A Wing and a Prayer
Big Bang 2009.   Anything goes.
An expedition of humans and their dragon companions travel to the Pegasus Galaxy in search of Atlantis. There they discover a people bonded to telepathic griffins, and that before the expedition can find the lost city they must first earn the right to become its new caretakers. When Major Sheppard is taken and returned with a piece of his memory missing, what began as a search for the city of the Ancients becomes a race against time and an enemy that is the very definition of being more than they seem.
Word Count
97156 words
But of course there needs to be a big resounding shout out to my betas Wildcat88 and Coolbreeze, as well as Sharpes_Hussy who provided back-up and a little extra insight when needed. And also to our Big Bang group in general: Kristen999, Everybetty, Titan5 and Obsessed101 for being sounding boards, critical eyes and all around awesome. You all may not know this, but you helped keep me motivated to write what I normally feel a tad uncomfortable writing - the dreaded AU! So a mighty, mighty thank you to you all.
This story has warnings; they are listed at the end of the story.
Jump to the warnings.
Companion Artwork
  • Bonded by Syble
  • Flight by Syble


It was good flying weather today. Clear sky, breezy and just a little under eighty degrees. Perfect weather for doing a lot of things. It had been the exact same weather surrounding John when he'd sat on a hill and let a coin decide his fate. He'd thought it out of place at the time, still did here and now standing just outside the entrance into Cheyenne mountain. It was too much like an invitation to kick up his heels and stick around. And after serving months in the wide open white of Antarctica, it was pretty damn tempting. It felt like forever since he'd last flown without being bundled up in winter gear.

He should have taken the opportunity when he'd had the chance, but he'd had a lot on his mind; which, of course, was an understatement. Flight was a good cure for mental burdens, and even so, it had been too far from his thoughts to ever act on. Today, it was a matter of bad timing. More accurately, a complete lack of time. He still had a lot of packing to do.

John went back into the mountain, leaving blue skies and good temperatures behind; he could only hope not for the rest of his life. But the notion took root fast and, suddenly, the massive entrance wasn't feeling so massive. Taking the elevator down a level about made him want to turn tail and run back outside, fill his lungs with Earth air and consider it to be taking a piece of it with him.

He'd never felt so damn nervous in his life, not even when he was brought to call for his actions in Afghanistan in front a court that had felt a thousand times larger than any coin. It still amazed him they'd let him choose his own fate. Life behind a desk or Antarctica. He wondered if they realized it had been a no-brainer.

That's a laugh. They probably thought it ample punishment.

John got off on the first level and headed down overcast-gray halls. He walked through the large door at the very end, into the massive hanger larger than the entrance, walls geometrically pock-marked with padded niches. Sleeping dragons gave the storm-dark place a much needed splash of color, but it was still depressingly gray. For dragons with a heightened sense of sight, John didn't know how they could stand it.

The lights were low, like false dusk, and the dragons so out that the chamber vibrated with the distant thunder of their snores. John was still able to locate Corvax in a bottom niche, a curled lump of perfect obsidian like a fragment of black hole on the right side of the chamber.

A second dragon lay like a cat on the verge of a good pounce several feet from the niche. It was the complete opposite of Corvax, all white and, John guessed, a couple of inches shorter. When he moved around to see what the white was up to – and to offer his two-cents on why it would be a bad idea – he lifted both eyebrows at the mess of drawing supplies littered in front of the dragon: large pads of sketch paper and a small box of charcoal. The dragon held a thick stick of charcoal in a paw that was like human hand and sketched with the zeal of someone having found the ultimate subject, muttering while it did so, a manic smile on its ridged snout. When the current drawing was complete, he tore it away, set it aside and started a new one.

Much to Corvax's ever-growing consternation. John could feel the mounting annoyance slink his way. It wasn't enough to keep the smirk off John's face.

"There you are!"

John jumped, stepping back into the darker shadows of an empty niche. The new arrival didn't look his way, heading straight for the white dragon instead.

Rodney McKay thumped the white on its armored shoulder. "You're needed in storage to check the supply of that dragon kibble stuff and… will you leave that dragon alone! This makes it ten – ten – times I've caught you drawing him and I think people are starting to talk."

The white – Bina, John recalled – rolled bright blue eyes. "About what? I'm the foremost expert on dragonology. It's not like I do this because I have a fetish."

"You sure?"

Bina snorted. "He's an Egyptian Black. Do you know how rare they are? Their near-extinction by the Goa'uld in ancient days was such a massive blow to their breed that even to this day they've barely recovered. You only ever see one in the wild if you're lucky. You never see one Bonded. This is a big deal, Rodney. Like… like if we happened to find Atlantis full of Ancients with a lot of ZPMs they'd be willing to hand over kind of big."

"Now who's exaggerating," Rodney said dryly. He narrowed his eyes. "Seriously, you may want to think about backing off and giving the guy a little breathing room." Narrowed eyes widened and John heard McKay swallow. "He's very… spiky, if you haven't noticed."

"Oh, I've noticed," Bina said. He ripped away the recent drawing and started another. "Egyptian Blacks were rumored to have bred themselves for fighting. It's why the Goa'uld targeted them specifically. But it's all just aesthetics. Looking like a bad-ass doesn't necessarily make you a bad-ass."

Irritation surged from Corvax like an angry gust of ambient wind. It was high-time to intercede.

John stepped from the shadows. "And Corvax is an overgrown puppy; ask anyone." Interceding didn't equate coming to the rescue. Although he found it a little harder to ignore the second wave of annoyance. He managed, leaning with his back against the niche divide, hands in his jacket pockets. He grinned. "But he's a fair hand in a fight."

Rather than going for chastened, Bina perked up. "How good? Strategically or more fire-to-fire combat?"

McKay elbowed him in the flank, not that the dragon would feel it. "Bina!" He looked at John, not so much apologetic as mildly exasperated. "Sorry. He promises not to draw your dragon anymore."

"The hell I do. The next addition of dragonology is supposed to come out while we're off prancing around in another galaxy. I need to get the perfect angle and send all this in. I need…"

"To gather up your stuff, stop crushing on the good man's dragon," McKay started pushing against the creature that was roughly the size of an Indian elephant, "get to supply and make the bothersome supply people happy by approving the crates of kibble. So move!"

Another eye-roll and then the dragon complied, reluctantly. He gathered the drawing supplies into a large canvas bag John hadn't noticed until now. He reared back on his haunches to slip it onto his shoulder and a spike, then dropped to all fours and sauntered off, grumbling about deadlines and obnoxious scientists who only thought their interests had any standing in the world. Dragons moved like cats, head lowered near-level with their bodies, motions smooth and languid when calm. Bina's frustration about had his head dragging on the floor.

Rodney gave John a tight smile, arching a thumb over his shoulder. "What I have to put up with." He started to leave, much to John's relief.

Then snapped his fingers, stopped, turned and pointed at John. "Oh. We need you in lab five, Major. Bunch of stuff left to be tested before we head out."

"But I have to…"

Rodney turned and left, tossing back a wave. "See you there."

"—pack." John tightened his lips in a grimace. If jumping to the beck and call of every scientist in need of his gene was to be his lot in life in Atlantis, then he was going to chuck that coin out the nearest window because it was too late to back out now. He'd come this far, with only the remainder of today and tonight between him and the adventure of anyone's lifetime. To back out now wouldn't be doing himself any favors; he doubted the Air Force would look too kindly on him taking what they would consider the coward's way out and let him go back to Antarctica.

Sumner, however, would love it.

Neither could John deny the regret that would result, the what-ifs that would sit like a boulder in the back of his mind. He wasn't normally a what-if kind of guy, but this was a very what-if situation that he knew good and well not even he was immune to. He didn't need that kind of aggravation in his life.

"They're gone," John said.

Corvax stirred and chuffed. "About time." He uncoiled and stretched in further display of cat-like mobility, all lean muscle, bone and sinew. What he lacked in the thick bulging muscle of most military dragons he made up for in deadly grace, speed and precision. He could literally turn on a dime. Well, more like a quarter. John knew because they'd tried it when they were teens and Corvax was finally strong enough to ride.

No one really noticed his size, though. They were more smitten in an unnerved kind of way by the collection of horns, spikes and spines with shallow webbing in-between. Dragons were a spiky species as a whole although not with the sharp intensity of Corvax's aggregation, or as numerous. He had spikes on his elbows, thin ones along his jaw and spines so small they were next to impossible to see arrayed in rows following the lines of his ribs. It was why John could never ride him bareback.

After the stretch, Corvax flopped onto his mat, popping his jaw with a massive yawn that let John see every one of his teeth. He clacked his jaw shut then eyed John thoughtfully.

"Something wrong?"

John shrugged. "We're going to another galaxy tomorrow."

Screwing his lips, Corvax shook his head. "That's not it. You're subdued."

Dragons were empathic, powerfully so when it came to the humans they were bonded to. Despite its merit, John found it mostly annoying.

"I contacted them," John said.

Corvax lifted his head. "Phone?"

"No. Couldn't reach them." John rolled his eyes. "Big surprise. I sent them an e-mail. Dave sent one back, told me good luck, be safe, all that stuff."

"Just your brother," said Corvax. "Not Patrick."

John shook his head. "Nope."

A dragon wasn't going to refer to his bonded human's parents as mom and dad, not even if mom's and dad's dragons were his sire and dam – which, in Corvax's case, they weren't.

John hadn't expected to hear anything from his dad, therefore hadn't set himself up for what he knew wouldn't happen. That still hadn't stopped him from hoping. He'd told Dave in the e-mail to say good-bye to Dad for him – just in case - which John figured was the best he could do. He could try harder, keep calling, keep e-mailing and had had the chance to for weeks. Then he would pick up that phone, or start up his computer, and his mind would go straight to memories of fights always left unresolved and a goodbye that had been said without even a hairsbreadth of regret. The only reason he'd sent anything yesterday was because things had been busy, too busy for him to give it a second thought. And it had been short and formal – the same message he'd sent to Dave.

Corvax sighed, a long rush of breath that stirred the corners of John's jacket.

"You're feeling pretty nervous, John," he said. If this was his way of being kind by changing the subject, it was a crappy way to go about it.

John grinned. "Gee, hadn't noticed."

"You gonna need any help with it?"

John's shoulder bobbed under his jacket. "Maybe when I sleep. I want to be clear-headed tomorrow. Beckett's giving everyone a little something that's supposed to help with that. But I appreciate the offer."

Corvax snorted. "Drugs don't do squat except make you feel worse."

"Beckett says he knows how to keep that from happening. Besides, how are you supposed to help me find my calm when you're still trying to find your own?"

Corvax smiled and set his head back on the mat. "Touché." With the bond, empathizing went both ways, not as strong for humans but they knew when their dragon wasn't one-hundred percent of any emotion. Corvax wouldn't let his inner turmoil stop him if John needed help with his own turmoil. It was considered weird – not for dragons, but for Corvax. Bina had said it: Egyptian Blacks were never seen bonded and were one of only two breeds that more often than not said no to a bond.

Corvax had come to John, when John was eight and the last of his parents' dragons' offspring had rejected him, favoring Dave instead. The rest had gone for distant kin and people who weren't kin at all. Not even a kick to the gut was a bigger kick to the gut than being rejected by family dragons.

For the Sheppard family, they didn't have to say it for John to know it had been more like a kick to the head followed by the groin. A dragon was free to bond with whomever they pleased, when they pleased. Yet rejection was still rejection, and five rejections had made the prestigious Sheppard family nervous and John feel like a freak.

Then came Corvax, a lonely kid without a home stumbling on a lonely kid without a dragon. A match made in Heaven.

Dad still hadn't been happy, because something obviously had to be wrong with Corvax, a wild dragon, if he was choosing to bond. Not that John had cared, not that he had ever cared. Corvax had chosen him.

"Wanna go flying?" John asked.

"I thought you were needed in the lab?"

John frowned. "Damn." He pushed away from the wall toward the door. It never hurt to try.


He turned back. Corvax had lifted his head again.

"I'm sure there's plenty of open sky where we're going."

Pulling his lips into a line, John twitched his head in half-hearted agreement, then left.

The gateroom was a fine example of organized chaos, matters falling into place last minute with the high-running emotions that made it feel like nothing was getting done. And there was nothing like an emotional pressure-cooker to force everyone to tread carefully whether they liked it or not. John walked in, his bulging backpack pulling at his shoulders, just as Carson and some marine with an intense look on his face got into a pissing match.

Sumner interceded with a, "That's what you're gun is for, Sergeant." Which was the wrong thing to say. Outside the second, larger door on the other side of the 'gateroom, a dragon bellowed, interrupted by a second. Sheppard saw a flash of blue then bronze scales through the entrance, soon lost in the diverse colors of dragons cooling the situation down. John felt Corvax's amusement.

John parked himself in the back, out of the way of dollies and carts overloaded with supplies wrapped in clear plastic: computers, hard plastic crates, medical equipment and brown bags of dried dragon food some affectionately called dragon MREs, others not-so-affectionately called dragon kibble. Mostly the latter; Corvax said the stuff tasted like salty feet. To which John just had to ask how he knew what feet tasted like. Corvax had then shoved his massive foot in Sheppard's face and said, "Take a lick and find out." Scaly brat.

With the supplies came people, some pushing said supplies and some joining John in the back, milling restlessly and tense as vibrating bow strings. John was surrounded by muttering words of excitement, theories and fears, and with those feelings amplified by the dragons on the other side of the dragon door, no amount of John's own calm could stop the occasional twitch of his muscles. Only a human and his dragon could feel each others moods, but get enough high-strung humans and dragons together and it seemed impossible for all that empathy not to crush them. But dragons were masters of self-control. Sure, they might get a little huffy when their human was distressed because another dragon's human was making them distressed. As long as there was at least a single level-headed dragon in the room, however, then the situation was under control.

Hell, it was a dragon that had invented meditation.

Sumner moved too close for comfort in John's opinion, with the intense sergeant and a young lieutenant whose jacket tag said Ford. A couple of other marines clustered around Sumner, helping him secure the buckles of his gear.

For the sake of the emotional pressure-cooker – dragons were masters of self-control, humans not so much, making them the ones who were to be treated like glass – neither man said anything. They didn't need to say anything. Sumner's glower was all the conversation needed.

He didn't like John. He was going to watch John like a hawk.

John smiled and gave him an acknowledging nod. Maybe not the best idea; John always seemed to piss people off with his smiles. Sumner narrowed his eyes and shook his head in disapproval. Outside the dragon door, a dragon growled. Corvax's amusement continued unabated.

Then came Doctor Weir lugging a hiking pack on her shoulders. When she positioned herself at the top of the ramp in front of the 'gate, the room fell silent. She gave a speech, the gist of it about embarking into the unknown, followed by opening the way for anyone who wanted to back out. It made John think of yesterday and reconsidering his choice of playing human battery to a bunch of discovery-happy scientists. When the speech ended, Elizabeth trotted up to 'gate control.

Seconds later, the 'gate burst to life: glittering foam punching through the air before settling into a rippling puddle of blue quicksilver. John's insides flinched. Reconsideration because he had to play human battery seemed like such a trifle, petty excuse. Through that puddle was supposed to be another world, another damn galaxy, a friggin' adventure full of unknowns, including a number of ways to die that John couldn't begin to imagine. Some of them slow, possibly excruciating.

The prospect of dying John had sweated over only when he was a kid, before joining the military where close calls had made death a fact of life. But he was human, as instinctual as any of God's creatures, and while he might not balk at the idea of a distant death, possible immediate death still made his heart pound and his palms sweat.

Death was very probable on the other side of that portal.

The six-wheeled MALP trundled up the ramp and through the puddle. A few minutes later, the announcement of MALP telemetry came over the comm, along with open space and readings of breathable air. It made a few of John's muscles less twitchy. He draped his hands over the butt of his P-90, going for casual because it sometimes helped to pretend. Corvax provided a little backup – the scaly bastard had managed to find some calm, and was sharing it with John.

Sumner moved up the ramp. "Teams one and two, standby on my mark."

"Hold it, Colonel." Doctor Weir hurried up to join him. "We go together."

Sumner reluctantly obliged, then they stepped through. Everyone in the room stepped back, making room for the four dragons bonded to the four humans who had officially left the galaxy. Two reds – one sleek, feminine, inches smaller and the colors of sunset, the other pure red fading to light copper fading to dirty white. Following was a green and brass. They stepped through one at a time, fitting perfectly through the ring with three feet to spare on all sides.

John and the young lieutenant went next. John stopped before the puddle, eyeballing it with an ever-growing knot in his gut. The grip on his P-90 turned his knuckles white, slicking the surface with sweat.

"What's it like?" he asked.

The young man's look was slack, sober. "Hurts like hell, sir." Then he broke into a ridiculous grin and with a whoop of joy, plunged sideways into the puddle. And John thought Corvax was a snot. He glanced behind him at the black waiting his turn on the ramp a little ahead of a young copper fidgeting with an excitement even John could feel.

Corvax gave him a tight-jawed but determined stare. John gave him a single nod, turned back and, with eyes squeezed shut, he stepped through.

Then stepped out, freezing his ass off and with P-90 raised, into a dark chamber. His light passed over smooth, blue-green and copper floors and pillars, over ornate steps and up across glass walls. He heard the sploosh of the 'gate behind him and glanced back to see Corvax and the young copper step through. The copper bounded like an eager pup next to Ford.

There was more splooshing, more bodies stepping through, humans and dragons, military followed by scientists and the carts of supplies. Military took point and the scientists followed, spreading out as far as they could to make room for the ones still coming through – that meant spreading deep into the halls and pushing supplies up against the walls. At some point, McKay had placed himself next to John, Bina behind and next to Corvax. John set one foot on the stairs and the stairs lit up.

John looked at Rodney, Rodney at John.

"The lights are coming on," John said. The staircase, wide enough to let both dragons up without losing too much personal space, led to a corridor in front and what looked to be a control room on the right. When they entered, the control room, too, lit up. One of the techs – Grodin, John recalled – was already there, his blue-gray dragon waiting down below the glass walls enclosing the space. Grodin was removing coverings from the consoles.

People, dragons and equipment continued to pour in to the last. Reports were coming in all over the place, gibbering in wild elation or whispering in subdued wariness of doors opening and lights turning on. The last of the personnel stepped through and the puddle stopped rippling.

"Stargate command," said Weir, standing in the alien 'gateroom, her red sitting tall and smiling by her side. "We send you greetings from the Pegasus galaxy."

A green bottle rolled through, stopping at Weir's feet. She picked it up and read the note attached. Whatever it said, it made her smile. Then the 'gate shut down, leaving them locked in a brand new galaxy. Doctor Weir looked up toward the 'gate room, right where John was standing. He didn't know why – maybe because he, out of everyone, would have the greater appreciation that they were in a whole other galaxy; what with him being as new as anyone could get to the whole "traveling by wormhole to other planets" thing. To be honest, he was trying to pretend that he wasn't freaked out by it all. All the same, he folded his hands over his weapon and gave her a slight nod of approval.

It was pretty damn cool. John looked at Corvax who smirked in silent agreement. He was just as freaked and pretending not to be.

Doctor Weir and Colonel Sumner eventually joined John and McKay in the gateroom, which meant Corvax and Bina backing off to make room for the leaders' dragons. Lights continued to come on, everyone completely baffled. When a console lighted next to John, his heart skipped a beat and he raised his hands, taking a step back.

"I didn't touch anything." After what happened in Antarctica, so much as breathing on any of this equipment made him nervous. Ancient technology seemed to enjoy flipping his life upside down. He needed time to adjust before it did it again.

"Relax, Major," Weir said, all eyes on the consoles with their glowing crystal key pads. "Lights are coming on everywhere. It's like the city is waking up."

"Good to know," John muttered, still unsettled. He felt Corvax send a little calm his way.

"Rodney, what do we have?" Weir asked, positioning herself next to McKay.

McKay, the proverbial kid in a candy store – or geek in a computer store – was touching the nearest console as though it were the latest technological innovation. Which, by human standards, it was. "Definitely the DHD right here." He moved on to the other consoles. "The rest will be pending once we have everything hooked up. My best guess is that most of these consoles are system control – and I mean for all of Atlantis."

Everyone's comm crackled. "Doctor Weir?" The voice on the other end was Scottish: Beckett. "Doctor Weir, it's Doctor Beckett. There's something I need to show you."

Weir touched her radio at her ear, still fixated on all the complicated tech. "Can it wait, Carson?"

"No, lass, I'm afraid it can't." Everyone stiffened at what sounded like urgency. "You need to come here and come here now. Just down the corridor from the 'gate room. Hurry."

They did, not going far when they spotted Carson's blue dragon through an open door. Inside was a great chamber dominated in the center by some kind of dais. Standing on the dais was a dark-haired woman in a shimmering gown. The look Beckett gave the group John could only describe as someone having seen a ghost, even though it was pretty obvious Sparkly Woman was just a hologram.

"You're going to want to hear this," Beckett said.

He pressed a button. The woman faded out, then back in, smiling down on them all.

"Welcome, our children. We congratulate you on making it this far. You are currently standing in what is the first step of a greater journey, the first step toward finding the legacy that we have left you, the legacy that we hope will one day become your legacy. This is Calafas, an away station…"

"Wait, what? Rewind that," Rodney said, already pressing whatever it was Beckett had pressed. The image repeated.

"This is Calafas, an away station and the location of the first key. The retrieval of this key will require a test of knowledge. Should you pass this test and retrieve the key, it will be your guide to the location of the next key. Five keys are hidden; five tests must be taken. Only if you succeed will our legacy to you be found. We wish you good fortune on your journey, and hope that you will succeed."

The image blinked out. McKay stood there, gaping, looking at Beckett who gaped back, then at a perplexed and pale Elizabeth.

"Oh crap," McKay breathed.

"What the hell was that all about?" Sumner demanded.

McKay turned to him, facing him without actually looking at him. "The welcoming committee."

"What?" Sumner growled. But McKay was too busy giving in to shock to answer right away.

John figured it out pretty quick, replaying the message again in his head. He looked from Sumner to Weir, feeling suddenly unbalanced and a little sick himself.

"I think we may have taken a wrong turn," John said.

Then Rodney finally responded, face so blanched it was a wonder he didn't pass out. "This… this isn't Atlantis!"

Sumner, Weir, Carson, Grodin, John and their respective dragons gathered back in the "hologram room" after a little over a half an hour, but just under the time Rodney had requested to give the hologram a more in-depth perusal. Until that perusal provided answers, Calafas' dirty little secret – that it wasn't Atlantis – they were all keeping to themselves; no need to stir the already volatile emotional ambient by tossing in some bad news.

John was sure the only reason he was allowed in on whatever else McKay had discovered was thanks to being at the right time, the right place and so privy to need-to-know information. Corvax didn't need to tell John that Sumner harbored a lot of negative feelings toward him; enough to consider throwing protocol out the window and ignore that John was, technically, his second-in-command, not Bates.

Despite it being obvious, Corvax had still felt the need to let John in on the fact during their exploration of the various halls Calafas had to offer while Rodney perused.

Rodney looked quite at home, flitting around the console wired up to several laptops, while Bina sat off to the side, pained by boredom. Once everyone was gathered, McKay clapped his hands together for a vigorous rub. The look of glee on his face was making John feel a little less dubious.

"Alrighty, then," McKay began. "Long story short because I know that's how I'd want it – no, this isn't Atlantis. However!" He held up a finger, stalling responses that hadn't even been coming. "As well as luckily, we are still on the right track."

John could see a third of Doctor Weir's tension drain from her shoulders. "How so?" she asked, crossing her arms.

McKay went back to fussing around the console. "I'm currently downloading the hologram's information onto the laptops you see here so you'll be able to read the details for yourself. It was just a matter of pressing a button to get the rest of the message – not as long as I thought it would be but still obnoxiously long. Once again, the gist…" He stopped fussing and looked up, the showman facing his audience. "We are currently standing in what could be considered level one – or, two, if you count finding the address to get here - of one hell of a test. A test to prove our worth and earn our right to be the next inhabitants of Atlantis."

He pressed something on the console, but rather than a holographic sparkly woman, the room dimmed and the ceiling vanished behind a starry night sky and wisps of nebulae.

"We know the Ancients came here to seed this galaxy," said Rodney, still pressing buttons, "and were doing a pretty fantastic job until…"

Sparkly Woman's voice spoke, as though picking up right where Rodney had left off. "An enemy emerged, one with technology that rivaled our own. They swarmed this galaxy, attacking and consuming worlds as they went. We had no choice but to engage, yet their numbers were too great."

Several of the larger stars turned red – John could only assume planets lost to this enemy.

"The loss of life was great. In the end, we had no choice but to leave this galaxy and preserve our way of life. But with the hope that one day our children would return and reclaim that which was lost…"

Rodney hit a button and the voice and star map vanished. "Their children being, well," his smile was smug as he rocked back on his heels, "us apparently. Well, to be extremely technical about it, those with the gene. Still, they made it so that Atlantis could be found. Just… not as quickly as we had hoped."

"And how, exactly, is Atlantis to be found?" asked Weir.

"More importantly," said Sumner, "what about this enemy they spoke of?"

Rodney replied, "Well, the hologram doesn't really provide any more intel about this enemy, but then that's what databases are for and I doubt the Ancients would've left us stranded in an outpost without a user-friendly library. As to how we find Atlantis, it's simple. Within this building is a test – don't ask me what kind of test because I have no idea… yet. What I do know is that you have to sit in a chair, bring the test up so, you know, we can take it. If we pass, we're to receive some sort of a, uh, key thing," his hands mimed the vague length of a key, "that will then guide us to the location of the next test and so on; five tests in all, located in facilities just like this one. Once all tests have been completed and passed, then it's off to Atlantis we go."

If McKay's grin got any bigger, his own mouth would swallow his face.

"Take a test," John said, back to being dubious. "That's all?"

"That's all."

"It does sound a bit too easy," said Grodin.

"Well, that's because we haven't even seen what the tests are," said Rodney. "Could be multiple choice for all we know."

"Or a one hundred word essay," John couldn't help but saying.

Rodney made a face at him.

"Well, we're not going to find out which standing around talking about it," said Weir, doing a poor job at concealing a smirk. "Which way to this chair room?"

It wasn't far, just down the hall, in fact – a bare room completely devoid of furniture and decoration save for a single chair in the center and a console on the other side. A chair John found himself once again reclining in, without the panorama of stars and planets floating overhead.

"I don't think picturing where we are in the universe is going to cut it for this seat, McKay."

McKay and Grodin circled the chair, hooking up laptops with alligator clips to take readings.

"Obviously," McKay said, his tone dry. John had figured pretty quick that everything was a reason to be peeved for McKay. "Try thinking 'test' or something."

"Or something. Yeah, big help, there, McKay." John tried it anyway. The room suddenly darkened except for a single spotlight surrounding the chair. Blocky letters popped up across the darkness hiding the ceiling, like someone typing on an alien computer, just as freaky as having the entire solar system overhead and made extra freaky by its likeness to the movie Sphere, only on a larger scale. John hadn't been a fan of that movie; he hated jelly fish. He felt Corvax nearby lending him some of his calm. That dragon was such a damn mother hen.

Out of the corner of his eye John saw Rodney's shape, barely highlighted by the light, tap away on his tablet.

"Running a translation program," he said. "Ah, it's a welcome message. Congratulations, blah, blah, blah now on to the test."

The words faded out and a plain, white circle faded in. Goody, a sphere… sort of. John frowned at it.

"Oh, looky there," Rodney said, unimpressed. "Major, do you know what the radius of a circle looks like?"

John sighed. "Yes, McKay, I know what the radius is."

"Good. Picture that circle's radius."

John did and a line appeared from the circle's center to its edge. The circle vanished and the words returned.

"Congratulations again," said Rodney. "See? Easy? I remembered SG-1 doing something similar. It's how we met the Asgard. Okay, it was how we got the Asgard to talk to us, O'Neill met the Asgard. Anyway, that was just Question One out of… oh, uh… three hundred thousand."

John snapped upright. "Three hundred thousand?"

"Three hundred thousand?" Weir echoed, just as incredulous.

Rodney's pale hand flashed as it flapped through the light. "Yes, yes, relax. I once finished a two hundred question test in twenty minutes. Plus we only need to get about…" his fingers danced quick and jerky over the screen, "two thousand of the questions right. It's to determine how far we've evolved as a species and whether or not we have the brain capacity to live in a place like Atlantis. Trust me, we're a shoe in."

John sat back in the chair, trying not to sneer. "Watch out for that one hundred foot drop in front of your pride, McKay."

McKay ignored him.

"I imagine this test will involve a variety of questions on various topics," said Dr. Weir. "Questions that may not entirely be in your field of expertise, Doctor McKay. Before we continue I'd like to first let everyone in on the fact that this isn't the lost city of the Ancients. I would also like to get at least one person from each field of science in here to answer questions that you might not be able to. And because I doubt this will take under an hour, I also want those with the gene to give the chair a try."

Rodney lowered his tablet. "But the major—"

"I know, I know. If it turns out he's still the only one who can use the chair with ease, then we'll have to devise a schedule for how long he's in the chair at one time. I don't want him getting exhausted." She gave Rodney a pointed look on saying the latter.

The chair was pretty much harmless, but they'd learned the hard way – and by "they" it was more like John, with everyone else incredibly apologetic – that too much mental interface took its toll on both mind and body. McKay and sundry scientists had been so damn gung ho about Sheppard's ease with the chair they would have him sit in it for hours – the most being eight, when his brain and body had had enough and he'd passed out.

John turned his head to Weir, trying for a genuine smile that still felt tight. "Thanks." He hadn't meant it to sound sarcastic. He really was grateful but couldn't help feeling like little more than a human battery to these people.

Corvax's amusement washed over him, fueling the irritation.

"We also need to get familiar with our surroundings," said Sumner. "I'd like to take a squadron out and do that as soon as possible."

Weir nodded. "Agreed. But first thing's first." Then she sighed, already weary with what needed to come next. "I have a bomb to drop."

By the time they reached the control room for the big announcement, the technicians assigned last minute to the duty of getting to know the equipment understood it well enough for Doctor Weir to use the PA system. Everyone gathered into the gateroom, spilling onto the stairs and into the halls, a diverse mess of humans and dragons. The air vibrated with tense excitement.

Then Weir cut to the chase. She raised her hands for silence and the gentle murmur of persistent talking trickled to a stop.

"It has been brought to our attention," she said, "that our current location is not, in fact, Atlantis."

The air shifted, like the sudden onslaught of a cold front after nothing but nice weather. The tension became more tense, the fear no longer balanced by joy, and so thick John thought he could almost smell it.

"However," Weir said, cutting through the panicked chatter like a knife, "neither are we lost. This outpost is only the first step on the path to finding Atlantis. So though we are not at the destination intended, rest assured that we are on the right track, and it is only a matter of time before the lost city is found."

One man, tall, wiry with glasses and an uncomfortably tight-looking pony tail, raised his hand. "How long?"

It was the cue Weir needed to explain the situation – not that she needed a cue but it helped with the reassurance that Doctor Weir was a leader with answers. Tension stayed tight yet the fear was no longer choking.

With the truth laid bare for everyone to digest, brood over but ultimately accept (not that they had any other choice), Doctor Weir and Colonel Sumner were able to get down to more immediate business: calling all gene-bearers to give the chair a try and gathering men for recon. While Sumner gathered, and after dealing with getting together everyone with an ATA gene, Weir had Grodin and McKay do some digging in the database about the new planet they currently called home. Using the 'gate address that brought them here made it short work.

"Forests, mountains, and – oh, look – another 'gate. Huh," Rodney said. "Just half a mile north of this facility."

Weir bobbed her head. "Good. Inhabitants?"

"Probably. But this database was established while whatever civilization that was planted here was still young. So, sorry, no viable intel on them."

"Then we'll just have to find out for ourselves," said Sumner. "We head out in five minutes."

John, having hovered in the background of the control room while Weir and Sumner did their leaderly duties, found himself once again the focus of Weir's attention.

"Major, I'd like you to go with him."

John stiffened, but his, "Yes, ma'am," was automatic. McKay sputtered, on the verge of a protest that John didn't hear, already heading out following a sour-faced Sumner and gang.

It wasn't John's place to question the expedition leader's motives; that didn't stop him from wanting to. Besides having been brought along on this one-way trip for his gene, it was pretty damn obvious Sumner wasn't his biggest fan.

"She's probably being nice," Corvax whispered near John's ear. John shrugged. That could be, making him useful beyond mere human battery. The more vociferous impression was that it was another show of control on Weir's part, reminding Sumner who was calling the shots. John was starting to suspect the two only got along because they had to. Sumner struck John as the kind of guy who would sooner cut off his own arm before taking orders from a civilian. Weir, being a diplomat, probably didn't harbor much fondness for the military.

And now they were stuck with each other, a billion light-years from home in an alien facility on an alien planet. A powder keg in a house of matches. Or so John assumed. Like Corvax had said, Weir was probably being nice.

The exit – entrance, whatever anyone wanted to call it – was down the hall that was at the top of the gateroom stairs. It was large, not exactly impressive by hangar-door standards but big enough to allow two dragons through side by side with riders mounted. Someone had opened the door for them already and it gaped like a picture frame around a painting of a moon-lit meadow.

Make that two moons, one large, the other distant, blue and small making John do a double take.

It hit him right then, a deeper sucker-punch than stepping through a wormhole.

He was on another planet, in another galaxy.

He was on another planet.

Yet he still couldn't wrap his brain around it. He startled when a nudge to his arm brought most of his attention back to the facility's interior and a marine handing out night vision goggles. John returned his attention to the moons as he took the goggles and slipped them onto his head, keeping them perched above his brow.

"Mount up!" Sumner ordered. Everyone climbed into their dragon's saddles, slipping then buckling into the leg harnesses. John glanced over his shoulder to see Weir and her dragon not far down the hall, watching the proceedings with a neutral expression barely hiding the drawn look of unease. John gave her a small, casual wave like a man doing nothing more than stepping out to buy milk and bread. Then the dragons launched, taking a running start into the field before pushing off into the air with a downward push of their wings, snapping sharp in the silence. John turned back in time to keep Corvax from giving him whiplash, and gripped with one hand the solid handles of the saddle. His other hand lifted his P-90.

The air was cool, crisp, maybe the evening weather of late spring, maybe early fall. It was hard to tell in the black and white night. The wind roared past John's ears, tugging his hair and pressing against his chest just the way he liked it. Even on an alien planet, with who only knew what kind of dangers, there was no stopping the smile that curled his lips. He'd been secretly afraid that wherever they ended up it wouldn't have sky. A stupid fear in retrospect but, hey, alien worlds, alien rules – one never knew. The platoon climbed high over the jagged line of coniferous trees bordering the meadow.

To the surprise of all that rippled through each dragon into his or her human, the forest also surrounded what looked to be a city several klicks from the facility.

"Stay sharp," came Sumner's warning over the radios. In the distance, under two moons, the city was what John imagined an alien city to look like, with towering spires reflective as real silver and designed in a way that didn't register as practical or safe to John's human mind. Curiosity had him risking a quick glance back to the facility.

The facility wasn't a facility; it was a fancy bunker built within a massive hill covered by more forest. At least they didn't have to worry about sticking out like a sore thumb. Satisfied, John turned his gaze back to the city.

Because the city wasn't that far from the facility, they were flying over it within minutes. What looked to be alien and exotic and inexplicable from far away was a hell of a letdown up close. This city was dead: uninhabited for centuries, the buildings so weather-worn, rusty and crumbling that there was no saying what they might have been like in their glory days. It was the skeletal remains of civilization, broken and put to earth by nature's slow hand.

It wasn't just a letdown; it was depressing.

"Do we check it out, sir?" said a young voice over the radio – Ford's, John guessed.

"We'll save it until daylight. For now, we find the 'gate."

"Permission to ask why, sir? The facility already has a 'gate."

"No two 'gates can work on the same planet, Lieutenant; you know that. Which means the 'gate at Calafas has only one purpose and that was to get us here. I don't need to be a scientist to tell you it won't lead anywhere else."

"Does… does that include Earth, sir?"

"That you'll need a scientist to tell you."

John grinned. Sumner did have a sense of humor. There was hope for this expedition yet.

Corvax lifted his head, mirroring the dragons around them. "I smell smoke."

"Where?" John said, sitting straight and craning his neck for any plumes of smoke turned white under two moons.

"Not far." Corvax sniffed. "Cooking fires if I'm not mistaken."

"Heads up, people, we have life signs," said Sumner.

The city gave way to a still lake, like a patch of sky and moons beneath them. That patch then gave way to more trees, thicker and darker with few clearings big enough to land. Now that they were on the other side of the lake, John was able to pick up wafts of fire-smoke.

"Clearing ten klicks ahead," someone said. "At our eight o'clock."

As one, they veered in the direction, speeding swiftly over the trees until a second meadow yawned beneath them, lighter and almost as large as the lake. The dragons circled in for a landing, touching down lightly in ankle-high grass – knee-high according to the first man to dismount. After unbuckling and sliding from the saddles, everyone pulled their night vision goggles into place. The humans went first, P-90s out and bodies slightly bent at the ready. The dragons followed, with heads down, as inconspicuous as dragons could get, which wasn't all that inconspicuous. But it wasn't about not being seen; it was about not scaring the hell out of whomever they ran into, as well as putting the more skittish dragons in check so they didn't ruin future friendships by roasting prospective friends. They approached the tree line at a swift and steady walk.

Movement flashed between the trunks too close for comfort from where John was approaching. He stilled, raised his fist, then approached slowly and cautiously. Those men nearest him copied.

A bundle of dark burst from the shrubs, pounced on by a second bundle of dark. John froze, aiming his rifle at both, and the bundles froze.

The pale, gaping face of a boy looked up at him. Next to him, with one claw resting on the kid's back, was some kind of bird: a four-legged bird, like a hawk with a cat's body and a long tail ending in a tear-drop fan of feathers.

John's brain supplied "griffin."

Soldiers surrounded the boy and bird, but it wasn't until the dragons were looming over them that the two huddled together, shaking in wide-eyed and gaping terror. John shot his arm out straight before anyone decided to get trigger happy.

Someone cried, "Wait!" and one hell of a tall guy burst from the woods and through the line of marines, uncaring until he reached the boy and griffin, wrapping both protectively into his arms. And following the man, forcing the soldiers to step aside out of an alarm not even marines were trained for, was a second griffin, this one as large as a dragon. It stood over man, boy and young griffin with wings partially spread, legs straight, body rigid and the iron-set expression of someone prepared to do what needed to be done, but with the wisdom not to make the first move.

"Whoa," Ford said. John hadn't realized the younger man had been nearby.

"Please," said the man, calm and reasonable. "They are just children."

John lowered his weapon. "Obviously." But he kept the griffin in his awareness out of the corner of his eye.

Tall man stood and touched his hand to his chest. "Halling."

John furrowed his brow. "I don't know what that means."

"It's his name," snapped Sumner, having approached from the left. John was doing a craptacular job of keeping his attention on his surroundings. The griffin was too damn distracting.

"Oh," he said, feeling a little thick and not sure what else to say.

Halling's hand then reached back toward the griffin. "Jorlair." It moved again to the boy. "Jinto and his griffin, Sorl."

John's jaw hung slack. Talk about getting an assumption right the first time, and it made his mind reel. What the hell were the chances of coming to an alien world and finding humans – humans who spoke English and called four-legged cat-bird things griffins?

Maybe they hadn't left the Milky Way after all.

"Have you come to trade?" Halling asked next, breaking John free of his alarm. Because Halling was looking at John, and since Sumner didn't answer, it was left up to John to reply.

"Uh, yes, trade. We've come to trade."

"Then you must speak with Teyla. Come, I will take you to her."

They followed Halling, his son and the two griffins to a path previously hidden around a wall of trees. Jinto and his griffin fell in step beside John. Another boy, smaller and huskier with a darker griffin slipped from the trees to John's other side. Their attention, however, kept getting diverted to Corvax following behind.

"What is that?" Jinto asked.

"Are they bald griffins?" the other boy said.

John smirked at the surge of indignation from behind. "If you're smart, you won't go spreading that rumor. They're called dragons. And, no, I doubt they're even distantly related to griffins."

Only a few feet ahead, Sumner and Ford walked, knee-deep in a conversation centered around John; Ford's poorly executed glance over his shoulder at John said so. Corvax's mix of amusement and annoyance confirmed it. Humans often forgot that dragons had good hearing.

"Can they read thoughts like a griffin?" Jinto asked.

The question had John missing a step and having to skip to keep from stumbling. Ahead, Sumner and Ford looked back at Jinto, Sumner steel-eyed and Ford wide-eyed.

"Read minds?" Sumner said, a hard, tapered edge to his voice. The boy paled, looking uncertain as though having said something that he knew shouldn't have elicited such a harsh reaction. All the poor kid could do was nod.

It was Halling's griffin that answered, his smile amused. "Do not fret. We read only surface thoughts, and only when solid eye-contact is established. Whatever secrets you may have are still yours, I assure you."

It wasn't much of an assurance, not according to Sumner's tight shoulders, and John couldn't blame him. Telepathic griffins; just what they needed in a galaxy of unknowns – a massive disadvantage.

"He's telling the truth," Corvax said in John's ear. A dragon would know. Lying did things to emotions even the most skilled liar – including those delusional enough to believe their own lies – weren't aware of.

Be that as it may, John averted his gaze to anywhere but the griffins.

"I guess that means they can't read minds," muttered the other boy.

"Really?" Jinto said, looking as though he couldn't decide whether to laugh or be appalled. "Not a single thought?"

It put John on the defensive. "They don't need to read thoughts. They can read emotions."

Jinto snorted. "What use is that?"

"Jinto," Halling warned.

The boy wilted. "Sorry, Father."

"It has a lot of uses, actually," Corvax said, arching his head to hover above them. "I can project as well as feel." And he did so, spreading calm over John and the two boys and birds like a quilt. "Nothing strong or debilitating, but it makes hunting game far easier. No one likes chasing dinner on an empty stomach."

Jinto brightened and smiled. "Neat!" Then he pointed to John's head. "What's that mask thing?"

John showed the boys and birds his night vision goggles. He snatched it back fast when Jinto asked if he could have it.

The path cut straight through the woods into a clearing hidden from above by an arching canopy of leafed trees. Domed tents of skins and wood filled the clearing, spreading into the forest wherever a tent could fit. The camp was lit by fires in shallow metal pots, some on the ground, some sitting in a triangular framework of poles, and fires in shallow pits just outside tent entrances. Animal skins dried on racks and old women sat on wooden benches grinding spices in clay bowls while their griffins dozed behind.

But the word primitive didn't even skirt the edge of John's thoughts, not with these people. They wore clothes of woven cloth richly dark and richly designed, and many of the adults carried long rifles not unlike what might have been used during the first world war. Saddles laid out on sawhorses winked with bright metal buckles as well-made as any manufactured saddle. Speaking of the griffins, as the Earthers entered the camp, the birds rose up from where they lay, towering over tents and humans. The residents of the camp stopped what they were doing, whether it was meandering through the camp, crushing herbs, chasing rambunctious kids or running from frazzled parents. A glance was spared only for the humans, the rest of the locals' attention glued on the dragons.

Halling brought them to the largest tent occupying the very center of camp. Here they stopped, Halling asking them to wait outside. The brief view of the tent's interior when he pulled back the flap showed a long table covered in food and each seat save one occupied. John heard Halling say something about bringing men from away who wanted to trade. Seconds after, Halling emerged, bringing with him five from the table.

Taking the lead was a woman, a gorgeous woman with cinnamon skin and copper hair, smaller than the tall man next to her but holding herself in a way that said she was no less powerful for it. In fact, on approach, Halling stepped back, letting the woman take the lead.

She stared at the visitors with an eyebrow arched. She looked at the dragons like her eyeballs might pop out of her head.

"You are… new," she said, packing on the implications that made it more than just stating the obvious. Then she seemed to remember herself and bowed her head. "I am Teyla Emmagan, daughter of Terghan."

Sumner replied, "Colonel Sumner, Major Sheppard and Lieutenant Ford. Our needs are few and basic —"

"We do not trade with strangers," Teyla cut in, looking perplexed but sounding annoyed.

John stepped in, putting on what he hoped was his best smile and said, "Then we should get to know each other. Me, I like college football, Ferris wheels and anything that goes two hundred miles per hour."

"That doesn't mean anything to them," Ford griped.

Keeping his smile plastered, John mumbled, "Just breaking the ice a little. Feel free to jump in any time." He arched his thumb over his shoulder. "That behind me is Corvax. He can't go two hundred miles per hour but that hasn't stopped him from trying."

Corvax snorted. He shoved John in the back with his nose, lightly. Next to him, Sumner's dragon rolled his eyes, but neither dragon nor Sumner had anything verbal to contribute. Sumner may have been as expressive as a piece of wood but the ambient told all. Right now, Sumner and his dragon were a well of impatience of the kind that said clearly how much they wanted to be anywhere but here. John wondered if it was a bias against less-than-advanced locals. Or more accurately, not the advanced race Sumner had no doubt been hoping for.

John thought it was cool enough that they were talking to people from another planet, with creatures that only existed in fantasy novels and Medieval tapestries in England.

The banter managed to coax a smile out of Teyla. She said, less tersely, "Every morning, we drink a stout tea to prepare us for the coming day. We invite you to join us."

John grinned. "I'd love a cup of tea. When is morning around here?"

"Now," said Teyla, and bid them to follow with a wave of her hand. She brought them around to the back of the tent and a large bonfire surrounded by a wide circle of griffins. Firelight danced on their breast feathers turning those birds of a lighter color to burnished gold. A lithe copper, tan and cream bird rose with fluid motions to all fours when Teyla moved to it. She and the bird touched foreheads.

"We have visitors," she said. She placed her hand on the curve of the sharp beak. "This is Meeka."

More introductions were made, humans, dragons and griffins. Griffins shifted, making room for the dragons. Those that couldn't fit were taken to other fires much to Sumner's disapproval. But it wasn't like he had much of a choice. To survive any unknown territory, it paid to have local friends. That meant having to succumb to a certain amount of discomfort so as to make nice with the natives.

There were still the radios, and the emotional ambient to warn them of danger. John also doubted that a griffin with all his feathers wouldn't be much of a match against dragon fire.

Tea was brought out not long after they gathered around the fires; trays with kettles and cups like pewter trying to mimic fine china. For the griffins, and dragons, great clay bowls stacked in small wooden wagons were rolled within reach. The tea smelled strongly of mint and something John couldn't put a name to. Neither was it an unpleasant smell, nor the tea bad on the tongue. It did have a kick to it, more peppermint than spearmint. It hit John's stomach warm, that warmth going straight to his blood and riding his veins. But instead of making him drowsy, it woke him better than any cup of coffee.

As they drank, they talked, Sumner asking about the dead city and the majority of locals looking none too pleased about it. It was bad luck, they said, to go into the city. It was cursed, and to enter it brought nothing but misfortune.

"A theory we have not tested for some time," Teyla said, maybe the voice of reason, maybe the voice of someone who didn't give much stock into superstitions. Either way, John found himself liking her more and more.

Her openness, however, didn't prevent the awkward silence that followed. It didn't take long for Sumner to excuse himself so he, Bates and two other marines could go have a little powwow. Since he didn't ask John to come, John decided to stay put and not make Sumner more pissy than he already was. He looked at Teyla and smiled.

"Looks like it's just the two of us."

The tall, dark-haired guy next to Teyla glowered at him.

"Or not."

"Your leader looks at me as though I am not there," Teyla said, troubled. Great. All that work only for Sumner to make the first impression.

John raised his eyebrow. "Do I?"

Teyla looked at him, pensive. "No."

Perhaps there was hope, yet. She then asked. "Where are you from? We have never encountered creatures such as your dragons. On what world do they reside?"

John sucked air through his teeth, feeling suddenly cornered. Sumner had made it pretty damn clear before the expedition stepped through the 'gate not to make the whereabouts of Atlantis – that is, their current location – known to anyone outside the expedition. He hadn't exactly been as passionate about the whereabouts of their planet.

"On a world far, far away. In a galaxy… er, star cluster… just as far. In other words, we're not from around here. At all."

Teyla's features pulled, drawing her skin tight while puckering her brow. "Then you should go back." She said this with a firm voice, urgent while still aiming for polite.

John grimaced. "Yeah, about that… see, we kind of got ourselves into a bit of a bind. We can't go back… yet. We're trying, but it's going to take a while."

Teyla stared at him, studying him. John stared back, letting her.

She said, without the edge yet no less urgent, "I must show you something. Come with me."

John didn't have time to protest when she walked away from the fire, Meeka following her. John glanced at Ford still hovering by the fire, a cup of tea partway to his lips.

"Tell Sumner I'll be right back." He took off before the poor kid could lodge a complaint.

John and Teyla traveled by air several klicks from the camp to a small hill hidden under trees. After landing in a clearing they followed an erratic path through the woods, down into a gully that tried to kill John when he lost his footing and Corvax wasn't quick enough to catch him. Let it never be said of John Sheppard that he was a complete klutz. He caught and righted himself at the bottom, pretending the trip-up never happened.

He didn't miss Teyla's smirk.

She and Meeka took them to a tall cleft in the sheered side of the hill, narrow but not so narrow that neither griffin nor dragon couldn't fit through. Down a short corridor was a chamber, big, but both bird and dragon still had to duck. Teyla took a torch from a rusty sconce. Before John could whip out his lighter and flip it on, Teyla pulled a small device from her pocket. A thin red beam shot from the narrow end, lighting the torch.

"We mastered fire long ago," she said with a grin.

The chamber's walls were graffitied with primitive paintings, paintings of what John could have sworn were ships attacking a city, and people on griffins attacking ships.

"We come to these caves to learn and remember," Teyla said, sweeping her hand over the pictures without touching them. "Long ago, we had an enemy. We called them the Wraith. Every one hundred years they slept, every one hundred years they came to… cull their human herd. But an alliance between human and griffin brought an end to the culls, and to the Wraith. We thought ourselves free from their tyranny, but it was not long after that a new enemy emerged."

She moved her torch to a painting, a smear of gray above a village, jagged sticks of yellow dropping from the gray – a storm. Something like crosses, like stick figure planes, and ships similar to the small ships in the other painting, hovered above the village.

"We call them Sky Raiders," Teyla said. "It is believed they were friends of the Wraith – we do not know why, or how. A great storm always proceeds them, then they come, dropping from that storm; sometimes in gliding machines, sometimes in the flying ships of the Wraith. More often than not they are a nuisance come to steal our crops and goods. But, sometimes…" Teyla's voice dropped low and soft, "Sometimes they cull as the Wraith did. Not often, not many. We do not know why. For slaves, for sacrifice, thinking themselves like the Wraith…"

Teyla turned to John. "They might as well be the Wraith. They are easy to drive off if they are raiding without taking people, but they make life difficult. We move our hunting camps, as do many on other worlds, making ourselves difficult targets. We are taught not to live in fear but to always be ready to fight. The Sky Raiders are not the Wraith, but they are still formidable. It is important that you know of them if you are truly 'in a bind" as you say."

John swallowed, moving his eyes from picture to picture of attack after attack. "Um… thanks."

Teyla led them from the cave.

"You know," John said as they headed to the clearing, this time in their saddles to avoid any more treacherous gullies. "We kind of have the same history. We had a big enemy, had to join forces with the dragons. Except we didn't even know about it until after a couple of thousand years. Okay, so we still don't, not everyone. Hard to explain, actually, so forget I spoke."

Corvax turned his head enough for John to see the heavy-lidded expression that read clear as day stop while you're ahead.

By the time they flew back to the camp, the sky was a pale cobalt and the stars had faded into obscurity. The campfires continued to blaze and there was more tea waiting. Not that John planned to indulge in more. His fingers were tingling, which was as buzzed on stimulants as he dared get. They landed outside the camp and walked on foot the rest of the way in.

"So your world is like our world," said Teyla. "You and your dragons bond?"

John, stuffing his hands into his pockets, letting his P-90 dangle from its strap, shrugged. "Pretty much." Throughout the camp, griffins settled down with their humans when those humans emerged from their tents. Young griffins and children darted all over the place, so common an occurrence that no one had yet to trip over them except the Earth soldiers. The dragons looked afraid to move.

They passed an old man tightening the straps of his griffin's saddle. John's thoughts went straight to his dad and the great blue dragon he'd only ever had accompany him to fancy dinner parties and business trips to Asia, where having one's dragon present was a sign of respect. John only recalled seeing his dad saddle his dragon once, fly him once, and that had been to take John for a ride out over the ocean when John was seven. John didn't think David's dragon had ever known a saddle.

"Except for the mindreading thing," John said. He still couldn't wrap his brain around it – the potential lack of privacy, one stray thought opening him up like a can of worms. But he had to suppose empathy was no different. For all Corvax's extra attention when John was distressed, the dragon knew when to back off.

Teyla looked at John, perhaps being just as thoughtful with a dragon's capability to read emotions. "There is no difficulty in it," she said. "Our griffins keep our individual secrets, and they do not read beyond what we let them. It is believed that a griffin's ability to read thoughts makes them more sympathetic to those weaker than their kind." She smiled wryly. "They are strong, swift and clever enough to be our masters if they wished. What they chose is to form a single bond with those not of their kind. I would think this empathy, as you call it, makes your dragons the same."

There was no maybe about it. Dragons had the means to take over the world. They went for Bonding with another species instead. John couldn't provide the facts and science behind a Bonding if his life depended on it. He'd never thought about the whole Bonding thing in terms of a definition, never even thought about it as Bonding with a capital B. The more spiritual aspect he'd always regarded as like those stupid blood-brother rituals he and his buddies used to perform when they were kids, just to prove they could prick themselves with a pin and not cry – except times a million and lasting until death. It was a real blood-brother bond. It demanded trust, complete and absolute trust, and it made John boggle over those dragons that would leave their humans on reaching adulthood and everyone being okay with it.

John had cried when Corvax came to him. Unless because John had been out of his mind over finally having a dragon.

"What is your world like?" Teyla asked.

John shrugged. "Big, lots of people, lots of dragons. Starbucks on every corner." A gentle breeze brushed John's face, rising into a gentle wind that made the upper branches of the trees sway and the leaves whisper like ocean waves. When John inhaled through his nose, he smelled rain. "Movies, golf, popcorn… looks like you have a storm coming."

Teyla didn't respond. John looked at her and went rigid at the intensity with which she was staring through the trees. Without saying a word, she spun around and all but took a flying leap into Meeka's saddle. It was so abrupt that John's brain took its sweet time catching up. Teyla and Meeka were already airborne by the time John was strapped into his saddle. Corvax launched into the air, almost hitting Meeka who was circling. He swerved to miss her, then fell into a glide beside her.

Their current altitude allowed for an unobstructed view of the horizon. Where there should have been a dawn in the east an ever-building mountain of dark clouds boiled. The wind kicked up the closer it got, from windy to a gale that was making it difficult for dragon and griffin to stay airborne. When the clouds were close enough for John to see lightning pulse within the mass, Meeka took a dive, shrieking, Teyla shouting the call to arms.

Corvax followed, then pulled up fast when it turned out Teyla wasn't landing. Her griffin swept low over the camp, spreading the cry. Below, her people scattered, saddling griffins, mounting griffins and taking to the sky armed with rifles. Those still on the ground – the elderly and children – hauled ass into the woods toward the caves Teyla had shown him, the humans lost beneath a river of griffins.

It took Corvax a lot of fast flying to catch up with Meeka – the bird flew fast. John cupped his hands to his mouth and called out above the roar of the wind and the buzz of flapping wings, "What's going on!"

"Sky Raiders!" Teyla shouted back.

John relayed the information over the radio to Sumner, already in the air on his red.

"What raiders? All I see is a storm," he replied.

"Teyla says they come out of the storm." A storm that was now on top of them, turning the growing day into twilight. Lightning flickered within the black, rolling clouds, never breaking through, and that was freakishly unnatural.

This wasn't an ordinary storm.

"Do not engage them in the clouds!" called Teyla. "Do not follow them, or you will never be seen again!" Griffins and dragons circled just below the cloud cover, griffins darting into the path of dragons and blocking any attempts at entering.

The Sky Raiders fell like rain from the cover, griffins among machines like planes, wide-winged and flat and driven by propellers, but not like planes – their configuration more complicated, more… organic; streamlined, seamless, as though someone had found a way to crossbreed a pterodactyl with a jet or stealth bomber. They rode the winds with no visible power source, firing what looked like balls of blue energy. When that energy hit a griffin, the griffin went plummeting, forcing its comrades to catch it or let it crash to the ground.

And while the "gliders" engaged, those on griffin-back fought their way to the village. Some engaged with locals, some landed, fighting on the ground as its rider – more than one, sometimes three or four – spread through the tents, ransacking as they went.

"Go for the ones on the ground!" John shouted.

Corvax dove straight toward the nearest raiding party. The sudden appearance of a griffin forced him to veer to the side, right into the path of one of the weird gliders. Up close, John's adrenaline-sharpened brain noticed its color – blue-violet, wet as living flesh. Then the glider fired. Corvax jerked to the side, the blue ball scraping his wing inches away. Corvax veered back, opened his mouth and exhaled a column of flame, hitting the glider dead-center. The glider ignited fast and plummeted like a comet to the ground. The bright flash of its explosion made John wince. He looked down long enough to feel relieved it hadn't crashed into the village.

All around John, gliders fell blazing from the sky, sometimes a griffin if a dragon got a lucky shot. But where dragons had the advantage in weight and fire, griffins had speed, agility and sharp claws. The green dragon flying alongside John took a claw to the wing, from bone to the membrane's edge, and it landed in a tumbling crash. A blue further ahead convulsed within the crackling cloud of a blue energy ball. Corvax pushed through the air like a shot and grabbed the dragon just as it started to fall. The blue being bigger made for a fast descent that would leave bruises but no broken bones. Corvax eased it to the ground then pressed his paw to its snout.

"Still alive. Whatever those energy things, they must stun." Then he was back in the air. A griffin dove at them, claws spread, and met an excruciating death hitting Corvax's fire plume. The dragon climbed higher and higher, stopping feet below the cloud cover. John saw, not far ahead, Meeka and Teyla; Meeka dodging and Teyla taking shots at any griffin that got too close. John was amazed anything could be hit with those rifles. They had to be lighter than they looked.

John lifted his P-90 at a griffin coming in at Teyla's and Meeka's six. Feathers exploded where John managed to hit the wing and the rider slumped, forcing the griffin to take off or be next. Corvax paced himself next to Meeka.

"They are breaking off sooner than is usual!" Teyla called, wild-eyed and grinning like a maniac with triumph. John couldn't stop the same surge of victory from bringing a smile to his own face.

"They're figuring out fire trumps just about anything —" A small platoon of griffins dropped from the clouds straight at them. John shouted, "Look out!"

Corvax lurched to the side, plowing Meeka and Teyla out of the way the same moment the squad reached them. Then it was a flurry of feathers and leathery black wings, claws, shrieks, fire and Corvax roaring in pain. A calloused, cool vice tightened around John's body, and with a jerk that nearly ripped his legs from his body, pulled him clean off the saddle. The vice squeezed him, crushing his ribs, his lungs; it was impossible to breathe. Speed and wind and Gs pulled the blood from John's skull. Sparks exploded in his eyes, followed by darkness.

Followed by nothing.

By the time Meeka had righted herself, the Sky Raiders who had been heading for them were leaving, Corvax hot on their trail.

Follow! was Teyla's mental command. Why was Sheppard following them when she'd specifically told him not to? The wind ripped past Teyla's ears, tangling her hair and battering her body. She ducked low to Meeka's back to allow the griffin more speed. They were closer to the dragon now.

Close enough for Teyla to see the empty saddle.

They have him! Fly faster; they must not reach the ring.

Meeka's reply rang like a bell in Teyla's skull. I know!

The ring was not far, past the field on the other side of the trees that bordered it. They left the noise and chaos of the battle far behind, the storm dimming and the wind dying, allowing Meeka more speed. Teyla could see the ring on its dais in the next clearing, already glowing like a pool of sunlit blue. The enemy griffins tucked their wings tight to their bodies, falling at an angle toward that pool.

Faster! Even far from the storm, Meeka's speed created a wind that tried to pluck Teyla from the saddle. But still they remained behind, not able to catch up with Corvax. One by one, the griffins shot into the ring, too close and too quick to let Teyla see which had Sheppard.

Corvax did not slow. He tucked his wings, dropped then vanished through the circle. Meeka echoed him and dove.

Inches, mere inches left and the pool dissolved. Meeka passed through, still on Athos, spreading her wings and climbing back into the sky to circle around and land before the stone dais on which the ring sat.

"I do not understand," Meeka panted, her chest and flanks heaving. "Why did they take him through the ring? Why not back into the clouds?"

Teyla scraped wayward hair from her eyes. "It is not even a culling raid."

"Then they took him because he rode something that was not griffin. They took him for questioning."

The snap of wings pulled their attention to the sky and three dragons, the red leading the other two. They flew in fast, circled and landed adjacent to Teyla.

It was Sumner. "Where did they take him? Did you see the address? Ford, go dial."

The dark-skinned young man began unbuckling his leg harness. Teyla shook her head.

"It is too late. Wherever they took him, they will not be there. Believe me. It is their way to mislead."

Sumner's red moved forward until it was next to Meeka. The colonel's face was flushed from battle and the wind, his eyes like cold metal as he glared at the ring. "Do you know where they will take him?"

"No," Teyla said, succinct. "No one knows. No one has ever known. Wherever they have taken Major Sheppard, we cannot reach." She looked at Sumner, sympathetic and apologetic. "I am sorry."

But the metal in his eyes did not leave. If anything, it seemed to harden. "Does anyone ever come back? Has anyone ever been found?"

"Sometimes they return," Teyla conceded. "Not as they were."

Sumner said nothing for a long, difficult moment. His hard gaze seemed permanent, but he touched his dragon on the shoulder and with venom in his voice said, "Move out."

"But sir," the young man began. "The major—"

"Is in enemy hands, Lieutenant, I know. This isn't over, not by a long shot. Now move out."

The three dragons turned and launched themselves back into the morning air. Teyla watched them go, sagging with exhaustion, regret, anger and guilt that they had not reached the major in time.

She had liked the major. He had been a good man.

He was lost because he had chosen to save her.

Over her village, the storm had gone, taking the enemy with it, leaving only a golden sky. Teyla had Meeka go back. They had their own people to worry about.

Rodney lowered his tablet so fast he almost dropped it, slapping it against this thigh. "Carson, I would think if this chair had any weapon capabilities we'd know it by now. It's not exactly like it took you much to set off the last one."

"Which is your bloody fault for making me sit in the bloody thing in the first place," Carson snapped. Sweat had popped out on his forehead from the nervous anticipation that was making him hesitate. His hesitation, in turn, allowed for only three seconds of image for the next pop quiz before it winked out. Carson blamed it on difficulty; Rodney agreed but pinned the difficulty as Carson himself. And to add irritation to frustration, Carson's blue kept vigil with steady pacing behind the chair, taking up needed room. Bina had tried to shoo him off but Esel, for all his meditative calm, could be just as much a grouch as Beckett. Zelenka's gold didn't even try to reason with the blue, but then he was the size of a Clydesdale so Rodney couldn't really blame him.

"If you insist on playing the blame game them blame your ancestors for giving you the gene. Better yet, let's return the blame to you for discovering the gene in the first place."

Carson squirmed in the chair. "Bloody bugger." He closed his eyes and tried again.

A commotion outside the chamber had them popping right back open. There were voices, what sounded like an argument and the culprits had yet to enter the chamber when it filled with the tight air of heavy tension. Next to Rodney, Bina went rigid and Zelenka's Orman leaped to his feet as though ready for a fight. Or to flee.

The source of the tension burst through before the door had fully slid open. Sumner demanded, "Please tell me you have the location of the next outpost." Following hot on his heels were two of his marines, Grodin and a pale-faced and wide-eyed Weir. Their dragons remained hovering outside the door.

Rodney's swallowed convulsively. "Why? What? Why? No, not yet. Why?"

Sumner stopped next to the chair. "Because we've been compromised."

"We don't know that," Elizabeth said, and Sumner turned on her, pinning her with a stare that would have had Rodney curling into a whimpering little ball (it did make Bina flinch). To her credit, Elizabeth met that stare without so much as a blink.

"Major Sheppard was taken—"

"Taken!" Rodney yelped.

"—by an enemy that rides creatures that can read minds, How, exactly, do you figure we're not compromised?"

Rodney gaped. "Whoa, what? What creatures that can read minds?" His question went ignored.

Elizabeth's stare didn't move; it did falter with a flutter of her eyelids as she fought to hold her ground. She wasn't stupid – so far, Sumner sounded right… creatures that could read minds? Rodney wasn't a soldier but he'd seen enough movies to know what happened when one of the good guys ended up in bad-guy hands. There was torture, lots of torture, then mostly rescues before the vital stuff was said but that's because they were movies. Real life tended to do the opposite of movies, which left the good guy spilling his guts or… the good guy spilling his guts in every literal sense of the word.

Rodney shuddered.

The chamber fell so silent it made Rodney's ears hurt, the tension in the ambient making it hard to breathe. He asked in desperation for that silence to stop, "Major Sheppard is gone?"

Which only led to more silence.

"Get the location, Doctor," Sumner said. "The sooner we leave, the better."

"Well, why can't we just go rescue the major? Take him out of enemy hands?" Rodney asked.

Sumner didn't answer. He left, taking his two marines with him. Elizabeth gave Rodney a sympathetic look like a parent with no time to offer a proper apology to a child, then hurried after him. Rodney tried to bristle, wanted to bristle for going ignored beyond being ordered around like one of Sumner's goons. He felt the anger and resentment like a memory hovering at the back of his mind, unable to go any further to the rest of him. He wondered if it was possible for the brain to detach from the body, because there was no part of him that was responding.

Their number one gene carrier was gone, taken, in the hands of the enemy - Was he being tortured? Had he already talked? - there were mind reading creatures, and bad guys who could storm this facility at any moment if the location to the next outpost wasn't unearthed, ASAP.

And it was only day one in the Pegasus Galaxy.

"I hate this place," Rodney said. He then did what he always did on a bad day: he went back to work, twice as terrified.

Chapter 1

Ronon forced the copper liquid down his throat without tasting it. What the barkeep called ale had a flavor like bitter piss and smelled just as bad, but one tankard gave a good enough buzz to make him happy while keeping his self-control. It was a universal recipe found on a lot of worlds – Ronon had no idea why except to say a buzz was a buzz and a cheap buzz even better, and this crap was pretty cheap – so he was jaded enough to ignore its effect on his tongue.

He set the empty glass tankard gently on the bar and nudged it away, the actions of an obviously sober enough man not meant to be easy pickings for the drunk – as if the drunk even cared. Ronon watched the yellow foam slide down the glass as he picked splinters from the wooden counter. The "tavern" in the loosest sense of the word was a scrap-heap of parts put together to resemble a drinking establishment, tucked away under a brown-canopy tent. It was a place that had no regard for reputation, only for making a quick coin wherever and whenever. The places with reputation had better swill; the places without had better rumors, and Ronon liked rumors.

When the hairy barkeep in the stained apron eyed the tankard, then Ronon, Ronon shook his head. He had his buzz and a clear head, so he was happy.

What he wasn't happy with were the rumors: talk of strange people from a strange place that rode winged lizards. It made Ronon wonder about the potency of mind-altering herbs these days.

Ronon preferred the rumors of people and places of local origin, wandering from world to world with all their worldly possessions in a wagon. The price for hearing such talk was putting up with the insults that followed at best, the ones doing the talking sober enough to figure out Ronon was of those very people being cussed out at worst.

Prejudice of the Satedan caravans surpassed comprehension. It wasn't like any world was immune to the Sky Raiders, wasn't prepared to face them, didn't accept them as the darker part of existence. But get a Satedan caravan rolling through town and suddenly it was judgment day. Ronon swore towns were better at harassing innocent caravans than chasing off Sky Raiders.

Ronon adjusted the collar of his coat higher up his neck and the tattoo on his pulse-point. He leaned forward, then stilled, pooling all his focus on his hearing. Talk was the same: Sky Raiders, bad crops, people going missing and men who rode flying lizards. There was no talk of those "blasted Satedans" and the curse that left Sky Raiders in their wake. Where the hell had that rumor even come from? He'd asked Bylar about it once, and the griffin had thought it just as weird. Sateda had been at the front in the majority of battles with the Wraith, had devised most of the battle-plans. All he could figure was that it had something to do with the loss of their world, which was a blank space in Satedan griffin history.

The drunken conversations deteriorated into pointless mutterings that would lead either to pointless sobbing or pointless brawls – usually a fluctuation of both. Ronon dug into his coat pocket for coins that he tossed onto the counter, then left, readjusting his collar. Outside, the day had gone from moist and cool to uncomfortably humid, the fate of any town located not far from a swamp. No amount of scrapes or scuffs from Ronon's boot could kick up any dust from the churned dirt road. He made his way to the back of the tent where the hulking mass of bronze, black and gray feathers he called Bylar sat hunched over his bloody breakfast. The other griffins sat apart from him, tossing wary looks the bird's way. Ronon felt it safe to assume it was Bylar's size making them nervous; most people couldn't tell a Satedan griffin from any other griffin unless it was part of a caravan. Satedan griffins weren't the only breed with dark colors.

"Nothing worth it here," Ronon said.

Bylar looked up, blood, bits of bone and a tawny haunch dripping from his beak. He tossed the remainder of the carcass into the waste wagon already piled high with bones, meat and insects.

"You're telling me. If that Heln beast was any bonier it would have stabbed me."

Ronon hooded his gaze. "That's not what I meant."

Bylar crouched and Ronon climbed into the saddle. "I knew that. So where to, now? Or is it 'fun with random worlds' again?"

Tightening the buckles on the leg harness, Ronon shrugged. "Doesn't matter." And it didn't matter. He'd lost count of the worlds he had visited, the towns he'd been chased out of, the taunts he'd endured and the taunts that cut the last thread of his patience. He'd heard every rumor ever born down to two-headed Heln beasts and two-headed human babies. He'd lost count of every lead, no matter how vague, pointing the way toward his people.

It was odd; all those years spent growing up in a caravan and Ronon had never been made aware of just how good a Satedan caravan was at playing phantom. Or maybe it wasn't a matter of being aware; maybe it was a matter of taking it for granted. A caravan only ever entered a town when their path gave them no other choice – a narrow pass forcing them through, or the town being the only one with a bridge crossing a too-deep river. The rest of the time, the Satedans might as well be ghosts to the worlds. Ronon was Satedan, but it was seven years since he'd last seen a caravan.

He couldn't even find his own damn caravan, if there was anything left to find.

There is, Ronon. You known there is.

Ronon scowled. He didn't care what anyone said, that a griffin did not need to make eye-contact to mind-speak with his bonded human was a pain in the backside.

Stop reading my mind.

Make me.

Ronon yanked out one of Bylar's smaller feathers. The griffin yelped and swiveled his head around to scowl.

"That's low even for you. I could cut the harness and drop you."

Ronon lifted his shoulders, indifferent. "Then I'd shoot you as I'm falling."

Bylar snorted. He started off, out of the feeding yard, around the tent and onto the road. The town, like most towns close to the Ancestor ring, enforced the law of no flying within town limits. Ronon didn't see what difference it made; it wasn't like raiders sent scouts to check out a target from above. They were smarter than that. It was Ronon and Bylar's theory that if the raiders were using scouts at all, they'd get more intel by inserting themselves in the local population for a time, as members of society or as travelers passing by.

Which did no favors to real travelers just passing by. Ronon and Bylar weren't the only ones to have this theory, because it wasn't always Ronon's tattoo that got him tossed him out of a town.

Today was a good day, neither tattoo nor brainless paranoia seeing them on their way. They could travel at a leisurely pace for once.

It didn't stop Ronon from glancing over his shoulder and he was glad he did. They weren't alone on the road leading out of town; a group of four men on griffins followed at a trot. They caught up to Ronon and Bylar, the no-fly marker not yet in sight.

"Good morning," said the guy on the right, not as tall as Ronon in the saddle, but then his tawny griffin was an inch shorter than Bylar so he couldn't be sure. He was broad in the shoulders – a man conditioned to a life of heavy lifting – and close-cropped sandy hair giving his head a square look.

Ronon gave a curt nod without looking at the man. "Morning." On Ronon's other side was the mildly opposite: tall, wiry, darker hair coming past his shoulders and tied in a tail.

Tall Guy asked, "Mind if we travel this road together 'til the marker?"

"It's a free road," Ronon said with a shrug. He sensed more than saw the other two, behind but flanking them, traveling the road instead of allowing Ronon his space. It was stupid. It said, loud and clear as a shout, that these men had more in mind than traveling. Griffins didn't need roads, used them only because they provided direction in no-fly zones and because that was where the marker would be seen.

If these men had only traveling in mind, they would have moved on ahead, or stayed far behind, spreading out for enough space to take off when the time came. Griffins as a general rule didn't like to be crowded. All living things, as a general rule, didn't like being crowded.

There were only two reasons to sacrifice personal space – protect the weak or keep anyone from going anywhere.

Ronon wasn't weak.

"You local?" asked Square Head, "or just passing through?"

"Passing through."

Tall Guy nodded. "Not to your liking, our fair town?"

"Not really a set-down-roots kind of guy," said Ronon. Beneath the saddled, he could feel Bylar's back-muscles pull solid. He didn't need eye-contact to know something wasn't right. Instinct was just as telling as any mind scan. And, again, loss of personal space said a lot.

Ronon could almost see the marker, a tiny white scar against the dark green wall of swampland stretching beyond sight in either direction.

"Why?" asked Square Head. "Ours is a good town. Plenty of jobs, quick about evacuations when the Sky Raiders come, good harvests every year. You're passing up a fair good life, friend."

Ronon smirked. "You the public relations committee or is your town that desperate for a population boost? No offense."

All four men chuckled. "None taken," said Square Head. It was stupid to deny it, but sometimes worlds did. Sky Raiders came for a cull, people were lost – manpower was lost – and suddenly you go from mistrusted stranger to VIP guest. The various propositions involved ranged from the obnoxious to the interesting to the rather… enticing. Except Ronon had been raised on old-fashioned beliefs and good old family values. If you were going to father a child, you'd damn well better be prepared to stick around and be a father. Ronon had no doubts his mother would crawl from the grave and give him a good beating if he ever did otherwise.

"Nothing wrong with advertising our town. Population's good but labor's always a commodity," Tall Guy said.

"Makes for plenty of good jobs," Square Head added.

The marker rose up out of the ground a good eight feet, topped in reflective silver paint that would glow in the moonlight at night.

"Why not stick around?" said Tall Guy. "See if you change your mind about going?"

The marker was only five feet away. "Sorry, already have a priority."

Square Head's hand shot out to grip the straps of Ronon's leg harness, forcing a halt. "We insist. We'll even set you up for the night, pay for room and board."

Ronon worked his jaw. This wasn't an advertisement; this was a test – a stupid, ineffective test. If he said yes, then all was well; they escort him back to the town, set him up as promised, maybe even get him a job. If he said no…

If he said no, then he failed the test.

Ronon pretended to think about it. Then, "No." With a hard jerk, he yanked his legs from the harness and kicked out, left then right. Both men listed hard to the side, throwing their griffins off balance, and Bylar exacerbated it with an unfurled snap of his wings. The griffin launched hard into the air.

A quick glance back showed Ronon the two rear escorts following fast. The other two were still fighting to right themselves.

"Into the swamp! Lose 'em there!" Ronon called.

Bylar dove. Ronon held on with everything he had, squeezing legs no longer strapped into Bylar's flanks.

"Can't breathe!" Bylar snapped.

"Get to the trees then I'll let you!" Ronon snapped back. Without being strapped in, flying was beyond terrifying. The downward angle and momentum pushed his body forward, forcing him to squeeze harder until he felt Bylar's ribs through thick feathers and muscle.

Bylar broke through the canopy, arched and leveled off perpendicular to the ground ten feet below them. Ronon released some of his death-grip and Bylar's sides inflated like a bellows. Trees taller than buildings and near-black with moisture and moss whipped past them; mirror-smooth water and pockets of mossy islands blurred below them. Bylar maneuvered through the obstacles with the skill of one who had been raised in this swamp despite having never been here until now.

Sateda may be gone but not its traditions. This was what griffins were trained for: attack, evasion, using impossible landscapes as an advantage. It reminded Ronon of his younger days, he and Bylar training in the great forests of Malara, in the narrow, dark canyons of Soloth, and the ocean caves of Kinek. A dark, festering swamp was mil-cake to Bylar, and Ronon couldn't stop a laugh of exhilaration from bubbling into his throat.

The thump and squawk of a griffin hitting a tree made him whoop and holler, and Bylar chuckle.

Another thump, another squawk, and floundering splashes faded behind them.

"Two down!" Bylar called. He weaved through the trees, dove beneath low hanging branches, then above a net of hanging moss. Leaves and vines slapped at Ronon and bugs met their fate against his body; he made sure to keep his mouth tightly shut.

It was only a matter of time before they were home free. Two more impacts, just two more.

Too late, Ronon saw a shape hurtle towards them from the left and opened his mouth to shout a warning. The words never had a chance. Bylar was impacted, throwing him to the side and Ronon off into the shallow mire. Ronon rolled, collecting mud and muck on his body, and came to a sudden, pained halt against the solid trunk of a thick tree.

Ronon groaned. His head spun and his back throbbed. All of it was forgotten the instant he heard Bylar cry out.

"Bylar!" Ronon leaped to his feet, pulling his blaster only for a round-house kick to knock it out of his hand. Tall Guy and Square Head flanked him. Behind Ronon, he heard the feral battle of griffins tearing up the swamp, filling the air with their piercing shrieks.

"Two against one," said Square Head. "Hardly seems fair, don't it, Melk?"

Ronon grinned. "Bring in your buddies and we'll call it even."

Square Head and Melk, armed with wicked corl knives with blades the length of a man's forearm, circled Ronon. They were all smiles, seeing only what they thought to be an easy win. And that was a good thing: overconfidence made for the best advantage. Ronon stood, loose-limbed and ready, his eyes following the enemy without his body moving.

Melk lunged first. Ronon already knew it was a feint. He reacted with a feint of his own then twisted, throwing a punch right into Square Head's jaw. As Square Head reeled back Ronon kicked his leg out, slamming his foot into Melk's stomach. By then, Square Head had recovered, coming in swinging the blade. Ronon leaped back, tucking in his stomach, then ducked, the blade whistling inches over his head. He slammed his fist into Square Head's gut then, spinning around, slammed a blow into the side of Melk's head.

Between blows and spins, he saw Bylar out of the corner of his eye lift one griffin and throw him to the ground, then slam the griffin clawing his back into a tree as thick as a griffin's body.

Ronon dropped in a crouch, swinging his leg out and dropping Melk. Leaping to his feet he then delivered his own round-house kick into Square Head's face. But turning back to deal with Melk resulted in a hard kick to the stomach. Melk jumped to his feet, fists swinging, subjecting Ronon to a one-two punch. The third punch Ronon blocked with an upraised arm, and with his other arm gave as good as he got.

Leaving himself wide open for a punch to the kidneys by Square Head. Ronon arched back, fighting the sudden weakness in his legs. Melk's next punch to the face dropped Ronon to his side, shoving the air from his lungs. More air was lost with a kick to his chest.

Ronon didn't have time to recover but didn't need to. He'd been trained for this. Dizzy, lacking oxygen, he forced his focus on his leg, swinging it out and tripping Melk coming in for another kick. Ronon then rolled through the muck into Square Head's feet, dropping him.

Melk recovered fast, rolling back then forward in a jump to his feet. With a cry, he charged Ronon with blade raised. Ronon copied the move, jumping back to his own feet, ready to intercept the arcing blade.

He didn't have to. A body burst through the undergrowth, straight into Melk and ramming him to the ground. The two struggling for the blade prevented Ronon from seeing his rescuer. It didn't matter. With Melk out of the way, Ronon was able to pinpoint his focus on Square Head. He let Square Head charge him, knife raised. Ronon grabbed Square Head's weapon arm and, using his momentum, twisted it until the arm popped from the socket with a crunch. Square Head screamed.

Ronon took the knife from the now dead hand and slammed the hilt across Square Head's skull. Square Head crumpled in an unconscious heap face up in the shallow water. Ronon was free to look up at Melk and the other guy – Melk pinned under the other guy and being pummeled with left-right blows to the face, over and over until Melk fell unconscious.

The new guy stood on trembling legs, his whole body shaking, maybe from adrenaline but Ronon couldn't be sure. The guy was some kind of vagabond dressed in a dripping shirt and pants that may or may not have been white at one point. Now they were the colors of the swamp, ragged and big as a tent on that skinny body.

Skinny stood over Melk like a predator surveying its kill. Ronon wondered if he was going to finish Melk off, but the shrieks of fighting griffins tore Ronon away. He turned.

Bylar was still battling, neither side gaining any ground. Ronon gripped the knife with the intent to plant it in the shin of the nearest enemy griffin.

He didn't have to. A great bellowing roar shook the swamp, vibrating the water, and scaring the two enemy griffins into inaction, giving Bylar time to plant a fist claw to their beaked faces. The griffins didn't care; they shook off the blows and with pathetic squawks tore through the water toward their riders. Ronon scuttled back, as did Skinny. Once the griffins scooped up their riders, they took off like dumb fowl – flapping and falling before climbing clumsily into the sky.

Bylar galloped gallantly to Ronon's side. His feathers dripped water and blood and there was a claw-mark down his face that would make an impressive scar, never to be seen when the down of his face grew back.

Bylar said as he eyed Skinny warily, "We should go. Whatever made that sound, it was big."

Ronon nodded. "Yeah." He started to approach Skinny, slowly. "Hey, buddy. We need to go. Where's your griffin?"

Skinny stood there, body heaving with heavy breaths, skin shuddering. His head was down, staring at the spot where Melk had been.

"Buddy?" Ronon touched the bony shoulder.

Skinny's reaction was like an explosion. He flinched hard, twisted around, knocking Ronon's hand away, and scurried back in a cringe. He was dark-haired, most of it matted by dirt and blood. A dark beard and dirt covered most of his face, but there was definitely damage – his eye was almost swollen shut. He stared at Ronon with wide, wild hazel eyes, body so tense it increased the quivering, his arms akimbo at his sides.

This guy was ready for a fight, to the death if it came down to it. He was terrified.

Ronon backed off with hands up and palms out. "Easy, easy pal. I'm not going to hurt you. You saved my life. I'm just trying to return the favor."

Skinny's undamaged eye twitched. His gaze darted quick as a startled bird between Ronon and Bylar. If it was possible, his body seemed to increase its tension, like a man about to run.

"Bylar," Ronon said out of the corner of his mouth. He could have made it a mental command, but that was considered rude when in the company of others. Skinny could take it as a reason to be hostile. "Talk to me."

Muck and water slurped from Bylar's shifting. "Ronon, this guy…" he breathed, nervous, edgy.

No, horrified.

"What's wrong with him?" Ronon pressed urgently. That roar hadn't sounded all that far away, and it had yet to sound again. That couldn't be a good thing.

"He's messed up. Really bad. There are thoughts but… I can't get a hold of them. Where's his griffin?"

Like a herald, the words preceded the growing whine-buzz of flapping wings. Ronon breathed a sigh of relief.

"That must be him. Your griffin's coming pal, just wait for him."

Ronon looked up toward the shadow swallowing the little light squeezing through the trees. A great, dark shape dropped through the canopy, raining torn leaves and branches like hail. Both Ronon and Bylar ducked, shielding their heads with their arms.

What landed wasn't a griffin. It was big, had wings, but it wasn't a griffin. It was without feathers, black as a starless midnight and covered in scaled armor. It raised its bladed head at Ronon and Bylar, opened its mouth and roared.

The sound vibrated Ronon's bones, the blast of hot air shoving him against Bylar's leg. The creature crouched low, ready to strike, behind Skinny. Skinny turned to stare at the beast. Ronon lurched forward, reaching for Skinny, only for Bylar to pull him back.


"Wait! Just wait." Bylar held out his other claw toward the creature. "We mean no harm."

The creature snorted at them but didn't ease from its crouch. Then it looked at Skinny, and its features softened – fierce melting into alarm, followed by worry, then sorrow. It reached out with its claw loosely curled. With an amazing amount of gentleness for something so large and deadly – with its spikes and armor and fangs – it touched the side of Skinny's face with its knuckle. For a moment, Ronon was sure it was going to cry.

The creature breathed one word in a voice trying not to break. "John?"

Ronon felt hypnotized. He watched Skinny raise a trembling hand to the finger touching him, and touched it back.

"John," the creature sighed. It lowered its head, nose an inch from the water. Skinny touched the snout with both hands then pressed his forehead against it. They both stayed like that for Ronon didn't know how long. He didn't know these two, didn't have a clue what they'd been through, but he could see their relief draining them of tension and terror and fight, leaving an exhaustion that should have dropped them on the spot.

It dropped Skinny – John. He crumpled like paper to be discarded, folding in on himself. The not-griffin caught him and, using both claws, scooped him up and cradled him as gently as a human would an infant.

"I've got you, John," it said in a voice hoarse with crippling fatigue and sadness. "I've got you." It spread its wings, took off into the air without so much as giving Ronon and Bylar a second glance. Ronon watched the creature falter for a breath-stopping moment then right itself and take off out of sight.

"Should we—" Bylar began. Ronon flinched like a man waking from a dream. He looked up at Bylar, and Bylar down at him, troubled.

"Should we follow?" Bylar asked.

Ronon returned his gaze to the now-empty sky.

"They were both bad off. The guy worse than… whatever it was."

"How bad?" Ronon asked.

"Something's wrong with the guy's head. The other thing… actually, it might not be a good idea to follow it. But they saved us, we can't just leave them."

"No," Ronon said, "we can't."

Teyla's and Meeka's entrance into the camp was received with much unnecessary excitement by Jinto and his friends. Since being the ones who had encountered the Earther's first arrival, they'd been insufferable, always finding reasons to slip to the edge of the camp and be the first to witness new arrivals – no matter the time of day or night.

As was the way of children, Jinto's first question was, "Did you bring anything interesting back?"

Teyla simply laughed. "Not today."

"What about the Earthers?" asked Jinto. "Did their dragons scare people again?"

"Not this time," she replied with a soft chuckle. Teyla's first attempt as liaison for the Earthers had involved much peacemaking and reassurance that the dragons were not hideous mutations created by the Sky Raiders. It never ceased to amaze Teyla how quickly superstitions were born. She had always believed them to be generations old, twisted by years and too many rumors, not days.

It unnerved her the ridiculous conclusions entire villages jumped to. Thankfully, the other worlds had not been so hasty, and once talk spread of the newcomers with their featherless beasts, there was less wariness.

Teyla had the feeling the change of heart had more to do with the Earthers' weapons and offers of powerful medicines. She sometimes wondered how the other worlds would react to knowing that the "featherless" could also breathe fire. Open arms would return to caution, she had no doubts.

Teyla entered the camp surrounded by her honor guard of children and griffins. Halling and Jorlair met her halfway and foreheads touched. On parting, Halling eyed what had to be her apparent exhaustion with a frown.

"I take it things did not go well?"

Teyla smiled wearily. "They went well. Difficult, yes, but well." As they talked, they walked toward Charrin's tent where tuttle-root soup would be waiting. Teyla could already smell it. Between her duties as leader and one of the aides to the Earthers, she rarely had time to aid in meal preparations.

Much to the relief of the camp, Charrin always teased.

"Colonel Sumner is like a boulder," Teyla continued. "A very large, very immovable boulder. It makes for precarious negotiations. I believe this is only the third time in the three months since they came that anyone has agreed to his terms."

She looked at Halling. "I have heard this is not so with the other Earth teams?"

Halling smiled. "No, it is not."

"I wonder if it is possible to trade teams," Teyla said, only partial in her joking. As leader of her people, taking the head in all major trade negotiations, it was a vital skill to read people and know them within minutes of meeting them. Words only said so much; body language, expressions and gaze saying far more. In three months' time, she had come to know the Earthers where it counted – as individuals and as a whole; their motivations, their needs and their shortcomings.

The Earthers were guarded, careful – a people who wanted to trust, but with far too many secrets to allow for complete trust. Sumner was not a man stubborn for the sake of being stubborn; he was a man stubborn out of necessity, a soldier reluctant to give ground when it could be seen as a sign of weakness. As a warrior herself, Teyla respected and understood the reasoning behind it.

She also felt it a weakness. There were many worlds that required acts of confidence: leaving weapons at the door, the ingestion of herbs that relaxed the body and mind just enough to allow for complete honesty, an exchange of people – like hostages – to ensure the safety of both parties. Sometimes they were extreme, sometimes harsh (there were worlds where Athosians were not welcome because those acts of trust could not be accomplished for whatever reason). But more often than not, they were necessary.

Only three times had Sumner acquiesced to them after much reluctance. Other times, it had nearly ended in violence.

None of the Earthers agreed to have their minds scanned. Their dragons did, which was the only reason any world traded with them. Doctor Weir had explained that dragons were masters of emotional and mental control, and for that reason could allow their minds to be read without any secrets accidentally divulged. For example, the location of the Earthers' camp that not even Teyla knew the whereabouts of, only the address to the world where it was supposed to be. This Teyla understood and respected.

In return for aiding the Earthers, Teyla's people received medicines, even man- and dragon-power to help prepare the fields for harvest, and protection and aid if needed. Since the first night of the attack, however, the Sky Raiders had yet to try again, and this month was normally a cull month.

Teyla found her thoughts wandering, as they sometimes did, to the Earther, John, and if he was still alive. Sumner and his men still searched for him, but that search had tempered down to inquiries after a dark-haired man and a black dragon.

They reached Charrin's tent close to the center of camp, where the smell of tuttle-root soup wandered like an unseen cloud from the open flap of her tent.

"Teyla," Halling said, stopping her outside the tent with a hand on her arm. She turned to him.

"Do you feel it wise to continue helping these Earth people?" he asked.

She arched an eyebrow and opened her mouth to respond.

Halling stopped her with a raised hand. "I know – they saved us, helped us. That is a debt that must be repaid and I, for one, am glad to be able to repay it. But… I worry, at times. It is rare for the Sky Raiders to be defeated as strongly as they were that night. I fear…" His blue eyes darted over their surroundings, flickering with quiet fear, nervous of ears that might overhear. When he spoke, it was in a near-whisper. "I fear retaliation."

Teyla pulled in a deep breath, straightening. "I believe if retaliation were to happen, it would have by now. The Sky Raiders are not slow to eradicate a threat. This is ageless knowledge." Passed down from those griffins that had survived the destruction of a world called Sateda. Every world knew the story of the attack that had driven a world of science and technology to its knees. When a world showed any advantage that made it difficult pickings for the Sky Raiders, that world was subdued, marked for mass cullings that left it smaller in population.

It was a warning, nothing more. Teyla sometimes felt that the only reason they were able to fight the Sky Raiders at all was because the raiders let them: for sport, for entertainment. The hunt is not as enjoyable when the prey does not present a challenge, an uncle had once said.

Yet Teyla knew her own point stood on firm legs. If the Sky Raiders were going to retaliate, they would have done so.

"It is the Earthers that are a threat to them," she said. "And they managed to capture one. There is no need for retaliation."

Halling nodded; not mollified, Teyla knew, only accepting. Teyla entered the large tent followed by Meeka.

What she had not said was that there was no need for retaliation just yet. Again her mind wandered to the lost Earther. He must be alive, and staying quiet, or the Sky Raiders would have come by now.

She did not let herself imagine what they were doing to make the Earther talk. But, too late, it left her in a melancholy state of mind.

Charrin, setting down her pot of bubbling stew on a folded cloth on the table, looked up and smiled. Behind her, old Cayassa lay curled, knobby-boned with age but her gold and white feathers still as bright as a sunrise. The griffin stretched, yawned and went back to sleep.

Charrin's smile fell. "Teyla? Are you all right?"

Teyla realized her dour thoughts had translated onto her face. She shifted the direction of her mental wanderings to fresh stew and bread, and smiled. "Tired," she said.

Charrin, ever knowing in a way that made Teyla wonder if she, too, could read minds, curved a thin, gray eyebrow. "Tired, you say. I have seen you tired enough times to have the image burned into my mind. I see more than just tired."

"And too many thoughts," Teyla said with a smirk. She slid onto the bench, Meeka plopping down behind her before the metal pot of freshly butchered meat.

"Ah, the burdens of the mind." Charrin spooned stew into two clay bowls, then topped them with a slice of bread. "Not even the griffins can release us of them. Perhaps if you spoke them out loud, though?" She handed Teyla her bowl. "Even mental burdens can be lightened."

Teyla took her food with a grateful nod and an inhale filling her lungs with the aroma of spices. Her mouth salivated. "I know. You have told me more than once."

"And still the multiple tellings have yet to make it less true," Charrin said casually. She sat across from Teyla, pushing the pot aside enough to make room.

"It is not important," Teyla said, because they were musings, nothing more. Troubled musings, but still musings, with nothing to be done about them save steer her thoughts in other directions. She moved her bread to the side and stirred her stew.

Then asked, "Do you think the coming of the Earthers a good thing?"

"Good?" Charrin shrugged. "They are new allies, new friends. Is that not good?"

"It is," Teyla said. "It is just strange. And, I think, sometimes difficult. They are different, have powerful weapons and much knowledge of technology yet… nothing has changed."

Charrin blew on her stew. "You expected it to?"

"I do not know," said Teyla. The truth was, she had expected change, and there had been change, of a kind – more trading for one, more friends and allies as Charrin had said. Beyond that, it did not feel like much of a change at all, and she felt guilty for expecting more. More what, she couldn't say.

Be honest, Teyla. You expected a greater change than what the Earthers can offer. You'd expected saviors. Her own thoughts, not Meeka's. Meeka knew these thoughts, but had nothing to contribute as she had felt the same.

They both felt guilty.

Charrin set her spoon into her bowl to fold her hands on the table. "The Earthers came, strange and new and exciting, at a moment of battle, and helped save us. It is difficult not to expect something grand, to see more into it than there is. You must remember, Teyla: just because they are from another cluster of stars and carry weapons and knowledge beyond our own does not make them any less like us."

Teyla nodded. "I know."

"But it will still take time to set in," Charrin said with a kind smile. "Now, eat, before your stew goes cold and your bread stale."

Teyla rolled her eyes, then complied by shoving a heaping spoonful into her mouth.

She was down to the bottom of her bowl, her bread gone, when Jinto burst into the tent breathless and ruddy-faced from exertion. "Teyla! Teyla! A man has come from away! He has asked to speak to whoever is in charge."

Teyla pushed her bowl away and stood. "Have him brought to the griffins' fire behind the council tent."

"Father is already doing so." With that said, Jinto ran off ahead. Teyla followed at a more respectable speed to the council tent two tents away, Meeka following close behind.

Halling and the visitor were already at the fire. The man was tall, hardly any difference in height between him and Halling, with the lean, strong build and steady clear gaze of a fighter. The weapon strapped to his hip confirmed it. The carrying of weapons the Athosians did not disallow – Sky Raider attacks were too sudden to allow for anyone to be left vulnerable – but it meant the constant presence of a guard. Those guards gathered surreptitiously outside the griffin fire ring, but within sight to read the actions of a man with hostile intent.

Behind the man, his griffin sat deceptively casual and intimidatingly huge, all dark bronzes and blacks. Teyla could feel Meeka straighten to her full height behind her. They stopped with the embers of the dying fire between them. Teyla bowed her head.

"I am Teyla Emmagan, daughter of Terghan and leader of these people. This is Meeka."

The man tipped his head in return. "Ronon Dex." He crooked his thumb over his shoulder. "Bylar."

"Have you come to trade?" she asked.

The man fidgeted as though Teyla had asked him a personal question. "Actually I… I came to ask you something." His hand when to his thick mane and scratched between the knotted hair. "Probably gonna sound stupid."

Teyla lifted both eyebrows, trying not to smile at his sudden discomfort. It was rather endearing to see in such a big man. "There is no such thing as a stupid question. What is it you wish to ask?"

Ronon cleared his throat and puckered his brow. "I was, um… told… actually, I heard that – that you guys… that you know the people who have the winged lizards."

"Winged lizards?" Teyla queried. It did not take long to dawn on her. "You mean the Earthers?"

Ronon shrugged. "If that's what they're called. You know 'em?"

"We know of them, yes," Teyla said, siding with caution. "Why?"

"I think I ran into one of their people on Foleth. Are they missing anyone? Cause this guy looked pretty bad off and this flying lizard thing carried him away. I thought they might like to know."

Teyla's heart fluttered like the wings of a small bird. She swallowed. It cannot… could it? But now was not the time to jump to conclusions. "What did this man look like?"

Ronon held his hand a little below the height of his head. "About this tall, dark hair, kind of greenish-brownish eyes or something. He had a beard so can't describe his face much. He was kind of wild, out of it, but he saved my life." He shrugged a second time. "Figured I owed him one."

Teyla nodded. "And I thank you in advance for his people. I do know of them so I will tell them. Could you stay? They will want to speak with you, ask of his exact whereabouts."

"Sure," Ronon said.

"Again, thank you." Teyla then left, forcing herself to walk from the griffin fire. When she was beyond sight of the council tent, she clamored quickly onto Meeka's still-saddled back.

Halling ran up to her. "What? What is it?"

"Make the man from away feel welcome," Teyla said, already breathless with urgency. She pulled the boxy communication device from her pocket, the one given to her to communicate with the Lanteans. "I am going to the ring and summoning the Earthers." Meeka needed no leave to launch into the air, straight for the ring.

Chapter 2

It was a gorgeous day. The sky was clear, blue and perfect, the weather a warm twenty-five degrees Celsius (if Rodney had to guess ), a line of blue jagged mountains in the distance and an endless carpet of dark green far below. Were Rodney a flying man, he'd be reveling in this.

Rodney wasn't a flying man, never had been, really. He tolerated it when it became a necessity, like now, but knew he was bruising Bina's sides with his incessant squeezing and didn't care. The land was too damn far away for comfort and it was a swamp, an alien swamp, with alien things that probably had stingers full of poison that would put other livings things in a coma so they could be eaten alive.

Actually, between flying and being eaten, Rodney supposed flying was the lesser of two evils. At least when you fell, it was a quick death… most of the time. He could give it the benefit of a little extra tolerance.

"Are we there yet?" he asked, trying to sound more insouciant than he felt, and felt he was doing a pretty good job.

"Don't make me turn myself around," Bina snapped. "No one asked you to come."

No, no one had asked him to come. But they had asked Bina – being the expert in dragonology and, therefore, a kind-of, sort-of psychologist of dragons and all. Rodney had come, no thanks to an overwhelming sense of responsibility that had felt remarkably like guilt; except it wasn't guilt, just him doing his Bond duty and watching his dragon's back. If what Sumner and his goons had said were true, that the black dragon was out of his mind, then things could get dangerous. And knowing Bina, the white would be too enthralled in taking notes to pay appropriate attention. It was mind-boggling how absorbed Bina could become in his work.

The comm in Rodney's ear tickled his eardrum with endless, obnoxious conversation. The gist: the guy and griffin who had witnessed Sheppard alive had said his dragon had been out of it, possibly wounded, so couldn't have gone far in the day and a half it had taken the guy to find the Athosians. Teyla had relayed the message over the radio she had been given to contact them, and not a second had been wasted launching a search and rescue mission.

There had been no doubt that it was Sheppard and Corvax, unless there were winged lizards in Pegasus and not even the locals knew about it. Other than that, no doubt at all.

The major was alive. It was news that had left Rodney the most speechless he had ever been, a whole minute according to Zelenka. The major was alive and they were zeroing in on him via the emotional ambient. An emotionally distressed dragon was like a forest fire without the heat: the bigger the distress, the bigger the "smoke" according to Bina.

Rodney had wondered how a giant, black flying lizard had gone unnoticed all this time, then saw the extent of the swamp. It stopped at the mountains yet went on for eternity in either direction. A whole herd of dragons could get lost in there and never be seen again.

Bina didn't think Corvax was in the swamp. All living things were ruled by instinct when it came to danger – fight or flee – and if a dragon chose to flee it would go where it would feel safe. What felt safe for a dragon was out of the sky, out of the open and underground. In other words, a cave. The bigger the cave, the better, offering plenty of places to hide, but desperation would also make any old cave do.

The rescue squad of eight plus Bina and Rodney flew fast over the swamp straight at the mountains looming up fast and large, like the teeth of something impossibly monstrous.

"We're getting close," was the announcement over the radio; very close, because Rodney could feel the ambient, like a twinge of discomfort veneered in dread, filtering through Bina.

"Wow," Rodney said, then swallowed. "He must be really distressed."

"You think?" Bina said, and shuddered beneath the saddle.

The squad fanned out and flew low in case Corvax tried to make a break – standard procedure for distressed dragons, Bina had explained. When they reached the base of a mountain buried under trees, they circled.

"Here, they're here!" someone called. Stackhouse and his green, having been given the lead of this mission, led the charge with a nosedive that was more like a sudden drop.

Rodney gulped. "We don't, uh… don't have to…"

"No," Bina assured. "We just have to land, stay back, offer advice when needed and try not to get killed." He sounded and felt nervous; about damn time.

The rest of the squad followed except for the grunt on the copper hanging back for Bina's and Rodney's protection. Shouts cluttered the radio, making it next to impossible for Rodney not to rip the damn thing from his ear. Bina angled more gently into an open space of foliage, light turning to dusk and humidity surrounding them like being dunked into a bucket of warm water – Rodney could hardly breathe.

Bina touched down on an island of mossy rock. He about bolted back into the sky when the most pissed-off and wicked roar Rodney had ever heard shook the ground beneath them. Rodney kind of wished Bina would bolt.

The trees were smaller where they'd landed, spaced out enough to give them an unobstructed view of what the hell was going on. The cave was a cleft in a rock wall surrounded by massive boulders. Water trickled from it, light and cool-looking, adding to the endless lake of muck, mud and water of the swamp. At first, there wasn't much to witness beyond the cave and two goons standing guard on dragon-back outside.

Another roar, angrier than the last, Rodney swore, and then chaos erupted. Dragons burst from the cleft, dragging a thrashing mass of bladed black in a net behind them. Two more dragons followed, their riders shooting at the net with dart guns; more like trying to shoot and failing. The darts weren't going to penetrate unless they hit the underbelly or jaw, and Corvax wasn't giving them an easy target.

A third dragon emerged, a guard between a rabid Corvax and Stackhouse's dragon cradling something as gently as fine glass in its paws.

Rodney stood up in the leg harness. "Wait, is that him? Is that the major?"

Stackhouse's green gave Corvax wide berth, hurrying into the swamp to be as far away as possible in case the black broke free, close enough for Rodney to see.

He felt the blood drain from his face. "Oh, no."

Sheppard looked liked he'd been pureed in hell. He was gaunt, not a stick figure but close. Pretty damn close, because the stomach wasn't grotesquely concaved nor bloated with air, yet Rodney could see Sheppard's ribs through the pathetic excuse of a shirt. He lay limp in the massive paws like a battered doll, painted in dirt, blood and bruises; pale as bad milk in the few places there wasn't filth.

There was no way Sheppard was alive.

Another earth-shattering roar made Rodney jump an inch from the saddle. Bina bucked in a lurch forward, putting Sheppard's mangled body out of sight behind cupped claws.

He shouted, "Calm! Project calm!"

"We're trying!" a brass dragon bellowed. Rodney could feel the emotional ambient like a cyclone, calm wrestling with agitation but fury trumping them all. Rodney felt Bina's flanks inflate long and slow, deflate the same and the muscles of the back ease tremulously from rock to taffy. Calm flowed from him, but the battle was a hurricane at its peak.

In the end, it was exhaustion that gave calm the needed leeway. Corvax was tired, maybe injured, and all that wild thrashing did was to drain whatever energy he had left as he writhed, as pathetic as a worm caught in the open. He stilled, briefly, on his stomach, found his second wind for another good thrash only to lose it again. Calm made him lax and the next time he flopped to the ground it was on his side, underside and jaw exposed for a few hits with the darts. Corvax's body seemed to shrink on a drawn-out exhale.

Then he fell still. The only movement was the rise and fall of his visible ribs – like rider, like dragon.

Rodney's mouth went slack. What the hell had happened to them?

"He's down! Move out!" Stackhouse shouted. Leaving wasn't quite as right-away as Rodney thought it would be. Time was taken for the dragons to undo the net and configure Corvax's limbs into a more comfortable position for transport, while their riders helped get Sheppard wrapped in blankets and strapped onto the litter they'd brought. When John was secure, the dragon carrying him in both claws curved its fingers over him in a protective cave.

They all left, wrapped in the urgency of transporting wounded, Corvax a bundle of black wrapped in a web suspended between five dragons. It felt like forever until they reached the gate – which was impossible, of course, because forever had no end. Rodney's brain, however, wasn't in the right state to be logical. They skirted wide around the town, wasting extra minutes they could have used, but they arrived and went through to the alpha site – another Earth-like world with Earth-like trees – and from there to the new planet with the new facility they now called home. The new world had it's own 'gate like the last world, because the 'gates of the facilities connected only with each other – inconvenient, yes, but it also meant being free from the worry of someone accidentally stumbling onto the facility by hitting the wrong symbol.

Stackhouse had sent word by radio of a successful mission and a med-team was waiting in the hangar-turned-dragon bay. The green lowered Sheppard's cocooned body onto the gurney to be immediately hustled off to the infirmary. In that short time, Rodney had unstrapped and slid off of Bina, leaving the white to help deal with Corvax being loaded into a niche.

Rodney walked swiftly through the doors in time to see Sheppard being unwrapped, then moved from the gurney to a bed. Rodney couldn't have chosen a better position to stand if he'd tried, giving him view enough between the swarm of medics to see them cut Sheppard's filthy clothes away and drop them like the rags they were.

The major was definitely bruised, probably broken; not a stick figure, but too damn close. It was one thing to see pictures of the starved and injured in magazines, history books and on TV – bad enough, actually. It was worse to see it in the flesh. It didn't so much slap reality to it as make it a reality that refused to be ignored, and made you realize that to know of a thing was not to know it.

So many bruises, from chest to waist, splashes of it down Sheppard's arms. There were cuts, too, angry red and weeping some kind of fluid Rodney didn't want to think about.

In fact, why the hell was he even here?

To know if he's alive and going to live, duh. Sheppard hadn't been a bad guy. Obnoxious as all hell, but not bad as far as goons went. Whenever Rodney had talked Star Trek, or Star Wars, or math theories, Sheppard had answered back without a "shut up" or "let's just get this the hell over with." You could actually talk to the guy and, sometimes, not regret it.

Words were being tossed around, mostly by Beckett, mostly numbers and jargon that didn't mean squat to Rodney other than BP and what sounded like a very high pulse-rate (Rodney knew all about pulse-rates. He'd always had a high one, much to the distress then annoyance of various physicians). The controlled anxiety made it all sound bad.

"He's got a fever – one-oh-one… where's that bloody scanner? Marie, take this to the lab… someone get the bloody scanner!"

"Doctor McKay!"

Rodney jumped, slapping a hand over his heart and panting. "Jeez, are you trying to kill me!"

"Sorry," the blond nurse said, sounding anything but sorry. She took Rodney's arm and started steering him from the chaos around Sheppard. "Doctor, I'm going to have to ask you to leave for now. You're in the way."

Rodney stiffened with indignation. "I am not!"

"Trust me, you are, or will be. It's not you; it's always the case with anyone. Please, wait outside. Doctor Beckett will tell you what you need to know as soon as he has the major settled." And before Rodney could begin his tirade on how she and Beckett weren't the boss of him, he was shoved out the door.

And about collided with Doctor Weir and Colonel Sumner.

"Is it him?" Elizabeth asked. She was like a taut string of strain, stiff yet vibrating, and it made her face seem drawn.

"It's certainly his dragon so, yeah, I definitely think it's him," Rodney said. "But don't go in there yet. Carson's nurses have gone all Attila the Hun – they'll kick you out the moment you walk in." He then gave Sumner a dry look. "Guess it wasn't a trap after all."

"Never hurts to be cautious," Sumner said. It was sporadic when the colonel rose to whatever bait Rodney threw at him, mostly because Rodney knew better than to bait him. Sumner's favorite solution to any problem, recalcitrant scientists especially, was positively draconian: threats of putting the less competent on important projects, the more competent on plumbing problems armed with a plunger and rubber gloves.

Latrine duty should not be universal.

Rodney tightened his jaw yet was without a comeback. Sumner, after all, had had a point and still had a point. This could have been a trap; the stranger who had alerted the Athosians to Sheppard could have been a plant to lure in more future POWs. Both Sumner and Weir had gone to talk to the supposed witness, and from the sour look on Elizabeth's face on their return, it hadn't gone well. From what Rodney had gathered according to the scuttlebutt of Sumner's men who had accompanied them, there'd been a lot of questions, a lot of accusations, Sumner being a hard-ass, Weir too soft and the Athosian leader finally intervening by offering to have her griffin scan the witness' mind.

Whatever a mind-scan entailed, it must not be pleasant. The soldiers said Weir had been pissed afterwards. But they'd gotten the truth, knew it wasn't a trap and so had gone from there. As for the witness, Weir had asked him to stick around with the Athosians until a suitable compensation could be devised for what the witness had gone through.

Rodney had never been a fan of rumors – too unreliable, too many blanks. He loved them now. Elizabeth held tight to her refusal to put details to the situation, and incessant badgering wasn't wearing her down.

She was most definitely pissed about it.

"Yes, well…" Rodney went on, not knowing how to finish the sentence. He said, instead, hooking a thumb back toward the infirmary, "Beckett's with him, taking care of him…" He swallowed. "He, uh… he didn't look so good. Sheppard, I mean. He was really bad off and his dragon…" He swallowed again. "Anyway, I'm no voodoo priest but even I know this will probably take a while."

"Obviously," said Sumner. "In the meantime, you have work to catch up on, Doctor. We need that next crystal."

Rodney bristled. "Hey, it's not exactly rocket science to bring up those questions. Besides, it's all chemistry crap. I hate chemistry."

"All the same I want you back at that chair to add whatever expertise you can offer. The more minds present, the faster this goes. You said so yourself."

Rodney wished he hadn't. Really, though, there was no reason to stick around. Be that as it may, he still had yet to find out if the major was going to live and knew it was going to bug the crap out of him for the rest of the day until he did. He looked to Elizabeth, imploring.

Elizabeth, arms crossed, shrugged helplessly. "You said so yourself; it's going to take a while." She then put her hand on his shoulder. The warmth of her palm eased through his shirt to his skin. "I'll call you if there's any change."

Rodney managed not to pull a face at her. He gave her a short nod of thanks, then Sumner – who wasn't Elizabeth - a mild glare. He left, which took a bit more effort than it should have. He didn't get what the big deal was – Sheppard was with Beckett, and for all the unpredictability that was medical science, even Rodney had to admit Carson had skill that elevated it to an actual science. Sheppard would be fine.

And Sumner was right… to a certain extent. Rodney should be present in case the next round of questions required a more vast intellect. They were two for two on facilities – or outposts, as the marines kept calling them - within a month and two weeks, yes, but Weir called it progress and Rodney supposed he could agree to that. However, now that they knew what they were doing, Rodney's hope was for round two to be a cake walk.

Reselas was the spitting image of her sister outpost, Calafas; just in a different location, and slightly larger with a few extra rooms and, of course, a 'gate that only connected to the old outpost. It was also in better working order, the theory that it being in the middle of a mountain protected it better than Calafas being in the side of a hill on the ground. Or maybe the Ancients had had a better idea of what they were doing, which would make the third outpost the third-time charm.

The chair room was located in the same place as it had been on Calafas, still a vast chamber with its center dominated by a single alien-version of a recliner – currently reclined. The chemistry portion of the quiz must be over, because it was Katie Brown from botany in the room instead of the chemists. Her green dragon (green – rather lovely irony, really) sat like an inquisitive cat behind the chair, twitching her head left and right at the holographic questions popping up in midair.

Rodney straightened up, sucking in his gut, and strolled on in.

"How…" the crack in his voice cut him off. He cleared his throat and tried again. "How's it coming?"

Zelenka looked from his tablet and shoved his glasses higher up his nose. "Well. Very well. We are halfway through biology. It is very fascinating how quickly the interface is able to translate languages. Within seconds of sitting in the chair, the questions will appear in the dominant language of the one sitting. Doctor Weston – he is a polyglot – was able to get it to switch between languages."

"Well, it would be overly arrogant even for them to assume everyone spoke Ancient. How many questions to go?"

Zelenka shook his head, typing something. "I do not know. No table of contents, remember? But the questions are fewer than at the last outpost. I am thinking the closer we get to our goal, the fewer questions there will be to suffer." He grinned. "Like a compensation for enduring this long."

"One can only hope," Rodney murmured. As much as he loved to be tested, he felt this a tad derogatory. They were adults, for crying out loud, not snot-nosed teenagers in high school. The marines might be jocks with guns and a pain in the ass, but at least they had yet to give anyone wedgies.

"So how was the rescue?"

Rodney flinched out of his thoughts. "Huh?"

"The rescue?" Radek looked up. "Word spread of Major Sheppard having been spotted."

"Oh," Rodney said. "Well. It went well. He's back – Sheppard, I mean. Currently taking up space in the infirmary."

Radek's eyes rounded impossibly huge behind the lenses. "You kid? They found him? They really found him?"

"We really found him, yes. Him and his dragon."

"And you are only telling us now!"

Katie sat upright, ending the questionnaire that, thankfully, always picked up where it left off. Her already large brown eyes grew even larger than Zelenka's without the need for glasses. "Is he all right? Is he alive?"

"Did I not just say he was in the infirmary?" Rodney huffed. "Of course he's alive. As for all right, again, infirmary, so no. He's very much not all right. Now can we please get back to work? Still plenty of questions left, people."

Katie reclined with a big smile on her face and the holographic screen blinked back into the air. "Wait until I tell Carol about this. It really depressed her when the major vanished." She whispered, conspiratorial in Rodney's direction, "She has a thing for him."

"Lovely," Rodney said, flat. "She'll be happy to know that she can go back to ogling him. Less talk, more answering, chop chop. Radek, let me see what you've got."

With a slight twist of his mouth, Radek handed the tablet over.

There wasn't much more to learn beyond what they already knew – in layman's terms, the chair was super powerful and the interface beyond comprehension. Rodney felt it a good enough excuse to take lunch. Long-distance trips always got his appetite worked up. He called a break.

He wasn't halfway to the designated mess hall when he came to the realization that he wasn't all that hungry. For some inexplicable reason, since he got back, his mind insisted on returning to the images of Sheppard – a bloody, skinny ragdoll in a giant dragon's palm – and the insanity of the black dragon. He'd never seen the like of it, even with a licensed dragonologist for a dragon. But then Bina was a scholar who filled his brain with knowledge from books rather than firsthand experience. The rescue of Corvax and Sheppard had been his first time out in the field, just like it had been Rodney's first time.

Rodney wondered if Bina regretted going just as much as he did. Speaking of the white, Rodney detoured to search him out.

It didn't take long. There was only one place Bina would be if he was just as much without an appetite as Rodney. Reaching the dragonbay, he stopped within the doors. Bina lay not far from the niche where Corvax was sprawled, sedated and chained. It was the first time Rodney had seen the white hovering outside a niche without his drawing supplies.

Rodney finished off the rest of the distance to his dragon's side and stood there with his hands in his pockets. He looked up at Bina. The dragon's eyes were narrow, as though he were concentrating.

"Don't think too hard or your brain will pop," Rodney ribbed. It fell flat. The ambient was not in a suitable state for jokes. Rodney never could get the hang of humor and timing.

Bina, however, simply grunted. Then said, as though an explanation was needed, "He was getting restless. I thought I might, you know, smooth things out."

"Aren't there supposed to be dragons here for that?"

Bina chuffed. "Hey, I've said it time and again – sedation doesn't equal shut down. It says it plain as day in Bertol's Dragon Physiology in the Modern Age."

It also said, because Bina quoted that book often enough for Rodney to have it memorized, that a dragon's empathic aura dimmed when under sedation. When a dragon was drugged unconscious, it was out until every last drop of chemical was metabolized from its body, and Corvax had been doped six ways to Sunday. Whatever distress the dragon experienced from here on in, it would be mild and short lived.

But Bina had always been sensitive even if he pretended not to be. It might be a white dragon thing – it was a white dragon who came up with the whole zen concept – or it might be a Bina thing. Rodney had yet to figure it out.

Right now, he was pretty sure it was a Bina thing. If Rodney was being hassled by memories of a man reduced to skin, bone and blood then he couldn't begin to imagine the effect a feral, pissed dragon had on other dragons.

"At some point in time I plan on going to the mess. Want anything?" Rodney asked.

"Not really," Bina said.

Rodney clapped the armored shoulder. "Yeah, me too."

He left with the intent of making another go at the mess. Somewhere along the way, he'd taken another detour and found himself outside the infirmary doors – stupid wandering mind. But he figured the only way he'd get any peace of mind was to reprogram his brain not to associate the image of a dead-looking Sheppard with the idea that he was actually dead. Maybe seeing for himself might help, except he didn't want to. He was just going to have to settle for Carson's word.

He stepped through the doors of the infirmary.

Lo and behold, Carson was already coming toward him from the other way, snapping off gloves that he tossed into the nearest hazardous waste bin.

"Need something, Rodney?" Carson asked.

"I'm assuming he's still alive?"

Carson raised a questioning eyebrow, then both eyebrows in realization. "Oh, aye, he's alive. Not in good shape but he's alive."

Rodney frowned at him. "What do you mean not in good shape?"

"I mean not in good shape. Malnourished, on the wrong side of feverish, so bloody bruised I'm surprised there isn't a broken bone on him other than two cracked ribs. He's been to hell and back, that's for bloody sure. He's got a mess of cuts on him, right nasty long ones and these puckered ones I swear were made by giant leeches."

Rodney felt his stomach bottom out. "Giant leeches?" Any attempt at finding an appetite was well and truly smothered.

"Aye, with suckers bigger than the pad of my thumb. Just a theory, though, so don't go quoting me on it. But he's alive, got fluids and vitamins and antibiotics flowing through him. He's warm and he's safe which is the best we can do for him for now—"

"Has he woken up at all?" someone had the nerve to interject.

Rodney turned enough to see Sumner and Elizabeth having entered and heading their way. Carson must have called them, or had someone call for him, which made Rodney bristle that he hadn't been included in that summons. He'd been part of the rescue, damn it, and scarred for life by the sight of their own in "not good shape." He had every right to be summoned.

"No," Carson said curtly. "And he probably won't be for a wee while. We found trace elements of a narcotic in his system on its way to being metabolized. Between that and what I've no doubt is heavy exhaustion, the lad's going to be under for a bit. And I'd like him to stay that way for a day or two. The poor man needs rest."

"And we need answers. Was he clean of any tracking devices?" Sumner asked.

"If there was anything of a tracking-device nature in him, then it was far more advanced than those Ancient scanners because I didn't pick a bloody thing up. Other than narcotics and illness, the major's blood is clean."

Sumner nodded. "Then when he wakes up, you will inform me immediately."

"Protocol wouldn't have it any other way," said Carson. Rodney thought he detected a hint of mulishness in his voice. "But you'll just have to practice patience. I won't have the lad do any talking until he's good and ready. Whatever he went through, the damage to his body lets me know it's left a right pretty mess in his mind."

"Which is why when we do talk to him," Elizabeth cut in, with emphasis, "it will be with Doctor Heightmeyer, Doctor Beckett and myself present."

"Protocol wouldn't have it any other way," said Sumner. The man smiled, actually smiled. What Rodney couldn't figure was whether he was actually being funny or attempting to be an ass.

Elizabeth wasn't paying attention or didn't care. She looked at Carson. "How is he?"

Rodney almost left to avoid a second run through of Sheppard's various injuries, especially the mention of giant leeches. Instead of droning on and on, Beckett turned and started back the way he had come. Elizabeth and Sumner followed. So did Rodney. He really should have known better but by the time he did, Carson had reached the area of the infirmary sectioned off as isolation and pulled aside the flimsy blue curtains.

Sheppard was all trussed up in bandages around his head, one around his neck, smaller coverings all over his bare chest and wraps around both arms. He was no doubt naked but thankfully covered by a blanket stopping just below his sternum and the many heart-monitor leads. He had a tube in his hand, another up his nose, another under it and one coming out from an uncomfortable location beneath his blanket.

And he was pale, as in white as the sheets peeking out from under the blue knit blanket. The only colors were the bruises, fiery scabs, shadows under his eyes, and his hair. Without a ragged shirt covering him, he looked a hell of a lot more bony.

Next to Rodney, Carson yammered his litany of Sheppard's medical issues to a shell-shocked Elizabeth and stoically silent Sumner. Rodney tuned them out. Now he knew why he'd wanted to avoid a visual of a living and cared-for major. It was no less pretty, and all his mind needed was one more image to make him regret the decision to come to this stupid galaxy.

It could have been anyone of them taken. It still could.

Ronon rubbed his forehead with the heel of his hand, massaging out a third of the tension headache the mind-scan had given him. Two days and it continued to linger as pain spots throughout his head. It was his own fault his brain felt strained, and Bylar took pleasure in reminding him.

Except it also wasn't his fault. It was habit. Ronon had tried not to resist but there was this part of himself, like another self, detached yet hovering in the wings waiting to step in and do what it thought was best; survival instinct within survival instinct, and the instinct was that where there were mind-scans, there were people looking to hang someone for no reason other than to have a target for their blame. And Ronon would resist. The scans were deep and, at times, excruciating, used for torture more than information.

So a part of him had resisted and now he was paying for it.

Ronon tilted his head back against the taut yet giving wall of the tent, closed his eyes and sighed. An old Athosian woman Teyla had called Charrin had given him some kind of tea for the headache. It was a stopgap measure, short lived if he didn't drink enough, and the stuff had a flavor that kept him from drinking enough. But it worked, well enough to get him to consider another round.


Ronon opened his eyes. Teyla stood before him, her griffin hovering not far behind, looking ruffled and contrite. Ronon felt more than saw his griffin sidle up closer. It was a general trait that griffins didn't appreciate another griffin scanning their human's head. But it was that same territorial mind-set which made it hard to trust what a griffin had to say about his bond-brother's thoughts. Griffin's rarely ever lied, unless they felt they absolutely had to for the sake of their human, or they thought they could get away with it (Ronon and Bylar had yet to come across a griffin that could.)

"Has the tea helped at all?" Teyla asked, eyebrows high on her forehead, putting a crease in her skin.

"A little," he said. He grinned at her, and imagined it must have looked sloppy. It felt sloppy. "Told you, it's my own fault." He rubbed the space between his eyes.

Teyla sat beside him on the skin and wood bench. Her features had softened, less worried, more amused. "Because of your resistance or because you did not finish off the tea?"

"Now who reads minds?" Ronon said. He smirked.

"Allow us to compensate. Stay here as long as you need. Our tents are yours; our food is yours."

Ronon felt his muscles pull and he rolled his eyes to Teyla, askance, then narrowed them. He took a breath and opened his mouth, ready to decline.

Teyla held up her hand. "I am not offering you a home here unless that is what you wish." She grinned. "We, too, know of the… propositions that some worlds will offer." She leaned in, lowered her voice as she said conspiratorially, "It is why we do not allow our young people offworld without an adult present until they are twenty cycles."

Ronon snorted then bellowed a laugh. He remembered those days well, his mother practically on his heels, ushering him away from every well-endowed beauty batting her eyes at him. It seemed an odd thing to worry over when and how a population was increased. Ronon hadn't understood, not in his youth, not until he met Melena who'd wanted a family, not until he'd lost her, his father, his mother. Then all he could think about was children without fathers, without mothers, without the ties of blood and friends because they were little more than a means to an end.

Maybe it didn't matter to those kids; it did matter to Ronon. He wouldn't be able to live with himself knowing he had children out there whose lives he had nothing to do with. And people were more than just labor.

Wiping his eyes free of mirth-tears, Ronon still shook his head. "It's probably better that I don't stick around."

"Because you are Satedan?"

He looked at her directly, frowning. Teyla's griffin had not scanned him beyond seeking the truth to his words; his origins shouldn't have been known.

Teyla pointed at his neck. "Your tattoo. I have encountered five Satedan caravans in my lifetime, so I know of it. And I promise you that you have nothing to fear from us. We do not share the same fears as the other worlds. If the Sky Raiders come then it is because they choose to, not because of a single person's presence."

Ronon looked to Bylar, who nodded. A human can block much from a griffin but it left behind a kind of "residue," as most griffins put it. Sort of like when someone you knew was lying, there was always a tell – a twitch to the eye or cheek muscle, or a vacant look. With the mind, Bylar described it as the feeling of something pulling away – a tug there and gone and sometimes easy to miss if a mind was well-practiced at Blocking.

Bylar said, through the mind, "Take the offer. We could use the break. And you know you want to find out how that guy is doing.

Ronon shrugged. "I guess. Maybe a couple of days or something."

Teyla clapped his shoulder. "And we will ensure your couple of days makes you feel welcome." She started to rise.

"So what's with this flying lizard-riding people?" Ronon asked. He'd been meaning to ask for the past two days, but then the headache would climb, shifting his priorities.

"What do you mean?" Teyla said.

"Where do they come from? Why flying lizards? That's what I mean."

Teyla sat back down and leaned against the tent wall. "They are from another system of worlds. They came here as explorers in search of something. They will not say what."

"And, what, your people met them first?" Ronon asked next.

"Yes, they aided us during a Sky Raider attack. The man you saved? The one called Sheppard? He was taken because he saved my life."

Which explained why she had been as anxious to know about this Sheppard guy as his people. "And so you help them?"

Teyla nodded. "They have their secrets but they are good people." The corner of her mouth lifted. "The one called Sumner is… unique to deal with. But their leader, Doctor Weir, is most amiable. We talk often. She is a woman of great learning and curiosity and enjoys learning of our ways. She is not hesitant to tell me of her world, unlike Sumner. Though I understand the reluctance to say too much. They are strangers here, and there are many dangers."

Ronon, however, got the feeling that there was something about the acquaintanceship that Teyla wasn't comfortable with. As she spoke of them, the corner of her eye twitched.

"But?" he prompted.

She gave him an odd look. "There is no but." Except there was, probably of the kind she didn't have the right words for. Ronon got that and respected it. Still, he would have liked to know, should he ever run into these Earth people again.

He doubted he would.

There was a vice on Sheppard's brain, like those car boots that wouldn't let you go anywhere. He'd been shoved to the back of his own mind where he couldn't steer his body, leaving him paralyzed, trapped – a corpse with the heart still beating.

Never in his life had he wanted to move so badly, not even when he'd been pinned down feet away from his med-evac chopper after trying to offer cover fire, and Corvax had been a little busy trying to keep rocket launchers from annihilating their bid for freedom.

Change in heart rate… think he's waking up…

Mist gathered into vaguely human shapes brushed past him, ignoring him. He knew that was a good thing; he wasn't sure why.

Major Sheppard… hear me?

Misty hands moved toward him, congealing into long, cold hands the color of dead skin. Fingertips tap-danced over his arms, head, chest, arctic as they looked, and it hurt. Crap, it hurt.

Give us what we need.


The vice tightened, tighter, tighter; worse than anything the hands were capable of.


It needed to stop. It was going to kill him. It was killing him. It hurt so bad.

Major, stop!… calm… safe! Wake… bloody dragon and get… to calm… now…!

Something bellowed, like thunder, full of anger, full of fear, full of uncertain calm that washed over him like tepid water.

Safe now…

You will give us what we need.

Rodney stepped up to the door of the dragon bay with the intent to remind Bina – for the fifth time in two days - that humans weren't his personal servants. If the dragon wanted dinner, he was just going to have to get it for himself. Good deeds were all great and wonderful and got people to like you; they didn't give anyone carte blanche for demands. He reached out for the crystal panel.

A bellowing roar vibrated the floor beneath Rodney's feet up into his body. It was so close his ears popped from the pressure. He froze, his hand in mid-swipe.

One roar was like any other roar to Rodney, but he had a pretty good idea whose vociferous party this was. There was an emotional ambient bleeding through the air-tight doors, thick and choking.

Rodney pulled his hand back, fingers curled. Snapped chains could be involved, along with thrashing and fire-breathing. Bina wasn't small by any stretch of the imagination, but neither was he built for pinning down feral dragons. Another roar shook Rodney's surroundings, and without a conscious command from his brain, his hand reached out and swiped the door open.

Bina was fine and a safe distance from a writhing Corvax struggling to stand. A green, white striped in blue and two humans were coaxing calm thoughts from everyone and failing.

"What's going on?" Rodney asked, putting himself next to Bina.

"I'm not sure. They just ran in, forced Corvax to get up and now they're trying to get him to project calm. My guess is Sheppard's awake. Whatever Corvax is sensing, it isn't good."

The dragons and humans sternly cajoled. They moved in as close as they dared, then leaped back when Corvax took a hearty snap at them. Rodney gulped.

"Is he, um…" He twirled his finger next to his temple. "Only ten times that?"

"I get it! Now, back off!" Corvax sneered.

Bina flapped a paw with lazy-eyed indifference. "Nah, he's just being cranky."

Corvax snorted sparks and columns of smoke. He took a swipe at the entourage trying to get stupidly close.

"Cranky? That's your definition of cranky?" Rodney said. If that was cranky, he'd hate to see pissed.

"Have someone wake you up when you're not ready just to calm your traumatized human down and tell me you wouldn't be a little moody," Bina said.

When the group backed off, Corvax closed his eyes, giving it everything he had. There was a brush of calm, like a skinny ribbon of cool air in a desert, and that was about it. While Corvax struggled, the two dragons moved in close enough to add real calm to the effort, and the trickle of peace increased to a breeze.

Bina scoffed, "Stubborn moron."

"I heard that!" Corvax barked, green eyes popping open with a savage flash. Bina swallowed audibly and cringed into the wall.

"Sorry," he squeaked.

With another snarl to back off, Corvax resumed his pathetic attempt. Dragons could be incredibly territorial about their humans, according to Bina. Rodney wouldn't know; Bina seemed more intent on tuning him out, claiming Rodney's emotions to be obnoxiously erratic and the perpetual irritation tiresome.

Rodney was not perpetually irritable.

The pool of calm must have worked, or Corvax was out of steam when he sprawled, boneless, on the mat. The two dragons backed off so it must have been a success. The humans left and the dragons returned to their niches, giving Corvax his space.

Except for Bina, who trotted up to the niche with his webbed spikes raised. "They were just trying to help. It wouldn't have hurt you to let them add a little extra oomph to the projection."

Rodney slapped the back of his hand across Bina's arm. "Hey! No pissing off the pissed off dragon. You could at least wait until I'm gone."

Bina ignored Rodney, focusing his blue-eyed glare on Corvax.

Corvax lay spread-eagle like a dog on a hot-summer's day, heavy panting included. He mustered up enough energy to curl into himself and turn his spiky back to them. "I knew what I was doing." He made for a rather pathetic ball of petulance and, for a moment, Rodney almost felt sorry for him.

"Uh, apparently not or you wouldn't have needed help," Bina said.

"I didn't need help," Corvax said. "I needed time. John knows when it's not me doing the projecting. Having someone else do it would've only made things worse."

"Except it didn't," Rodney had to say. Obviously, it didn't make a difference or there would still be the entourage pep-talking Corvax into taking care of his own human. So went self-pity: the blinders to reason and reality.

Corvax lifted a spiny shoulder. "He was too out of it to notice."

In other words, Bina was right – Corvax was being territorial, which was also the same as being stupidly prideful.

Rodney narrowed his eyes and lifted a finger, "You know—" he began. Bina's claw touching lightly to his shoulder, followed by the white shaking his head no, cut him off.

There was a change to the atmosphere in the room, the air heavier, stale it seemed. Hovering at the back of Rodney's mind was an unpleasant feeling, tying a ghostly knot in his chest that came and went – like pondering what discomfort feels like without actually feeling it. That was the emotional ambient when an emotionally compromised dragon was around; the bad influential friend who keeps trying to talk you into what to feel despite you knowing better than to listen to anything he has to say.

What Rodney was feeling now, courtesy of Corvax, was guilt and frustration – mostly guilt. Which made little sense. Sheppard was home, alive, safe. Corvax had protected him, provided calm. What was there to feel guilty about?

Just when he was about to ask, Bina beat him to it with his own question.

"Is he doing better?"

Corvax's other shoulder lifted. "Better. Not great, but better. He's neutral right now so he must be sedated."

"What happened to him?" Rodney asked after.

The black's head shifted toward them to rest on his forearm. "Not a damn clue."

"He didn't tell you?"

"If he did, I don't remember." Corvax lifted his head off his arm and scratched his jaw. "I'm pretty sure he didn't. I kind of remember having to wake him up just to get him to drink water. Everything else," he pressed him mouth in a thin line. "It's a blur. I barely remember finding him."

Bina's features pinched with sympathy. "Three months is a long time to search."

"On an unknown world," Corvax said, "it's hell. I never knew what to eat and most of what I tried the first couple of weeks almost killed me."

"And again, you couldn't have just asked for help?" Rodney said.

Corvax turned a bitter look on Rodney that made him want to shrink out of sight. "Ask for help on the planet where the enemy took Sheppard. Gee, now why didn't I think of that?" He dropped his head back to his arm, exhaling smoke that curled from his nostrils. "I thought it best to stay off their radar."

The black eyelids slid low until there was only a sliver of eye to see, maybe a flash of dark color if the light hit just right. Other than that, anyone observing from a distance could easily assume Corvax asleep.

"I do remember sensing John," he said, "like he was all over the place. The guys who took him went through the 'gate twice. The second time they had two of their own waiting for me and they managed to hold me off long enough to take John wherever it was he ended up. The ones stalling me went through the 'gate and I followed. Didn't even think about whether they were misleading me, getting me to another world to lose me for good."

"The thing is, I knew John was on that world. I could feel him. But he must have been drugged or unconscious or they were doing some kind of griffin mind-meld crap to him because it was like… like he was everywhere, like he was spread out or something. I can't explain it. Just that there was no pinpointing him. Sometimes, it was like he wasn't even there, and I thought they'd taken him through the 'gate. Then he would come back."

"I couldn't find him," Corvax spat. "He was right there, and I couldn't find him."

All Rodney could say to that was, "Oh." It certainly explained the guilt, possibly even the stubborn territorialism. He recalled times when he would spend hours, even days looking for something, and if someone happened to find it first, he'd snatch it right out of their hands and not let anyone touch it for weeks. Maybe it wasn't quite the same, but he supposed general principle remained.

Finding Sheppard had put Corvax in a very unsharing mood, or something like that. Although maybe the better word was overprotective.

"You did find him eventually," said Bina kindly. He was a dragon; dragons knew how to be sympathetic without trying. "And he'll be fine, of course."

Crovax replied with a grunt. He lifted his head and tilted it the way a curious pup might. "I think… I think he might be waking up again." His eyes rounded over, his pupils blowing wide, circled in a thread of green. "Oh, crap."

Figures drifted behind a gray gauzy veil that subdued sound to murmurs and teasing whispers. This was what John opened his eyes to, what he kept opening his eyes to. The figures were close enough to reach out and touch. If he wanted to. There was something wrong with him. His body was heavy, his head hurt like someone had his brain in a tight fist and his chest made every breath a knife to the muscles, and it was those figures who knew why.

Problem was, to get their attention meant that they would never go away, and that was worse than a crushed brain and a knifed chest. It brought twice the crushing, sometimes twice the stabbing, sometimes something else. John wasn't sure why, he just knew, like a fact of life, or maybe an urban legend. It could just be he was being paranoid.

Where am I? No place good if there was pain. Pain and immobility. He couldn't move, could barely slide his eyelids in a blink and slide them back open without it sucking him physically dry. A foggy figure stopped to stand beside him and he flinched, or thought he had. Maybe it was just wishful thinking that he had any control over his body beyond blinking.

"Major Sheppard?"

The foggy figure's hand settled on his arm, the skin of that hand dry and cool as old fish flesh, pale as something dead, and this time John knew he'd flinched. He knew that touch, that skin. Knew that it was bad; with that touch came pain and… other things. He didn't know what; he just knew. Like a fact of life, not an urban legend. He knew like he knew his own name, knew like he knew he had to get the hell out of here, now.

"Major Sheppard? Can you talk to me, son?

John's muscles twitched. They knew his name; that was also bad.

That they wanted him to talk was worse.

The dry, dead hand squeezed, and it hurt. The pain always followed, and the face, dead as the hand, full of teeth when it smiled, and eyes like…


Give us what we need.


John screamed, a wet gurgle ripping from his throat. He shouldn't have been able to move; he didn't know why, but he did, flinging up an arm to slap the face away. That was good enough for him.

Fear could be a beautiful thing, getting the body to do the impossible, to go from a blink that wiped him out to throwing his body off of whatever it was he was lying on. Then he was flying and the wonder of adrenaline ceased to amaze when his body hit a floor about as giving as steel three feet thick. Pain exploded in all its literal meaning, in his head and down to the rest of his body. Even with his eyes squeezed shut he could feel the floor dip out from under him then buck back up, see-saw and merry-go-round combined. It gave his stomach the impression that someone had kicked it, hard. But his body wouldn't cooperate to move his hands beneath him and haul himself up for a proper purging of contents.

Mysterious hands did the work for him, rolling him onto his side the same time his stomach contents crawled up his throat. He gagged, choked then heaved. The pain was horrible, crunching and stabbing and pounding. Yet through it all some hard-core, high-threshold part of his brain clung to enough wits to wonder why he wasn't getting splattered, why someone was rubbing his back between the shoulders blades and cooing sweet words at him. He was in pain; the ones causing the pain should be making it worse, not trying to make it better. He peeled an eye open a sliver and forced an eyebrow to twitch at the dancing yellow plastic dish filling up with crap.

John was given no time to contemplate anything when he was suddenly back in the air. He was deposited on a soft surface, covered with more soft that was warm. Touches wandered over his skin and the worst of the hurting narrowed to a pinch in his left hand. Coolness rushed through his blood, stifling the pain. Then he was out.

He awoke to being touched by the dead hands.

"Looks like he's waking up, again."

There was a sound – beeping, steady but picking up speed.

"Damn it, he's agitated."

Calm surrounded him, warm, comforting… wrong, very wrong. It was pushing against his mind, forcing its way in, and what should have been like a blanket cocooning him was instead a pillow smothering him. So he did what any good soldier did when being forced to do something against their will; John fought. The beeping increased speed.

"No, Esel, lad, I don't think that's helping. Back it off a bit; let Corvax do most of the work."

Corvax. John sucked in a breath that stabbed. Bastards have Corvax.

Good old terror gave him what he needed to grab the wrist above the dead hand and use it as an anchor to jackknife upright.

He snarled, "Where's Corvax, you bastards? Where—" Right into the blue-eyed and startled visage of Dr. Carson Beckett.

John's jaw went slack. The world started to tilt around him and the next thing he knew, it was Carson holding onto his wrist, the doc's other hand on his shoulder lowering him back down against the pillow.

John croaked, "Carson?" and started at the sound that was supposed to be his voice coming out of a throat that felt too tight to produce anything. He gasped. His lungs didn't like it so he started coughing, pushing sharp pain into his ribs. Next to his head, the fast beeping kept perfect pace with his fast heart.

Carson released John's wrist but not his shoulder. He squeezed it, gently. "Aye, lad. It's me." He raised the head of the bed enough to bring a cup to John's mouth for a sip without spilling. John managed three small swallows between jags, enough to add a little moisture to his throat and appease the coughs.

It didn't ease the pain. John clenched his jaw and slid his hand to his side to cradle it. When he forced his eyes open, Carson was almost done injecting something into John's I.V. Whatever it was, it doused the fire in his flank.

"Better?" Carson asked.

John nodded, which wasn't a wise idea when the room wobbled. With the sharper pain no longer clinging to his attention, he came to realize that the ache in his skull, like a bad pressure headache, was diminishing with the help of the stuff that had calmed his side. But there was still dizziness waiting on the outskirts, still nausea sitting at the bottom of his stomach like a threat, and that meant being cautious with every move he made.

"You all right then?" Carson asked. "Any other problems? Lungs, stomach, dizziness?"

The man was clairvoyant. John would stake a year's pay and then some on it. He rasped, "Lil' dizzy. Stom'ch not s'good. Not gonna puke yet." And, yeah, his lungs did feel a little tight but the coughing had answered that one.

Carson nodded. "You're going to be feeling like a wee bit of warmed-over crap for a time, lad. I'll not mince it. You've got an infection in your lungs, mild and hopefully staying that way with the antibiotics I'm treating you with. Right now, it's your head I'm more concerned with. You've got all the classic symptoms of a concussion yet without so much as a bump to explain it. And the scans weren't much help beyond saying you have a concussion but your skull's fine. I won't bore you with the details; your brain chemistry's a mess but the fact that the last scans showed signs of it clearing says enough. So for now, I'd suggest being cautious with how you move."

John shoved air through his nose in a light snort.

"My final concern is a matter of nutrition. You've got good timing, lad. I was putting quite a bit of consideration into adding a feeding tube to all this paraphernalia."

No surprises there. Yes, John was a lean guy, but it usually took a deep breath for him to feel, in detail, his own ribs. Their current clarity was disconcerting.

John was surprised he hadn't been tubed-up sooner.

"Other than that," continued Carson, "you're on the mend, though a slow mend it's going to be. I'd also advise you to have patience."

John, about to nod, recalled why that would be bad and settled for a hoarse and hollow, even to him, "Yeah." He couldn't really claim patience a strong attribute of his, but there was a bigger picture to look at. Now that he knew he was going to live, he could finally get down to looking at that picture.

"What happened to me?" he asked.

Carson's features seemed to shift, from casual business to something neutral that made John suddenly nervous.

"What do you remember?" Carson asked back.

John had to think. He licked cracked lips, tasting salt and old blood. He knew they were on another world, in another galaxy. He knew this was an expedition to explore said galaxy. He remembered arriving – not something you can easily forget, being a first time deal and all.

"Going with Sumner to explore the perimeter," John said. He switched his thoughts to a verbal run-down while squinting. "We met some people… locals. They had – had – bird… things. Like griffins. Actually they called them griffins; I thought that was pretty freaky." He widened his eyes. "No, that they can read minds is freaky." He took a moment to cough against his will. A quick sip from the cup offered by Beckett cut it short. John cleared his throat. "An attack. There was an attack. I remember, um… this woman – copper haired… T-something. Teya. Tei. They were coming for her. Corvax pushed her out of the way. I was out of the saddle, flying over the ground. I must have passed out. I… don't remember after that."

John looked up at Carson. "They drop me or something? Is that what happened?"

"That's all you remember?" Carson asked with a severely furrowed brow that was making Sheppard a hell of a lot more nervous than the neutrality. He nodded, winced and groaned for it.

"Nothing else? Nothing after that?" Carson pressed sharply. He'd had his arms folded, now dropped them to his sides - a man at the ready.

John swallowed. "No, nothing. Why?"

Carson straightened, one arm crossing over his chest for the other to rest on it while he rubbed his chin, then the side of his face, before stopping over his mouth. There was a look in his eyes and tension to his posture that John didn't like, and it was both freaking him out and pissing him off. He felt his own muscles go stiff, curling his fingers into the blankets and sheets. It took everything he had not to shove the damn heart monitor to the floor.

John growled, succinct as a bullet, "Carson. Why?"

Carson ducked his head, his hand going to the back of his skull before dropping down to his neck and resting there. He sighed. "Major… John…" He closed his eyes, swallowed, the tendons of his neck pressing into his skin. "You've been gone a total of three months."

John's stomach pulled in as though it had been kicked. "Three?"

Carson winced and nodded.

"Three months?"

"Aye. Three. But we found you and you're going to be all right—"

John cut him off. "Three." His gut tightened, started to slosh, pushing bile into his throat that made him swallow again and again to keep it down. "I was – you're telling me… I was in enemy hands, for three months? I was—" The tightness crawled into his lungs, shrinking them. He panted. "And they have… they have… those bird things can… they read minds. They can read your damn mind!" He gulped, panted, but it wasn't enough. "I – I…"

When he was ten, he'd been small for his age, didn't hit a growth spurt until fourteen. His family had gone on a camping trip – his mom's idea, because she was good at making her husband do what he didn't want to - where he'd spent most of his time swimming in a lake. A bunch of younger kids he didn't know thought it hilarious that the older kid was too little to fight back. So they held him under the water, because they could, until blind, stupid panic made him swallow water and reality had slipped from him. He'd woken up to his dad pounding his back to get the water out of his lungs.

John knew what it felt like to drown, and it felt a hell of a lot like what he was feeling now – too small lungs demanding too much air, stars exploding in his vision and his surroundings fading to gray.

The next thing he knew, he was on his back, a mask pressed to his face, cooling it with sweet oxygen and Carson instructing him on how to breathe.

"In and out, lad, nice and slow. That's it. Not too fast…"

John did as told with little to show for it. His heart was thrashing like a wildcat, pumping too much blood without enough oxygen in it, making demands that couldn't be met. He started shaking.

"John," Carson said, voice a knife and features intent. "Look at me, lad. Look me in the eyes. That's it. Just keep breathing, in and out, and listen to me. I know you're freaked, I know you're scared, but it's all right. Yes, you were captured. Yes, it took us three months to find you. Yes, you were in enemy hands. But whatever happened to you in that time, right now it doesn't matter. We found you, you're alive and the expedition is safe. There were no attacks or attempts to infiltrate the outpost. We moved locations, found the next outpost, so even if they knew where to find us, there'd be nothing to find. All right?"

No, it wasn't all right. But because Carson had a point, and because Corvax was somewhere where he could send copious amounts of calm, it was enough for John's body to creep like a spooked animal from its hole out of its extreme panic and into something that allowed him to breathe. He still shook; still felt ready to puke at any moment.

Then he did puke. Carson was ready, either clairvoyant after all or just that damn good. He had a kidney dish under John's mouth the same time John lurched forward to heave. Little came up other than bile. Carson rubbed John's back during the purge, then helped him back against the pillow when he was done. He provided John with water to rinse, followed by a cloth he moistened with the pitcher of water by the bed. John took it and cleaned up with a trembling hand.

"Better?" Carson asked. His hand was on John's back, a patch of warmth on his frigid skin.

John choked up a caustic, wheezing chuckle. "No."

Carson pressed his lips together. He moved his hand and its wanted heat to John's shoulder. "It is all right, John. We're safe where we are, trust me. And there've been no further incidents with hostiles since you were taken. Now I want you to focus on that, even if you think it won't help."

With his throat too raw to talk, John had no choice but to nod. It made his touchy brain tilt on him, so he closed his eyes.

Three months.

John forced his eyes back open when he realized Carson was talking, only not to him, to someone over the comm.

"Major," he said, putting his hand back on John's shoulder. "Listen, now. I'm going to give you something to help you relax. I know you're wound up but I need you to sleep. That bit of distress -" bit of distress; now John was sure Carson was just being nice - "didn't do your poor body any good. Corvax is near and I'm sure he's pushing calm like he never has before. You let that calm in, John. Then after you've rested for a wee while and you get some food in you, we'll have a good, long talk. All right? That sound like a fair deal?" He shrugged. "Well, to be honest, it's not like you have much of a choice."

Marie arrived with a syringe that Carson emptied into the port. There was no fighting the quick administration and Corvax oozing oceans of placidity. Muscles tensed solid as rocks melted into warm taffy, sinking John's body into the softness and enveloping warmth of the bed.

Three months.

John's eyes fluttered in a futile attempt to stay open.

Three damn months. In the hands of the enemy, among creatures that could read minds.

John closed his eyes and drifted.

Three months, and not a second of memory to show for it.

Three months of his life – gone.

John thought he felt something wet trickle down his face. He was probably just dreaming.

Chapter 3

John woke with a small gasp that tickled his lungs and cramped his sides. He coughed, small but annoying, then fumbled his hand over the bedside tray for the water. His hand nearly tipped it over on finding it. He took it by the rim between thumb and forefinger and sloshed some en route to his mouth. The small sips didn't make the effort seem worth it; rehydrating his leathery throat and quieting the cough did. His hand shook when he put the water back, then shook when he wiped his mouth. He rolled his head, right then left, taking in his surroundings.

His little niche of the infirmary was curtained off on the right, the left was wide open. On the other side of the neighboring bed, Carson's ocean blue dragon lay like a cat with its legs tucked under it, head up and eyes closed. Calm surrounded like a thin mist spread generously through the infirmary. Manipulating the emotional ambient to be in a constant state of well-being was what the dragons of healers did. Hospitals all but worshiped its benefits.

A hushed conversation pulled John's attention back to the right.

"…don't know the side effects of a deeper scan." That was Carson speaking.

"I think at this point we don't have much of a choice." Sumner, that was Colonel Sumner.

"If it's a risk to his health we bloody well do. We're still safe. If something were going to happen, it would have. Why is that not good enough?"

"Just because something hasn't happened yet doesn't mean it won't. That's why it's not good enough. He needs to remember. He needs to be scanned. The sooner, the better—"

"Carson's not going to be happy."

John returned his gaze to the blue. It had both eyes open, half-lidded and lazy, still oozing peace. It rose fluidly onto four legs and sidled over to a refrigerated cabinet in the corner. He wasn't a large dragon, probably a few feet under female Indian elephant, but still had to use the tips of his claws to pick up a small can from the cabinet. He hobbled on three legs to John and set the can on the tray by the water.

"Carson wants ya to drink that," he said in a brogue thicker than Carson's. He pointed to it. "As much as you can."

Taking the can, John grimaced. Chocolate protein drink, flavor sacrificed for vitamins and minerals. He'd tortured himself in his teens with this crap, after finally hitting a growth spurt had denied him of the needed bulk for football. The crap hadn't helped then so he didn't have much faith in it now.

He popped the tab and drank it anyway. Chocolate-covered cardboard would've had more flavor than this crap. Between noisy sips he listened to the conversation outside his curtain, a conversation about him. It had deteriorated to a lot of medical jargon on amnesia and a lecture on the dangers of forcing someone's memory back to the surface or else risk putting the patient through a mental shock they weren't ready to deal with.

"More often than not, selective memory loss is a result of mental and/or physical trauma that was too much for the person to handle. So in order for the body and mind to save themselves, the mind blocks the incident."

"That may be, Doctor," Sumner said, "but it was only a couple of months ago we discovered a species that can read thoughts, and for now that's all we know about them. Who's to say they can't do more. Suggestion, for example. A dragon can influence emotion. What if a griffin can influence intent?"

John's hand paused bringing the can to his mouth. What if, indeed. He swallowed, his throat feeling uncomfortably tight.

For all they knew, John could have been mentally pummeled into unconscious obedience, and all it would take was the wrong word to snap him into a killing frenzy, or sabotage spree, or to slip out in the middle of the night and divulge the expedition's current location to the enemy.

John's grip put a shallow dent in the can.


He jumped.

"Sorry," said the blue. He gestured at John. "May I? We had to slip your Corvax a bit of something to help him rest when he refused to after you fell asleep."

The corner of John's mouth quirked up in a small smile. Old mother hen. He waved his hand. "Knock yourself out."

The dragon dipped his head then the ambient shifted, surrounding John with just the right amount of peace to put a sock in his agitated stomach. He'd gotten used to the background queasiness; he hadn't even realized it was kicking up a few notches.

"It be a mite futile to force all that drink down just to have it coming back up again," the dragon explained.

Metal rings hissed loudly over metal, turning the blue's efforts pointless. John jumped, cold skittering down his spine and across his skin, raising goosebumps. His heart skipped a few beats then settled.

It was only Carson, mildly surprised by the reaction, then his features easing to apologetic. "Didn't mean to startle you, son," he said. "But I thought that was you I heard."

The man had the ears of a bat.

Weir and Sumner stood behind Carson, far enough to be out of the way while close enough not to be excluded. Their dragons weren't present, more than likely waiting close by outside the infirmary. A dragon could turn on a dime in a packed crowd but everyone knew it wasn't enough for any physician to let them in a hospital without absolute cause. Those that were permitted, such as Carson's blue and the dragons of the nurses, were all specially trained.

John's father had always complained that it was a paranoia thing, not practicality. It was why John's mother had been brought home, to be near family and her dragon.

The sight of Sumner made John's body try to straighten on instinct, while uncomfortable pulls and twinges wouldn't let him. Seeing this, Sumner dipped his head.

"At ease, Major."

John relaxed, not entirely on his own. Carson's blue, though looking irate, resumed sending a stream of serenity John's way. Carson began to fuss, starting with his stethoscope. John's skin twitched under the cool membrane of the bell; otherwise he ignored it.

"Sir," John began, "I regret to report that I have no recollection whatsoever of my capture."

"I know," Sumner said. Of course he knew, but it was still protocol to report.

"Which will be discussed in depth in due time," said Carson, moving the bell to John's back. "Right now, I need to know how you're feeling, Major. Any pain, discomfort? Is the protein drink settling well?"

"Dull aches, pains. No major nausea. Colonel, I overheard you talking, and unless I'm jumping to conclusions I think it safe to assume the subject was my recollection and a possible way to help me recall—"

"No," Carson cut in, quick as the snip of a pair of scissors. He grabbed John's wrist, pinching it between thumb and fingers unnecessarily tight. "Not until you're healed."

John glared at him. "Carson—"

"No, and that's final."

"Can I at least find out what the hell you people were talking about?"

The look Carson gave him was a cool one but he didn't voice a protest. He moved on to the other side of John's bed - the blue shuffling back to make room – giving John an unobstructed view of Sumner and Weir, Sumner as neutral as ever, Doctor Weir trying for neutral but leaning toward contrite.

"Sir?" John asked, raising an eyebrow.

For a moment, it looked as if Sumner was about to smile, only to beat the urge. "There is a method—"

"Possible method," Weir interjected.

Sumner glanced at her stonily. "Possible method of regaining your lost memories. You recall the griffins? That they're telepathic?"

John nodded slowly, his stomach knotting against the placid ambient.

It was Doctor Weir who explained, looking exasperated. "They might - might - have the means of getting you to remember but it's only a theory and we're not sure. Simply put, it's a mind scan. We've seen it done. A surface scan is their less intrusive method but even that managed to cause the one being scanned some discomfort. And I've been told that the deeper a scan, the more discomfort it causes."

"And in your condition it could bloody well kill you," Carson growled.

"But it might help me to remember," said John.

"Or kill you," said Carson.

John glowered back. "Isn't that my choice?"

Carson opened his mouth, his response about to be as annoyed as the look on his face, but ending before it had a chance to start when Sumner said, "Vital as it is to know what the enemy has been doing with you, since there are obvious health issues tacked on to this 'scanning,' it's Doctor Beckett's call."

"You're bloody right it's my call," snapped Beckett, untying Sheppard's gown without looking at what he was doing, fumbling with the knots. "And my call is no go until I say. Awake does not equal mended." Finally looking at the tie, he un-knotted it and pulled the front end down to John's stomach, exposing the pale, bruised and mostly-bandaged skin of his chest. Heat flooded John's face and blood his brain until his head spun.

He shook it off, frowning at Carson. "Yeah, Doc, think that could wait?"

"No," Carson said. He proceeded to peel away each of the bandages.

The heat in John's face increased, his heart pounding hard, pushing blood into his skull until his brain throbbed. He fisted his fingers into the sheet until his nails bit through into his palm. He growled, "Beckett." Because… he wasn't sure why. He felt pissed, for being exposed, for being told what he couldn't do, for being an invalid, a former guest of some very bad people and suffering a massive gap in his memory where a gap really shouldn't be.

It was his body, his mind and the safety of the expedition at stake. How could he possibly have no say in the matter? Whoever had him could have pulled who the hell knew what kind of information from him. They could have…

They could have done things…

John's hand lashed out, grabbing Carson's wrist with only the bandage on his upper flank to go.

"Doc," John forced between gritted teeth.

"Carson." Elizabeth, stepping forward, coming to the rescue though John couldn't say whose rescue. She placed her hand on Carson's arm, above where John gripped. "Could it wait? Just for a minute? And you forgot to get fresh bandaging."

Carson's brow furrowed. He eventually got the underlying hint, because it wasn't like fresh bandaging needed to be on hand for immediate use at the moment. With a curt nod, he twisted his wrist free of John's hold, and John let him. Elizabeth then turned to Sumner, giving him a nod.

"Colonel. John will probably need more rest when Carson is finished. We should come back later."

Sumner didn't so much as bat an eye – he returned the nod and left – but John still ended up with the impression that the colonel wasn't happy about it.

With an apologetic smile, Doctor Weir turned and started following. Only to stop and turn back, arms folded and back stiff. She took a deep breath, opened her mouth to say something, thought better and closed it.

Then she smiled, rueful. "We never stopped looking for you," she said.

Freed from a larger audience, John's body melted into the bed, his head tilting back into the pillows. "Protocol. You don't leave your men in enemy hands."

Elizabeth shrugged. "That wasn't our only motivation. It definitely wasn't my motivation." She moved closer back to the bed. "I can't… begin to understand what you're going through. I know that to say I understand that this isn't easy on you will be woefully inadequate." She chuffed an awkward laugh, complete with self-deprecating smile. "Just trying to imagine it scares the hell out of me."

John smiled awkwardly back without feeling it. If this was an attempt at a pep talk, he didn't want to hear it. He didn't want a pep talk, or cheering up, or pointless placations that meant nothing at this point. He wanted answers, the sooner, the better. But nice guy that he tried to be, he kept his mouth shut.

It wasn't easy, getting harder by the minute, surging against the calm bleeding into him from the blue.

He didn't want to hear what she had to say. He just wanted her to leave.

Maybe she got that, or was just as uncomfortable as John. She paused for what felt like a minute, took a deep breath, and pulled her lips up in yet another weak grin. "I do know you want answers, and we'll help you try to get them, I promise. For now just… just try to focus on being home, safe, and that we're safe. One thing at a time, you know? We found you, and I would hate to lose you again."

Then she left. John sighed, relieved as well as annoyed. He felt like an ass without the energy or mental space to put up with the guilt of it yet with energy enough for his skin to start crawling, his muscles tensing. He wanted to get out of bed and run and run and run until he passed out. Being awake sucked. It meant having to think, to remember and, in his case, remember what refused to be there.

Something bad had happened; he didn't know what, and it was scaring the hell out of him. Carson's dragon poured oceans of placid into John and frowned at the obvious futility of it. The knot in John's stomach enlarged, pushing against the pathetic contents, making him swallow over and over, creating an itch under his skin he couldn't scratch.


John jumped with a gasp, shiver and trip in the rhythm of the heart monitor.

Carson, startled, raised both hands, one fisted around packaged gauze pads and a roll of medical tape. "Easy, lad. It's just me."

Sucking in a shuddering breath, John nodded. "Yeah. I know."

Carson moved slowly, a man trying not to spook the skittish, only making John more skittish. After opening a pad of gauze and touching one end to John's skin, John flinched.

"Bloody hell, lad," Carson said, carefully pressing the pad to a stitched cut on John's ribs. "You all right?" He rolled his eyes and snorted. "Daft question. Of course not. Esel's just about to put me to sleep with his calm—"

"When can I see Corvax?" John gasped out. His muscles were rigid like when braced against oncoming pain, as though Carson's gentle touches were liable to turn the opposite at any moment. And as ridiculous as it was, John couldn't talk his body out of its reaction.

The urge to run made him nauseous with need. He just wanted to run.

"Maybe after you've rested," Carson said, looking both spooked and concerned. Halfway through wrapping, he paused to touch his comm and call for a nurse and a mild sedative. "I'm going to give you something to help you sleep, all right? Then when you wake up… I'll be honest, we'll have to see, but maybe you can see Corvax then."

The nurse arrived with the medicine. John gripped the edge of the mattress, biting his lips against a tidal wave of anxiety and an onslaught of flight. Each breath shuddered to and from his lungs, and he realized he was shaking. Then the medication flowed, and with Esel's calm, anxiety raged but was ultimately smothered. John's body went boneless with a tranquility that wasn't his. His eyes slid shut, and though he was about to fade into sleep, it didn't feel like rest.

John awoke to gritty eyes, a cotton mouth that tasted just as bad, and the impressive combination of hope that he'd be seeing Corvax and premature irritation if he didn't. Some promises were easy to keep because there was no time constraint. People will say "you can do/have/see if…" - not when, if – and leave the "if" open enough to tack on other conditions, all to placate and buy a little more time. John's dad had been that way; there were treats on the horizon if the boys were good and did their chores (because Patrick Sheppard wanted his kids to know what it meant to "earn their keep"), just never a set date. Then something would come up, some deal or solitary trip to a foreign country, and the "if" hung in the air on extra conditions.

To have something to look forward to might have been half the fun, but was otherwise hollow without that something happening. Dave had pretty much given up, being a good boy and doing his chores just so he didn't have to hear the promises. John had gotten clever – he'd even say devious – about it. He'd guide the promise to whatever he felt he needed, toss in a guilt trip or two using promises that had yet to be kept, and was good at it up until being a "good boy" steered him in directions he didn't want to go. He'd figured out fast what it meant to be self-sufficient.

A nurse checked on John first – reading monitors mostly – then fetched Beckett. Beckett did the more hands-on work with stethoscope and penlight while the nurse stood close by at the ready.

When Beckett was jotting his findings down, John asked, "What's the verdict? Do I get to see Corvax today?"

Beckett looked up with an I'm-not-so-sure sigh. John made sure their gazes met. The key was to speak volumes without saying a word and hope the other person figured out what was being said because what was being said was supposed to be obvious – if Beckett wanted Sheppard to have optimum rest, then the most immediate demand that could be met would have to be met. Sheppard couldn't have his answers, his memories; he sure as hell could check on Corvax and see for himself if the dragon was fine.

When promises didn't work to placate, people sometimes lied. Corvax alive and well could mean Corvax alive but with a fever, a fever just mild and stable enough for Beckett not to make mention of it. Really, John didn't think the Scot that kind of doctor, but he hadn't known the guy long so couldn't say for sure.

"Doc," John did say, for emphasis. It sometimes helped.

Beckett sighed, short and sharp, an exhale that said he got it and didn't like it.

"Aye, I suppose," he breathed on another exhale. "But I'll be coming with you, and keeping close by. If I say I'm getting your arse back to the infirmary you better bloody well salute me and say 'Aye, sir.' Got it?"

"Well, being American, it would be 'Sir, yes sir.' But whatever floats your boat." John gave Carson a smirk.

Carson muttered "cheeky bugger" then had the nurse get the wheelchair and a second nurse. The second nurse was male, not as tall as John but definitely wider. It was an unnecessary call; John hadn't been bedridden for that long, and though unsteady he could still stand. Not that he didn't appreciate the hovering support beneath his elbows.

As soon as he was settled in the wheelchair with a blanket over his lap, they were off. As it turned out, the new facility was the spitting image of the last as far as John could recall. The bay was to the left down the hall, then halfway down the next hall to the right.

The very second they entered, John saw Corvax lift his thorny head on his serpentine neck. John's gaze, however, went straight to the pile of chains ending in padded manacles. They weren't attached to Corvax, but still…

"Carson, what the hell! Was he chained up?"

"At the time it was for his own good. You weren't the only one bad off, son. He was bloody well inconsolable."

Beckett parked and locked the chair two feet from the niche. "We'll not be far," he said. "I was coming down here, anyway, to check on Corporal Henderson's red. The idiot ate something he shouldn't have and can't feel his tongue."

It was just John and Corvax, now. John jerked his chin. "Long time no see, buddy." He swept his gaze over as much of the dragon as he could. "You lost weight."

Corvax snorted. "And you're doing a remarkable impression of a twig. At least I've been eating. Can I say the same for you?"

John shrugged. "Liquid diets and a couple of days aren't going to make a difference, Cor." He pushed up from the chair – Beckett hadn't exactly lectured him with the cans and cannots of this field trip. Besides, it was only two feet that he wobbled across easily. Corvax lowered his head for John to grip onto his snout. John gave that snout the heftiest pat he could.

"How've you been, pal?"

"Better off than you. Either you're having nightmares or you aren't sleeping. All that anxiety's starting to give me a headache. You sure they're treating you good?"

John grinned, resting his forehead against the flat of Corvax's brow, next to the shallow crest of webbed spikes where the scales were glass-smooth. "They're treating me great, buddy."

And then he wanted to run. No, he wanted to climb onto Corvax's back, with or without a saddle, and chase the horizon. He swallowed, digging his fingers into the solid face until his knuckles were white.

"I don't know what happened to me, Cor," he whispered, surprisingly steady for the feeling that was a vice on his gut and throat. "I don't… I can't… can't remember…" This time, not so much. He could feel himself start to shake and, damn it, he thought he'd had it under control.

Peace encircled him, tainted by an undercurrent of melancholy but no less effective, and warm air breezed from Corvax's nose.

"Take it easy, John. It's all right; it'll be all right. Just let the calm in. You should probably sit down, too." Corvax slowly eased his head and John back to the chair until John was sitting then adjusted the blanket over his lap with a claw.

"I think you can take comfort that the expedition still stands," Corvax said.

John glared at him. "That's what everyone keeps telling me. And don't get me wrong, I'm happy as a friggin' clam. It's…" He clenched his jaw, making the muscles jump.

"It's other things," Corvax finished, unperturbed but still with that melancholy taint. "I get that. Believe me, I get that. I'm the one who found you, whether or not you remember. I saw…" He cleared his throat – a deep rumbling sound like fading thunder. "I get it."

Corvax's head was still within range for John to place both his hand and forehead on.

"Why do you want to know so bad?" Corvax asked.

"Matter of security."

"Well, yeah, I get that, but does it really matter? Nothing's happened. Either you didn't give up intel or, obviously, any intel given was useless. Anything else… I mean, do you really want to remember anything else? This better not be a guilt thing, John. Hard-asses give up information with the right incentive even on Earth and this galaxy is crawling with mind-reading birds. You were screwed the moment you were taken."

"You think?" John tried to snap but without any annoyance to back it up. Maybe it was a guilt thing, a for-the-good-of-the-expedition excuse to make him feel better. Because everyone was right – if something was going to happen because of what he said, it would have happened by now.

"You're a control freak, that's what it is," said Corvax

Or maybe that was exactly what it was. The only certainty was that John wanted to know, and he no longer cared why. Or what it took.

Chapter 4

The new world was a little warmer, a little more open with trees clustered within the great bowl of a valley surrounded by ancient mountains. The 'gate was about two miles from the outpost, the outpost hidden in the largest mountain in the range, which John felt had kind of killed the obscurity the Ancients had been going for; if Sheppard were seeking out a hidden, underground facility, he'd try the biggest mountain first. Or maybe he was just being paranoid.

Five days of recuperation saw John with a little more strength, relatively infection free and already going back to solid foods (light, easy to digest – in other words: bland as hell). It was, to Sumner's non-medical opinion, time enough for John to have regained what he needed in order to handle a mind scan. Beckett had adamantly disagreed until a prolonged badgering provoked a happy medium from him; that John might be able to handle a surface scan, which could be enough to unlock a few memories that would keep unlocking like falling dominoes. It was only a theory, but one Sumner pounced on like a lawyer, twisting what Beckett had to say until Beckett complied (with many a dirty look and foul word). John had wisely stayed out of it toward the end.

Five days was not recuperation enough to fly. The pressure put on the body during take-off and fast flights would be hell on cracked ribs. John knew this from personal experience.

It still sucked.

But at least he got to ride Corvax even if they were currently landlocked, and that beat being escorted in a stretcher or wheelchair any day.

Dragons weren't particularly fast on land. They were long-limbed, long-bodied and that ate up a lot of distance even at the casual pace they were going. They arrived at the halfway point in what literally felt like no time at all. There was a tent set up, one of the large half-barrel ones that were able to outlast just about anything nature had to throw at it.

"It's for the Athosians," Ford had explained from the back of his copper. "So they can have some place to sit out of the sun if they have to wait for us."

Beckett had come, obviously – like he was going to turn a blind eye to anyone undoing all the work he'd put into putting John back together – Sumner, Doctor Weir, two nurses, five marines and for some reason, Rodney. John chalked it up to McKay's white tagging along for observation purposes or something; most of the packs on the white's back were full of large notepads and long pencils. But it surprised John that Rodney was the type that where his dragon went, he went. Nothing against the guy, some people simply weren't like that, and John had been ass enough to assume.

On arriving, Beckett had the marines and two nurses ready the tent for a possible medical emergency. A cot, wheelchair and boxes of medical supplies were unloaded from Carson's blue and the gold and white that belonged to the nurses. When it was ready enough for a single nurse to take care of the rest, Beckett and the second nurse oversaw John climbing from Corvax safely.

It was demeaning: sliding into Corvax's upraised paw and holding to all the small spikes, like when rock climbing, as he was lowered down. From there, he took two steps and endured Beckett and the nurse taking his elbow as he lowered himself into the chair.

John scowled at the plaid blanket draped over his lap. "The weather isn't exactly nippy, Doc."

"Humor me," Beckett said.

The second half of this little meeting flew in (lucky bastards) immediately after. They circled in for a landing fifteen feet from the expedition then walked the rest of the way. The lead griffin – painfully familiar – slowed to let its rider slide from its back to the ground.

John's eyes rounded. The rider he knew: copper hair, warm brown eyes, strong stance.

Teyla. That was her name. Her name was Teyla. The recollection made John twitch, bringing with it memories of a battle and being ripped from Corvax's saddle. As the woman approached, it was obvious she was remembering the same. Her eyes wandered before landing on John and staring, opening wide, flickering with surprise and a breathless joy that made her chest heave and a smile spread on her face.

"Wow," whispered Corvax from behind John. "She's really happy to see you." The dragon moved his head enough for John to see him wink. John shoved at the black's jaw.

"John Sheppard," Teyla said, still breathless. "It is wonderful to see you alive and well." Acting as though no one else were standing there witnessing it, Teyla moved quickly forward, placed her hands on John's shoulders and touched her forehead to his. When she pulled away, she was more composed yet still all smiles.

Teyla had come with her own backup. The tall man, Halling, John recalled, and four Athosians John didn't remember ever meeting. Although the big guy with the dreadlocks and the darker griffin beside him was pummeling him with déjà vu. The guy looked awkward while trying not to be: glancing around, putting his hands into the pockets of his coat, then taking them out to fold his arms over his broad chest. His griffin looked bored, but for all John knew, it was an act. Its wings kept twitching. Corvax's own wings did that when he was uneasy.

The forehead greeting was extended to Elizabeth, but for the rest it was polite nods for each of them. John guessed the forehead thing more personal, maybe something to be earned. After the greetings, Teyla sobered quick as flipping a switch.

"What is the extent of his injuries?" she asked, no nonsense and, John thought, perturbed.

"Cracked ribs that are healing," said Carson. "A little leftover congestion from an infection. Other than that, he's on the mend and regained quite a bit of strength—"

"But not full strength," said Teyla.

Carson looked contrite, despite none of this being his fault. "Aye, not full."

"It's a matter of security and we've waited as long as we can," Sumner cut in.

Teyla gave him an expression that silently stated just how much she had not been talking to him. "The deeper a griffin searches the mind, the more discomfort it causes. Yet though it is not lethal, the search for lost memories can sometimes require a scan so deep as to cause excruciating pain and can be detrimental for the body. To perform a recovery on one not in top physical condition could very well cause death."

"It is why the recovery must be done a little at a time," joined Teyla's griffin. "Careful scanning over days, starting with surface thoughts. To recover lost thoughts in a day is too dangerous and you will not find a griffin on any world that will attempt it. Especially not on one who has been injured."

John swallowed and dropped his eyes to his hands sitting loosely in his lap. He felt a conflict of disappointment and guilt, with disappointment gaining more ground. Dave had always said of John that he was a selfish bastard. John figured he probably had a point; he wanted to remember, he wanted to remember now, and he was on the cusp of voicing how much he didn't give a damn whether or not the scan would hurt.

He just wanted to remember.

"I would prefer to wait until he has recovered further," said the griffin.

What came out of John's mouth, as though someone else were commanding his tongue, was a blurted, "Please." He grimaced then cleared his throat. "I mean…" He looked at the griffin. "It's pretty much my choice. And I would really, really like to find out what the hell happened to me and whether or not we need to worry. If it takes a while, that's fine – I can be patient. But could we at least start now? See what happens? You said sometimes, sometimes it requires a deep scan that hurts like a bitch." He shrugged. "Maybe it won't."

The griffin and Teyla exchanged a look – maybe a thought – full of so much uncertainty that guilt got the upper hand over disappointment, and John dropped his gaze back to his hands.

Then the griffin said, with a curt nod, "All right." She moved forward and everyone cleared a path until it was just her, John, and Corvax crouched behind. The griffin settled on the ground like a lion about to take a nap, crossing one taloned paw over the other. She lowered her head until she and John were eye to eye, hers large and golden, John's face staring back at him from her pupils.

"I will begin by looking only at those thoughts on the surface of your mind then ease my way toward the thoughts you are not aware of. Do not fret; what I see and hear will remain between us save for that which needs to be known. Keep your eyes on mine. If the discomfort becomes too much, simply think my name. It is Meeka, if you do not recall. Are you ready?"

John nodded.

"Then relax. Open your thoughts. You may feel something, like a mild pressure on your skull, or an itch within your brain. This is normal. Whatever you do, do not fight it; it will only add to the discomfort."

A second nod. John took as deep a breath as he could, let it out slowly then let his body melt into the chair. He felt calm flow over him from behind and focused on it.

John saw only the griffin's eyes. The pupils shrank to pinpricks then enlarged until the gold was only a thin border. A band tightened comfortably around John's head, and deep within his brain was an itch he couldn't scratch.

His breathing increased, his heartbeat with it. Sweat beaded on his head and tickled down his back creating more itches that couldn't be scratched. Suddenly, he was glad for the blanket, because he felt inexplicably cold. He wanted to shrink away, look away, but it was as though the band were holding his head in place.

A voice breathed in his ear, "Easy, John. It's all right, buddy. You're all right."

He wasn't all right. He couldn't move, could barely breathe. The band tightened on his skull, around his wrists, his chest, pressing his body down into an unrelenting surface. All he saw were the eyes, large and dark, like drills putting hole after hole in his brain, digging deeper and deeper.

Give us what we want.

It hurt. Crap, it hurt so bad; brain turning to liquid, bleeding out his ears; skull splitting in two right down the center. He wanted to rip his own head off, just to make it stop but he couldn't move and the eyes drilled to his very center. They flayed him wide open for everyone to see, peeled him away layer by layer by layer…


John thought he might be screaming, or maybe he just thought he was. There were noises everywhere.


Mountain. Broken. Split in two. Defeated.

And then the eyes were gone, replaced by wide-open blue and a few ribbons of clouds. Something was pressed to his face, smelling of plastic but feeding his lungs with sweet oxygen. He hadn't realized he'd stopped breathing. Or had he stopped? A voice told him to take slow, deep breaths then counted a rhythm that he could breathe to. While his lungs worked to the rhythm, his body was lifted and carried away from the sky to something with a gray, curved ceiling. He was set down on a soft surface and covered with a blanket. Something pricked his hand, but when he tried to lift his head, he achieved an inch before dropping it back to the pillow.

"Easy, Major. Just giving you a wee bit of something to help you relax."

Carson. That was Doctor Beckett. John had expected another voice for some reason; he wasn't sure why.

"Wh-what happened?" He furrowed his brow at the rough voice that couldn't possibly be his. He was talking just fine a moment ago.

"We're not sure, lad, but from what I observed, my best guess is that you suffered a bit of a panic attack."

"A bit is kind of understating it, Carson." Rodney, and he sounded both pissed and scared.

"Rodney, not now. Listen, Major. You're all right. You just lay there and let the oxygen and relaxant do its work and we'll fill you in on the details later, all right? You just rest for now."

John, too exhausted to protest, nodded. Calm engulfed him, and he let it then let himself doze.

"There was little to see beyond fragments," said Meeka. She squinted with thought. "He was restrained, and words were spoken though I could not make any of them out." She squinted harder. "It seemed… it seemed as though he were fighting me. Except it felt different. It felt as though the thoughts were there, but like water. I could bring them forward if I could grasp them, but I could not."

"Never heard it put like that, before," thought Bylar.

Ronon shrugged. He'd never heard it put like anything; he didn't read minds.

"Could it be fear holding the memories back?" asked the doctor guy with the blue dragon.

Meeka's wings rustled when she lifted her shoulders. "There was fear but there was also determination. It is possible that what he went through was too much. On the other hand, the resistance I felt held subtle differences from both conscious and subconscious resistance that are difficult for me to explain. The best way I can put it, it is a resistance that goes deeper than the subconscious. It would be like having a door hidden behind a wall: it is there, but you do not know about it."

"So, he's been brainwashed," said the young dark-skinned soldier with the copper dragon. Meeka gave him a confused look.

"His mind as been manipulated," Doctor Weir clarified.

"I would say so, yes," said Meeka

Weir's brow furrowed when she looked at the man called Sumner. "Because they let him go?"

"Do you know how deep this manipulation goes?" asked Sumner. "Was there anything about it that gave you the impression of… a trigger? Of a mind," he gestured with a twirl of his hand, "put on standby; waiting for a word or action to awaken some hidden command?"

But the question only added to the griffin's confusion. Ronon, however, got where the commander was trying to go – the power of suggestion; turning a human into something akin to a bomb by implanting a hidden thought or desire complete with a means of detonation, be it word, action or image. There were stories of griffins during the ancient times with a telepathy so powerful they could think a Wraith into not only killing itself but as many as it could of its own kind.

Other stories told of griffins going mad in the attempt, which would explain the utter loathing griffins had at the very idea of manipulating another's thoughts.

It was Bylar who explained, tapping Meeka on the back then speaking mind to mind for only each other to hear – or see, whatever method he was using. Whatever he said or imagined, it made Meeka squat and fluff in disgust.

"I – I do not think so. I mean, I cannot be sure, not without a deeper scan."

"If that was the case, why not dump him back where he was captured?" said Bylar. "Instead of on another world? He'd be dead if his dragon hadn't found him, and he was looking ready to drop when he found us. Letting your supposed 'weapon' go to fend for himself defeats the purpose of manipulating him in the first place, don't you think?"

Which had been Ronon's line of thinking.

The Earthers exchanged awkward glances as they digested this, no doubt embarrassed they hadn't figured it out on their own. Except for Sumner, but he was about as easy to read as polished stone.

"So how long will it take before Sheppard's memories are recovered?" Sumner asked.

The two parties settled into discussions of what to expect, when the next scan should be (when Sheppard was healed) and the best way to coax the memories out. Because there'd been tampering, the going would have to be slow and tentative. Because Meeka knew what to look for and what to expect, she would have to be the one doing the coaxing each time.

Ronon detached himself from the discussions and sidled up next to the doctor. He cleared his throat.

"Um… is Sheppard awake? I was hoping… I kind of wanted to… I found him so just wanted to see if he was all right…" Which sounded incredibly pathetic, seeing as how he just saw Sheppard physically weak and in the wheeled chair not moments ago.

The doctor gave him a considerate look, followed by sympathetic and nodded without any reluctance. "Aye, that'd be fine. I was going to give him a look-see myself, anyway." He led the way from the group toward the tent, and Ronon didn't need to glance back to know two soldiers were following him. He didn't mind; his own caravan had done the same with visitors. Survival required caution, and if people didn't like it, they deserved to be grabbed by the Sky Raiders. Bylar and three dragons followed after the soldiers.

"I'm Doctor Beckett, by the way," said Beckett. "And you're Ronon, right? The lad who found our poor wayward major?"

"Yep," said Ronon.

Beckett tossed a smile over his shoulder. "Then he'll probably be wanting to meet you. Well, I know I would. Your griffin was right about the lad being one more knock away from death opening his door. The major was so exhausted there was barely any waking him for days." They stepped into the stuffy shade of the massive tent, where Sheppard dozed on a padded cot beneath a blanket, a bag of liquid hanging from a pole hooked to him by a tube in his hand. When Beckett lifted his wrist to take his pulse, Sheppard stirred.

"Major? You awake, son?"

Sheppard groaned then muttered incoherently.

"You have a visitor if you're up for it. Just someone who wishes to say hi."

Sheppard yawned, "Ssssurrre."

"All right, then. Just give me a quick minute…" He fitted an apparatus into his ears not unlike what the healers of Satedan caravans used to listen to a person's heartbeat. Sure enough, the other end slid down Sheppard's shirt to rest on his chest, then either side of his flanks. After that, Beckett attacked both of Sheppard's eyes with a thin light.

Sheppard didn't like it and tried to bat it away with a hand limp as a dead fish.

"Lay off," he croaked, more awake.

Beckett simply smirked. "You're a right grouch when you're hurt, Major."

"Get a penlight to the eyes and see if you don't get the urge to punch someone."

"Oh, I have. And I appreciate the restraint." He patted Sheppard's shoulder then exited the tent. The two soldiers remained standing guard on either side of the entrance.

Ronon positioned himself two feet from the bed. Sheppard looked up at him, blinking languidly. He narrowed his eyes.

"I know you?"

"Kind of," said Ronon.

Sheppard's brow bunched. He pointed at Ronon. "Swamp. You were in a swamp. There were other people…"

"I was attacked. You showed up and helped, got one of the guys to get off my back. I told your people where to find you."

Sheppard rubbed his forehead, the lines at the corner in his eyes letting Ronon know he was still in pain, so needed to keep this short.

"Oh," Sheppard said. "Thought you looked familiar. So you're not Athosian."


"Uh-huh. From a planet called Sateda, I take it?"


Sheppard sighed. "I feel like hell; cut me some slack." He slid his hand from the cot and lifted it, trembling, toward Ronon. "Thanks for helping my people find me."

Ronon took it by the wrist as was the way of most cultures. Not Sheppard's culture. His brow bunched hard, but, eventually, he gripped back.

"Anyway…" Sheppard said. "Thanks."

"Actually, I should be thanking you. What you did…" Ronon cleared his throat, shifting his feet. "It's not something most people would do. You didn't even know me."

Sheppard smiled wanly. "I was also pretty out of it."

"Doesn't matter. You were already hurt; you didn't know me… what I'm saying is, if you need any help with anything, you can ask me and I'll help."

Sheppard released Ronon's wrist to flap his hand as though brushing off the offer. It made his hand look like it was dead. "No, you don't need to do that. You helped me get home; that's good enough."

"No, it isn't. Not to my people. Sorry, but that's just the way it is."

"So, what, you owe me a life debt or something? Seems a little extreme for saving you because I was out of it."

Ronon lifted both shoulders. There was nothing else to say. Satedans had codes and oaths dating back to ancient days, and debts owed for saving lives was one of them, but it was also a matter of common courtesy lacking in the galaxy these days. The interest in survival was more about the self than the whole, or Ronon wouldn't have been attacked because he'd declined whoring himself out for a population boost. Total strangers joining the fight just didn't happen, out of it or not. At least not to Ronon. Ronon owed it to Sheppard to have his back against the ones who had taken him if nothing else.

Sheppard was also the first man in three centuries to have escaped the Sky Raiders. That wasn't something you could take lightly.

"So, what, that means you're sticking around?" Sheppard asked.

Although there was a limit. "I'll drop by. I have places to go."

Sheppard smirked. "People to see?"

"If I can find them."

Sheppard frowned.

Ronon shook his head. "Long story." He saluted with two fingers. "See you around, Sheppard."

Sheppard lifted two fingers back. "Sure, buddy."

Ronon left the tent to where Bylar was waiting with the two dragons only a few feet back. With Ronon away from the tent, both soldiers and dragons backed off.

"You indebted us to him?" Bylar sneered.

"Yeah. Problem?"

"Yeah, problem. It means doing what he tells us—"

Ronon rolled his eyes. "No, it doesn't. You know that."

But the bird wasn't finished. "It means following his orders, jump when he says jump. What if they need a population boost and, you know… although I'm sure their females are attractive—"

Ronon smacked the griffin's leg as hard as he could. Bylar laughed.

Chapter 5

John wasn't a stranger to injury. He knew the time involved in healing, the effort required to get back to the way he was. That didn't stop his amazement over the coddling that every minor injury required. Because nutrition was Carson's chief concern, he watched John's eating habits like a hawk, had him pay close attention to calories when he could and make a list of the meals he had during the day. Then turn those lists in like homework.

The reward was working his way back to normal foods and eating whatever he wanted (in other words, his choice of an MRE or the weird casserole the cooks learned to make from the Athosians). But he added weight to his bones, weight he didn't hesitate to turn into muscle with daily walks throughout the facility and lifting small weights. His ribs were the only thing holding him back from turning those walks into a jog, and Beckett was just as anal about them as John's weight. Beckett liked to torture John by having him breathe everything his lungs had and didn't have into a tube; to keep them strong and fluid free, Beckett said. Even on the good pain meds, it was still uncomfortable as hell.

When the bones were finally declared knit to Carson's satisfaction, John took up a slow jog the very next morning.

John didn't deny being lazy eighty percent of the time, but he had his impatient side and it never hesitated to bite him in the ass. He'd been dead certain he hadn't overdone anything – did the usual stretches to keep the muscles from locking up – yet the following day he was impossibly sore, in that he could barely move. Beckett gave him muscle relaxants and a reproving look. John altered his routine to shorter distances, less running and more walking.

He sometimes went with Beckett to the Athosian camp for a change of scene. When Teyla learned that he was regaining his strength, she offered him help using techniques that would build strength, flexibility and balance. It required the use of sticks, which John thought weird, but he was game for anything that would give him back what he had lost.

The routine left him sorer than running. It felt good, though – the gradual increase of control, watching as the mild tremors eased day by day from his limbs.

"When you are ready," said Teyla during week two, "I will show you the traditional battle techniques of the Athosians."

"Great," John said with forced enthusiasm. Too forced, apparently. Teyla gave him a shadowed look and a crooked smirk.

"Perhaps I will show you now."

John swallowed audibly. Teyla, however, had him step out of the circle of stones where they practiced. It was just outside the camp, in a clearing where soft grass grew. She called one of the Athosian males practice-fighting in another circle. He came over, carrying his sticks and looking nervous.

Teyla had him flat on his back in ten minutes with a stick to his throat.

"Damn," John said, impressed and a little uneasy.

Teyla brushed a loose strand of hair from her face and smiled, breathless. "And that was only a beginner's routine."

Meeka was never satisfied enough with John's health to attempt another mind scan. It pissed John off, but to keep the griffin from finding an excuse to refuse a second attempt altogether, he didn't push. Asked now and then, as part of idle conversation, but didn't push. Teyla told him to give her time; that her scan had hurt John still troubled her. She also told him to give himself time. Healing wasn't all about the body, and John's eagerness to find his memories could do more harm than good.

Ronon dropped by sometimes with his own strength-building two-cents to add, and it had him visiting more. He taught John fighting moves that didn't use sticks. It was hand-to-hand stuff, just the routines, like with Teyla's sticks. He also took it upon himself to be John's jogging buddy, as though jogging was better done in pairs. John had thought "what the heck." Ronon would be there, same time every morning, leaning with his shoulder against the 'gate. John couldn't get permission to meet with him on Athos (neither did he want to, if he were to be honest with himself), which meant Ronon had to come to John, and could do so as long as John met him on the ground, not airborne (which was a given, since John had yet to be cleared to fly). Ronon refused to wait in the earth tent, but then he didn't strike Sheppard as the indoorsy type.

What Ronon did wasn't jogging; it was racing – Ronon the winner every time and John usually collapsed on the ground, trying to remember how to breathe. Corvax would be off to the side, laughing at him. But it worked, pissing John off just enough to make him keep at it, try a little harder, run a little farther until taking the stairs in the facility no longer winded him.

When not building strength, he helped Rodney out with the "quiz chair" as they'd dubbed it, much to Rodney's annoyance. Being a human battery was all Carson had cleared him for, so it wasn't like John had anything better to do. Besides which, it didn't take him as long to get the questions up as it did with others. Answering them was a pain in the butt since many of the scientists sucked at putting complicated answers into layman's terms unless there was a written formula involved. Then they'd write it down and all John had to do was look at it and picture it in his head whether he understood what he was seeing or not.

When not doing the battery thing, he pestered McKay into a movie. It turned out that Rodney was quite a sneaky bastard, and had managed to smuggle fifteen DVDs and an entire season of Star Trek by hiding them in various equipment only he'd been allowed to handle, and with Bina's art supplies. Rumor had it, he wasn't the only one that kind of clever, and as long as you kept your mouth shut, most people were happy to share – mostly to keep your mouth shut.

John's opinion of McKay was that he was the kind of guy who would go to the bottom of the ocean, find something fascinating and forget to come up for air. The way he figured it, if he had to endure Rodney's whim for the better part of the day, Rodney could at least do John the favor of letting him indulge in some of the contraband. Because it was McKay's contraband, he wouldn't let John watch unless he was there to make sure John didn't scratch the DVDs. Really, Rodney wasn't a bad guy to watch movies with – their tastes pretty much ran the same, and when they didn't, getting McKay riled up over moot points, flaws and the stupid ways they dressed up dragons to make them look more alien (which, according to McKay, was a load of pointless crap, as dragons looked the same on any planet) was as equally entertaining.

Rodney sought revenge through Bina, who was forever dogging Corvax's tail with questions about Egyptian Blacks, their clans, any mating rituals they might have and if the rumors about them having their own language were true. Corvax would try to hide, did a pretty good job most of the time, but if Rodney knew where he was, then he was screwed. It left Corvax surrounded in a perpetual aura of irritation that he liked to foist off on John just to make himself feel better. Dragons could be the biggest, overgrown brats when sulking.

Then the moment of truth, D-day, the coup de grace and all that crap and it wasn't so bad anymore.

John was cleared for active duty.

The following morning, he met Ronon at their usual time by the tent. They ran – Ronon won, but that was okay for once because John had something he was looking forward to.

When John got his wind back, and the ability to stand up straight, he asked, "Wanna fly?"

Ronon's grin was almost feral. He answered by climbing into Bylar's harness. John scrambled into Corvax's and strapped in.

"Always wanted to see how they fly," Ronon said, gesturing at Corvax. Bylar had accompanied Corvax in the sky while John and Ronon had run over the ground, but with dragon and griffin there had been no challenge, only caution. Corvax had had his own strength to regain, and you can't mess around in the sky like you can on the earth.

John answered with a smile and a nudge to Corvax's ribs with his heels. The dragon launched, the griffin launched and they tore through the air toward wide open blue. For a breathless moment, John forgot he wasn't alone. There was only him, Corvax, the roar of the wind, the push of the air and an endless horizon begging to be reached. His heart, his body, felt as though had they not been caged in and strapped down, they would break free and soar away.

Then Bylar and Ronon shot past them. John ducked against Corvax's neck, cutting down resistance.

"You gonna take that, Cor?"

Corvax laughed. "Oh, hell no!"

John would hand it to the griffins as a species – they were fast. But dragons could maneuver. Bylar weaved back and forth, up and down, cutting Corvax off. Corvax rose, higher and higher, dropped back, then dropped like a rock. Bylar tried to follow, was almost on them when Corvax shot forward in a corkscrew with wings tucked to his sides to keep from clipping the griffin. He leveled out ahead of Bylar, leading the way to the mountains. They settled on the first outcrop they came to with room enough for both dragon and griffin, and set down in a flutter of massive wings, stirring up clouds of dust.

"Not bad," Ronon said when Bylar landed.

John rested his head against Corvax's neck, next to a spike, and patted it. Maybe he'd had better, but for today that had been the best damn flight of his life.

"Okay, this is just ridiculous. The stupid thing is repeating questions."

John sighed. "It's not repeating questions, McKay."

"How would you know? You weren't…" McKay's jaw tensed. "I mean, you wouldn't know. You haven't been at this as long as I've been. We've had this one before. I remember those weird symbol things."

John squinted at those symbol things, like a connect-the-dots that didn't really create an actual picture. The images kept shifting around each other, changing position as though an invisible hand were shuffling them. The symbols were familiar, though. John just couldn't place it.

"Gate address," Corvax said.

"Huh?" Rodney said, not looking up from his tablet.

John snapped his fingers. "They look like a gate address – stargate symbols."

"You don't say." McKay looked up and his brow bunched. "Huh, they kind of do." He shook his head. "Except there hasn't been a question yet that had us go anywhere."

"Maybe that's why you got some of the questions wrong. Okay, so they look like gate symbols… Maybe we have to put them in order according to their order on the 'gate."

"Too easy," McKay said.

Frowning, John held out his hand, waggling his fingers. "Give me a picture of the 'gate."


"Gate, picture, gimme. Just do it, McKay. I'm pretty sure someone managed to sneak a digital camera on board."

Heaving a put-upon sigh, McKay pounded his finger on the tablet before handing it over. "Here. I'd say make it quick but somehow I get the feeling that won't make a difference."

The gate image was a digital rendition for diagnostic purposes, but good enough for what John needed. He located each symbol on the digital 'gate, tapped them bringing up a slightly larger image, then arranged them in order according to where they appeared on the gate. The symbols of the holo-image continued to shuffle.

Now it was McKay's turn to reach out and waggle his fingers. "See?"

"Wait," John said, his hand raised. He had the obnoxious feeling he was missing something, something that if it were a snake would have filled his face full of punctures. The symbols were equidistant from each other on the 'gate, there were nine in all… John had an idea. He shuffled the images on the tablet, then looked up at the holo-symbols.

Symbols stopped shuffling. There was a click, a hum, a hiss and John jerked his arm off the hand-rest of the chair the same time a panel slid away. A small rectangle of crystal popped up out of the narrow slot like toast.

Rodney blink, jaw slack. "How…? What…? How…?"

John was equally baffled but mostly feeling a little smug. "Numbers one through nine can be configured so that they add up to fifteen. I thought, why not give it a shot?"

"But how do you know which one's which? Wait, no, better question: how do you even know that?"

John plucked the crystal from the slot for a closer look. "There are nine symbols. You just put them in order according to where they appear on the gate and you know which is one, which is two, so on and so forth. Easy. And the fifteen thing was on a Mensa test."

Rodney plucked it from his fingers. "Mensa? You're a member of Mensa? You're kidding me."

"I'm not a member. I just took the test." With the current test complete, the chair shut off. John hopped from it then slapped the tablet against Rodney's chest. "Now load that thing up so we can move on."

"It takes more than a tablet to load it," snapped Rodney. "And Elizabeth and Sumner like to be around when it happens. Did you pass?"

"Pass what?"


"Yes, I passed. So, what do you use?" He pointed to the console on the other side of the room. "That one?"

"Console in a neighboring room. That one's for diagnostic purposes. You know, we have a chapter here…"

John turned on his heels and walked swiftly toward the door. "What're we waiting for?"

He heard behind him McKay ask Corvax, "He's really Mensa?" And Corvax's throaty chuckle.

McKay's console was right smack next door; a circular table in the center of the floor and nothing else, just like the chair room. John was starting to suspect the Ancients liked a little flamboyancy to their architecture. He heard McKay behind, contacting Weir.

"You know," McKay said when he was done, "this was accomplished way faster than last time. Either the questions really are getting fewer or we're getting good. Personally, my vote is for the latter."

"Watch the ego, McKay, or next time it'll be thirty thousand questions and take a year to answer," John said, circling the circle. "So how's this work?" He stumbled, trying not to run into McKay who'd appeared on the other side, hooking things up. Corvax was arching his head over Rodney's shoulder, then lowered it until his snout brushed a keypad of crystals. With Bina busy talking with the biologists about safely edible prey, Corvax was free to get some payback for the white dragon's hounding.

McKay shooed him off like a wayward pup with a flap of his hand. "You'll see when it happens. Until then, practice patience."

John didn't have to; Weir arrived after McKay said that, followed by Sumner two minutes later. Both their dragons positioned themselves along the walls, but with Corvax included it still felt crowded.

"Without further ado," Rodney said, "the address to our new digs." He plugged the crystal into a slot. A holograph popped to life overhead – on one side, symbols, on the other, some kind of 3-D star chart. One star glowed bright blue.

"What's with that star?" John said. He pointed at it, his fingertip brushing the image. He jumped when the imaged expanded into an Earth-like planet rotating slowly, as real as a photo image of Earth. A small block of Ancient scrolled across the air next to it.

"Planet origin and details," Rodney said. "And directions if your preferred method of travel is by spaceship. All we want is the address, which we now have, so time to move on."

"I already ordered the MALP ready," Weir said with a crooked smile. She waved her hand toward the door. "To the 'gate, then?"

They shifted location to the 'gate where those present in the 'gate room not on control room duty gathered in a semi-circle around the ring, dragons standing like a wall behind them. The MALP was in place, the address handed off to Grodin, who dialed. Everyone waited with baited breath for the explosion of crystal foam.

"So this means we have to move?" John asked. He, McKay and Weir were in the control room. Sumner and a platoon of marines and dragons were on the floor, waiting for the go-head to secure their next base.

McKay shrugged. "Easier than going back and forth. It's no different in design than this facility so it's not like you have to worry about finding the bathroom."

"Yeah, but the planet will be different, and I kind of like this planet."

McKay sighed. "Well, you'll just have to learn to love the new planet."

"What if I don't?"

McKay turned to him, finger up and mouth open for what would have been one hell of a retort. Then he saw John's smirk, snapped his mouth shut and turned back to the 'gate with a scowl. "You were an insufferable brat as a child, weren't you?"

John shrugged.

"Chevrons encoded," Grodin announced.

People and dragons stiffened in anticipation.

Only for the 'gate to wind down and go dark.

Brow puckered and a severe frown on her face, Elizabeth turned to Grodin. "What happened?"

"I don't know," Grodin said, bewildered and dialing again. "I entered the correct address." The chevrons lit, the 'gate wound up, then died. The look on Grodin's face couldn't be called panic, more skirting the edge of panic as though this were somehow his fault. It probably didn't help when McKay, with a huff and an eye-roll, shouldered him aside.

"Let me see." He connected his tablet to the crystals hidden behind a narrow strip of easy-to-remove panel, then dialed. Again, nothing happened, putting a crease of confusion in Rodney's forehead.

"Huh," he said, but didn't elaborate. After a minute of tapping the tablet screen, he said, "Okay, we're going to need to run a full diagnostic, make sure it isn't our end that's the problem."

"And if it isn't?" Weir asked.

"Then we're probably going to have to find this place the old-fashioned way." His lip curled in distaste. "On foot."

On foot it was, when a day and a half of diagnostics turned up nothing on their end. It didn't inspire a lot of confidence; even McKay didn't sound convinced when he tried to brush it off as 'gate malfunctions on the other end. The only other likely explanation they all were thinking but no one was saying out loud was that the planet was no longer there at all.

A quick search through the database turned up an address to the planet's "public" gate – the info on the data crystal was only so helpful. Doctor Weir had the address shown to the Athosians, who were able to rule out the planet as being a goner.

"The people there are called the Genii," Weir said with a small smile to her lips that had put everyone at the meeting at ease. "Farmers for the most part but a few do go off world for trade purposes. And, yes, there are Ancient ruins on the planet."

She leaned forward, folding her hands on top the metal table. "Because it's their world and by rights, their ruins, if we want to find our facility then we're going to have to make friends. Teyla is willing to aid us in this endeavor. However, this time around, there can be no relocating."

McKay gaped. "What? Why—"

"It'll draw too much attention to us," said Sumner. "Especially if this facility isn't as concealed or fully functioning as this one. If it's functioning at all."

"It would simply be wise to remain where we are," Weir said. "In the meantime, I want you all to come up with a list of possible trade items in case medicine won't be enough. We already know how the Athosians regard the Ancients, so it stands to reason that the Genii may be just as devout if not more so. Depending on that devotion, we need to give them a reason to let us at least look at the facility. Then we can go from there."

"So, who all's going to this little meet and greet?" McKay said with a casual flippancy that was fooling no one. He was looking a little pale and the opposite of excited. John suddenly wondered if McKay had stepped foot off this planet since arriving. He'd never thought to ask, but figured it was safe to assume the answer a massive no.

"Myself, Colonel Sumner, a number of marines of his choosing. And I was hoping you would attend as well, Doctor Beckett, since medicine will be the first item on the table, so to speak," Weir said.

Beckett nodded. "I understand." Though he looked about as thrilled as McKay.

McKay, however, perked up. "So, I don't have to go?"

Weir smiled. "Not this time. But you will if and when we gain access to their ruins."

Rodney's expression fell.

Weir slapped the tabletop with both hands. "Let's go make some friends."

The remainder of the day was preoccupied with the various science departments wracking their brains for things to trade. Sheppard overheard conversations and arguments in the halls, the mess, sometimes even outside the doors of his quarters about irrigation techniques, farming techniques, sewing/looming techniques, recycling, various plants on this world with medicinal or nutrient values, weapons (which Sheppard was pretty sure was a no-go), and, crap, even solar power. Sheppard was pretty sure a culture still dependent on the alien version of a horse and plow would have little to no use for solar-powered anything.

Whenever John passed the control room, he saw Elizabeth in her windowed office, pouring over lists, checking some items and drawing a line through others. Her dragon, lying curled behind her, would sometimes point something out; Elizabeth would frown, raise her eyebrows and either nod or shake her head.

John tried coming up with stuff, just to be useful now that the chair wasn't needed. The best he could come up with was C-4. Corvax said it proved that Sheppard really did have a fetish for explosions.

"You always wasted two months allowance on fireworks in July. That should have been a sign you weren't destined to be a stock broker."

Corvax had a point.

The meet and greet took place the following day, around noon on the home world. Sumner handed the proverbial reins over to Sheppard before leaving.

"Try to keep this place in one piece, Major," he said, sounding serious, and John didn't doubt he was being serious. All the same, he smiled as though it were a joke, quite certain he was being polite. Sumner frowned.

"You really need to stop pissing him off," Corvax whispered near John's ear as the colonel and his dragon headed down the hall with the rest of the diplomatic party.

John scowled. "I wasn't."

"Well, he thought you were. And Orthal is bigger than me, and meaner, and can order me around. You piss Sumner off, I'm the one who's gonna suffer."

John rolled his eyes. "Baby." He turned from the hall toward the stairs. He had no desire to hang around an office – any office, Weir's and especially Sumner's – all day if he could help it. He thought about bugging McKay since it was only a matter of time before McKay bugged him about getting some crappy piece of Ancient whatever to work. That was the problem with being a pilot with an alien gene in a place where pilots weren't needed. He suddenly missed chauffeur duty; it may have been redundant, but it was still flying.

"I think we're being followed," Corvax said in John's ear. John angled his head just enough to see Bates and his dragon several feet back, heading down the hall like they actually had a destination.

"You just now noticed?"

"No, I'm just getting sick of it. How long do you think it'll be before Sumner backs off?"

John twisted his mouth ruefully. Sumner was hardcore, by the book, dead-set on keeping the expedition safe. The answer was too much of a downer to say out loud.

"You'll get used to it," Sheppard said instead, which was no better.

"You agree with him," Corvax said.

John flat-out refused to reply.

Weir and her diplomatic entourage of brainiacs and soldiers returned on the edge of evening, when the sky was deepest cerulean and peppered with a few stars. John knew; he heard their impending arrival over the comm so was there at the entrance to greet and hand back the reins. He couldn't help giving his gaze a quick flick toward a cloudless twilight perfect for night flying if Corvax was up to it – and he usually was. It was a short-lived consideration when Weir, Sumner and the rest ambled in on foot looking worn and a little harried.

John should have known better but asked anyway, "Have fun?" He held out his hand for her to take as she slid from her dragon to the floor – his mother's attempts at molding him into a perfect gentleman hadn't been a complete waste.

Sumner scowled at the question, while Elizabeth smiled tiredly.

"Fun might be overstating it," she said. "Although they did have good food."

John's next question was on the tip of his tongue, when McKay rushed into the hall so fast Bina was practically trotting to keep up, and took it from him.

"So, we in? Will they let us look for the facility or did they religion up?"

"Religion up?" John asked.

Rodney jutted his chin. "It's a perfectly viable way to put it."

"Yes, Rodney. We're in," Weir sighed. "It wasn't easy, but we have permission to explore any Ancient ruins they may have."

John sensed a "but" coming and it was hard not to squirm.

"However," Weir said, pinching the bridge of her nose. "As an act of good faith, we had to agree to a minimum number of our military allowed on their planet – no going over eighteen. And they wish to accompany us, offer their protective services, allow a few of their own scholars to have a look around."

"What!" Rodney squawked. "Didn't you say something about them being a bunch of farmers? What do they plan to protect us with, their pitchforks? When does a bunch of backwater… farmers have an interest in anything that doesn't make crap grow?"

John was sure Elizabeth's next sigh had nothing to do with the situation. She really was tired.

"It's not that big a deal, Rodney," she said. "They're under the impression that what we want to study is the writing outside the ruins – which means one of two things—"

John finished for her. "They can't get inside said ruins because they don't have the gene. Or said ruins really are… ruins."

"Hopefully the former. If so, it's just a matter of playing our cards right, keeping a low profile and," she winced, "flying in under the radar."

"In English, please?" said Rodney.

Bina chuffed behind him but otherwise said nothing.

"What she means," said John, "is that we're going to have to be really, really sneaky about it." He shrugged. "But at least we don't have to move, right?"

Neither Weir, Sumner, nor McKay looked happy.

Chapter 6

They stepped out of the 'gate into a field of tall grass the bright green of a world in mid-spring, Sumner in the lead, marines forming a wall around the scientists with John and Ford at their six. The weather was that perfect warmth with just a touch of cool to keep things comfortable, the sky cloudless and the sun still heading toward its zenith – a gorgeous day that made John resentful of the to-ground policy. Arriving with their dragons' feet on the soil was a sign of good faith, said Weir. Otherwise, the locals were within their rights to assume them Sky Raiders and shoot them down at first sight.

They cut through the field at the light gallop most dragons were not fond of. It made them feel too much like horses, Corvax had said, and they were not horses. But today they were willing, because the sooner they met up with their Genii "escort," the sooner they could fly to their destination.

A destination that was Sheppard's to secure. He didn't get it. Well, he did in terms of seniority and him being the next highest ranking officer. He didn't get it in terms of Sumner, who was doing a piss-poor job of hiding his distrust of Sheppard. John couldn't decide if this was some secret change of heart, Sumner putting trust issues aside so he didn't have to babysit (even the hardcore had their limits) or if he was putting Sheppard through some kind of test – betray the ruins and the info they find, toss John's ass in the brig; don't betray the ruins and the info, then life was good and they could get on with living it.

It was the latter that made John a tad uneasy. Anything could happen on an alien world – anything could go horribly wrong – and if or when it did, John was screwed. Whether intended or not, Sumner had put him in the position of scapegoat.

Intended or not, it rankled, souring John's return to active duty.

"So, what are these Genii guys like?" John asked Ford. Casual conversation always helped to take his mind off crap. "Other than farmers."

Ford shrugged. "Not much to tell. They're kind of Amish. You know: overalls, dresses, those black hats. Except some of them carry these really butt-ugly hand guns. Other than that, there's not much to 'em."

"And that's not counting their mind-reading griffins," John said like it had a sour taste.

"The griffins were pretty polite, actually. They didn't make a lot of eye-contact and when they did, it was pretty quick. We still had to be careful, though." He grinned. "My head was killing me after. I never thought I'd miss being able to think whatever I wanted so much."

"They've got really good herd beasts," Ford's dragon piped-up. "Kind of hairy but really tender."

"And they make really great cakes from scratch," said Ford. Both marine and dragon sounded smitten.

When John looked away, he saw a cluster of griffins and their humans, about twenty-four in all, standing just outside a line of leafed trees. He shifted uncomfortably in the saddle.

"Food usually isn't a selling point for me," John said.

Not so much for McKay, who'd glanced over his shoulder and kept glancing with a hopeful look on his face.

"What kind of cake?" he finally asked.

He never got his answer. Sumner raised his hand in a halt seven feet from the Genii party. The Earth expedition moved closer, clustering together and tightening the wall around the scientists. The Genii mounted their griffins, doing the same. Sumner twisted in his saddle enough to direct his gaze at John, then waved him forward.

When Corvax had positioned them next to Sumner's red, Sumner gave a curt nod to the curly-haired man on the gold griffin at the head of the Genii party, then gestured at Sheppard.

"Chancellor Cowen. This is Major John Sheppard. He'll be the one overseeing the safety of our research team. Major Sheppard, this is Chancellor Cowen."

Cowen bowed his head. "Major."

John replied with a small nod. "Chancellor."

The greetings imparted, Cowen returned his attention to Sumner. "You will not be staying, then, Colonel?"

"I have other duties elsewhere. Major Sheppard is under my command and has been debriefed on the nature of our agreement. As I said, he is here to ensure the safety of our scientists, nothing more."

"As it should be," Cowen said in a friendly tone while his face stayed neutral. John could feel the thin cloud of Orthal's tension drifting his way. It wasn't unexpected because trade agreements maintained peace; they didn't establish immediate trust. More than that, Sumner and his dragon still weren't happy about the "escort" part of the deal, and John couldn't blame him. As a sign of good faith, it sucked. Genii weapons were ugly, the barrels bulky but the weapons altogether small, and not a rifle among the bunch (personally, John found that odd). The Genii might as well just wear a sign around their griffins' neck stating in bold, "We don't trust you back." That they were trying to be subtle about it could almost be regarded as an insult. But now wasn't the time to get kicked in the ass by pride.

"And may I introduce," Cowen continued, "Commander Acastus Kolya, the head of our security forces."

A large, solid bronze griffin stepped forward and angled himself to put the commander in view – thick build, broad-chested, scarred face and a somewhat superior lift to his chin that made Rodney's smug looks a thin mask hiding a mountain of insecurities. There was nothing insecure about this Kolya guy.

Nothing at all, giving him every right to be smug.

John's stomach felt like it had bottomed out. His shoulders and back tensed and his heart felt heavy yet fast in his chest. He didn't know why, couldn't begin to explain it, but every nerve in his body and synapse in his brain screamed at him to run. He tightened his grip on the handles of the saddle until his knuckles blanched. Whatever this was, it was broadcasting loud enough for Orthal and the green on the other side to keep flicking looks his way – the green edgy, Orthal suspicious. Corvax angled his head but knew better than to look John's way and acknowledge what wasn't explicable.

Calm suddenly surrounded John like the warm spring breeze. It helped, a lot, turning the screams to whispers and getting his heart to slow down. He exhaled slowly through his nose, enabling him to loosen his death-grip. John gave a stiff nod of greeting at Kolya.

Kolya stared at him, face blank as a slate and just as still. If there was something, anything, to read in his eyes or posture, John's moment of anxiety had made him miss it. After a moment, when the staring contest was up, Kolya nodded back.

"Commander Kolya and his men will accompany you and aid you in maintaining the security of the research teams. A few of our own scholars will be going along as well. But I promise you that they will stay out of the way of your own research. As we told you during the banquet, our world contains many Ancestral structures and we've been cataloging and translating their writings for generations."

"And if we can be of any assistance in that endeavor, we will as part of the promised payment," said Sumner, like a man reciting a memorized line. "We should be going. There may be a lot of ground to cover, structures to look at."

"Of course. By all means," Cowen said. His griffin sidled to the side. "But like you, Colonel, I, too, have duties elsewhere." He looked at John. "Do not hesitate to ask if anything is required. Good day, gentlemen."

The gold griffin then flew off, a wordless change of command that had Kolya turning his griffin to his phalanx and ordering them to prepare for takeoff.

Sumner looked at John. "Have them back before sundown," he said. He cast a furtive look the Genii's way. "Keep your eyes open." His dragon moved closer, enough for Sumner to lean in and say under his breath, "Don't make me regret putting you in charge of this, Major."

John blinked away the need to glare and tightly replied, "Yes, sir. I won't let you down."

"See that you don't." Sumner then straightened in his saddle, and Orthal took off. John watched them for less than a minute before returning his attention to Kolya, currently speaking to a small, slight bearded man on a pale amber griffin. The small man jerked his chin toward John, getting Kolya to look over his shoulder at him.

Cold tap-danced down John's spine. Fight or flight screamed loud in his skull, but was quickly smothered by Corvax's calm.

"What is your problem?" Corvax hissed.

"I don't know!" John hissed back. He straightened when Kolya's massive bird trotted up and angled around for Kolya not to have to lean around his neck.

"Ready, Major?" he said, like a man ready for a leisurely Sunday flight with guests.

John smiled, though he was sure it was coming off as more of a grimace. "Ready as we'll ever be."

"Good. The nearest ruins of the kind your Doctor Weir described to us are northwest from here and not too far. I've been to them many times though I must warn you, they're not that impressive. This way." His griffin kicked off the ground into the sky with a gusting flap of its massive wings that had John, Corvax, and the marine and dragon next to him ducking the debris. The other griffins followed, kicking up more dust.

"We'll talk about my problem later," John growled under his breath. Louder, he called, "Move out!"

Corvax and the other dragons launched. They flew high, where the air was cooler and the land patches of green. The open air without its restrictions eased some of the pressure of John's chaotic instincts that wanted him to run with nothing to run from. Corvax curved his neck into an S, putting his head within hearing and speaking range.

"So, what the hell was that all about back on the ground? For a moment there I thought for sure you were going to shoot someone."

Sheppard reared his head back, insulted. "Oh, come on, it wasn't that bad."

"Yes, it was. It was very bad. Someone pulling a weapon on us bad. What, did you suddenly remember something or… something?"

John gnawed his lip as he thought back over the moment the panic hit. He shook his head. "No. It was just a feeling, I don't know why." Except he did know why, and it placed his gaze on the bronze griffin taking the lead.

It couldn't be a coincidence. Unless his memory was trigger-happy; so desperate for recollection that he was just as likely to have the same reaction over someone walking down the hall or smelling someone's perfume. All a memory needed to pull itself to the surface was an association, even if that association had nothing to do with the memory it dug up: like how walking on the beach during a hot day would sometimes make him hear the distant patter of a chopper's blade when there wasn't a helo in sight, or the whistle of a firework would make him flinch.

But never anything as intense as what he'd just felt.

Corvax turned his head enough to put John in sight of his right eye. The dragon frowned. "Think maybe we should call this one?"

But John quickly shook his head. "No. If something bad was going to happen, it would have happened while Weir and Sumner were on the planet. No reason to turn back when nothing's going on."

"Okay," Corvax said. He hadn't even tried to hide his uncertainty; John had heard it in his voice as much as felt it. Corvax was about to return his gaze to the forefront, only to snap it back narrow-eyed to John. "This isn't about Sumner, is it? Because if your decisions are the result of a pissing contest—"

"It's not about Sumner!" John barked. It was about doing his job and not caving to the hiccups his memory might throw his way. The problem wasn't remembering, it was reacting, and until he reacted to some unknown trigger in a way where he would question his sanity afterward, then there was nothing to do but keep moving forward. He hadn't pulled his gun when the panic had hit, hadn't turned tail and run. He'd maintained control, and that meant he still had control. Until he felt his control start to slip, he wasn't going to worry about the reaction.

The trigger was another matter.

As promised, their destination wasn't far, tucked away in a valley surrounded by low, rocky hills. John could see the rusting skeleton of decaying towers rising above a thick canopy of trees. They had to land two at a time several meters away in a clearing, then walk the rest of the away beneath the shade of the trees down a narrow path forcing them single file. The path inclined subtly toward the largest hill.

Seeing the facility made John's heart sink. It was about as impressive as its towers – most of its walls rusted away, holes gaping like wounds. Vines and tall shrubs buried the walls that hadn't collapsed, and through the holes John could see mossy trees growing inside the facility itself.

The path forked around the building. The Genii took the left path, to the most intact section of wall the facility had to offer, with a massive door obviously rusted too tight to open and columns of Ancient text like blocky hieroglyphics. Though the canopy remained dense overhead, the trees themselves were spaced enough for everyone to spread out. Moss and rocks had piled up along the base of the wall, as though the facility had been grown from the earth itself.

John had to give the place a little credit – at least it was huge; a fortress of metal that once upon a time had been imposing. Or a beacon of protection, however one wanted to look at it.

"Beautiful, isn't it?" someone asked from John's right. He turned his head to the slight, bearded guy Kolya had been talking to. Whispers to run tickled the back of his mind. John shoved them aside, directing his attention back to the building.

He shrugged. "Kind of a relative term in this case."

The little man smiled. "Do what I do. Close your eyes and imagine it in its glory days, before nature claimed it. Fill the holes in the wall, get rid of the trees and the rust. What you're left with is magnificence. It's a pity we don't have the resources to restore it."

"Yeah," John said, indifferent. "Pity." He was more for lamenting the lack of parts needed to fix it - if this was the place they were looking for. Crap, he hoped it wasn't.

"Ladon Radim," the man said, ripping John from his negative thinking. He clapped the pale griffin's neck. "And this is Sirel."

"Major John Sheppard and Corvax," John said. "So I'm assuming you're one of the scholars."

"Why would you assume that?" Ladon asked, pure curious without even a touch of insult.

"For one, you've got what looks like some kind of notebook sticking out of your pack there."

"And for another?"

"You're not armed."

Ladon grinned.

"Ladon is a man of many talents, Major," Kolya said, sidling up to them, his large bird hard to miss even in the forest gloom. Ladon's smile fell.

"Scholar, linguist, scientist," Kolya went on. "His intellect has few rivals on our world. He is a great asset to us."

"He's probably the guy who recently invented the animal-drawn plow," John heard McKay mutter caustically somewhere to his left.

John threw a glare his way to keep quiet. When he looked back, ready to apologize if need be, he was relieved, then a tad baffled, to see both Kolya and Ladon wrapped up in a staring match that wasn't making a lick of sense. Kolya was all creepy smiles while Ladon had an eyebrow raised in what John took to be amusement. Either Kolya wasn't one to give compliments so easily, or he was being sarcastic.

John cleared his throat. "So… is this place safe to enter or is this all there is?"

"The lower levels are intact," said Ladon. "Though I would advise against going to the upper levels. Especially those in the east wing. There's very little of any interest to be found inside."

"Good to know," John said. "So we have until sundown. I suggest we make the most of it." He looked pointedly at Rodney. "Ready?"

"As ready as I can possibly get," Rodney said dryly.

"Then our group will start from the inside and work our way out." He gave Ladon a tight smile. "We like to learn things the hard way."

John led the way from the Genii to the other side of the facility and the nearest gaping hole. Once around the bend, he glanced back to make sure they weren't being followed. Lieutenant Kale, taking their six, stood up in his harness for John to see his thumbs-up.

They gathered around outside of the hole, John placing himself in front of the entrance where everyone could see and hear him. "All right, I know this place doesn't look promising but for all we know, this isn't the place we want. And the sooner we find out which, the sooner we can move on. So here's how we're doing this: we divide up into teams of three, at least one marine to each team. That way we'll be able to cover more ground. Seeing as how the last two places had the, uh… better stuff on the lower levels, then it's the lower levels we stick to. If I hear of anyone, soldier or scientist, taking a little detour upstairs, I will personally hand his, or her, ass over to Sumner on a silver platter. Got it?"

Everyone nodded or murmured their assent.

"Right. Whoever finds the best stuff first contacts the rest of us by radio. Once the good stuff has been pinpointed, I want dragons running interference."

"That means lying your ass off if the Genii get nosy," said Corvax, "and don't make eye contact with any of the griffins."

Everyone nodded and murmured more assent.

"Great. Let's get this show on the road, then," John said.

Because Sumner was just the right amount of paranoid – and because the minimum number requested hadn't been too bad: fourteen marines in all (fifteen if one were do include a certain Air Force Major) - the marines outnumbered scientists by one man, which meant having to take the marines aside and remind them to play nice with the geeks or else. Then take the geeks aside and remind them to do as they're told and that most marines don't give a damn about quantum mathematics or the growth rate of glowing fungi, so don't piss them off with technobabble. And no dragons being proxy to their human's offense and starting any fights.

"We're on an alien planet sharing ruins with an alien civilization. Let's not give the aliens the impression that we're a bunch of five-year-old freaks. Now move out."

John's group was him, McKay and Ford, because the kid had made the request, persistently, and was so shy and boyish about it that John couldn't find it in his heart to say no, though he'd wanted to. John wasn't stupid or naïve – it wasn't that often John didn't see the kid dogging Sumner's trail, eager to please. But he lacked the open hostility of Bates and seemed incapable of turning a cold shoulder on anyone. Ford was relieved, momentarily awkward about it, then pleased with himself when John okayed his request. If he was as suspicious of John as Sumner and Bates, that suspicion had been buried beneath the zealous excitement of entering an abandoned, Ancient facility. The kid's dragon, Delar, was wagging its tail - honest to goodness wagging, like a pup.

John had Corvax take the lead for his sharper sight and hearing to pick out any areas of possible instability. John followed, then Rodney and Bina, then Ford and Delar taking their six. They were the first group to enter, their destination straight forward, toward the hill. The gloom was worse inside, thick as smoke barely cut by the P-90 lights and briefly disorienting. The ground was soft with soil that had gathered and grown over the years from erosion, wind and decay. Dead leaves and twigs crunched under their heavy boots, the noise stifled as though the walls were lined with cotton. Rodney kept pace beside Sheppard adding an extra glow from the little sensor device he liked to carry around.

"You know," said McKay, all eyes on the sensor screen and barely on the way ahead. John had to grab his arm and pull him out of the way of a jutting root. "I don't think this is the place we want. I mean, think about it. The other two, ah, ruins, had been in a well-concealed location." He swept a hand at their surroundings. "This isn't exactly well concealed."

"It's hidden under a bunch of trees," countered Ford.

Rodney sighed. "True. But that's only if the trees had been here when the place was built, which I highly doubt. And you can still see the towers. The Ancients wanted these facilities well hidden and safe from both bad guys and nature. So, it doesn't make sense for them to deviate from such a logical pattern."

McKay made quite the point.

"So, what, then? We need to move on?" John asked.

"Well, no," Rodney said. They stepped through another massive hole rather than attempt to pry the vine-choked and rusty doors apart. "Better to rule this place out one hundred percent than go back to it if the others turn out to be a dud." The next room had no holes, forcing Corvax and Delar to pull the doors apart. It wasn't easy, making them grunt and groan in a way that meant there would be sore muscles in the morning, but they got it open enough for all of them to get through. It was still a little bit of a squeeze for the dragons.

"Hello, hello," Rodney said, then suddenly stopped. John backed up until he was able to see Rodney's tablet and what had him so perky.

Not seeing it, he asked, "What?"

"I thought… yes, there. Did you see that line jump? That means an energy spike. There's something alive down here. I mean… metaphorically speaking."

"Better be just a metaphor," Ford said, sweeping his gaze over their surroundings as though every wall and vine had the potential to bite them.

Rodney started moving, his head bouncing up and down from the tablet to the way ahead then back. Two more doors had to be pulled apart and a hole in the wall enlarged for the dragons to get through. It was more vines, trees, dirt and cracked pillars, but the spike kept spiking and they kept pressing on.

Until they reached a dead end – no doors, just smooth, blank wall with two whole light sconces on either side. Rodney pressed his palm against it, dropping his eyes back to his tablet.

"Whatever this spike is, it's coming from this room."

John looked around skeptically. It wasn't so much a room was a wide corridor, with more lights along the wall, their sockets empty and casings broken. Except for the two on the wall still in perfect condition. John narrowed his eyes at them. He approached the one on the right, and on sliding his finger over the glass that didn't feel like glass, it lit up with a soft, pale glow. John flinched back.

"What did you do!" Rodney squawked. "Damn it, Sheppard, you can't just go around touching Ancient-made crap whenever you want. This stuff is old, really old. There's no saying how it will react to suddenly being… oh, the spike got stronger." He refocused back on his tablet, typing away while sweeping the tablet back and forth in front of the wall.

John sighed, moved around Rodney, and touched the other light.


The wall slid back, then slid away, revealing a corridor still pristine and in working order. One by one, the whole and healthy light sconces blinked on two at a time.

Rodney blinked back. "Oh. But that still doesn't give you the right to go around touching whatever you want."

John gave him a hood-eyed glance. It saved time and energy on verbal comebacks, fun as they were. He tapped his comm. "All units, this is Major Sheppard. Be advised that the east end by the hill is now open. Repeat, the east end by the hill is now open. You should have no trouble getting through when we need you. Sheppard out." He lifted his P-90 at the hall. "Corvax, Delar, I need you two to run interference."

"What about me?" Bina asked, looking put-out.

"You're with us in case McKay wasn't being metaphorical."

Bina swallowed, hunching like a dog half-expecting to get a swift kick at any moment. Rodney hissed at him to stop being such a wuss, then pressed himself against Bina's shoulder. John led the way in, followed by McKay and Bina, then Ford. The moment they were on the other side, the door slid shut.

"That better be normal," John growled.

"It is," Rodney said, dismissive. "Relax, will you? If something was wrong, I would know, and nothing is wrong. Now that we're on the other side of the wall and the place is lighting up, the power spikes have stabilized. I'm thinking the fluctuations were the bread crumbs to bring us here. Plus, this place has been dormant and untouched for ten thousand years. I think the worst we have to expect is more dead plants."

The corridor turned, widening, becoming familiar. Pillars bubbled and when John passed close to the wall, a transport opened up. Since the last two facilities had been mirrors of each other according to McKay, John followed the route he knew would take them to the 'gate room. Sure enough, John's next step coaxed the way ahead to wake up, filling a vast chamber dominated toward the back by the 'gate with light.

Rodney broke off from their group and went straight for the control room, forcing John to trot after him.

"McKay! If I can't go around touching whatever, you can't take off without warning."

"It's just the control room," Rodney said impatiently, already raking each console with a practiced eye. "Which, thus far, looks completely intact. As does the 'gate." He crouched below the DHD and, using a Leatherman, pried off the panel.

Rodney paled. "Oh, this is not good. This is so not good."

John, crouching next to him, opened his mouth to demand what the hell McKay was going on about. He snapped it shut.

He couldn't exactly call himself an expert on Ancient tech, but John was pretty sure the guts of a DHD weren't supposed to look like a scorched tangle of cut wires. They bristled from the console, most of them melted or shredded beyond repair.

Rodney rocked back on his heels, chafing his jaw roughly with his palm. "Damn it. This is going to take forever to fix. We won't be able to slip in through the 'gate until it is."

John, however, shrugged. "Then we keep doing this the hard way. It's no big deal, McKay—"

"Yes, it is a big deal. Because so far, the only way to reach these facilities has been through their 'gates—"

"Until now."

Rodney sighed. "Yes, until now, but next time we might not be so lucky."

Huffing a frustrated breath, John dropped his head, letting it hang on his neck. "McKay. What do all these facilities have in common other than a 'gate, a quiz chair, and identical architecture?"

There was a smoldering look in Rodney's eyes, his jaw tensing, gearing up for an argument no doubt chalked full of insults. Yet quicker than a blink, the smoldering snuffed itself out, turning the set in Rodney's jaw stubborn and annoyed.

"They all have doors."


"Let us outside."


"Inside. But—"

"Exactly," John interjected. "So, for now, let's forget about the 'gate and worry about the quiz chair, all right?"

Rodney's jaw twitched and jutted for a second longer. He then stood abruptly. "Fine," he snapped, then marched from the control room in the direction to the chair room. John had to leap to his feet and run to catch up, Ford and Bina not far behind.

"McKay, what did I say about taking off?"

"What did I say about relaxing?" Rodney didn't waste time; he was already at the chair and hooking up his tablet as John entered. A few quick taps on the tablet, and Rodney was beaming.

"At least something's in working order around here," he said. "I suggest you get comfortable, Major. We've got a test to take."

"Come in."

After stepping through the doors of Sumner's office, John went immediately to attention, hand to his forehead and staying there until Sumner's return salute.

"At ease, Major." The colonel waved his hand toward the Ancient-made chair parked in the corner. "Have a seat."

Sumner's office was the antithesis of Weir's, smaller in size - no room for his dragon who was probably in the dragon bay - and altogether sparse. It was about function, the kind of place you couldn't spend too much time in even if, for some psychotic reason, you wanted to. You came in, you said your piece, Sumner said his piece, you left. If Sumner had a personality, he kept it locked in his quarters that no marine would ever see.

"You have good timing," Sumner said, pushing his laptop aside in order to fold his hands on the simple desktop. "I just finished reading your report. You're only twenty questions in."

John almost shrugged, then thought better of it. "Some of the teams had difficulty locating the entrance and a few I had to let in. It cost us some time. Tomorrow should have better results."

Nodding, Sumner said, "Good. Now, what brings you here?"

"I'd like to request more men, extra backup to secure the perimeter."

The colonel straightened, slowly, which was the only reaction he seemed capable of. "Any particular reason?"

John opened his mouth, sucking in a breath, yet with nothing to say that he couldn't be sure wouldn't boot him to Heightmeyer. He was going to have to choose his words carefully.

"To play it on the safe side," John said. "Call it a gut feeling. We know as much about the Genii as we do these Sky Raiders. And, I think, considering what happened when we first got to this galaxy that the more the merrier should be, um… mandatory. And I have a gut feeling that this would be a smart move." Because not many soldiers, especially combat soldiers, could argue gut feelings.

Unless you were Colonel Sumner, and the soldier in question was missing a chunk of his memory. Of course Sumner was going to play hardball.

"You want to bring more armed personnel into foreign territory where we've been invited as guests earned through delicate negotiations and a treaty, all because of a gut feeling. You do recall the condition stipulated in the treaty? About keeping the number of armed men as low as possible?"

And be a sarcastic bastard about it.

"I'm not talking about bringing in an army, sir. Just another squad of three, possibly four, to keep an eye on things while we work the chair," John said. "I'd hardly call that a major addition, sir. And we wouldn't end up going over the required number. At least… not in a way they'd notice."

Sumner, silent for a moment, eventually asked, "Is there a reason for this gut feeling of yours?" He said the word 'gut' like it was a new word Sheppard had just made up.

Sheppard didn't think "the Genii commander creeps me the hell out" was going to cut it, unless he wanted an early dismissal. Or, worse, a lecture. He said instead, with a small shrug that slipped through against his better judgment, "Like I said. We don't know much about the Genii."

"No, we don't," agreed Sumner. "But as you recall part of the condition allowing us access to the planet and the ruins was to keep military presence at a minimum. Any additional infantry, even it's no more than four or five men, could be seen as a hostile act and a reason to rescind on the deal."

It sounded rehearsed; a memorized piece of dialog should requests such as Sheppard's ever be made.

Then Sumner said, "You can have two. No more than that. Sorry, Major." And didn't sound, or look, any more happy about it than Sheppard: the Colonel was actually frowning.

John's heart felt like it had taken refuge in his gut. He could feel the muscles of his jaw, his whole upper body, pull taut and it took everything he had to force out a neutral, "Yes, sir." Sumner dismissed John, they saluted, and John went out.

Ronon rose from his crouch, dusting his dirt-stained hands onto his pant legs. Athosian soil was incredibly rich, dark and soft, and the tubers he pulled from it were easily twice the size of those he'd seen at markets. It wasn't that long ago that Bylar had returned the basket after dumping the second bushel into one of the wagons, and the woven basket was already full.

A sharp, quick whistle brought Bylar back with a frown on his beak as he snatched the next bushel to unload. He hadn't wanted to come back to this world, and the longer they stayed, the more petulant he grew. But, then – as the saying went – a Satedan is born in motion. Circumstances thousands of years ago had forced them to adapt, and it was difficult to imagine that Satedan griffins had ever been sedentary. It was Bylar's nature to keep moving.

Oh well. He could just suffer a few more days. Ronon owed the Athosians for not chasing him off, and helping with the harvest was only a start. He'd also promised to teach some of the local kids a few hunting tricks.

As he waited for the basket to return, Ronon rolled his shoulders and twisted his back, loosening stiffened muscles. His eyes scanned the empty skies until pulled to five ever-growing specks coming in from the direction of the 'gate. They skimmed high above the trees within easy sight, and Ronon knew that on this world only allies were allowed to approach on the wing as long as they made themselves known. Ronon watched their approach until he saw the tell-tale flash of colors that no griffin possessed.

When Bylar returned with the basket, Ronon announced, "Break," and climbed onto Bylar's back. They flew to the camp just as the Earthers were circling in for a landing on the outskirts. Ronon grinned on seeing the lithe ribbon of spiky black that was Corvax. Ronon had been helping in the harvest for a week, but the last he'd run with Sheppard had been five days ago. Sheppard had been assigned to some off-world mission that started too early in their day to allow for morning runs.

Ronon had kind of missed the guy.

The rest were the blue dragon, smaller than the bronze and the green dragon, that he knew belonged to the doctor. Ronon had Bylar land a little ways from the Earther party to keep from spooking the soldiers. He unbuckled then slid from Bylar's saddle, and the two of them approached the party at an angle.

"Took you long enough," Ronon said when in range enough for Sheppard to hear.

Sheppard's head shot up, bright-eyed with confusion. Ronon was close enough to see the too-perfect alignment of Sheppard's spine and a knotted tautness to his shoulders. Corvax bristled spikier, if that were possible, and had the coiled look of something agitated but with enough common sense not to act on it.


"Took you long enough," Ronon said again. "To finish whatever it was you were doing."

Sheppard relaxed his shoulders only a fraction. "Day off. It's mandatory or else the shrink thinks we'll go insane."


"Nothing," Sheppard said, shaking his head. His eyes wandered the camp as they headed in. "Thought I'd give myself a change of scenery, go to a world of my choosing. 'Course, Athos is pretty much the only other world I know." Which was rather pathetic and almost a little sad. The few times Ronon had seen Sheppard come to Athos, it was always with the expression on his face that he would rather be someplace else. Not that Ronon could blame him; it was hard to have any love for a place where bad things had happened to you.

Today's tension was different, in that there was more of it.

When Sheppard's eyes fell on whatever it was he was looking for, that tension almost locked his body solid. Ronon looked where Sheppard looked to see Teyla and Meeka heading their way.

"Gonna get scanned, finally?" Ronon asked.

Sheppard's throat undulated on a tight swallow. "No. Can't 'til after the mission."

Ronon got that. The mind scan had been pretty damn debilitating on him.

Teyla spoke with Beckett first, then moved on to Sheppard with a smile on her face. "It is good to see you again, Major." The smile quickly fell. "Is something wrong? You look troubled."

"No," Sheppard said, like those Jola birds of Caras that repeated everything people said over and over. "No, fine. Just… need to wind down a little." He gave her a crooked, although rigorous, smile.

Which did nothing to alleviate Teyla's growing concern. "Did something happen? On Genii?"

"No! No, of course not. It's just… personal stuff. Hey, I'm starved, got anything to eat?"

Ronon had to wipe his mouth to hide a smirk. Sheppard was failing at changing a subject.

Teyla, not convinced but being far more understanding than Ronon even tried to be, forced a smile on her own face and swept her hand toward the interior of the camp. "Of course. You are in time for Charrin's tuttle root soup, and she always makes enough to feed the entire camp and more. There should also be a herd of tolas nearby."

Bylar's neck feathers fanned in anticipation. Tolas were huge, slow, and the easiest prey on any world to catch. They were also smart, and once they knew a human and griffin encampment was nearby, they would make a quick migration as far away from that camp as possible. It made hunting them a once-a-year event.

Meeka took off to lead the way, and Bylar followed. Corvax hesitated until Sheppard told him to stop hovering and take off. After another brief moment of hesitation, Corvax finally winged after the griffins.

"Teyla," Sheppard asked, rubbing the back of his neck. "You've known the Genii a long time, right?"

"Our people have traded with them for generations," Teyla said. She led them to the near-center of camp, behind a tent to three fire pits warming three cauldrons of stew. The old woman, Charrin, moved lightly between them, stirring one pot, adding a vegetable to another pot. She smiled on seeing them.

"And they're good people." Sheppard twirled his hands as though trying to stir up words. "Quiet, simple, easy to trust and all that. Right?"

Teyla turned to Sheppard, her eyebrows slanted. "Yes. Why? Has something happened to make you think otherwise?"

"No," John said quickly. "No, not at all. They've been great. I'm… being paranoid, that's all."

With her eyebrows still slanted, blatantly unconvinced, Teyla turned to the small table against the back wall of the tent where bowls and spoons sat at the ready. Because it was the harvest month, most of the tents would have food cooked and at the ready for those out in the fields.

"Do you know their commander? Kolya?" John asked after a moment of awkward silence.

"I know of him," said Teyla. She handed each of them a bowl. "He is often away, aiding other worlds in training their warriors as part of a trade agreement with those worlds. Apparently, Kolya is the Genii's most skilled fighter."

"And they let him off-world?" Ronon asked. "They don't keep him around for Sky Raider attacks?" For Satedans, the more skilled the warrior, the more prized. Anyone wishing to learn from them had to come to them, not the other way around.

Teyla shrugged. "Sometimes skills are all a world has to offer." She then gave them spoons. "The soup should be ready. You are free to help yourselves."

When Teyla retrieved her own bowl and spoon, Ronon took the moment to glance Sheppard's way. There was still tension keeping his shoulders out of their usual lazy slope. Sheppard hadn't found whatever answer he was looking for, and it was making him extra uncomfortable.

They stood while they ate, Teyla making small talk about the harvest, Sheppard's talk even smaller and vague, saying they hadn't found anything of interest yet. The griffins and Corvax returned, each with a tola in his claw. They ate outside the camp, near the woods where scavengers could clean up the debris.

Sheppard, as he usually did, managed to squeeze into the various conversations, "When our, um… current mission is complete. I'd really like my mind scanned." The tone was that of a can't-say-no demand rather than a polite request. He didn't wait for an answer, shifting the subject to the dull existence that was waiting on linguists to translate alien languages day after day.

It wasn't a long visit for Sheppard. The moment Beckett was finished with whatever he'd been doing – healing sick people or giving them inoculations or whatever – Sheppard headed back with them. Ronon didn't think Sheppard dropping by had made a difference. If anything, Ronon could have sworn Sheppard was even less happy on leaving. His shoulders had been stooped – not lethargically slouched – bowing his back; Corvax's frown had actually been a little intimidating.

"I don't think he trusts the Genii," Ronon said. He was on his fourth bowl of soup.

"He will learn to in time," said Teyla shortly. She was a slow eater, and stirring her second bowl of soup with no real interest in it. She looked up at the receding specks of color that were the Earthers. "Since the Sky Raider attack they have become wary. I understand that, I do. Especially in the major's case."

"But?" Ronon said.

Teyla turned hard eyes on him. "Such caution could lead to false accusations. That is dangerous. It is difficult enough to form alliances as long lasting as the one my people have with the Genii. We cannot lose their friendship."

"And, what, you think Sheppard's paranoia will cause that to happen?"

"I fear repercussions, yes." She sighed, almost weary, it seemed. "Do you know of the Genii?"

"Went to their world once. Left when I learned they didn't just let anyone pass through unless they had a trade agreement established."

"They are a very proud, very fickle and very stubborn people. It is I who introduced them to the Earth people. If the Earth people prove to be untrustworthy or untrusting and complications arise, we will be to blame for aiding in the establishment of the trading agreement. They could very well decide to end our alliance. They have done so with other worlds over less."

Ronon sniffed. "Sounds like they need to get over themselves."

Teyla said nothing. Ronon could be translating it wrong, but supposed it was because, silently – in a way she would not admit even to herself – she agreed. Or she knew something Ronon didn't, so felt any explanation not worth the effort. Ronon was usually better than this at reading people. Teyla, however, knew how to be closed when she wanted. He let her have her silence.

Besides, if he wanted to get to know the Genii, he could always do it himself.

Chapter 7

Teyla's visit with Sora had nothing to do with anything – not Major Sheppard's inquiries two days ago, not the presence of the Earthers on Genii. It was for the sake of visiting a friend, seeing how she was, if things were going well with her, so on and so forth. She went later, after the Earth people had already gone ahead, to keep herself separate from their party as a visual promise that there was nothing diplomatic related to her arrival.

She did ask, offhanded in a casual inquiry, how the two groups were getting along. Sometimes paranoia went both ways, and that could make an alliance all the more precarious.

"From what my father told me," Sora said, "it is very much we leave them alone, they leave us alone." They were walking along the edge of a tava-bean field. The stalks were still young, only ankle-high and the shoots not even pebbling the branches. Their griffins walked a ways behind. Sora's cream-colored Allesa had her eyes on the woodland across the field. The hunting hour must have been close.

"You do not interact often?" Teyla asked.

Sora adjusted her bonnet at an angle, shading her eyes from the sun. "There's not much to interact about. Our people are more interested in the exterior. Theirs the interior, though we've told them there's little to find." She smiled, like a mother amused over the antics of children. "Not that it's stopped them. We'll sometimes see their dragons though they are difficult to miss even if you tried. The Earthers we rarely see at all. It's almost as though they vanish when they go inside."

"What is it they are hoping to find, I wonder?" Teyla said, talking mostly to herself. She'd often wondered this, sometimes out of idle curiosity, sometimes out of concern that what they sought might come at a price. They had already attracted unwanted attention at no fault of their own. That it could happen again hung on a thread as thin as a hair.

Sora's shoulders lifted then fell. Coming around the field, she adjusted her bonnet directly down. "Some of our men have asked. The answer is always the same: everything and anything the Ancestors may have left behind. I have never seen a group so obsessed with anything Ancestor related, and I've been to Hoff. Have you been to Hoff?"

Teyla smiled. "My father went once. But we had nothing that interested in them." She looked at Sora carefully. "But you do?"

Sora smirked. "We have Ancestor ruins."

"As do we."

"Yes, but most of your people fear them and refuse to let others near them. I don't know why, Teyla. What we do and what we don't do makes no difference to the Sky Raiders. Your people must realize this."

Teyla pulled in her lips. "It is a matter of laying blame," she eventually said. Sky Raiders came with sorrow and fury in their wake. Having something to blame quelled most of that fury, so Teyla saw no harm in superstitions though there were days she longed to place the Ancestor ruins on the bargaining table. She could only imagine what such an offer would provide in return on the right world.

They turned the corner of the field and Sora tilted her hat. Alessa's gaze was pulled at last from the woods to the narrow strip of grassy meadow in between. She was silent, perhaps mentally preparing for the hunting hour. That she made no eye contact, even brief, with Meeka was not uncommon. Genii griffins never made eye contact after first meeting. Most worlds saw it as insufferably rude, but it was a small price to pay for the alliance.

Rodney missed the convenience of actually living in the same place he was trying to research. Plenty of coffee, food and the ability to go to his quarters for some quiet time when he switched off with Radek. No sneaking around, looking over his shoulder and putting up with creepy Genii.

And they were creepy. The Genii were already waiting at the ruins. The moment Rodney's group landed, the commander guy – Cola, Koala… Kolya – had that oversized turkey of his trot up to keep pace along side the Earthlings. More specifically, Sheppard.

"We've been making great progress with the translation thanks to the help of many of your linguists," the Koala – Kolya - guy said.

Sheppard inclined his head. "Good. Glad we could be of help."

Rodney had come to know the major enough to find it obnoxious the way he could melt into any seat, even the harness, and not have a bad back to show for it. Yet six days (counting today) of seeing Sheppard ramrod straight wasn't enough time to get used to it. He always tensed when emerging onto Genii, but just about snapped his own spine whenever Kolya joined them to make idle chitchat. Several of Sheppard's men had asked about it with a hand on the butt of their P-90s and eyes wandering the terrain. The major always waved it off, chalking it up to caution exaggerated by his capture.

"And how are your people progressing?" Kolya asked. "I would have thought it slow going but you must have found something to keep you within the ruins rather than out."

Sheppard shrugged. "Some of the walls are still intact enough to get samples of the materials they used to build this place."

"I see," Kolya said, all creepy, annoying smiles. The guy was always smiling, every day, as though life were one big cosmic joke that forever amused him. Rodney couldn't blame Sheppard's tension.

Neither did he get it, what with Kolya being nothing but cooperative. It was starting to get on Rodney's nerves, because it was making him nervous when there was no reason to be.

"Tell me, how deep does this facility run?" Kolya said. Thankfully, Sheppard was as tense as he was going to get and Kolya too focused on Sheppard to notice Rodney tighten his grip on the saddle handles. His brain screamed, He knows, damn it! Run! but a surge of terror kept him frozen. Bina shot him a narrow-eyed look of warning.

Then Kolya asked, "Some of our scientists have had trouble seeking your scientists. They swear to it that you simply vanish into thin air. Not even your dragons know where to find you."

Sheppard shrugged. "It's pretty big, and we tend to spread out." He put a crooked smile on his face. "We even lose ourselves, sometimes."

If it was meant to be a joke, it sucked. Kolya laughed, anyway. More like guffawed. Even his griffin smiled, and it was just as unnerving. But Rodney had to hand to it Sheppard – the jokes may lack yet the man knew how to spin a good lie. Eight days and they had yet to chase off any nosy Genii.

"If you would excuse us," the major said, "it's time we got lost."

"Might I join you? See what it is you find so fascinating?" Kolya asked. It was all Rodney could do not to slap his own forehead. He opened his mouth to say what the hell business it was of theirs, why the hell don't they mind their own business and other pissed-off phrases with a few more hells tossed in for good measure. Then Sheppard opened his mouth first to respond with what Rodney hoped was one hell of a lie.

"Commander Kolya!" Lad, Laid – the guy with a name that started with L – cut in, which was even better. His pale griffin galloped over to them, close enough for Kolya to hear. "Some of the men are being careless in removing plant growth from a very fragile section of wall and they will not listen to us on how to effectively clear it."

The regard Kolya gave L-guy was heavy-lidded and Rodney could have sworn, almost bored, as though L-guy were often the tarnish of his life. But he raised his hand like a lord placating a frantic servant and smiled. "I will be there shortly." He turned that smile on Sheppard. "Some other time, then, Major."

"Yeah, some other time," Sheppard said under his breath.

When Kolya's griffin trotted after L-guy's, Sheppard hissed, "Move out!" and they pressed forward at a walk that might as well have been a run. They entered through the tighter opening around back that they'd discovered three days ago. From the inside, it was simple to spot; from the outside it was buried behind a copse of thin trees that had tangled together. It was easy enough for a man to get through; for a dragon it was like a deranged game of Twister. They hated it, but it was a necessary evil when the Genii got too curious.

The major didn't relax until they were behind the hidden door and back in the chair room, and even then it was only a third less the intensity of what Rodney had seen outside. Sheppard dropped into the chair with the abruptness of a man anxious to get all this over with. It was as though each encounter with Kolya robbed Sheppard of another nerve. And Rodney wasn't the only one to notice it: Ford, the botanist girl Katie, Radek and one of Carson's cohorts whose name escaped Rodney kept looking at Sheppard like he had something growing out of the side of his face, but they were just too afraid to tell him. Bina kept frowning at what had to be one hell of an agitated ambient.

Oh friggin' well. They were all just going to have to suck it up.

"Ready, Major?" Rodney said flatly after connecting the tablet to the chair. Sheppard answered by reclining. The holograph blinked into open, dark air. It was the medical department's turn to suffer. Rodney knew he should have brought Carson along. He didn't trust this… what did Carson say her name was? Keller? He didn't trust this Keller woman. Too fresh-out-of-high school looking rather than med school in his opinion. But she answered the questions swiftly and efficiently, so he supposed she would do for now.

Sheppard had once asked him why the hell the Ancients felt the need for so many questions when most of them couldn't be answered. The way Rodney figured it, it was all a matter of catering to the masses. That is, a question for every human or human-like race the Ancients had anything to do with. They'd seeded Pegasus, they'd seeded Earth, they'd seeded who knew how many other galaxies so of course would have to have questions pertinent to the respective areas. There was math and science – plus a mess of pointless brain puzzles – that Rodney had never seen the likes of.

Personally, he loved the math, and the brain teasers, and lamented that he didn't have more time to work them out. Once the crystals were plugged into the consoles, that was it for the quiz portion, and the chair became little more than an uncomfortable alien recliner that didn't even glow.

Keller proved adept at the brain teasers, as did Sheppard. Katie was all about the botany and Rodney and Zelenka handled everything else (everything they could handle: they didn't touch the leftover chemistry and missed zoology questions). Radek called a break at the two-hour mark just before Sheppard usually got his sitting-for-too-long headache, which spared them all the brief complaints and demands to hurry up and finish the damn question already. Rodney had a snack of a small bag of those tuby-crackers with the cheese in the middle. Katie and Keller wandered into a corner to talk while Radek simply wandered as he looked over the readings.

Bina kept glancing back toward the entrance, eye-ridges low over his eyes. Rodney nudged him with a kick to his foot.

"What's your problem?"

"I keep… I thought…" His mouth worked without sound, then shook his head. "Nothing."

Rodney scowled. Sheppard's paranoia must be rubbing off. The man himself was currently upright but still seated, guzzling down a canteen of water as though he hadn't had a drink in over a day. Carson was forever going off on Rodney about the consequences of prolonged chair use. Apparently, to sit and think could take a lot out of a person. Rodney wouldn't know.

Sheppard finished his last swallow with a gasp as he pulled the canteen from his mouth. He stood, stretched, joints popping, then took a quick walk around the room just to end up back at the chair.

"Let's keep going," he said. The chair reclined and the holograph blinked back on.

Rodney sighed, already figuring that to argue Sheppard out of it was pointless. The breaks were supposed to be ten minutes each. "Fine. But you get to explain to Carson why you look like crap when we get back." The breaks were also for Sheppard's sake, so it was no never-mind to Rodney how long or short they were.

"Fine," Sheppard said. He must have answered the next question to pop up; it immediately vanished. Talk about impatient.

Instead of a follow-up question, the panel on the arm slid away. Sheppard blinked. Rodney gaped.

"Guess I don't have to explain anything," Sheppard said.

Sora slipped her hands into the pockets of her skirt, and her face lit up with mild surprise as though she had just remembered something. She stopped, glanced down at her feet, then over her shoulder back the way they had come.

"I'm sorry, Teyla. You'll have to excuse me for a moment. There is something I need to check." She turned the rest of her body and started down the strip of field until Alessa blocked her from sight. They vanished down a small trail into the woods. Not long after, Sora returned, out of breath and harried.

"I'm sorry, Teyla. I need to go." She smiled wanly. "Warrums are building nests too close to the field, again. We're going to have to dust them with killing powder and you know how messy that can get."

Teyla smiled back. "I do. I will see you again. Tomorrow, perhaps?"

"If permitting," Sora said. She then climbed onto Alessa and they flew away.

Teyla let her smile fall.

"I do not hear Warrums," Meeka thought. Warrum insects were small, but when in colonies hummed to vibrate the bones.

They would have heard them when passing the woods.

"What do you think?" Meeka asked.

Teyla could not answer. She was not sure.

Bylar brought Ronon into a world like many worlds he had visited, full of trees and fields and the sweet smell of spring grass heading toward summer, just like the last time he'd visited this world. He was starting to wonder if it had seasons.

The griffin wasn't five strides from the 'ring when they were flanked on both sides by farmers on griffin-back pointing bulky rifles Ronon's way.

That was new.

"State your business," the young farmer on the right said.

Ronon raised both his hands, palms out, showing just how unarmed he was and hoping they didn't spot the holster hidden behind his coat. "Just dropping by. Bunch of friends of mine should be here. They ride flying lizards, call themselves Earthers? They're expecting me."

The two farmers leaned to the side in order to look at each other over Bylar's rump. The older one with the pouchy face nodded at the younger one, then straightened up and said, "We'll show you to them."

Ronon swept his hand forward. "Show away."

The Genii took the lead into the sky. Ronon and Bylar followed. They didn't go far, just to some ancient buildings half-swallowed beneath thick foliage. They flew low, most likely to alert any Genii on the ground to a new visitor. For this reason, even within the shadows Ronon saw darker darkness, long and lithe and spiked, slip like a water serpent from a hole in the side of the structure. The darkness looked up and angled enough for sunlight to betray a vicious scowl on Corvax's face.

Griffin and dragon made eye contact. They dipped their heads to each other.

"He's really not happy," thought Bylar.

Locking his eyes on his escorts' backs, Ronon slipped his hand slowly within his coat to the grip of his blaster.

Rodney's heart pounded and his hand shook sliding the crystal into the console. "Do you know what this means?"

"That we don't have to come to this planet anymore?" Sheppard said, looking no less excited.

"Well, yes. But I was thinking more that it only took six days for us to get this puppy. Six days! Can you imagine how long it will take us with the next outpost? My money's already on a couple of hours."

Sheppard arched an impressed eyebrow.

"It is a very distinct pattern," Radek said. He was smiling so big he was showing teeth. "Rodney, have you noticed how some of the questions seemed familiar? The systems must somehow be connected, perhaps relaying to each other those questions not answered or that we were unable to get to before the data crystal was presented to us."

Rodney paused in activating the console to roll his eyes. "Probably. Does it really matter?" He couldn't for the life of him figure out how he hadn't noticed before Radek. But, no, it didn't matter so he stopped worrying about it. They were close, so damn close – only two more outposts between them and the lost city of Atlantis. He didn't even give a damn that they had yet to learn this particular outpost's name.

The only one not showing any sort of enthusiasm was Bina, who was currently more fascinated – or troubled according to his expression – with the entrance. Since he'd been acting weird all day, Rodney wasn't going to worry about it, either. The screen glowed to life and their next destination appeared in star charts and an address. Radek had already plugged the tablet in to download it.

Rodney rubbed his hands together and licked his lips. "We are close, people. So very, very close. By this time tomorrow… or, later… we should be kicking up our heels in Atlantis."

"Unless your sudden bout of positive thinking just jinxed us," Sheppard said.

Rodney glared bullets at him. "Wow, did you strain something to be that negative? And jinxing, seriously? You're supposed to be Mensa. Act like it."

Adding to the frustration, Sheppard lifted a single shoulder in a nonchalant shrug.

"Rodney?" Bina said.

"Not now. Besides, it's not like finding these outposts have been like kicking through a war zone—"


"It's been pretty easy three times out of five. I would think that just as much of a trend—"




Rodney whirled on Bina. "What!"

The white dragon was up on all fours, his webbed crest raised like a spooked cat. "Something's wrong."

"What?" Rodney looked to the door. But whatever was there he must have missed it. Sheppard, on the other hand, had been quicker and took long, swift strides with his P-90 raised and shoulders hunched to the entrance. Ford mirrored him on the other side.

"What? What is it?" Rodney said.

Bina arched his head down and whispered, "Someone was there."

Cold slithered down Rodney's spine. "You sure?" he whispered back.

Bina nodded. "Felt them – elation and fear. I knew I was feeling something different. I just couldn't tell. I looked up and saw a shadow. They took off when the major saw them." His face fell, sagging contrite and pathetic. "Sorry, Rodney, but it's hard to pick emotions apart when I don't know what to look for."

Rodney patted his neck, intent on the dark, empty entryway gaping like a vertical pit. Sheppard to the right side, Ford the left, complete, endless nothing on the other side. And just as quiet. Rodney's ears were beginning to hurt, it was so quiet. He could almost hear his own heart smashing away at his ribs.

"I see him, sir!" Ford barked. Rodney jumped and the two grunts took off. Bina took off after them and without really thinking about it, and Rodney followed because it was his dragon being boneheaded enough to charge toward danger. He was distantly aware of footfalls behind him, making him run faster, the less-than-logical part of his brain certain he was being chased.

Ahead were shouts made incoherent by the acoustics of this place. Rodney heard Ford's name, then the major's; right, left and "Don't shoot yet!" down corridor after corridor.

Then Rodney skidded to a stop when Bina skidded to a stop. He squeezed around the dragon in the narrow hall to the front, where Sheppard and Ford stood groping a blank wall.

"I know he went this way, sir. I know it!"

"Easy, Lieutenant. A place like this has a lot of tricks—"

A click, followed by grating as the wall pulled back and slid away. Both Ford and Sheppard stepped back nearly into Bina.

"Up its sleeve," Sheppard finished. With weapons raised, they entered the weakly lit corridor that angled upward and straight ahead.

Rodney pulled his handgun from his thigh holster, gripping it hard to stop his hand from quaking. It didn't matter the hours Sumner had forced the scientists to practice with the damn things, he still hated holding one, feeling its weight, having his finger so close to the trigger of something that could kill. There wasn't much room in the hall, but that didn't stop him from pressing his shoulder into Bina's. He could see the bright white square of the wide open exit. The closer they came, the slower Ford's and Sheppard's movements.

They pressed themselves to the walls, inching toward the exit. They stretched their necks for what would be an eye-blink quick look outside, weapons aimed ahead of them.

Hands shot out, grabbed both P-90s and hauled both Ford and Sheppard through.

"Major!" Rodney cried. Bina bolted passed and Rodney had to run to keep up, which made him just as much a bonehead when the hands grabbed him, pulling him against a broad chest for his assailant to put a knife to his throat. Bina could only stare in slack-jawed horror.

There was little a dragon could do against his human as a living shield. Six human shields – Ford in a hold similar to what had Rodney, Radek, Jennifer and Katie clustered between heavy-duty weapons and Sheppard pinned to the ground under a griffin's claw. If told to roll over and beg, Bina would probably add in a whimper for good measure.

"I'd suggest you all cooperate. We would not want any unnecessary deaths on our hands, would we?"

Rodney, already knowing better than to struggle, froze. He looked up into Kolya's scarred, creepy, smug face. As much as Rodney knew he shouldn't have been surprised, he was speechless with it. Sometimes, people scared the hell out of you for no explicable reason. Sometimes, you thought those scary people capable of doing bad things, expected them to do bad things at any moment. Then the bad happens, and you still didn't see it coming.

The human brain was incredibly messed up like that. Rodney had been certain bad things would happen if he left the safety of the base, but he hadn't believed they would happen.

Why the hell did he have to be right all the time?

Kolya's smile widened, the cosmic joke forever in his favor. "Make this easy on yourselves, and you may live. If not, then several dragons will be without their humans, and I doubt that will be pleasant for them."

Weapons clicked at the ready, long and huge and triple-barreled. Rodney was starting to suspect these people weren't really farmers.

There was no believing what Teyla saw. She risked lifting her head above the boulders that formed part of her screen of rocks, shrubs and trees, Meeka pressed as flat as possible on the ground behind her.

"Their weapons," she thought. "They are not Genii. They cannot be Genii. Some of the soldiers are wearing uniforms I have never seen before. Dark gray…" Her eyes bulged when a familiar gold griffin sidled up next to Commander Kolya's. She knew the bird, would know it anywhere, but the rider…

That could not be Sora, dressed in the grays of a strange soldier, carrying a handheld weapon that could not be of Genii make.

For a heartbeat span of a moment, Teyla was certain she was dreaming. Meeka lifted her head, and Teyla moved quickly to close her beak before a squawk choked through. The sharp edges pressing against Teyla's palm stated plainly that this was no dream. She wished it was, wished she could pretend it was.

A hiss pulled her hazy attention to the woods behind her screen. She saw shades of brown and bronze between the foliage, one of them a head of roped hair she knew well.

Ronon lifted his blaster, then his finger to his lips.

"What the hell!" Sheppard snarled, squirming like a worm beneath the claw. Rodney wished he wouldn't say anything, because Kolya looked like a guy just waiting for an excuse to entertain himself by hurting someone. Rodney was sure the knife was pressing a little deeper into his skin.

"Relax, Major," Kolya said pleasantly, a man who knew this was his lucky day. He lifted his foot onto his saddle into order to rest his arms on his knee. "This is nothing personal. We merely want whatever it is you found within the ruins, that's all. Then we will let you go."

"Yeah?" Sheppard said. "Why don't I believe that?" He had to arch his back just to bend his neck enough to stare all his fury at Kolya. Even upside down, it was almost unsettling. If he could rip the guy's throat out, Rodney had no doubts Sheppard would do it.

Kolya's body jerked with a quiet laugh. "Because you are obviously a smart man. I do give you my word, Sheppard," he twisted his hand up in a shrug, "not that it means anything – that we will not harm you. We've known for some time that your interests in the ruins extended beyond mere words on walls. You are advanced, and every world knows of the Ancestors' interest in creating machines beyond imagining. It is simple enough math, Major. And we knew it was only a matter of time before you found something. Now you have. Now we wish to have it ourselves. After all, this is our world, making it ours to have. If you are lucky, perhaps we will let you drop by and have a look at it from time to time."

Sheppard narrowed his eyes at Kolya, more like he was trying to figure the man out than glare him to death. He said nothing.

"Cooperate," said Kolya. "Or my word means nothing." He shot his chin out toward Rodney. The knife vanished so the arms could wrap completely around Rodney's chest. A second Genii in a gray uniform stepped forward and forced Rodney's arm out straight. A third Genii stood next to the second.

Third Genii pulled out one hell of a knife to rival the ones the marines carried. Speaking of marines, where the hell were they? Rodney thought now as good a time as any to struggle, and a fat lot of good it did except provoke the guy squeezing him to crush his ribs into his lungs. It didn't stop him from panting.

Down on the ground, Sheppard's face paled. "There's nothing to give, Kolya. We used it already. You want to see it, go inside the facility and see it. We didn't even have time to take it out of the damn console."

Second Genii pulled Rodney's jacket sleeve up. The knife lowered. Rodney breathed so fast he thought his lungs were going to pop.

"Kolya! I mean it! There's nothing to give! Kolya!"

The knife touched skin, cold, sharp. Rodney's heart pounded hard enough to explode at any moment. It was all he saw, the thump and scrape of Sheppard's pointless struggles a fading echo.

"Kolya! You son of a bitch! What the hell is your problem? I'm telling the truth!"

"He is!" screamed Radek. "It is inside. I will show you if you want, just stop this madness!"

The blade pressed. It was a sting at first, like a paper cut, provoking a fat drop of blood from the skin. The knife slid down and the sting became a burn, a burn of cold agony that shivered up Rodney's arm into his shoulder and down his back. Blood ribbed his pale flesh and dripped from him, patting on the ground soft as rain.

"Damn it, Kolya!"

Everything became white noise and a white fog until Rodney could no longer see his arm or the blood. He heard a massive bellow, felt a surge of terror and anger that made his heart skip beats and the pain fade when his brain became overwhelmed by static and snow.

The sudden release of pressure on his chest and the sensation of falling snapped the white from his vision and the pain back to his body. His fall was cushioned by a white paw cradling him as he fought for his footing. There was a whine, a red flash that made him wince and the second Genii went down, then the third.

The griffin pinning Sheppard was bowled over by a streak of bladed black. Pillars of fire ripped through the air, scorching it, filling it with the stench of ash and brimstone. Dragons and riders overhead rained fire and bullets like a choreographed dance, pushing the Genii back away from the Earthlings. Radek's gold, Katie's green and Keller's silver landed in a crouch for them to climb on. Sheppard swung himself onto Corvax, and Bina lifted Rodney to shove him into the saddle.

Rodney found enough sense to strap his legs in. He hunched over Bina, pressing his gashed arm to his chest since his other hand had to grip the handle.

"Go!" he heard Sheppard shout. Rodney held tight when Bina launched like a snap into the air. Bina climbed the fastest he had ever climbed, the air pushing against Rodney, roaring in his ears. The shade switched places with a clear sky and blinding sunshine and Bina leveled off within a phalanx of dragons.

That was the correct term: A phalanx. Never a herd or a flock, because such words were insulting. Bina had told him so on more than one occasion—


Rodney jolted from his thoughts, blinking fast, feeling as though he just woke up. He turned his heavy head to Sheppard on Corvax, flying alongside. Sheppard was looking at him long and hard with just a touch of what Rodney could have sworn was concern.

"Stay with me, McKay! We're almost to the 'gate. Just stay with me."

Rodney could only nod. Crap, he felt so damn tired.

The phalanx raced over Genii, turning the world solid green beneath them. Weary curiosity had Rodney turning his head enough to see griffins following. But there were also griffins already with them. He recognized Teyla, and the big guy with the weird hair – R, something. Ron or Rone or something but like it was important. Damn it, he just wanted to sleep.

"Don't sleep!" Bina barked. The explosion of guns helped. He saw Sheppard twist his body enough to return fire.

The 'gate approached fast, and the lead-most dragon landed and tapped at the DHD with a single claw. The event horizon burst forth in all its foamy glory, collapsing into a perfect, shiny, pretty puddle. So pretty. The soldiers lagged behind to provide cover, giving all the scientists and linguists and the only doctor the lead. Bina tucked his wings and dove. His nose was almost touching the tail of the dragon ahead – Radek's little gold.

Bina's head broke through the event horizon. Rodney was about to follow, take a dive into the shiny pretty puddle, but his body decided it a good time to pass out. He couldn't blame it.

Chapter 8

John couldn't stop thinking about the look on Teyla's face when they left her on Athos. Between the close escape and Rodney hanging limp off Bina's back, he'd still had room enough in his head to spare for Teyla – her empty expression, her hollow eyes – and the cold, sick feeling that she had been betrayed and it was all his fault.

He had wanted to explain. With Rodney unconscious and this new development, he hadn't had time, so he left her, alone in a field, with only her shellshock and an equally dazed Meeka. Ronon had stayed, but he didn't know the situation like John did.

John had to go back.


With a twitch, John fell from his thoughts and looked at an expectant and worried Weir.

"Um… Yeah, we made it, no casualties." He hoped. Carson was still with Rodney in the private sector of the infirmary. The doc's blue, a black and a gray lay outside the door like cats: legs tucked, heads up but eyes closed in meditation as they poured out their placidity. "We shot through to the alpha site, shut the 'gate down to dial Athos and from Athos headed home. So it's safe to say we weren't followed."

"And you're sure none of the griffins made eye contact?" This from Sumner, standing five feet from the bed out of the nurse's way, but still too close for comfort. The nurse was currently pinching John's bicep with a blood pressure cuff. He was to be taken in for X-rays following the impromptu conference. John was sure his chest was simply bruised, yet better safe than sorry and all that crap.

At least it meant being around for when Carson got finished with Rodney, or so John assumed. If it didn't, he'd be sticking around regardless.

John exhaled, long and slow, and rubbed the space between his eyes. "You may want to check with Keller, Brown and Zelenka. The griffin pinning me never looked down and Rodney was too distracted by the knife at his throat to look at anyone." He shifted his small massage from his forehead to his face, rubbing up and down along the side. He was getting a headache, because something wasn't adding up.

Why threaten Rodney with a knife when eye contact with a griffin would have been faster?

"There was someone in that facility with us when we activated the crystal," John said, dropping his hand to his thigh. The nurse now had a stethoscope down his shirt, pressed to his chest. The stupid thing was cold. "Just ask Bina and Ford because they saw 'em too. And it was that bastard who led us straight to Kolya. That meant Kolya had the means to enter the facility himself. It meant he knew the details, that we'd downloaded the info on the tablet, that that same info was still in the facility. He knew – had to know – and he still felt like torturing McKay. So either he really is a sadistic son of a bitch or whoever we were chasing had nothing to do with the Genii."

"Except," said Weir, folding her arms and squinting in that way that meant she was computing all the known facts, few as there were. "You said Kolya's men were waiting for you outside, that there were more men than he had initially brought with him."

John, following her line of thought, bobbed his head. "Whoever it was wouldn't have had time to get away from Kolya. Neither would Kolya have known where to wait for us. Okay, then. That settles it: Kolya's a sadistic son of a bitch."

"And you knew it," Sumner said. He tacked on like an afterthought, "Suspected it."

Weir darted her startled gaze between the two. "He did? You did, Major?"

John shrugged helplessly. "He gave me the creeps. I made a request for more men." He tried to sound nonchalant about it but had the bad feeling it had come off as a tad heated. Weir, however, didn't seem to notice.

"Which wouldn't have altered the situation," Sumner said. And he was right, depressing as it was to admit; extra men wouldn't have changed anything. The security that had already been present hadn't changed anything. The Genii had still gotten the drop on them, because the Genii were smart, slick, sadistic bastards.

But the hindsight of it all still pissed John off.

"All I had to go on was a general feeling," John said tightly. "There wasn't much else I could do about it." Other than have Corvax stand guard inside rather than Bina. Corvax was trained to hunt emotions that didn't belong, like a kid obsessed with Where's Waldo and his Dragon books. Bina wasn't. They could have caught the spy, kept him from radioing in to Kolya, and prevented all the crap from hitting the fan.

Or not, because if Kolya was Genii's number one warrior, then the guy had probably had plans A through Z. Catching the spy could have been just as much a trap as chasing him down.

"I'd still like to know where that bad feeling came from," Sumner said.

John pressed his lips in the physical effort to fight back making an ass of himself for the sake of it. "I'd like to know that myself, sir." Because he didn't think his gut feeling the product of double-honed spidey-senses.

He knew Sumner had theories of his own, but living in another galaxy didn't dismiss innocent until proven guilty.

"What I do know is that he had access to that facility," said John. He stabbed his finger into the padding of the gurney. "And that we didn't have time to destroy the crystal or the console. He knows where the next outpost is."

Sumner nodded. "Then we're going to have to move immediately. As soon as you're discharged from the infirmary, we question Teyla about our next destination, and then we're at that destination."

John hadn't missed his use of the word "we." His sudden discomfort had nothing to do with Sumner's wording.

"I'm… not sure if Teyla will be up to showing us around any more worlds. I didn't exactly get the chance to debrief her on what happened. It could be that she's blaming us."

"Then we debrief her," Sumner said. "The moment you're out, gear up." He left without waiting for an answer or any protests from the nurse.

John looked at Elizabeth. He tried to smile but didn't think it that much of a success. "Wow. Soon as I step through the 'gate I'm going back the other way."

Elizabeth returned the grin. "Story of my life… although it's usually a door – or an airport terminal – not a stargate." She moved closer to the bed, as though with Sumner gone she had more room to move. The corners of her eyes wrinkled – she was thinking again. "Do you think your reaction had anything to do with your missing memories? Do you think you could have been remembering?"

"Now who's reading minds?" John said with a smirk. He felt the smirk fade from his face. "It didn't go beyond being anything more than a feeling. I didn't miraculously recall anything and my dreams are still just foggy nightmares." He tapped the side of his head with his finger. "Fort Knox is easier to get into than whatever's blocking me up here."

"But you dream, even if they are mostly fog," Elizabeth said.

John swallowed. "Fog that makes for a rude awakening, let me tell you." He slitted his eyelids at her. "You know, if I didn't know any better, I'd say you're just as anxious for me to remember as Sumner."

Weir's smile seemed more self-deprecating than amused, especially when she dropped her gaze. "If that's your polite way of asking if I trust you…" She looked at him, right in the eye, and John joked nervously to himself that she was reading his mind again.

"I don't trust what happened to you, or what was done to you," she said. "I can't deny that and you deserve the honesty. But I'm not of afraid of it, either. I want to know what happened, but I'm not anxious to know, especially not if it means any risk to you. And that you reacted the way you did to Kolya is a benefit. It means being a step closer to knowing, as well as being prepared to act the next time you meet someone who inspires a similar feeling."

John's eyebrows climbed high up his forehead. "Good point." Unless the feeling inspired him all the way to pulling his gun, shooting first, and asking question later, which would be a bad thing. It was a moot point, though, so he kept it to himself.

"I'm also resigned to the possibility that we may never know." Now she was the one to smirk. "So long as that doesn't prove detrimental to our safety, then I think I can live with that."

"Gee, thanks," John said dryly. "Maybe I can't."

"Still want to know that bad?"

"Yes," John said sharply. "I do. I'm willing to wait, but I would really like to know."

Weir's wince wasn't so quick and small that John missed it. Apparently, were she in his shoes, ignorance would be bliss. But he supposed he couldn't blame her: he'd been pretty beat up and screwed up when they found him.

Possibly still screwed up.

The motion of the three dragons at the door after having been still for so long ended the conversation. The dragons parted like a chromatic Red Sea and Carson emerged, pulling off his surgical smock that he bundled and tossed into the nearest hazardous-waste bin. The smock had been relatively blood free.

"It wasn't as bad as it looked," he said. "Mostly superficial and more a means to cause pain than damage. I'm guessing he passed out from a combination of shock and blood loss. But we've got him stitched, topped off and drugged to the gills." He beamed. "The lad's resting up. He'll be fine."

John's body slumped in relief. "That's great news, Doc."

"Aye, that it is," Carson said. He took the chart from Marie. "Now then," and moved his beam back onto John. "Let's take some pictures of those bones of yours, lad."

Teyla prowled the camp like a territorial predator, giving those she passed curt nods of reassurance that she did not feel herself. People returned the nods, she knew, just to be polite. She did not stop to talk, nor did anyone attempt to make her stop.

When she was about to begin her fifth erratic circuit through the tents, Meeka crowded her, herding her in the direction of their own tent.

"Time passes no differently whether moving or standing still," Meeka said.

Teyla flitted around the griffin, back on her original path.

"Time is not the issue," she snapped.

But Meeka was just as agile in retaking Teyla's personal space. "You are restless, Teyla. I understand. But you are also making your people more uneasy than they already were. I saw Wex and his friends holding their rifles as though they expect an attack at any minute, and you know how trigger-clumsy they can be when nervous."

They had not been far from the tent. As soon as they arrived, Meeka backed off. Teyla wandered around the outside of her tent, then within it, seeking distraction. She found the pieces to the new leather top she had been weaving together, the one that would replace the old top she wore when stick fighting, and brought it to the bench outside the entrance to work on.

She had alerted the council to what she had witnessed between the Earthers and the Genii. Standing before them, reiterating the scene, had been like a dream to her – foggy and unreal. Only after talking did she wake up to the cold, sick knot in her belly and a burn between her shoulder blades climbing up into her skull.

It had been three generations since the Athosians were forced to wait for answers. When loyalties were questioned and alliances at stake, investigations into the matter were immediate and swift. The necessary actions were taken to either ensure the alliance or determine whether or not to break it off. Acting quickly to resolve a matter allowed no room for speculation and suspicion.

Teyla knew the Genii had seen her among the Earthers during the escape. She knew that they knew she had been one of the ones shot at. The Genii knew what was at stake, and because it was their doing, it was up to them to make the first move by coming to Athos and explaining themselves.

Just in case, Halling had tossed the Athosian standard through the 'ring – one of the larger flags painted brightly so as not to be missed. That was as far as they would take their efforts, other than waiting. Because they had to wait, Teyla could only send a small envoy of three to the Earther planet and deliver the demand for answers. As leader, when the Genii people did come, Teyla's place must be with her people.

A stubborn knot in the ties tried Teyla's patience. The point of learning to making clothes rather than trading for them was to acquire patience. The other point was to keep from wasting needed resources. At the moment, Teyla's lesson was to have the patience not to give up and toss the thing on the ground in frustration. It wasn't that she was frustrated; it was that she was anxious.

And feeling ill with possible betrayal. She'd been close enough to hear Commander Koyla's demands. Meeka's sharper eyes had seen the smile of triumph on his and many other Geniis' faces. They had both seen Doctor McKay's torture.

Then there were the weapons, like no weapon Teyla had ever seen, large and bulky yet smooth and complicated. The gray uniforms…

Teyla set the top on the small wooden table beside the bench. It was a sore temptation to walk through that 'gate – onto Genii, onto the Earther world, it didn't matter – and attack with interrogations. The Earthers had left too quickly, Teyla's mouth sealed with shock, for her to obtain the needed answers.

She had not felt this lost since the Sky Raiders had taken her father, making her leader at a tender age. There was also no denying the anger of being tossed into a matter that was not hers or her people's, and left floundering.

"It has only been hours," Meeka said. "Not days. All sides are going to need a moment to regroup."

Teyla shook her head. "It should not be taking this long."

"For the Genii, no," Meeka said. "The Earthers are still coming to understand our ways. If you want, I could take you to the 'ring."

"And if it is the Genii who arrive first, my presence at the 'ring will reek of desperation."

"Or of impatience and fury."

"I'd rather not risk it," Teyla said. "I—"

The shrill scream of a griffin overhead pulled her eyes to the sky and a streak of brown racing toward them.

"The ring activates!" the young male rider called. His griffin circled wide over Teyla's tent. "The ring activates!" Then he pulled off in the direction of Halling's tent for the same. He would continue to circle and call until every council member was alerted.

Meeka quickly crouched for Teyla to leap on. They did not go far, just to the edge of the encampment, still distanced enough from the ring so as not to be taken as anything: desperation or fury. When Halling, Celeste, and Jorvis joined her and the five remaining council members on approach, Teyla could see, growing in the distance, the dark flecks of things flying toward them. Meeka's head moved to hover over Teyla, casting a shadow.

"Only three are griffins," Meeka said.

It did not matter to Teyla.

The dragons and the envoy landed outside the tree line and approached on foot. By that time, most of the camp had gathered, including Ronon. The Satedan had made himself scarce after the council meeting, as though secretly concerned frustrations would be taken out on him. He'd seemed nervous while speaking before the council, telling them in hesitant and awkward words of his debt to Sheppard, the unease of the dragons, and volunteering to discover what had become of the Earthers. But, then, he was Satedan and it was common on most worlds to take all and any suspicions out on them. He was not used to it being any other way, no matter how often Teyla assured him.

The party of Earthers, all of them soldiers, moved close enough for Teyla to see Sumner's hand go to the weapon at his thigh when Corvax trotted ahead, making John the first to arrive. Teyla narrowed her eyes, but since the weapon was not drawn, she decided to ponder the action and its meaning later. The black dragon was slowing to a stop when Sheppard slid from the saddle. He walked up to Teyla, eyebrows at an upward slant, lips tucked in – an expression Teyla had come to interpret as the major in discomfort.

"Hey, Teyla," he said, eyes dropping to the ground, lifting, then dropping back.

Teyla dipped her head and said more flatly than intended, "Major."

Sheppard looked up at her, taking a deep breath. "Look," he glanced over his shoulder, then back. "I know we're probably the last bunch of people you want to see right now. And I know you've got a lot of questions. And I know you're probably pissed. But… we kind of… need your help." He winced saying this.

Teyla tilted her head at him. Behind him, the envoy had broken off from the Earthers and moved toward Halling and the rest of the council.

With a quick exhale, Sheppard threw another nervous glance backward, then stepped closer to Teyla.

"We don't know why they attacked us," he said.

"They wanted something from you," Teyla said.

John flinched his head back, confused. "You heard?"

"I stumbled onto the attack looking for you. I remained hidden. They said you had something they wanted."

"No, we didn't," said John hotly. "It wasn't like we had the place all locked up. We found a way deeper into the ruins, a hidden section. An entrance they could have found and used just as easily as we did. They knew where it was, and still felt the need to corner us outside and have us fork over whatever we found."

"So why did you not? Why did you let them torture Doctor McKay?"

It was perhaps a low thing to say, Teyla realized, when the muscles of Sheppard's neck pulled so taut every tendon stood out. His throat convulsed in swallows, his gray-green eyes going cold as metal.

"Because we didn't have anything to give them that they couldn't get for themselves," he said, every word a bitter effort pushed through a jaw that wanted to clench.

Teyla lifted her chin. She recalled the arguments and demands, the wild-haired Earther doctor's offer to bring them to what was found. Teyla thought they had been stalling until reinforcements arrived.

The look in Sheppard's eyes said otherwise.

Teyla felt the muscles in her face relax. "How is Doctor McKay?"

"Alive," Sheppard said, the word another effort.

Teyla nodded. Behind Sheppard she saw Sumner slide from the back of his red.

"You did not provoke the Genii in any way?" Teyla asked while she still could. She did not think Sumner would be as forthcoming. He never was.

"No," John said. "I swear, we didn't do anything to piss them off. They just wanted what we found, which they probably have by now."

"Ms. Emmagan," Sumner said. He pulled a slip of paper from his vest pocket and held it out. "We need you to tell us what you can about this world."

Teyla took the paper and opened it. Scrawled on the plain white surface were ring symbols in a configuration she did not recognize.

"I'm sorry," she said. "I do not know this world."

"I do," Ronon's bass voice rumbled near her ear. Her skin shuddered at his sudden proximity; there was no getting used to the quiet way he moved. Ronon took the paper gently from her hand and held it up.

"I've been here. But you're not gonna find much," he said.

"The locals?" Sumner asked.

Ronon chuckled. "Yeah, this place isn't what I'd call all that people friendly."

"How so?"

"You'll see when you get there. I can help you get through it if you have a destination set. It's not hard just… surprising." Ronon said this with a smile on his face promising amusement… most likely for him.

Sumner's expression was the opposite. Even after saving the life of his men, trust had yet to be earned. Be that as it may, after a moment of silent deliberation, he jerked his head in a stiff, quick nod of agreement. "Fine. We move out now. Saddle up."

Smiling like a kid during the gift exchange portion of the New-Moon Festival, Ronon put his fingers to his lips and released a piercing whistle. It was not seconds later Bylar flew overhead. In that time, both Sumner and Sheppard had climbed onto their dragons.

As they left, Sheppard cast one more look over his shoulder – still contrite, apologetic. He had explained himself with conviction, yet still felt the need to apologize. Teyla's heart went out to him but she could not say she was unhappy to see them heading to another world without her or any Athosian as guide. For the time, until the Genii came to voice their side of the matter, it was best that their contact remained minimal.

Teyla turned to the camp before the Earthers were airborne.

It was impossible to fight a grin at seeing the look on the Earthers' faces when they stepped through the 'ring. Jaws dropped, eyes bulged and dragons snorted as if they'd sneezed. Ronon's reaction had been the same; Bylar had fanned his feathers until Ronon could see all the way through them to the dusky skin.

Ronon was sure that the only reason he'd been given this address by that Manaraen bartender was to get rid of him sooner. Ronon had called it Selar Dras – Large World. Not the most creative title but then Ronon hadn't been in a creative mood. The planet, for all its unique beauty, made him nervous. It also never ceased to make him feel like a rodent among the giant gray-green trees shading them with broad, tear-shaped and pale-green leaves. The trunks were so broad Ronon had guessed it would take five to eight large griffins to encircle them; the branches were so tangled that in some places you could stand beneath them to stay clear of the rain, and they wouldn't leak.

Sheppard – or maybe his dragon – was a braver spirit, stepping up to the nearest tubular shrub and sniffing at it. The shrubs clustered by color: warm reds and pinks, sky blues, blue-gray and deep green. Black moss grew like spindly insects from the knots of the trunks.

Sheppard looked up. "Jungle above us, coral reef below us." He grinned. "Cool."

"Whatever you do," Ronon said, "don't touch the plants that look like they have mouths. They spit. If you have to get water, get it from the flat tops of those white things that look like rock-trees, not rivers or streams or anything else. Stay away from any place you see webbing. The things that make 'em aren't big but they drop fast by the thousands. If you're not sure about something, just watch how the animals act around it."

Sumner, far less impressed or not showing it, took in his surroundings then turned his attention to Ronon. "The ruins?"

Ronon pointed straight ahead, where the way was clear of trunks, shrubs and webs; broad enough for ten large griffins to walk side by side with room to spare. "That way." He'd expected the clearing to be something manmade when he'd stumbled onto the ruins the first time, only to discover no other paths beyond. The forest floor beneath their feet was spongy with a bright green moss that he had only found elsewhere in small patches or creating thin trails even Ronon could barely squeeze through. Wherever the moss grew, nothing else grew, and when grown in abundance it made a perfect road.

They launched upward, leveling out beneath the lowest branches, still high enough to make falling a danger. It was a green dusk below the canopy, glittering with light lancing through the gaps and toying with one's vision, but dragon eyes were as sharp as griffin eyes. They ducked the lower branches that liked to come out of nowhere and the glowing white webs stretched like a net between young limbs. Within the net were globule egg-sacks bigger than a griffin's head.

Ronon had seen animals stupid enough to get too close to a sack end up buried alive under a heap of multi-limbed insects the color of bleached crystals. The insect heap would shrink, and when it disbanded, there weren't even bones to show for it.

Some of those animals had been bigger than a human.

The way to the ruins wasn't far. The path curved, ever so slightly as to be almost imperceptible, then the ground sloped in a gentle climb. A flock of prismatic web-winged birds startled from the trees, squawking their righteous indignation. A few had the audacity to snap at dragons and humans; ignored by the dragons, swatted aside by the humans – the birds were no bigger than rodents.

Sheppard pulled one of the brainless birds out of his collar. The second he opened his hand, the bird went for his head until Sheppard slapped it aside. The stupid thing finally took the hint and fluttered off. Ronon chuckled.

"How much do I want to bet a couple of those things tried to nest in your hair," Sheppard said, looking sour.

Ronon stopped laughing; still grinned, though, because it was still funny.

Then what felt like a wave of anxiety brushed passed Ronon like a breeze – not mindless fear, but the distress that heightened the body's defenses and pushed adrenaline through the veins. The close air cracked and buzzed with the snap of wings bringing the dragons to a halt. They fluttered midair, twisted around and circled in for a landing on the soft ground. Ronon followed, watching Sheppard for cues. The anxiety had been short lived, and Ronon didn't think it had been the product of his own reactions.

When they were on the ground, they clustered close, milling like a herd anxious to get going.

"What's going on?" Ronon asked. Every dragon's nose was also in the air, as was Bylar's.

"Smoke," Bylar said. He sniffed. "Not far. I can smell things cooking."

"So that… whatever it was I felt?" Ronon asked.

Sheppard replied, "Easier than talking out loud and potentially giving our position away."

Ronon pressed his lips, impressed. "Nice."

Sumner's large red dragon pushed through the throng to Ronon's position and pulled up alongside him. "What's over this rise?" he asked.

"A valley," Ronon said. "Not big. The place you're looking for should be on the other side."

"And you said there are no inhabitants."

"I said no one lives here. That doesn't mean people don't drop by."

With a sharp nod, Sumner's dragon turned back toward the herd. "Ford, Stackhouse, Johansen, top of the hill. Keep low, keep quiet and report back as soon as you see anything."

All three men responded with a sharp "Yes, sir!" and a salute, and then their dragons took off at a run into the gloom.

Corvax moved in closer to Bylar for Sheppard to ask, "Don't get me wrong – this place has some cool scenery, but who the hell would want to camp out here?"

"It actually has some good places to hunt if you can find them," Ronon said. He smiled. "It's also a good place to hide out."

Sheppard lifted his chin. "Ah."

The three dark-colored dragons returned as quickly as they had taken off.

"There's a camp, sir," said the kid on the copper dragon. "Pretty large. My guess would be anywhere from fifty to a hundred. It's hard to say for sure in this light. They're all gathered in the valley."

"Show me," Sumner said. "Dex, with me. The rest of you stay here."

Bylar followed Sumner's red. Ronon glanced over his shoulder at an apologetic Sheppard who gave him a shrug.

The top of the hill wasn't a far climb, and though gradual on their side the other side was a practical drop off into the valley. Riders dismounted before reaching the crest, moved at a crouch then dropped to their stomachs and squirmed the rest of the way to the edge. The camp in question was situated a good ways from the base of the hill but not so far that Ronon couldn't discern the needed details.

There was only one detail required to tell him everything he needed to know. He ducked back, sucking air through his teeth.

"Sky Raiders."

"You sure?" Sumner asked.

Ronon pointed at the camp, in the direction of a cluster of gliders like giant birds that had been plucked, skinned yet continued to live. Simply looking at them filled Ronon's nose with the imagined stench of rot.


"Why aren't they camping at the ruins?" the dark-skinned kid asked.

"No room," Ronon said. "Not for this many. The ruins are out in the open; they wouldn't provide enough cover for everyone."

"Can we fly over them?" Sumner asked next.

Ronon shook his head. "They'll have men stationed at any gap they can find, watching the skies." Ronon could see one of them now, rider and bird, too close for comfort, pacing along a thick branch beneath a gap large enough for a single griffin to fit through.

Sumner spat a muttered curse and ordered everyone to fall back. They wriggled away from the edge, and when safe enough down the hill leaped to their feet into a crouch. They didn't climb back into their saddles until they were further down the hill. On returning to his men, Sumner barked the order for everyone to return to the 'gate.

"What did you see?" Sheppard asked Ronon after they were airborne.

"Sky Raiders. Between us and the ruins."

Sheppard winced but said nothing. They returned to the 'gate, but instead of going straight to the Earther planet, they stopped at another world Ronon knew wasn't inhabited, then crossed over to the Earther world that was currently at its evening hour. Which Ronon knew was as far as he would be allowed to go.

Instead of Sumner assigning some random soldier to stay by the 'gate until Ronon left, it was Sheppard who stayed behind while the others continued on to their camp or village or whatever habitat they were hell-bent on hiding.

Sheppard was wearing that apologetic look again. "You know you don't have to help us if you don't want."

"I don't mind," Ronon said. "It's not like it's hard."

"Yeah, but it could get dangerous. And, you know, after what you did for us on the Genii world, I'd think that whole debt thing paid off."

Ronon coughed up a breathy laugh. "Doesn't work like that, Sheppard."

Sheppard leaned forward, crossing his arms over the handle of his saddle. The apology was gone, overshadowed by something harder, like dark metal. "Then how does it work? You have my back until you die?"

"Or one of us dies," Ronon said casually. "My choice. I made it; I'm sticking with it. Besides, knowing that Sumner guy, he's going to have me sit out on whatever you guys do next."

"Not that that it'll stop you."

"Maybe," Ronon said. "Maybe not. I won't be in on whatever you plan. That means I won't know what you're up to, and anything I try might make it worse. So relax. No back watching today."

It felt a little low, putting it like that. He got where Sheppard was coming from, where he was going with this. Sheppard had seen one of his own get injured and others almost killed not that long ago, and it had put him in a bad place. Sheppard didn't want to see anyone else get hurt – Ronon got that, even if it was a futile desire considering what they may have to do next.

It pissed Ronon off just as equally that he couldn't be a part of it. Yeah, he could call the debt repaid and be done with the whole thing; he just didn't feel like it. Felt too much like a waste, letting the only survivor of the Sky Raiders Ronon had ever known end up dead by their or anyone else's hands.

Ronon was starting to wonder if, possibly, he was getting obsessed with it. Then again, it wasn't like he had anything better to do except wander worlds, shoot down propositions and get run out of towns. Hell, paying a debt beat angry mobs and having terrified virgin girls that looked barely in their teens shoved his way any day.

It felt like doing something. Something that had results. Something that, maybe, might actually matter should Sheppard ever remember.

Ronon also liked the guy. It would suck beyond words if he died.

Swallowing back his pride and frustration, he dipped his head toward Sheppard.

"Good luck," he said. Bylar took that as his cue to turn and start dialing the 'ring. Corvax backed off, putting them a safe distance from the ring's deadly wash.

Ronon and Bylar left. As soon as they were back on Athos, Ronon rumbled curse after curse.

The first thing John did on returning to the facility, after the debrief that caught Weir up on the situation, and Weir refusing to sanction any plan of action unless there was a remote chance of success, was head to the infirmary and ask after Rodney. He encountered Bina en route, the white trying as best he could to not take up too much space in the hall outside the med center.

"He still in there?" John asked, hooking his thumb at the door.

"Still sedated," Bina sighed. "He was… uh… getting kind of agitated. So, you know…"

"I know," John said. Boy, how he knew. Corvax could go a little overboard with the calm when Sheppard was in the clutches of physicians – his aura more disorienting than morphine – but it did wonders against nightmares; you couldn't dream when that relaxed.

Corvax was currently in the dragon hold, lamenting that he had to settle for dragon kibble rather than hunt.

Sumner was of the opinion that having a phalanx of Sky Raiders between them and the ruins was a hell of a lot worse than outracing the Genii to the next outpost. Just because the Raiders weren't camped at the ruins didn't mean they didn't know about them, or would eventually know about them, or that the Genii weren't secret buddies with the Raiders. So time was still of the essence. Elizabeth, on the other hand, felt they had time enough for Sumner's men to eat and rest, because Sumner still needed to come up with a reasonable plan.

As much as Sheppard agreed with Sumner's assessment, he had to secretly cheer for Weir. He hadn't been given time to wind down from their last encounter with bad guys, and coupled with a hollow pit for a stomach, he was starting to feel spacey.

Beckett agreed when he glanced up from Rodney's chart, did a double take and said, "You're looking a mite peeked, Major. More trouble?"

"More like an inconvenience," John said. "One that's probably going to see us right back out the door before dawn. How's Rodney?"

"Doing well enough," Carson said. He hooked the chart back on the bed, freeing his hands to stuff into the pockets of his lab coat. "Since it's the shock that took more out of him than the injury I thought it best he get some uninterrupted rest. And I plan to keep him here until I'm satisfied that he's got it."

John managed to bite back a wince. "So it's safe to assume no more off-world anything for him until then?"

"Not at the immediate moment. I'm also keeping him around to watch out for potential infection. There's no saying what was on the weapon used to cut him."

John nodded. Good, because if escaping one deadly situation only to jump right into the next – potentially - deadly situation was making him feel like warmed-over crap, he'd hate to think what it would do to Rodney, who was currently the same color as the sheets covering him. The guy needed more time to unwind and bask in the fact that he was still alive, which, in McKay's case, might take a while. Sumner would see it as a setback, but no matter what McKay liked to say, Zelenka was just as good and knew everything he needed to take McKay's place.

Still, it was no doubt Rodney was going to be pissed.

Beckett clasped Sheppard on the shoulder. "You best go grab a bite while you can, lad."

Sage advice. After gracing Beckett with a second bob of his head, John headed back out and straight down the hall to the mess – do not pass go, do not collect two hundred dollars and all that crap. His intent had been an MRE, but on entering the refectory and being hit by the spicy smell of stew, he decided he'd earned himself a little bit of indulgence. Stew it was, with those dark rolls that one would think tasted like cardboard but in fact had a little something sweet to them, fruit and a bottle of water. The indulgence ended as soon as he sat down. He shoveled food into his mouth as fast as possible without choking, the prospect of Sumner calling him back into action like an itch between his shoulder blades.

No call came. John dumped his dirty tray on the table next to the food line and hurried to his quarters. He didn't kick off his boots when he stretched out on his bed, on top of his covers, comm still in his ear. The itch moved from his back to the side of his head; nerves tickled in anticipation. Sleep was little more than a light doze interspersed with reluctant dreams, hazy and gray as a grainy old movie.

Give us what we want.

John thought faces might be hovering over him. He always thought that. They moved in and out, between touches and pain. Sometimes, there were voices. A mountain, broken. Hot, so damn hot…

Give us what we want.

Remember. A broken mountain. So hard to breathe.


"Major Sheppard, please respond."

John awoke with a jolt and a gasp. He blinked at darkness, expecting faces.

"Major Sheppard."

He flinched, felt a weight at his ear and remembered the comm unit. He tapped it, clearing his throat.

"Sheppard here."

"Major Sheppard, report to the 'gate room immediately."

"Copy," John said. As he sat up, he pressed the button of his watch, lighting it up. Eleven forty – he'd been "dozing" a good two hours. He needed to eat stew more often, maybe less spicy, because those dreams… With a quiet sigh, John pushed himself from the bed, feeling every aching joint and stiff muscle of a bruised body pushed too far. He took the time to head to the bathroom for nature and a quick splash to the face with cold water, chasing away any remnants of sleep. He hadn't been told to gear up, which meant that whatever this was about, he was staying on base for the time being. Thank goodness for small mercies, then. The cold water may have keyed his brain in on the fact that sleep wasn't happening, but it still felt like he was running on half a cerebral cortex… or whatever.

John had sympathy for the walking dead as he dragged his feet down the hall, until he reached the 'gate room. He was sideswiped by a pick-me-up disguised as the inexplicable need to be on guard. It was how John knew Corvax had beaten him to the spot. Go figure. The black knew how to ooze calm but sucked at aiding the mind in kicking it into full gear. There had to be better ways of waking the brain up than making it think the body was about to be in danger.

The 'gate room floor was packed with dragons in a messy circle around their humans. John joined the masses, squeezing by Corvax who made room whether the young silver next to him being jostled liked it or not.

There was only one reason for a mass gathering like this. Sumner must have come up with a plan. And if it was a good one – as in, not shot down by Weir – then John was going to have no choice but to give the guy credit. Until that moment, Weir stood on one side among a small slough of scientists, and Sumner the other among his marines. Sheppard hovered on neither side and felt it laughably ironic. He managed to keep the laugh entirely mental.

John's presence must have been a formality; the meeting was already underway.

"…know from experience that when an enemy is given no reason to suspect an attack, they lower their guard," Sumner was saying. "We can use that to our advantage. The dragons exude an aura of laconic calm, put the Raiders at ease and off their guard. We fly above the canopy under cover of darkness to the ruins that Dex told us were open."

"And if the Genii gave them good reason to suspect their hideout compromised?" Weir asked, folding her arms.

"With enough dragons," said Sumner's red, "it won't matter. We'd only need to put them at ease so that if they did spot us, they would dismiss us as birds."

"But a week?" Weir said. "Inside the facility, cut off from base. What if more Raiders arrive, set up camp close to the 'gate? What if you're forced to stay longer?"

John arched an eyebrow. What the hell had he missed?

"With all due respect, Doctor Weir, this may be the only chance we have to secure the outpost. The presence of the Sky Raiders will have slowed the Genii as it has us. Unlike us, however, the Genii have a world that the Sky Raiders can track them back to."

Except that if Teyla's people didn't know the Genii had all those fancy weapons and uniforms, then neither would the Sky Raiders. The Genii had kept themselves hidden for a reason: one being the Sky Raiders, of course. The other – and this was just John's personal theory, never to be spoken out loud let alone quoted – waiting for the day when they could use those fancy weapons to take over the rest of the galaxy. Although the latter, John had to admit, was him being ridiculously bitter.

Sumner did have a point, though. John didn't think the Genii stupid enough to risk a full frontal attack, thinking themselves well-disguised and their world well-hidden. Crazy enough? John wouldn't hold it past them. Even then, there was still that whole pesky mind-reading griffins business, and it wasn't a battle without at least one person being taken as a prisoner of war. Even the egomaniacs had to practice some restraint.

It made John wonder why the Genii hadn't been found out sooner. Unless they had and didn't care. Which then begged the question of why maintain the subterfuge? There were probably a thousand answers to that question, but to ponder them meant missing even more of the meeting, and he was behind enough as it was.

At no fault of his own.

"We have the advantage in this," Sumner continued. "I suggest we take it while we can."

There was a moment of terse, silent deliberation that made the very air feel suddenly close. The muscles of Weir's jaw jumped, her eyes glued on Sumner as though hoping to drill into him. Sumner met her gaze without so much as a flutter of any of his own facial muscles, let alone a definable expression, and that had to be pissing Weir off. Behind them, their dragons twitched tails, wings, claws. Weir's red swayed her head on her supple neck; Sumner's red was a crimson statue save for the twitching. There was a lot of self-control being forced, and it was making all the other dragons a compound of agitated and curious.

Then, the moment came to an abrupt end with Weir's succinct, almost patronizing and cloyingly agreeable, "You have a go, then. Only wait until morning. Give your men a chance to rest and us time to gather what's needed."

Sumner's neck corded. He wasn't happy about it, but bowed his head - an almost imperceptible fraction - in reluctant agreement. Weir turned to the scientists looking very skittish, and Sumner his men looking exhausted but firm. The dragons spread out, giving their humans room physically and emotionally.

It had been one hell of a fight, without a bad word or black eye the result. Dragons always made the lesser situations of life interesting like that.

John turned to Corvax. He gave him a level stare, arms folded and everything. "So… what did I miss? And why the hell did they call you in early and not me?"

"Well," Corvax began. He paused, taking a moment to suck his teeth, as though it were possible to pretend that he wasn't feeling a trifle abashed. "I was just… kind of passing through, taking a walk, working off the kibble crap. They were seeing if they could reach the next outpost through this 'gate. Apparently they couldn't so that's when Sumner called this little powwow and told Weir about sneaking to the facility and camping out there until the next crystal was found, then 'gate to the next outpost. But if the 'gate didn't work then just sneak back home to find the place the long way. Then you showed up so you know the rest." He pointed a claw at John. "If it's any consolation, you weren't the only one. I know it didn't look it but Sumner was actually excited about this plan. Well, anxious to get it out there and get things moving so… yeah, he wasn't waiting around for anyone."

"Major Sheppard."

John managed not to jump. He was still the right amount of tired not to feel skittish. He turned right in line of sight of Sumner's withering what-the-hell-are-standing-over-there-for gaze.

"This concerns you just as much as everyone else, Major," Sumner said.

"Uh, yeah, right. Sorry, sir." John joined himself to the cluster of marines. He received the rest of the plan he'd missed: that they were all to head to the next outpost, camp there while the scientists answered the questions and the marines watched every possible entrance and exit the place had. Sheppard, as usual, was in charge of guarding the geeks. They were to leave at 0600 hours. Seven hours left to try to sleep.

John had suffered less. Sleep was overrated these days, anyway.

Chapter 9

Rodney awoke to that heavy-headed and heavy-limbed but well-rested feel of a good night's sleep – something he hadn't experienced in a while, but not so long that he didn't recall what it was like. He felt good. Dare he say, even great. Then he moved his arms, flexing muscles in a stretch, felt the sting of damaged skin and remembered.

Genii. Kolya, Man, Knife. Pain, pain, pain.

Rodney snapped upright with a gasp and a right hook by dizziness. He felt himself tilting, then felt himself caught by large hands that eased him against the rising head of the bed. He let the hands move him while he closed his eyes and breathed through the tilting and need to panic.

"Easy, Doctor McKay," said a pleasant voice with one hell of a Scottish lilt. He opened his eyes to a blue, ridged snout and sapphire bright eyes. Esel, Carson's dragon.

"You all right, then?" Esel asked, nose so close it was blurred. "You need anything?"

"Per—" Rodney coughed. Esel held out a small plastic cup delicately between two claws. Rodney took it and drank it fast – doctors could be rather cruel when it came to how much water they'd let a patient drink. When Rodney emptied the cup, he gasped, "Personal space would be nice."

"Sorry," Esel said, though he didn't sound all that apologetic, just obnoxiously patient. "I'll go be fetching Carson, then." The dragon moved off, sliding with a grace that would make a cat envious through the obstacle of beds and equipment.

"You do that," Rodney said to the blue's tail. He squirmed, finding a more comfortable position with no comfortable positions left. His body was officially fed up with lying around in bed, and he didn't blame it. His kingdom for his PC tablet, or at the least a radio to call up Zelenka and bring said tablet. When Carson walked into sight, Rodney perked up.

"Ah, Carson. Just the man I wanted to see. Give me your radio."

Rather than comply, Carson picked up Rodney's chart and looked it over. "Why?"

Rodney rolled his eyes. "Because I don't have mine and I need to make a call. Come on, fork it over, hurry up. It'll only take me a second."

Placing the chart back on the bed, Carson pulled out his stethoscope. "Again, why?" He placed it down Rodney's scrub top without warming the membrane, the bastard.

"Carson! Warn a guy. I just need to call Zelenka and get him to bring my computer. Which I don't think is a big medical no-no as it isn't exactly stressful typing on a tablet."

"In your case, I'd beg to differ." After removing the stethoscope, Carson lifted Rodney's arm to remove the bandage.

"Oh, come on. I'm not that bad. Besides…" The bandage peeled away, slowly exposing inch by agonizing inch of a long, hell-red gash held together by a mess of black stitches. Rodney swallowed several times and still bile scorched the back of his throat. "It, uh… it's a good distraction."

Carson's unwrapping slowed, his features going soft and sympathetic. "I'll get someone to fetch it for you. Dr. Zelenka's currently off world."

Rodney yanked his gaze from the laceration to Carson's face. "Off world? What do you mean off world?" His jaw dropped. "Oh, they didn't. Tell me they didn't."

"Sorry, lad. They did."

"Without me!"

"Well, from what I gathered," Carson set the wad of gauze on the tray by the bed. "They were in quite the hurry." He was gentle as he moved Rodney's arm, looking at the wound. The manipulation still stung, and Rodney glowered.

"Careful! Just because you have a license to cut people open doesn't give you the right to make them hurt for no reason."

Carson sighed. "Rodney. Oath. No harm. Remember?"

"Whatever. Why were they in a hurry? Why didn't they wait for me? What's going on?"

"I would have told you by now if you didn't insist on interrupting me. Some of those Sky Raider folk were on the planet and Colonel Sumner wasn't in the mood to wait around to take the next facility. That's all I know. The lot of them left this morning and won't be back until they've retrieved the next location." Carson looked at Rodney. "Sorry, lad," he said and sounded like he meant it.

It didn't make Rodney feel any better. If anything, it made him feel like that time Kyle Jenkins, star in anything and everything athletic, had invited him after school to hang out and see a movie. Rodney had hung out, all right – outside the front of the school, watching Kyle and his buddies drive away while laughing their asses off in Rodney's general direction.

The somewhat crushing sensation was remarkably similar to that day. Rodney said weakly, "But… they needed me."

"Aye, they probably did," Carson said. "I wouldn't let them."

Crushed was crushed by outrage. "What! Why?"

Carson answered by raising Rodney's injured arm. "That's not a wee paper cut, Rodney. I wasn't going to release you on a potentially dangerous campout for an unknown amount of time only to have you dragged back to me, unconscious from infection. And Sumner was in too much of a hurry to wait around. It happens, lad. Besides, it's not like it's the last outpost. There's always the next one."

Rodney dropped back against his pillow with a groan. It was taking everything he had not to toss the wad of dirty gauze in Carson's face. Take away the accent and Rodney could have bought into his mother's spirit possessing Carson. The woman had been an assassin of expectations and clueless when it came to reassurances. Although there had never been a "next one" or even "next time" with her. Not unless Jeannie whined and cajoled until both parents caved, usually with much hesitation and grumbling, and Rodney fuming in muted jealousy.

But that was then, this was now and Jeannie wasn't here to whine and cajole. Rodney would have whined, except he was a grown man and a genius, not some petulant little daddy's girl.

"It was for your own good, lad. Trust me," Carson said.

Rodney wanted to say he didn't; the angry red gash glaring at him wouldn't let him. Neither would the fresh memories of how he got that gash, fresh because they'd happened just the other day.

"If it's any consolation, and since this isn't as bad as it looks, I'll be releasing you soon," said Carson. "You can get that lummox of a dragon out of the hall. The lad's all but moved in to the area… Rodney?"

Rodney blinked, feeling like he did after waking from a bad dream. "Huh?" He met Carson's concerned gaze.

"You all right, lad? You're looking right pale."

"What? No, I'm fine. I… I'm fine." He blew out a breath. "Just peachy."

"Like hell you are," Carson muttered. "I need to clean this. It may hurt a wee bit."

Esel brought the needed items of torture – a bottle of clear liquid that might be alcohol or something just as germ-killing and painful, Q-tips and cotton balls, and more bandaging, all on a silver tray. He set the tray on the table by the bed, then picked up the wad of gauze to discard it, taking away Rodney's weapon of choice.

Carson poured germ-killing stuff into a small bowl, dipped Q-tips and spread the liquid over the wound. Rodney hissed, then yelped, and Carson's grip turned into a vise when the abused arm attempted to pull away.

"This galaxy is deranged!" Rodney spat. Then it hit him that maybe staying behind wasn't a bad thing. Genii plus Sky Raiders? That could have very well ended in more than just a cut arm.

"Both galaxies are deranged, Rodney. Just not in the same way."

"Yes, well, at least in our galaxy we don't have to worry about losing our only hiding place to birds that invade head-space."

"No, we just have to worry about lads cracking under the agony of ribbon devices." Carson flapped a hand. "Not the same thing at all."

"Mind reading works faster."

"Those ribbon devices hurt like a mother, so I hear. Rodney, it doesn't matter the galaxy; you're going to have your lunatics and monsters. Hiding from them does little more than buy you a moment of peace of mind. And I know you've read all those SG reports – you're always spoutin' off about them, especially the ones written by a certain Samantha Carter, so I know you know."

"The Samantha Carter ones I only read to prove how wrong she always is," Rodney growled. "And, yes, I read them so, yes, I know. This galaxy still comes in first at being deranged."

"Only because you had a front row seat to the madness for the first time."

"And never again."

Carson's body jerked in a cough that sounded suspiciously like a wry laugh.

"What?" Rodney demanded.

"Nothing," Carson said, pure innocence. "Famous last words, is all. Like I said – hiding is temporary peace of mind. False peace of mind, really. Bad things happen. That's just life, Rodney." He smoothed a rectangle of cotton over the gash, then secured it with the gauze wrap. "All done. It's really not as bad as it looks. No sign of infection whatsoever. You just sit tight. I'll have a bit of breakfast brought up, then once you've eaten I can send you and that daft dragon of yours on your way."

Rodney could only bring himself to nod. As enthusiastic as he should have been over the prospect of breakfast, he wasn't feeling all that hungry.

They emerged from the 'gate without touching the ground, angling up straight for the thick, lower branches of the tree where it was always twilight. But if a griffin happened to pass by and happened to look up, then they were screwed, so it was pure silence until evening only an hour away. The math fanatics of the expedition had coughed up quick calculations on when would be the best time to return that would land them right smack in the middle of evening. They'd used the time the scouting party had left, the descriptions and guesses on this world's time of day during the recon mission - provided by confused marines who hadn't given a crap - and came up with an answer that hadn't been on the mark but close enough.

John was impressed. It was a given that not every world rotated with a mirror exactness to Earth time, and Athos with its short days and nights had proven it. So the math fanatics had every right to feel smug about hitting so close to the mark.

Above the canopy the day was fading from gray to cobalt, while below was already drenched in early night, loud with calls, cries, chitters and chirps of night creatures. The planet had three moons, one white, one a kind of silver blue, and another like a scab striated in red, brown and some black. Here, shafts of silver-blue bled through the gaps. There, reddish brown, and others plain. Something like a hairless coyote crossed with a cat and covered in webbed frills and spikes staggered onto a branch bathed under the reddish moon. It turned the mass of crystal insects scuttling all over the animal's body into bloody rubies with a lot of legs. More crystal insects surged over it and the thing fell with a plaintive whine. When the insects surged away, there was nothing left.

John shuddered. He searched his surroundings for webs.

The sky deepened into cerulean and violet with a touch of red, and an aura of readiness swept over John, his spine straightening automatically.

"All units, move out."

The dragons pushed off from the branches, the air buzzing with wing-flaps. They gathered below in a tight circle, nervous scientists within, tense marines without, then one by one shot through the nearest gap located just behind the stargate. When above the canopy, they divided, Sumner and his platoon to the right, John and his platoon to the left.

John blinked twice to see what had to be the biggest damn canyon wall rise up like a monolith about a fourth of a mile from where they'd emerged, another wall about a half a mile away but no less impressive for distance. The wall stretched to both horizons, straight and serrated as teeth at the top.

"Damn," John breathed. He now knew what the knights of old felt like, riding in on dragon-back to fortresses that looked a hell of a lot more impenetrable and foreboding than they probably were. John had loved learning about that kind of stuff when he was a kid. All this world needed was some creature that puked liquid like boiling oil as a defense and his life would be complete.

Sumner gave the command to turn toward the ruins. John turned and those behind them followed, choreographed as a flock of migrating ducks. Contentment, peace and lethargy oozed from the dragons, at worst giving John the desire to stretch like a man waking up. Dragon empathy was a thing of beauty and a mystery in the way they could aim it. Residual emotions leaked, yes, but what John was feeling was nothing compared to what the Sky Raiders would be feeling. Some dragons have been known to put entire panicked herds to sleep with just a little bit of contentment.

The air was cool even with them skimming close to the canopy, not thin, but Sumner hadn't wanted to risk them going any higher and being spotted, and there was no saying how far the Raiders had their watch set up. Not many people in this galaxy could say a lot about Sky Raiders beyond how they attacked. Few who encountered the camps returned to tell about it. During their runs, Ronon had talked about coming across camps, how the camps always stayed close – never spreading out - established where they would be the most well hidden. And if Ronon happened to return to a world where he'd spotted a camp, that camp would no longer be there. His theory was that the camps were waiting for word on the next raid, to come through the 'gate, thus effectively closing it off to any who tried to escape. Stories told of how it was once a Wraith tactic.

John had relayed this information to Sumner during preparations for this mission. The colonel had looked annoyed; that's what he got for leaving the second-in-command out of the initial planning. But John couldn't exactly hold a grudge against him because, hell, he still didn't trust himself.

There had to be a better way to deal with all this trust crap. Oh, yeah, there is, and it hurts like friggin' hell.

When the platoons passed the general location of the camp, the two groups veered toward each other. John could see, not far ahead, what looked like a dark pit within the canopy, a little to the left and extending all the way to the canyon wall. The two groups merged and steered toward it. Reaching it, they circled overhead, seeking suitable places to land within the forest of skeletal towers and desiccated walls, with not an intact ceiling in sight. It made John nervous; that so much as a sneeze could cause what was left to collapse. But at least there were plenty of places to set down.

Corvax settled on mossy ground with only a patchwork of flooring still intact, cracked and sprouting tubular weeds. Ford and his copper landed on John's other side, not far, and Zelenka's little gold all but dropped right next to Corvax, forcing the black to shuffle to the side or get whacked with a flailing wing.

"Sorry," Zelenka said, pushing his glasses higher up his noise. He patted the gold's neck. "Kisha's eyes are not what they used to be."

The gold snorted and muttered in Czech. Zelenka ignored him for his scanner, one that would hopefully point them in the direction of secret entrances. Not that it was needed, per se, if this facility stuck with the norm that had been the previous facilities. Zelenka didn't look up when Corvax started toward the cliff, following everyone else, and Kisha followed after.

"I am picking up a faint signal over the—" He looked up. "Um, yes, the way we are going."

Dragons moved quick and quiet over debris, like rats in the world's easiest maze. The ruins stretched farther than the ruins of the Genii world, but, like those ruins, ended at a natural rock face overlaid by the only metal still intact if stained in rust. It made John wonder what the point was to building the above-ground structures: as a marker to help them recall the location of the facility without fancy location devices, or to detract from the facility that really mattered – where there were ruins, there was little to find, so people moved on, naïve to the fact that there really is more to dead Ancient structures than meets the eye.

The humans dismounted and the dragons formed a dark wall alternating between black, white and a touch of red rather than the usual prismatic array. Every gene carrier present fondled the wall, pressing against niches and feeling light sconces like a blind man mapping his surroundings through touch. Someone got lucky, and a large section of wall groaned and squealed as it slid away, revealing a familiar corridor.

No one needed to be told twice to file inside, marines at the front and back, scientists in the middle. John had been in a position to end up taking their six with Ford. It wasn't a bad thing since he knew how to shut the door, and had the honor of doing so and ensuring it was locked (a little trick he'd learned Day Two on the Genii world. Not that it had made a difference.)

They gathered in the facility's 'gate room where they unloaded supplies – duffel bags of MREs and dragon kibble. Corvax groaned almost obscenely from the lack of all that weight on his back. Water wasn't a concern as long as this facility lived up to the condition of its predecessors. According to the way the lights blinked on like an eager puppy, it wasn't something they'd have to worry about.

"Units One and Two, I want you east side," Sumner said. "Three and Four, take the west. Five and Six the north, Seven and Eight the south. I want every possible exit and entrance covered. The rest of you are to remain here until your shift. Major Sheppard, Sergeant Stackhouse, Lieutenant Ford, Marks, Briant and Cadman - take the scientists to the chair room and keep them there. No one is to leave under any circumstances without escort. Understood?"

They all chorused, "Yes, sir."

"Everyone, move out."

Corvax, Delar, Stackhouse's green, Cadman's brass and Mark's and Briant's dragons grabbed a duffel each of supplies and slung them onto their backs. They moved to the chair room, large as the others had been but still cramped with so many dragons and humans, even with the dragons taking up position along the walls.

There was a slight alteration of two consoles instead of one. The Ancients must have finally gotten through their heads that a second console room was a waste of space.

Sheppard parked himself in the chair, lights-out not for another hour in order to give them a head start on the questions, and so beginning another lovely (in all sarcastic sense of the word) go in the quiz seat, filling the upper air with holographic questions. If this was a glimpse into tests of the future, then John pitied any offspring he may one day have, because sitting in a hard-ass chair that dug into the shoulder blades and tailbone was no way to answer hard-ass questions. Tests were stressful enough.

After the hour, Sumner called a halt over the comm. He wanted everyone rested and their heads cleared to haul mental ass the next day and answer as many questions as possible. The scientists' complaints were pathetic, the fact that they needed rest a loud testament declared by three out of fifty questions answered and John about to nod off in the chair. He dragged himself from the seat to Corvax, who already had his sleeping bag off the saddle and on the floor. John removed his boots, vest and jacket and crawled in, his P-90 and nine-mil within easy reach.

Corvax, John could tell, was making sure he didn't dream. He woke up the next morning feeling rested and ready to go. He activated the chair while breakfasting on an MRE – the geek squad wasn't the only fair hands at multitasking, and it wasn't like being told what to think required effort. In between the stumper questions that required the geeks to huddle and combine brain power, he talked sports with the marines.

Ford's rabid love of football about rivaled Sheppard's. The kid knew scores, plays and stats from games that happened before he'd been conceived. Cadman hated football. She did know a thing or two about golf.

"Golf's an old man's sport," Ford scoffed.

"Yeah, because Tiger Woods is like, what? Pushing fifty?" Cadman scoffed back. "Just because people aren't running around, smacking into each other doesn't mean it isn't a sport."

"Yeah, Lieutenant, and I'd watch your use of the word 'old' seeing as how I outrank the hell out of you," John said.

Ford stood at parade rest and dropped his gaze, abashed but trying not to be. "Sorry, sir."

"Whatever." John waved him off. "Remind me when we get back to show you one hell of a play. Football, not golf. I'll show you real golf as soon as I can figure out how to make some decent clubs."

Ford beamed. "Cool."

The scientists weren't as chatty. Well, Zelenka was, and played a mean game of mental chess, but had a thing for pigeons that John suspected might border on unhealthy. It could also be that pigeons were a boring topic. The rest either jumped at each of John's questions as if he'd barked at them, or told him to stop talking and please concentrate.

John actually found himself kind of missing McKay. The guy may have been an impatient, demanding pain in the ass on good days, but he didn't tiptoe around John as though John were liable to bite his head off. Neither did McKay dismiss him as inferior. He made demands, rolled his eyes at any shows of intelligence on John's part, then treated him like any other human being once John got him started on comics, or Star Trek, or the latest sci-fi TV show that they both agreed was crap or promising. This was also McKay's arena, and it didn't sit right with John that the pain in the ass wasn't here to oversee what was rightfully his to oversee.

Next time, buddy. Promise.

Day Two was a repeat of Day One, only about basketball instead of football, which John wasn't much of a fan of unless he was bored. The conversation degenerated until it was just Stackhouse and Cadman a hairsbreadth away from tearing each other's throats out, rank be damned at the extreme moment. There wasn't a single team they could both agree on, and it was friggin' hilarious. Crap, John loved it when people took sports too damn seriously. He was one to talk, yes, but it was still amusing as hell.

John did order them to take the food to the other side of the room. He would have ordered them outside to give them all a break – their dragons especially – but it would only piss Sumner off.

Ford wandered aimlessly on the right side of the chair, his hand to his comm as he listened to the chatter.

"It's pretty quiet out there," he said. "I mean, you know, not quiet quiet. Just no noise about anyone trying to get in or anything? Think the Genii called it quits when they saw the Sky Raider camp?"

John shrugged, then popped a chip in his mouth. It wasn't that long ago he'd finished dinner, but for demanding nothing more than for him to sit and think, running the chair took a lot of energy. "Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe they just can't find the way in. The problem is we know even less about them than we did on meeting them, so it's not like anything's a certainty."

"It was weird what they did," said Ford, shaking his head and puckering his brow. "Attacking us like that instead of going into the place. They could see the door was open."

"Superstition, maybe?" said Zelenka from where he sat, legs folded, on the chair's other side. "I had been thinking about it. Perhaps they were afraid to go in."

"But not so superstitious they couldn't send in a spy," John countered.

Radek held up a finger. "Good point."

"And they were about as afraid of that place as they were of you guys," said Corvax. "There was nothing superstitious about any of it. They were too lazy to get anything for themselves, that's all."

Maybe, especially if their technology only went so far (if they had technology beyond ugly guns). In which case, they probably figured to let the other guys do all the work then reap the spoils.

John didn't buy it. If they could open the doors and send someone in, they could figure out the tech. Hell, they'd gone in under the guise of studying Ancient languages, and the linguists had been impressed with the extent of their knowledge. Maybe it was biased to think most cultures that depended on farming to survive didn't have a lot of time to study dead languages. One or two, maybe. A whole department, however, was a little hard to swallow.

Then again, what did John know? This wasn't Earth and this wasn't the Milky Way. Still…

Hindsight sucked.

Whatever the Genii's reasons for doing what they did, at this point, John didn't give a damn. He could only hope he never saw a Genii again.

"Major, think of the number five point two one eight six nine," said the pudgy guy who liked to tell John to stop talking and concentrate, please. John thought; the question vanished.

The arm of the chair slid away and the data crystal popped up.

"Score one for us," John said. "Three days, sweet."

Pudgy plucked the crystal from the arm and moved over to the console to slip it in. Zelenka was already hooking up his tablet.

John tapped his comm. "Colonel Sumner, this is Major Sheppard. We retrieved the egg and are about to crack it—"

Pudgy hit the key that would fill the glass screen with their next destination.

The lights winked out, the facility winding down as though settling in for a long hibernation.

"And the power just went out," John said. Son of a bitch.

Teyla stepped from the council tent, squinting at the cooking fires heating cauldrons and roasting meat. Thank the Ancestors for hunger and the evening meals or the meeting would have never adjourned and her aching head never given a reprieve. She needed a moment to refuel, think, so she moved quickly from the tent to the farthest fire to be found. Meeka followed beside, as always, knowing Teyla's need for silence and giving it to her.

The fire they finally came to was occupied by one person and one griffin. Ronon and Bylar looked up, Ronon with a bowl of stew in one hand and slivers of meat in the other, Bylar with a haunch in his beak.

Teyla said nothing. She took a bowl and ladled it full of stew. She was not angry – frustrated, perhaps, but not angry. She was tired, or maybe it was uncertainty making her lightheaded. She sat down on the hide bench on the other side of the fire, about to plow food into her mouth, when she saw a young girl place a basket of fresh-baked rolls on the food table beside the dishes. Teyla rose, grabbed one and was already dipping and tearing into it as she sat back down.

"Wow," Ronon said around a mouthful of meat. "You're hungry."

"You are one to speak," Teyla said. "We have been in deliberations most of the day. Though it may not seem it, they can be very tiring." And that's when she realized, rather foolishly, that Ronon was still here, on Athos, instead of wandering worlds as he usually did at this time.

When she looked at him, ready to ask why, Ronon said, "Didn't feel like leaving yet."

Now that her stomach knew it was receiving nourishment, Teyla slowed her eating to something more respectable, including the use of her spoon. She said nothing to Ronon's words, as there was nothing to say. The Satedan came and went as the wind yet it was not often enough to keep him a stranger to her. He was not staying to be staying. He was waiting.

She did have to say, "I am surprised you did not remain on the world that the Earthers asked you to show them."

Ronon lifted a broad shoulder. "Didn't think it would be a good idea. None of the Genii showed up, I take it?"

"No," said Teyla, pushing a lump of vegetable with her spoon.

Ronon pointed the way she had come using his meat. "Is that what the meeting was about?"

Teyla sighed. "It was about many things. The Genii, the Earthers, cutting our alliance with the Earthers because they bring ill fortune upon us." She smiled, but it felt heavy on her face. Dead. "Until we know more than we do, I believe it will be an ongoing debate for some time."

"Do you think it?"

"Think what?"

"That the Earthers are bad luck?"

"No," Teyla said easily. "I have never been one for… such beliefs. Some consider it foolish. Charrin refers to it as having a practical mind."

"I'm with Charrin," Ronon said. "We make our own fates."

Teyla nodded. Yet she felt her thoughts in an awkward place, torn between hope and regret, understanding and doubt, and heavy with uncertainty. Some on the council would have been happier not knowing of the Genii's secret, for what did it matter as long as the alliance remained? Teyla supposed they had a point. Be that as it may, the alliance with the Genii spanned generations, and the question had to be begged as to how long the Genii's secret had been kept. Perhaps they had their reasons, those same some had argued. Perhaps they did; it still did not sit well with Teyla. Their griffins had made eye contact, thoughts had been exchanged. The Athosians had laid themselves bare while the Genii locked their minds with a skill that could only come from years of practice.

And then there were the Earthers, honest to a certain extent, that extent ending at their own secrets. And in the center of it all, the Athosians, made to endure the backlash of it all.

"We need to know who to trust," Teyla said. "Trust is the only weapon we have against the Sky Raiders."

Ronon, however, shook his head. "It's just as much a weapon to them. You trust too easily, too quickly, and it can be turned against you. It has to be earned. The Genii have a right to hide whatever they want. It's an advantage; get the Raiders to underestimate you and they won't know what hit them. Keep everyone out of the know and keep them safe. They did right by you. But they're not doing right by you or themselves by not coming to you and explaining themselves. You're part of their secret, now. If they want that secret kept safe, then they need to ask for it. Why they haven't, yet, I have no idea." He tossed the remainder of his meat into the fire, making it flare and spark.

"Do you think it means something is wrong?" Teyla asked.

Ronon sat back. "Don't know. But you're right not to go to them. I wouldn't go to them, no matter how long they make you wait. I'd also be careful. You know their secret; that gives you power over them. They may not like it."

Teyla frowned. "They would not attack us."

"You sure?"

Teyla wanted to say she was, wished she could say it, yet knew to say it would be an act of denial. There were no certainties now, and it made her stomach knot with unease.

Perhaps the others were right. Perhaps they would have been better off not knowing.

"Or maybe they think it would be better to cut all ties. The less you know, the better. That kind of thing," Ronon said.

Teyla raised an eyebrow. That, too, made sense. If there was more to what the Genii hid, then the Athosians would be better off breaking from them while they could.

Breaking an alliance that spanned generations, an alliance they depended on. The knot in her stomach doubled, killing what remained of her appetite.

She said, setting her bowl in the ground. "I do not like where this has led us."

"It happens," Ronon said. "Today, tomorrow; it was only a matter of time."

Teyla looked up at Ronon and cocked her head to one side. "It takes much for you to trust," she stated. "I understand why, of course," she swiftly added. "You have every reason to withhold it."

"It's easier," Ronon said.

"Why do you trust Sheppard?"

"I owe him. It's not the same thing."

Teyla inclined her head in understanding. Athosians had their own oaths given to those who saved.

Then Ronon added, "And he knows things… maybe. About the Raiders. And…" He shrugged. "Some things you can trust."

"Such as?"

"A man's actions. Pain and fear can make you honest to a fault. He didn't run. He fought. He didn't know me, and he fought. I can trust that."

A soft breeze tugged at Teyla's hair. She brushed the strands from her face, tucking what she could behind her ears. "What do you trust about me?"

Ronon's face split in a wide grin. "You took me in and didn't try to set me up with any of the women in your camp. What's not to trust?"

Teyla chuckled, feeling as though it had been some time since she'd laughed, though it had only been days ago as she walked with Sora. The wind picked up, pulling Teyla's hair free and agitating the fire into a frenzy.

Cold snaked down her spine like ice water. She rose, slowly, letting what was left of her bread drop from her lap to the ground. She turned her face against the wind. When winds blew this strong, rain would soon follow.

She did not smell moisture on the air.

"Ronon," she said, voice quivering. She felt the stir of air behind her from Meeka's quick rise. There was a sound, a high-pitched whine that she knew all too well. Her heart beat against her breastbone hard enough to hurt.

"To ar—!"

"Look out!" Ronon bellowed. A massive weight plowed into her, driving her into the ground away from the fire. A ball of blue flame fell from the sky, hitting where she had sat, bursting in flames with a concussive force that knocked the air from her lungs. Ronon's heavy body protecting her was lifted away, then she was airborne. Before darkness stole her sight, she saw a rain of blue fire, explosions, her people. She heard their screams. Then she heard nothing.

"Sir?" John said.

"Copy that, Major. Reports are coming in from all over. What the hell happened?"

John, out of the chair and P-90 light raised, looked at Zelenka. Zelenka looked back, answering him with a confused raise of his shoulders. Then he turned back to his tablet, typing furiously.

"Still figuring it out, sir," John said.

"Report as soon as you have something. Sumner out."

"There is no reason for this," Zelenka said. He crouched, set the tablet aside, then worked the panel off with the help of Pudgy and the botanist – Parrish, John recalled. He still couldn't get Pudgy's name to the forefront of his brain.

When the panel was off, Zelenka breathed something in Czech that John was sure wasn't PG. He hurried over to crouch next to Zelenka. "What, what have we… what the hell!"

The guts of the console were a tangled nightmare of transparent tubes and… something: more tubes, only like giant veins outside the body, all blue and violet with just a dash of red, all of it slick and reeking. The tubes wound through the console in a parasitic mess converging on a single glob of slimy organic crap with a screen, scrolling with alien words anything but Ancient.

"Okay, this can't be good," John said, feeling his eyelids pull open wide enough for his eyeballs to pop out. Just looking at the thing was feeding the temptation to shoot it before it jumped out and latched onto someone's face.

Parrish decided to poke it with a pen.

"Don't do that!" John hissed. But nothing happened, no face hugging or otherwise.

"I think it's alive," Parrish said, ignoring John. "Some kind of organic computer."

"I could have told you that," said Ford from behind, making John jump. These people were determined to give him a heart attack.

Taking a deep breath to steady said heart, John contacted Sumner. "Sir, think we found the problem. Looks like… some kind of… alien computer thing. It's hard to explain. We're going to see if we can remove it, get the lights back on. Copy that?"

John heard only static. He tapped again. "Colonel Sumner?"

Still nothing. John looked up at Ford, the other four marines hovering around him. "I'm not getting any response. Try hailing everyone else."

The echo of a roar traveled to them, long and steady before cutting off abruptly. It had every dragon on his or her feet, every horned head bent and listening.

"That was a distress cry," Corvax said.

It was confirmed by the rattle of P-90 fire. The comm burst to life with too many shouts straight into John's ear. He flinched back, sucking air through his teeth.

"Say again?"

"We're under attack! I repeat, we're under—-" Static.

John pressed his comm until his ear hurt. "Say again! I repeat, say again! Come in, anyone!"

"I'm not getting anyone, either," said Ford.

"No one's responding," said Cadman. Without needing to be ordered, she raised her P-90 and took position by the door. Stackhouse, Marks and Briant followed.

"Okay, this is really bad," John said on a shuddering breath. "We need to uh…" He swiped his hand over his mouth. He wouldn't say it, couldn't in front of scientists already going skittish, but he could think it.

They were in deep crap.

"Think it's the Genii?" Ford said. He was shifting from foot to foot, anxious for… something – to fight, to run, to know what the hell was going on, but that was a given.

John shook his head. "No clue. But we need to get the hell out of here and get this information back to base. Except we can't do that without the damn console."

"On it," Zelenka said. He was hitting the touch-pad with a force that was going to leave his fingers bruised. "From what I can ascertain, whatever this thing is, it is – to put it simply – disrupting the facility's programming. Like a dam. Information is not able to flow. If we remove it, the power should come on."

"And possibly destroy the console in the process," snapped Pudgy.

"Yes, but this is not the only console that will receive the data crystal, remember?" So without further ado, or concern over just how alive the organic computer was, Radek pulled, yanked and ripped the sucker free.

As predicted, the lights came back on. Also as predicted, the console popped, sparked and died.

John felt ever-so-slightly sick and hoped it didn't show. "Great. Now we just have to head to the next console. Which means going outside."

"And navigating a compromised facility," Ford said darkly.

John rose. "No time like the present." He turned to the dragons that had gathered in close. "Corvax, you, Delar, myself and Ford in the lead." He pointed to the brass and green. "You two, Stackhouse and Cadman our six. Marks, Briant, you and your dragons on either side. The rest of you in the middle. Everyone got it?"

Everyone nodded. The marines barked, "Yes, sir!"

"Right. Let's roll."

Corvax positioned himself in front of the door, Delar behind and John and Ford pressing their backs to the wall on either side. The geeks and their dragons clustered nervously several feet out of, hopefully, harm's way.

"Uh, uh, remember…" Zelenka said. "No breathing fire."

John scowled. Damn halon fire suppressant. "Ready?" he said.

"Open it," Corvax replied.

John swept his palm across the crystal. The doors slid open with a subdued hiss. Corvax inched his head forward, sniffing the air, cocking his hidden ears one way then the other. His mouth twisted, flashing the tips of white teeth.

"This is weird," he whispered. "I'm smelling human and something… I don't know, but it smells nasty."

"What do you sense?" John asked.

"Anticipation," he said. The ridges of his brow pulled together and he reared his head back. "Hunger?"

"The griffins?" Ford suggested.

"Maybe. Close by?" John said.

Corvax shook his head. "No. We're good for now. Where to, Doc?"

"To the left. If the facility's only difference was the second console, then the neighboring room should have a console as well," whispered Zelenka.

Corvax lowered his head, like a cat on the prowl, and slipped sinuously through the door. When Delar went through, John and Ford followed, John waving behind him. They took up position between their dragons.

It didn't matter how prepared or used you were to danger, it still messed with the head. There was no difference in the lighting, the halls, every nook and cranny and John's brain still registered more shadows than there should have been. The ceiling was too high, there were too many doors, and for all the silence save for controlled footfalls and breathing, too much noise. Their destination was right smack next to where they'd exited, and also a million miles away. When close enough, John rushed forward and palmed it open. Corvax stuck his head in, searching the place with keen eyes. He backed out, nodded then John waved the others through.

Zelenka was already at the console when it was John's turn to enter (him being the last). Instead of slotting the crystal, he dropped to his knees and removed the panel. Smart move, because when the panel was off they were awarded another view of a fleshy mass tangled in the wires.

"Well, isn't that just friggin' great," John growled. "What the hell is that? You know what? Don't tell me, I don't care at this point. Can the data crystal only be activated in the facility where it was found?"

"The assumption has always been so since the 'gates will only connect to a single facility," said Zelenka. As he talked, John glanced toward the door where Ford, Delar and Corvax kept watch. "But we have never actually tested it since there has yet to be a need." Zelenka straightened. "It would work for the secondary console for sure, the one next to the chair room. That console is not subject to only a single function."

"Great. Put that crystal some place safe, Doc. We're taking it home." And as soon as the scientists were safe at home, Sheppard was coming back, armed to the teeth with an extra helping of men to find out what the hell was going on.

He felt pissed that immediate needs were forcing him to leave people behind – one of those people his CO. He slammed his back against the wall on the panel-side of the door, Ford on the other side, and Corvax ready to literally stick his neck out. John palmed the crystals. The door opened and Corvax surveyed the hall.

"Clear," he said. He led the way out.

It not only pissed off John that he was leaving men behind, but made him down right nauseous that for picking the security off so quickly the hostiles had yet to show themselves. John wasn't complaining; he simply knew from experience that an enemy was easier to predict when they made the first move. So far, the enemy's first moves said loud and clear how much of the advantage they had. The facility was already theirs, making all this running around nothing more than a sick game.

Or the breach hadn't yet reached them.

Corvax raised his head a fraction. "I think they're getting close. The hunger… there's something weird about it."

There was a pop, a buzz and black webbing crackling with arches of blue-white electricity slammed into Delar from the adjacent hall. The dragon stiffened, convulsed, his mouth open in a silent scream, then he dropped in a twitching, muted heap.

"Delar!" Ford screamed, reaching out to the dragon only to snatch his hand back from the sparking net. There was another pop, another crackle, the web flaring open Corvax's way. Corvax dropped flat as possible to the ground, catching the net in his horns. With a snap of his head, he flung it away. He rose and spun, aiming in an open-mouth strike for the shooter.

A mass of brown slammed into him with the force of two linebackers. They sailed over Delar, crashing into the wall and sliding down. Corvax managed to squeeze his hind legs between them and shove the griffin off.

And that's as far as John saw when small comets of blue-white light skimmed close to his stomach. He leaped back, turned and fired.

In the split-second it took to fill the assailant full of bullets, John saw everything he needed to: tall, pale, white-haired things in human form and wrinkled, worm-like skin where there should have been a face. Both convulsed under the onslaught of John's and Ford's bullets. John never saw if the things fell when a heavy body smashed into him from above, driving him to the floor. He rolled as he and the faceless thing that outweighed him grappled for the gun. The stench of the thing threatened to suffocate John; its wrinkled, fleshy face made him want to puke. The creature backhanded him hard enough for John to taste blood and see stars, but good old adrenaline kept him from blacking out. He slugged back, just as hard, twice, and the bastard didn't even pull its head with the blows.

John tried another tactic and rammed his knee into the thing's crotch.

The thing grunted but kept on struggling.

"What… the hell are you!" John gritted. He twisted the gun with everything he had until the business end was pointed at a pale, veined shoulder. It was as good as it was going to get; John fired.

The creature convulsed, giving John the opening he needed to grab his nine-mil from its holster. He rammed the barrel where the thing's forehead should be and fired. The thing stiffened, black ichor dribbling from the wound onto John's vest, then toppled to the side. John rolled to his hands and feet, taking in as much of the chaos as he could – two griffins attacking Corvax, Ford taking cover behind a still-unconscious Delar and firing nonstop at a squad of faceless things coming their way from the neighboring halls, scientists cowering within the circle of their dragons, and the marines firing at more faceless things, their dragons holding back more griffins as well as humans firing those blue-white electric lights. John pushed up onto his knees when a faceless thing that had been lying motionless snapped upright sudden as a jack-in-the-box. It aimed its stick weapon, but not before John got a shot off.

"Stay down you son of a bitch!" John snapped. He forced himself to his feet, ignoring the aches of being slammed to the ground. He ran toward Ford, fired, dropping more faceless things. He dropped into a slide on his knees behind Delar, taking up position next to Ford. One of the griffins rolled right smack in front of them, scrabbling to its feet. John tore up its haunches, flank and neck; the thing flailed, seized then stilled in a heap of feathers. A pained cry pulled John's attention to the right-hand hall and a human man charging at them firing his stick weapon like a lunatic. One shot from Ford let the man join his dead griffin.

"Ford, how's Delar!" John called over the P-90 fire.

"Still breathing, sir!" Ford released another volley at a group of the faceless that refused to stay down. "Think he's just stunned."

They had to pull their next shot when Corvax and the other griffin rolled in front of them. With the second griffin out of the fray, Corvax had the advantage. Griffin talons were sharp enough to cut through the scales but the thick feathers weren't that much protection against Corvax's claws. The griffin bled copiously, weakening it. Corvax grabbed the bird's head, held it and spit a wad of clear saliva into its face. The bird reared back, briefly blinded – dragon spit was pretty damn powerful crap, said to be potent enough to clean wounds. Corvax didn't let go when the bird tried to pull away. He clutched a fistful of feathers, pulled the head back and lunged for the throat. The bird's shrieks died in a liquid gurgle, staining its throat red. Corvax released the bird and it crumpled, lifeless.

"It would be easier if we could use fire!" Corvax snarled. He twisted around and lopped off faceless heads with one quick swipe of his claws. Blue-white light bounced off his scales.

A lucky shot got him in the face and he staggered back, swinging his head like a rhino stung by a bee.

"Corvax!" John shouted.

The cold, wide barrel of a weapon pressed itself to the back of John's neck.

"If you wish to do what's best for your men, Major, I'd suggest you drop your weapons."

Cold slithered down John's spine. He knew that voice, like a punch to the face by déjà-vu, making his heart hammer in secret fear. Thick fingers hooked themselves in the back of his jacket, hauled him to his feet and swung him around to face the carnage behind him – Five dragons unconscious under stun nets, the rest pinned down by griffins, and those of John's people not unconscious (mostly the scientists) held at gunpoint by humans and the faceless.

Kolya swung John back around, face to face with Corvax's open jaws.

"Continue your course of action and I will shoot," Kolya said, but Corvax had already pulled the bite when his target had shifted. Corvax held his head as though it were too heavy for him. His right eye was twitching, his tongue hanging like something dead from his mouth. The stun may not have knocked him out, but it had still kicked his ass.

"Bring them," Kolya said to someone behind them. "All of them, to the control room."

The weapon dug into John's neck until the pain of it made it impossible not to wince. Kolya hissed in his ear, "Move." John did, and Corvax backed up, never taking his eyes off them. Next to them, Ford was suffering the same while two griffins used their beaks to drag Delar by his wings. They weren't gentle; John could see rivulets of blood trickling down the wing-arm. Ford was seething pissed.

They were herded into the 'gate room, dragons piled on one side, their riders on the other, facing the control room. The faceless surrounded them on the floor, the stairs, the control room itself, humans scattered among them – some in Genii uniforms, most in a myriad combination of clothes from simple white shirts to elaborate leather coats. Some held the stun sticks, others rifles or handguns. One human was giving Corvax a look like he wanted to blow the dragon's brains out – the rider of the throat-less griffin, John presumed. But that's what happened when you sent a soft skinned thing to battle against an armored thing.

Corvax didn't seem to notice. He was staring straight ahead the way a dog will when it's about to attack. Him, Cadman's brass – the only dragons awake and who knew how to fight – had positioned themselves like a wall in front of the scientists' dragons and those unconscious.

The gun vanished from the back of John's neck in order for Kolya to move around to the front.

"Search them," Kolya said.

Humans surged forward, patting each of them down. John's gun was taken, as was his knife, and dressed in layers as he was it still left him feeling naked. It made him downright sick when a Genii man pulled the data crystal from Zelenka's inner vest pocket. The crystal was handed to a smirking Kolya, and it took everything John had not to slam that smirk off with his fist.

"You do like to make things interesting, Major," Kolya said. He flipped the crystal to make it vanish within his palm. "I have to admit I cannot help but admire you." He started backing toward the stairs. "It does not matter what we do to you; you survive, keep coming back." He stopped. "I'm going to regret having to kill you when the time comes."

"Where the hell are my people, Kolya?" John growled so deep the words seemed to scrape his throat raw.

"Alive," Kolya said. "For now, so you can take comfort in that much at least. They are still of use to us, as are you, or I would have place a bullet in your head long before now." The crystal reappeared between Kolya's fingers. He held it up to the light, turning it, the light flashing over its surface. "Such ingenuity; all that information stored in one small, fragile crystal."

Movement at the top of the stairs forced John to look away from said crystal. The faceless at the top were parting, opening like the Red Sea for a small squadron of the faceless marching down the stairs. When the squad came to Kolya's position, they opened up their protective circle.

The faceless in the middle wasn't faceless. It was sharp-featured, like a cross between a human and a shark: empty yellow eyes, slits slanting from away from the nose and a mouth full of glassy teeth too many to let the lips completely close. Unlike the faceless (not faceless, masked), this one had cropped hair, snowy but short and spiked like the aged buzzcut of a marine.

Its shark eyes were fixated on John, and for a moment, John thought he registered fleeting confusion.

"He is resilient," the thing said, its voice like more than one voice talking in perfect unison. If John didn't know any better, he could have sworn the thing sounded awed. Its shark eyes turned to Corvax and the brass. "These are the…"

"Dragons," Kolya said. "They call them dragons."

"Dragons," it echoed. "Even more resilient." Those dragons unconscious were starting to stir, some already lifting their heads. Then interest was lost and It turned its attention back to the humans.

Kolya held out the crystal, and without looking, It took it. Then moved, slow and stalking, toward John. It narrowed its eyes at John.

John narrowed his eyes back. If he thought déjà vu had been pounding his ass when he saw Kolya, the sight of Cousin It was about to drop him. His head spun with hazy recollections trapped behind a fog that wouldn't part. The sight of It, his smell, those teeth – John knew them, had seen them someplace before, and his heart was thrashing fit to break a rib with the stubborn recollection.

A voice in his head screamed to run, run, run. Keep running and never look back. His body knew better than to obey.

It held up the crystal for John to see.

"You need this," It said. It let it fall from his finger to the floor. The crystal bounced, its clatter a musical chime. When the crystal stopped, It stepped on it with a sickening crunch.

John heard a choked yelp of despair that sounded like Zelenka.

"You should never have come to this galaxy," It said.

John swallowed, feeling sweat bead on his brow, trickle down the canal of his spine. Déjà vu threatened to crush him. This thing knew too much, and the reason why was scaring the hell out of John.

It moved around him to the scientists huddled in back. "You will regret it." It grabbed the pudgy scientist and pulled him around to the front. It didn't matter what Pudgy did, how he tugged and pulled, Cousin It's grip was like immovable iron. It whipped around, pulling Pudgy to him, and pressed a hand to Pudgy's chest.

"What is the location of your base, Major Sheppard?" It asked.

"Go to hell," John said.

"I think this man will precede me," It replied. It pressed his hand into the broad chest. The scientist screamed, and screamed, and screamed.

And aged, right before John's eyes, hair fading from brown to gray to white, body shrinking, skin sagging. Then It stopped, the scientist aged - gaunt, panting - but alive.

"Need I ask again?" It said.

John didn't reply. He kept his mouth shut so tight it was a wonder his teeth didn't crack. He flicked his eyes to the dragons, Corvax, and the others staring, the scientist's brass and copper-striped dragon's jaw quivering. Then it lunged, snarling, hissing, baring teeth; an ungainly thing thick-bodied as its owner and clumsy. It staggered, pushing through the other dragons, yet too quick for the dragons to catch him. Then griffins were on him, pulling him away and when the other dragons moved to help, guns cocked in preparation to kill their riders.

The brass and copper was buried beneath griffins. There was a heavy snap, the griffins parted and the dragon lay in a motionless heap. A whimper pulled John's gaze back to the scientist. It was fortunate John's stomach was empty, because right then he wanted to puke.

And blow a damn hole in every damn head that wasn't his people.

"Major," It sing-songed. It shrugged. "So be it." Its hand pressed. The scientist could only moan, and not even that when he was aged beyond recognition and what was humanly possible. The hair fell and the skin became brittle as parchment, pulling tight against the bones. Pudgy shriveled up into a husk, far beyond saving. He no longer screamed.

It dropped the body. The body fell, dry skin cracked and fluttered down light as ash.

John's throat tightened until he could barely breathe; his jaw quivered with an aching tension, and his stomach growled, nauseous and hungry at the same time. He didn't think about why; he didn't give a damn. A man had died, the life sucked right out of him, and John couldn't remember his name.

"I will feed," It said, "one by one, until you tell me the location of the rest of your people or die. I will save you for last, Major Sheppard, as I still have need of you. But believe me when I say that their fate will be a mercy compared to yours."

The next victim was shoved toward It – Zelenka, trying hard not to look ready to pass out from panic. John was sure he should have been coughing up bile by now, yet all he felt was a hollow hole where his stomach should be. He was hungry, so damn hungry it hurt and he didn't know how much more he could take.

He wasn't the only one. With a muffled howl, the faceless surrounding them lunged at the nearest humans, slamming their hands into their chests and sucking them dry. All hell didn't break loose; it exploded like a flash-bang – faceless lunging at humans, humans shooting the faceless, griffins attacking faceless and faceless shooting stunners and stun nets at griffins.

And then Zelenka's little gold leaped between Corvax and the brass, and plowed into a bewildered It. With Zelenka free and the guards busy fending off faceless, John twisted around, slamming his fist into the nearest human, Ford mirroring on the other side. John grabbed the man's rifle and shot the guard about to take Stackhouse hostage with a knife.

"Go!" John shouted. He shot two more guards, the ones with some of their weapons. He exchanged the rifle for his P-90 and nine-mil and used both to drop two faceless charging his way. The 'gate room made John's ears ring with gunfire and agonized screams. He ran toward the dragons, firing at any face he didn't recognize and anything that wasn't human. The dragons met him halfway and he dropped when Corvax swung his arm, sending a faceless flying with a sick crack into the dormant 'gate. John, still on his knees, spun around, providing cover fire for the rest. He didn't mount until the others were mounted, and he kept firing one-handed.

"To hell with halon, breathe all the fire you want!" John shouted. The dragons did in short, quick bursts igniting the feathers of griffins that got too close, not yet enough to antagonize the fire system until the dragons had plowed through. Alarms blared and John could hear the hiss of released halon dousing flames and suffocating whoever got too close to the clouds. The halon would only release where the sensors felt heat, and for only so long as there was heat – score another one for Ancient tech.

Stun fire whizzed past from behind, the way relatively clear ahead with most of the hostiles in the control room. Stragglers were knocked aside by broad dragon chests. The dragons raced up the hall, toward the exit left open by the enemy. Corvax burst through, leaping to the side for the others to come out and let John count heads.

"Airborne, now!" John shouted. Ford was the last. Corvax jumped into the air with a snap of wings and followed. They shot out of the ruins, over them then into the cover of the path to the 'gate. To fly above the canopy would have left them open to being surrounded, and below offered obstacles.

It also alerted their presence to the Sky Raider camp. Griffins with riders burst out of the trees like startled birds and gave chase. John ducked low over his saddle to make himself as small a target as possible against the rifle bullets whistling by uncomfortably close. Corvax weaved, twisted, and performed one hell of a corkscrew spiral that left John temporarily dizzy. Ahead, the others were doing the same.

When he could, John fired back and could only hope that he hit something. He chanced a glance back and felt his stomach drop at the growing mass of pursuers getting ever closer.

"Faster, Cor!" John fired.

"I am!" Corvax snarled. He dropped suddenly, shoving John's stomach into his throat. John's hair skimmed close to the wafting edge of a translucent nest, aggravating a cluster of crystal spiders.

John grinned and fired at the globules in the webs. Webbing and spiders burst in a crystal shower right on top of the lead griffins, slowing those behind in their psychotic frenzy to shake the bugs off. John continued to shoot and webs and insects rained toward a buffet of meat. It was disturbing, the shrieks of agony like a razor on John's nerves, but it got them out ahead and made the enemy fall farther behind.

Stackhouse was the first to reach the 'gate, his dragon dialing. It burst to life then they shot through one by one out onto the empty plain of the alpha site. The very second Corvax was through he twisted around and shut down the 'gate. He dialed home, but didn't go through until everyone else had.

Corvax stepped out into a world heading toward twilight, and what remained of their party surrounded by griffins and people. John brought his P-90 up.

Ford called out with a raised hand, "No, sir, wait! It's the Athosians."

More like what was left of the Athosians: dirty, bloody, huddling close to griffins or loved ones. John passed his eyes over them and estimated about twenty - twenty out of hundreds.

"What happened?" John croaked. "Where's Teyla?"

The griffins and people parted. Ronon stepped through, Teyla barely able to stay on her feet, leaning against him, Bylar and Meeka following close behind. Ronon had a gash on his forehead bathing one side of his face in blood, and Teyla's face was peppered in cuts and marred by a massive bruise on her cheek.

She rolled her eyes up at John, hiding nothing – not her pain, not her sorrow, not her anger – and John couldn't stop himself from stepping away from it.

"Raiders," she said. "More than there has ever been. We had nowhere else to go." She said the latter laced with what John thought to be bitterness, as though coming here should never have been an option.

Every muscle in John's body pulled until it hurt, and his heart hammered.

Enough was damn well enough.

"Mount up. Come with me," he said.

"To where?" asked Ronon.

"You'll see," he said. When no one moved, he added, "Someplace safe, I promise."

The Athosians did as asked, methodical with fatigue, grief and the slow death of hope. Their griffins crouched low to the ground for them, helping up those who could barely lift a leg without it hurting. When every person present was safe in their saddles, John led the slow, tired procession toward the mountain.

The reception was everything he'd expected, armed marines and bristling dragons surrounding them as soon as everyone was inside, and Elizabeth storming toward them with an explosive look on her face. John had radioed ahead, gave them fair warning, and had cut transmissions after to avoid adamant refusal to proceed. John slid from Corvax's back to face Elizabeth, eye to eye.

"Major, what the hell is going on!" She stopped in front of him, demanding an answer with looks alone.

John gladly obliged. "We're royally screwed," he said. "That's what's going on."

Chapter 10

John felt bruised, queasy and overwhelmed by the need to curl up and sleep where he sat, waiting for word on the health of the remaining Athosians. The debrief he'd had with Elizabeth not five minutes ago felt like it had sucked him dry… and what had possessed him to use that analogy? He lowered his head into his hands, squeezing his eyes shut, filling his mind with thoughts that weren't enough to bury the images of that scientist aging to a corpse at fast forward.

He felt Elizabeth continue to hover close by.

"What was his name?" John asked.

"Who?" said Elizabeth.

"The scientist guy. The one we lost. I couldn't remember his name. Kept calling him Pudgy."

"Doctor Johnson."

John chuffed. "That really shouldn't have been hard to remember."

"I doubt he ever told anyone military his name," said Elizabeth, and he could hear the sad smile in her voice. "He wasn't a big fan." She was silent for a weighty moment, then, "John? Are you all right?"

"No," John said. Hell no. All right wasn't so much on the horizon for him. He lifted his head, rubbing eyes that felt full of grit.

"Had to ask," Elizabeth said, trying to smile. John couldn't get his own mouth to cooperate for a return grin. It didn't matter what anyone might say, or think, or assure him of; this was all his fault and he damn well knew it. Déjà vu doesn't kick ass that hard without a reason, and a weird alien creature knew him, knew his name, and knew too much that no one in this galaxy should have known.

And now a part of their military was in that alien's hands. The expedition wasn't royally screwed; they were FUBAR. Which was why it didn't matter if the Athosians knew of their little hideout. Everyone and their evil grandmother were going to know come morning. Later if they were lucky, and so far they hadn't been that lucky.

"What I don't get," John said, thinking out loud. It helped, even if it did make you look like a lunatic, but Elizabeth was there to let him get away with it. "What I don't get is why they destroyed the data crystal before looking at it for themselves."

"They don't want us to find Atlantis?" Elizabeth ventured.

"Maybe," John said. He shook his head. "Those creatures had to be there before we arrived. No way they could have set up those… disruptor things or whatever that fast."

"Except you said the dragons didn't sense them."

"They sensed hunger. That's what Corvax said. He didn't think anything of it because hunger is hunger; it's universal. It's not exactly an emotion that tells you much beyond when it's time to refuel. But even then, it was only after the lights went out that anything was sensed. They also got a pretty quick jump on Sumner and the others. And here's the other thing - since Kolya's working for him and the Genii are a lot more techno-savvy than they let on, then they knew what the facility was for and how it worked."

Elizabeth sighed. "Leading us back to the attack on the Genii home world."

"Exactly. If taking what we had was about keeping information from us, they could have just busted in, shot up the console, taken the crystal. Hell, they could have grabbed Rodney's tablet and smashed it. They didn't need to make demands." John dropped his head back to his hand that he rubbed furiously through his hair. "Damn it! I'm missing something that's probably right damn in front of me."

A hand rested lightly on his shoulder. "John, you're tired. You need to go rest—"

He snapped his head up, pinning Elizabeth with his gaze. "What we need is to pack up and get the hell out of here. We've got people in enemy hands – way more than one this time. So, it's only a matter of time before someone's mind breaks and the bad guys know where we are."

"And where do you suggest we go?" Elizabeth asked, infuriating with her calm rationale. "The only allies we trust have been attacked and all but decimated. There's no saying if other worlds would take us in, and even if they did, there's no saying they wouldn't turn us over just to save themselves. We need a better plan than abandoning ship, John."

John winced at the use of his first name said in such a compassionate tone. He was far from deserving compassion at the moment. Deflating, he let out a long, slow breath.

"We need to find our people," John said.

"Easier said than done," Elizabeth sadly replied. "Look, at least get something to eat. Beckett has a lot of patients on his hands so I doubt news will be forthcoming soon. I'll let you know when that changes, I promise."

John opened his mouth to protest only for Weir to cut him off.

"One step at a time, John. Give yourself a moment, get something to eat, maybe try to rest and then we can go from there. You're no good to anyone running on fumes." With that said, she patted him on the shoulder and walked away, ending their impromptu conference.

Letting loose a frustrated breath, John decided to comply, to keep himself busy if nothing else. Right now so much as thinking about food made his gut do several uncomfortable flips and his mind go straight to the husk of Doctor Johnson.

That creature had looked incredibly spry and… happy after it had sucked Johnson dry – human essence-made ecstasy. John shivered. He found himself in the mess hall, swallowing fast to keep from gagging over the scent of spiced stew. He grabbed himself an apple, a roll and a carton of milk (possibly the last batch if the rumors were true) and sat at an unoccupied table toward the back.

John had eaten the roll, finished the milk and was starting in on the apple – all while trying very hard not to think – when he was no longer alone. He looked up from his blank staring at the tabletop to McKay, MRE packet in front of him, but all eyes on Sheppard. Rodney quickly dropped his gaze when John met it. He proceeded to tear open the MRE.

"So," Rodney said. It was a moment before he continued. "Guess it was a good thing I stayed behind after all."

"Guess so," John said. He bit into his apple, hoarding just how glad he was Rodney hadn't gone. The scientists, if not sedated, had been ushered off to bed armed with heavy duty sleeping pills. Zelenka, apparently, had taken a detour and John didn't hold it against him that he had then moved on to the labs. Sleep did a body good, not so much a mind recently primed for nightmares.

Johnson's dried husk popped unbidden back into John's mind. He shuddered, taking into deeper consideration Beckett's offer for those heavy duty sleeping pills.

To be taken later, when the expedition's survival wasn't hanging by a hair.

"So," Rodney said, parroting himself, "life sucking aliens that won't die."

"Yeah," John said, dragging the word out. "And they get their jollies by feeding off humans."

Rodney swallowed. "Space vampires."

"Space vampires. Which, if the Ancient database has anything on—"

"Elizabeth already has Grodin on it. What I want to know is how you escaped if you were so outnumbered. Zelenka was kind of vague on that part."

"Corvax," John said. "He said all he could sense from those things was hunger. So he and the others enhanced it until it drove the things crazy and they attacked the nearest human. Now, what I want to know is what these things are and what the friggin' hell is going on. Because something about those things, and Kolya, and this whole damn mess is setting off alarm bells in my skull like you wouldn't believe, but no memory to go with it, and I'm sick as hell of it." He took a massive, angry bite of apple and spoke around it. "I mean, what the hell do these things want? Yes, us, they want us, the head thing said so, but why?"

Rodney scowled, as though offended. "Why are you asking me? I have no idea."

"I'm thinking out loud, McKay."


"If they are the ones who took me – and I'm pretty damn sure they are – then why? Why'd they let me go? If they let me go… crap, I hate this."

"Well… maybe they want us for our genes or something," said McKay. "If they knew enough to set up a device to screw everything up, that means they have at least some working knowledge of Ancient technology. Maybe… they're Ancients whose evolution or ascension went wrong. Maybe a failed experiment. Maybe they want Atlantis just as much as us but don't want us to be the first to find it."

"Then why did they destroy the location to the next outpost if they needed it just as bad?"

Rodney huffed, throwing his shoulders and hands up. "I don't know. Maybe they already know where the next outpost is. They stumbled onto it or always knew where it was but not the others or… I don't know. Catch one of these things and ask them."

"I'll sure as hell try," John said absently. His mind had jumped on Rodney's theory, digesting it, turning it over. Then his comm crackled, Elizabeth on the other end telling him Beckett was taking a quick breather, and that if he wanted to know how the Athosians were doing then he needed to get back to the infirmary.

"Copy that," he said. "Gotta go," he told Rodney, and left, making a clean shot with his apple into the trash can.

He entered the infirmary to see Carson talking to Elizabeth. When Carson noticed John's entrance, he waited until John had joined their little powwow.

"Surprisingly, the injuries weren't all that serious," Carson said. "Abrasions and broken bones at worst. From what Ronon was able to tell me, the shots fell where there were fewest people. We're both in agreement that the intent was to herd people from the camp, make them easier to cull en masse. Ronon himself sustained a nasty cut on the head, and Teyla a few scrapes and bruises. They're mostly stunned by the explosions and exhaustion, but otherwise fine."

"Where are they?" John asked.

Carson led the way deeper into the infirmary, where dragons clustered outside curtained-off sections, spreading calm to those less injured but in need of rest. Carson pulled aside the curtain to reveal Ronon stretched out on a bed, fully dressed, wide awake and sharpening a knife. Carson sighed.

"Ronon, lad, I told you to get some bloody rest."

"Not tired," Ronon said.

"I don't care if you're not tired. I'll dope you up if I have to—"

"Like to see you try."

Yeah, definitely going to be all right. John moved over to the other curtained-off bed because, knowing Ronon, he wouldn't want to be too far from Teyla's side. He peeked through the curtain to see Teyla, also dressed, on top of the covers, and also fully awake. John stuck his head through.


Teyla turned her head slowly, bowed it, but did not smile. "Major."

"Can I come in?"

She bowed her head a second time. John slipped through the curtains.

"Beckett says you're going to be all right," he said, not knowing how else to open up a dialogue. He felt out of place, unwelcome, though nothing in Teyla's demeanor suggested he was unwanted.

"Ronon's Bylar carried us away before another hit," she said. "I have heard… that some of your people have been taken as well."

"They have," John said. He rubbed the back of his neck. "Teyla… what do you know of a race: white hair, kind of pale, some of them wear masks…" He took a deep breath and let it out fast. "And can… pull the life out of a human with their hand."

The look Teyla shot him was sharp, like a blade pinning him to a wall. "Do you jest with me?"

"To be honest," John said. He stopped meeting her gaze. "I kind of wish I was. But I'm not. I saw it happen, right in front of me. The guy they did it to… there was nothing left but bones."

Teyla's eyes widened, perfectly round and openly frightened. She was silent for the longest time, making John worry he'd distressed her to the point that Carson would kick his ass for it.

"Stories tell of only one creature capable of such a thing. Not all are in agreement, and the tales vary but…" Now she was the one pulling the deep breaths. "The Wraith, the stories say, have been the predator of man, though no two stories are exact in the method of consumption. Some say they ate flesh. Some, they devoured the soul."

"Great," John squeaked. "Not just space vampires, then, but the guys that tried to destroy this galaxy. My day just keeps getting better." He ran his hand through his hair.

Enough was friggin' enough.

"This is my fault," he blurted. Teyla opened her mouth; he cut her off. "It is. Unless you were about to agree with me then go right ahead. We came to your galaxy looking for a place. We call it Atlantis."

Teyla's eyes returned to their saucer position. "The city of the Ancestors?"

"If that's what your people call it, yes, the city of the Ancestors. We thought we knew where it was, were supposed to end up there and instead we've been forced to search out places like the one you're in now. Each place we find is supposed to bring us closer to the city, and we are close, one more facility away kind of close. The thing is, these things, these Wraith or whatever they are… I don't know what they're game is but whatever they're up to, Atlantis is involved, and they don't want us to find it. And they know about us, and I'm sure they know about you, and that attack on your people was because of us. But I swear to you, Teyla, I'm going to make it right. I'll find your people, I'll find mine, and I will make those bastards pay."

John pressed his lips together, steeling himself. "But I need your help. More precisely, I need Meeka's."

"You're bloody daft," Beckett muttered under his breath for what John counted to be the third time.

"I'm bloody desperate, Carson."

"Yeah, and it's not his fault there's a fine line between both," Rodney had to add.

Carson bustled around John, slipping heart monitor pads through the collar of his T-shirt, because no way was John exposing himself any more than he had to – and having his mind read felt like a lot of exposure. The dragon bay was also a tad chilly, and the thin T-shirt alone was barely enough. His skin was rough with goosebumps.

When the pads were in place, the monitor beeped the quick and uneasy rhythm of John's heart. Now everyone knew just how nervous he was.

John understood why Teyla had to be present – this was her griffin about to tear through the walls blocking John's memory. She needed to be here to support Meeka in something Meeka had no desire to do. Beckett and Esel were here, as he put it, to ensure John survived this "bloody insanity." Weir, McKay and Ronon and their dragons and griffin felt like overkill. John would rather not have an audience, yet the three refused to oblige.

"It's not like we weren't here the last time you tried this and failed," Rodney said. Bina's head kept bobbing back and forth over Rodney as though trying to get a better view.

"Aye, but if your presence is causing him undue stress—"

John sighed. Rodney was right. Their presence hadn't made a difference last time though he was sure last time he'd been too out of it to care. Besides, if it were one of them about to endure having their brain poked and prodded, he'd want to stick around to ensure the poking and prodding didn't go too far.

With John all hooked up, Carson tugged on his arm, coaxing him to sit in the nice, padded chair they'd brought along. A defibrillator sat next to that chair; it wasn't encouraging.

"I'm ready on my end. You ready, lad?" Carson said.

No, John thought. He said out loud, "Yes," with a noticeable catch in his voice. He felt a gentle nudge to the back of his head.

"I'll be with you on this, Johnny," Corvax said. John reached back and patted his snout.

"Let us begin, then," Meeka said. She lowered her head, putting her eyes level with John's. Her pupils widened until John was staring at his reflection.

"Relax," Meeka said.

Calm poured over John, warm as a summer ocean.

There was mild pressure, like something pushing against his skull.

"Open your mind to me."

It increased. Instinct told him to fight; the calm told him to give in. He heard, outside himself, a rapid beep. The pressure climbed, the vise tightening, becoming pain, his brains turning to liquid, making him wince. Sweat tickled his face, down his back, soaking into his clothes until he shivered. He wanted to move his arms to wipe it away, but couldn't. He was strapped down in a cold chair, in a cold place, gray hazy faces hovering over him.

There were touches, just as cold, that made him flinch. His body tensed, waiting – waiting for something bad.

"Easy, John. I'm right here," Corvax said, the voice of a distant dream.

They are only memories. They can not hurt you, breathed a voice in his head. But what did she know?

I know much where memories are concerned. Allow me to see them, and then you will see them and they will be less than you think they are.

Great, now she was speaking in riddles.

Not a riddle. Simply a fact. I am much better at telling jokes, though Teyla may beg to differ.

John felt the muscles of his face pull his mouth into a smile. Someone said… Rodney, he thought, "Why is he smiling? I thought the memories were supposed to be bad?"

Someone else shushed him. It was hard not to smile though he was strapped down and scared out of his mind.

Not real, only memories.

The band around his head cinched, crushing his skull. He could feel his chest pulsate with increased breaths, hear the beeping fast as his slamming heart. The faces were all around him, hands touching him, voices making demands of him.

Give us what we want.

A face pulled in inches from John's – pale, cropped-white hair, yellow eyes, slit pupils, mouth parted, too many transparent teeth: like looking into the face of a man-shark.

Give us what we want.

Now Koyla, smiling that bastard smug smile of his.

"Do not make this difficult on yourself, Major," he said then backhanded him hard enough for John to taste blood. They liked to hit him, sometimes: a slap here, a punch to the gut there, a little pain to add to the disorientation and to kick up John's survival instincts. The animal need to escape the pain and riding on a sickly haze that scared the hell out of him made it hard to be uncooperative. They asked him to do things – to think, always to think – and he would, because where's the harm in thinking?

Sometimes they would take him out of the chair, and his joints would scream at him, like now. The reprieve lasted only as long as it took John to relieve himself, sometimes longer to prevent muscle atrophy, sometimes longer to rest, though it didn't feel that way. They fed him white mush by hand and he was always too stupid with hunger to think to refuse. He was their good little dog that forgot how to bite, and they the vicious masters.

Give us what we want. What they wanted was for him to think. It was hard to think on the haze, even harder when all he wanted to do was sleep, or was stupid with hunger. He could have sworn he was starving two minutes after eating. White mush wasn't enough. He needed stuff that stuck to the ribs, like eggs, bacon, steak. He said as much, so Kolya, or a guard, or a masked thing that smelled of death – John couldn't quite recall – punched him in the stomach and killed his appetite.

Someone said, "That should keep it quiet for a while." He didn't know whether they were talking about his stomach or him.

"Major Sheppard, I need you to listen…"

That was the skinny sharp-faced guy. Ladon, John remembered. He liked Ladon, who brought him food and didn't hit him.

"I need you to listen. I need you to open your mind."

A bird-face replaced Ladon's, and that scared him. Whenever the bird looked at him, his head hurt until he thought his skull was splitting open.

This bird didn't make his head hurt. It calmed his head, whispered to him about a chair that asked questions, a place where Ancestors lived, and asked only one thing of him.


John was no longer strapped down. He was on his feet, running, running, running. Climbing, climbing…

He remembered. Tall, dark trees, stagnant water, moisture thick enough to make him suffocate, the thick droning of insects. He looked up through the gap in the trees at the peak of a mountain split in two, one side longer than the other, a finger pointing to the sky and, oh, how he wanted to be in that sky.


He ran, pushing tired legs through water, stumbling until he was soaked. He heard shouts, grunts, bird shrieks that made him shrink back. He ran, he thought, away from the noise. All he wanted to do was run, to keep running fast until he flew. But he had to stop when the sound was closer, directly ahead of him where, through the trees, two men fought a third, two griffins fought a third griffin.

John remembered: that isn't fair. He thought: men are cruel. He jumped at the nearest attacker.

John's brain tore itself in two, a sliver of agony slicing through his brain, down his neck, into his spine. He screamed, fell out of the chair, pulled wires from his chest that hurt. He wanted to run, to keep running from the ones who'd hurt him but he was pinned down by a massive claw. The dark face of a bird loomed over him, splitting his head with its mind.

"John, snap out of it! John!"

The face blurred, darkening, and came back together into Corvax.

John gasped out. "What… the h-ell?" Crap, it sounded like he was sobbing. He couldn't get enough air, chest heaving with effort until a plastic mask was slipped over his face.

Corvax lifted his claw away but not his head, looking small with his eyes so huge and worry pouring like a deluge. "You okay, buddy?"

"No," John rasped, muffled behind the mask. He started chuckling.

Worry became a flood and Corvax nudged John in the shoulder. "John. John!"

"Oh, crap, she broke him. He's delirious!" Rodney.

John chuckled louder until it was a full-on gut-laugh. He shook his head.

"You were right, McKay," he gasped out between rather unmanly giggles.

"I was?"

"Yeah, you were. I know where those sons of bitches are."

John tugged hard on his boot laces then eased up when it felt like his foot was going numb. "You're not going, McKay." A change of clothes, boots included, didn't make much of a difference other than removing a fourth of the grimy feel all over John's body. He still felt like a wrung-out dishrag that the fifteen-minute nap forced on him by a pummeled brain hadn't made a dent in.

Rodney stood across from John, adjusting the tactical vest more comfortably around his torso. "I am. Get over it."

"You're not. You get over it." John slammed his booted foot on the floor and looked up at McKay. "We're going into unknown enemy territory to rescue our people. The last thing I need is for any of us to be distracted because we have to babysit a civilian."

"No, the last thing you need is to run into a broken door or tampered technology you need working but can't because you didn't bring an expert with you. You need me, Major. If what you described in your memory is what we think it is, then you are really going to need me."


Rodney stopped him by raising both his hands. "No. No, hear me out, all right? What difference does it make, huh? You said it yourself, our people are in the hands of the enemy; it's only a matter of time before they locate us; we have few places to go and few people to trust. Staying behind does little good except prolong the inevitable and… I want to help. I can help, and I'll follow any orders you give me to the letter. If you say run, I'll run. If you say sing, I'll give it my best but I need to warn you that when it comes to vocals I've been told I'm a little tone deaf…"

Then he trailed off, out of words or breath, John couldn't say. McKay was pale, obviously trying not to be scared out of his mind, but with a set to his jaw that said loud and clear how he wasn't backing down from this.

John had to admire it, but eclipsing it was the image of Johnson being sucked dry, only instead of Johnson it was McKay, then Teyla, then Ronon, then any marine who happened to pop into his head. He stared at Rodney hard until the other man's throat quivered with a nervous swallow.

Then that tiny voice of cold reason whispered about how McKay could very well end up being needed after all. The recovered memories had been like video footage from the forties – grainy and gray and not all that reliable. But John remembered a place not unlike the facility they were in now, with pristine halls, a hard, cold chair and images hovering overhead. No one knew Ancient systems like McKay, and no one could coax them into cooperation like McKay. And John had the niggling impression that something had been wrong with that chair, in part that it shouldn't have taken months to answer the questions (unless the Genii and Wraith were just that dumb, though he doubted it) and in part… a feeling that he couldn't describe.

"This could be a trap," John tried.

Rodney rolled his eyes. "Because they collect prisoners like they do figurines? They have what they need, and it doesn't matter how many times we change the security codes, you know as well as I do that they'll eventually find a way in. Again, you need me. I can be a valuable asset on this mission. And… and scientists face this kind of danger all the time in the Milky Way. It's not like exploring unknown planets is a walk in the park. It was always only a matter of time before we came across a situation where I would be forced to shoot a bad guy."

John arched an eyebrow at that. "So you're saying you hadn't planned on sitting around in Atlantis playing with Ancient toys?"

"Not if all the Nobel prize winning stuff is out there." McKay swept his arm in no particular direction. "Even sitting around in Atlantis or wherever we end up is going to have its dangers. I want to do this."

No, he didn't. John could tell. Yet McKay would make himself do this for whatever reason was currently motivating him.

"Elizabeth won't sanction it," John said.

Rodney opened his mouth, his words halted by John's upraised finger. "And, yes, she is the boss of you."

"Then help me convince her," McKay said.

"I don't want to convince her. I want you to stay behind."

"I can't stay behind because you need me."

"We don't know that."

Rodney folded his arms. "No, we don't. You really want to take the chance that you do?"

John dropped his head with a huffed exhale. The whole point of Rodney not going was because he didn't want to take a chance – he didn't want what had happened to Johnson to happen to McKay - but the annoying voice of logic hissed how he would probably end up regretting it, and that he was just being selfish. McKay was right – they needed someone who knew Ancient tech inside and out – but John wanted to settle for any old brainiac, preferably one who'd spent more time out on the shooting range.

"Here, there, it doesn't matter," Rodney said. "Once they find out where we are, it won't matter. I don't want to sit around waiting for that to happen. I want to be where I can make stuff happen."

John shook his head. "Elizabeth won't like it."

"She can get over it."

"You're head of the science department, McKay—"

"Which will mean absolutely nothing when we're forced to live like nomads at some other planet's mercy."

John stood, a swift action that would have made any other scientist of any department flinch and step back. McKay stood his ground, lifting that defiantly set jaw of his. And people always said John could out-stubborn a mule.

Crap, he hated this.

"It comes down to what Elizabeth has to say," John said, pushing finality.

Elizabeth said no, a lot, but Rodney's boast over his PhDs wasn't just lip service. He wore her down the same way he had with John, using logic and hard truths like a low blow and even going so far as pleading. Carson, who'd been in Weir's office when they'd arrived, kept repeating – louder each time – how daft Rodney was, that diving head first into danger wasn't the way to face the reality of it, and all with an inexplicable look of guilt flashing between the bafflement.

Then John was on Corvax in front of the 'gate, a contingent of marines behind him – anyone who could be spared without crippling the base's defenses (because if this failed, the expedition was going to need every soldier it had) – Teyla, because it was her people who'd been taken as well, Ronon because he was ridiculously loyal like that, and Rodney because for a smart guy he could be pretty blockheaded. Brave, but blockheaded.

Elizabeth and her red dragon stood off to the side, pouring worry into the ambient through empathy and a look.

"If we're not back by tomorrow," John said. "You get the hell out of here. This place may be a fortress but, believe me, you don't want to be cornered here. They'll just wait you out."

Elizabeth nodded rigidly. "I know. We're already making preparations."

"Good." John glanced back and twirled his hand in the air. Grodin dialed the 'gate. The event horizon exploded out and in, and John led the way through.

"Good luck," Elizabeth said.

Then one cold, sick ride later and John was back at the place he had thought he'd escaped for good. But because he didn't recall much beyond the swamp, there wasn't much recollection to be had. Corvax moved forward, making room for the others to plop through one by one. Only when the 'gate shut down did John and Corvax take them into the sky in the direction of the swamp.

Soft grasses and gentle trees gave up the land to a solid carpet of dense growth below. They weren't high enough above the canopy for John to miss the stench of swamp gasses, stale water and rotting things. It pricked at his mind, coated his spine with ice and made his heart quake. A voice in his head whispered, run, but he was way past that. He remembered, he knew, and what you knew didn't have as much power as it once did. He also had a goal that he would see through to the end.

Ronon had told them that, before finding John, he and Bylar had been flying fast and erratic through the swamp. All the same, he didn't think he'd made massive directional changes that had covered miles. In other words, his path had been relatively straight in the general direction of the 'gate before being ambushed. Neither were the mountains so far to miss the single detail John was searching for.

He saw it, when the mountains loomed closer and there was nothing but swamp as far as the eye could see behind them. A mountain, more like a hill compared to what surrounded it, pointed to the sky with a peak broken down the middle, one side taller than the other. John had Corvax move in closer until the mountain was almost on top of them. They then circled wide until stumbling on a clearing, and dropped through one by one.

Into suffocating humidity and water thick with algae and moss, ankle high. Bina grimaced in disgust.

"Oh, this is just… why'd you make me come?"

Rodney wasn't listening, too intent on his tablet and whatever it was telling them. The broken mountain was visible through the gap. Other than the drone of insects and harsh, heavy air already soaking John's clothes with sweat, little else inspired any recollection.

"Were there no other defining features letting you know where you emerged?" Teyla asked.

John shook his head. "Just the mountain. I think the water was shallower. Not even up to my ankles."

"Then it's a good thing I talked you into bringing me," Rodney said, wearing an almost manic grin on his face. "There are energy readings. Nothing major, more like the occasional blip but a blip is all I need." He swung his little scanner back and forth, away from the mountain then toward. When it beeped, he pointed. "Straight ahead, closer to the range."

Really, John could have told Rodney as much without needing a scanner. He decided not to say anything except, "Move out."

The deeper in they went, the more the scanner beeped, putting itself to better use when more specific directions were needed. Water sucked and slurped in a futile attempt to pull the dragons down. Insects gathered around them, biting, drinking sweat and irritating the hell out of their skin. The swamp may have been thick and heavy, but the slap of wet skin against wet skin still reverberated. John had figured a long time ago that maintaining silence in a swamp would be next to impossible. Neither was it necessary – he remembered no guards attempting to stop him when he crawled out into open air.

"We're close," Rodney said. The scanner beeped rapidly. "Real close."

The water was shallow, barely reaching past the dragons' and griffins' feet. John unbuckled and slid from the saddle, landing with a quiet splash. There was nothing unique to remember, nothing defining, only a feeling of having been in this place before. He remembered pushing open a hatch, a gap in the canopy, blue skies, the mountain and the pained joy of freedom.

The toe of John's boot smacked into the solid edge of a small, mossy island – too solid, too edged. He crouched and, with a single sweep of his hand, pushed away the peat and leaf debris. Underneath was the curved side of a hatch red with rust.

John smiled. "Found it."

"You climbed that?" Rodney asked.

"Yep," John said.

"All the way?"

"Well, yeah, or I wouldn't have gotten out."

Teyla understood Rodney's incredulous alarm. The hatch cover was large, requiring two dragons to open it, and the hole beneath showed no end in sight, only eternal darkness. On one side of the pit were metal rungs, each bloody with rust. That Major Sheppard had climbed all of them, in poor condition, was difficult to wrap her mind around. But, then, desperation could make all things possible.

"Maybe it's not as deep as it looks," Ronon said.

Perhaps so. The lights on the other side of the tunnel were weak to be almost pointless. The depth could be deceiving. Not that it mattered as the opening was wide enough for dragon and griffin to get through while carrying their riders.

"Could be," John said. "We're not going to find out sitting around here. Mount up."

Everyone stood to do just that, but before Ronon was able to, John grabbed his arm. "Hey, think you could do me a favor?"

Ronon narrowed his eyes. "What?"

"Watch McKay. Keep him safe while we're down there."

For a moment, it looked as though Ronon might protest. Yet the expression on John's face Teyla would dare call almost pleading, and Ronon quickly caved to it – though clearly not happy about it.

"Yeah, sure," he said.

Teyla climbed back into Meeka's saddle, then adjusted the P-90 more comfortably. A marine had provided her with both the vest and weapon, both cumbersome compared to the lighter weight of her rifle slung across her back. The more compact weapon felt strange in her hands, almost fragile, even after the quick familiarization with it before embarking on this journey. She had tried to refuse the gun and vest, but Major Sheppard had wanted everyone as armed as possible. Even Doctor McKay carried the blocky gun.

John and Corvax went first, John pressing himself against the saddle, then Corvax sliding through the hole like a serpent into its lair. The hole was large enough for even the largest dragon of their group to fit through. Teyla was third to follow on the tail of Ford's copper, a blue dragon following her. Meeka splayed her arms, legs and wings out on either side. Though the walls were smooth, they were also made of stone, and Meeka's claws had more than enough traction to slow her ambling decent. Teyla pressed hard against the saddle until she could barely breathe, and still felt the wall brush precariously close to her back. The tunnel filled with the nerve-shredding scrapes of claws on rock. Fortunate for them, having so many large bodies filling most of the space subdued much of the echoing.

It was still loud, still made Teyla's heart jump and stutter when a scrape carried, it seemed, all the way to the bottom. It was more urgency than fear that had hold over her, though. Her heart skipped in alarm yet raced steady in between. When the world fell apart one piece at a time, action held what was left of those pieces in place. She was doing something, if not to save her people, then at least to avenge them. Major Sheppard's people were not yet ready to jump to the conclusion that their attackers and the Sky Raiders were one in the same – reliant on hard evidence, which Teyla understood as there was danger in jumping to conclusions - but the proof was there. The stories confirmed it. The whining cull ships had been the weapon of the Wraith, and that was connection enough.

The tunnel was long, the going slow, and the time ticking away frayed Teyla's nerves far more than the shriek of claws. Then, almost as though a blink had transported her, Ford's dragon dropped, unfurling his wings for a gentle landing on smooth, metal floors. Meeka copied, then Teyla was able to straighten.

It added to her relief that there had yet to be soldiers reacting to the cacophony from the pit. John did not look as pleased by this. The hallway stretching ahead of them remained quiet and empty.

"You know, last time one of these facilities was this quiet, we were ambushed," he said in a low voice. He unbuckled himself and slid to the floor. Being in the saddle would make them too easy a target, and put them at risk if confronted with an enemy griffin.

When everyone was grounded and with weapons in hand, John waved them forward, he and Ford between their dragons. The dragons kept their heads low, but sniffed and tasted at the air. Teyla looked behind her to see the other dragons doing the same, including Rodney's white, though his hunch seemed more of a nervous cower. They moved down the hall, heel to toe, minimizing all sound. When they reached the end branching into two halls left and right, John stopped, and signaled with a raised fist for the others to do the same.. He and Ford took up position on either side and peered down each way.

"Clear," John breathed. He licked his lips, an uneasy action. "This place isn't like the others."

"Maybe it has a few additions," Ford tried weakly. John gave him a wan grimace, then slipped into the left side corridor. It went straight before ending at a right turn they had no choice but to follow. It, too, was empty and remained that way, stretching onward, ending at a cross – three ways to choose, all just as devoid of life.

Teyla saw John stiffen like a creature perking up at a familiar sound. He chose the right hall, moving with less stealth as though taken in a trance. They came to the center where there was a door, and stealth resumed, pressing John to the side of the wall with the glowing panel. He swiped it quickly. The door whispered open and he and Ford darted inside, sweeping their weapons in every direction. Teyla and the marine with the green dragon followed after.

The room was vacant, bare save for a single chair in the center of the room, scattered tables covered in tools, and two lighted tables at the far end. John's body seemed to melt at the sight of the chair. He lowered his weapon and approached, enraptured by something unseen or unheard.

Or frightened. He stopped within three steps of the thing, circled it, putting a slight curve to his back as if the chair had the means to attack and he wished to be ready if it did. He stopped when he reached the front, stood there and stared.

Teyla approached with just as much caution. She had to tense her jaw to hold back a gasp.

The chair was stained with blood – on the arms, thick on the manacles bolted to the arms, some smeared on the back, all of it brown with age but patches of it still moist, recent.

Corvax placed himself next to John, sat and said nothing. But Teyla was close enough to see John lean against the large, dark shoulder like it was the only thing holding him up. She could not even begin to fathom what he must be remembering; she did not wish to.

Then Rodney was there, on the other side passing his scanning device over the chair. When he slid aside a panel in the chair's arm, his face fell.

"They have it. They got it. The final crystal." He looked at John. John's gaze was only for the chair, seeing things that paled him.

Teyla moved tentatively until she was within reach to touch his shoulder. He flinched hard when she did, blinking his way back to the now.

"Major?" Teyla said.

John blinked again, twitching his head as though tossing aside whatever had held him. "Yeah, uh… yeah. I'm good."

"No, you're not good," Rodney said, high-pitched and wild. "None of us are good because they got the damn crystal. They know where Atlantis is!"

John took a deep breath. "One thing at a time, McKay. Our people first, then we can worry about Atlantis." He lifted his weapon. "Let's go."

It was as they were heading to the door, only two steps in, when cold punched through the center of Teyla's stomach, knocking the breath from her, filling her veins. She staggered into Meeka's side and grabbed a fistful of feathers to stay upright. John appeared on her other side, taking her arm to help.


She shook her head. "I… I do not feel…" She closed her eyes, a terrible mistake. Darkness filled it, a darkness full of whispering voices, like a winter wind ghosting over her mind, freezing her skull. It did not hurt; it did terrify her to the very edge of her sanity. Too many voices. Hunger, so much hunger.

Was she going mad?

Teyla opened her eyes.

A creature entered the room, tall, pale, hair like insect thread. It was dressed in a dark coat of leather and looked upon the humans in surprise, then something that Teyla could only describe as predatory, baring its crystal teeth. It pulled out a weapon of its own only to be dropped by thundering P-90 fire before it could be used.

The creature had not been alone. Electric blue ripped wildly through the entrance.

"Corvax!" John shouted.

The dragon bolted through the door only to back inside and away, making room for a pale gold griffin entering with a Wraith creature hanging from its beak. It dropped the broken body, and the stun stick skittered across the floor.

"I was afraid you would never remember." A man entered, short, sharp-faced and slender. Teyla knew him as one of the Genii scholars.

"Ladon," John breathed.

The Earthers snapped their weapons up. Ladon merely smiled.

"Your mistrust is understandable," Ladon said. He let the smile fall. "But we have very little time. As you've no doubt discovered, the data crystal was finally retrieved. The chair had been closer to the end of its questions than I had known. Fortunate for you, it was only retrieved this day. I've done what I could to slow the questioning process, even attempted to damage the chair beyond access. Yet because I know little of this technology, the best I could do was to slow it down. It was only a matter of time before the location of the ancient city was theirs."

"Well," said Rodney, "now we know why you were gone for months, Major."

John said nothing. He stared at Ladon the way he had the chair, seeing things that pained him.

"What the hell is going on?" John rasped.

"All in good time, Major," Ladon answered. "First, I need to bring you to your people then send you on your way. Follow me."

No one moved, least of all John. Ladon seemed to have anticipated this, his head twitching in a small nod as if to confirm his own thoughts. "What do you remember, Major?"

"More than I care to," John said.

"Of me," said Ladon. "I was the last face you saw before you escaped. Why is that?"

John's eyes fluttered in a quick succession of blinks. "You… I remember your griffin, telling me things, then…" He inhaled sharply. "You unlocked the restraints."

"Freeing you, delaying the retrieval of the crystal, sending a message to the outside world should anything happen to me." Ladon said in a single breath. "But it took time, and though I managed to slow the chair with minor debilitations to its systems I could not stop it. The questions continued to come, Kolya's griffin continued to alter your mind just enough to answer those questions whether you liked it or not, and without killing you. It had always been my intention to release you but first I needed to prepare you and it took time, more time than I would have liked. Time enough to bring Kolya and the Wraith within reach of the crystal. When you look at me, do you fear me?"

John shook his head.

"And you have no reason to fear me, still. Had I not released you, the Ancient city would already be in the hands of the Wraith. I will explain everything in time but time is something of a commodity to us. Kolya has the location and, as we speak, may very well be heading to the ancient city. We can not let him gain control of it. So, please, follow me."

"How do we know you're not leading us into a trap?" Rodney demanded.

Ladon raised his eyebrows at him. "This is a Sky Raider base of operations. One they are in full control of. If this were a trap, believe me, you would know it by now."

Rodney shuddered and squeaked, "Okay."

Without adding anything further, Ladon turned and led the way from the chair room. John followed, with reluctance but no other choice, and the rest of them followed him.

"Uh, shouldn't we be a little more quiet or… something?" Rodney said.

"The only ones remaining are a handful of scientists and those guarding your people," Ladon said. "The rest went with Kolya to secure the city."

"And he didn't want to take you along?" Ronon ground out, thick with suspicion.

Ladon threw a wry smile over his shoulder at him. "I'm one of the scientists."

"But not Kolya's buddy, obviously," said John.

"No. Long ago, generations before Cowen, a man named Lon Treev created a… group, for lack of a better word. This group was trained mentally and physically in the art of subterfuge. Their purpose was to infiltrate Sky Raider camps and bases of operations where they could. Lon knew that Raiders infiltrated where they could and that even his own people could not be trusted. For that reason, when the group was established, they were given complete control over themselves – a separate entity working outside of government and everyone's knowledge. Only Lon and the members of this organization knew of its existence. No leader has since."

Rodney chuffed. "How very alien James Bond."

Ladon graced him with an odd look. "I assume I should take that as a compliment?"

"If you want," said Rodney, dismissive.

"So you're a member of this organization," John stated.

"It could be that I am the only one left. My infiltration was not as deep. Kolya had been suspected for some time so I was sent to confirm it. When it was confirmed, I stayed to gather as much information as I could. Those of my group who went deeper have not been heard from for some time. It is not unexpected. The Sky Raiders know of us. We are simply too well trained for them to find us all."

"Mental blocks," said Ladons's griffin; Sirel, John recalled. "Like what was used to hide your memories, Major. Only without the amnesia."

Teyla's jaw dropped. "This is possible?" She looked at Meeka, who shrugged, just as bewildered.

Sirel looked back at them, a grin as wry as Ladon's. "You would be surprised what we are capable of. I was able to plant a seed in the major's mind. It was meant to awaken his memories at the sight of Kolya or the Wraith, but the block Kolya's griffin placed on him was strong, layered on over the days he was here. We had feared as much and worried he would never remember."

"I helped him," said Meeka, proudly.

"I had assumed as much. Once the memories returned, the 'seed' would then help sharpen them, creating a sort of hair trigger for his memories to react at the most innocuous sight, smell, sound. Thus leading him here."

They stopped – Teyla had not been paying attention to how far they had come or the various turns they had taken, too intent on Ladon's explanation. She was hit with the cold, sick feeling again, forcing her to lean against Meeka.

"We are here," Ladon said. "Get ready." He palmed the doors open and stepped through. Teyla watched as he stood before a wall of bars, behind which were people, many people, some Earthers…

Many her own. She barely stifled a gasp.

"I need to speak with you, in private," Ladon said. He stepped back through the door. Seconds after, two masked Wraith followed. P-90 fire halted them with convulsions for Corvax and Delar to bite down on, removing their heads and spitting them out down the hall.

"A bit much, don't you think?" Rodney shrilled, cringing in horror.

"You haven't seen how quick these things get back on their feet," said John, "even with a hundred bullets in them." He slammed another clip of bullets into his weapon. "That it?"

"That is it," said Ladon.

John, Ford, Corvax and the copper lead the way through, splitting up to take both sides of the prison room. Prisoners – men, women, children - stretched their arms through the bars, calling to Teyla, wanting to touch her, giving praise to the Ancestors that she had come. When she saw Halling, she could not stop herself from clasping his reaching hands.

He looked at her like she was a goddess. Tears blurred Teyla's vision.

"Halling," she sobbed.

"Teyla. How did you find us?" Halling asked.

"I will explain later."

"Teyla!" Ronon called, and she turned in time to catch the keys thrown her way.

Rodney, hanging back, said, "This place definitely isn't like the others. Were these cells added?"

"To accommodate so many, yes," said Ladon, sounding breathless. "Quickly, please."

The locks clunked and the cell doors whined open. The dragons had to back out to make room.

"Where are your griffins?" Teyla asked.

"They are in the neighboring room," Ladon answered. "Drugged to sleep."

"I'll get them," Ronon said, and hurried from the room. John ordered two marines to follow then he opened the final cell door.

As each soldier filed out, Sheppard's face lost more and more color.

"Where the hell is Colonel Sumner?" he barked. Indeed, Sumner could not be found within the mass of Earthers.

"They took him. About two hours ago," someone said.

They piled out into the hall where freed griffins and dragons stumbled, woozy from forced sleep and lingering drugs quickly wearing off. Humans squeezed through, trying to find their own. The joy of it left Teyla breathless, and she had her back against Meeka for support.

"I did not believe they would be here," she said.

Ladon explained once again. "Kolya and the Wraith had planned to use them as a warning for other worlds not to help the Earth people. Through… a public execution. By the Skyraiders."

That they had not come too late added to the relief, nearly dropping her.

"What about Sumner?" John asked. He was breathing heavy, eyes dark and dangerous. "Why'd they take him?"

Ladon turned to him. "Only one is needed to find your people, Major. Who better than the one who leads your military? But there is still time to get him back. They still need him to find the location of your base."

Sheppard twitched his head in a nod. "Which way to the 'gate?"

But Ladon shook his head. "I sabotaged the 'gate so they could not use it for immediate infiltration. You will have to go another way. Follow me."

"What other way?" Rodney demanded, but Ladon was already moving, John following and the rest doing the same. "What other way?"

Again they hurried through the maze of halls, almost at a run.

"There is a reason why the Raiders made this their base," said Ladon. They came to a door, larger than the others, able to allow two griffins to walk through side by side. Ladon palmed it and the doors opened to a chamber beyond measure, echoing hollow with its vastness. Ladon stepped onto a metal walkway and swept his arm down. "And this is why."

Teyla stepped out with John, Ford, McKay and Ronon. Leaning over the rail, her breath caught.

Far below sat a great beast of a machine, larger than a camp, larger than a village. The impossible size of it waged a war of wonder and terror within her. She wanted to look away, yet her eyes refused to move. She managed it eventually, looked to the others for an explanation and saw their muted gaping and John's smile bright as the sun.

"A ship," he said. He chuckled, slapping his hand on the protective rail. "An honest to goodness friggin spaceship."

John Sheppard could officially learn to stop worrying and love this damn galaxy.

A spaceship. He was looking at a spaceship. He was standing above a spaceship. He'd been held captive in the same facility as a spaceship.

"Well, now we know why this place was built differently," Rodney said. "To accommodate that." He was grinning ear to ear, all but quivering with blatant anticipation of getting his hands on that sucker.

"The Sky Raiders discovered this facility some time back," said Ladon. "There are only two ships in all – the one you see now and the one the Sky Raiders are using - but few in this galaxy have the Ancestor lineage needed to wake these ships up. Most of them they use to keep the first ship running."

John ripped his gaze away from the spaceship and pinned it on Ladon. "They have another one of these?"

Ladon's affirmative nod was melancholy. "It is the source of the storms. The ship carries their people from world to world, then brings the captured to the Sky Raider home base, which we have yet to locate."

"And now they've got another one," Ronon growled.

"Not yet," Ladon said with a smirk. "There have been… difficulties. Nothing that can't be repaired quickly, of course."

Rodney gave Ladon a look like he was an idiot, insane yet awesome because of it. "How were you never caught?" he asked.

Ladon shrugged. "I'm well trained. But that ship is your way to the city. It's why it was put here, to carry you should the 'gate not work."

"Then what are we waiting for?" John said. "It guarded?"

"Yes. Scientists are still working on repairs. They are inside; guards will be outside."

"And this place is pretty big." John looked at Rodney, long and level.

Rodney, genius that he was, caught on quick. He smirked, snapping his fingers in rapid succession. "If it even has heat sensors – it's a hangar for a spaceship. Spaceships generate tons of heat."

John clapped Rodney on the shoulder for sparing him the need for lengthy explanations. He spun around and ran back through the doors calling, "Saddle up!" He hauled himself onto Corvax and strapped himself in. "Short fire bursts to take out the guards. Everyone not on a dragon stay behind if you don't want to get burned. We launch on my mark."

He waited until everyone was up and strapped. Then, "Now!"

They burst through the doors two dragons at a time, over the catwalk then down like a shot. Wraith manned the floor below and had only time enough to look up when pillars of fire reduced them to meat and ash. Corvax pulled up, skimming low and fast and spitting flames where he saw a Wraith. Those he missed Ford's copper took care of. Those Delar missed, the dragons behind handled. They circled the impossible length of the ship, flying close, turning it into a blur beside them and cleaning up the ground floor until they met with Marks and Stackhouse coming around the other side.

They landed where they could, scattering ash and charred bones beneath the cyclone of flapping wings.

"That's how you fight a battle," John said, breathless, relieved and feeling lighter than air on adrenaline. Corvax chuckled up coils of smoke. John looked at the ship. "So, how do we get in this thing?"

"This way!" Ladon called from somewhere in the back of the mass of griffins and riders. Corvax squeezed through until he was at the gaping entrance at what he guessed was the center of the ship, give or take. John dismounted and entered.

A mask-less Wraith charged him. John jumped back, filling it full of bullets from head to gut. He turned back to the marines waiting outside. "These halls are pretty narrow. We're going to need to split up, cover as much of the ship as possible but it's going to take time. McKay and I will head to the bridge. Ronon, Teyla, Ford and Marks, you're with me. The rest of you, split up, take this ship but keep anyone not armed and able to fight behind you. Got it?"

When everyone nodded or called out, "Yes, sir," John said, "Let's move out. Ladon?"

"Go right," Ladon said.

Nodding, John stepped aside for Corvax to enter and take the lead. It was a tight space for the dragon, but eventually opened up enough for him to loosen his tightly tucked wings. Ladon called out directions from behind John. The next Wraith they encountered, Corvax beheaded it with a bite.

It was easy going until they reached the bridge crawling with Wraith in long coats. The door was too small for Corvax to get through – John was really starting to wonder if Ancients weren't dragon friendly or dragons were after their time. Corvax did get his head in, snapped up the nearest Wraith and crushed its body, getting the other Wraith to converge on him, firing stunners. Corvax whipped his head out and stepped aside for John, Ford, Stackhouse and Ronon to open fire and mow them down. They made short work of the six remaining Wraith who had no place to duck and cover.

John raced inside and leaped into the uncomfortably small chair. Short and not dragon friendly; John took back anything nice he may have said about Ancients.

"All yours, McKay. Ladon, show him what to fix," he said.

Ladon hurried around the consoles, Rodney on his heels. "Most of what was sabotaged has been repaired— here! It should simply be a matter of replacing wires." They crouched beneath a console and removed the panel. As Rodney pulled away blackened wires, Ladon retrieved a bundle of fresh wires from across the bridge.

"So, what, you did a little sabotaging here and there? Small stuff?" Rodney asked as he soldered the wires using the tool Ladon handed him. "For how long?"

"Two years," Ladon said, removing the neighboring panel.

"And were never caught?"

"It is simply a matter of careful planning. Although it also helps to plant a rodent or lizard willing to chew on anything within the system."

"Ha!" Rodney barked.

"Wow," John said. "You take your job seriously."

"I take survival seriously," said Ladon, sober.

"I'll drink to that," John said. "How much longer?"

McKay moved to the second panel. "Almost there. This one isn't so bad." He switched out and soldered wires with the same dexterity used for typing, then sat back, hands up, the magician finished with his trick. "Done!"

"Cool. Now what?"

Rodney looked at him, his face terse with naked worry. "I don't know, uh… think about where we are in the universe?"

John decided it high time to try out a more simple approach; he thought, on. There was a hum and the mild tingle of artificial life dancing up his spine, followed by the rumble of distant thunder. John gaped when, through the view screen, the hanger whipped by in a downward blur.

His heart dropped into his stomach. "Uh, weren't we supposed to open the hanger door first or something?"

A sudden clank made John cringe in anticipation for a collision. What he got was sunlight spilling down around them in a blinding halo. The ship shot up and up and up, the mountain range shrinking away below them, the swamp on the right, more peaks on the left. The ship shuddered as it pushed against the atmosphere, day fading in seconds to twilight, then night.

And then they were in space, rising above the monolithic blue, brown and green glowing marble of a planet.

John was in a spaceship, flying into friggin' space.

He officially loved this stupid galaxy.

A swirling blue and white vortex opened up before the ship. John's heart slammed into his sternum and he lurched away hard enough to bruise his back on the chair. "Whoa! What is that!"

Rodney looked up. He swatted a dismissive hand. "Relax. It's just a hyperspace window. I've seen one before. Once. Only because Carter finally realized the value of my expertise in getting the Prometheus' hyperdrives to work…" He sneered. "Took her long enough."

The vortex sucked them in to a swirling tunnel of more blue and white. John swallowed.

"So, this is normal?"

"Yes, it's normal," Rodney spat. "Now, stop talking. Busy."

"And I did that?" Because John sure as hell didn't remember calling up a hyperspace window. He looked to Rodney for an answer.

Rodney, the tablet he'd been carrying on his back plugged in, studied the readings. "Uh…" His head reared back, his eyes going round. "Apparently not. This ship's running itself."

"Should I be worried?"

"No, no. This is good; this is right. It's been preprogrammed, has a destination and everything."

"To where?"

Rodney looked up with the biggest, dumbest grin on his face. He rocked back on his heels, tucking one hand behind his back. "Where do you think?"

John smiled back. "ETA?"

"No estimation about it. According to this, twenty minutes."

Marks' voice sounded over the comm. "Ship secured, sir."

"Right. Tell everyone to sit tight. We're on our way. Arrival time in twenty minutes."

"More like nineteen, now," said McKay.

John rolled his eyes. He swiveled around to where Ladon was replacing the panels.

"So, why now?" John asked. "Why are these Wraith popping up now and giving us hell? Because of us?"

Dusting off his hands, Ladon stood. "Don't flatter yourself, Major. They've always been around. They were simply hiding. From what I was able to gather, they are few in number. The war between our races had devastated them. Following that was a civil war, reducing more of their numbers."

"What, a war spanning thousands of years?" Rodney said, incredulous, and John sympathized. A thousand year war was the stuff of sci-fi, fantasy and speculative fiction. Then again, life was supposed to be weirder than what people wrote in books, and if Earth could have a hundred years war then what was a couple of thousand years?

Still pretty damn long for John's brain to wrap around.

"They hibernate for a century," Ladon said. "To conserve their food supplies. With them in hiding, and fewer humans to feed on beyond those brought to them by their allies and those that worship them—"

"People actually worship them?" Ronon said like spitting out something nasty.

"— they were forced to hibernate more." Ladon continued. He looked at Ronon. "Some worship them; most – like Kolya – serve them for various gains. He believes that to serve is to live. As long as you are useful, then you survive. Others merely seek the spoils of attack – slave labor, for the most part. Each Raider has a reason. Yet no matter those reasons, the Sky Raiders are still little more than monsters serving monsters."

Ronon's grip on his gun was that of someone eager to shoot something.

"And some are among us," said Teyla, toneless. John didn't need to read her mind to know she was wondering who else among her allies might betray them without a second thought. Perhaps she even wondered – though she would not want to – if there were any Raiders among her own people.

"You are more likely to find traitors among more populated worlds where they are stationary," Ladon said. "Places where it is easy to come and go. They will avoid those who are nomadic as the nomadic tribes are more… exclusive, more… tightly bonded with each other. It makes them more difficult to infiltrate."

Teyla breathed out, though she looked no less tense. "Do you…" she began, reluctant. "Do you know of Sora?"

Ladon shook his head. "She is under Kolya's command but is not a Raider. Kolya's attack on you all was a ploy to deceive Cowen. Cowen wanted the technology; Kolya simply wished to know the next location of the facility so that he could set up a trap. It was simply in his favor that the facility where your people were taken, Major, was already under their control."

John tilted his head back. As frustrated as he should have been – and he was – it felt damn good to finally get some answers. Life was complete; he could now focus on kicking ass.

He couldn't say how much time had passed, time Rodney and Ladon spent going from console to console, making minor repairs, when something beeped repeatedly. John snapped both his head and hands up. "Now what did I do?"

"Nothing," Rodney said, looking at his tablet. "We're here."

The blue-white tunnel vanished and the screen filled with the glowing blue of another planet. The ship angled in without being told, a cocoon of burning atmosphere surrounding it, like being wrapped in a giant flare trying to rip the ship apart. The inertial dampeners on this thing rocked – the ship didn't so much as twitch. Then they were back under a blue sky flying high and fast over a glittering sapphire ocean.

The ship stopped and hovered. The beeping continued. John jumped from the seat to his feet and closer to the screen.

There wasn't much to see besides ocean, ocean and more ocean. John furrowed his brow. Something was wrong.

"Please tell me this city is… invisible or something," he said.

Rodney joined him, slack-jawed with the same confusion. "No. Well… it's Ancient design so who knows."

The ship continued its hover, the beeping incessant until John was one more beep away from finding the source and ripping it out.

"Maybe we got here too late," Ronon said on Rodney's other side. "Maybe the Wraith destroyed it."

Teyla stepped up beside John. "Then where is their ship?"

"Wait! What's that!" Rodney said, pointing at what didn't need pointing out – a bulge in the water, immeasurable and growing.

Then a spear of silver burst through the surface in a diamond cascade of seawater, launching up toward the sky. The four of them flinched away from reflective metal racing past the screen, a second tower joining it on the right and left and behind – towers everywhere, blinding bright as they climbed higher and higher. They were surrounded by towers glittering wet and almost like new, far too many to count. John moved closer, enough to look down at smaller towers and buildings – an entire city on a star-shaped platform, a platform that could lift it up into space. Everyone had said so before coming to this galaxy, as though they couldn't say it enough – a flying city.

The mother of all spaceships, and it. Was. Beautiful.

And all John could say was, "Wow."

"Yeah," Rodney breathed. "Wow."

Ronon pointed at the taller tower. "I'm guessing that's the city you were looking for?"

A violent shudder that almost dropped John killed the awe-inspiring moment. The steady beep was gone, replaced by another beep that was rapid and urgent. Rodney staggered away from the screen to his tablet still at a console. He grabbed it and read.

His eyeballs bulged. "Oh, no."

A third shudder forced John to grab the nearest wall and hold on. He demanded, "Oh no, what?"

Rodney, pale, looked up. "Bad guys are here."

A fourth shake made consoles spit sparks and smoke. A mechanical alarm coughed to life, yellow lights flashing. John ran to the command chair, hoping that the autopilot was no longer in control.

He dropped into the seat. "Please tell me have weapons!"

"No," Ladon said, running from console to console. "Its stores are empty."


"We didn't get around to fixing those!" Rodney yelped. A fifth hit and more consoles exploded like a bad fireworks display. One exploded and a marine went flying. Teyla staggered over to him against the constant rocking, crouched and checked his pulse.

"He is alive," she called.

"Fix it, Rodney!" John growled.

Rodney shook his head. "No time. Systems are failing; we're losing propulsion. Hell, we're losing altitude. We're going to crash!"

John jumped from the chair. "Then we're out of here." He tapped his comm. "Marks, spread the word. We need to abandon ship. I repeat, abandon ship. Get everyone off, now!" He joined Teyla in dragging the downed marine to his dragon in the hall. "Tell everyone to find the nearest exit and take flight!"

"Copy that. On our way," Marks said.

The blue dragon gathered the injured soldier into his arms. John and everyone else climbed into their saddles and strapped in – the halls may have been narrow, but they were at least high. They took off in a single-file, all-out run through the smoking halls, past sparking wires and burned panels. Another hit convulsed the ship, knocking the dragons into the walls like ping-pong balls.

They reached the exit. Corvax palmed the door open and had to dig his claws into the floor to keep from being sucked out. The vacuum tugged at John until he thought for sure his legs were going to rip from their sockets.

Corvax leaped into open air. For a moment, all John heard was the roar of wind beating against his head and body and sucking the air from his lungs. He had to cup his hand over his ear to keep the comm in place. Corvax shot down like a bullet, unfurled his wings and pulled hard until he leveled off. The whiplash scraped John's forehead against a spike; he could feel blood trickling around his eye sockets, but he ignored it. The wind sobered from abusive to pushy. John straightened, lowering his hand.

Atlantis was all around them, bright in the late morning, a massive jewel floating on the ocean. Corvax flew between her towers that were like a forest of silver. John looked back to see the Ancient ship a flaming comet falling to the sea, and he and Corvax the leader of a pack of griffins and dragons in flight.

"Uh, John?" Corvax said.

He turned back and gaped. "Oh, crap."

Hostiles were heading toward them, too many to count, and in the distance, the whine of culling ships.

"Damn it! We have hostiles heading toward us! Stackhouse, Vinzetti, Marks, Stales and Howards, you get anyone not armed to safety. The rest of you, engage!"

John gripped the handles of the saddle with one white-knuckled hand, the other hand aiming his P-90 at the approaching targets. Ford and Delar pulled up alongside him on his left, Ronon and Teyla on his right. When the hostiles were close enough for John to see the lead griffins' eyes, Corvax took a breath that billowed his ribs, then exhaled.

A pillar of fire thicker than Corvax's body ripped through the air, swallowing the first griffin it came across, and the one behind it, and the one behind that. When the flames stopped, all three birds and their riders plummeted in a fiery death to the pier. Ten others joined it on either side from Delar's fire and Ronon and Teyla's weapons.

The charging armada broke off, fanning out, twisting and spinning to make themselves difficult targets. The only option was to do the same. Corvax pulled up and went right, Meeka down and to the left following Delar. Bylar followed Corvax. Corvax dodged sharp rights and lefts, and bullets still skimmed close enough for John to feel their heat. They chased three griffins around broad, blinding towers. The griffins dove, Corvax followed, silver racing by and the ground racing up fast. Corvax pulled up and leveled off, veering a hard right away from a bird shooting out from around a tower toward them. Corvax raked his claw along its side.

John looked when something whined overhead. A cull ship flew past, firing. Its blast hit a brass dragon, leaving little to fall into the sea. A second darted around a tower, chasing after a gold. Only the ship emerged.

And there were more than two ships this time. John counted four. No, eight. He looked up at the single storm cloud shivering with lightning, hovering over the city. Griffins and ships darted in and out of it gaining extra cover from the fray.

"Look out!" Bylar squawked.

A cull ship barreled straight for them. Corvax and Bylar split wide for the ship to go between them, Corvax spitting flames. It scorched the ship, damaging it, yet not enough to bring it down.

"Chase it! I got an idea!" Bylar called. They turned sharp, pulling back together and tailing a ship that was gaining distance fast. Out of the corner of John's eye, he saw Bylar's head lowered and his eyes narrowed.

"Almost got it. Almost…" Bylar gritted out.

The ship slowed until they were almost right on top of it.

"Now!" Ronon shouted.

Corvax took another, expansive breath and let the flames rip right into the glowing ass-end of the ship. It set off a chain reaction of blue and pale violet explosions that reduced the ship to nothing.

"Whew!" Bylar laughed. "Those Wraith are easy to control."

"Think you could do it again?" John said.

"I can certainly try."

They veered after another culler that zipped past them. Bylar's concentration made his feathers quiver. "It's… too far away," he grunted, then gasped. "I can't get it." They were distracted from another attempt by four griffins flying straight at them. Ronon shot at them with his blaster, John his P-90 and Corvax a lesser, quicker plume of flame. Two griffins dropped and the rest parted, looping away.

A celestial white streak that hit John with a lot of familiarity shot past them, striking a green dragon below them and reducing it and its rider to atoms.

"Damn it! Their ship has drones! We need to take that damn ship down!"

John's comm tickled his ear with static.

"Sheppard!" It was Rodney. "I know how you can take the bigger ship down!"

John had to love the man's timing. "Talk to me, McK— son of a bitch!" A drone was heading right for them. With a trumpeting cry, Corvax spit flames while Ronon fired blast after blast, both hitting the drone and knocking it off course.

Right into a dart.

John breathed out a trembling breath. "You were saying?"

"Atlantis. You need to get inside Atlantis. It's a city and a ship so you can bet your ass it's going to have weapons."

John took in the sheer size of the small portion they were currently maneuvering through. "Where?"

"Control chair. It's gotta have a control chair. My best guess is somewhere in that central tower. I mean, why have a control chair that… never mind. I'm finding my way in. I'll hook up, get some schematics and try to guide you through. Just get. In. Side."

"Right," John said. He looked at Ronon. "We need to get inside!"

Bylar pointed down toward a blocky tower. "There! Looks like some kind of balcony."

As one, they dropped headfirst straight for the location. Corvax's head angled for just a fraction, did a double take and he cried, "Drone!" John looked back long enough to place the glowing squid bomb on their tail, gaining fast. When he felt Corvax's flanks inflate he turned away, hunkered low and braced himself with knotted muscles.

Corvax barrel-rolled and, when on his back, brought his head up and exhaled. The squid exploded, the blast wave shoving them in too fast toward the balcony. John felt Corvax flail trying to slow and tense for impact. The balcony shot up toward them.

The doors slid open and they burst through, Corvax then Bylar hitting the floor and sliding across it, slamming into the far wall. John's body pitched hard sideways, wall meeting shoulder and neither liking each other. Pain ripped through him when he felt the ball snapped from the socket. Beneath him, Corvax sagged with a bass exhale, Bylar a mound of feathers on his other side.

John heard Ronon chuckle from somewhere in the heap. "That was great," he slurred.

John could only groan, "Ow."

The city did not accommodate. Those Athosians who could not fight spread themselves across the base of the great city, pounding and clawing at doors that would not open and having to settle for squeezing themselves into nooks and crannies where they would not be fired upon. They remained mostly within a single branch of the star-shaped platform, so that was where Teyla and those of her people who'd found arms back in the facility stationed themselves: throughout the tops of the many towers, on balconies and in nooks, firing upon any enemy that flew past. It was easy to tell them from those of her people giving chase, discern the stun sticks and bulky rifles from the more slender rifles of her people. It helped John's people as well, and dragons and griffins flew together, firing bullets and flames.

Meeka focused on the cull ships and Teyla could feel her strain. She managed to coax one ship to slow enough for dragons to destroy it with fire. But the rest were too fast.

High above, the storm rolled, protecting the great ship firing on them with glowing projectiles. Teyla had seen a dragon attempt to climb toward the mass, only for a star-bomb to disintegrate it. Until they found a way to destroy that ship, the outcome of this battle would not be in their favor. Firing upon the enemy one by one only prolonged the inevitable.

Cull ships whipped by, dropping their beams across the city. Teyla's heart lodged in her throat.

"They are culling."

Except where one beam touched, people appeared – Wraith, gathered on a wide balcony, prying the doors apart. Other than that, the beams were not culling, and Teyla knew why.

They did not want to risk bringing griffins aboard. The old stories were true, then, and these Wraith remembered well.

Teyla risked a quick look down in fear of seeing the small, dark dots that would be Wraith securing the piers and platforms below. What she saw was a single speck of white darting around towers, hugging their walls and vanishing into indentions only to come back out.

"What is Doctor McKay doing?" Teyla whispered.

"Teyla!" Meeka cried.

Teyla looked up and fired at a griffin diving at her. Three more shots sent it and its rider plummeting with a scream. In that brief moment when no enemy approached, Teyla climbed into Meeka's saddle and strapped in. "I need Bren and Sareah with me," she said.

Meeka nodded, relaying the request by thought, then leaped out from their cover. Bren and Sareah flanked her as they weaved downward where Doctor McKay's white fluttered at the towers like a frantic bird seeking shelter. Bina looked up, bristled and spit fire. His panic made it easy to dodge.

"Meeka!" Teyla cried.

Meeka locked eyes with the white and he instantly calmed. Doctor McKay, on the other hand, was breathing fit to make him pass out. When his eyes widened at Teyla, his body relaxed. Telya and her support dropped the short distance to the ground.

"You scared the hell out of me!" Rodney shrilled, hand to his chest over his heart.

"And I apologize for that, but what are you doing away from shelter?" Teyla demanded.

"Trying to find a way in, to help Sheppard. There's a weapon inside that he needs to find and I need to help him but I can't get any of these damn doors to open."

"Then we shall help," said Teyla. They surrounded Bina and flew fast to the next tower behind the one McKay had been fighting to get into. When they spotted a door, they dropped.

"We need to pry the doors apart," Rodney said. Bina was already on it, digging his claws into the crack, and Meeka helped.

"If the stupid city would just wake up," McKay growled, leaning precariously to the side to slap the crystal panel in frustration.

The door slid open. Rodney blinked.

"Oh. Sheppard must have gotten inside."

Bina darted in; Teyla and the others followed. If Rodney and John could get inside, then there was no doubt the Wraith had infiltrated as well. They raced single file down a narrow hall slowly lighting up. The hall widened into a chamber of water-filled pillars that burst to life with bubbles and a gentle glow. They passed a window, the glass stained a myriad of rich colors, splashing those colors from the floor all the way to the wall. The city was as beautiful inside as it was outside, and Teyla could not help whispering a prayer of thanks, and for aid.

"I need a console or panel or—" Rodney said.

"Here!" Bina cut in, skidding in a sharp left toward closed doors, talons squealing on the metal floor. He swiped the doors open and darted inside, where consoles and glass screens glowed to life. McKay quickly unbuckled, dropped to the floor and pulled his tablet from its case strapped to his back. He fell to his knees in front of a console where he removed the panel to connect his tablet using clips.

"Okay, as long as all systems aren't independent, I should at least be able to… Yes!"

Teyla unstrapped and slid to the floor to watch McKay's progress over his shoulder. An image had appeared on the screen, its shape like that of the city's platform. McKay's fingers danced across the letters on the tablet and the image shifted to a side view, moving in on the central tower.

"I knew it," McKay said with a triumphant grin. He dug his finger into his comm unit. "Sheppard, come in. I found it. It's in the central tower, just below… whatever it is at the top – my guess is the control room or something. Sheppard, come in." Color drained from his face. "Sheppard!"

Then he winced. "All right, all right. Sorry. You don't have to yell. Did you get all that? Yes, central tower, uh… two levels below what looks like the control room. You start heading toward it. I'll meet you there. Rodney out." He turned to Teyla. "I need to get to that central tower. If anything goes wrong, they're going to need me."

"Then let us move quickly," Teyla said. McKay unhooked his tablet, then they were back in the saddle and moving out of the room.

Rodney went left, Teyla and the others right. They stopped and looked at each other.

"I meant from inside," Rodney said, pointing. "Where it's safer."

"But to go outside would be faster. And the city is being infiltrated by the enemy even as we speak."

Rodney looked left, then right, then slumped, his face going tight with dread. "I don't want to go back out there." But he did, or more like Bina did, heaving a sigh as unhappy as his rider looked. As soon as they were outside, Teyla and the others surrounded McKay and Bina. They pushed off from the platform, diving toward the sea to gain speed then angling up into the fray. Teyla took a deep, cleansing breath, lifted her rifle and fired at an enemy griffin coming for them.

Bone scraped against bone and no amount of jaw-clenching could stop John from crying out, "Son of a bitch! Damn it!" until the ball slipped back into the socket with a wet pop. Motes danced in Sheppard's eyes, threatening to drop him. A strong hand on his good arm steadied him until the motes passed.

Ronon clapped John on his good shoulder. "See? That wasn't so bad."

"Bite me, Chewie." He let Ronon help him stand. He leaned against Corvax until the pain stopped making him shake and he was ninety percent sure he wouldn't fall. He pulled a field bandage from his vest pocket and handed it to Ronon.

"Open it. Help me tie it on."

When John's arm was secure – and it just had to be his right arm – he hefted his P-90 in his left hand (he could shoot left-handed; he just didn't like it).

"We ready?" he asked.

"If you are," Ronon said, lifting his blaster (which, at some point, if they survived, John was going to find out where he got it. It was too cool not to have).

"Right," John said. He pushed off of Corvax and started forward. The halls were like the halls of the facilities, wide enough for griffin and dragon to walk side by side with room enough for their humans in between.

"Rodney said we need to head toward the central tower… wherever the hell that is," John said.

"We landed pretty close," Ronon said. "Just keep going in deeper and up until you find it."

John grimaced. The halls may have been the same in terms of architecture, but this place wasn't another facility; it was a city roughly the size of Manhattan. And John knew - he and Corvax had a thing for city tours by air even if the passes were thirty bucks in some places.

"At least we can avoid getting fired on," John said. They rounded a corner.

And found themselves face to face with a Wraith squad. Corvax lashed out with his claws, severing two head and two bodies, leaving three Wraith. One Bylar bit in half, the other two John and Ronon shot down, then shot again right in their masks.

"Or not." John really should have known better. "Keep moving."

John swiped at various doors they passed for a quick look inside. They found a stairwell, the stairs too narrow for Bylar and Corvax, but the well in between big enough for them to squeeze through.

John took a breath. It was a lot of stairs. But he didn't push his body close to its limits by running for nothing. He started up, and Corvax slipped in between like a kid through a jungle gym – those square ones. Ronon and Bylar followed.

Keep going up and in – that's what Ronon had said. When the stairs ended twenty levels up, he turned and went back down two levels, squeezing past Ronon.

"Here!" John said. He pressed his back to the right side, Ronon the left. Corvax and Bylar slipped out of the stairs and positioned themselves to scratch in half anything that came through that door. John swiped it open and Corvax stuck his head through.


They raced into the hall, going right.

"You sure this is the right way?" Ronon asked.

"No idea," John said. He touched his comm. "McKay, you copy!"

"A little busy!"

"We're on the second level below the control room."

"Awesome! Busy!"


"Can't talk now!" Communications shut off. John growled; so be it – they would guess.

They approached fast a door between them and whatever was on the other side. Bylar and Corvax called, "Wait!"

They slid to a halt two feet from the exit.

"What?" John asked.

"Wraith," said Corvax. "A whole bunch of them and hungry as hell."

"So we go the other way," said Ronon, but John shook his head.

"No. What are they doing? Are they moving? Away from us, toward us?"

Bylar narrowed his eyes at the door. "They're not doing anything."

"Just as I thought. I'm thinking what we want," he pointed at the door with his gun, "is through there."

"Or they're just guarding the hall," said Ronon.

"No," Bylar said. "They're waiting."

"And getting impatient," said Corvax.

Bylar indicated the door with an upward jerk of his beak. "Open it."

Ronon looked up at him. "You sure about this?"

"Only one way to find out."

"That's not encouraging."

"Just open the door. If I can get one to slow a cull ship, I can do this."

It was Corvax who decided it, swiping the door open. As one, the thick phalanx of Wraith turned and raised their stun sticks. John and Ronon leaped back to either side against the walls.

No blue and white light burst through. Both John and Ronon leaned forward, risking a peek. The Wraith stood there with weapons raised, yet otherwise still as a statue. John looked to Bylar who was quivering with concentration that bunched the muscles of his forehead. Had he been human, sweat would be slicking his face by now.

"Wow, this is hard!" Bylar gasped. "I'm… ordering them not to fire. Something's… ordering louder to attack. You need to go… now!"

"Do it; I'll cover you," Ronon said.

"You sure?" John said.

"Does it look like we have time to argue this? Go, now!" And Ronon blasted a mask right off the nearest Wraith.

"John," Corvax said, crouching low. John climbed on, holding tight to the handles of the saddle, and Corvax lurched into a gallop through the door. He pushed off the floor in a high leap, sailing over the phalanx of Wraith and coming in short, crushing a few beneath his weight. The corridor ran straight for several meters, then turned sharply. Another squad of Wraith stood in their way, small enough for Corvax to mow down with his body. Another turn and they found themselves in a hall with a single door, guarded by two Wraith.

John slid from Corvax's back and shot them. Corvax crushed their heads for good measure, staining the floor in black ichor and pale brains.

"I'm guessing this is where we want to be," said John as they approached the door.

The door opened before John could reach for the panel. A heavy body of feathers burst through, slamming Corvax into the wall across from it. The bird grabbed Corvax's head, pinning his jaws, and slammed it into the unyielding surface over and over.

"Corvax!" John raised his P-90. Hooked claws swung around, slamming into his side with a force that twisted him around. Fire burned from lower ribs, across his back and all the way to his left shoulder blade. Then he was flying, hitting the wall and dropping down. Vision battled with a dark veil bleeding across his eyes. His shoulder throbbed, the nerve endings of his back screamed in agony, and all he wanted to do was puke. But he saw Corvax pinned under the larger weight of the dark bronze griffin. It had its talons wrapped around his throat, squeezing, pressing its claws through the black scales until they drew blood.

John hobbled upright on one arm. The other arm he forced from its sling and down to his nine-mil – the P-90 was halfway across the hall. John pulled the weapon and aimed.

A booted foot kicked it clean out of his hand. John looked up into the smiling face of Kolya.

"You are like an insect, Major," Kolya said. He grabbed John by the collar of his vest and threw him stomach-down on the floor. "It does not matter how many times I step on you." He pressed his boot into John's back, right on the lacerations. John growled, trying not to scream. "You just keep coming back."

John heard the click of a weapon being cocked, then felt its cold metal bleed through his hair to his skull. He stared at Corvax having the life choked out of him.

He watched the griffin rear back with a shriek of horror, releasing Corvax to lash out at its neck with his claws, forcing it to rear back. Emotional backwash: it was a beautiful thing. Corvax, coughing and sputtering, swung his tail into Kolya. Kolya flew into the wall, head snapping back against it, then crumpled to an unconscious pile to the floor.

"Move… it…" Corvax rasped, coughed, "John." When the dragon had enough breath, he pushed himself up on shaking legs and threw himself back, spikes standing straight as daggers. His aim was off, scouring the griffin's side rather than damaging him, but putting him on equal ground. Corvax turned, grabbed the bird, threw it around the corner then gave chase. John could hear the thuds and feel the floor vibrate with their fighting. It tore him: the chair or Corvax?

The city shuddered.

The chair.

John used the wall to pull himself up on unsteady legs. The pain in his back tried to floor him, and no amount of hunching eased the third-degree burning of muscle-deep lacerations. He leaned his good shoulder against the wall, dragging it across the smooth surface to the still-open door. He heard voices.

"Systems are not responding. Either he is not concentrating or power levels are depleted."

John inched his face around, enough to see the chair dominating the center of the room. A man sat, scared out of his mind, a leather-coated wraith standing over him with its hand to his chest. The rest of the room was too dark and John's vision too intent on blurring in and out for him to see who the Wraith was talking to.

The Wraith sneered. "Awaken the city! Make it fly!"

"I'm trying; I can't!" the man whimpered. Then screamed for a fraction of a second that turned his sideburns white and added wrinkles to his face. The aging stopped as quickly as it had started.

"Make it fly!"

John saw his nine-mil, closer than his P-90. He lurched over to it, dropping to his knees to grab it. He had to bite his lip to keep from screaming when he stood and staggered to the door. His vision was working against him but the Wraith was an easy target with its white hair against the dark. John fired, again and again, forcing the Wraith back. John kept firing until three lucky shots landed in its head, and it dropped.

John shoved his gun back into the holster. He grabbed the man in the chair by his shirt front, hauled him up and shoved him toward the door. "Take off. Hide. Just make sure you go right, not left."

The man gladly obliged, stumbling like a drunk and weeping. John made a mental note to find him later for the medical attention he clearly needed.

John lowered himself into the chair, making his legs happy, making his back hate him. He placed his hands on the arms.

"Major Sheppard."

A figure melted out of the darkness.

Cousin It, with Colonel Sumner looking a little old, pinned to Its chest by a feeding hand.

"I would not do that if I were you, Major," It said, smiling. Reaching back with his free hand, It swiped the door shut.

Why the hell did he think it a good idea to come? Why the hell did he think he could do this? Sheppard didn't need him. It wasn't like it took a genius to make a weapons chair work, and Sheppard had lit the last weapons chair up like a Christmas tree where everyone else had failed.

Rodney pressed himself as flat as possible against the saddle, gripping the handles with a tenacity that bleached his hands. He could feel Bina trembling, feel his terror like an avalanche of snow trying to bury them both. It amazed Rodney that the white hadn't darted for the nearest source of cover, but continued to follow Teyla's and Meeka's erratic path through killer griffins, bullets and cull ships. They spiraled up and up to the highest tower like those heroes in all those stupid fairy tales his sister had insisted on reading. They circled it on reaching it, miles of nothing below before the ocean and bone-shattering platforms, a monster of a storm overhead bristling with lightning and enemies taking down anything that got too close. Rodney saw drones – drones! These bastards had drones and it was all the good guys could do to shake the damn things.

"There!" Teyla cried, pointing though Rodney had no idea what she was pointing to. Like he cared – where she went, Bina went and that was good enough as long as it wasn't headfirst into danger.

It was headfirst through a balcony door, opening a split second before Meeka smacked into it. They landed rather ungracefully in a slide across pristine floors, halted by a short flight of steps. Meeka skipped onto the platform where the stairs led; Bina tripped, dropping chest first and bucking Rodney forward.

The chamber they were in was huge, the spitting image of every facility 'gate room, complete with a 'gate embedded in the floor, the control room up a longer flight of stairs and looking out over everything.

Rodney had been close – gateroom and control room, which put the chair two levels down.

Bina picked himself up, shook his head and followed Teyla and the others already making for the hall. They came to a snag with they found the stairwell, forcing them to dismount so the griffins could squeeze through. When they stepped through the second level entrance it was to the whine and explosion of advanced weapons fire.

Bina pointed right. "That way. Lots of stress coming from that way. Which means the other way is clear."

Much to Rodney's and Bina's own distress, that was the way Teyla and her people went. Stun fire forced them to press against the walls on either side.

The source of all the noise was Ronon, crouched on one side of the door, Bylar favoring his right leg crouched behind the other. Ronon would lean forward and send off a couple of blasts toward Wraith taking cover against the wall. Then the Wraith would fill the door with stun blasts. One Wraith ran forward, but as soon as it stepped through, Bylar cut it in half with his beak.

Teyla and her Athosian buddies dropped from their saddles in a crouch and crept forward until behind Ronon. Rodney stayed far back out of most of the line of fire by Bina.

"Where is Major Sheppard?" Teyla asked.

"Went on ahead," said Ronon. "To the weapon chair thing."

They'd come at a good time. With most of the Wraith down, Teyla and her people's extra weapons made short work of the rest.

"Let's go!" Ronon said. He led the way down the hall, and the rest followed, but all stopped short when a black mass was slammed down in their path, pinned by a griffin – a dark bronze griffin.

"That's Corvax!" Rodney yelped. And that was Kolya's griffin strangling Corvax with its beak. He felt next to him a surge of terror and anger, then watched in horror as Bina bellowed a cry, took off in a charge, leaped and shoved the griffin back in a pile drive. It let Corvax get back to his feet and attack back, and with two dragons against one – one of those dragons relatively fresh and healthy – the bird was screwed. It kicked Bina in the jaw and swiped at Corvax, forcing them back enough for the bird to roll to its feet and take off down the hall. Corvax and Bina started to chase when Corvax stumbled into Bina and Bina had no choice but to stop and act as support.

"Sheppard's in the chair room," he rasped. "He's been hurt." He winced. "Something's wrong."

They ran, all of them, Corvax and Bina limping aside to let them pass. They didn't have far to go, just around the corner to a single door in the center of the hall. Rodney skidded to a halt in front of it and palmed the crystals.

The door beeped at him, as though indignant, but stayed shut.

"Damn it!" Rodney spat. He removed the panel. Stun fire skimmed overhead and he cringed. Looking up showed him a wall of Wraith coming from the other way.

"Open that door, McKay. We'll hold them off," Ronon said, and started firing. Bina and Corvax positioned themselves between the humans and Wraith, using their armored bodies as shields. Ronon, Teyla and the others fired over them.

Rodney focused on the panel, which was hard what with Bina's fear and, for some reason, giddy amusement surrounding him. He heard Bina giggle like a little girl.

"The stuns tickle," he laughed.

Rodney sneered. He heard, muffled by the door, voices. Sheppard wasn't alone, and Rodney didn't want to think about who might be in there with him. He typed faster.

"If you fire," It said, "he dies."

John looked at It, then at Sumner – tired, aging Sumner.

The back of the chair slicked with moisture that wasn't sweat, trickling hot down the small of John's back and soaking the waistband of his pants. It hurt, like having nails driven into his skin, going for the bone. Darkness teased the edges of his vision by creeping in, little, by little, by little…

Time was not on his side. It was now or never. John took a breath.

It pressed his hand into Sumner's bare chest, siphoning life that turned the colonel's hair to silver, then white, dropping from his head. His skin shrank on his body and sagged on his face. John could see his ribs, every one.

"Are you willing to do that, Sheppard?" said It. "Are you willing to sacrifice one of your own? This is an agonizing death you condemn him to."

John stared at Sumner. Sumner stared back with milky blue eyes failing to cataracts. But those were still Sumner's eyes and still Sumner in that wasting body. Exhaustion and pain couldn't dull the hardened steel of resolve. There was only a nod, the smallest movement known only to John, meant only for John.

Hell, yes. Sacrifice me.

John felt like he'd been punched in the gut.

Sumner blinked, slow and long. Do it.

John inclined the chair. He closed his eyes. He thought of an Ancient ship hidden in a storm cloud that had to die. He saw, in his mind, celestial-white squids fly in a choreographed line out of their holds in a spiral dance around the tower, through the cloud to a ship that was a Frankenstein monster of parts – a cybernetic creature made of veined tubes and wires and pieces like parasites sucking the life out of it. It belched clouds from those fleshy pieces – a smoke-screen – and lightening skittered from one fleshy piece to the next, then arching out to strike any dragon that got too close. It moaned like a thing that wanted to die. The drones happily obliged, lighting up the monster ship to the agonized screams of a dying man.

John opened his eyes with a gasp and turned his head.

Sumner was dead; a pile of dust and bones on the floor. He couldn't see Cousin It.

"I will savor your death, Sheppard."

Sheppard snapped his head the other way and opened his eyes wide to Its descending hand. Inches from his chest, and the hand convulsed. P-90 fire rattled and It staggered back into the wall that stopped him. He slid slowly to the floor, smearing it with black, and stopped moving.

John rolled his increasingly heavy head to see Rodney in the door with his P-90 up. He was breathing like he'd run a marathon, staring like he'd just witnessed something he never wanted to see again.

John sighed. "Thanks, McKay."

McKay swallowed. "Yeah. No – no problem." He jolted from his trance and hurried to the chair. "So?"

"Sucker's gone," John rasped. Crap, it was getting hard to talk. "Took care of it." He closed his eyes to see the image of drones chasing after cull ships just as John had ordered them to.

"Uh, Sheppard," he heard Rodney say. "You're bleeding. A lot."

John wanted to think, "No kidding, McKay." Maybe he said it; he wasn't sure, because right now seemed like a good time for a nap – whether he liked it or not.

With three griffins, stopping the Wraith was as easy as shooting a gun. The remainder froze, turning defense into target practice.

"It's like whoever was giving the opposite orders isn't there any more," Bylar said distantly. Ronon figured it had a lot to do with that massive explosion they heard a moment ago.

Then Rodney shouted, "I need help in here!"

Ronon took off, leaving Teyla and her people to handle the last five Wraith. He dashed inside the door to Rodney trying to shake Sheppard awake. Ronon joined him, rearing his head back at so much blood dripping off the seat of the chair into a growing puddle.

McKay looked at him, pale, but nowhere near as pale as Sheppard. The major's eyes were ringed in gray, already sunken. His chest barely moved with each weak breath.

"We – we need to get him to Beckett. As in now," Rodney said.

"That 'ring work?" Ronon asked.

"It should."

Ronon scooped Sheppard into his arms. "Then I'll get him there."

He raced out the door, was barely down the hall when he felt himself scooped up by a clawed paw covered in hard scales and shoved into a scarred saddle. Corvax was dripping blood but charging down the hall like it was all superficial.

Corvax stopped at where the event horizon would not reach. Ronon glanced back to see McKay in the control room, ripping away filmy covers. He cried out, "Ah-ha!" and started dialing.

The 'ring burst to life. Corvax burst through, into the air, flapping hard. The Earther's world was heading into late afternoon. Corvax flew fast as possible with an injured body and two riders on his back to the mountain. Ronon could hear the dragon's labored breaths even over the roar of the wind. It was possible to stagger even in the air, and Corvax was doing a lot of it. When he landed (more like dropped) before the secret entrance of the base, Ronon felt like he was peeling his legs from the dragon's flanks.

Crovax lowered himself on trembling limbs, decreasing the distance Ronon would have to slide from the saddle. Ronon eased himself onto the ground, clinging tight to Sheppard. The second his feet hit soil, there was a thump. Ronon whirled around to see Corvax collapsed in a shuddering pile.

"Damn it!" Ronon took the comm unit from Sheppard's ear and maneuvered it into his own.

"Base, this is Ronon Dex. I have Major Sheppard and Corvax. They're injured and need medical help, now! Do you copy?"

Silence, static, then, "This is base. We copy. Is Major Sheppard conscious?"

"No, he's not conscious! He's dying! Open the door!"

The doors slid open to soldiers and dragons ready to blast him to nothing, but they held their fire. Someone said, "It's just him. Looks like he's telling the truth."

"Damn right I am. Now move!"

They did, allowing Ronon to tear his way through the halls to the infirmary, leaving them to take care of Corvax. He pushed his way into the infirmary where he deposited Sheppard, stomach down, onto the nearest bed.

The gashes were bad: two of them bone deep, showing ribs but, thankfully, not spine. Then Carson and his healers surrounded Sheppard, shoving Ronon out of the way.

"We've got him, son," Carson assured before they wheeled Sheppard away to some hidden back room.


Ronon turned to see Doctor Weir standing just within the door, her dragon hovering behind her.

"What happened?" she asked in a husky voice as though afraid to find out.

Ronon rubbed the back of his head uneasily. "Oh, uh… Sheppard got hurt. Not before he blew up the Sky Raider ship. And we found Atlantis."

John heard beeping. He felt soft below and above him, felt the pull of damaged skin and mentally groaned.

He'd better as hell have most of his memory intact.

Sumner, aging. A dried corpse on the floor.

Or maybe not. John forced his heavy eyelids to pull apart and blinked away grime and film to a ceiling swirling with coppers, greens and sea-blues. He pulled air through his nose dried out from a nasal cannula, smelled the chemicals of healing and… something else.

Brine?. He rolled his heavy head, looking at as much as he was able to: bubbling pillars, and a mass of spikes and glittering black at the foot of his bed.

"Cor?" John said in surprise.

The dark, horned head lifted, one eye languidly open, the other swollen shut. Corvax cleared his throat with a deep rumble of sound. "Hey."

"Hey." John bunched his brow. "Was I that hysterical or something?"

Corvax snorted softly, grimacing for it. "Naw. Beckett thought it might do us good, sticking together." He smiled. "This place has a hell of a lot more room for that."

"This place?"


"Oh," John said. He blinked, more languid than Corvax.

"It's okay to sleep, Johnny."

John pulled in a shuddering breath. "You try to sleep… with images of your CO… being sucked dry."

Corvax frowned. "You did what you had to do."

"But I'm the one who has to live with it." He closed his eyes, only to open them and chase away the image of Sumner's husk. Corvax spread calm. It didn't help.

"We won, John," Corvax said. "Yeah, Sumner died, but you saved a hell of a lot more people, kept the Raiders from getting Atlantis. That's a hell of a victory."

"Doesn't feel like it," John said. Yeah, maybe he was having a member's only pity party, but he was tired, he hurt, and he didn't have the energy to stop it. He was stuck with forever wondering what might have been: what he could have done differently that would have allowed Sumner to live. What he should have done.

"I think others would beg to differ." Corvax turned his head to the door that opened to Carson, Teyla, Ronon, and Rodney. Carson entered while the others hovered back uncertainly.

"Ah, good to see you finally awake, lad," Carson said, pulling out his stethoscope. "How're you feeling?" He slid the membrane down John's gown-top and pressed it to his chest.

"Like crap," John confessed. His back stung, his shoulder throbbed and every muscle in his body felt like over-pulled taffy.

"I'll be taking care of that soon enough. Just need to check a few things." he straightened, turning to the others at the door. "Well, don't dawdle. Come in. He's finally awake. You happy now?"

"But awake for how long?" Rodney countered. All the same, they entered, gathering on the other side of John's bed.

"It is enough that he is awake," Teyla said, smiling sun-bright. "I have been waiting for this." It startled John when she took him by the shoulders and leaned in, touching her forehead to his. "Thank you, Major."

John blinked in confusion. "For what?"

"For helping get her people back," Ronon said like it was the most obvious thing in the world.

"I am forever grateful," Teyla said. John could hear tears in her voice, see moisture shimmering on her eyelashes. She started to pull away but not before placing a light kiss on his forehead.

John heard Carson sigh and mutter, "Why can't that ever happen to me?"

To which Rodney replied absently, "Because you need to get out more."

Carson gave him a baffled look. "We're in another galaxy. How much more out can you get?" He sighed. "What bloody ever. Ronon, lad. Could you help me roll the major onto his side? Gently, now."

John shivered from the discomfort of the movement, then the chill of cool air brushing against his back. When Carson finished checking the stitches, cleaned them, rebandaged them, he and Ronon settled John more comfortably on the bed. Then followed the promised pain medication that made staying awake impossible.

"Ah! See? There he goes again. I had three minutes. What did you all have?"

"Rodney," Carson chastised. It gave John another reason to grin.

John walked gingerly and moved carefully through the mass of bodies crowding the gateroom floor – humans, griffins, dragons and not one of them had yet to knock over the food table. Someone had brought a radio, and everyone had brought their favorite CDs because a party wasn't a party without music. Corvax led John through the crowd to the open space of the gate room balcony. John's back may have been on the mend, but it would still hurt like a bitch should someone accidentally clip it.

John leaned against the rail, stared up at alien stars, breathed in the clean, salty air. The ocean whispered, velvet black capped in moonlit silver.

"Hard to resist, isn't it," he heard Elizabeth say. He turned to look at her leaning up against the shoulder of her red, arms folded loosely in front of her.

"Actually, I was trying to avoid the crowds," John said. He tugged the strap of his blue sling. "Still tender."

"Ah," Elizabeth said, smiling. She sobered, just a little. "So, how are you doing, Major?"

John shrugged, wished he hadn't and winced. "I'm alive. Can't say that about a couple of other people I know."

"It wasn't your fault, John," Elizabeth said. "None of it."

"That's what Corvax keeps telling me." John nudged the dragon in the side. Corvax smirked.

"So," John said, in desperate need of a change of subject. He blamed Carson's drugs that were making him too pensive and brooding at the same time. Never a good combination. "I heard we're in need of some ZPMs." It wasn't a glamorous choice of topic – more like small talk – but it would do. The city's rise had drained the ZPM dry. Naquadah generators kept the city alive, but otherwise left her defenseless.

Elizabeth straightened. "Yes, which means getting out there as soon as possible."

"Out there?"

"Exploring," Elizabeth said. "Which is something I've been wanting to talk to you about. Major, I want you to think about who you want."

John squinted. "Want for what?"

Elizabeth smiled. "Your team."

John twisted his mouth wryly. The Sky Raider ship was gone, but the Raiders were still out there. Kolya was still out there, having escaped through the 'gate was the safe assumption, along with Cousin It who hadn't stayed dead, and everyone had been too busy dealing with the leftover bad guys to realize it. The bad guys had refused to go down easy. Some escaped through the 'gate; some fought until dead, leaving the city's holding cells empty. Ladon had gone back to his people, saying it was high time to alert Cowen to Kolya's treachery. At some point in time, when he wasn't feeling like crap, John was going to find out how that went – hopefully well since the little guy hadn't come back seeking sanctuary.

What it all boiled down to was that the bad guys were still out there.

"You know," John said. "This could get us into all sorts of trouble…"


Corvax perched like a four-legged bird on the edge of the wide ledge, tilting with impatient anticipation. The early morning sun painted everything in gold – the towers, the piers, the sea – and the air was cool in John's lungs.

"Okay, I'm all for learning flight maneuvers that will save my ass," said Rodney. "But does practice have to be at the evil hours of the morning?"

"Yes," John said. "It was the only time I could work it in before our mission. Get used to it."

And it wasn't like they were the only ones. John could see Ronon and Bylar leading marines in maneuvers through the obstacle course of towers. Teyla and Meeka were over the ocean, keeping low and close to the pier alongside an elderly griffin and her elderly rider whom Teyla called Charrin.

Plus, John liked mornings, when everything was fresh and new and quiet, yet alive. Whatever else happened the previous days, whatever failures or hurts, mornings reminded him that there were still tomorrows, still chances to do better the next time around.

"Ready?" John said.

"If Bina's awake," Rodney said.

Bina yawned, saying around it, "I am."

"Cool," John said. Corvax pushed off from the ledge, wings unfurled, and caught an updraft that pushed him high over the smaller towers. He heard Bina's wings snap behind, flying close after.

Flight reminded John how good it felt to be alive.

"Told you," Corvax said.

"Told me what?" John said.

"There'd be skies where we were going."

John chuckled. Corvax angled up, carrying him deeper into that alien sky.

The End
Violence and language
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