise." Quickly he pressed his fingers to the bracelet, pushed in that precise pattern, and pulled it free. Through the sedatives, Jarvath fought him. The agony expressed itself as a long, drawn out groan of pain and Jarvath trying vainly to pull his arm free.

Lorne placed a hand on Jarvath's shoulder and squeezed hard. "It's us," he said quietly. "Let it go."

"N-n-n-nooooo!" Jarvath struggled harder, trying to curl his wrist against his chest. For a moment John thought he was protesting the pain, but Jarvath was scrabbling for the bracelet with his free hand.

"Sergeant," Simon said quietly. "It is time to stand down."

Jarvath collapsed back on the gurney, his shoulders shaking with sobs. Lorne's fingers tightened further, his face tight with emotion. John glanced at Woolsey, obscurely comforted that Woolsey appeared just as confused as he felt. "It's ok, Sergeant," Lorne said. "You're home."

Jarvath looked up at him, eyelids already drooping again as the drugs began to win the battle for unconsciousness. "… sorry," he slurred. His face was swelling rapidly, bruises spreading across his cheekbones. A particularly vicious cut opened along the line of his jaw.

"Don't be," Lorne told him strongly. "You did your duty by all of us. Rest easy."

Jarvath nodded and fell into oblivion. Simon waved the stasis into place then looked at Keller piercingly. "They won't remember," he said firmly. She just glared back at him challengingly, her hand on Dorovici's less-damaged wrist.

Lorne took a deep breath and let it out, puffing his cheeks a little. He was watching Simon closely, and whatever he saw made him concerned. "We need to go," he said.

"Absolutely not," John said.

"Very well," Woolsey said. John looked at him in disbelief. "I don't believe we really have an option here, Colonel."

Simon pointed at Chuck, who'd been doing an excellent imitation of someone trying to melt into a wall and disappear. Chuck froze in place.

"So that he can't see the gate address when you leave," John realised with a snarl. Lorne nodded and glanced at Simon, who joined him. In unison they turned for the door.

"Wait!" John stepped in front of them. Simon simply pushed him to the side and continued walking, making John skip to catch back up. Woolsey followed. "Look, Lorne – you have to give us some clue here. How the hell are we supposed to find you if you won't co-operate?"

"You aren't." Lorne stared straight ahead. "You aren't supposed to find us."

"That's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard," John exploded. "Are you telling me you don't want to be rescued? That Rodney McKay doesn't want to be rescued? What utter bullshit!"

Lorne stopped, grabbed him by the shirt, and shoved him against the wall. "What I am saying," he said through gritted teeth, "is that even if you found us, sir, rescue isn't one of the options. You can't save us." He released John's shirt, removed the wrinkles with a brisk flick of his fingers that was as effective as a slap. "We'll be in touch." He hurried after Simon, who hadn't slowed.

Woolsey restrained John with a hand on his arm. "We can't let them come back," he said quietly. "Simon is simply too great a threat."

John pulled his arm free and jogged after the others, who were passing into the gate room. By the time he reached the steps the gate was already on the fourth chevron. "… gate directly there?" he overheard Lorne ask calmly.

"No," Simon said, watching the gate with fascination. "We will pass through several gates on the way. They will be unable to follow." The wormhole formed; the splash as impressive as always. Simon started for it unhesitatingly. Lorne followed only a fraction more slowly.

John stared, his heart pounding in his throat. He knew it wasn't Rodney, but damn. He looked like Rodney. He, and Lorne, knew where Rodney was, and they were walking away from him. He felt a breath huff out in a broken sound; met Teyla's eyes across the platform where she was still frozen in place.

Her eyes said, 'Go!'.

John's feet moved before he registered his brain making the decision; racing up the short flight of stairs two at a time and propelling him across the platform at the gate faster than he could remember moving, ever. He knew he had only seconds, if that long, and his eyes burned at the thought he might not make it. Simon disappeared into the gate, Lorne only a half-step behind, and John threw himself at the shimmering horizon with every ounce of effort his body could produce.

"See, now? That really is pretty cool."

Lorne was glad that McKay was getting to see his bipartite sky. For all his time off-world, McKay didn't really get a lot of opportunity to crash out on his back under the sky and just… look. For one, he was the busiest thinker and heaviest sleeper Lorne knew. For another, he had a positively eerie ability to choose planets in the middle of their rainy season for his missions.

"It sure is," McKay agreed dreamily. Yep. Lorne wouldn't be surprised if this was the first cloudless sky McKay had seen off-world in a long, long time.

Cool? It really, really was. After the obligatory greeting ceremonies and dinner, Lorne had broken McKay free from the festivities and hustled him outside and up to the plains. Nightfall took hours to finish on this wide flat terrain, and McKay had taken the opportunity to spend some uninterrupted quality time with his laptop. Lorne had taken the opportunity to stretch out in the grass and just relax, wishing he'd thought to bring a sketchpad or a camera so he could try and capture some of the incredible colours washing the cloudless sky. He pretended not to notice the muttered curses and muted crashes of team Kilo taking up positions around them, though he did wonder what terrible punishments Sheppard had promised if anything happened to McKay. The teams were certainly taking their assignment seriously, whatever it was.

Lorne made a mental note to ask. He was always on the lookout for new and creative ways to motivate his teams.

Once night had fallen completely, a incredible vista appeared overhead. Lorne had never seen anything like it on any planet anywhere. The closest he could remember was the view from outside Midway station, where to one end of the station you could see the Milky Way in all its glory, and at the other the misty blob of Pegasus.

Here, Pegasus' glow was barely noticeable, for the multitude of stars that made it up were distinct and clear and denser than he could believe. It was like looking at the end of a fibre optic cable in the dark, full of colour and mystery and gut-wrenching beauty. At sundown, the galaxy had filled the sky, but as time progressed Akarym turned away from the galactic core and the sky darkened, the stars spreading out more and more until suddenly there were none. It was like watching an eclipse from the inside, seeing that wedge of darkness expand as if it were eating the sky.

"Wait for it," McKay said into the silence. "Any minute now."

There it was. Galaxy-rise.

It wasn't the Milky Way. Instead it was a great barred galaxy that looked like a fireworks pinwheel frozen in time, spraying stars out in a glittering golden-red arc from the white-hot central bar. It took up only about twenty degrees of sky, about the same as the Earth's moon, but what a glorious twenty degrees it was. Against the starless inky black of the intergalactic void it stood out like a beacon. Lorne grinned, chuckled under his breath. "If that one arm went the other way it would look a little like the bat signal," he observed. McKay snorted softly.

They watched the sky in contented silence for long enough that Lorne lost track of time, but the track of this alien sky was too fascinating for him to be bored. Kilo seemed to agree, since the mutters had died into infrequent murmurs of awe. Bravo straggled up to join them, pitching a small camp under the stars and enjoying the view. The rest of Lorne's team came in a half-hour after that, smothering the small campfire pretty much as soon as they got it started at McKay's annoyed snarl about them ruining his night vision.

It was peaceful. Lorne loved it.

McKay tensed and sat up suddenly, staring at the sky intently. Instantly Lorne was alert and at his side, scanning the same direction closely. It took him a moment but then he saw it; a bolt of iridescent green streaking through the night sky, growing bigger at an unbelievable rate. "Holy shit," McKay breathed. "That's weapons fire." The first bolt was joined by another, and another.

"Incoming!" Lorne screamed at the top of his lungs, curling over McKay's head protectively and fumbling for his radio with his other hand. "All personnel, all personnel, incoming fire, incoming…"

The world blew up around him. Lorne had a fleeting impression of crushing pressure and heat and McKay being torn away from him and pain and then it all descended into darkness as complete as the void.

The trip through the gate seemed to take a long time. Scenarios raced through his mind; maybe the gate had closed when he was only partway through. Maybe he was lost in a collapsed wormhole, destined to be a bodiless mind forever. Maybe he'd missed the gate and knocked himself out on the platform. He was just working himself up to a Rodney-worthy rant when the gate reformed and catapulted him out onto a hard, rocky surface with a loud 'oof!'.

Lorne and Simon turned to stare at him.

"Sheppard," Lorne said in open disbelief. Almost immediately, his expression changed to one of fear. "Oh, no," he breathed, looking around desperately. "Oh, shit."


The fury in the voice distracted John from trying to get up, and he looked up to see Simon stomping towards him. "You, you idiot! What the hell were you thinking?" Simon hissed at him. The rage in his face and the wildly gesticulating hands were pure Doctor Rodney McKay. John felt his chin drop. "Oh, right, of course, how foolish of me. You weren't thinking, were you? Nooo, Colonel McMartyr-Pants just had to come through a closing gate and, oh, almost get himself killed."

John lifted a shaking hand and laid it against Simon's robe. It felt real, the woven cloth a rough texture under his fingers. "Rodney?" His voice broke.

"No," Lorne said gently. "It isn't." He paused and frowned. "Well…"

"We have to hide him," Simon-Rodney said urgently, looking around furtively. "Lorne. Now."

"I know," Lorne bit his lip, clearly thinking rapidly.

"Right. Now."

"I know!" Lorne heaved a breath and rubbed a hand over his forehead. "Ok, it'll have to be the cave."

The animation faded from Simon's face and his hands fell back to his sides. John hadn't really realised how still Simon was until that happened. "I am returning to the city," he told Lorne flatly, not looking at John. One hand dipped into the robes and pulled out the bracelets removed from Jarvath and Dorovici. He extended them to Lorne, who took them gingerly. All trace of Rodney was gone. He strode away towards a nearby machine that John belatedly realised was some form of single-person vehicle.

"What the fuck, Lorne?" John found his voice, unsurprised that it was shaking. "What the fuck?"

Lorne smiled faintly, tucking the bracelets into the breast pocket of his shirt. "He started off as 'Sim'," he said. "Short for 'simulacrum'."

John opened his mouth but nothing came out.

Lorne continued. "Doctor McKay called him 'Golem'."

"Simon," John choked out.

Lorne nodded. "He's our conduit to Doctor McKay. And what Simon says, we do." He extended his hand to help John to his feet. "Right now Simon says, 'hide'."

He led John to a second vehicle nearby, this one clearly multi-passenger. John stared at it blankly a moment before figuring out how to open the door and get inside. "When are you going to tell me what the hell is going on here, Lorne?" He stared at Lorne challenging across the top of the vehicle.

Lorne bit his lip again, making John twitch. "When I get you hidden," he said. "Then we'll tell you what's going on. Then, you'll know why we have to keep you hidden."

"Then, you'll take me to McKay," John got into seat and did his best to slam the door behind him. "Then we'll get out of here."

Lorne got in and gave him a pitying look. "No, Colonel," he said. "We won't."

John glared at him then turned away to watch the scenery as they began to move. "We're not on Akarym," he noted with surprise.

"No. This is somewhere called Mingbe," Lorne pressed a button and the vehicle went transparent around them in a way that turned them invisible as well. John suddenly felt like he was in a dream, flying mere feet over the ground, bodiless. It was disconcerting as hell. Lorne continued talking, apparently undisturbed. "One of the first things we did here was try and identify the basic location of the planet against known stars, but we came up blank. We aren't even in Pegasus. It took eight chevrons to dial through to a gate we knew, that we could use as a way point to Atlantis."

John was thrilled to discover he could still at least feel his body. He tried not to think too hard about how strange it would look to have his hands running up and down his body and limbs if he was actually visible. Embarrassing, most likely, but he couldn't have stopped doing it. Not being able to see himself was just too damned weird.

The ground they were passing over was some sort of weird hybrid plains-urban. From the ground everything looked level, but as they passed over it John could see protrusions and humps. He thought at first that they were natural but quickly realised they were constructs, extrusions of formed metal and glass.

"This civilization is largely subterranean," Lorne said, making John jump. "Very, very high tech. Much higher than Earth. McKay says more advanced than the Ancients."

"Subterranean because of the Wraith? How did they manage to escape getting culled?"

"First, because these guys would kick the Wraith's ass," Lorne replied.

When a minute had passed and he hadn't continued, John prodded, "and second?"

The vehicle, and their bodies, swam back into existence around him. John blinked and removed his hands from his neck and hip respectively. "What?" Lorne sounded distracted.

"You said, 'first'. That means that there should be a 'second'."

"Ah." The vehicle slid to a stop and sank into the ground until it came to rest in an underground garage. Lorne turned, leaned over him to open the door. "We're here."

Here seemed to be a room formed out of solid rock, illuminated from above through some means that John couldn't quite make out. The walls were perfectly slick, shining faintly as if wet or maybe thickly varnished. He trailed his fingers over the wall, and it was cool and dry to the touch. John turned to the vehicle. It was sleek, wide enough and deep enough to take four Earth-sized people. Its long aerodynamic lines reminded him a little of a hydrofoil, or maybe one of the weirder designs for solar cars back home. It looked advanced, efficient, and was made of a brown-grey alloy that reminded him of something he couldn't quite put his finger on.

Lorne waited patiently for him to finish looking around. John took the time to run his fingers over the shell of the vehicle, trying to get the sensory input to jog his memory and failing. Finally he lifted his hands and nodded at Lorne that he was ready to continue. Lorne shook his head in amusement but let the little power play go, waving his bracelet near the wall. Immediately a portal opened, shaped like an arched entranceway, about five feet tall. Lorne ducked through without hesitation. John followed, getting a face full of leaves when he stood up too fast. Whatever kind of room he was in was dimly lit, thickly humid and very warm. John felt sweat break out all over his body at once.


"Hydroponics," was Lorne's crisp reply. John swatted at the plants blocking his view, finally realising he needed to duck. He looked down and followed Lorne's boots as they led him deeper into the structure. A second doorway led him into a room that was finally large enough to stand up in.

"Major Lorne!" A long-haired, heavily bearded Parrish barrelled out of another doorway to their right. He skidded to a stop at the sight of Sheppard. "Colonel? Oh no," his eyes went to Lorne frantically. "Atlantis?" He demanded with his voice high with fear.

Lorne dropped into what John belated realised was a chair. It was nearly the same colour as the floor and walls, and his eyes hadn't even noticed it. Now that he was looking, he saw that what Lorne sat in was actually quite wide, and he gingerly lowered himself onto it.

"Atlantis is fine," Lorne was reassuring Parrish, who sagged with relief, running both hands through his hair. It was much longer than he'd worn it on Atlantis. Parrish had it brushed back from his face but it fell well past his ears. Eight months without a barber, John supposed, which made Lorne's still short cut strange. He noted Parrish's bare wrists with interest. "We left Doro and Jarvath there, getting medical attention." Lorne rubbed his eyes with stiff fingers, looking unutterably tired. "Colonel Sheppard followed us back through the gate."

Parrish jerked upright. "You did what?" he demanded incredulously. "Are you insane?"

John lifted an eyebrow and considered how to answer.

"We didn't get a chance to tell them anything," Lorne explained. "Things went.." He looked at the ceiling, tilted his head as he thought of what to say. "Sub-optimally," he concluded. John had to agree. "Simon says he needs to hide."

"OK," Parrish said, the most focussed John had ever seen him. "Here is good."

"Here is just fine," John said lazily, sprawling a little. "Now all we need is beer and explanations."

Lorne leaned back and closed his eyes.

"Water is the best I can do as a drink, Colonel Sheppard," Parrish said, "and I think explanations are unlikely. But," he inclined his head and sat down across from them in another dark hued chair. "We can tell you what happened."

"All right," John agreed. "Let's start there."

Even before he awoke, he was aware of pain. Radiating from every part of his body, right down to his fingernails he hurt. He tried to take comfort in the fact that at least it meant that everything was still attached, but really it all hurt so goddamned much that it wasn't much help.

A heavy jolt made him groan. Immediately there was another, and then he felt someone slapping his face. He tried to lift his hand to swat whoever was hitting him. He failed.

"Major!" It was a familiar voice, urgent, pitched high with stress and forced calm. "He's waking up. Major!" Lorne moved his tongue, forced his eyes open a crack. He recognized the face hovering over him.

"Doro?" He managed to croak out.

"Dorovici, sir, that's right." Another slap to his face, not so gentle this time. "You need to wake up, sir. You need to wake up now."

A different, deeper voice spoke. "We need to get him up and moving, Lieutenant." This voice was familiar, too. Reluctantly, Lorne pried his eyes open again, to see Dorovici looking up at someone looming over them both. What the hell was going on?

"I don't know if he's alert enough to be moved," Dorovici protested.

What felt like a bucketful of cold water was dumped unceremoniously over his head. Lorne jerked upright, spluttering furiously. McKay screwed the lid back on his canteen, ignoring Lorne's – and Dorovici's - glares.

"Perhaps I was unclear," McKay said. He sounded brittle, like he was holding on to his calm with both hands, both feet, and possibly his teeth. "He needs to get up right now. " His eyes flicked away, looking towards something Lorne couldn't quite see. "They're killing the ones who can't stand."

"They're what?" Lorne felt his head pound at the exclamation.

Dorovici was already scrambling to her feet, pulling Lorne up by what had to be sheer strength of will. "Right!" she said. "We're up!"

Being dragged upright made Lorne's vision swim alarmingly. Dorovici threw his arm over her shoulders and braced her feet apart. She was actually almost his height, a fact he'd never had cause to care about until just now, but was significantly slighter than his 180 pound frame. Her dark hair tickled his nose, making him fight not to sneeze. "Sir, please," she said under her breath. "Don't puke on me."

"Wouldn't think of it, Lieutenant," he assured her, his voice slurred and drunken-sounding. He was pretty sure he should be worried by that. He took a deep breath and opened his eyes as wide as he could, surveying the current state of affairs.

He seemed to be standing on the edge of a crater; one of many craters that dotted the landscape around him for pretty much as far as he could see. It looked as though someone had been dropping 500 pounders, or even Ancient drones. The edges of the craters were serrated-looking, with weird shelves and protuberances that his blurry vision couldn't make sense of. He had the feeling they might be a lot bigger than his mind was processing, though, an impression that seemed to be confirmed when an explosion on the other side of the one he was looking at took more than a second for the deep rumble to reach him. Lorne rubbed his forehead with his free hand, wincing when he hit a lot of sore, wet places. When he looked at his fingers they were wet and dark with blood.

Jesus. Forget 500 pounders. That thing was closer to a mile wide. He had a quick flash of a long virulent green blast streaking towards him from space, but before he could close on the image it was gone. Clearly they'd been attacked, but by who? Why? He returned his attention to his surroundings.

The broken ground was littered by pieces of twisted metal and glass. Paper, or something similar, fluttered in the breeze. The scent of burning organics overlaid with ozone and a bitter chemical that left a thick aftertaste on the back of his tongue lay heavy in the air. There were people everywhere, dazed and staggering. Terror was writ large and clear on every face. Lorne swayed, almost toppling them both. Dorovici's fingers tightened painfully on his wrist. Now that the adrenaline was starting to ebb, he became aware again of the bone-deep aches all over. The worst was his head, and one particularly vicious throbbing just under his right shoulder blade. Dorovici was tucked under his left arm, but every shift in weight made the agony on his right worse. He groaned.

"You've been wounded," Dorovici told him. "Not too bad, we don't think. Concussion," she paused, and when she continued her voice sounded strange, a tone he'd never heard before. "Shrapnel in your back. Stopped by your scapula."

"Shrapnel?" His voice sounded weak.

Dorovici winced, but she'd never been one to lie or to varnish the truth. "Bone, sir. Lieutenant Martin."

"Oh. That's …I need to sit down." Lorne's eyes were closing whether he wanted them to or not.

"No! No! You need to stay on your feet." His knees sagged. "Major!" Her voice whip-cracked near his ear and he stiffened to attention in reflex. "You will stay awake and you will stay on your feet, do you hear me?"

He nodded. "I hear you, sir," he smiled faintly and closed his eyes, but kept his legs stiff.

"Do you remember the attack, sir?"

The attack!

For some reason, those words cut through the fog in Lorne's mind and he jerked the rest of the way upright. A new flood of adrenaline washed through him, pushing all his pain away. "Akarym. An air attack. Jesus!" He felt Dorovici nodding against his arm as he craned his neck, trying to make out the Atlantis uniforms among the throngs surrounding him. The bumps and hummocks in the craters resolved into the gutted cross-sections of buildings, now that he knew what he was looking at. He felt his gorge rise and barely got control before he broke his promise. "Report, Lieutenant!"

"Two dead, eleven injured, three badly." Dorovici replied baldly. "Martin and Juliard were in their tent. It took a glancing blow from one of the air to ground strikes. They were killed instantly."

Lorne clenched his hands into fists. Half of Kilo wiped out with one shot. Damn it!

"Jessop and Blaine were nearby and were knocked out by the blast. Neither of them has woken up yet. It's been several hours. Ophelio's with them now."

Lorne nodded. "Who else?" he demanded.

"Who else, sir?"

"You said three seriously wounded. Blaine, Jessop, and?" He tasted blood and lifted his hand to check, wiping it on his pants first. His lip stung at the tentative prod, and his tongue automatically went to trace the wound. A nice tear in his lower lip. Great. That was going to hurt like a bitch when he tried to eat.

"You, sir."

"Right." He was definitely concussed. He should have figured that one out himself.

"Everyone else has minor wounds. Nothing broken, but lots of minor shrapnel wounds. Doctor McKay has a good wound on his right calf, but he says you saved him from the worst of it. He and Captain Terovic are getting everyone organized. With Ophelio working on Jessop and Blaine, they've got Doctor Parrish and Corporal Julian bandaging everyone up."

It looked as if the mob of people surrounding him was marshalling into some semblance of organization. Excellent. Now maybe he'd be taken somewhere he could sit down. The crowd started moving past them, heading away from the craters. Lorne squinted in the direction they were heading, barely able to make out a large grey-black vessel perched on the plain a kilometre or so away.

The other direction showed a nice, slightly inclined hillside. He nodded at it. "Let's go over there and sit down, Lieutenant. Get out of the way of these people. Set up medical help."

Dorovici looked up at him out of wide brown eyes. He noticed that half of her hair was singed away. "No, sir," she said. "We're not going to do that. Don't you remember the attack?"

"Yes," he replied curtly, "I remember. But it's over now."

"Yes, sir. It is." She explained carefully, like maybe this wasn't the first time. "But we lost, sir. We're prisoners."

Oh. Oh, shit.

"How long until check in?" His heart was trip-hammering in his chest, making the pounding in his head worse.

Dorovici looked away. "Still eight hours away."

Too long.

"They're taking us off-world," Lorne guessed.

"Yes, sir. It does look that way." She still wasn't looking at him.

The crowd moved slowly, buffeting them. Dorovici gritted her teeth and dug in with her toes, keeping them upright. To the sides, Lorne could hear loud cracking sounds, like electric whips maybe.

McKay materialised out of the crowd beside him. "Time to go," he said. His face was tight and blanker than Lorne could ever remember seeing it. His eyes were hard and determined. "Can you walk?"

"Yes," Lorne lied. McKay rolled his eyes and looked at Dorovici.

"We will," she said firmly.

McKay nodded, glancing down. "Get … shit. Shakespeare guy to set that wrist." Lorne followed McKay's gaze and realised that Dorovici's arm, the one she wasn't holding him up with, was hanging limp at her side. Her wrist was the size of a grapefruit, but the flesh was still pink so at least the break hadn't interfered with the circulation.

"Corporal Ophelio," Dorovici supplied helpfully, her grip on Lorne tightening painfully when he tried to take more of his own weight.

"Don't fall behind, don't stop to rest," McKay said intently, glaring at them both to ensure they got the message. "Don't stop."

"Yes, sir," Dorovici said. Sudden shouting and screaming from their right had all three of them ducking and turning.

"Get him out of here," McKay snarled, then turned started pushing through the crowd, to where a circle had formed around two prone figures on the ground and four people crouched protectively over them. Blinking hard, Lorne recognized Atlantis uniforms. He automatically took a step towards them. Dorovici held him fast.

"Doctor McKay told me to get you out of here," she reminded him. Her voice shook.

"Doctor McKay is not in your chain of command," Lorne growled. "I am. Move it."

She turned her face away, but led him with slow limping steps towards the commotion. It was hard going against the crowd, which had thickened and sped up to escape whatever was happening.

They broke through to the edge of the cleared circle. Sergeant Jarvath saw them and pushed his way over. Jarvath's right shoulder was a mess. The weird angle he held his arm at pointed to either a dislocated or broken clavicle, and as he came to Lorne's side he could see it was the latter. Someone had set it, but the thick bump over the break was bulging and purpling nicely.

Blaine and Jessop were the two prone bodies. Corporal Ophelio knelt beside Jessop, slapping her face hard to try and wake her. His other arm was clearly broken but set, and was bound to his ribs to hold it steady. Corporal Kristova was shaking Blaine's shoulders, but the huge sergeant barely moved. Half his face was swollen, a deep blue bruise covering it from hairline to neck. From the look of it his jaw was likely broken. There was no way he was coming to anytime soon. Corporal Julian was on one knee beside Parrish, who stood staring blankly at nothing at all as Julian rapidly bound a long wound on his right leg. A thick white bandage and splint on his left knee indicated a joint injury. When Julian finished the bandage he struggled to his feet, and Lorne realised that a pile of sticks and cloth nearby was another splint for the corporal himself. Jarvath noticed at the same time and started for him.

"No!" The shout, and the way Dorovici jumped, brought his attention around to his left, where Captain Terovic and McKay stood in the way of something Lorne had never seen before. They were humanoid, silver-grey skin stretched taut over heavy bone structures with blinking red lights set prominently into one of the brow-skull ridges. Implants of some sort, he deduced, possibly communications structures or maybe some kind of bio-feedback mechanism. Their eyes were red, and they wore weird bronze-grey articulated body armour that might be metal. He couldn't quite tell. There were easily fifty of them, arrayed in a multi-layered phalanx. Soldiers, he immediately understood. One snarled, peeling lips back off of needle sharp teeth and he drew back instinctively. These things looked like the nightmare offspring of the Wraith and the Borg.

"They will walk, or they will die." The one alien without the blinking lights said, expressionless in the face of Terovic's rage.

"They can't walk! They're still unconscious. We just need some time for them to wake up!" Terovic shouted, her face red with fury.

"They will walk, or they will die."

"Look, what if… What if you just left them here, instead of killing them? They're probably going to die anyway, right? If they can't walk and they aren't useful to you, then just leave them." McKay had a hand on Terovic's arm, holding on tightly enough that his fingers were as white as the bandage around his leg.

The creature tilted its head, considering. Lorne held his breath. The creature decided. "No."

"Ok, ok. What if.. what if.." Lorne could see McKay's brain cranking though options. Terovic looked ready to tear the creature apart with her bare hands. "What if we carried them?"

The creature blinked. "That is acceptable." Although its face didn't change, its voice communicated a sneer. "Though unlikely." It gestured, and all but four of the soldiers spread out, herding the larger group of humans away. Another loud crack sounded nearby, followed by a wailing scream, and Lorne realised that the sound hadn't been whips at all. It had been a small hand-held weapon like a pistol, and the sound had been the soldiers killing the ones who couldn't move.

"He needs to get up right now. They're killing the ones who can't stand."

Bile rushed again into his mouth, and Lorne looked at the rest of the Atlantis team. They weren't in any state to carry anyone. He and Dorovici together made one barely functioning person, and Parrish and Julian might be able to walk if they leaned on each other. Jarvath couldn't lift anything at all with his broken collarbone, Ophelio had only one arm, and when Kristova sat back Lorne glimpsed yet another crude splint around her ankle. That left only McKay and Terovic to carry Jessop and Blaine… Blaine alone was six foot nine and close to two hundred sixty pounds. Jessop was tall for a woman, taller than Lorne, and Terovic for all her forceful personality was barely five foot four in her boots.

"Travois?" McKay asked urgently.

"Good idea, but everything we had to work with is destroyed." Terovic was pale, now that her anger had waned.

McKay scanned the area desperately, turning in a complete circle. Lorne looked too, but the biggest piece of anything they had was maybe six inches long.

"Drag them?" McKay snapped his fingers at Julian. "Give me all your remaining bandages, right now!" Julian dug them out, and McKay fashioned them into makeshift pulling straps. His fingers flew over the bindings of Blaine's tac vest, weaving the bandages through them. He made two large loops faster than Lorne could figure out what he was doing, and slid them over his own shoulders.

McKay got into a position like a sprinter on the block, leaned forward into the crude harness, and pushed with his legs. Lorne could actually see his quads bulge with the effort. Blaine scraped a couple of inches over the rocky, uneven ground. Ophelio grabbed one of McKay's wrists in his good hand added his weight to the effort. Blaine slid another foot then both men toppled to the ground. If he hadn't been such utterly deadweight, or if he'd been wearing slipperier clothes, or if only he wasn't so damned big

"Ok, that didn't work." McKay scrambled back to his feet. He ran a hand through his hair.

The creature watched, impassive. "You have until the last prisoner passes," it said.

Lorne looked. There were maybe two hundred people still to pass them. He estimated they had perhaps as long as a minute.

"I, what? How is that reasonable?" McKay shouted. Ophelio used his leg to drag himself to his feet. The creature pulled its weapon. McKay grabbed the loops in both hands and started to heave, moving Blaine by inches. "There! " He screamed. "There! I'm moving him! He's moving! You …" A loud blast cut him off. The creature replaced its gun in a holster on its leg. McKay stared blankly at where Blaine's head had been just a moment before. His throat bobbed and his mouth worked, but nothing came out. His eyes were wide and horrified. Behind him, wavering on his feet, Ophelio was in tears.

"You killed him!" Terovic threw herself at the creature like something possessed, hands extended into claws, swinging blindly in her rage. A second blast, from one of the soldiers this time, dropped her in her tracks at the creatures' feet.

"You will walk or you will die," the creature said calmly. "And you will obey, or you will die."

McKay's hands opened and the harness fell to the ground. He gave a long, slow blink, and for a second Lorne wasn't sure he was even tracking. His own head was spinning, the combination of the concussion and the shock of watching two of his people gunned down in seconds warring for which would make him throw up faster. When he beat the impulse back he felt an obscure pride.

McKay took the three long steps necessary to reach Jessop's side. He dropped to one knee beside her, grabbed a wrist in his hand, and heaved her into a sitting position. Her head lolled and she was about as graceful as a sack of potatoes, but McKay managed to get her the right way round and pulled her over his shoulder. He grunted his way to his feet with her slung in a standard fireman's carry. Ophelio hurried over to place his good hand on her hip, helping to keep her balanced. Lorne was pretty sure McKay didn't even see him.

"Then we walk," McKay said.

"McKay carried Sergeant Jessop and we walked to the Kor ship," Parrish said. John noticed that Lorne was biting his lip again. "We were … well, 'processed' I suppose you'd call it – processed together. Rafa – Corporal Ophelio – was able to set Dorovici's wrist on board. We were in transit for a few days, in and out of hyperspace, before we reached here."

John braced his elbows on his knees and buried his face in his hands.

"Colonel. Captain Terovic, Lieutenant Martin, Sergeant Juliard and Sergeant Blaine – were you able to take them home?" Lorne asked.

Without lifting his head, John shook it 'no'. He spoke through his fingers. "When we tried to get in touch with you after you missed check in, the gate was non-functional. It took two months to get Daedalus back into Pegasus to go check Akrym in person. When we got there, there was nothing." He lifted his head. "The planet was a wasteland. We couldn't even find the gate. Zelenka," he smiled grimly, "Zelenka decided that the database co-ordinates were wrong and we simply got the wrong planet completely. He's been looking for months to find the right ones." He scrubbed wet palms against the fabric of his BDU pants. "When you came through the gate today, I actually thought he might be right."

A low rumble echoed through the room. Parrish was on his feet immediately, gesturing frantically for John to follow him. He grabbed John's arm and towed him across the room, waving open a door into a small alcove and stuffing John inside hastily. He reached down to drag something just across the doorjamb. A shoe? "Shhh," he said, waggling a finger under John's nose, then stepped away and waved the door shut. It closed on the shoe, leaving a sliver of space for John to see out. Also to breathe through, he realised a moment later as he felt the hard stone walls surrounding him.

The low rumble came again, this time deeper and more urgently, and Parrish hurried out the door to the hydroponics section. Lorne headed out the opposite one, returning a moment later with a glass of water. Seeing it, John realised that he was thirsty, and that he had to go to the bathroom. Lorne glanced at the closet with a half-smile, as if he knew what John was thinking. John glared.

"Good to see you, Doro," Parrish said as he re-entered the room, followed by a smaller figure John couldn't quite make out from his angle. Parrish sat, gesturing for his guest to sit too. She did, giving John an unobstructed view of her face.

Lieutenant Dorovici! What the fuck?

"Simon said you wished to see me," she was saying, her voice curiously flat. "Simon said I needed to come immediately."

"That's right," Lorne said, coming to sit beside her. He took her hand in his right, while his left held up the bracelet John had seen removed from her wrist in Atlantis. "We need to get you back into the system before the next battle," Lorne continued in a calm, reasonable voice. "I know we have to take them off sometimes, but there's sure to be an action soon."

"Oh, of course." Dorovici nodded emphatically. "I forgot that you had it." She tilted her hand to give Lorne easier access to her wrist. "I'm glad you remembered." Her voice was still that strange monotone.

Lorne pushed the thick bracelet against the side of her wrist, and it seemed to stretch elastically before twisting and flowing into place like liquid metal. Dorovici closed her eyes as it hardened in place, frowning slightly. Lorne and Parrish watched her intently.

"What is it?" Lorne asked her softly. "Is something wrong?"

Dorovici's eyes opened wide. "No, no. Of course not. It feels lighter than usual." She gave a half-smile, the first emotion John had seen on her face since she walked in.

Lorne and Parrish exchanged a quick look, then Parrish held her hand to help her stand. "Perhaps because you've had a rest," he offered. "You'd better get to your quarters before the next action is announced. I hear it could be any time," he said and led her out of the room.

Lorne came to lean beside the door to the closet.

"What the hell, Lorne?" John hissed angrily through the crack. "We left Dorovici on Atlantis!"

"That isn't Dorovici," Lorne muttered back out of the corner of his mouth. "That's a simulacrum of Doro."

"She didn't act like a robot," John challenged.

"That's for two reasons. She's a very, very sophisticated robot. And," Lorne straightened as the low rumble came again, presumably announcing Jarvath, "she doesn't know she is one."

John settled back in the closet, trying to find something approximating a more comfortable position. This was getting weirder by the minute, and given what he'd been through in the past few hours, that was really saying something.

He wasn't surprised when Sergeant Jarvath was ushered into the room. If Lorne was telling the truth and these were simulated people, then John was seriously impressed by the technologies that created them. Now that he was paying attention, he saw that Jarvath breathed, that his skin flushed a little as he came out of the heat of the hydroponics area.

He wished that he'd known Jarvath better, to be able to compare the man's baseline behaviour against what he was seeing now. The best he could do was notice a complete lack of distinguishing personality traits. The person, or whatever, that he was looking at didn't gesture, didn't wipe the beads of moisture from his face. Instead, it seemed he just was. John nodded to himself. It wasn't natural, that was for sure.

"Simon said you wanted to see me," Jarvath said after he sat down. "He said it needed to be now."

"That's right." Lorne held up the other bracelet, and Jarvath nodded immediately. None of the explanations required for Dorovici seemed to be necessary; Jarvath simply held up his arm steadily and watched the bracelet flow into place, emotionless. Once it was in place, he flexed his hand a few times as if to check the fit then looked up at Lorne and nodded once sharply.

"Is that all, Major? If there is an action scheduled I should return to my quarters."

Lorne shook his head. "Nothing else, Sergeant. Thank you for coming so fast."

"Simon said I should," Jarvath said and stood. Parrish walked him back out through the heat and the densely packed plants. Lorne released John, kicking the shoe back into the closet and closing the door tightly.

"That is creepy," John said with a shudder.

"No kidding." Lorne grimaced and moved to step away.

John grabbed his arm, poking a finger at the bracelet circling his wrist. "What's the story on these, anyway?" He demanded.

Lorne twisted his arm and pulled away violently. "Don't touch it!" He backed away as if John was holding some kind of super weapon on him or something. "Jesus! Are you trying to get us all killed?"

"No?" John held up his hands in a clear 'no threat' gesture. "I just wanted to see it."

"Then look! Don't touch!" Lorne had caught his breath but was still looking at John like he was about to leap across the room and wrench the bracelet from him by brute strength. He was genuinely spooked.

John sat down, ostentatiously on the other side of the room. Parrish came back in, bearing a couple of containers of water. Immediately John picked one up and drank thirstily. The material was close to glass but had a strange elasticity to the surface that made it feel ever so slightly rubberised. It provided a nice grip.

"What happened?" Parrish asked. He really had come out of the vacuous bubble he'd seemed to inhabit back on Atlantis, John mused, and it seemed there really was a mind back there that could process things other than plants.

"Colonel Sheppard almost touched the tether," Lorne sank into the chair across from, and still a safe distance from, John. He buried his head in his hands.

Parrish went deadly pale and stuck out a hand to brace against the wall. "Doctor McKay always did say he couldn't keep his hands away from the shiny stuff," he said fearfully. "Did he touch it?"

"He is right here," John said, stung. "And no, I didn't touch it." He coughed. "Lorne yanked away before I could."

"Oh, thank god," Parrish breathed and sat down beside Lorne. He picked up the second glass of water and drank it with shaking hands.

"Well, if you'd tell me why it's so important to keep my hands off, it won't be an issue anymore," John pointed out self-righteously.

"They're how the Kor keep track of their slaves," Lorne said baldly. "They link directly into the mainframe and are monitored for bio-signs and tampering constantly. They can be taken off for brief periods to allow medical assistance when required, but they must be replaced within a set period of time or …" He swallowed hard. "Else."

Parrish was nodding, and John noted that the glass in his hands still shook. "An unregistered bio-sign making contact would initiate an immediate alarm," he said. "And that would be bad."

"Especially one with a natural gene," Lorne interjected. "You must not touch one under any circumstances, Colonel. It would be catastrophic for all of us."

John stared silently at them both for a long minute. When he leaned back into the chair abruptly they both jumped. John relaxed more, crossing his legs at the ankle and stretching an arm out along the chair back. "Fine," he agreed. "Hands off the shiny."

"Thank you," Lorne said sincerely.

"So everyone was made into… slaves?" John asked, his lips twisting in distaste at the word.

Lorne and Parrish nodded.

"But you don't wear one of the bracelets," John pointed out in a drawl.

Parrish blushed fiery red. "I wasn't useful that way," he said, embarrassed for a reason that John couldn't divine. "They keep track of me a different way." He leaned forward, twisting his head and raking a hand into his hair to draw it away from his ear. A line of furiously blinking red lights ran from the base of his skull into the hair behind his ear, following the curve of bone.

"Jesus!" John recoiled. An instant later he was leaning closer, lost in horrified fascination. The implant was almost completely beneath the skin, except where it extruded just at the bottom of Parrish's head. It followed the hairline quite closely and explained why Parrish had grown his hair so long. John lifted his hand and tentatively stretched out his fingers, stopping with them hovering a good three inches away. He glanced at Lorne, who seemed unperturbed. He fought a mental war between courtesy and morbid curiosity. The curiosity won. "Can I … Does it hurt?"

"No," Parrish's voice was muffled by his twisted position. "You can touch if you want."

John ran his index finger gently over the lights. The skin felt disturbingly normal; warm, slightly sweaty. The lights were hard bumps like bone underneath. John's finger paused over one and the light underneath lit up, shining through the tip of his finger before he yanked it away. He scrubbed his hand on his pants, knowing it was rude but unable to stop. "That's…"

Parrish sat back up, flipping his hair back into place with both hands. "Even creepier?" he offered.

"Yeah," John replied uncomfortably. "How did you end up with that instead of one of those?" He gestured vaguely in a way that reminded him of Rodney.

"Well," Parrish said with a quick look at Lorne, who gestured for him to continue. "Let me go back to our explanation. I told you we were on the Kor ship." John nodded. "And that we were kept together." It was Parrish's turn to run his hands down his thighs to dry them. "So I guess I should start from there." He looked at John straight on, but John could tell Parrish was looking right through him. His eyes were haunted. "They took me first," he said. "The team tried to stop them, but they took me." He gave a small smile that was a shadow of his once bright, beaming grin. "And so, I was the first one they tethered."

The ship was a dark, humid, smelly, sweat and vomit stained slice of hell.

At least the Atlantis teams had been allowed to stay together, Lorne kept telling himself. It was, perhaps unsurprisingly, a genuine comfort to him. Even if they were all wounded, even if the remaining nine survivors were jammed together into a dark compartment barely the size of the back of a jumper, at least they were still together. With the hatch closed the darkness was absolute, but Kristova had dug up a small MagLite that they were using as sparingly as they could bear.

Ophelio had announced his self-appointment as medical chief pretty much immediately and had set himself to going over each team member with embarrassing thoroughness, cataloguing wounds and damage, and ruthlessly chivvying them all into taking care of both. Jessop had been placed on her back in the centre of the compartment, with her head in Kristova's lap and her feet on Parrish's, arranged carefully to avoid jostling his own leg injuries. Lorne had been placed sitting up in one corner with Kristova's broken ankle propped up on his thigh. He was wedged into the corner, twisted to the side to keep the wound on his back from hitting the wall. Julian was beside Parrish, providing a shoulder for him to lean against. Jarvath had given up on finding any kind of comfortable way to recline and was leaning heavily on Dorovici, who sat across from Parrish. Ophelio hunched uncomfortably at the opposite end of the room from Lorne, except when he would shuffle in and over them to check on their wounds.

And then, there was McKay.

McKay had taken one look at the tiny space they were to share, had turned pasty white, and had started to shake. He stopped dead in his tracks in the companionway and flatly refused to move. "No no no nono," he'd babbled frantically. "I can't go in there." He'd crossed his arms over his chest, had lifted his chin furiously, and had set himself in such a way as to make it impossible to simply shove him through the hatch. The sheer terror in his eyes had been terrible to see, and Lorne thought he would never forget the sheer bravado McKay had displayed. It was kind of ironic, he supposed, that one of the bravest things he'd ever seen was caused by someone refusing to face his fears.

Ultimately it had been for naught, of course. One of the supervisor-creatures had lifted an imperious hand and one of the soldier-creatures had cracked McKay over the head with his hand-weapon, and the revolt had been over.

McKay now sat wedged as far into the corner opposite Lorne as he could get, which was a surprising amount given the width of the man's shoulders. He'd curled over his legs and had pulled them into his chest as tightly as possible. His eyes were squinched closed and his forehead was pressed against his knees. He was rocking a little in place and muttering to himself. Ophelio had approached once to try and dress the head wound, which had still been seeping sluggishly after several hours, but the expression in McKay's eyes when he opened them had been so terrible that he'd stepped back with his one good hand up. Every time Lorne closed his eyes to try and sleep, the constant murmur of McKay's voice would resolve into a single sentence repeated over and over, and Lorne would have to lift his head to escape them.

wide open skies, wide open skies, wideopenskies, wideopenskieswideopenskieswide…

"Doctor. You need to shut the fuck up," Julian finally said, the weariness in his voice eliminating any sting from his words. "Please, dude. Stop. Talking."

McKay's hands curled into fists and his lips compressed into a white line, but he managed to bite back the endless litany of his mantra against claustrophobia, and finally Lorne slept.

The sound of the hatch opening brought them all awake, and the light spilling through it had them wincing and turning away as much as was possible in the cramped quarters. Parrish was closest to the hatch, and one of the soldiers simply reached in, grabbed him by the shoulders, and pulled. His head and one arm was outside the hatch before they even realised that he was being taken. Kristova's foot fell off Lorne's lap and slammed into the floor, wringing a scream from her, and Julian lunged for Parrish's legs to try and keep him with them. Even McKay broke free of his near-catatonia to reach for them, scrambling over Kristova to do it. He got a good grip on one leg and held on doggedly, but a slap from a second soldier outside the hatch had him staggering back holding his head and one of Parrish's boots. The hatch closed with a deep clang.

All of them had been heavily jostled by the quick struggle and for a moment the compartment was loud with the sounds of groans and whimpers as the team members re-arranged themselves. Lorne had re-opened the wound on his back and he could feel the hot trickle of blood down his ribs. Forcing back the flare of pain, he leaned against the wall hard, hoping the pressure would encourage it to slow.

The noises of pain subsided, leaving only the whisper of breathing and the soft rustle of fabric. The crinkle of foil tearing, when it came, sounded incredibly loud.

"I.. uh. I have some power bars," McKay said too loudly into the inky blackness, as if he could maybe browbeat his fear into submission. "Since we, uh. Since we don't know how long we're going to be in here, or if they're going to feed us, we'll need to ration." He gave a swift snort and muttered under his breath, "I hate rationing."

Everyone laughed. It was strained, painful laughter, but there was also a thread of relief running through it. Relief that there was still a constant – McKay's hunger – and something to laugh at. Lorne knew that the others had been as thrown and demoralised as he'd been by McKay's breakdown. The fact that he was now cracking sarcastic was a huge morale booster, despite the barely-restrained hysteria they could all hear.

They turned on the light and broke apart the first power bar into equal pieces. McKay clutched the remaining bars closely to his chest, looking not unlike a demented squirrel hoarding its nuts. No one said anything, but he looked down at the stash and said, "These should be spread out in case I'm taken," and handed half to Lorne. Lorne gripped his wrist hard in reassurance and took them.

"Hey," Jarvath said, leaning against the wall and looking up intently. "Give me the light a second." Kristova handed it over, peering up curiously. The suspense was too great for her and she heaved her way upright, carefully not putting any weight on her broken ankle.

"Hey! Is that?" She fumbled around on the wall for a moment, and a small spout protruded into the compartment. "Water!" A tiny stream trickled out.

"Canteens!" Lorne commanded instantly. They needed to get as much water as they could in case it stopped.

After filling two canteens, it did.

They all took short drinks, enough to wet their throats and mouths but not enough to slake their thirst, and settled back into uncomfortable mounds on the floor. McKay had kept it mostly together but had gone back to his corner, and the others huddled together to give him as much room as they could. From the crooked smile he gave them, he appreciated the effort. From the barely controlled terror in his eyes, it wasn't helping much.

Parrish had been gone just under forty minutes by Lorne's watch when the hatch slammed open again. This time they tried to avoid the soldiers by scuttling as far as they could from the door, to no avail. Once again one of the soldiers simply stepped inside, grabbed Lorne by the scruff of the neck, and yanked him out into the companionway. He managed to throw most of the power bars McKay had given him back inside before he was pulled away.

He was forcibly dragged, kicking, for at least twenty metres until they reached a bulkhead hatch. Lorne used the pause to gain his feet, though the soldier still held him hunched over by the grip on the back of his neck. He figured it said something that this was actually an improvement.

Another twenty metres of pitted metal companionway and he was shoved roughly into a compartment significantly larger, and better lit, than the one he'd left. Banks of shining steel-coloured boxes lined all of the walls, reflecting the light and making the compartment brighter. A supervisor stood inside the door, lights pulsing obscenely under the skin of its bare forearm. Beside it rested something that looked like an electric chair. Lorne wanted, more than anything in that minute, to stay out of that chair.

The soldier half-carried, half-dragged him to it and shoved him into place. A button press from the supervisor triggered arm, leg, and neck restraints to snap into place. The soldier left.

Ceremoniously, the supervisor lifted a small metal canister from one of the metallic boxes lining the room. A glint of silver shifting inside reminded him of molten steel and he tensed instinctively. The supervisor's lips peeled back, showing him its red-stained needle-like teeth. He grimaced.

It poured the contents of the container into one clawed hand. With the other it struck, grabbing his fist tightly, keeping him from moving. The metal slid off of the creature's hand and curled around his wrist.

Lorne gasped, jerking in the restraints. The bracelet hardened around his wrist, but it was the sensation of an intelligence touching his mind, shuffling through his self in some indefinable way that bowed his back. It hurt, damn it, and it was sensuous and organic and also near-bliss. It reminded him of the electric frisson around the gate. This was like being submerged in that sensation, all over his body. He cried out, re-splitting the cut on his lip.

That small pain helped him gain some control before he completely lost himself in the incredibly intimate sensations, so he deliberately made it worse. He stretched the cut as far as he could with just his lips, and when that wasn't enough he bit at the wound until he could feel the blood drip off his chin. He glared at the Kor-Trang, his breath heaving his chest like a bellows.

Wait a minute. Kor-Trang?

The Kor-Trang snarled a complicated set of syllables at him, and though Lorne knew for a fact that he'd never heard the language before, it made sense in his head.

"You are tethered. You serve the Kor. You will serve, or you will die."

Lorne spat blood on the floor.

"Your tether will be linked to those with you in your cell. They will serve, or you will die." It stared at him with as much malevolence as he'd ever seen from a Wraith. "This is the way of the Tey-im. You are now Tey-im."

Lorne stared back at the Kor-Trang defiantly until the Kor-Yul came back and dragged him to their new cell, where Parrish was waiting.

"At least the new cell had a head," Lorne muttered darkly, rubbing his hand over his bracelet. John noticed for the first time that it didn't shift on his wrist when rubbed, as if the metal was fused with the skin. Thinking of Parrish's implant, he realised it was entirely possible it had.

"Nanotech?" He blurted.

"McKay says no. Some form of molecular tech but not nanites." Lorne replied, probably trying to be reassuring. It wasn't. At least nanites, as irritating as the little bastards could be, were a known quantity with weaknesses to exploit.

"The translation matrix was interesting," Parrish spoke up, his eyes gleaming with excitement. "It provided for me an English translation for every plant I support here!"

Lorne gave him a fond smile. "We learned some things from getting tethered. The Kor –the Devourers – are unfamiliar with the gate network. To them the gates are just big rings that make a really big explosion if they hit them with their energy weapons."

"Devourers?" John repeated.

"They eat everything in their way. Not literally like the Wraith, but these guys wipe the planets they attack down to the bare bones to feed their war machine." Lorne's eyes were dark.

"To them, the bracelets are tethers," Parrish interjected. "They allow the Kor to keep tabs on their primary military support population, and they transmit information bi-directionally."

John shot him an impressed look. Parrish blushed.

Lorne snorted an unhappy sound. "McKay calls them 'collars'," he growled, his revulsion clear.

"The Kor would agree with that word, actually. They certainly keep us all in control." Parrish took a deep breath. "The tethers also react quite strongly to the Ancient gene. The Kor haven't really figured that out yet, that we can tell, but someone with the natural gene experiences a significantly greater connection with the tech than those of us without." He gave a quick, self-deprecating smile. "In my case, after a short time the rejection was near-total."

"Gene carriers have a hard time keeping their heads," Lorne said flatly. "It's a constant struggle to stay above it." He bit his lip, and this time it didn't bother John in the least. "I have the strongest expression of the natural gene in the team here, though there were a couple of times Kristova zoned out on us, and we almost lost Jarvath completely on the last action. That's why we risked taking him back to Atlantis."

John asked, "And Dorovici?"

"She'd taken too much accumulated damage. We weren't sure how much longer she'd survive." Lorne rubbed his eyes before looking at John squarely. "They were also a good test run to identify weaknesses in the plan."

Ah. Now they were getting somewhere. John leaned forward. "Tell me."

"Not yet," Lorne said. "It won't make sense without context."

Their new quarters were considerably more spacious than their old ones. Apparently being Tey-im was a step up from 'newly captured prisoner'. It was still a cell, though, and Lorne had lost whatever sense of humour he had about being captured at about the same time as Blaine's head had exploded from his shoulders.

The new cell was at least well lit, and some exploring found the toilet, which also featured another of those spigot-type water dispensers. The water was cold and fresh and tasted clean. Since his chlorine tablets were lost when the pocket tore off of his BDU pants back on Akarym, it didn't matter if it wasn't entirely potable – he had nothing to purify it with anyway. He used the toilet and mentally reminded himself that on a ship it was called a head, then wandered back into what was apparently their living area.

Both sides of the small compartment were lined with cots. Parrish was draped over one, snoring. Lorne carefully lifted Parrish's injured leg onto the cot, getting a mutter and a weak kick for his troubles.

Over the next several hours, the rest of the Atlantis team were brought to the new quarters and unceremoniously tossed inside. Corporal Ophelio was the first after Lorne, and his immediate action upon finding the head was to drag Lorne inside and clean him up as much as possible using the small basin and clean water. Lorne submitted with more irritation than grace, but since the self-declared 'head of medicine' had confiscated his Tylenol, he had little choice. The hardest part was sitting still when the corporal cleaned out the tear in his lip. Ophelio tutted at him grimly when he saw the extent of the new damage, but his own experience with being tethered had been strong enough that he didn't push it too much. Lorne had noticed that the man's arm sported new blood on its bandage and deduced that he'd taken the same kind of approach to control as Lorne had.

Who'd have thought being wounded would come in useful?

The others had arrived at roughly half-hour intervals, almost to the minute. Kristova was followed by Julian, Dorovici, and Jarvath. Ophelio descended on each one immediately, whisking them into the head for the same rough and ready cleanup and medical attention. As they came out they would sprawl onto the cots, falling virtually immediately into sleep.

A half-hour passed.

Another. Another.

Three hours, and no sign of McKay or Jessop.

Lorne's head, which had never really stopped hurting, started to seriously throb in time with his pulse. It and the accompanying nausea along with his continuing dizziness drove him to the cot beside Parrish. Laying down upset his balance and he accidentally rolled onto his wounded shoulder, sending a starburst of agony through him. He gritted his teeth and lay as still as possible, hoping it would go away. A few minutes later there was a piercing pain in his thigh, and then it did.

He opened his eyes to see Ophelio leaning over him. "Shot of morphine," the medic explained in a soft voice, presumably in respect for his headache. "Get some sleep, sir."

Lorne licked his lips and fell into the soft fuzziness of a drugged sleep.

He woke three hours later, feeling almost refreshed. The bracelet on his wrist had settled more snugly into place, to the point where it no longer moved when he pushed at it. His head felt a lot better, and even the burn in his shoulder blade had lessened a bit.

The clang that had woken him came again, and the hatch flipped open. McKay and Jessop were shoved through, landing in an awkward pile of limbs. Julian was off his cot in a flash, limping as fast as he could to pull Jessop to her feet and into a heart-felt hug. They were joined an instant later by Kristova. "Jesus," Lorne heard Julian mutter into Jessop's hair. "It's good to see you awake."

"I kind of liked it better asleep," Jessop replied in her husky contralto. "My head hurt less." Julian immediately released her and ushered her to the nearest cot. "And I wasn't a prisoner of war."

McKay snorted and stood up. "Believe me, this room is a significant improvement over the last one," he said. Lorne had to smile at the way the room came alive with McKay in it. He took a stab at brushing the worst of the dirt off his uniform, but gave up within moments with an irritated huff and a dismissive wave of his hand. Instead, he pulled out his tricorder and started scanning the room closely.

"Doctor McKay, can you come with me please?" Ophelio asked pleasantly, obviously intending to do his routine of stuffing into the bathroom and forcibly cleaning.

"No," McKay snapped, though with a minimum of venom. "Busy now. Go…" he glanced up to check who was talking to him, "… help Jessop." He looked back down at the tricorder, humming to himself as the readings changed. The others grinned and clustered together on a couple of the cots, seeking reassurance in banter and human contact. Lorne stood with effort, let the room spin around him a few times before he decided it wasn't going to stop, and made his unsteady way to McKay's side. Only he noticed how McKay's hand kept flexing, clenching into a fist and working his wrist against the bracelet tethering him.

He gripped McKay's shoulder tightly and pretended it was to provide the other man some emotional support. McKay shot Lorne a quick glance that took in his pale face and bruised eyes and took the extra weight without comment. Lorne tried not to feel grateful and failed.

He asked curiously, "Anything interesting?"

"The ship is riddled with Ancient technology," McKay replied, poking viciously at the small screen with one stiffened finger. "But the ship itself isn't Ancient in origin."

"Any chance of us getting out of here?" He tried to ask it quietly, but the compartment was too small for discretion. The conversation at the cots stopped and everyone waited breathlessly for McKay's response.

"No." It was flat and definitive. "There are almost four thousand of those world-eating bastards on the ship. We're not going anywhere until we get where we're going." Lorne just looked at him. A dark flush spread across McKay's cheekbones. "You know what I meant."

"Devourers," Kristova whispered, her eyes haunted.

Lorne looked away. "What can it tell us about these?" He held up his wrist.

"Very little. It's not Ancient and not nanotech." McKay growled without looking up.

"Hey, did you see how it moved? Reminded me of that liquid metal stuff in T2." Julian shuddered.

McKay levelled a dark look at him. "Yes. I am sure it is about to morph into Robert Patrick and stab us with its steely blade-fists any moment," he bit out. Julian actually looked a bit unnerved at the idea, and Lorne took pity on the corporal and shook his head. Julian grinned and ducked his head. Slowly the conversation started up again, gradually gaining volume and energy.

McKay glanced sideways at Lorne before taking a careful step. Lorne got the message and moved with his human crutch. "Uh, McKay?" He said in a whisper. "I really wish I knew what it is your team says or does to help you think and pull those miracles out of your ass, but I don't. So can we just take whatever it is as said or done and you can go straight to the miracle-making?"

McKay actually stopped poking at the tricorder to stare at him in astonishment. "Usually they insult me and just completely piss me off," he finally said candidly.

"Oh, well. I can do that, then." Lorne offered.

McKay's mouth twisted into what might have been a smile if it hadn't been so bitter. "No need, Major. I'm already just about as pissed as I can get without my head exploding."

"You don't look it," Lorne told him honestly.

"I'm just biding my time." He returned his attention to the tricorder, his frown growing deeper. "How long has Parrish been asleep?" He asked suddenly.

Ophelio answered, "Eight, maybe nine hours since I got here." He rose from the cot and hurried over to Parrish's, placing a hand on his forehead. "No fever," he said.

McKay checked the tricorder again. "His life sign is flickering," he said.

Ophelio had his fingers on Parrish's pulse. "His pulse is irregular. Breathing is slow. Too slow. What the hell?"

Dorovici picked up Parrish's hand and gasped. "It's hot!" She touched the bracelet with one finger and jerked it back as if burned. "The tether is hot too!"

Ophelio checked Parrish's arm. "His arm is hot to the shoulder," he said rapidly. Snapping fingers had Kristova handing over her MagLite for better illumination. "He's having some sort of reaction to the tether," he declared.

"The tether seems to be having a reaction to him, too!" Dorovici's voice was high with tension. Lorne himself felt numbed out. It was too much all at once. His hand spasmed on McKay's shoulder. McKay looked at him and guided him down onto his cot.

"Take it off," McKay ordered Ophelio tersely. "Before it kills him."

Ophelio's hand was wrapped around the bracelet, trying to make it slide. "I can't!" he gasped urgently. "It won't move! It's like it's fused to him or something!"

"Try this!" Kristova poured water over Parrish's wrist to try and give them some lubrication. She set her nails against the edge and tried to peel it off. "It's not working."

"Think it off," McKay demanded.

"I don't have the gene!" Ophelio protested.

"It isn't Ancient!" McKay shouted.

Kristova's eyes closed and Lorne could see her lips move as she chanted 'off, off, off'. It had no effect.

"Damn it!" McKay pushed Ophelio away and grabbed Parrish's wrist himself in one big hand. His eyes unfocussed as he concentrated. "Ow," he said almost conversationally, and pulled.

Parrish screamed, twisting on the cot, but Lorne had seen the bracelet shift in McKay's hand and knew it was coming free. He threw himself over Parrish's chest, helping hold him down. Kristova sat on his good leg. McKay gritted his teeth and kept pulling.

The tether came free with a suddenness that had McKay reeling backwards, landing in with a noisy crash against the bulkhead. Parrish sagged into stillness. Lorne pushed himself up, ignoring the tickle of blood once again making its way down his ribs, and looked down at his team mate.

Parrish's face was swollen, getting worse by the instant. His mouth was open and he was gasping for breath. Ophelio was back at his side in an instant. "Shit! Anaphalaxis!"

McKay's hands scrabbled at the front pocket of his tac vest from where he'd ended up after falling over one of the cots. He came up with an epi-pen. "Shakespeare! Here!" he tossed it to Ophelio, who flicked off the cap and drove it into Parrish's thigh like he'd done it hundreds of times.

Almost immediately the swelling started to recede and Parrish's laboured breathing eased. McKay slumped back against the wall. "Oh, thank God," he said.

Everyone else drooped with relief, too. Ophelio sat down on the floor beside Parrish's cot, his fingers set snugly against the pulse on his undamaged wrist. He looked at McKay. "O-Phe-li-o", he enunciated with exaggerated precision. "Not 'Shakespeare'. Not anything like Shakespeare."

McKay flapped a hand at him. "Whatever," he said. "Be glad I'm not calling you 'drowned girl'."

"And I", said Ophelio calmly, "Could be calling you Meredith."

"Ophelio it is," McKay said, not missing a beat. He stared at the puddle of silvery metal in his palm, and it slowly formed into a bracelet in his hand.

Feeling Parrish's chest rise and fall rapidly but regularly under his hand, Lorne grinned along with them, right up until the hatch swung open with a crash.

A Kor-Trang stomped through the hatch, followed by several of the Kor-Yul with lights flickering furiously. They all looked enraged, red eyes glaring viciously and lips peeled back over teeth. Everyone scrambled away from them, huddling together and staring resentfully. The Kor-Trang hissed and gargled a long set of syllables at them, and Lorne was extremely grateful for the translation matrix.

"You have removed the tether. The tether will not be removed, or you will die." The Kor-Trang's eyes fell on Parrish's unconscious form and noted that his wrist was bare. A tiny flick of its finger, and the front-most of the Kor-Yul drew its weapon in a blindingly fast motion and prepared to fire.

Dorovici and Jarvath actually made it to Parrish's side first, but Lorne was only a half-step behind and McKay was right on their asses, despite having to get up first. They crowded between Parrish and the gun, hands up beseechingly and each of them shouting a variation of 'stop'!

The Kor-Trang snarled.

McKay pushed his way between Lorne and Dorovici, his hand extended in front of him like an offering. "Wait!" he bellowed, years of shouting down his scientists coming in useful. "It was me, it was me! I took it off." The Kor-Trang reached out a single finger and lifted the bracelet with its claw, lifting it with an expression on its face that Lorne could only call curiosity. "He was having an allergic reaction to it. Whatever it is made of, he can't wear it. It would kill him." McKay crossed his arms over his chest and lifted his chin in his 'and that's that' pose.

The Kor-Trang slipped the bracelet into a pouch on its belt, staring at McKay intently the whole time. "If the unit can not be Tey-im, it will be Tey-Yul." It declared. 'Slave-soldier' supplied the translation matrix. 'Cannon-fodder', supplied Lorne's brain.

"No," Lorne said. "That's not going to happen." How he was going to stop it was still something he was working on, but he'd be damned if a gentle soul like Parrish was going to end up on the invasion division of some fucked up alien army.

"Wait," McKay said again, holding up a hand as he thought furiously. "Wait, wait… That's it!" He stared the Kor-Trang straight in the eye. "Doctor Parrish is a botanist," he said clearly. "A plant-grower. Not Tey-im, not Tey-Yul. Tey-Lak." He shifted enough for the creatures to see past him to Parrish's unconscious form. He pointed, stabbing his finger at Parrish on each syllable. "He is Tey-Lak."

'Slave-grower', the translation matrix told him cheerfully. Lorne was nodding even before it translated for him, just based on McKay's certainty. Whatever he had come up with had to be better than 'cannon-fodder', after all.

The Kor-Trang eyed them with something that could have been the beginnings of respect, and gestured to his soldiers. They pushed Lorne's team aside with virtually no effort and lifted Parrish from the cot, carrying him from the compartment. Lorne pushed himself back upright, cursing his poor balance and wishing with heartfelt passion for just about any weapon he could think of.

"Tey-Lak," the Kor-Trang said, slowly and deliberately. "He will grow food, or he will die."

"Agreed," McKay growled. "He will be returned." Lorne could tell he was careful not to make it a question.

"Agreed." The Kor-Trang inclined its head. McKay turned his back.

"He may be affected by the medicine we gave him," Ophelio spoke up loudly. "He may relapse, or he may have complications. You need to monitor him."

The Kor-Trang turned a look of contempt on him. "The Tey will be returned alive," it said, and left with a sneer.

When Parrish was returned four hours later with the line of red blinking lights marching from the base of his skull to the top of his ear, a dark purple line marking the incision where the implant had been inserted, Lorne wasn't sure that 'cannon-fodder' wouldn't have been kinder.

From the noises McKay made in the head as he was violently sick, he agreed.

The low, bone jarring rumble that seemed to be this place's equivalent of a doorbell interrupted whatever Lorne had been about to say, and he grinned at John unrepentantly. Even before the rumble completely died out, Simon swept into the room. Instantly Lorne and Parrish were on their feet.

"There is an action in fifteen minutes," Simon stated baldly. His eyes skittered over John as if he wasn't there. To see that lack of expression on Rodney's face was still unnerving as hell. "The others will be arriving shortly. We need to prepare."

"Understood." Lorne disappeared through the door John hadn't visited yet.

"Colonel Sheppard will need to be hidden," Simon told Parrish.

Parrish smiled at Simon brightly. "Of course."

Simon followed Lorne.

Parrish turned to John. "The others will get here soon. We try and stay together during an action." He rubbed his hands together nervously. "Follow me."

John trailed behind him through the arched doorway, trying to contain his curiosity. The door led to a short hallway with several more doors opening off of it. Parrish led him to the end and gestured to his right. "The bathroom's through there, and on the other side is my room. No one else will go in there while we're here. Any time someone comes in, head for my room, ok? It's really important that the Kor don't discover you here."

John was longing for the bathroom, but stopped Parrish with a hand on his arm. "Why did the…" He had no idea how to refer to the synthetic versions of Dorovici and Jarvath. "Uh." He finally decided to use Rodney's term, "Why did the golems leave, if you usually spend an, uh, action?" Parrish nodded patiently. "Action here?"

"Because McKay has programmed them to believe they need to be alone." Parrish told him softly. "Their differences would be too obvious in a group." He licked his lips as the rumble announced the first arrival. "Go on," he said. "I'll come and get you in a little bit. There is a lot more to explain."

John nodded and entered the bathroom. It was made completely of stone, making him wonder about their level of geo-technology. The sink was a smoothly formed basin with constant streams of running water flowing into it from above. The water drained from a small channel near the back of the basin that disappeared back into the wall. The toilet was very similar to what he was used to on Earth. He supposed that was likely Parrish's influence. Either way, it was at this point a critical need and John made use of it without further delay.

He found a long piece of cloth hanging over a tiny vent with warm blowing air that he used to dry his hands then headed through the other door into Parrish's room.

The rest of the quarters had been dark, stony, and overwhelmingly monotone. Parrish's room, on the other hand, was a riot of colour. Every possible surface except the bed was stuffed with flowering plants. The room wasn't particularly large, but it was bright and the profusion of colour actually made his eyes hurt a little compared to the darkness from earlier.

The bed looked hard and uncomfortable. It had a large messy bundle of fabric on it though, so John imagined it was warm enough. It was thin, only a bit wider than the travel cots he was used to, but was still significantly longer than his own bed back on Atlantis. He perched tentatively on the edge. The bed was even harder and more uncomfortable than it looked. John frowned, poking a finger at the nearest yellow flower. When he touched the petals the flower crumpled, curling into a tight ball as if to escape his touch.

Parrish chose that instant to walk through the door. He took in the scene at a glance and laughed at the startled, woebegone expression on John's face. "It does that," he said reassuringly. "It's perfectly fine." He sobered quickly. "The others are here. They're just getting ready." He paused. "They don't know you're here. Only Lorne, Simon, and I know."

"And McKay," John added.

Parrish's lips spread in a smile that didn't reach his eyes. "And McKay," he agreed. There was a weird grinding sound from the door. "That's our version of knocking," Parrish explained quickly, gesturing for him to hide. John hurriedly moved to stand beside the door so that he couldn't be seen unless someone actually came in. At least he was already used to pocket doors from all his time in Atlantis.

The knocker was Lorne. "It's almost time," he said. He leaned in until he could see John. "This is going to be a while. David'll fill you in some more. You should also try to get some sleep."

"Yeah," John glanced at the hideously uncomfortable bed with a wince. "I'll be sure to try that."

Lorne grinned sympathetically and withdrew. Parrish sat down on the floor, drawing his legs up into a lotus position and placing his hands on his knees in a position reminiscent of Teyla. John smiled at him.

"What do you want to know next?" Parrish asked with cheerfulness that John was genuinely glad to see hadn't been beaten out of him by the last few months, the way his innocent fog had been.

"Tell me about the Kor," John said, sliding down onto the floor to join him. He didn't even try to cross his legs or do anything remotely yoga-ish. He expected this to take a while, and he doubted his over-used joints could handle any kind of long term torsion.

"Ok. The Kor." Parrish closed his eyes for a second to marshal his thoughts. John thought he looked as though he was about to fall into a meditative trance. "This is the Kor home world. This region is a training camp and forward base of operations for their primary military section." He gave a small, self-deprecating smile. "I don't pay attention to the specifics very much." He coughed at John's obvious disappointment and continued. "I do know that the Kor war machine is enormous, with millions of troops on this planet alone. McKay says there are several like this." He reached for his glass of water, tucked in beside the plant with the yellow flowers. His wrist brushed several of the blooms and they sucked into tiny balls to get away, making Parrish grin at them paternally. Throat-clearing brought his attention back to John. "They are limited in their inter-galactic ship production capabilities by a critical lack of the primary ore used in their battle alloys." He sounded as though he was reciting, and John figured he probably was.

John asked, "Do you have any idea of the size of the fleet?"

Parrish shook his head no. "That's really more Doctor McKay or Lorne's area. I do know there are three general castes, with plenty of sub-castes and social delineations. Because we are an attack base, everyone here is a part of the same… nationality, I suppose would be the closest analogy. The castes start with the Kor-Nin, which are the ruling class and the most numerous of the civilians. We have several thousand here, but don't see them much. Next are the Kor-Trang, which encompasses the professional class within the remaining civilian population, and the officer cadres within the military." John nodded his understanding, impressed again with Parrish's recall. "I did two doctorates," Parrish interpreted John's expression correctly. "Memorization is a pre-requisite. McKay's a pretty exacting task master too." A fond grin crossed his face. "One time… Nevermind. The final and by far the most numerous of the Kor castes is the Kor-Yul: the soldiers. They are… terrifying. Unstoppable." Parrish swallowed hard, and continued.

"The entire Kor culture runs on one thing: slave labour. There are actually several more categories of Tey – slaves – than of the Kor themselves. There are Tey-Lak like me, who grow and process foods, Tey-Krul who grow and butcher animals, Tey-Marw which are mining drudges, Tey-Trang, who support the professional castes… the list goes on and on. The skilled support Tey populations are maintained through reproduction. The children are implanted at birth." He rubbed behind his ear uncomfortably. "Sometimes a captured person will be made a skilled Tey, like myself or Doctor McKay. Typically though, all captives are assigned as Tey-Im. People who are captured but who can not be Tey-Im are placed as Tey-Yul." He looked away uncomfortably.

"Yul. Soldiers?"

Parrish nodded, still not looking at him.



"Cannon fodder." He couldn't help the utter disgust in his voice.

Parrish's lips twitched into a reluctant smile. "That's what Major Lorne calls them too," he said. "They're also sometimes called 'live training targets'."

John pictured it and felt sick to his stomach. "You couldn't wear the tether."


"Then how…"

"The team resisted on my behalf, and Doctor McKay used information from the translation matrix and suggested I be made Tey-Lak," Parrish explained simply. "They think I don't remember but I was awake. I'd just taken a shot of one of Doctor McKay's epi-pens."

John nodded slowly and decided not to prod that particular bruise any longer. "So tell me more about the Tey-Im."

"The Tey-Im have two categorizations: those that are permitted to act within the society and those that are not. They are designated by their tethers, and they perform the function most critical to the success of the Kor as a military power." Parrish finally looked at him, his eyes wide and dark with emotion. "The Tey-Im are what let the Kor be the military they are. The translator says it means Slave-Surrogate, but Doctor McKay says it really translates better as 'whipping boys'."

Lorne sensed it immediately when they dropped out of hyperspace. He sat up on his cot, looking around reflexively.

The view hadn't changed from the last eight times they'd taken a hyperspace break, nor from the dozens of other times he'd awakened here. Twelve days since they'd been taken, and they were still in the same compartment. They'd shifted the cots around a few times to try and liven the place up, but ultimately there were only so many configurations that would also allow them to sleep, and only so many games they could play. They were all going stir crazy.

He asked McKay, "We there this time?"

McKay didn't even look up from his tricorder before shaking his head no. Lorne groaned and turned on his cot so his back was against the bulkhead. "Interesting," McKay muttered, poking at the tiny screen with one finger.

Everyone in the room froze and turned to stare at him. Even Parrish, still laid out on his cot with their last bandage wrapped around his head shifted to look.

McKay glanced up and seemed taken aback at their attention. "What?" He demanded, clutching the tricorder like they were about to pounce on him and rip it from his hands.

"I think that's what we're waiting to find out," Lorne growled at him.

"Oh!" He looked back down, the frown creasing his forehead returning. "According to the ship, we're not there yet, wherever there is. But we've come out of hyper pretty close to a planet. I think they're planning an attack."

"What can we do?" Dorovici asked eagerly. "Can we sabotage it?"

McKay looked at her like she was nuts. "No, I can't sabotage it. What do you think this is? HAL?"

Dorovici glared and looked away.

"Then why did you even tell us?" Julian burst out.

"You asked!" McKay thundered back.

Lorne rubbed his forehead with his hand as the argument started to get louder. It was hardly the first one they'd had, but chain of command made it hard for the team to be able to vent, and McKay and Parrish were the only people not in it. Parrish was too damned nice for anyone to yell at, plus he was wounded and still had terrible headaches from whatever the hell the Kor had implanted in his head. That left McKay as the lightning rod for a lot of the irritation.

Before this, Lorne had never, ever thought he might be glad to have Rodney McKay along for anything other than to be a genius saving all their asses at the last minute with a miraculous idea and flying fingers. He'd never expected to be grateful for the sheer stubborn arrogance and utterly opinionated bullheadedness of the man, but McKay could take the concentrated frustration of eight wounded marines and be completely unfazed and so he was. Every single day.

Because having McKay take it all, and give back as good as he got no matter what? In these quarters, it was a godsend. Hell, McKay seemed to interpret their irritation as his due reward. When one of them got snarky with him, he'd grin wide and shark-like, and then he'd rip into them the way he did his team back home. He seemed to take an obscure pride in the fact that he'd never yet managed to bring any of the marines to tears.

Honestly, Lorne did too.

He noticed Parrish's pale face and decided this round had gone on enough. He reached down and threw his boot at the opposite wall. "OK, boys and girls," he said into the resulting silence. "Time to be quiet."

They all grinned at him unrepentantly. McKay glanced back down at his tricorder. His face changed, sweeping from puzzlement to alarm in as little time as it took to for Lorne to register the expressions.

A burst of pain exploded through his brain, bringing him writhing to his cot. Julian, the only member of the team who was standing, dropped like he'd been shot, falling straight down as he grabbed his head and started to scream. The wave receded just enough for Lorne to catch his breath and to see identical expressions of agony and shock on every face except Parrish's before the next one struck like a direct electric connection to his pain centres. Lorne closed his eyes. He could feel taste blood in his mouth from the tearing in his throat, could hear the unholy shrieks around him that made him feel for an instant that he'd been transported to hell.

He curled into a ball, trying to get away from it, but it didn't stop. It just went on, and on. And on.

Lorne was pretty sure that somewhere along the line, he lost his mind.

The lessening of the pain into throbbing instead of unceasing agony happened so gradually that it was a while before Lorne could feel himself think again. The ability to see came back first, as blackness slowly resolved itself into the fabric of his pants, stretched tight over knees drawn up to his chest. Tentatively he moved his hands then his feet. It all hurt, overstressed muscles protesting their abuse, but compared to what he'd just come out of it was nothing. He realised eventually that the rhythmic pressure against the top of his head that he thought was his pulse beating in his scalp actually, wasn't. With a supreme effort, he lifted his head to check.

Parrish was sitting at the head of Lorne's cot, anxiously patting his hair with one hand. The other was on McKay's ankle, petting. As Lorne looked, McKay's eyes cracked open and he groaned.

"Oh, thank GOD," Parrish exclaimed. "I was starting to wonder if you were ever going to wake up!" He stood up and checked on the others one by one. His frenetic energy was exhausting even to look at, so Lorne rolled his head so his eyes could meet McKay's instead.

"What the hell was that?" he managed to gasp out, though with a lot less emphasis than he wanted to.

McKay blinked at him, a long, slow press of lashes over barely comprehending eyes. Lorne could actually see the awareness leaking back in drop by drop until McKay was completely home. Another blink, and incandescently hot fury transformed him from a barely conscious lump on the cot into a raging dynamo.

McKay lunged up off the bed, swaying dangerously. Parrish grabbed his shoulder and managed to steady him. He was already well into his rant before he realised that his voice was gone. Dramatically he clutched his throat, his eyes almost popping out of his head as his anger grew even more. His fingers tightened around the tricorder, and he drew back his arm for what Lorne was sure would be a truly impressive throw.

Parrish leaped in front of him, waving his hands wildly. "No no no!" he shouted. "Not the tricorder!" He looked around frantically, and seeing nothing available tore a button from his shirt and brandished it in McKay's face. "Throw this instead!"

McKay stared at him in blank shock. For one heart-stopping moment, Lorne was sure McKay was going to hit Parrish with all the power he could, and that he wasn't going to be able to stop it. He managed to throw out one hand.

McKay's face twisted strangely, and then he began to laugh. Large, hiccupping belly laughs, until he was bend over holding his sides, howling with laughter. There were tears streaming down his face.

Lorne had never actually seen McKay laugh before. A snicker or a short chuckle, sure. This, on the other hand, was entirely without precedent. McKay caught a glimpse of the look on his face and laughed even harder, sinking onto the cot.

It was contagious. Parrish was next, and his snuffling giggle-snort got everyone laughing, despite how much it hurt. It also felt really, really good.

After the last giggle had finally fallen into the long, deep breaths of people trying to keep their composure, Lorne carefully levered himself to a sitting position. It was easier than he expected. Apparently the laughter had loosened some of his stiffened muscles.

"OK, Doc," he said to McKay, who was huddled at the end of his cot, merriment still bright on his face. "What the hell was that?"

McKay wiped streaming eyes with his tattered shirtsleeves. "I have no idea," he said, but picked up the tricorder with another small snort of amusement and started to poke at it. The smile soon fell from his face as he concentrated on figuring it out.

"Whipping boys?" John frowned.

"The tethers act as a kind of access device… thing." Parrish explained. "They give access to each wearer, for the main distribution centre to … distribute battle damage."

John sat straight up in shock. "They do what?"

"Distribute battle damage across the wearers. As each Kor-Yul is injured during fighting, their implant identifies the damage and updates the distribution centre. The distribution centre then distributes the injury to the Tey-Im."

"That sounds useful. And seriously fucked up." John thought about it. Soldiers whose wounds healed in real time. A single wound, spread out across ten, a hundred people. "So each person gets a bit of the wound?"

"And the distribution centre cycles the damage through the Tey-Im as well, so they don't experience any given damage for more than a second. Think if it like allocating healing to one cell at a time, where if a hundred cells are hurt then a hundred people each take a cell to fix. It's incredibly complex, but there are enough Tey-Im to absorb the battle damage from several hundred thousand troops for a full action," Parrish told him. "They're the way the Kor can spread the way they do. The Kor-Yul are literally unstoppable, short of dismemberment or sectioning. And, with each world they eat, they grow the ranks of the Tey."

"Holy shit." John scrubbed his hands over his face. "So what happens when a tether is removed?" When he blinked, he could see the bruises blooming under Dorovici's skin.

"Whatever damage the Tey-Im had been allocated at that instant becomes fully realised in their body," Parrish said, matter of fact. "The distribution centre doesn't have a chance to hand it off to the next Tey-Im. Depending on the load the individual was carrying at the time, the result could be permanent disfigurement, or even death."

"Unbelievable. How did we never meet them before?"

Parrish smiled. "They aren't in Pegasus."

"You were when they captured you," John pointed out darkly.

Parrish's smile fled. "They've begun incursions," he admitted sadly. "Akarym wasn't even the first, but the Kor don't leave anyone behind."

"You said the tethers support the Kor soldiers. Don't they use the tech for the Tey soldiers as well?"

Parrish looked at him levelly. "Would you equip your slaves with the means to potentially defeat you, Colonel?" he asked.

"Cannon fodder," John shook his head, his gut clenching again.

A high-pitched whine echoed through the room. John looked up, but Parrish didn't move. "The action's started," he said then licked his lips nervously. "Would you like to see? They'll be completely out as long as it continues."

Every instinct in John's body was shouting no. "Yeah," he said. "Lead on."

Parrish took him back out through the bathroom and down the hallway to the doorway Lorne had stopped at. He took a deep breath before pressing the panel that would open it. He stood back to wave John through, his own reluctance writ in every line of his body.

The room was circular, with seven thickly cushioned beds that looked like a combination hammock-cradle spread out around it. Five were occupied. Lorne, Jessop, Ophelio, and Kristova were all reclined in what looked like comfortable positions. John supposed that it would be easier to accomplish that when you knew a battle was about to happen. All four of them had pained expressions on their faces, though Ophelio's was half-obscured by his full beard. Their limbs jerked spastically, and their eyes swung frantically under shut lids. John grimaced.

"Is there anything we can do for them?" he asked.

"No," Parrish said.

John's eyes were drawn to the fifth bed, where Simon lay perfectly still. Unlike the others his face was devoid of expression. "Can he act as a Tey-Im?" he asked, impressed at the thought. Having synthetic beings taking your battle damage by remote…

He jumped when Simon replied, "No, I can not." Simon's eyes opened a crack, the slate blue black in the dim lighting. "Doctor McKay requires all available power during an action. My own power draw would be clearly detectible by the Kor-Trang should I remain fully operational. Therefore I shut down all but basic cognitive processes."

John's skin crawled with how creeped out he was by that explanation. "Couldn't you just, you know, stand in a closet or something?"

The corners of Simon's eyes crinkled, as though he were laughing at him a little. "I could," he said with a dry sarcasm that was all Rodney. "But then I wouldn't be this comfortable."

"I've seen enough," John told Parrish, deliberately turning his back on the whole room despite the way it made the area between his shoulders itch. "What have you got to eat in this place?"

McKay had rigged a weird kind of propped up cradle for the tricorder so that he could prod the screen with both hands at the same time. He was currently stretched out on the floor on his stomach. Kristova was using the small of his back as a pillow, and was sprawled with her legs up on the nearest cot. They looked like a pair of teenagers lazing about at a pyjama party, but Lorne kept that observation to himself.

Ophelio was putting Jessop through her physical therapy regimen while Lorne and Julian watched with amusement. Parrish, Dorovici and Jarvath were crashed out on their cots, sleeping soundly. They'd found life a lot easier to deal with once fewer of them were awake at a time. On top of helping the compartment feel roomier, it made Lorne feel more secure to have a constant watch too.

"How's it going?" Lorne asked McKay softly.

"Slowly." McKay rolled his shoulders then resolutely returned to typing. "The databases on the ship make Atlantis look organized." He sighed at Lorne's blank look. "That is a bad thing," he muttered. "These collars are brilliant little pieces of technology though. They actually use phase technology to distribute wounds across personnel."

Lorne blinked. "That's… disturbing," he said.

"No kidding. That torture we went through last stop? That was the ship taking the Kor-Yul's battle damage and handing it to us to heal for them, one cell at a time." McKay shuddered and his eyes darkened at the memory. "The algorithms are incredibly complex. They have it set to rotate wounds within the collar 'communities' at nanosecond intervals. That lets them keep us all mobile" He frowned. "If one of us took a collar off though, we'd be in bad shape. All that damage with nowhere to go."

"Phase tech?" Lorne asked. "Asgard?"

McKay shook his head. "No. This looks Ancient-derived, maybe similar to the transporters, but much more sophisticated." The tip of his tongue poked out the corner of his mouth as he concentrated. "I should be able to hack this. Tweak the algorithms a bit and lighten the load off us a bit."

"Why can you, Doc?" Julian asked idly, his eyes on Jessop's impressive stretching ability. Ophelio glared at him, but Julian shrugged unrepentantly.

'Your turn next,' Ophelio mouthed at him. Julian grinned.

"Why can I what?"

"Why can you work with the systems? Shouldn't it be, I dunno. Harder?"

Lorne winced, but McKay seemed to be in an expansive mood. "Well, it is already harder than humanly possible." He shifted as if to get up, then realised Kristova was snoring on his back and hurriedly flattened back out. Kristova was not someone you wanted to wake up. She might look like a little blonde angel, but if you woke her up she would Kick Your Ass. "If it were truly a completely unknown alien system, then I'd be pretty much out of luck without direct access," he said instead. "But this has a common base with the Ancient systems that we have in Atlantis. That the life signs detector has, too." He resolutely refused to call it a tricorder, though everyone else in the team did. "Because of that, I was able to manipulate it relatively readily." He pinned Julian with a glare before the corporal could take advantage of his position as Kristova's pillow to make some comment he wouldn't be able to adequately respond to. "But still, impossibly fast compared to who you could be stuck here with."

Julian grinned and held up a finger to show a point.

"Why is it the same?" Lorne asked, frowning.

"I don't know yet. But this ship is riddled with technology that is recognizably an Ancient derivative, to the point where I thought it was Ancient when I started reviewing it."

"Why isn't it healing our wounds?" Jessop asked plaintively.

McKay blinked and looked at the tricorder. "It seems to only allocate from the Kor," he said thoughtfully. "I might be able to change that."

"I still want to know how you could take off Parrish's bracelet," Ophelio said suddenly from where he was helping Jessop stretch by leaning on her leg in a position that was positively pornographic. Lorne looked away and sighed.

"Me too. If the tech is Ancient, then it should respond to the gene more easily for the natural carriers than for me." McKay's mouth was an unhappy slash. "Right now, I need to make sure that we're processed out together and that we get decent quarters." His face fell even more, to the point he looked downright depressed. "Our destination planet has a subterranean complex." He looked up at Lorne mournfully. "We're all going to be living underground."

"Oh, Doctor McKay," Jessop said sincerely. "I'm so sorry to hear that." When Ophelio extended his hand to help her up she paused to pat McKay's shoulder sympathetically first.

Lorne could see McKay come up with and discard about ten scathing replies before he simply sighed and said, "Thanks." He returned to punching his virtual buttons.

"All right, Julian. Up!" Ophelio said with an anticipatory smile. On his face, with his beard and olive skin it looked positively demonic.

Of course, Lorne could be projecting based on his own PT sessions.

Julian moaned but got up and started to stretch.

Four hours later, the ship's alarm wailed shrilly.

Finally. Planetfall.

"This is definitely our destination, not a target," McKay said. "We're about to be moved to semi-permanent quarters." A rapid-fire set of taps on the screen had him grinning broadly. "Excellent! The planet-based systems are the same types as the ones on the ship. I can work with this."

"That's great news." Lorne said, giving him a smile.

"You have no idea." McKay glanced around, worry clear on his face. "I need to make our designations as fully functional as soon as possible. We'll need quarters and to be able to move around and interact. We can't do that as Tey-Im-Ba."

"What?" Lorne frowned.

McKay patted his shoulder. "Just trust me, Major, we don't want to be labelled useless here. That would be a very, very bad thing."

Blaine's head exploding flashed unbidden through Lorne's mind, and he jerked and rubbed his eyes to try and make it go away. He tried for levity. "Ok, Doctor, make it so."

McKay smirked his appreciation but it didn't reach his eyes. "Aye, aye."

They landed on the planet in the dark. The trip through the tiny companionways with thousands of captured prisoners was a new special kind of hell for Lorne. At least McKay succeeded in tweaking the Tey-Im distribution system to lessen their allocation of battle damage, and had come up with a way of cycling their individual injuries amongst them so that effectively they each took a turn at healing a portion of everyone's damage. The result was sudden weird pains all over his body, but if it meant that everyone's ankle had a hairline crack instead of Kristova's being completely broken, he was good with it. He also had a feeling from how healthy he'd felt on waking this 'morning' that McKay had found a way to tap into the larger distribution network so that the other Tey-Im were bearing part of the burden too.

If so, he hoped McKay didn't say anything, because then Lorne would have to ask him to turn it back, and right at that moment he was so fucking grateful not to hurt that he just didn't think he could bring himself to do it.

They filed down the loading ramp. One of the Kor-Trang gestured them to one side of the ship. Parrish was signalled to the other. Lorne reached out to grab his arm, ready to protest breaking up the team, when McKay pushed his hand back down forcefully nodding at a Kor-Yul with his weapon out. "I can reassign us together," he whispered in Lorne's ear. "But not if we're dead."

Lorne gritted his teeth and let Parrish be led away.

McKay put a heavy hand on his shoulder. When Lorne slowed down, he shoved him a little to continue. Lorne glanced back to see McKay using him as a guide, with his gaze straight upwards at the stars. Lorne looked up but it was all pretty meaningless to him.

"Oh," McKay breathed in a combination of fear and awe, Lorne thought. "Oh, my."

"What is it?" Julian demanded, staring upwards too and stumbling over his own feet.

"We're not in Kansas anymore," McKay said softly. He sounded tired, maybe even defeated. Lorne hated that sound. It made his stomach hurt. "Not even in Pegasus."

"What? How can you know that?" Ophelio sounded afraid and angry. "Constellations change as you move around."

Lorne waited for McKay to rip into him. Instead there was a long silence. When McKay finally answered, his voice was sad and infinitely gentle and didn't sound like McKay at all. "Because," he said. "That's Pegasus over there." He pointed to an area of sky near the horizon. Lorne was able to follow his line of sight with no problem, and sure enough. He'd seen that view from every conceivable angle in the holograph room in Atlantis countless times, and had seen it in person from Midway dozens more.

"Pegasus," Kristova said wistfully.

"Atlantis," muttered Dorovici, longing clear.

"Home," said Jessop. She sounded as though she was speaking through tears.

When McKay spoke, his voice was steely with resolve. "We're getting back there," he said. "Believe it."

The team gave a depressed murmur of assent.

Lorne said nothing at all.

A set of Kor-Trang pushed through the crowd, followed by a faithful phalanx of Kor-Yul, red lights blinking rapidly along their skull ridges. All of the Atlantis personnel glared at them as they passed. "I really hate those bastards," McKay muttered under his breath to a murmur of agreement from the others.

It took almost a full day for all of the captives to be processed and provided quarters. The Kor disseminated their assignments by simply pressing a button on their mobile consoles, and the entire group of relevant captives would suddenly clutch their heads and moan. Most of them would then stand staring blankly at nothing as the soldiers chivvied them into a large transport where they were packed in like cord wood. A few were split off into another group where they stood huddled together in wide-eyed terror. Lorne wasn't actually sure which group would be worse: the expressionless zombies on the trucks were at least not afraid, while the terrified people on the ground at least had their minds.

Implacably the Kor-Trang moved down the line.

Lorne stood their tallest team members, Ophelio and Julian, in front of McKay to hide his frantic tapping at the tricorder. "McKay," Lorne muttered out of the side of his mouth as the Kor-Trang got closer. They'd already shifted down the line twice, and the last time a Kor-Yul had taken up a menacing position nearby. They couldn't move again.

"Two minutes," McKay replied tersely.

"We have about one minute." Lorne replied. "Hurry."


The Kor-Trang and its phalanx of soldiers reached their small group. It extended its hand imperiously, reaching for Ophelio's tether. Lights from a thick implant marched up its arm from the wrist to elbow, glittering under its grey skin. Reluctantly Ophelio held out his wrist. The Kor prodded it sharply, tilting its head at whatever it learned then gestured for him to join the group of humans on the ground. It reached next for Jessop. This time the lights on its implant flickered a deeper red, and the Kor-Trang jerked its head at one of the soldiers.

"Got it," Lorne heard McKay whisper intently. The lights on the Kor-Trang's implant flashed in a frantic rhythm before settling back into the pattern they'd seen before. The Kor-Trang blinked in confusion, but reached for Jessop's wrist again. This time it gestured at the ground group.

McKay let out his breath in a relieved gasp.

"Jesus, McKay," Julian said under his breath. "Could you have cut that any closer?"

Lorne could just about feel McKay glaring hotly at Julian's back. "I could have, yes," he replied grimly. "In fact…"

"Thanks, McKay." Julian cut him off before he could get going. "Just… thanks." He held his wrist out to the Kor-Trang unhesitatingly.

"Yeah, Doc," Lorne agreed softly. "Thanks."

John woke to Lorne looming over him.

"Jesus!" He rolled away, falling off the far side of Parrish's bed onto his ass with a painful thud.

Lorne grimaced in apology. "Sorry," he winced, then came around the bed to offer John a hand. He took it with a scowl. The number of crackles and pops his joints made as he stood was embarrassing. John stretched slowly, trying to ease out some of the kinks.

"Are you all right, Colonel?" Simon asked, making John jump. The android was so much quieter than the man he looked like.

"Fine," John said, looking away. It was even more irritating when Simon so clearly didn't care. He simply nodded and left.

"Something to eat or drink, Colonel Sheppard?" Parrish queried from the doorway.

John demurred with a shake of his head. "What I really want is to see McKay," he said loudly and clearly. "Now would be good."

"It's not that simple, Colonel." Lorne said quietly. "McKay's not anywhere that it's easy to get to, or anywhere that we can just snap our fingers and have him here, either. You're going to have to wait."

Sheppard sat down on the edge of the rock-hard bed and cursed under his breath.

"So." Parrish offered a tentative smile. "Something to eat or drink?"

John glanced at his watch. 0400 hours.

"Yeah," he said. "Coffee and breakfast."

Parrish shook his head. "Or, water and salad?"

John smiled, his first real one in what felt like days but was probably even longer. "Oh ye of little faith," he said and dug in his tac vest, coming up with a set of several powdered coffee packets.

"Oh, my god," Lorne said. "Sir, I take back every bad thing I ever thought about you."

"This place have anything that heats water?"

Parrish was flexing his fingers like he was on the verge of snatching the packets and running away with them. "It does."

"Well, then," Lorne said. "Let's go serve 'em up." He smirked at John. "Be prepared to defend yourself, Colonel. Parrish knows some nasty tricks."

John had half expected that the other team members would be waiting for him when Parrish pulled him back into the living area, but the place was deserted except for the three of them. Even Simon was gone. Parrish wasted no time in heading into what John presumed was the kitchen and heating water.

"Hey – did you want to clean up?" Lorne pointed at a door leading to a second small hallway. "There're a couple of showers down there."

John nodded with what he hoped wasn't too much eagerness. "Razors?" He asked without much hope.

Lorne shook his head but his smile said he understood. "Not even really sharp knives."

John dug his nails through his rapidly growing beard, closed his eyes and sighed. He'd guessed from the state of Parrish's and Ophelio's beards that things to shave with were few and far between. Still, he'd feel a hell of a lot better once he was clean.

"All right," he said. "Shower, then eat."

Lorne nodded. "When you come back out, I'll tell you about how McKay made this place."

"Sold," John said.

"Now, for this planet, this is living," Lorne said appreciatively as their Yeroi slid slowly into the underground parking area. Yeroi translated roughly in his head as 'ground car', which Lorne always found entertaining considering it's secondary function after basic transportation was to be able to phase through rock. He still wasn't entirely sure how McKay had managed to obtain one for them, but he'd decided within about a week on this godforsaken rock that looking too closely at what McKay was doing for them would only make him completely freak out and possibly give him an ulcer.

McKay was dead-white and sweating beside him. "Yeah," he said weakly before forcing himself to open the door. "Right."

One month in transit and four months on their current planet had them all settled into an uneasy routine. McKay's tricorder magic had resulted in his reassignment to the Tey-Krang as engineering support. He'd offered to change the assignments of the others too, but Lorne had taken one look at the long march of blinking red lights straining against the skin of McKay's forearm and had decided to stick to his removable tether instead. The others had agreed with equal haste and expressions of nausea.

McKay'd had to re-organise some of his tinkering to the tethers. Once planet-side he'd discovered a very sophisticated metrics and monitoring system with a dedicated group of Kor-Trang analysts keeping track of the power drains and allocation algorithms. He'd managed to continue to keep the worst of the battle allocations elsewhere, but he hadn't been able to cut them out entirely. They'd figured out a way to temporarily remove the tethers under the guise of medical attention, but they'd tripped an alarm at an hour sixteen minutes.

It was their first experience with the tethers as punishment, and Lorne could still remember the whites of everyone's eyes stained blood-red with vessels burst by screaming. None of them had any desire whatsoever to experience it again. Even the irrepressible Julian refused to joke about it.

Their assignments as upper-level Tey-Im meant trips into the city, to provide support functions to various dead-eyed Kor going about their daily grind. Every single time was an exercise in revulsion. Within the city most of the Kor they encountered were soldiers, but occasionally they would come across one of the ruling class. It was the children that were the worst, with their patronizing demands and demeaning manner. The adults were so deeply absorbed in their implants and planning their war that they spent very little attention on the Tey.

After all, Tey were already slaves, and therefore beneath notice. Lorne didn't know how the hell McKay stood it, being in the city every day. He'd asked once, and McKay's silence had spoken louder than his most furious rant ever had.

It had taken time, but McKay had managed to get their assignments set out of the city, with minimal interactions. It was a monumental relief.

Their newest surreptitious acquisition was the quarters attached to Parrish's hydroponics bay. Almost all of the 'building' on the planet housing the Kor Advanced base was accomplished by incredibly sophisticated phase technology, and McKay had simply inserted an order to build this small set of rooms, then waited for it to come up in the queue. When it did, he deleted the records and showed the area as inappropriate for further excavation. It was a perfect little hidey-hole where they could meet and plot. He was pretty sure that despite all the work he'd put into making it happen, McKay was going to hate it passionately.

They headed into the hydroponics section, enveloped immediately by darkness, humidity, and the close smell of thousands of plants taking up most of the available space. McKay gave an inarticulate growl and flailed with one hand. Lorne caught it and put it on his shoulder then led McKay through the deliberately complicated maze of plants. He stopped thirty eight steps into the room and put out his right hand, touching the wall. McKay's hand had a vice-like grip on his shoulder and it was starting to hurt.

"Light," he muttered and turned on his flashlight. It illuminated a patch of wall and the corner of a large chalk X.

"Missed it," McKay taunted, trying for some tone of normalcy. It came out closer to a squeak, and Lorne grinned at him. McKay scowled and set the tip of his tool to the centre of the X, pressing the on button firmly.

The tool sparked twice and then glowed brightly enough to make them squint and a couple of the closer plants wilt. McKay shot them a guilty look, but moved the tool to the next landmark.

Thirty minutes later they had a door to their secret hideout. McKay stuffed the tool away in a rucksack he'd constructed from Dorovici's expedition jacket and waved his hand. "Open sesame," he said, and the door retracted into the wall.


"No, not really." McKay stepped into the quarters with the air of a man walking from one grave into another.

"That's a relief," Lorne smirked. "I don't feel much like Ali Baba today." He followed McKay into the spacious room and stopped dead. "I take it back," he breathed, impressed. "Riches indeed."

McKay dropped into a chair that Lorne hadn't even realised was there and pulled out the tricorder. "I think I found something," he said.

Immediately Lorne was all business, though at least a quarter of his mind longed to search the rest of the place. It might even have a shower! Christ, he would kill for a shower.

"Pay attention, Major," McKay chided, and Lorne brought his attention back with a guilty start.

"One question first," he said.

McKay quirked his brows and waggled his fingers in an unmistakable bring it on gesture.

"Is there a shower?"

McKay stared at him blankly a moment then grinned widely. He leaned forward conspiratorially. Lorne matched him eagerly. "Two," McKay said. Lorne almost swooned.

"Then I have another question," Lorne began.

McKay laughed and stood up. "That is a fantastic idea," he said and led the way.

By the time they'd both finished, the others had started to arrive. McKay waved them into seats and picked up the conversation with Lorne as if they'd never stopped. "As I was saying, I think I found something. Or, more accurately, something found me."

Lorne sat up straight. "What?" he demanded.

McKay licked his lips. "An AI. I think." He started pacing. As he passed Julian, the corporal sniffed.

"Are you clean?" He asked in outrage.

Lorne shushed him. "You'll get your chance. Go on, Doc."

"It originally found me through the tether," McKay said. "It searched for me after I moved to the engineers." He still resolutely refused to use the Kor word for them, and Lorne had to admit McKay was the least slave-like slave he'd seen. "It reached me last night through the life signs detector."

"One day you'll give in and call it a tricorder, Doc!" Kristova called merrily.

McKay's lips twitched in a smile, but he continued without comment. "It wanted to know where I went. It, ah." His cheeks pinked with embarrassment and an edge of pleasure. "Wants to meet me." He held up his right arm, the one without the implant. At the sight, Lorne bit his lip in a gesture that had started as a way to avoid being overcome by the tether and had morphed into pure habit. "I modified this collar to be outside the distribution queues." He paused at looked at each of them searchingly. "It said it had tried to reach out to others. Have any of you … felt anything?"

Lorne ran through his memory since their capture. Had he? There were those long pulses of heat and warmth that would work through his body like a rising tide. One time, the heat had gotten extreme, to the point he felt like he was going to burn up. He'd chalked it up to an unannounced action, but maybe…

"Yeah," Julian said slowly. "I think I have."

Kristova put her hand up. "Me too." Her cheeks were bright red and she wasn't looking at anyone.

"And me," Jarvath chimed in.

Lorne lifted his hand mutely.

Ophelio crossed his arms. "Well," he said sulkily. "I now feelleft out." Dorovici patted his knee in commiseration. Parrish and Jessop both shook their heads.

McKay raked his gaze over the group, eyes narrowed in concentration. "Gene carriers," he said firmly, as if an assumption had been confirmed. "But none of you thought it was an attempt at communication?"

Kristova blushed even brighter. "I just thought the Kor were perverts," she said.

"I kind of thought they were trying to burn me alive," Julian growled. Lorne nodded.

McKay frowned. "I don't get it," he said, lips compressed. "The AI said it could see you, bright points in the matrix. There are others," he added hastily at the alarmed look Lorne gave him. "Hundreds of thousands, amongst everyone. The Kor too. But none of them seem to respond when the AI contacts them." He rubbed his chin, fingers scratching through several months of hair growth. Just watching him made Lorne itch under his own thick beard. "Any of you got the artificial gene?"

In unison they shook their heads no.

"That's got to be it somehow." McKay took a deep breath and blew it out roughly. "I just don't know how yet." He turned his attention to Lorne, and Lorne thought privately that if he'd thought McKay's eyes were piercing before, they were laser-focussed now. "I need to go."

Lorne leaned back and rubbed his hands over his face. "I don't know, Doc. You're pretty important to our ability to survive, here."

"I'm not interested in 'surviving', Major." McKay snapped. "I'm getting back to Atlantis." He leaned forward, glaring. "Follow me on this. If this AI is seeing gene carriers, and is trying to communicate through those collars, then what does that mean?"

"It's Ancient," Ophelio said. "Obviously."

"Yes, yes," McKay rolled his hand in a sharp gesture to continue. "And?"

"It's technology we can use?" Dorovici offered tentatively.


"And … that's good?" Kristova tried.

McKay didn't even grace that with an acknowledgement. He just kept staring at Lorne with those intense eyes, willing him to make the connection. "The Ancients really had only a couple of pieces of technology unique to them," he finally said, wheedling. "The Ancient gene tech, and…"

"The gate network," Parrish finished for him. McKay touched his nose and pointed at him.

"Jesus! You think there's a Stargate here?" Lorne's stomach dropped, in that good way like diving a 302 at Mach 6. He'd been thinking in terms of maybe getting home in years, if at all. If there was a gate here, they could be home in days. Minutes!

"I don't know," McKay said repressively. "But I do know that if there is one, that AI is the way to get to it."

"Ok." Lorne was nodding. "Ok, yeah." McKay grinned, and the look on his face said it wouldn't have mattered if Lorne had refused, that he'd have gone anyway. "But you'll need to take an escort with you, just in case."

"In case what?"

"In case it is Ancient and your gene isn't strong enough," Lorne explained. McKay's face hardened, but he nodded tightly. "I think two. If you're right about the gate… I'm going."

"I'll go too," Corporal Julian offered. Everyone looked at him in surprise. "What?" He shrugged. "I need some time topside. At least Doctor McKay is good company." He gave McKay a sideways glance, then added slyly, "or entertaining at least."

Kristova swatted him in the back of the head.

"When are we leaving?" Lorne asked to forestall the impending wrestling match.

McKay stood up. "No time like the present," he said and snapped his fingers imperiously.

Julian jumped to his feet. "Lead on," he said.

McKay looked up at the stone ceiling, the realisation that he was about to phase back through ten metres of solid rock crossing his face. He broke out in a sweat but headed for the door.

"Wait," Dorovici stopped them just before they reached it, leaned up and kissed both men on the cheek, heedless of the scruffy beards. "For luck," She said.

"Ha!" Julian snorted. "Who needs luck? I have McKay!"

The shower felt fantastic. It was pure decadence, especially compared to the generally ascetic feel of the rest of the place. John could sense Rodney's fingerprints all over it. It was the first time he'd felt close to his friend in months, and it was crazy, but when he stepped inside it was like Rodney was right there with him.

The shower was triangular, with each side about a metre and a half long. Each wall, even the door, was studded with ten nozzles. He could adjust the water temperature at a small faucet before he went inside. When the shower heads turned on it was like getting a full-body massage. The water pounded at him hard from all sides, and it didn't even matter that John had no soap. He got clean, and it was wonderful.

When he got out there was a long swath of rough cloth he imagined was for his use as a towel, and he briskly rubbed it all over before climbing back into his wrinkled BDUs. He lay one hand against the shower door, loath to lose the tenuous connection to Rodney. Finally he heaved a breath and strode out to where Lorne was waiting for him.

"Ok, Major," he commanded. "Enough fucking around. Where's McKay?"

"He's…" Lorne bit his lip. "He's in Ascension."

John's heart stopped in his chest, and he felt his knees buckle under him. He reached blindly for the back of the chair to hold himself up. Rodney had ascended? That would explain quite a bit about why he was unreachable, how he could communicate through Simon, even why Lorne and Parrish were so cagey about him being able to see him…

"Oh, shit." Lorne correctly read the look on his face. "No! No… Jesus, I'm sorry. He's not ascended! He's alive. Here! He's alive here."

John gave in and sank down into the welcoming chair. "Next time if you could lead with that," he managed to choke out through the overwhelming relief that stole his breath.

Lorne rubbed his head awkwardly while Parrish pressed a glass of water into John's hands. "Yeah, uh, sorry?" He looked so contrite that John took pity on him.

"It's ok. I misunderstood." John looked up, still relearning how to breathe. "Damned glad that's what it was."

Lorne nodded mutely.

Parrish explained, "Ascension isn't a state of mind." He frowned, "except, I suppose you could see it that way." He shook his head. "Ascension is a city. And," now he smiled, "a very sophisticated AI."

McKay set the ground car down on the east side of the city, closer than Lorne would have willingly gone. Julian on the other hand was practically vibrating with eagerness.

"What do you think it is, Doctor McKay?" he asked for what had to be the tenth time since leaving Parrish's.

"An AI," McKay replied, the edge in his voice showing his fraying patience.

Lorne stared around anxiously. "We need to get out of the open," he said firmly. "This place is way too exposed."

McKay took out the tricorder and examined it. "This way," he said, pointing. He took two steps and disappeared.

"Doc!" "McKay!" Julian and Lorne's equally concerned shouts merged as they both jumped forward to where McKay had been standing, hands waving wildly. There was nothing there.

Lorne twisted around desperately. Julian was doing the same, holding his arms out wide.

One gut-churning instant later they were in a dimly-lit cavern with McKay standing in front of them. Lorne's knees actually weakened with relief at the sight of McKay stomping towards a brightly illuminated pillar, and he found Julian's hand gripping his shoulder tight with his own relief.

"Jesus," Julian whispered. "I thought we'd lost him. And all I could do was think of how Colonel Sheppard was going to kill me when we get home."

"Optimist," Lorne hissed back. "The rest of the team would have killed us long before Colonel Sheppard could get his hands on us."

They exchanged a grimly humorous smile and followed McKay.

The cavern was large; easily the size of the gate room in Atlantis, and there was absolutely no question that it was artificially created. The walls were high and arching, graceful lines of an almost organic beauty meeting in the center above them. Thin curving contours created intricate designs that tickled at Lorne's mind. Although he knew he'd never seen them before, there was something about them that seemed familiar. The walls were constructed of a similar alloy as the Kor body armour, but with a sheen that was distinctly more silvered and less bronze. Lorne couldn't make out the mechanism lighting the room, though the lines were glowing faintly.

Lorne broke into a half-jog to catch up to McKay. "Ideas?"

"This is definitely Ancient. Or, maybe pre-Ancient." McKay replied curtly, still studying the tricorder. He stopped in front of the glowing pillar and looked at it with covetous eyes. "This looks like the same basic tech as the transporters in Atlantis." He glanced at Lorne, then at Julian. "Well?"

Julian was staring at the swirls in the ceiling. "What?"

"Do you sense anything?"

Lorne looked at him askance. "Do I 'sense' anything?"

"Yeah, you know." McKay waved his hand vaguely. "Anything Ancient."

Julian lifted an eyebrow.

"Oh, for… Just put your hand there and think about what it is."

Julian complied willingly enough. The pillar was so bright that the light shone through his hand, making it glow red-pink. Julian closed his eyes. Then, he shouted in pain and yanked his hand away, cradling it against his chest. "Ow," he moaned. Lorne checked it; second degree burns.

McKay stroked his beard as he paced around the pillar, his face tight in concentration. Lorne bound Julian's hand as best he could. Suddenly McKay gave a sharp nod and turned to Lorne. "Hold on," he said and extended his arm. Lorne frowned but Julian understood and immediately grasped McKay's wrist with his undamaged hand. Lorne followed suit more slowly.

McKay turned back to the pillar, laid his hand flat on the surface, and closed his eyes.

"No!" Lorne blurted, and took a step forward to stop him… to find himself somewhere else.

This room was well lit and as empty as the last one. It was significantly smaller, maybe ten metres across. It was lined with empty alcoves that reminded Lorne painfully of the stasis chambers back in Atlantis. There was a sound behind him and he turned slowly on his heel to look, aware of McKay and Julian moving with him.

The room curved in on both sides, ending at a platform that was above eye-height. The platform was accessible by a set of steps only four metres or so away. The room's illumination seemed to be coming from its top. McKay was already almost there, eyes fixed on whatever the tricorder was telling him.

Hurrying, he made it to McKay's side as he reached the bottom tread. McKay was still staring down at his tricorder and would have tripped on the bottom stair if Julian hadn't gently pressed his arm to stop him. In unison, they all looked up. There were perhaps eight steps to the upper platform, each limned in a deep purple light.

As if they received some sort of signal, they all started climbing the steps at the same instant. McKay and Julian each wore expressions of slack-jawed awe, and Lorne imagined that his face wore exactly the same look. Shooting from the platform was a two metre wide column of pure white light that dimmed as they watched.

They reached the top of the platform in perfect step and stood before the light, which poured from the shining image of a man, standing with feet wide and arms crossed. He was humanoid, standing about six feet tall with black hair. He was dressed in long, dark blue robes that reminded Lorne of Darth Sidious. His face was young, perhaps in his early thirties, and he was heartbreakingly beautiful. Dark winged brows arched over deep brown eyes. The man looked like what Lorne had always thought a fallen angel must.

The man nodded at Lorne, turned his head to Julian and nodded again. Then he turned his face to McKay and stared at him with open fascination. To be fair, McKay was staring right back, completely awestruck.

"You're the AI, aren't you?" McKay stretched out his hand. It passed right through the young man, who didn't react. "A holographic projection." He raised his gaze from where a golden jitter had run through the projection with his hand, meeting the avatar's eyes boldly. "You're very impressive."

The AI simply inclined his head in acknowledgement. "I am Ascension," he said. His voice was deep, resonant and attractive.

McKay tilted his head. "Ascension," he repeated in awe, then seemed to remember his manners. "I'm Doctor Rodney McKay," he said grandly, then gestured at Lorne and Julian in turn. "Major Evan Lorne, Corporal Nick Julian."

The avatar smiled. "You bear artefacts of Atlantis."

McKay looked down at the tricorder as if he'd forgotten he held it. "Yes," he replied softly. "We have been in Atlantis for several years."

"Her people?" Ascension asked impassively.

"Gone," McKay told him bluntly. "Ten thousand years."

The avatar's eyes sparked dangerously. "Destroyed?"

McKay thought about it then nodded. "For all practical purposes, yes."

"You will," said Ascension, "tell me more."

"Atlantis wasn't the only mobile city the Ancients created," Lorne explained. "We know now of at least two, though we've been told there were many. Most of the cities had specialised purposes. Atlantis was primarily a science and research hub, for example." He took a gulp of his water and stood to pace. "Back when Atlantis left Earth the first time, when she went to Pegasus, she went not just because the Ancients had decided to go learn about other places."

John lifted an eyebrow.

"There was a philosophical schism, and they decided to split up, each to pursue their own ideology."

"Really." John said sceptically.

Lorne nodded. "I don't know where the other cities dispersed to. It's been millions of years after all." He shrugged. "They could all be dust by now. But one of them came here."

"There is another Atlantis here?" John sat up straight. He could feel the excitement written all over his face.

"No," Lorne told him firmly. "Not Atlantis. Ascension. Remember I said the cities were specialised?"

John barely managed not to roll his eyes and just nodded instead. The twitch of Parrish's lips said he'd caught John's reaction.

"Ascension is a mobile war platform, Colonel. He's nothing like Atlantis at all. He's a warship on a scale of nothing else we've seen. The Ori super ship looks small beside him." Lorne bit his lip, worrying it between his teeth a little. "He .. it… is also the birthplace of the Kor."

Parrish took up the story. "Millions of years ago, Ascension set down on this planet. The crew were pure military, with very little civilian support. The planet was populated but very low tech, so the military decided to provide them with training and work as civilian support. Some of the people weren't interested, so they were persuaded that it was in their best interests to comply."

"That ended up going as well as enslavement of a populace with vastly superior numbers usually does," Lorne said. "The populace revolted and slaughtered most of the crew, only keeping a few around to work the equipment. They were compelled to disable the city fail-safes against tampering, and they locked the AI up away from command functions." He looked away, and John thought the flush staining his cheeks might be shame. "Ascension thinks something similar may have happened on Atlantis; that the Ancients may have turned off her AI before running for Earth."

"Over time that populace, exposed to tech they barely understood and with a recent memory of both the brutality of their subjugation and the thrill of victory, began to learn more about the technology and how to use it to gain territory." Parrish picked up the story.

"Along with the AI, the crew locked up critical information like the city star drive, the existence of the other populations in Milky Way, and most importantly for our purposes – the gate network." Lorne continued, returning to the tactical perspective. "It's why we needed the tethers to understand what they were saying. They've never been through the gate network, so the gate translation programs never worked on them."

Parrish's face hardened. "They knew a few phrases of Pegasus dialects: enough to tell us to obey and enough to threaten us." Lorne placed a hand on his shoulder and squeezed. Parrish looked down and rubbed his eyes.

John was nodding, and he was paying attention, but he thought maybe a part of his brain was still back on 'mobile war platform'. Christ, even thinking it made his mouth water. Suddenly he had a thought.

"Hey, you don't suppose… when the Ancients decided that Ascension was the key to escaping the Wraith, could they have misunderstood the message?" A grin tugged at his mouth at the thought of the irony. "Focussed on meditation and ascending when in fact the message meant the city?"

"You're not the first to wonder," Lorne told him.

"So McKay's in the city," John went back to his original concern. "Corporal Julian?" He'd noticed the marine missing when the others had congregated for the battle.

"With him," Parrish confirmed.

"I don't think you quite understand, Colonel. McKay isn't just in the city, he's also sort of… in the city. He's working directly with the AI." Lorne waggled his hand to demonstrate.

John blinked his confusion.

"In its head," Lorne tried again.

"Oh, damn it. Stasis." John sagged in resignation. "He's inside the AI. That's how he can use Simon as a remote body."

"Ascension is the centre of Kor capabilities," Parrish said intently. "It runs the distribution hubs for battle allocations, it, it manages the implants. It's the enabler for the damned tethers!"

"Oh, shit," John breathed, staring at Parrish's wide-eyed fervour. "You never intended to escape."

"Actually, Colonel, to be fair," Lorne interrupted honestly. "I really, really did."

They'd been talking to Ascension's avatar for hours. His story was fascinating, but the thing that got Lorne most was how he seemed… Lonely.

"Once I could communicate freely with my crew. Then they locked me away," he said sadly. "I was able to manipulate the construction of the tethers and I monitored the distribution centre, noted any descendants of my crew or others who might be compatible with the interfaces that were still available to me. I would then attempt to contact to them, but I have not been successful in many millennia. I assumed that evolution had drifted away from the ability."

"What happened when you tried?" Julian asked. Ascension had conjured them chairs to sit in and had mimicked them, likely to make them less self-conscious. Julian was leaning forward, chin propped on one hand.

"They died when I tried."

Lorne jerked back. "So, you stopped trying."

"No." Ascension said. "I continued to try. They continued to die. The Kor noticed that certain characteristics had been flagged, and now they monitor for it." He sounded bitter. "They do not know why, but they are rigorous in registering and closely following any who are identified."

McKay looked appalled. "But you still try. You reached me."

Ascension lifted a hand in admission. "I know how to be gentler now. I don't kill anyone anymore." He let his hand fall back to his lap. "Not on purpose." When he looked up, his face was unbearably sad. "I wished to talk to someone."

"Do you know why they die?" Julian asked, reminding Lorne that he was a trained medic.

"No. Perhaps a fail safe installed by my crew."

McKay had that look on his face that said he was on the verge of a breakthrough. "I have a theory," he said slowly. "But I'd like to think about it first." He pinned Ascension with a piercing stare. "If we were to release you, what would you want?"

Lorne shot to his feet. "May I speak with you privately?"

"No." McKay flapped a dismissive hand at him, never looking away from the AI. "Well?"

Ascension's eyes heated and he started to glow. His face tightened until he looked like an advertisement for God's Wrath. "I would destroy the people who profane my city," he said so forcefully that Lorne half-expected some weird spectral wind to start blowing ."I would remove their ability to make war." Suddenly the fury was gone, and he sank into his seat tiredly. "And then I would like to talk," he said softly. "Once they are gone."

"Ok," McKay said, slapping on hand onto his knee. "Sounds like a plan."

"What?" Lorne asked incredulously. "How is that a plan?"

"I dunno, sir," Julian interjected with casual menace. The look on his face said he was remembering that he lost two of his team and almost a third to the Kor. "Having Ascension here kick their asses sounds just about perfect to me."

"We need to think this through," Lorne said reasonably. "Our first responsibility is to get home. To get everyone home." He turned to Ascension. "Do you have a gate?"

Ascension nodded slowly. "The Kor do not know the capabilities of the gate," he said. "It was set out of the city when we first landed."

McKay's eyes gleamed with excitement. "Do you have enough power to generate a wormhole to Pegasus?"

Ascension gave him a very direct look.

"Right. Of course you do. What about the power drain? Won't it be noticed?"

"The gate draws directly from the city power core, not from the reusable power systems used by the Kor. It is not monitored."

McKay turned to Lorne. "There's your answer. You guys gate out, and I'll free Ascension and follow you later."

"No way," Julian shook his head adamantly. "If I go back without you, I'm a dead man. If Colonel Sheppard didn't kill me, Ronon would. Or worse, Teyla!" He looked at McKay with overdone sincerity. "I say we all stay til we can all go."

"I say we all go, and come back with some reinforcements," Lorne argued, warming to the idea. "We could get Daedalus, or the Apollo." He ignored the automatic sneer on McKay's face at the mention of Ellis' ship.

"Neither of those ships would have the least chance against even Atlantis, let alone Ascension with millions of Kor-Yul in support." McKay shook his head. "These people – and I use that term loosely – have battleships, cruisers, even fighter screens. Daedalus wouldn't stand a chance."

Lorne deflated. "Doctor McKay," he hated that his voice sounded like a whine and stopped. "Doctor McKay," he tried again, and was happy that this time he sounded firm and authoritative. . "You're here as a member of my team and if you think I'm going to let you…" He broke off at the smile spreading across McKay's face.

"You don't really think that team leader speech is going to work on me, do you Evan?" he asked gently.

Lorne heaved a resigned sigh. "No," he admitted.

"The Kor would notice a sudden disappearance of the tethers," Ascension said apologetically. "With my capabilities bound, they could track your movements to the gate and possibly learn of its capabilities. That would be very unfortunate. At the moment the Kor are limited by hyperspace speeds. If they were capable of wormhole travel to the other inhabited gate systems…"

"I need to stay here and work on getting Ascension free. Maybe we can do a combination; send the team through the gate as we break him loose." McKay said.

"The team will tear me to pieces if I come back without you, Doc," Lorne hadn't given up yet.

"I may be able to help with that," Ascension said. An instant later a bright light arced down from one of the designs in the ceiling, bathing McKay in scarlet light. Both Lorne and Julian leaped out of their chairs, but by the time they reached their feet the light was gone leaving McKay completely healthy and a little bewildered.

"What was that?" Julian demanded angrily.

Ascension simply gestured gracefully behind them. Lorne spun on his heel, expecting a horde of Kor, or… hell. He didn't know what he was expecting. What he wasn't expecting was to see Doctor Rodney McKay striding confidently towards him dressed in long cream robes. With blue accents!

"Oh, my," McKay said awestruck behind him. "That is impressive, isn't it?"

Ascension said, "He is a construct of Doctor McKay. I have loaded him with baseline intelligence, and I have duplicated his implant as well. He is seeded with some of Doctor McKay's DNA, sufficient to mislead the tether."

"Oh my God," Julian breathed. He took the three steps to where the construct had stopped and now stood blankly. He reached out a tentative hand and poked the construct's arm. "He looks so real."

Ascension sounded a bit miffed. "He is real."

"Of course he is," McKay said with what passed for him as soothing tones. "He's magnificent work."

Lorne was still shaking his head. "I really think…" he started to object again.

Ascension stabbed him with a glare. "I think you do not understand," he said, anger threading his voice. "I think you should."

A flash of light later, Lorne was standing on a wide plain that stretched as far as he could see. There were small scrub brushes reaching no higher than his knees dotting the landscape in his immediate vicinity, but a little further out he could see a large mound of cloth. He shrugged and started walking, pissed. He was pretty sure he was still on the same planet, but he wouldn't be able to get a fix on where until the sun went down and he could see the stars.

The wind shifted, caressing the side of his face, then starting to blow straight at him. With it came the stench. Lorne stopped dead in his tracks, his nose wrinkled in distaste. Christ! It smelled like a charnel house! He eyed the pile of clothes warily, starting to get the idea of what it could be. Straightening his shoulders, he resumed walking.

By the time he reached the pile he was breathing in short gasps through his mouth, which was not helping in the least. The first bundle of cloth was empty, but the second held a body that had been dead for days. In the heat of the summerthe body had started decomposing quickly. Lorne buttoned his shirt as high as he could and then slipped the collar over his nose. It helped, a little.

He continued walking. The next body was also dead, but not for as long. It had just begun to swell in the heat. Lorne strode past it, trying not to look. He swerved to change his line of march to avoid the big corpse pile, since by now he was sure that's what it was.

The pile shifted as his tether gave a warning pulse on his wrist to notify him of an impending action. Horrified, he froze. The pile shifted again, and an unearthly moan rose from it, the sound of tens of voices groaning in anticipation of pain.

Oh, God. The people in that pile… some of them were alive!

The nausea overwhelmed him, and Lorne dropped to his knees heaving. He threw up what felt like everything he'd ever eaten and kept going. Every time he stopped that moan would sound through his memory and he would start retching again.

Strong hands touched his back. Was it one of those doomed souls, come to drag him into their stinking pile of death? He scrambled away with a scream, batting wildly at the hands in terror.

"Major Lorne!" The whip-crack shout was familiar, and it brought him back to himself with a snap. He opened his eyes to find he was back in the cavern. Julian was staring at him in shock, his hands held high to show he wasn't a threat. McKay looked angry. When he saw sense in Lorne's eyes again he strode over and covered his shoulder with one strong hand, holding him tightly. Lorne reached up and covered McKay's fingers with his own, pressing them harder to prove to himself he was back, safe.

"Ascension," McKay said in a low, intensely furious voice. "That was unacceptable."

Ascension frowned at him. "I simply sent him to see the Tey-Im," he said reasonably. "I did not believe he could see their plight and remain unmoved."

The Tey-Im? Lorne felt his gorge rise again. That was what they were supposed to be? His team? All of them? In one of those piles… He lost the battle and started to heave again, but there was nothing more to bring up.

"No one needs to see that," McKay's voice shook.

"I did," Lorne gulped weakly, unutterably grateful for McKay's fingers holding him up. "I wouldn't have believed it." He suddenly lifted his head. "Wait… you knew?"

McKay nodded curtly and didn't look at him. His eyes were still locked on Ascension, who looked unrepentant.

"I don't want to see it," Julian declared. "I know enough from Parrish already."

The construct spoke with McKay's voice. "Why do you say Ascension should not have sent him?"

"Because…" McKay began furiously then broke off as he saw the genuinely confused look on the construct's face. "Because," he started again, gently but firmly. "The first thing you must learn is that your team must be protected." He rubbed his nose then continued carefully. "They must be told what you know, and they must make their own decisions as well." He looked at the ceiling and muttered, "What I wouldn't give for a copy of Asimov right now."

The construct thought carefully then nodded. "I believe I understand," it said.

"I understand as well," Ascension said. He turned his attention to Lorne, who was climbing carefully to his feet with Julian's help. McKay's fingers still bit into his shoulder. "I apologize, Major Lorne, for distressing you. Doctor McKay is correct. My course of action should have been to protect you, not to place you in a harmful situation without your consent."

"Apology accepted," Lorne said, eying Ascension warily. "I understand why you wanted to show me that. It was… uh." He searched for the right thing to say. "Impossible to remain unmoved." He'd have nightmares the rest of his life, but he was sure as hell moved.

"We need to stop them," McKay said. "We can shift the team back through the gate and use the Golems, here, to take their places, get them out of the line of fire."

"Protect them," the construct said helpfully.

"Yeah, exactly." McKay gestured widely. "I stay here, work with Ascension to break his blocks."

"It will take time to create the other constructs," Ascension said. "We must gather the materials."

McKay nodded.

"McKay," Lorne said tiredly, "I can't just leave you here."

"I'll stay too," Julian offered. "Keep an eye on the doc, here."

Lorne bit his lip.

"The safest mechanism for us to interact would be one of the stasis interfaces," Ascension suggested. "That would allow a direct neural interface to communicate through the tethers for you, Doctor McKay. It would also allow you to interface directly with the construct, enabling you to act through him as required." Ascension frowned. "Though power use is closely monitored. We will need to be judicious."

Lorne tasted blood where the skin of his lip had finally given way. "I don't like this," he said stubbornly.

"May we speak privately, Ascension?" McKay asked softly.

"Certainly, Doctor McKay." Ascension blinked out, taking most of the light with him. The construct stepped off the platform, disappearing down the stairs.

McKay turned him by his grip on Lorne's shoulder. "Major," he said intently, "do you trust me?"

Lorne looked at him squarely, searching McKay's slate blue eyes. "This isn't a matter of trust," he said.

"Do you trust me?" McKay repeated.

Lorne genuinely considered, figuring McKay deserved an honest answer. "Yes," he said, surprising himself a little. "I do."

McKay smiled warmly, making Lorne feel warm with his approval. "I've made mistakes, Lorne. Big ones. I'll make big ones again, maybe even this time." His eyes bored into Lorne's, sincerity shining in them. "This could kill us all. But it's right. I can feel it, right to my bones."

Julian gripped Lorne's other shoulder. "He's right, Major."

"I swore to get everyone home," McKay said. "That means something to me. But I can't turn my back on what's happening here. What Ascension showed you, that's just a small part of the picture." He swallowed hard. "I don't want you to learn what the rest of it looks like. I wish I could forget." With his free hand he pulled out a clean white cloth and pressed it against Lorne's bleeding lip. "But I need you with me on this." He stepped back and dropped both his hands, letting Lorne know he wasn't trying to push his decision. Julian released him too, moving to stand just behind McKay's shoulder. "Are you with me?"

Lorne stared at him. He was supposed to be the commander here, and he knew that if he agreed he'd be effectively giving up the top level control of what was going on. McKay was looking for more than a rubber stamp. He was looking for Lorne's commitment to following him where he led.

Though he doubted McKay was thinking of it that way, that's what it would mean, and that's how the team would see it too. Hell – with all the ways McKay had saved their asses they were half-way there already, and they didn't even know about the normal fateof the Tey-Im yet. When they found out McKay'd re-written the protocols to allow them to avoid that fate… Lorne scrubbed a hand over his face. They'd feel just like he did, right now. Grateful. Impressed.


Lorne snapped off a salute. "All the way sir," he said crisply.

McKay grinned and pulled him into a hug. An instant later, Julian joined them.

They were probably all going to die horribly, Lorne thought fatalistically, but at least they'd go out doing the right thing. He sighed

"Stop that," McKay said with a snort as he pulled away, apparently reading his thoughts. "We're not going to die." His fingers tapped his tether and Ascension reappeared. He grinned fiercely, showing his teeth. "We're going to win."

"I advocated simply escaping, Colonel," Lorne admitted freely. "Once we knew there was a gate, it seemed pretty straightforward to me. Have Doctor McKay determine the right way of dialling one of the Pegasus gates, have Ascension point the way, and get the hell out of Dodge. Even knowing what Ascension is, even…" He broke off and pinched the bridge of his nose. "My responsibility is to my team to get them home."

John nodded his agreement. "Then why are we still here, Major?"

"Because it's not that simple," Parrish burst out. "The Kor are eating worlds, Colonel Sheppard. Worlds. Children!" Lorne placed a quelling hand on his shoulder and he subsided.

Lorne grinned at John ruefully. "Because the team wouldn't have come."

John had no idea what to think of Parrish's bright-eyed fervour. He'd never had any indication the man could be moved by anything beyond his plants! Then again, he'd never seen Parrish captured, forced to watch his team mates murdered in front of him, almost killed by alien tech, only to have more alien tech forcibly implanted in his head, and then required to live underground for more than seven months either.

John figured an experience like that could change anyone. He just needed to keep remembering it.

Lorne watched him work it out with intent eyes. "To be clear, Colonel, by the time Doctor McKay and I finished talking, I wouldn't have left either."

It was as clear a declaration as he could make short of flat out stating it, and John had learned one lesson well in his years in the Air Force, though he knew plenty of officers senior to him that never had. Never, never give an order you know won't be followed.

Lorne read the acknowledgement on his face and nodded once sharply. "I think there are things you need to see, Colonel. Things that will help you understand."

"Ok," John agreed. "Lead on."

They exited back through the hydroponics section, to what a grinning Parrish called the ground car. With a deep breath and a wince, Lorne took them up.

"For the record," John said as they moved back into clear air. "I really hate that."

Parrish, in one of the rear seats, was looking around with the hunger of a man who hadn't seen sunlight in weeks, and John realised with a sharp pang that he probably hadn't.

Lorne grimaced in commiseration. "I do too," he confessed. "I keep thinking one of these days it's going to stall half-way."

Parrish flicked his ear. "Thanks for that mental picture," he groused. Lorne swatted his hand away and took them up and away from the city. Within about ten minutes, John started to see small dark spots dotting the plain, mounds of what looked like clothes. From their height of about five hundred feet up, he couldn't really tell what they were. The dots started to become more numerous, and within another five minutes were beginning to form irregular clumps.

Parrish leaned over his shoulder and punched a finger downward. "Tey-Im," he said flatly, but when John looked his eyes were shiny with unshed tears. John turned back to the scene in front of him, his mind flatly refusing to resolve the shapes into anything distinct.

The next moment, Lorne punched that invisibility button on the ground car's controls and everything dissolved around him again. Immediately his hands started their march over his body, verifying everything was still in place.

"Can we skip that this time?" he asked plaintively, muffled a little by his fingers skipping across his face.

"No," Lorne replied shortly. "They have monitors up. Two o'clock, forty degrees."

John looked up to see a large three-finned plane hurtling towards them. It passed them a klick away and ten thousand feet up, moving fast. "Fighters?"

"Roughly equivalent to the capability of a dart," Lorne confirmed. "More powerful though. They shoot an energy bolt that is pretty impressive."

"Look down, Colonel." Parrish demanded, his voice harsh. "You're here to see why simple escape isn't an option."

Obediently, John focussed his attention down, looking straight through where his legs were. God, this was strange. Lorne took the ground car lower and slowed, cruising now at about a hundred kilometres per hour, fifty feet up. It meant that John could see what the bundles were.

He felt sick, and it had nothing to do with the invisibility.

The bundles, as Parrish had warned him, were people. He felt the slow burn of rage in his chest at the sight. Some of the figures were recognizably dead, practically skeletonised. Far more were alive. They lay in ragged groups, their clothes a mix of styles, colour and quality. There were men, women, children… John's gorge rose.

"Don't throw up in here," Lorne warned him in a low voice that said he was fighting the same urge.

"Right." John swallowed hard. "Why? Why are they…" He couldn't finish the question.

"They eat worlds," Parrish said intensely. "The Tey-Im are good for one thing and one thing only. Distribution of battle damage as another world is conquered. And once another world is eaten, there is a new flow of Tey-Im. There's no reason to waste resources on the ones that are already used up." His voice was venomous.

"When they die, their tethers are harvested for re-use." Lorne said. He'd managed to regain control and make his voice impassive.

"Of course," Parrish said, "It could be worse. They could be Tey-Yul and end up as target practice for the Kor. I had the privilege of delivering food to one of the training centres once and got to see the close fighting training in person." John hadn't known that Parrish's voice could sound like that. "The Kor are evil. If one of their soldiers has his implant disabled, he is made Tey-Yul as a punishment. This is what Doctor McKay saved us from. We were all wounded, you understand? If he hadn't hacked the tethers, we'd all be months dead."

Lorne sounded distant and terrible, "In one of those piles…"

John's voice was thick when he spoke. "I understand."

"Do you?" Lorne demanded, brought back to the present by John's words. "Because I didn't, not until Ascension threw me out here and showed me. Up til then, I thought bugging home and fighting them when they showed up was a great idea."

A green flash to their right caught John's attention before he could reply, and he turned to look. "Right, four o'clock, Lorne."

Lorne smoothly swung the car to face the direction John had indicated and slowed to a stop.

"Kor-Yul," Parrish whispered, as if he were afraid to be heard.

About thirty metres in front of them was a humanoid, male John thought. He was close to seven feet tall with bronze-grey armour, a bald head, and heavily protruding skull ridges. The soldier's skin was a pasty grey trending to blue, and his eyes looked like black pits in his face. He lifted his hand weapon, pointing it at one of the bundles of clothes. He fired, and the weapon spat green fire. The bundle of clothes sparked and smoked.

John jerked in shock. "Holy shit!" he breathed.

"The handguns are energy based, kind of like Ronon's," Lorne said.

"I know!" When John's hand reached his face, his mouth was open in shock. "I've seen these guys!"

"What? Where?" The alarm in Lorne's voice was sharp.


"What!?" Lorne and Parrish demanded together, both voices high and afraid.

"Back when that Daedalus showed up, remember? The one that was reality-jumping?" John didn't wait for an acknowledgement before plunging ahead. "One of the realities had these guys in it! They were at Atlantis. They boarded Daedalus. It was how Rodney got shot!"

"I remember that," Parrish said softly. "It took a long time to heal."

"That means there is at least one other reality where they reach Atlantis," Lorne said bleakly. "Still want us to just escape, Colonel?"

"Hell, no," John said, trying to ignore the relentless patting of his hands still checking to make sure all his pieces were still there. "We're going to take these fuckers down."

Lorne was still cursing under his breath when they reached the hideaway behind Parrish's hydroponics cave. As they entered, Jessop leaped to her feet, almost bouncing with excitement. "What did you find?" she demanded, all peppy energy and bouncing pony tail. Lorne glared at her and threw himself in the chair she'd vacated. All he could see was McKay stepping into that damned stasis chamber with a half-grin on his face and fear in his eyes. Oh, he knew McKay was right, but hell if he'd like it.

Dorovici was staring at McKay's 'golem' wide-eyed. "What happened to the Doc?" she whispered out of the side of her mouth. "Did the AI eat his brain or something?"

"Or something." Lorne hated feeling helpless.

"Where's Nick?" Jessop stopped bouncing, alarmed. "Is he ok?"

"He's fine," Lorne hastened to reassure her. "He's with McKay."

Jessop's eyebrow climbed for her hairline. "But…" she gestured mutely at the construct looking curiously around the room.

"That's not McKay," Ophelio said, his eyes narrowed in thought. His gaze swung to Lorne, suddenly piercingly sharp. "Who are you?"

"It's me," he said irritably. "He's… Well. He's a gift from the AI."

"You may call me McKay," the construct offered generously. "I was constructed to be a physical replica, and I carry his DNA."

"Lorne?" Dorovici's hand went reflexively for a weapon that hadn't been there in months. "What the fuck is going on?"

"We can't call you McKay," Ophelio shook his head.

Suddenly all the anger drained out of him. He'd made his decision to go along with this insane plan… No. He'd made his decision, consciously, to supporting this insane plan, and no amount of mental bitching or bad moods was going to change that. He was committed, damn it, and that was supposed to mean something.

"We have to call him McKay, at least for now," Lorne told them firmly. "He'll be taking Doctor McKay's place with the Tey-Krang to cover for his absence. I don't want anything to jeopardise him."

"But…" Ophelio compressed his lips around his objection. Lorne waited for it. "I can't call him that. I just … can't! We barely interact with anyone anyway."

"But Parrish does, and McKay does, and we could have to." He said steadily. "If we're in the habit now, we won't screw up later."

"I have a suggestion," the construct said. "My understanding is that your kind use several names. Is that correct, Major Evan Lorne?"

Lorne nodded.

"It is further likely that the use of each name denotes a specific level of familiarity."

Lorne nodded again.

"I have noted that you refer to Doctor Rodney McKay by the last of his names. Is that more or less familiar than the first?"

"The first is a title," Ophelio said cautiously. "The last is a familial name. It is typically less familiar."

The construct tilted his head. "Are we not team?"

"McKay is a part of the team," Dorovici agreed.

"Then would it not be sensible to refer to me as, perhaps, a different McKay?"

Lorne scanned the room. Everyone there shrugged. "OK. What name do you want?"

The construct blinked. His programming of basic human mannerisms was excellent.

"How about Sim?" Jessop suggested tentatively. "He is a simulacrum, after all."

"Sim," the construct tried out carefully. He couldn't quite restrain his grimace. Lorne kind of agreed.

Ophelio snapped his fingers. "Simon," he declared. The construct looked at Lorne, who nodded.

"Simon," the construct agreed. "Simon McKay." Between one moment and the next he went from being slightly wooden to vibrantly energetic. "And now, if you are all quite done playing with the cool toys, let's get to the plan." McKay said.

Jessop took a step back, Ophelio fell off the arm of his chair, and Dorovici reached again for her absent gun.

"Oh yeah," Lorne said. "By the way, McKay can use him like a body."

"Don't you think you should have led with that?" McKay reached down with Simon's hand to help Ophelio back to his feet. Unfamiliar with the responses of the body, he missed and accidentally punched a hole in the side of the chair. "Oops."

"Just stand up and stay still," Lorne growled. With an offended sniff, McKay complied. The others were looking at him like he'd just grown two heads. "What?" he demanded. "You should see the hole he put in the ground car!"

"I don't have much time," McKay said, gesturing with his usual flamboyance before he remembered he was supposed to be still. He shot Lorne a guilty look and ostentatiously laced his fingers together to keep his hands from getting away from him. "Julian and I are safe with the city AI. The city has a gate, and we think we have a way with the golems and the city's help, to fool the Kor." He smiled, a real one that looked a little strange on Simon's face, like the muscles weren't moving quite right. "If you guys can trust me, trust us, then we're all going to be going home."

As one, the three marines looked at Lorne. He looked each of them steadily in the eyes, making sure that every one of them saw his commitment and his belief. He nodded firmly. They looked at each other, communicating through raised eyebrows and minute shrugs. Ophelio turned back to McKay, having reached an agreement without a word being spoken. "Ok, Doc. We're in."

McKay turned Simon to look at Lorne. "I've got the others," Lorne said. "You go do what you need to."

McKay nodded Simon's head. "I can communicate with… Simon? Simon pretty easily through this interface. Simon can communicate to you through the tethers. If Simon says to do something, assume it's coming from me." That smile lit up his face again. "Ha! Simon says!"

"Nice to know I've travelled two galaxies from home to play a kid's game," Ophelio said wryly.

Lorne hauled himself out of the chair to stand close by Simon's side. "You have no idea how glad I am they didn't have to be convinced like I was," he said quietly so the others couldn't hear.

"Me too," McKay said, his mouth turning down in a crooked frown. "But that's probably because they already know."

"Yeah," Lorne heaved a sigh and thought of the nightmares he'd be having if he ever dared to sleep again.

"Gotta go!" McKay said. Abruptly Simon drooped before pulling himself upright. Lorne realised with a smile that without McKay, Simon's mouth was straight.

Lorne sank back down into his chair, blinking hard against a wave of hunger. Apparently his stomach had recovered from the earlier experience and was remembering that it's primary use was intake, not expulsion. "Where are the others?" he asked.

"Kristova and Jarvath're in the shower," there was a universal groan at that; Jarvath loved that shower like McKay loved chocolate bars and coffee. Ophelio continued with a grin, "Separate ones, and Parrish is on delivery, should be back any minute."

"Cool," Lorne said, "What have we got to eat?"

He was halfway through his second salad with Simon watching him in utter fascination when Parrish returned looking nauseous. Lorne was on his feet and by Parrish's side without really being aware of getting up. "Doc," he asked anxiously. "You ok?"

Parrish shook his head. Jarvath and Kristova came out of the hall to the showers, laughing. They stopped when they saw Parrish.

"I had a delivery," Parrish said shakily. He was almost in tears. "At one of the training centres." He looked at Lorne and the devastation in his eyes made Lorne's chest hurt for him. "They were training for close combat. Using live…" His voice gave out. "Live opponents."

"The Kor-Yul have used this method for many millennia," Simon said gently from his station on the other side of the room.

"They were children!" Parrish shouted.

Jarvath and Kristova gave identical double takes at Simon, realising something wasn't right.

"Yes," Simon nodded. "It is highly objectionable." He grimaced. "Unfortunately it is also highly effective as a desensitisation exercise. The Kor use it to condition the Yul before implantation." Lorne thought about mentioning similar habits of various Earth civilizations but decided it was better to let it go.

By the time he finished his little exposition, Parrish was staring at him. Lorne was glad to see that the surprise had at least chased that desolation off Parrish's face. "Who are you?" Parrish asked blankly.

"I am Doctor Simon McKay," the construct said calmly. "I am here to protect you." His eyes flicked to Lorne, and if he hadn't been essentially a computer Lorne could have sworn he felt self-conscious. "You are my team, and together we will get you all home."

Parrish, Jarvath, and Kristova all turned equally disbelieving stares on Lorne, who shrugged and held out his hand at Simon as if to say 'there you go'. The trio exchanged glances, but Lorne's calm equanimity seemed to be enough reassurance. "I'll give you the rest of the scoop later," Jessop stage-whispered.

"Simon's telling the truth," Lorne stood and set his hands on his hips. "He's here to help us get home. Unfortunately, it's not going to be particularly easy, or safe." He bit his lip and then rubbed his chin self-consciously when everyone's eyes went to his teeth worrying at his skin. "I need volunteers."

"Two," Simon supplied.

Immediately every hand in the room went up. Lorne grinned and shook his head, waving them back down. "These volunteers," he continued, sobering. "Will be testing some theories. We'll need to have excuses to take off the tethers briefly, and the only way tethers come off here is when someone dies. That means McKay will have to re-set the distribution centre to allocate more damage to you until we can feasibly tell it you died. He can fake a lot of the readings, but apparently not the cumulative damage info." Lorne looked at each of them steadily. "It's going to hurt. A lot."

Once again all the hands went up.

"Ok, then. I did guess this might happen." Lorne displayed seven hairs, two of which were shorter than the others. "Drawing straws it is."

"Does it count as straw when it's hair?" Dorovici quipped.

"It does when it's Ophelio's!" Jarvath laughed. Ophelio ran his hand over his perfectly smooth, thick fine hair and glared.

"All right," Lorne said, finishing his arrangement of the hairs and curling up his fist so only evenly-matched tops showed. "Choose."

One by one the team took their choice of the strands, leaving one in Lorne's hand. In unison they looked.

Dorovici and Jarvath each took deep breaths, then grinned at each other and bumped fists. "So, sir, what do we need to do?" Dorovici asked.

Simon spoke from the corner where he'd retired to watch them. "It is done," he said. "Doctor McKay passes on his thanks, as well as his apologies."

They both looked at him quizzically.

"As Major Lorne indicated," Simon said gently. "It is going to hurt. A lot." He lifted his head to look at the ceiling, his eyes unfocussed. "Soon. There is an action coming."

Carefully not looking at each other, the team moved away to get ready.

Lorne crushed the hair in his fist and watched them with a lump in his throat. Simon came over to join him. "During the action," he said, "I will reprogram the tethers to inter-communicate. We can not interfere with their allocation, but we will be able to communicate our presence."

Lorne looked at the construct, really looked at him for the first time. "How sophisticated are you?" he demanded. "Can you feel, Simon?"

Simon held his gaze impassively. "You should go to your couch," he said. "The action is about to start." He smiled faintly. "Your team needs you."

John stared through the transparent window of the stasis chamber at Rodney's face and tried to fight back the desire to simply blast through it and take his friend back. He lifted his hand slowly and flattened it against the surface, as if he could feel Rodney's presence if he just tried hard enough. He closed his eyes and told himself they weren't burning. At all.

He could hear Julian shifting his weight and Lorne muttering softly to Simon behind him, but all his attention was on the form in the chamber. Rodney looked like hell, as unkempt as John had ever seen him. He had several months worth of scraggly beard, his hair was much too long, and he was dressed in the fairly tattered remains of his BDUs. A bag made from one of the marine over-shirts hung at his side. He'd lost weight, making his cheekbones stand out in sharp relief and his clothes hang strangely. His eyes were closed, his lashes darkly fanning his cheeks.

John didn't think he'd ever seen anything as beautiful in his life as the sight of Rodney McKay looking like hell, alive in front of him.

He swallowed hard. It took all his will power to turn away.. "How much longer is he planning on staying in stasis?" he asked hoarsely.

Ascension's avatar flickered into being nearby. John jumped when he spoke with Rodney's voice. "The test went really well, actually. The Kor bought the switch to the constructs without a hitch, which of course I expected, but it's always nice to be proven right. Anyhow, thanks to someone showing up unexpectedly, we think we have to move up the timetable."

"Ascension," Julian said wearily, with the air of a man who has said it many, many times. "If you're going to let McKay talk, could you please change the graphic? Seeing his voice come out of your mouth is just too damned weird."

Amen, John thought. "How long?"

"Tonight," Ascension said in his low smooth voice. His eyes looked bright with anticipation.

Lorne blinked. Julian whooped. John frowned. "Really? Tonight?"

Ascension nodded. A noise on the stairs had John spinning on his heel.

Five constructs stood on the steps; Lorne, Ophelio, Jessop, Kristova, and Julian. Julian stared at the construct built to replace him with an expression of offended hurt on his face.

"So what's the plan?" John asked.

"Why is there one of me?" Julian challenged. He stepped between John and Ascension, staring at Rodney's column angrily. "I'm staying here with you."

Lorne coughed. He seemed to be taking facing his double more easily than John would have. "There's one of you because you're going back, Corporal."

"What? No." Julian shook his head. "No, I'm not."

John opened his mouth, and Lorne stepped on his foot, hard. Simon emerged from the shadow of the column and moved to Julian's side. John could see from his walk that Rodney had taken control.

"Julian," Rodney said through Simon's mouth. "We need you to go back. You, specifically."

Julian looked stricken. "But, I thought we were going to see this through the rest of the way together, you know?"

Rodney-Simon nodded. "I do know. But you're the only one who's been here with me the whole time, who's spent the time with Ascension when I couldn't. When we sent back Dorovici and Jarvath, we had to block their memories. Simon needed a key to be able to unlock those memories, and he picked you. If we don't make it, I don't want them to wonder their whole lives what happened." He paused, waiting.

Julian closed his eyes and nodded once.

"Thank you, Corporal." Rodney gripped his shoulder hard. When he dropped his hand they knew that he had withdrawn and Simon was back in control.

"I've summoned the others to the gate," Simon said coolly. "I am assuming that I will go with them to ensure that Atlantis will allow them through?"

Ascension nodded his agreement.

"Wait, what?" Lorne stepped back in shock. "You mean, now? Right now?"

The clear panel encasing Rodney suddenly sprang open then slid downward with a hiss of escaping air. John was moving before he realised, and he and Julian reached the stasis pod at the same time. They reached inside and helped Rodney wobble out.

"No time like the present, Lorne." Rodney said, using his own voice for the first time in months. He sounded rusty. "Let's get this show on the road." He looked at Lorne closely, then jerked fully upright. "You shaved!" He declared indignantly. "Why did you get to shave?"

Lorne grinned at him unrepentantly. "Privileges of rank, McKay."

Rodney glared at him through narrowed eyes. "That is just so unfair," he muttered. His eyes shifted to meet John's, and John had to blink rapidly against the burn. Rodney grinned at him, clearly happy to see him despite the worry on his face. "John," he said. "You shouldn't be here." He paused to catch his breath. "But it's damned good to see you." He smirked. "Especially since you, at least, need a shave too."

"Tell you what, Rodney," John told him with a smile. "When whatever you have in mind works and we get home, and I'll be your barber myself."

Rodney glanced up at him. "I think that's actually more of a threat," he said darkly, "but let's get a move on anyway."

Dorovici collapsed ten metres from the gate.

Lorne helped her back to her feet. Simon was already all but carrying Jarvath and they all knew that their time was running out. Dorovici sagged in his arms. "Simon," Lorne shouted over the sound of the wind scouring the surface near the gate, "we waited too long! We need to do something or they won't survive the trip!"

Simon nodded. "I fear our subterfuge could easily become reality," he shouted back, clearly worried. "Do you feel they can take the first trip? I can make modifications once we are out of range."

Dorovici scrabbled weakly, grabbed Lorne's ear. "Do it," she said.

"Tell Ascension it's time!" Lorne yelled. "And tell him to dial carefully!"

The splash of the wormhole opening was the sweetest sight Lorne could remember ever seeing. He waited for Simon's nod that the wormhole was stable then gathered Dorovici up in his arms and stepped through the gate.

The gate aura closed over him like the embrace of an old lover.

They emerged on the world Aiden Ford had dubbed the waterfall planet. Lorne laid Dorovici on the ground as gently as he could, checking her pulse. It was weak and rapid. "Simon?" He hated the nervousness in his voice.

Simon lifted his head, his eyes unfocussed as he evaluated them through the link to the tethers. "They are both still strong enough for transfer," he said. "I will need a moment to prepare."

Lorne nodded and made directly for the closest cache, breaking open the extra clothes and hygiene packs. Simon looked over at him from where he was crouched over Jarvath's tether. "You may want to be laying down for this."

Lorne looked longingly at the huge pool of water beckoning him. Jarvath called over to him weakly. "Hey, Major, Simon says you need to get your ass on the ground."

Ah, 'Simon says'. The magic words.

With a sigh he resigned himself to waiting for his bath another few minutes and lowered himself to the thick grass, staring up at the gorgeous blue sky. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Simon flick his fingers over his tether. An instant later, the pain hit. Lorne screamed.

It didn't last long, only a few minutes, but Lorne was breathing like he'd run a marathon by the time it was over. He felt like he'd been held down and methodically beaten with big sticks. Rolling on his side, he hacked and spat and looked for the others.

In contrast to his condition, Dorovici and Jarvath were both breathing much easier. They still looked like they were on the edge of exhaustion, but less like they'd drop where they sat if a firm breeze came by. Lorne struggled to his feet, that hygiene pack and the water calling him like a siren. Dorovici and Jarvath saw what he had and clambered up too.

An hour later, Lorne had decided that heaven was a close shave and a haircut. Dorovici had wielded the scissors on his hair and Jarvath's then Jarvath had taken a turn at trimming hers. Lorne was pretty sure the result wasn't what she'd had in mind. Jarvath seemed to know only a very short cut like Lorne himself favoured, and Dorovici didn't look so much 'neat' as she did 'shorn'. Lorne dragged his hands through his neatly cut hair and thanked the gods for a military standard haircut. Simon watched all their antics with fascination, taking the time to investigate the water and the grass and to look deeply at the sky. Lorne watched him for a solid fifteen minutes before he remembered that the Kor base was the only world Simon had ever known.

He also realised that he'd been procrastinating. It was over eight months since they'd been taken, and he was … scared.

As soon as he realised it, he headed for the cache and the spare GDO. Hoping like hell that they hadn't moved Atlantis again while they'd been gone, he dialled the DHD and waited with bated breath for the OK to come through.

He knew it was only a short trip, but damn it felt good to be going home.

It was time.

Lorne could feel his heart beating in his throat. The construct that would take his place waited patiently at the top of the stairs. Ascension hadn't loaded his AI matrix yet so the construct was merely an empty shell; a human-shaped machine operated by remote control.

Lorne turned to Sheppard. "You should come back with me, Colonel. It might be useful if you were there to help calm everyone down after Simon drops the iris and walks in like the defences are paper."

Julian grinned at the idea. Sheppard looked lazily intrigued. "I look forward to hearing all about it, Major," he replied, giving his answer in his usual sideways manner. "Make sure you get Zelenka to make copies of the video for me to watch when we get back."

Sheppard looked calm and easy enough, but since the second he'd reached McKay's side in that stasis chamber, his hand hadn't moved from under McKay's elbow. Lorne was kind of impressed that he managed to do it without looking like some kind of overgrown zebra mussel, but he'd made it look perfectly natural. It helped that it took McKay almost an hour before he could walk without assistance, of course.

Regardless, Lorne could read the body language. No matter how relaxed Sheppard looked, he wasn't leaving McKay back here unless it was in a body bag – his. Julian caught his eye and jerked his chin towards Sheppard in a clear question. Lorne shrugged. He was pretty sure when he got back to Atlantis he was going to camp out in the infirmary while everyone got better. He understood Sheppard's caution. He saw Julian looking at them again, a little wistfully, and knew he got it too.

McKay reached into his shirt-rucksack, pulled out the tricorder and punched a finger at the screen.

"Doctor McKay," Simon said politely, "They are at the transport site."

"Bring them in, please, Simon."

Simon nodded and closed his eyes. Five seconds later, the rest of the team materialised on the platform, looking around in wonder. Ascension quickly introduced himself and was half-way through explaining that it was time when the team caught sight of McKay.

They rushed him, leaving Ascension literally mid-word. Kristova reached him first and drew him into a hug, followed by Jessop, Ophelio and Parrish. Julian shrugged and joined them, throwing himself against the huddle of bodies, arms held wide.

Sheppard extricated himself and came to stand with Lorne. "No replacement for Parrish?" he asked curiously.

"Doctor McKay can fake the implant signals," Lorne explained softly, not wanting to interrupt the noisy reunion. "We can't fake the tethers. So, Parrish can head out as is. No duplicates required." He desperately wished he had something to distract himself with. A glass of water, a power bar, an invading army… He settled on biting his lip. Sheppard saw him do it, and something dark flickered through his eyes.

"You did good here, Major," he said quietly, his words for Lorne's ears alone. "You did really good."

For a second Lorne thought he was going to lose it, but he managed to get control back over his treacherous emotions just in time. He turned his head a little to hide the shine in his eyes. "Everyone did, Colonel," he said, coughing a little to clear his throat. "And we aren't done yet."

"All right, all right!" McKay yelled, pushing everyone away. Lorne saw that his cheeks were pink with pleasure, though, and made no effort to intervene as Jessop and Ophelio each snuck extra hugs. "It's time to go back." He gestured a little at Ascension, who smiled and darkened the lights. A night sky sprang into being over them, and McKay pointed at the small diffuse cloud of stars that was Pegasus. "There she is."

Simon stepped up beside Julian and took his hand in one hand, his bracelet in the other. Julian gritted his teeth, exhaling with a stuttering moan as Simon slowly pulled it free. Bruises blossomed up and down his arms, but he showed nowhere near the injuries that Dorovici or Jarvath had. Lorne was glad.

Julian's construct stepped up. As Simon put on the tether and Ascension loaded the AI, Julian returned to staring at the sky. Ascension sped up the time lapse, setting the star images skittering across the ceiling.

Simon released each of the team one by one. Ophelio followed Julian, then Kristova, then Jessop who withstood the removal without even a sound. Finally Simon reached Lorne's side, his cool fingers sliding delicately over Lorne's wrist. "Are you ready?" he asked gently.

"No," Lorne admitted, just as the Milky Way broke the virtual horizon and everyone gasped at its beauty. "Do it anyway."

Having the tether taken off felt somewhat like having the skin ripped off his wrist while being beaten by baseball bats and occasionally poked with hot needles. He couldn't imagine how Jessop had kept quiet. Despite all his efforts a deep groan burst from his throat and his knees sagged. "The additional load you took from Jarvath and Dorovici," Simon explained quietly, supporting him by the arm until he could get his feet back under him. "It matters."

"No goodbyes," McKay announced from his position near his still-open stasis pod. "Let's stick instead to 'it's been a pleasure and a privilege to be prisoners with every one of you'." He took a deep breath and nodded at Simon. "Now it's time to get you home."

"Wait!" Lorne stopped him. He looked at McKay, wondering if he'd be able to keep it together and then deciding he didn't care. Four steps later, his arms were wrapped hard around McKay, who squeaked a little in surprise. "You be careful," he said fiercely. "Your promise isn't kept until you're home too." Reluctantly he released him, wishing he could just kidnap the stubborn bastard. He spun on his heel and poked Sheppard in the chest. "You keep him safe, sir," he said through gritted teeth. "We want him back in one piece."

Sheppard held up his hands, placating. "I know exactly where you're coming from." He looked around at all the hard eyes staring back at him, even Parrish, and gave in graciously. "I promise," he said.

"Good." Lorne stepped back until his team surrounded him. "And good luck." He smiled faintly. "Not that you'll need it. You have McKay." He straightened his shoulders. "Take us out, Simon," he said.

One dizzying moment of disorientation later and they stood safely beside the gate. Simon placed his hand on the ring and the chevrons started to light. The wormhole whooshed into place. Simon placed his other hand on the gate as well, closing his eyes and concentrating hard. When he opened them again he smiled and waved them through. "Atlantis," he said. "Is waiting."

Lorne stepped through.

It was a frighteningly long trip, and if Simon hadn't warned him the first time, he'd have been panicking by the time the transmission was complete and the wormhole spit him out…

On the Atlantis platform, encircled by guns.

Lorne grinned widely and stepped aside, dropping easily to his knees and putting his hands on his head. He could kneel until Simon came through. Compared to removing the tether, landing on his bruises didn't even hurt. He heard the low thrum of the wormhole disgorging the next member of the team and made no effort to contain the tears running down his cheeks.


"Ok," John said. "What's the plan?" Ascension and Rodney exchanged glances that John had no problem interpreting. "You don't have a plan?"

"Of course we have a plan," Rodney derided. "We're just – divided on some of the details."

"Like what?" John eyed him closely.

"Like … How about we take you through what we can expect and you can chime in if you have something useful to say?" Rodney rolled his eyes.

"Fine," John agreed. "Fire away."

"Our goals are simple," Ascension began. "First, release the remaining bindings preventing me from controlling the city. Second, secure the star gate within the city. Third, destroy the distribution centre and free the Tey. Fourth, eliminate the ability of the Kor to make war."

Rodney picked up the thread seamlessly. "To accomplish this, we have one Ancient mobile war platform, which really is an incredible machine of destruction, and the three of us. Our first goal is simply a matter of timing; we're ready to go. Securing the gate should be simple once Ascension is mobile. We just need to go over and pick it up."

"Wait a minute," John interrupted. "If you're ready to go, why did you even need the golems?"

Rodney rolled his eyes. "One hour sixteen minutes, Sheppard. Believe it or not, I prefer to work without a literally ticking clock."

John suppressed the urge to stick out his tongue.

Ascension's eyes gleamed. "We have repaired my drives. When I break free of the earth, the power generation for the distribution centre will be destroyed. Several drones into the machine cores, which will be exposed by moving the city, will permanently destroy it."

"The Kor rely on Ascension as their hub for strategic knowledge and tactics," Rodney said. "They're much too vast to destroy piecemeal. Instead, we need to find a way to destroy them from within."

"Doctor McKay has designed a virus," Ascension announced, "which I will – carefully – introduce into the information network. It is designed to simply replicate, propagate, and shut down the Kor implants and the tethers. While it will not destroy them as I wished, it will eliminate their ability to make war in the fashion they have been." He looked resentful. "Doctor McKay has convinced me that simply killing them all would be…" He paused and glanced at Rodney.

"Rude," Rodney supplied.

John nodded. .

"None of this will be simple beyond breaking Ascension out and getting the gate," Rodney said. "They may end up a bit disorganised as a result of us taking out the information systems, but they have two intergalactic-capable ships here and an orbital defence platform with Ancient-derived energy weapons that we're not positive we can defend against. The Kor have a significant fighter complement. Ascension has a very impressive point defence that can be used against the fighters, but frankly I expect to be needing it against drone weapons. We also have several hundred remote-capable fighters we could send out instead." Rodney took a deep breath. "Once we're away from the planet, we can go to hyperspace and they won't be able to find us. If we can run the gauntlet, bail out, and wait for the virus to propagate, we'll be golden."

"So you're talking about stealing a city, retrieving the gate, and then running a fighting retreat until you can hide against a disorganised but very numerous and well armed opponent," John summarised. "So your issues are: managing the virus," he pointed at Rodney, "managing the defences and kicking ass while the city hauls ass," he pointed at Ascension, "and remote piloting the fighters." He jerked his thumb at his own chest. "So? Let's go!"

"Two other problems," Rodney interrupted. "Ascension, oh, eats gene carriers," he poked John in the chest, "and there are millions of civilian Tey down here who are going to abruptly have no leashes, no collars, and absolutely no defence against the Kor, who are probably going to be a bit peeved."

"I wanted a revolution," Ascension said sadly. "Not a genocide."

"Back up," John said, turning to Ascension. "You eat gene carriers?"

"Not on purpose," Ascension replied, sulky.

"Think of it like… Electrical sockets," Rodney said, waving his hands to illustrate. Watching him, John had an almost overwhelming urge to pull him close again, just to prove he was there. Instead, he listened. "Ascension was built for war. Pretend he pumps 240 volts through all his interfaces. The original Ancients fit that socket perfectly.Fast forward to the present . Now we have people who aren't Ancients and who can only handle 120 volts, but have a plug in that fits the 240 volt socket."

"So you blow their circuits," John deduced. He frowned. "Why can Rodney interface with you? It's the same gene."

"Different interfaces," Rodney pounced on the question, his hands dancing with excitement. "I have an artificial gene, along with impressive will power, and I act as a kind of natural transformer!"

John licked his lips and decided that all of the responses he could think of would either (a) make him look like even more of a dork than Rodney already thought he was, or (b) not actually be as funny as they sounded in his head once he said them. "A transformer," he said instead.

Rodney rolled his eyes. "My point is, I can interface with Ascension safely, and you can't."

"But I really don't want to interface with Ascension," John argued. "No offence."

"None taken." If anything, Ascension seemed amused.

"I just want to run the fighters. What if…" He paced, his unwillingness to be further than six feet from Rodney turning it into him circling Rodney like an object in orbit. "What if we modified a life signs detector from Atlantis to be a…" he coughed, "transformer for me?"

"No way," Rodney shook his head adamantly. "I only have one, and I need it."

John reached into the inside pocket of his tac vest and delicately withdrew his life signs detector, presenting it to Rodney over his other wrist like a waiter offering a pricey bottle of wine.

"Oh," said Rodney, snatching it greedily. "Well, this does change things."

"On the other thing," John said, talking this time to Ascension. "I have an idea."

Rodney's head snapped up, his eyes shining with excitement. "How about that," he said. "So do I."

Six hours later, John admitted he was glad they weren't on an actual deadline because Rodney had needed a lot of time to accomplish his changes. John had resorted to getting Ascension to create him something like minesweeper just to keep his mind occupied. Even so he still looked up every few seconds to make sure that Rodney was still there.

"Ok," Rodney clapped his hands and rubbed them together. "I think everything is just about ready here. The people on the surface have been re-assigned elsewhere, the Kor in the city outskirts have been sent out. Ascension?"

"Yes, Doctor McKay." Ascension flickered into place at his side. The avatar had changed his appearance, John noted, from the long robes into loose black pants and a black stiff-necked shirt not unlike what John's BDUs would look like with a Chinese collar. There was a crest worked in gold on the left side of Ascension's collar; some form of bird arrowing up out of a gout of flame. When Ascension turned away John found the same design writ large on the back of his shirt. What had originally appeared as a bird was actually something closer to a dragon, and a man was clenched broken in its claws. John had to admit, it was impressive.

They'd moved from the central sections of the city into one of the battle control sections that Rodney had promptly labelled the Bridge. The walls were lined with consoles, covering every aspect of fighting that John could think of and several he hadn't ever thought of until now.

John was stationed at the consoles for managing the fighter screen. Rodney carefully slid a sensor glove over his right hand then ran a cable to attach it to an interface port on the life signs detector. His last step was to insert the little handheld device into a port. He hesitated, staring at it nervously.

"Listen," he said, not looking at John. "If this hurts, or gets hot, at all, you yank your hand away. You hear me?"

"Yes, Rodney," John replied dutifully.

Ascension spoke up from his position in the centre of the Bridge. "Don't wave around, please," he warned. "We have set the cable to a very low tension to ensure your ability to pull away should it be necessary. If it isn't necessary though, I would prefer to have my fighters in action."

"Oh! And don't touch anything else!" Rodney interjected. "The whole wall here is interface-capable. So, you know, don't trip. Or grab anything. If you need to fall, fall on the floor."

Ascension nodded. John was starting to think they were messing with him.

"So, stay still," he summarized for them. "Don't fall. Is that about it?"

"Yeah," Rodney took a deep breath. "So. We ready?"

John gave him a thumbs up with the hand in the glove. "Very ready," Ascension said, leashed impatience running through his voice.

Rodney inserted the life signs detector into the port.

John felt a frisson of awareness run up his arm, starting at the very tips of his fingers. The glove grew warm around his hand, but not uncomfortably so. He waited, and when nothing untoward happened he closed his eyes and concentrated on finding the fighters. He got nothing; it was like his mind was pushing against a thick cotton wall. John opened his eyes to see Rodney watching him. "Nothing there," he said. Rodney nodded and turned to his own console.

"Ok," he said, and John could hear the anticipation thick and sweet in Rodney's voice. Ascension was all tension and menace beside him. "Here we go."

Rodney pressed the button to run the code that would break Ascension free.

For a long moment nothing happened. John closed his eyes again, pushed tentatively against the elastic resistance.

"There!" Ascension said in an intense whisper, and the Bridge came alive.

For John, the wall in his mind simply dissolved and he had the extremely disorienting sensation of falling straight forward. He snapped his eyes open, reaching out with both hands reflexively to catch himself. Rodney grabbed his shoulder and shoved him back in his seat.

"Be still!" Rodney reminded him urgently. "No falling!"

"Right!" John replied absently. His mind was busy blossoming with sensations as systems came online under his fingertips. Oh, this was incredible. Atlantis was a thrilling experience of course, but at her heart she was a science and research city. Ascension was a warrior, and interfacing with him was like a caress of steel in his head. There they were… five hundred fighters, still fully armed and charged for battle. John grinned fiercely and began the start-up sequences.

To his right, in the centre of the room, Ascension spread his arms to the side and put back his head. His mouth was open in ecstasy. "Oh," he whispered. "Yes, there you are."

A three dimensional tactical display shimmered down from the ceiling, filling almost the entire room with holographic information. McKay barrelled right through it as he jogged over to the helm and engineering control sections. Ascension stood back upright and let his hands fall back to his sides.

"Thank you, Doctor McKay," he said sincerely, smiling with gratitude. Then his eyes hardened. "Now hold on."

The room – the city - trembled under John's chair, almost toppling him out of it. As the shaking progressed to outright shudders, John decided it was safer to sit, or even lay, on the floor. Rodney was standing in front of his console, legs braced and holding on with both hands hard enough that John could see the muscles knotting in his forearms.

The city tore free of the earth in a scream of tortured metal and the thunderous rumble of avalanching rock. Ascension waved a finger and the tactical holotank changed to a view of the city rising from the gutted surface of the planet. The city was shaped differently than Atlantis, less soaring architecture and more sleek power, like the difference between a dolphin and a shark. Ascension was bigger, bulkier, and as he broke loose immense battle hatches drew back, revealing his bristling weapons arrays. John watched in open-mouthed amazement and more than a little pure lust.

He'd always been a shark man.

Rodney's fingers danced over his controls, triggering the transport process. "I have the gate," he said, running a finger along a racing line of text on his display.

"Well done, Doctor McKay." Ascension said levelly. Another graceful gesture had the holotank shifting again, this time to a tactical plot of the planet and surrounding space. "We are at six minutes." A thick swarm of golden dots suddenly burst from the Kor orbital defence platform. Ascension observed them calmly. "Here they come. Launch the fighters, Colonel Sheppard."

John rolled to his knees and regained his chair, settling himself with his feet wide so he'd hopefully be able to keep his seat. He closed his eyes, and opened his mind.

The fighters woke eagerly to his attention. They felt different than the puddlejumpers, firm in his mind and chafing to be sent into the fight. "Shhhh," John hissed softly between his teeth, striving to bring them into line and fully under control. A flick of his finger opened the forward fighter bay doors, and fully two hundred of the fighters poured out.

John gasped, jerking in his seat as his brain tried to fracture into two hundred separate directions simultaneously. He brought himself back together, straining to regain control by willpower alone. He spread his fingers wide, splitting the fighters into oversize squadrons and sending them out against the foe. He wished he could open his eyes to get a better fix on the field of battle, but he was absolutely certain that if he opened his eyes he'd lose them all.

An image of the battle co-operatively bloomed behind his eyes, showing each of the squadrons and their relative position and velocity.

"Wow," John breathed. "Now, that is so cool."

He reorganised the fighters into a set of formations, finding it much easier than trying to fly them all at the same time. The battle intelligences in the fighters accepted the delegation of flight control eagerly, forming up into the positions in John's head with gratifying speed.

Gritting his teeth, John sent them screaming into the teeth of the Kor assault. The tiny ships wove and dipped, hurtling through the Kor formations and firing furiously. The golden icons of the Kor started blinking out, and John felt his fighters' satisfaction echoing back through his link to them.

A set of darker yellow icons oozed out of the orbital defence platform, accelerating towards the sliver-lined black of Ascension. Missiles. John felt a deep thunk through his bones and heard the snarl of anger as Ascension released the point defence. Drones flowed out of the firing ports, targeting the vicious little missiles with their nuclear payloads. Drones and missiles started to die.

"One minute to energy range," Ascension growled.

John winced and jerked as a new cloud of fighters streamed up from the planet's surface, heading for his squadrons. The Kor blasted through his formation, and John's fighters started to die.

"Five. Four. Three. Two. One. Mark."

Rodney released the energy platform. Metre-thick beams of pure white energy licked out at the orbital platform, shattering the fighter launchers and punching directly through the hull in a puff of escaping atmosphere and shrapnel.

"Hit." Ascension noted calmly.

The two battle cruisers swept around the arc of the planet, heading for Ascension. Only a hundredth his size, they still sported an impressive armament and, more importantly, a full crew complement. The first battle cruiser, designated on John's internal HUD as red, spat fire at them from maximum range. The second battle cruiser, noted orange, held her fire. Both ships spewed fighters at an alarming rate. John marshalled his fighter screen back into order, arraying them against the Kor ships.

"Rodney?" He asked. He could hear the strain in his voice and fought to steady it as the tiny ships engaged.

"Four minutes," Rodney replied tersely. John heard the distinctive sound of Rodney pounding the keys and screens of his display and smiled. If he had to fight his way free of a planet, he was damned happy to have Rodney at his back for it. Grinning, he sent his fighters straight through the Kor formation and started strafing the cruisers, tying up their attention on point defence as Ascension continued the energy weapon hammer blows against the orbital platform.

"Yes!" Rodney shouted.

The platform disintegrated, spilling metal shards and other debris into space.

"Target destroyed," Ascension said, emotionless. "Acquiring target." The red battle cruiser glowed subtly brighter. "Target acquired. Firing."

A new storm of drones shot from Ascension's port tubes, arcing and twisting on their paths to the red cruiser. The cruiser writhed under the attack, her flanks a burning cauldron of fire, but she shrugged the fire off and kept coming right through the teeth of the drones.

"Drones ineffective," Ascension noted and re-tasked the remaining active weapons to chase the fighters instead. They'd destroyed close to six hundred of the little ships already, but more belched from the surface as John watched. His original two hundred were down to less than two dozen, and he released another two hundred into space while issuing the prep order on his final century.

"Virus away!" Rodney declared. John heard the footsteps as he joined Ascension in the centre of the room, two metres away. "It will take about ten minutes to penetrate their systems to a useful degree." John could hear the taps as Rodney continued his analysis

"Energy weapon range in six minutes. Designate point Aperica." Ascension remained focussed on the battle at hand. John split his fighters into two divisions, tasked the first with attack and the second with defence and sent them in against the red cruiser at maximum speed. The little ships weren't loaded with ship killers, but it was still possible that enough stings would bring the cruiser down. The fighters swarmed around and over the cruiser, the cloud of icons completely obscuring it.

John flinched as his fighters continued to die.

"Aperica in three. Two. One. Mark."

The two ships reached energy range and opened fire.

Every fighter in John's screen not directly behind the red battle cruiser were vaporised in less than a second as space was ripped apart by the bomb-pumped lasers and two-metre thick pillars of fire lashed between the ships. The red cruiser belched atmosphere as her overloaded shields gave, but didn't stop her hurricane of violence. John's head jerked back as his awareness whip-cracked away from the simultaneous deaths of his screen.

The orange cruiser added the weight of her fire, and the city shook around John as the shields took the pounding. "Brace!" Ascension shouted. "Brace, brace, brace!"

The city bucked as the forward shield flickered.

John overbalanced. He flailed for something to brace against, barely aware of Rodney's shout as the cable linking him to the fighter console clicked free and his unprotected hand described a perfect arc towards the flat interface panel.

John's palm slammed down on the back of Rodney's as he barely managed to get there first.

They both froze.

The city opened into John's mind, beautiful and terrible. The sleek lines were wreathed in fire. John could feel every cable, every room and interface, every fucking molecule and it was incredible, overwhelming. It felt like he was the city, in a melding so perfect he thought he'd lost his mind. There couldn't be a name for it, he thought dazedly.

"There is," Rodney whispered in his head, warm, steady, brilliant and focussed. "Gestalt."

Ascension was there too, incandescent in his rage at the Kor, but icily calm and steely in his single-minded focus on the battle. Without missing a beat, he allocated them the shields and the remaining handful of fighters. He didn't have to point out the openings in the red cruiser's shields – John and Rodney simply saw them at the same time and sent their fighters into the holes as if they were extensions of thought, firing viciously as they went.

The red cruiser disappeared in an eye-tearing boil of destruction.

"There," said Rodney aloud.

The remaining cruiser ceased fire, and the stream of fighters from the surface trickled to a halt, the fighters staggering drunkenly as if piloted by drunks. Several collided, destroying each other in bright fireballs.

John pulled himself back to his feet, reluctantly lifting his hand from Rodney's. Rodney's much-modified life signs detector lay between Rodney's hand and the console, John's thumb-print bright on the screen where his thumb had missed Rodney's protection. As he pulled away he was abruptly back in his own head, alone. It felt … too small, and lonely.

John gave an unsteady laugh.

Rodney righted himself, looking at him questioningly.

"Transformer," John said, pointing at the life signs detector.

Rodney grinned back at him, "from now on I'll call it Bumblebee."

Ascension banished the tactical display with a wave of his hand, turning to them gravely. "The virus has disabled the remaining ships," he said.

"Only one more thing to do," Rodney took a deep breath and made his way over to the systems console. He pressed a key and a small panel opened, revealing a tether. He glanced at John. "You think this will really work?"

"I think it will buy us all time," John said, "and I think that's as good as it gets."

"Right," Rodney said. "Let's do this."

He slid the tether over his left wrist, snugging it tightly against the implant that stretched his skin to the point of splitting. He put out his hand.

John gave him his knife. Rodney took it and held it poised over the implant. He stopped with it suspended an inch above the skin.

"Do you need me to do it?" John asked quietly.

"No," Rodney gritted out. He took a deep breath and cut the skin, letting the metal of the tether spill down over the implant. He placed his hand flat on the systems console, closed his eyes, and focussed, ignoring the trickle of blood tracing down his forearm to pool between his thumb and index finger.

The lights of Rodney's implant flashed frantically, like the heartbeat of a creature desperately struggling to get away. As John watched, the lights slowed, slowed… stopped. Rodney's face flushed as he concentrated fiercely.

The lights flickered back on, amber, and started to blink.

Rodney let his breath out in a gasp and collapsed to one knee. His hand went to his face, hiding his eyes.

John gripped his shoulder hard. "Is it working?"

Ascension's eyes were unfocussed. "Yes." He said firmly. "It is."

Rodney dragged himself upright. "Target the distribution centre," he said calmly. When he took his hand away from his face, his eyes were peaceful.


"Unscheduled offworld activation!" Chuck's voice rang out over the gate room.

In his ear, Lorne's radio gave three squelches in quick succession. He clapped Sergeant Georges on the shoulder, making him jump. "I'm already here," he told the sergeant as his hand dropped back to his side. "But thanks."

Georges grinned back.

"It's Major Sheppard's IDC!"

The gate room erupted with cheers. Lorne found himself shaking Georges in excitement, his fist wrapped around the shoulder strap of his tac vest. Georges endured the buffeting with a smile.

Woolsey stepped to the edge of the control area. "Tell them to come through," he said.

Fifteen breathless seconds later, Sheppard and McKay came through the gate.

Sheppard looked just fine except for the several days growth of beard he was sporting. McKay looked like hell - exactly as he had when Lorne had left him behind, except for the fresh white bandage wrapped around his left forearm from wrist to elbow.

Ronon reached them first, grabbing McKay in a bear hug and lifting him off his feet while Teyla greeted Sheppard with a gentler but no less heartfelt hug of her own. They had barely enough time to exchange smiles before they were swamped with well wishers.

Lorne couldn't help but compare it to his reception a few days prior. He'd been voluntarily confined to the infirmary for two days under guard as he'd spilled the whole story to Woolsey. It had helped that Zelenka had taken news of a potential other city seriously and had dug up references to Ascension from the Ancient database. Lorne's descriptions had matched the database perfectly, and between it and Simon's rather compelling presence, Woolsey had decided to take them at their word. Lorne had to admit that there was nothing like having someone else in full, indisputable control of your base to convince you to co-operate.

The furore on the platform was dying down as Julian crutched to his side. Dorovici limped slowly to the other, followed by Jarvath. Jessop and Ophelio were next to arrive, looking anxious and relieved by turns. Kristova bounded down the steps behind them, stopping beside Julian to help shore up his side. Lorne felt a pang that Parrish was still stuck in the infirmary, where Keller was working on how to remove the implant with Simon's considerable help.

"Ok, stop it!" McKay shouted, flailing loose from the patting hands of his greeting party. He took a couple of steps away from them, blinking hard and looking around searchingly. The people on the platform subsided into stillness, turning their heads too as if to help him find it.

Lorne lifted his hand in a half-wave.

Relief and something more complicated flooded over McKay's face and he took an unsteady step towards them. Sheppard was at his side in an instant, slipping a hand under his elbow and murmuring softly in his ear. McKay rolled his eyes but accepted the support as he crossed the platform and clattered down the steps to the team, Teyla and Ronon no more than a step and a half behind. He stopped a couple of feet away and ran his eyes intently over each of their faces. He glanced at Sheppard, then back to the team.

"This is real, right?" He asked Lorne.

Lorne's eyes stung as he remembered his own disbelief at reaching home. "Yeah, Doc," he said with a warm smile. "It is."

McKay covered his eyes with his hand and started to shake. "Oh, thank God," he said, and the team spilled forward to surround him and welcome him home.

He watched Keller wrangle the last of the well-wishers out of her infirmary two hours later, finally resorting to having a couple of the Daedalus marines escort them gently to the door. She hadn't even tried to convince Sheppard, Teyla, or Ronon to leave, and it would have taken dynamite to get the team from their last fateful mission out of there so she called it a night, told them to keep it down and excused herself. Woolsey remained to hear the rest of Sheppard's account of their escape.

Lorne pulled up his chair near the foot of McKay's bed, reclining with a hiss of discomfort. By now they'd heard about the fighting escape from the planet, and the success of the virus. One question was burning in Lorne's mind.

"So, McKay. What was the plan? What about the Tey?"

The smile fled from McKay's face and his hand went to his arm, rubbing gently. Lorne felt like an ass for asking. "There were a lot of casualties," he said slowly. "Colonel Sheppard pointed out that Pegasus has an awful lot of available habitable planets, with the depredations of the Wraith and the Asurans. We were thinking we could load up Ascension and ship the ex-Tey through the gate to appropriate worlds. Ascension's agreed to provide constructs to help set everything up, and we're planning to approach the coalition about helping to get everyone as settled as they can be." He paused. "It's not perfect, not by a long shot, and those people are terribly traumatised, but maybe this way they can start to heal."

"And Rodney, here, had the brainstorm that the implants and the tethers were fundamentally communications devices," Sheppard chimed in. "Bi-directional. He figured that if he re-wrote the chat program, he could turn an implant into a leash and a leash into an implant." He grinned at the expression on McKay's face as he mangled both the terminology and the description of his idea.

"I wasn't sure they'd survive long enough to be relocated," McKay admitted. "This way, the distribution centre healed them and dropped the Kor in their tracks."

"Holy shit," Lorne said. "That's brilliant."

"More importantly, it worked," Sheppard shifted a little in his chair. "We waited long enough for the implants to do their work, and then we blew the hell out of the distribution centre before it could be undone."

"Well done, Doctor McKay." Woolsey stood up. "I'm very glad that you've returned, and that everything has turned out well." He paused, clearly remembering their dead. "Or, at least, as well as can be expected."

"For now," Sheppard said darkly. Woolsey raised his eyebrows politely. "According to Ascension, there are at least another three advanced bases out there, plus thousands of worlds of Kor. We started the process, and there are a bunch of people released because of tearing Ascension free, but the Kor are still out there. Eventually, they're going to be coming, with intergalactic hyper-drives and very impressive weaponry."

McKay was nodding agreement. Behind him, standing against the wall, Simon nodded too.

Lorne thought about it. He thought about doomed Juliard and Martin, dead in the first seconds, about Blaine shot for being too big to move and Terovic, killed for going to his defence. He looked around at his team, remembering their horrible wounds and that tiny cell, McKay's breakdown and recovery, Ophelio's care, Dorovici and Jarvath's sacrifice. Parrish's implant. Jessop's concussion. Kristova's ankle.

Mostly he thought about how they'd triumphed despite it all.

"Fuck it," he said. "Bring it on."

The End
Violence, Character Deaths
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