Ronon weaved around the shafts of amber light that carved the moss green and copper floor, keeping his charge in the shadows. Refusing to be defeated by one so small, he adjusted his grip while brown eyes stared solemnly at him, quiet hiccups punctuating the silence. As he continued his strange dance, Ronon glanced hopefully at the closed door, but it didn't open.
"What is she doing in there?" he mumbled.
Torren's chin wobbled, his face reddening as he let out another wail.
"Aw, don't do that." Ronon bounced him a few times. "Please," he whispered. "I'll never live this down if McKay finds out."
Torren cried louder. Panicked, Ronon began to sing a Satedan lullaby. Torren yawned, his body quivering as he stretched a tiny fist upward.
Suddenly, the room swayed. Ronon was back in the Wraith lab – pledging his allegiance, offering up Sheppard, fighting Tyre. Ronon staggered, gagging at the memory, and flinched when a hand landed on his shoulder.
"What is wrong?" Teyla asked, her eyes filled with concern as she took Torren from him. "Are you ill?"
"I'm fine," Ronon snapped, snatching back the hand he had braced against the wall for support. "I just…just…"
She looked at him expectantly. "Just what?"
"Nothing. Can we go now?"
Teyla studied him with eyes that saw through him, and then nodded and led the way to the transporter. "Do you still blame yourself for what happened with the Wraith?"
"Yes!" Ronon slammed a fist into the wall as the doors swished open. "No. I don't know." He stabbed at the map. "I don't know what to believe anymore."
Teyla frowned as they stepped out and headed to the mess hall. "Do you doubt our trust in you?"
"No!" Ronon quieted his voice when Torren fidgeted before slumping to sleep with a sigh. "How do I know I'm cured? What happens the next time we face the Wraith? What if I can't be trusted?"
"Ronon." Teyla blocked his path. "Tyre was cured, and so are you. I trust you completely."
Her brows shot up. "Has he done something to make you think he doesn't?"
"No, but… You weren't there, Teyla." He wiped his eyes, wishing he could wipe away the memory. "I— I offered Sheppard to the Wraith. I wanted them to do to him what they had done to me."
"Perhaps you need to speak to John—"
"I have. You know Sheppard. He says, 'We're good' and keeps going."
"If John did not trust you, he would say so."
Ronon huffed in frustration as he filled a tray for both of them and followed her to a table. The problem was he didn't know how far he could trust himself, and he didn't want it to be tested in the middle of a mission gone bad. He needed to know for certain that he was cured, that he could push himself past his limit and not waver.
"Have you ever heard of the Yeveran Race?" he asked.
Teyla sipped her juice. "Only in passing. I have never known anyone who participated."
"This is the right year, isn't it?" Ronon stirred the mashed tuttleroot. "The Mreqil Market was last month."
"Yes." Teyla shushed Torren, patting his belly, and munched on her sandwich. "Do you know where the race is being held?"
"No." Ronon grinned at her. "But Solen would. It was almost a rite of passage on Sateda."
"There is no need to prove yourself. Not to me or John or anyone else."
"I need to prove myself to me, Teyla."
She cocked her head to the side as she nibbled on a risva root. "And a three day river race on an unknown planet will do that?"
"Maybe. It'll at least get us away from Atlantis."
"And to a place where you will have to rely on each other?"
Ronon shrugged in reply. "Wanna come?"
Teyla settled Torren on her shoulder, rubbing his back. "I am…busy."
"It'll be fun."
She shook her head and resumed eating, the arch of her brow and the set of her jaw telling him exactly what she thought of his plan. But he'd always wanted to participate in the Yeveran Race, and a few days of testing in the wilderness side by side with Sheppard should be enough to settle any doubts.
When they finished, Ronon dumped the tray and hurried out, intending to get to Belka and back before dinner.
Teyla slid into her seat, dabbing surreptitiously at the spit up on her arm, hoping her team wouldn't notice.
"You wanna go where?" John asked, arching a brow at Ronon while he absently twirled spaghetti around his fork.
"It's a planet called Liros," Ronon replied. "Zelenka says you designate it as M8I-548."
"Ever been there?"
"I have," Teyla said. "The Lirosians are a gentle people. They trade in hides and skins and are known for their exquisite furs. All are welcome in their settlements without question."
"Everyone?" Rodney dipped his bread in the sauce and chewed noisily. "That could be dangerous."
Teyla nodded sadly. "They have had to deal with criminals and the power hungry. However, they count it a small price to pay in comparison to the good that comes of their hospitality. Many people have sought refuge there over the years, and the Lirosians consider themselves richer for it." She warmed her hands on her tea cup and lifted her gaze to meet Sheppard's. "Liros can be a formidable planet. It is spring there. The rivers will be filled with snow melt, and canskrels will be waking from hibernation. They are twice as big and twice as fast as renat."
"Renat?" John's forehead puckered. "Those monster cheetah things on New Athos?"
"Canskrels are tastier," Ronon offered. "Especially after hibernation."
Rodney glanced from one to the next. "I'm sorry. Did I miss something? Why are we talking about this?"
"There's this river race Ronon wants to enter," John explained. "It's being held on…"
"Liros," Teyla supplied.
Rodney slurped his iced tea then grinned at Ronon. "Have fun."
"And he wants us to go with him," John finished.
Rodney looked from John to Ronon then back. And laughed. And kept laughing. Finally he wiped the tears from his face and slumped back in his chair. "Thanks. I needed that." At John's sardonic expression, Rodney sat up straight. "Oh, you were serious?"
"Yes, Rodney, I was serious. A few days—"
"—in the great outdoors. Building our own canoe, riding the rapids, sleeping under the stars—"
"Do I look like Nature Boy to you?"
"—what's not to like?"
Rolling his eyes, Rodney flung his napkin on his tray and stood. "See you when you get back."
John held a straight face until Rodney was gone. "Too much?" he asked with a smirk.
Ronon grinned at him. "Nah."
"You should not antagonize him so," Teyla scolded, keeping her own giggles firmly suppressed.
"Aw, it's good for him. Builds character." John turned to Ronon, the tiniest bit of doubt marring his gleeful expression. "So, when does this start?"
"In a couple of weeks. We'll need to gather some supplies. Not too much because we have to carry everything we take. We're supposed to arrive a day early so we can hollow out our canoe and fashion paddles."
Teyla rose to refill her tea, added a splash of lemon since Rodney was gone, and observed her teammates from a distance. They reminded her of Jinto and Wex as they planned their great adventure. The stiffness that had taken up residence in Ronon's spine the past few weeks had eased a bit, and both men looked more relaxed than they had in quite some time. Perhaps this challenge was what they needed – a time to get away and rebuild. She slipped quietly from the cafeteria, leaving them to their preparations.
John couldn't contain a grin as he stepped through the gate. Vacations were hard to come by here, and he hadn't spent time camping or on the water in longer than he wanted to think about. The area around the gate was teeming with people – hauling supplies, hawking souvenirs and food, offering steaming cups of something thick and bitter. The air was filled with the languages and spices of a hundred different worlds, and brightly colored flags fluttered, lining the path that led to a circle of tents then off to a small village in the distance.
Ronon pulled his coat tight and hiked his pack higher on his back. "This way."
John zipped his jacket against the chill, slid on his aviator shades and followed Ronon toward the tents. They registered as Team Sateda and paid the entry fee in currency provided by Solen. The registrar, a squatty little man with a friendly smile, handed them an instruction packet and pointed them toward the village.
"The locals will show you to the embarkation area where a transport will take you to the riverhead. You have until sunrise tomorrow to prepare your canoe. Your packet includes a map of the course. You have three days to finish. The only time you are allowed on land is when the water is too low to navigate. Overseers are stationed along the river, and anyone caught cheating will be disqualified and banned from future competitions. Everything you take in must be brought out. Any questions?"
"Yeah," John said. "What do we get if we win?"
The man chuckled. "Bragging rights for the next five years. Good luck."
"Thanks." John slung his rucksack over his shoulder and fell in step with Ronon. "Five years?"
"That's how often the race is held."
"Oh." He inhaled deeply, appreciating the spicy foods and crisp mountain air. "Can't get out of the boat, huh. What happens when… you know… nature calls?"
Ronon smirked and showed him an empty container with a secure lid.
John laughed. "Ah. Gotcha. You say you've never done this before?"
"Nope. Always wanted to, though."
"So, why didn't you?"
"My mom wouldn't let me."
John gaped at him. "Your mom?" He forgot occasionally that Ronon was at least a decade younger. The man's eyes were deceptively old.
Ronon chuckled softly. "Never make her mad."
"Wow. Kept you in line?"
"Strongest person I've ever known. By the time I was old enough to make my own decisions, I was in the military and betrothed to Melena."
"She wouldn't let you go either?"
Ronon ducked his head, but his expression softened. "I had other things on my mind." He sighed deeply. "Then the Wraith came. Just never had the chance."
"Until now. What do you say we go show these folks how it's done?"
"Sounds good." Ronon adjusted his pack and scabbard. "Did Woolsey give you a hard time about coming?"
John kept his expression neutral. "I have plenty of vacation accrued."
"What does that mean?"
"It means what I do in my free time is none of his business."
"He thought it was too dangerous?"
"Woolsey thinks getting out of bed is too dangerous," John said with a derisive snort.
Ronon shot him a sideways glance. "I don't understand him."
"He's a bureaucrat, Ronon." John sighed as Ronon stared blankly at him. "You didn't have bureaucrats on Sateda?"
"Not like him. We had people responsible for paperwork, but they understood what we were doing. They helped."
"We've never had a threat like the Wraith hanging over us. Woolsey didn't grow up being thankful to live another day. A man like that will never understand the exhilaration of battling nature and the elements, the satisfaction of pushing yourself to your limits."
John shook his head at the memory. He and Woolsey had argued for over an hour about the trip. Not only was Woolsey concerned about the dangers of the race, he wasn't completely sold on Ronon's readiness. John could see the uncertainty in Ronon's eyes, but more time was not the cure for it. Ronon needed to test himself, and John would have agreed to almost anything to see his friend's usual swagger return.
The closer they got to the village, the more relaxed John felt. Puffs of smoke wafted from the chimneys of cozy huts of gray rock that reminded him of Stonehenge. A smattering of domesticated animals nipped at the heels of children who waved streamers on the edge of town, and livestock dipped their heads in the feeding trough of a pen on the side of the settlement near the forest. The townspeople filled the streets, answering questions and handing out the fragrant daisy-like burgundy flowers that covered the foothills in front of them. Dressed in tanned skins adorned with beads in a rainbow of colors, the villagers were as welcoming as Teyla had said.
A round-faced woman with gray braids looped at the nape of her neck offered them a smile and a flower. "Fair day to you. Are you here to join the race?"
"Yes," Ronon answered. "Can you tell us where to find the transport?"
"Of course. This path continues into the foothills, and a short walk will bring you to a clearing. The next transport should leave before midday. You are welcome to enjoy the hospitality of Liros until then. We have many shops and dining establishments."
"Thank you," John said.
She smiled again and moved to greet the next group entering town.
Ronon glanced at the sky. "Got a couple of hours I guess. Wanna get a drink?"
They entered the first tavern they found and made their way to the bar. A middle-aged man with thick arms and a broad face diligently wiped down the space in front of them then slapped the cloth over his shoulder.
"What can I get you gentlemen?"
"Do you have any Blevin ale?" Ronon asked.
The bartender smiled. "Just got some in yesterday." He set two squeaky clean glasses down and pulled a tall black bottle from under the counter. "Here for the race?"
"Yes." Ronon slid the first glass to John and picked up the other, leaving a tarnished coin on the bar. "Thanks."
John sniffed at the drink as he followed Ronon to a table. A light fruit scent. "What is this?" he asked, kicking back a chair and easing into it.
"Blevin ale is rare these days. The people who brew it were culled a few years back. There are a handful of survivors scattered around who know the secret ingredient. Figured there might be some here."
"Secret ingredient?" John took a small sip. Enough alcohol in it to taste but not overwhelming. A flavor reminiscent of strawberries slowly morphed to an exotic spice that was tangy and hot. "It's good."
"The grain it's made from is common, but only the bottlers know how to flavor it like that."
A young girl brought a basket of bread, blushing furiously when John thanked her. He grinned at Ronon who snorted before devouring half the loaf. They spent the next couple of hours mostly in companionable silence, observing the people around them. Genii, Manarans, Belkans, R'rol, Gatwols. Someone from almost every world they had visited. A menagerie of dress and language.
"You ready?" Ronon asked.
"Yep." John drained his glass and stood. "What kind of transports do you think they have?"
"The Yeveran are one of the more technologically advanced races. I would guess their transports would be like the ships the Olesians had."
Ronon's assessment was fairly accurate. The transports were much smaller than Olesian ships – smaller even than jumpers – but they were sturdy. Built of gray metal, they had little grace in their design and weren't meant for space travel, but they glided effortlessly in the air. The transport was landing when John and Ronon reached the glade. Once the side hatch opened, a small woman with cropped auburn hair stepped out and waved them in. Other than the flight crew seats, it was standing room only for about twenty people. When the transport had filled, the pilot expertly lifted off.
John did his best to not backseat fly, choosing to check out the competition instead. Several were soldiers, but a few seemed to be friends and family spending time together. A father and son chatted in one corner while four teenaged girls sent flirty glances Ronon's way. An older man and woman quietly studied their packet. An air of contentment permeated the cabin. Even the military types seemed to be relaxed. Ronon's shoulders which had been hunched near his ears since the Wraith lab now dropped a bit closer to their normal spot, and John felt a little tension seep out of his own.
When the transport touched down, the hatch opened, and they stepped out into heaven. Or close to it. Other than the small tent set at the edge of the landing meadow, the area was pristine. Sunlight peeked through the lush foliage, creating living patterns on the fern-covered floor. Birdsong and rushing water replaced the whir of the transport. Rainbows danced at the waterfall that thundered down to create the riverhead. Ronon and John checked in at the tent then made their way to the river.
Kneeling, John trailed his fingers through the water and shivered. "Snowmelt."
"Yeah." Ronon sounded a million miles away as he stared at the waterfall.
"What is it?"
Ronon blinked slowly then shook himself. "Nothing." He glanced at John and ducked his head. "Reminds me of Sateda."
"You grew up in a place like this?"
"No. My home was in the city. But my grandparents lived in a small settlement. Spent a lot of time there when I was a kid."
"Sounds nice." John glanced around, surprised to find himself and Ronon alone. "What now?"
"Now we get to work. Come on."
They tromped through the forest until they found a tree that had been felled by a lightning strike. Ronon pulled an axe and chopped off the remaining branches while John picked two limbs to use as paddles. John scraped off twigs with his Gerber then stripped the bark off and smoothed them as much as he could with a file and a soft cloth. He found two sturdy pieces wide enough to be used for blades. After hollowing out the end of the branches, he whittled the ends of the blades to fit inside then bound them with rope from his rucksack. Ronon hacked at the log, stripping the bark then flattening the bottom, shaping the bow and stern, finally carving out space for them to sit.
Ronon arched a brow when John pulled out a hatchet and joined him. "Does Teyla know you took that?"
"I might be crazy, but I'm not stupid. I asked if I could borrow it since we don't have a lot of these lying around," John replied. "She made me promise not to lose it. Said it was her mother's."
"Better not lose it then." Ronon stretched until his back popped and wiped his face on his arm then glanced at the fading sunlight. "We need to finish this soon."
John chopped diligently, satisfied to see the inside taking shape. "Where'd you learn to build a canoe?"
"Um…" Ronon cleared his throat. "I, uh, looked it up in the database."
"Seriously?" John sat back on his haunches and stared at Ronon. "You googled it?"
"Yeah. Don't tell McKay, though. I'll never hear the end of it. I lived in the city, remember? They don't teach canoe building in the military, and my grandfather already had a small boat for fishing. Didn't need to build one."
Ronon pulled a piece of paper from a pocket and handed it to John. Instructions in three languages and pictures covered both sides, some from a printer and some by hand. John bit his lip but couldn't hold the laughter in.
"What's so funny?" Ronon demanded with a glare.
John dug a similar paper from his own pocket and handed it over. "They don't teach canoe building in the Air Force either, and you've seen where I grew up. We had yachts. And we are definitely not telling McKay."
By the time the sun had set, one crude canoe and two oars sat on the riverbank. The icy water had been deliciously refreshing, and the small rabbit-like critter Ronon had caught was perfect for the spit John had made. Once he removed the splinters from his palms and fingernails, John stretched out under the stars, the scent of roasted meat and the rush of water lulling him to sleep.
Years of running had made Ronon's reflexes quick and his sleep light, and the first stirrings of dawn jerked him to wakefulness. Across from him, Sheppard snored softly, curled on his left side with fingertips resting lightly on the butt of his .45. Ronon eased silently to the riverbank, lapping a handful of cold water and splashing a little on his face. After a few minutes of personal hygiene, he crept through the woods to gather some berries, and a quick knife throw netted another carin. When he returned to the campsite, water droplets glistened on Sheppard's hair and skin as he added a log to the rekindled embers.
"Morning." Ronon pulled a knife to skin the small animal.
Sheppard grunted in reply as he rebuilt the spit. The fire crackled as the carin roasted, the scent making Ronon's mouth water. Stretching, he grinned as two birds swooped overhead, one leading the other in a furious dance. The physical exertion from the day before fell away as he pulled in lungfuls of cold, invigorating air on his way back to the river where he rinsed off the fruit. When he returned, Sheppard gave him a bemused look.
"Since when are you a morning person?"
"I'm not." Ronon set the berries aside and sliced at the roasting meat. "Almost done."
"I need coffee."
"You sound like McKay."
Sheppard narrowed his eyes. "No need to be nasty."
Ronon grinned at him. "You could've brought coffee."
"I didn't want to tote it around." Sheppard sighed, rolling a shoulder. "Maybe I can buy a few Starbucks' franchises, set them up on the worlds we visit. I could make a killing here."
"You've already ruined your world with those. No need to clutter these up."
"Maybe we can get the Wraith addicted to caffeine."
"Then what? Suffer through their caffeine withdrawals?" Ronon shook his head. "I've seen McKay like that. No need to make the Wraith worse."
"Yeah, maybe not such a good idea." Sheppard leaned back against the canoe, hands behind his head. "I can't remember the last time I went camping. Just for fun, I mean. Missions don't count."
"It's the first time I've done it without a Wraith hunting me." Ronon busied himself with the carin so he wouldn't have to meet Sheppard's eyes. "Well, my grandfather and I used to go when I was little. After he died…" Ronon shrugged, stuffing a handful of the roasted meat in his mouth and shooting a glance at Sheppard.
Sheppard studied him for a moment then gave a quiet nod. "My grandpa taught me how to fly," he murmured between bites. "He had a Cessna 340A. I've flown a lot of aircraft since then, but nothing has matched the thrill I felt the first time he let me take the stick." The corner of Sheppard's mouth tugged upward. "But the jumper comes close."
When they finished eating, they doused the fire and packed their belongings. After hoisting the canoe onto their shoulders, they made their way to the starting point where dozens of people milled about, making their final preparations. Boats of all sizes were already in the water – some held a single person, others up to four. A few of the canoes were sleek, but most were as crude as the one Ronon and Sheppard climbed into. They arranged their packs between them and paddled around a bit, getting a feel for the canoe and the water.
"Is there anything in the instructions I need to know about?" John asked.
Ronon smirked at him. "You didn't read them?"
"You know I can't read whatever languages it's in."
"Came all this way and didn't bother to learn the language?"
Sheppard rolled his eyes, but his ears were pink. "That's what I have you, Teyla, and McKay for."
Ronon tossed him the packet. "It's written in Genii, Yeveran, and the Ancestral tongue."
"And that helps me how?"
"It doesn't. Just thought you'd like to know. Might want to take a look at the map."
Sheppard flashed a particularly vile Satedan hand gesture as he settled in the back of the dugout to study the map. Ronon chuckled; at least Sheppard had picked up something in Pegasus. Satisfied that the paddles were sturdy and the boat was seaworthy, Ronon maneuvered into position. Several of the worlds he'd been to during his time as a runner had been filled with waterways, and he had become fairly proficient in navigating them. Plus, he and Sheppard had substituted paddling for running a few mornings on Atlantis to get their communication and timing together. While Ronon doubted they would win, he felt confident that they would be competitive.
Officials gathered at the starting line. After a short welcoming speech, the ringing of a ceremonial gong, and a toast to the health of the competitors, the race was underway. Cheers erupted from bystanders and supporters as the first canoes shot into the strong current. Ronon and Sheppard exchanged a grin then joined in, their paddles dipping and flowing through the water in unison. The river widened, allowing the boats to spread out. Half an hour later, the competitors had separated, the most experienced out front and the recreational in the back.
Ronon and Sheppard settled toward the rear of the top third. Morning faded into afternoon and the racers thinned further, leaving Team Sateda alone on the water. Ronon shucked off his coat as the elevation dropped and the river surged.
Sheppard had already removed his jacket. "Here," he said, handing Ronon a PowerBar, "you're gonna need it. According to the map, we've got rapids ahead for the next few kilometers. Most of them are little, but there's a bend coming up that includes some stairstep falls."
Ronon inhaled the bar and half his canteen then glanced at the map to get his bearings. Churning water whipped at the boat when they hit the rapids, and Sheppard grunted in exertion, narrowly missing several boulders as he steered through the fury. They bounced, dipped, almost rolled. Ronon shouted in exhilaration, shaking the spray from his face and paddling vigorously as they neared the falls.
They shot off the first one and flew several feet before crashing back into the water. The canoe tipped precariously, and both men braced with their paddles. An eddy ripped at the stern and slammed them into a large rock before tossing them over the next fall. They flailed, coughing, pushing away from the waterfall only to go over the next one backward.
Ronon's heart slammed in his chest as he fought the current. Sheppard shouted incoherently behind him, but Ronon understood. He raked the paddle through the water, the muscles in his chest and shoulders screaming at the strain. They slid over the next fall sideways and rounded the bend stern first. After another few minutes of frantic paddling, the canoe straightened. When they reached calmer waters, both men slumped, chests heaving, grinning like crazy. Ronon pulled the map from his watertight pouch.
"What's next?" Sheppard asked.
"Looks smooth for a while," Ronon replied. "How are our supplies?"
"Still here. A bit waterlogged though." Sheppard dug through his rucksack and removed a hefty square flashlight. "We need to find a way to secure this to the bow. McKay made some super battery for us. Should last both nights."
Ronon turned the lightbox over in his hands, finding a circular metal fastener on the back. He drove a spike in the front of the canoe and lashed the light to it with rope. With the roar of the falls and rapids behind them, the sounds of the river were unmuted. Sheppard's paddle splashed as he drove them forward. The river gurgled around them, and wildlife chattered in the distance. Leaves rustled in a breeze that carried the scent of flowers and evergreens. Someone around the next turn was singing a Remkada war hymn, and children's laughter echoed in the wood. It took a few minutes for Ronon to figure out what the unfamiliar feeling in his chest was. Peace.
They spent the afternoon in relative silence, commenting only on river conditions and course obstacles. As dusk turned to night, the river appeared awash with stars when lights on canoes flickered on. Ronon wolfed down an MRE and a few berries while Sheppard paddled. When he finished eating, he took over rowing so Sheppard could grab a bite and get some rest. Fifteen minutes later, the only sounds were the splash of the paddle and Sheppard's soft snores.
John awoke with a jerk when his head bounced against the bottom of the canoe. Blinking blearily, he pushed up on an elbow and squinted at Ronon.
Ronon stood carefully and climbed out of the boat. "Low water. We hit bottom."
Heaving a sigh, John sat up, kneading the stiff muscles in his neck, then rolled to his feet and stepped out, up to his knees in icy water. Forcing back a shiver, he bent low and circled his arm under the canoe. On Ronon's count, they lifted.
"This thing…weighs a ton," John gasped as they sloshed forward. "How far do we have to carry it?"
"Not far. I've been watching the lights of the other boats. They shoot up, go forward for about two minutes, and drop."
Arms that had chopped and hauled and paddled for two days straight trembled under the strain, but finally the water began to rise. When it reached chest high, they dropped the canoe and climbed in.
John took a moment to stargaze and frowned when the moon wasn't where he expected it to be. "How long was I asleep?"
"About four hours."
The agreement had been two hours. John started to argue then caught a glimpse of Ronon's face in the moonlight. The haunted expression had all but disappeared, and somehow he looked even younger. The quiet of the night seeped into John's awareness, making Ronon's decision to enjoy it in solitude seem obvious.
"You ready to get some sleep, big guy?"
The nonchalant shrug was betrayed by a jaw-cracking yawn. "Guess so," Ronon said sheepishly.
John slid over the side to allow Ronon to scoot to the back then he climbed into the bow. Ronon shifted behind him and promptly fell asleep. John shook his head. Ronon was as tough as they came, but he needed rest like everyone else even if he wouldn't admit it. Angling the map, John located their approximate position and checked for upcoming obstacles. Satisfied they were clear for the next few hours, he put the map away and started paddling.
When the first hues of dawn appeared, John turned off the flashlight and nibbled on a PowerBar. Ronon stirred then shook the ice crystals from his dreads, grunting a thank you when John handed him breakfast. Birdsong and the scent of campfires surrounded them as the sunrise filtered through the forest. John closed his eyes and breathed deeply. Clean, cold mountain air filled his lungs.
"God, what a morning." John didn't realize he'd said it aloud until Ronon responded.
"Yeah. Haven't seen too many like this."
"We should take vacation more often."
Ronon grinned at him. "Definitely," he agreed, tucking his coat in his pack.
John checked the map again. "Looks like we've got a dam coming up in a few hours."
"Then let's get started."
John ignored the burn in his arms and the chill that permeated him as he paddled with a vengeance. The canoe glided over the water like a feather floating on the breeze. They soon fell into a dip-stroke-repeat rhythm that quickly pushed them ahead of several other teams. Only the dam broke their stride. Easing to the bank, they lifted the canoe onto their shoulders and carefully climbed over the hodgepodge of rocks and logs that stretched across the river. A small brown creature with a flat snout and floppy ears fussed at them from the center of the dam, a large branch secured in its four inch claws. Then the branch wiggled.
"Um, Ronon, did that info packet say anything about snakes?"
"It said to not get bit by one."
"That's extremely…not helpful."
Shadows danced as the sunlight flickered through the wood, and broken branches nipped at their ankles. As soon as they cleared the dam, they let the canoe fall in the water and hopped in. John poked at the paddles then grabbed one and began rowing.
Ronon's grin was a mile wide. "You have issues, you know."
"Tell me about it. Things with fangs…" John shuddered. "And don't pretend like you don't have issues. You almost leaped out of your skin when Teyla unwrapped that stuffed bunny."
"Yeah, well, it was pink with big teeth."
"There's this legend my mother used to tell me about a frisgold that lived in the sewers and… Never mind."
John snickered at the image of a young Ronon staying out of the city drainage pipes from fear of a big pink rabbit. Keeping an eye out for slithering sticks, they caught the swift current and continued on. Trail mix and beef jerky made a nice change from PowerBars, and although purification tablets and electrolyte mix diminished the taste of the river water, the icy liquid was still refreshing. They spent the afternoon swapping tall tales and laughing harder than John ever remembered doing.
They came upon the bend suddenly. The left turn was sharp, and they took it wide. The fallen tree was unexpected. They paddled furiously for the left bank in hopes of hitting the eddy and avoiding the tree. They missed. When the craft slammed sideways into the tree, John flipped out the far side and hit the water head first. The current immediately sucked him under the boat. He flailed wildly as his face scraped the bottom of the canoe, and his back the rocky riverbed. Breaking the surface, he barely had time to gasp before his shoulder smashed into the tree. He clawed at the trunk, searching for a limb, a twig, a tough leaf to hold to, but only succeeded in ripping the skin from his palms. The canoe pounded him from behind, and the rushing water spun him and sucked him under the tree face down. A broken branch raked across his back and snagged his shirt. The edges of his vision faded, turned gray, and his lungs burned. His body was like lead.
He felt a tug on his leg then strong hands on his back. The jagged branch sliced from his spine to his shoulder as he was pulled from under the tree. Arms wrapped around his chest and lifted him to the surface. He drew in a ragged breath, coughing and sputtering as the river swirled around him.
"Relax, Sheppard. I've got you." Ronon's voice rumbled in his ear and vibrated down his back.
John sucked in another painful but gloriously oxygen-rich gulp of air and let his head tip back against Ronon's shoulder. He felt his boots scrape bottom and shifted in Ronon's grip to see where they were headed.
"Wait," John said, digging in his heels. "Thought we'd be disqualified if we left the water."
"Don't care. You need medical attention."
"We're on the side of a mountain. Unless there's a nice comfy hospital hiding behind that stump, the fastest way down is on the river."
"There are overseers around. We can notify them."
"Come on, Ronon. Look around you. Even if we did, the canopy is too thick for a transport to penetrate. Plus, there's no place to land."
"I'm not being a hero here. Just practical."
Ronon stared at him for a moment then gave an unhappy nod. "Wait here."
John bent over, hands on his knees, and coughed up the rest of the river water while Ronon climbed over the tree to retrieve the canoe. A few minutes later, the boat shot past the tip of the tree then slid up on the opposite bank. John stared across at him.
"I can paddle down farther, pick you up where the water's calmer."
Glancing downstream, John saw rapids and more rapids. Warm blood dripped down his lacerated back, he was lightheaded, and his bruises were going to have bruises. If he didn't move now, all his adrenaline would be gone. Climbing carefully onto the tree, he crawled across then eased into the water, holding tightly to a thick limb. Ronon stood on the bank and extended a paddle. Ignoring his shredded hands, John gripped the pole tightly and let Ronon tow him to land. John staggered to the canoe and collapsed in the stern with a groan.
"Take off your shirt," Ronon said.
"Because you're bleeding. I need to put a bandage on that cut."
John struggled into a seated position and unbuttoned his uniform shirt, easing it off with a wince. Pulling his t-shirt over his head was even tougher as every muscle in his shoulders and back screamed in protest.
"Antibiotic cream first, okay?"
Turning, John braced his hands against the sides of the canoe. He hissed as Ronon gently spread the cream over the laceration and covered it completely with a bandage then did the same for his hands. John ditched the t-shirt and slid slowly into his drenched uniform top. Ronon handed him Tylenol and antibiotics which he dry-swallowed, the thought of gulping more water making his stomach turn.
"You ready?" Ronon asked.
"Give me a minute." John slumped forward, elbows on knees, and took a few deep breaths as the realization of how close he'd come to dying hit full force. After taking a moment to be thankful and to let his hands stop shaking, he straightened with a moan and reached for his paddle.
The rapids weren't severe, but they lasted for miles. By the time they reached calmer waters, John was dripping in sweat and panting heavily.
"Why don't you rest a while?" Ronon called over his shoulder as he put the map away. "The next section should be uneventful."
"I can pull my own weight."
Ronon turned to glare at him. "You always tease McKay about him not being Superman, but you aren't either, you know. I saw the beating you took while I was trying to get to you. Accept the fact that you need some rest now before we hit the next set of rapids."
"Fine," John huffed.
He curled up as best he could in the back of the canoe and forced the throbbing in his body from his mind. The boat rocked gently as they floated downstream, and the rhythmic splash of the paddle quickly lulled him to sleep.
Once Sheppard's breath evened out into sleep, Ronon pulled out the map again. Night would fall soon, and if he paddled hard enough they should reach the end of the course just after daybreak. The cut on Sheppard's back was deep, and the bruises were already forming. The man was going to be miserable for a couple of days, but he'd be fine once Keller fixed him up. Ronon flicked on the flashlight and began to row in earnest.
The few rapids he hit were minor, and they sailed through them without Sheppard waking. The hours crept by, and Ronon occupied himself by humming every Satedan war hymn and drinking song he knew. He shifted to love ballads next, struggling to remember the words to the song he'd written for his betrothal ceremony.
"You and Teyla should do duets," Sheppard slurred.
Ronon's cheeks burned in the pre-dawn darkness. "Thought you were asleep."
"I was until you started caterwauling. What were you, um, singing?"
"A song. Go back to sleep."
"Know any good lullabies?"
"Don't make me throw you out of this boat."
Sheppard's chuckle faded into light snores. Dawn broke soon after, and the map showed the finish line in sight. Thrusting exhaustion and aching muscles from his mind, Ronon narrowed his focus to one thing – getting Sheppard home. Cheers in the distance told him other racers were finishing, but strangely he didn't care. This trip had been about testing himself and Sheppard's trust. Besides, this was their first Yeveran Race. The competition had better watch out in five years.
"Are we there yet?" Sheppard asked sleepily.
"Almost. Probably another hour or so."
"Really?" Sheppard sat up with a groan and looked around. "Why didn't you wake me?"
"Didn't need to. The back end of the course was smooth."
Sheppard huffed in reply and offered up a PowerBar. "I may outeat Rodney today."
"I'd like to see that." Ronon wolfed down the bar. "What will they be serving when we get there?"
"Let's see… It's Wednesday, no, Thursday, about lunchtime. Cheeseburgers, I think."
Ronon's stomach rumbled at the thought. Sheppard stretched gingerly then joined in the paddling. They made good time to the finish line, grinning exhaustedly at each other as the spectators showered them with flower petals. After coasting to the right bank, they tossed their belongings onto land then climbed out and handed the paddles to the attendants. Ronon kept an eye on Sheppard who seemed a little wobbly as they made their way to the officials table to record their time.
"Maybe you should have someone at the aid station take a look at you."
Sheppard rolled his eyes and listed sideways. "I've been banged up worse than this. I probably won't be able to move tomorrow, but nothing's broken or gushing blood. What I need is food."
Ronon shrugged as he handed over his paperwork and signed the results page. Twelfth overall. Not bad.
"Well done, gentlemen," the time keeper said. "We hope to see you at the next race. A table has been set up with food and drink. Please enjoy yourselves."
Ronon arched a brow, and Sheppard nodded vigorously. They swiftly found a seat in a small tent. A serving girl brought them a loaf of bread and steaming plates heaped with meat and vegetables. Ronon's taste buds danced with joy, and his stomach gurgled happily at the first bite. Both men ate with gusto until their plates had been wiped clean.
The girl cleared the table with a smile. "Can I get you anything else? More ale? Some sabris pie?"
Sheppard swayed alarmingly as he stood. "We'll just be on our way. The food was fabulous, by the way."
"Thank you, sirs, and fair day."
With a nod, they ducked out of the tent and headed toward the path, following other competitors back to the village. Sheppard kept his eyes on the ground, but Ronon still held a guiding hand near his elbow. Sheppard's shoulders drooped when they crested the next hill. The path continued to wind as far as they could see. They trudged onward, finally reaching the top of the hill that bordered the settlement.
Sheppard sighed. "I almost don't want to go home. Haven't had this much fun in a long time."
"That ale was way better than the crap Zelenka bootlegs."
They exchanged a grin and strolled into town, heading straight for the tavern. Two glasses of Blevin ale later, and Sheppard's eyes were rolling back in his head.
Ronon punched him playfully. "Come on, Solo. Time to go home."
Sheppard snorted at him and pushed to his feet. Ronon dug their last few coins from his coat pocket then froze.
"Do you hear that?"
Ronon cocked his head and concentrated. "Sounds like…"
Screams erupted from outside. Mothers shouted. Animals howled. Doors slammed. A terrifyingly familiar mechanical whine shrieked overhead.
"Oh, God," John breathed as silver light skimmed the street in front of them, sweeping up a pregnant woman and two small children. "We have to do something."
Ronon slapped a fresh energy cell in his blaster. "Like what?" He peered out the open door. "Those darts aren't coming from the gate. There must be a hive in orbit."
Tattered dolls, random pieces of clothing, and half-filled bags dotted the street, the scattered belongings of the fleeing and the culled. A roiling cloud of smoke, black and thick, billowed from somewhere nearby, carrying the stench of burnt flesh.
The tavern was eerily quiet; most people trembled under tables, but a few stared morosely into their drinks, waiting for the end. The bartender huddled behind the bar, draining a bottle of ale.
"Is there a place that your people hide?" John asked.
The man shook his head mournfully. "No. The caverns were blocked in last month's mud slide." He sighed, swirling the bottle. "Our leaders intended to repair them, but with the race, there were too many other things to do." He laughed bitterly. "More important things, they said. And I agreed. Traded my life for a few worthless coins."
"You aren't dead yet," Ronon growled.
The bartender looked at him with exhausted eyes. "What are you going to do, big man? Shoot the Wraith out of the sky?" He hung his head in defeat and took another drink.
John checked the ammo in his handgun, his only gun, gritting his teeth as cut-off shouts for help echoed in the street. "There has to be somewhere."
Ronon's eyes darkened as he shook his head. "No, there doesn't."
A blur of people raced by, their terrified screams bouncing off the stone buildings. Tripping, falling, scrambling, they ran for their lives, shooting glances over their shoulders as they hurried past the tavern. Blue-white stun beams enveloped the stragglers when masked Wraith guards rounded the corner. A boy, no more than fourteen, darted from a doorway. The nearest guard caught him by the throat, slammed him into a wall, and began to feed.
"Oh, hell no," John whispered.
He stepped outside, took aim, and fired. The Wraith's head jerked as the bullet hit behind his right ear. The Wraith and the boy collapsed in a tangled heap, and John took another step towards them but was pulled up short by Ronon's hand in his collar.
"What are you doing?" Ronon hissed as the other guards sought the source of the shot.
"I can't stand here and do nothing."
"I know that. What's the plan?"
"I don't have one." John met Ronon's eyes. "I say we take out as many as we can before…"
Ronon shrugged. "Sounds like a good plan actually."
John held his gaze, searching for words. For a second, he was filled with regret for the things he wouldn't get to see and do: say goodbye to Rodney and Teyla, meet Dave's fiancée, watch Torren grow up, find Ford. Ronon gripped his shoulder, squeezing tightly.
"Yeah," John said with a nod, his muscles bunching.
Ronon gave a feral grin and threw the door open.
Wraith littered the street before Sheppard and Ronon reached the edge of the sidewalk. The crowd stumbled to a halt, stared, tore at their hair, shouted for family members.
"Hurry!" Ronon yelled. "Head to the forest. Look for caves, anything to protect you from the culling beams."
People fled past him, people of all ages and worlds. He helped an old woman to her feet while Sheppard sagged dejectedly after checking the boy who'd been fed on. A skinny man staggered by, stopping every few seconds to pick up a piece of cloth or a shiny goblet. Ronon smashed a fist through the collection in his arms.
"The Wraith are not interested in your belongings, fool! Run!"
Darts whined overhead, their beams crisscrossing the path that led from town to the foothills. Wraith guards continued to fill the streets, kicking in doors of homes, feeding on the inhabitants. For every Wraith Ronon and Sheppard killed, three more took its place. Ronon fired with care, preserving as much of his energy cell as he could. Sheppard tossed his handgun in the dirt when his ammo was depleted, snatching up a Wraith stunner rifle and dialing it up to its highest setting.
"The darts are grabbing them as soon as they get to the path!" Sheppard shouted.
"Not all of them." Ronon spun and blasted the Wraith approaching Sheppard. "Some are making it to the forest."
Sheppard clubbed the next Wraith in the face, sending its mask flying then smashing in its face. "We need to take out those darts!"
"How?" Ronon fired a futile shot at an overhead dart. "I can't hit them from here."
The dart circled, its silvery beam licking the ground around them. More guards materialized, one almost on top of Ronon who whipped around, firing blindly and missing. The guard swung instinctively, his rifle slamming into Ronon's shoulder. The blaster flew from Ronon's fingers, skidding across the street. Ronon took the guard down with a leg sweep then pulled his axe, burying it deep in the Wraith's chest. Black blood squirted as the Wraith gurgled, twitched, stilled. Ronon stood, frantically searching for his blaster, spotting another boy dragging the remains of an adult behind him, in the path of the culling beam.
"NO!" screamed Sheppard, racing for the boy.
Ronon bolted for them, knowing he wouldn't be in time. Sheppard hit the boy's shoulder, shoving the kid onto the sidewalk as the beam hit. Ronon staggered to a stop, gaping in disbelief.
John Sheppard had been culled.
Ronon wheeled. Chaos everywhere. People running, Wraith feeding, darts shrieking. No last minute escapes. No jumpers with drones. No Teyla warnings or McKay miracles. No way to rescue Sheppard. If that hive left orbit – and it would, long before he could get to Atlantis and get help – Sheppard was a dead man. The trip meant to heal them from an encounter with the Wraith had brought them full circle instead.
His jaw clenched as he stepped into the middle of the street. His place was between the Wraith and Sheppard, and he would do it right this time. With a defiant jerk of his chin, he stared at the dart as it neared. Closing his eyes, he let the culling beam take him.
"Senior staff to the conference room. All senior staff, please report to the conference room immediately."
Teyla blocked then spun and kicked. Kanaan hit the mat with an oomph and a sigh. She dropped her bantos rods in her bag, wrapped a towel around her neck, and hurried to the door.
"Dinner tonight?" he called.
She smiled sheepishly and ran back to him, pressing her forehead to his as he pushed up on his elbows. "It is doubtful," she said. "Can you… Torren is due for a feeding in an hour."
"I know." Kanaan pushed at her playfully. "Go. Save the universe."
Feeling slightly ridiculous racing through the halls in her sparring garments, Teyla tried to ignore the dark foreboding building inside. The transporter deposited her in the gateroom atrium, and her dread increased at the frantic activity in the control room. She hurried to the conference room but bit back an apology for her appearance when she saw Rodney's face. Gray and drawn, he was staring intently at his tablet, biting his lip until it bled. Mr. Woolsey was seated, but his darting eyes unnerved her. Evan was talking quietly with Radek, and Jennifer Keller sipped a cup of tea. Teyla nodded to Mr. Woolsey and took a seat as the doors swung shut.
"Doctor McKay?" Mr. Woolsey prompted.
Teyla's heart began to pound in earnest when Rodney's eyes met hers as he stood. Usually sparking with fire, they were instead flat, lifeless.
"As you know…" Rodney looked away and cleared his throat, "As you know, Colonel Sheppard and Ronon have been on M8I-548 for four days. Approximately twenty minutes ago, the subspace locator beacon stopped transmitting. When we—"
"I'm sorry," Evan interrupted. "What subspace locator beacon?"
"Todd's. Ronon took it with him so we could, you know," Rodney flapped a hand, "keep tabs. When we lost the signal, we tried to dial 548, but we couldn't get a lock."
"And that means what, precisely?" Mr. Woolsey asked.
Rodney turned to him. "It could be any number—"
"Wraith," Teyla said.
"We don't know…" Rodney's gaze dropped to the table, and he heaved a sigh. "She's right. While there are other possibilities, the most probable explanation for the gate's 'busy signal' and the locator beacon cutting out is a culling."
"But it could be something else." Mr. Woolsey smoothed his hands over the perpetual folder in front of him. "A natural disaster or some kind of damage to the gate. Perhaps the beacon is malfunctioning."
"It's possible," Rodney admitted.
"I don't think it's the beacon," Radek interjected. "We've been studying it for some time. We've been able to make a few modifications – change the frequency, boost the range – though we haven't successfully reverse engineered it—"
"Then it could be the beacon."
Radek shrugged hesitantly. "We checked it before Ronon and Colonel Sheppard left. It was working perfectly. Until twenty minutes ago."
Mr. Woolsey glanced down grimly. "So, a coincidental culling of a world that Colonel Sheppard is visiting." He looked to Jennifer. "Is it possible that Ronon betrayed—"
"No!" shouted Teyla, standing so abruptly that her chair tipped over. "It is not possible."
Rodney's head snapped up, anger finally giving a spark to his eyes, and Jennifer gaped at Mr. Woolsey.
"I appreciate your loyalty, Teyla," Mr. Woolsey began, "but we have to consider everything."
"It. Is. Not. Possible."
"I agree with Teyla," Jennifer said. "The enzyme was completely gone from Ronon's system, had been gone for a couple of weeks. I would have never let him leave otherwise."
"And his mind was right?"
"According to all of my tests. Doctor Sanders concurred after a few sessions with him. Ronon was free of the enzyme and the brainwashing. Just like Tyre was, I might add."
Teyla's blood pounded so hard in her ears she was certain every person in the room could hear it. She was gratified that the only face in the room with doubt was Mr. Woolsey's. She busied herself with picking up her chair and taking a seat, willing her heartbeat back to normal. Mr. Woolsey glanced around the room, studying each face, settling on Rodney's.
"And if they've been captured and Ronon has been turned again? Or Colonel Sheppard?"
Rodney's chin lifted. "Then we find them and turn them back."
"How do you propose we find them?"
"I am a genius," Rodney snapped. "I'll figure something out."
One of the conference room doors swung open, and Chuck flew in. "The gate has shut down." He glanced back as a tech shouted at him. "And the locator beacon just came on."
Rodney's fingers danced over the room's viewscreen controls, and a starmap appeared, two small red dots floating across it.
"They're in space?" Mr. Woolsey asked.
"Hyperspace," Rodney and Radek chorused.
"Damn." Evan bounced a fist off the table.
Mr. Woolsey squinted at the screen. "Any ideas on where they are heading?"
Rodney grabbed his tablet and headed for the door, Radek on his heels. "We'll get back to you."
"Major Lorne, take a team back to M8I-whatever and find out what happened. Doctor Keller, go with him. Those people will probably need help. Teyla, you too."
Evan glanced at Teyla. "We leave in fifteen."
"I will meet you in the jumper bay."
She raced from the room, running as if the Wraith were in pursuit, which, in a way, they were. Throwing on the first shirt and pair of BDUs she found, she strapped her knife to her ankle, stuffed her feet in her shoes, and headed to the ready room, rebanding her hair along the way. Tac vest in hand, she grabbed a radio and a P-90 with an extra magazine and hurried to the jumper. She took a seat in the rear with Jennifer and the three med techs with her. Evan's team settled in the front, and the jumper dipped into the gateroom and through the event horizon.
"Aw, man," groaned Lieutenant Sanchez, the co-pilot. "Would you look at that."
Teyla knew what she'd see, had seen it a hundred times, but looked anyway. Bodies littered the path from the town to the gate, some dry and withered, others burned. Flag poles had been snapped like twigs, as if bowing to honor the dead, their tattered flags draping over corpses. Smoke rose in the distance, fire still raging through the remnants of the village.
"Any life signs?" Jennifer asked.
The HUD flickered on. "A few," Evan answered. "A couple hundred or so, mostly in the forest."
Jennifer looked to Teyla. "How many lived here?"
"At least five thousand Lirosians. With the race participants, I would guess eight thousand were here when the culling began."
Tears filled Jennifer's eyes. "And only two hundred are left?"
The others in the jumper grew more somber, shifting uncomfortably, soldiers and civilians alike. Teyla shook her head in bemusement. How must it feel to never fear a culling? To grow up without the shadow of the Wraith?
She peered out the front window, trying to see the carnage from their perspective, thinking back to the first culling she'd experienced. She'd been playing in the caves with the other children when the coldness blossomed in her chest. The other children had continued to play except for Kanaan who had stumbled to a stop and gasped, clutching at his heart. Halling had stared at them wide-eyed for a moment then ran from the cave. By the time they reached the village, Teyla's mother, both of Halling's parents, Kanaan's older brother, and several others were gone. A field was burning. Many of the women were wailing. Teyla found her father sitting in their tent, holding her mother's favorite shawl in his hands, tears streaming down his face. But even in the horror of that moment, Teyla hadn't been as surprised, as shocked as the Earth people around her now.
She hoped they never became accustomed to cullings, never accepted them as the norm. They were the strongest people she'd ever met, and their absolute certainty that they could defeat the Wraith made her believe it, too. Complacency was no longer an option.
Evan circled the village. "Looks like the colonel and Ronon put up a hell of a fight."
Teyla's heart squeezed painfully as she followed his gaze. Dozens of Wraith lay dead in the streets, most bearing the distinctive scorching of blaster fire.
"There aren't many life signs around here, but I figure that most of the townspeople will head this way," Evan said. "Some of the life signs might be Wraith so, Doc, my team will sweep one of the buildings first. When it's clear, you can set up. Teyla, stay with them."
Five minutes later, Evan waved them out and ushered them into the home with the least fire damage. Teyla made her way down the street, checking for signs of life and coming up empty. She put a bullet in the head of each Wraith she came across just in case. After an hour, she had found exactly one human being still alive. One who wouldn't last the night. Still, she and Sergeant Norogov gently carried him to the medics. Resuming her search, she continued down the street, stepping over Wraith. Closer, she could see the bullet holes. Teyla smiled fiercely, proudly, at John's handiwork. She poked through the scattered belongings, picking up a doll and a few wooden toys to take to Jennifer for child survivors.
Teyla drew in a shaky breath at the familiar shape outlined by a thin blanket, its red energy cell still aglow. She dusted off the blaster and tucked it into her vest.
"Ma'am?" a voice called.
Corporal Vick stood in a doorway, holding a black rucksack. "Atlantis issue," she said.
Teyla nodded and took it from her. A bit soggy, it held empty PowerBar wrappers and MRE boxes along with a few implements including her mother's hatchet. Forcing back a sob, Teyla zipped it shut and hugged it to her chest.
"We'll never stop looking, Ma'am. We'll find them." Vick's eyes flashed with determination.
"Yes, we will," Teyla said, ignoring the whisper that taunted of no one coming back from a culling. She squared her shoulders. "I have been culled and have lived to tell of it."
Because John came for her.
She had a sudden need to see Rodney, to hold Torren, to kiss Kanaan. Hurrying back to the makeshift clinic, Teyla left the toys with a med tech, informed Lorne she was leaving, and quick-marched to the gate. She rushed to her quarters with as much dignity as she could muster and threw herself into Kanaan's arms, allowing the sobs to bubble forth.
He held her tightly. "I heard about John and Ronon. What can I do?"
She buried her face in his chest for a final moment then pulled away. "There is nothing to be done." She scooped Torren into her arms, pressing a soft kiss to his head. "Until we figure out where they are."
"You truly believe they can be rescued from a hive ship?"
"I have to."
Kanaan guided her to the bed and sat next to her. "Teyla, I know how you feel about them. They came for you, saved you from Michael, saved me. And I can never repay them for that."
"It is not the first time they have done so."
"I know. I remember the day they arrived on Athos, the culling, your return from the dead. You joined them out of gratitude—"
"I joined them because they are the best chance we have of defeating the Wraith."
Kanaan nodded. "Yes, they are. But…" He stood, paced a step, turned back. "You feel you have a duty—"
"I do. They are my team, my friends, a part of who I am."
"And me? And Torren? Are we not part of who you are?"
Teyla sighed, exasperated. "Of course you are. You are my family, my blood." She placed Torren in his crib then faced Kanaan. "What are you trying to say?"
"To chase after a hive is suicide, Teyla. You have a duty to your son."
"So I should abandon John and Ronon to their fate? Allow the Wraith to murder them?"
"Allow someone else to go this time."
"We discussed this, Kanaan, when I was trying to decide whether to go back to active duty." She massaged a throbbing temple. "You knew my responsibilities."
Kanaan shot to his feet, arms wide. "Exploring other worlds is not the same as infiltrating a hive!"
"And if John and Ronon had said the same when Michael took me?"
"Teyla, I— I—" Kanaan turned away, shoulders hunched. "I can't lose you," he whispered.
She wrapped her arms around his waist, resting her forehead against his back. "You will never lose me. But I must do this. If I do not return, tell Torren that his mother died defying the Wraith. That is the legacy I choose to leave." She trailed a hand over his shoulders, feeling the corded muscles relax under her touch. "I need to see Rodney, to see if he has located them yet."
Kanaan nodded, not facing her. Teyla retrieved John's sack and headed for the door, stopping when Kanaan's hand shot out and gripped her wrist, pulling her to him. She hugged him for a long moment, listening to his heart thud in his chest. She tugged his forehead to hers and whispered her union vows to him again. And left.
Rodney slammed a fist on the table as the newest projection went in a completely different direction than the last. Fifteen simulations and fifteen different answers. He cursed the Wraith, computers, the galaxy in general, and the Ancients just for good measure in every language he knew, glaring when Zelenka snickered.
"What? Did I say it wrong?"
"No, but your accent is atrocious. Who taught you to speak Czech?"
"I have never given you one lesson."
"Who needs a lesson? I listen to you bitch all the time."
Rodney followed Radek's gaze as he trailed off. Teyla stood in the doorway, hair awry, eyes swollen, Sheppard's bag in her hand.
"Oh, God. Did you find…"
She dropped the sack on a bench and added Ronon's blaster to it. "No, they were not among the dead. But we already knew that, did we not?"
Relief and fear flooded so quickly through Rodney that his knees buckled. He sank onto a stool. "Um, yeah. I mean, we assumed they were alive and on a hive since the locator beacon is mov— It was definitely a culling? Not the Travelers or something?"
"There were several Wraith among the dead."
Rodney smiled viciously. "Good." His smile faded as his eyes lost focus. "Do you think the Wraith came for them or they were just in the wrong place at the wrong time?"
"Based on the destruction, I do not believe John and Ronon were targets, merely—"
"An unfortunate coincidence." Rodney blew out a breath. "That's a bit of good news, I guess."
Teyla arched a brow. "How so?"
"Unless the Wraith figure out who they have, Sheppard and Ronon will be shoved in cocoons like everyone else instead of tossed in a holding cell to be taken before the queen for questioning. Of course, if some random Wraith waltzes by and needs a snack—"
"What? You know Sheppard's the optimist. I— I just— I can't—" Rodney clenched his fists, his head dropping. "Every simulation comes up with a different answer. I don't know how to find them. And the longer it takes, the better chance that…you know."
The stool next to him creaked as Teyla took a seat. "You can do this, Rodney. If anyone can, you can."
He waved a vague hand at the monitor. "I've searched through all of the logs we have since we started tracking the movement of Wraith ships. I haven't found one ship that's been in the part of space they're in right now. Not one in four years. I come up with a different trajectory every time I run the numbers."
"Do we know anything about the planets in that sector?"
"No," Radek answered. "There is no information about them in the database. We don't even know if they have gates."
"What about the information you got from Michael?"
Rodney sighed. "He had info on a few planets, mostly ones where he had labs. Without knowing where the hive is headed…"
"Keep trying. We will find them."
"I'm not giving up, Teyla," Rodney said. "But if we do find them, how are we going to get them back?"
Cold. Surrounding, penetrating. In his veins, on his face, deep in his bones. His eyes wouldn't open. Movement was impossible. Cords around his arms, legs, torso, neck. He felt sluggish. Decay and death filled his nostrils, igniting memories he'd tried to bury.
Sateda, capture, running, betrayal, capture, betrayal, betrayal, feedings, restoration, Wraith.
Ronon's eyes flew open. Panic seized him. He struggled against the tendrils that imprisoned him, heart pounding, breath coming in shallow pants. Cocooned on a hive. His nightmare come to life. He thrashed wildly, his screams echoing in the corridor, gulping breath after breath until his vision began to gray.
Take it easy, Chewie.
Ronon strained against the bindings, searching as much of the corridor as he could see. Cocoon after cocoon bore a human – unconscious, bound in tendrils and webbing – but none with a shock of dark hair and a wry smile.
The moment allowed his breathing to slow and his heart to return to normal. Ronon wriggled again, but the bindings held fast. He'd stepped into the path of that beam on instinct. He'd had no time to consider what he'd do when he got here, only knowing that he needed to be where Sheppard was.
"Think! What would McKay do? Panic. Already done that. Sheppard would…defy them until they fed on him. Teyla. Teyla would try to talk her way out. Damn."
Ronon shifted again, the tendrils loosening enough for him to work a hand free. He reached for the knife at his belt only to find it missing, along with his coat, his shirt, the weapons in his pockets. Even his boots were gone. He pressed his head into the wall, rolling his neck until he felt the hard edge of the sheath in his dreads. They missed one. The one that hid the locator beacon.
Footsteps caught his ear, preceding the two guards and the male Wraith marching into the section. A bitter taste filled Ronon's mouth as adrenaline flooded through him. He had one chance. Closing his eyes, he focused as Teyla had taught him then lifted his head as the Wraith passed.
"Master," he called, swallowing the bile the words and memories brought.
The Wraith turned quickly. Jagged markings like lightning bolts decorated his yellow face, and his long white hair was thin and matted. His eyes locked on Ronon, widening as he stepped close. "Why is this one awake?"
Ronon forced himself to not recoil from the stench of the Wraith's breath. He lowered his eyes in deference, reminding himself that Sheppard's life hung in the balance. "Please, Master, let me be of service to you."
The Wraith's eyes narrowed. "You are a worshiper?"
"Yes, Master. I have pledged my life to the Wraith." Ronon tried not to gag as he repeated the words he'd vowed to never say again, words that were forever branded in his mind. "No retreat in the face of battle. No sympathy for the fallen. No mercy for our enemies."
Surprise and doubt flickered on the Wraith's face. "I was not aware we had another worshiper on that planet."
Rage rolled through Ronon. When he found the worshiper who had betrayed them, he would take pleasure in killing him. Slowly. Keeping his eyes downcast, Ronon didn't reply.
"Which queen do you serve?"
"None now. My queen was killed by the Replicators."
"Abominations!" the Wraith spat.
He grabbed Ronon's chin and studied him intently. Ronon quivered as hatred boiled inside, hoping the Wraith would believe it was fear and excitement. Finally, the Wraith leaned forward and sniffed.
"Such…defiance is intoxicating. A pity the Replicators are dead. I would enjoy watching you avenge your queen." He drew a clawed finger down Ronon's cheek and throat to his collarbone. "A taste of such defiance would be so satisfying." He pushed his hand through the webbing and settled his palm on Ronon's sternum. "So satisfying."
Blood roared in Ronon's ears. His body begged for the enzyme. His mind screamed for death. He shivered at the onslaught of mental images – Sheppard on his knees, fighting Tyre, his team sitting with him for days as he detoxed. He couldn't do it again, wouldn't do it again. Closing his eyes, he sagged, held up by the tendrils, and waited for the end, gasping when the Wraith ripped the webbing away, revealing the dozens of feeding scars on his chest.
"Ahhh," the Wraith's mouth curled into a satisfied smirk, "a Rewarded Worshiper." He studied the scars for a moment, tracing several with his fingers. "Such strength will be useful." He turned to the guards. "Release him. Put him with the others."
One guard nodded and pressed a control near Ronon's head while the male Wraith and the other guard continued down the hall. The webbing around Ronon dissolved, and the tendrils withdrew from his body and his veins, vanishing into the wall. Dizzy, he stepped cautiously into the corridor, his eyes sweeping the cocoons around him. Still no Sheppard. Ronon gritted his teeth and followed the guard.
They wound through a maze of hallways, transported to another level, and walked through a series of rooms that held comforts for humans – beds, hygiene areas, bowls of fruit and loaves of bread. The guard stopped and motioned him through the next door. The three humans sitting at a table leaped to their feet and bowed. The Wraith pushed him forward and left.
When their eyes lifted, they studied Ronon carefully, and he scrutinized them in return, not recognizing any of them. A woman of average height and build with black hair tied at the nape of her neck stood next to a slender reed of a man with shaggy blond hair and a tall bald man with bad skin.
"What's your name?" the bald man asked.
"Kell," Ronon replied.
"I am Menear. This is Arla," he gestured to the woman, "and Dres."
"You must be freezing," Arla said. "Come with me." She led him to a small closet filled with white tunics and pants. "Find something that fits. We will wait for you in the kitchen."
Ronon rifled through the clothing until he found a shirt and trousers that were close to his size. He changed quickly and found a pair of slippers that fit. A glance around the room revealed nothing of use, and he resisted the temptation to check the knife and beacon in his hair for fear of being observed. He made his way back to the kitchen.
The trio, leaning against a counter, stopped whispering when he entered
Dres looked him up and down coolly. "How did you come to serve our masters?"
"Everlasting life was too good an offer to pass up."
Arla's eyes lit. "You have been given the gift?" Awe filled her voice.
"Yes," Ronon choked out. "It was…" Horrible, excruciating, exhilarating, shattering. "…an honor." He looked around the large, open area. "Are there others here?"
Menear frowned at him. "How many served on your hive?"
"I, uh, I didn't serve on a hive. I lived in a village."
Dres rocked back on his heels, arms crossed on his chest. "The eyes and ears of our masters?"
"Whatever my queen required."
"There are many others here, but they are attending to their duties." Arla handed him a cup filled with a hot liquid. "This will warm you."
Ronon sniffed at it then took a sip. Too sweet for his taste, but it was warm. "Thank you." He wrapped his stiff fingers around the mug and took another drink. "What kind of duties?"
"Supply storage," Dres answered. "The cocoons haven't been this full in some time."
Ronon stared into his cup, fighting the urge to strangle the little man, and took a deep breath. "There was someone with me—"
Menear's brow furrowed. "Another worshiper?"
"Yes." In the heavy silence, he added, "I think so. Maybe."
"Three worshipers sent to the same location?" Dres asked. "I've never heard of such a thing."
"Nor have I," Menear said.
"Well, he never actually said he was. I probably misunderstood." Hoping to ease suspicions, Ronon decided to change the subject. "What do we do? I mean now, after the culling."
Arla shrugged a shoulder. "Whatever the queen bids. Bring food, repair clothing, trade, hunt, clean."
"How did you get here?"
She smiled brightly. "I was born here."
He gaped at her. "You've lived on a hive your whole life?"
"I am quite fortunate," Arla murmured. "Not as fortunate as you though. I have never received the gift."
Dres pushed to his feet and removed a container from a cupboard. "My parents were worshipers. Our chieftain had them executed when they were discovered." He pulled a strip of dried meat and gnawed angrily. "I was twelve. I activated the distress beacon my mother had hidden and watched the Wraith burn the village to the ground." He turned hard eyes to Ronon. "Then I watched my queen suck the life out of that bastard. I've been here ever since."
Menear squeezed Dres' arm in sympathy. "My people were culled when I was young. I was given a choice – serve or die. I chose to serve."
Ronon sank into a chair and accepted a strip of meat, silently cursing the scourge that was Wraith and the Ancestors who allowed such misery. He jerked as his head bobbed toward his chest.
"Come," Arla said, rising. "The sedative from the cocoon hasn't cleared your system yet. A few hours of sleep will solve that."
The room she led him to had three rows of beds ten deep. Arla pointed him to a spare bed and wished him good dreams. He snorted at the thought but couldn't hold sleep back a moment longer. Stretching out, he fell asleep immediately.
The next few days passed swiftly. Ronon volunteered for every duty he could, taking the opportunity to learn the layout of the ship and the guards' schedule. The worshipers were basically free to come and go as they pleased which wasn't so surprising after he thought about it. After all, they had chosen to be there. He was much more horrified to have to participate in worship – reciting prayers and bowing in obeisance. He'd puked his guts out afterward the first couple of times, but he kept reminding himself of why he was there.
The hardest duty he had, but the one that proved the most useful, was removing bodies from cocoons after feedings. He whispered promises of vengeance in unhearing ears as he hauled the dry husks to the hive's garbage recycler, living in fear of discovering Sheppard's lifeless body one day. Ronon had searched corridor after corridor, seeking his friend every chance he got.
He hated living like this – serving his enemy, allowing others to die at the hand of the Wraith. Time and again he considered scrapping his plan and blowing the ship and all its occupants to hell. But he couldn't bring himself to do it. Sheppard had somehow infected him with that damn optimism, and Ronon couldn't give up the hope of freeing the rest, especially Sheppard. So he clung to that hope and his memories of Teyla manipulating a queen, of Rodney healing his scars – the last vestiges of his old life, of Weir holding off the Replicators, of Sheppard forging an alliance with a Wraith.
After a day spent cleaning the nutrient filtration system used to keep the culled healthy, Ronon was dragging himself back to the living area when he took a wrong turn. He wandered through the corridors, passing cocoon after cocoon without seeing the occupants. Prickles danced down his spine, and he stopped, turning slowly, retracing his steps. His heart lurched in his chest.
Ronon glanced both directions before stepping closer. Sheppard hung limply in the cocoon, eyes closed, breathing shallowly. The cocoon was preserving him perfectly, causing the dark bruises and fiery scratches on his face to stand out in stark contrast to his pale, almost translucent, skin. Ronon peeled the webbing from Sheppard's chest, sagging in relief to see unmarred skin. No Wraith had fed yet, not even a little, and Ronon intended on keeping it that way. He drew the webbing back over Sheppard's chest and pushed John's face as far back as he could while still allowing the man to breathe.
"I'll get you out of here, Sheppard. I promise. Just hang in there, and don't call attention to yourself."
Ronon tore himself away from the cocoon, memorized the location, and hurried back to his duties before he was missed, his mind in overdrive as he plotted an escape.
He got his chance two days later.
Ronon was asleep when the hive dropped out of hyperspace. He blinked in the darkness, but those around him slept on, undisturbed by the change in engine noise. He stumbled to his feet and made his way quietly through the kitchen area and into the hallways, moving quickly to Sheppard's cocoon.
"Wake up, buddy. It's time to go."
Sheppard didn't even flinch. Ronon tapped his cheek lightly and pulled the webbing away.
"Come on, Sheppard. Open your eyes."
Sheppard still didn't move. Ronon searched the space above Sheppard's head, finally spotting the controls. Wishing vainly for McKay, Ronon studied them for a moment then pressed a button. Sheppard groaned softly but didn't awaken. Ronon tried the next button, and a mask formed over Sheppard's face. The next few buttons were equally useless. Finally, he hit the right one, and the mask retracted. Another got rid of the tendrils around Sheppard's upper body.
"John, you have to wake up."
Sheppard moaned, twitched, and mumbled unintelligibly.
"Damn it! If you don't open your eyes, I— I— I'm gonna tell McKay you've been stealing his coffee, that expensive crap he loves so much."
The stamp of boots nearing caused Ronon to face forward and stand to attention, bowing as a male Wraith and a patrol passed. The male stopped, his gaze flickering from Ronon to Sheppard.
"Is there a problem?"
"The nutrient system to this cocoon was clogged, but I have repaired it. This one will be preserved."
"We will begin offloading soon. Return to your station."
"Of course, Master." Ronon bowed again, keeping his eyes to the ground until the patrol's footsteps faded.
He stood and turned.
Straight into the horrified gaze of John Sheppard.
John's muddled mind struggled to make sense of what he'd seen and heard. His last memory was of a Wraith attack on a village and trying to save a child. Now, he was cocooned on a hive and Ronon – Ronon – was bowing to a Wraith. Shock and betrayal washed over John like a thousand gallons of ice water. One of his best friends, his brother, a man he had left his life in the hands of more times than he could count had sold him out. Had sold out all of the people on that planet. Rage flooded through his veins, hot like molten lava.
Ronon turned, meeting his gaze. "Sheppard…"
"I trusted you. I believed you when you said you'd been cured." John closed his eyes, unable to bear looking at him. "If you were ever my friend, kill me now."
"I didn't— It's not what you think."
"Then what is it?"
"I didn't know how else to find you." Ronon's voice was thick with revulsion and guilt. "I…"
John studied him, weighing what he knew of Ronon against what he'd seen. Only a few short weeks ago, the man had offered him up to the Wraith, but John had understood. He'd known what the Wraith had been doing to Ronon. Since then, Keller and everyone else said he was good as new. Hell, John had been one of the strongest voices in getting Ronon back on duty. How could he have been so wrong? Even now, the thought that Ronon had been waiting for a chance to return to his "Masters" and the enzyme was unbelievable.
Ronon's eyes pleaded for understanding then dimmed in sorrow. Silently, he pulled the rest of the tendrils from John's frame and lifted him out of the cocoon. John gripped Ronon's arm with one hand and the wall with the other as the ship spun around him. The injuries he'd sustained during the race throbbed dully as some drug in his system tugged at him. He blinked and stepped away from Ronon, shivering in the cold.
"What now?" John asked.
He stiffened when Ronon pulled a knife from his dreadlocks. Ronon flinched and his head dropped at John's reaction. He extended the blade hilt first.
"Take it," Ronon whispered.
John hesitated, the damn drugs making it hard to think. Ronon's eyes had been clear, not crazed from the enzyme. He'd fought like a wild man on that planet, killing dozens of Wraith. John had been halfway out of the cocoon when he'd woken up. Had Ronon been trying to save him? How could he know the truth?
John tried to shake the cobwebs from his brain as he grabbed the knife from Ronon's hand. Ronon turned his back then knelt down and bent his neck, his dreadlocks parting to reveal the base of his skull.
Something twisted painfully in John's chest. "Ronon—"
"I haven't betrayed you, John. If you don't believe that, then bury that blade—"
"Stand up," John ordered, laying a trembling hand on Ronon's shoulder. "Come on. I need you to help me get out of here."
Ronon lifted his head, emotion rippling across his face while he searched John's eyes. His jaw tightened and he swallowed thickly as he stood. "This way."
John's equilibrium was shot, and he staggered in a decidedly serpentine pattern behind Ronon, still clutching the knife. He wanted to trust him; he needed to trust him, but that image of Ronon bowing before a Wraith wouldn't let him. Not completely. Still, Ronon was his only way off the hive, especially with him being as messed up as he was. He had double vision, his hands shook, and he must be spacing out because he had no memory of leaving the cocoon area.
"Where are we?"
"Worshiper quarters." Ronon led him to a small room. "Wait in here."
John paused in the doorway then nodded and stepped inside. The door slid shut and the light came on. He huffed a laugh. "A bathroom." After figuring out the controls, John set Ronon's knife on the counter and washed as much of the grime off as he could, wincing when the water hit the collection of scrapes and bruises mottling his chest, face, and back. He scrubbed his fingers through his hair then over the aching puncture marks on his arms and abdomen. His teeth chattered while he dried off; apparently the Wraith didn't believe in hot water. He slid to the floor, wrapped his arms around his legs, and rested his head on his knees.
He jerked awake at the knock on the door. When had he fallen asleep?
"Sheppard, it's me."
John tried to get up, but his legs had turned to spaghetti. "Ronon?" His voice sounded all wrong, like he'd been on a three-day bender.
The door opened and Ronon handed him a tunic, pants, and shoes. "Put these on."
John tugged the shirt over his head then slowly climbed to his feet, with a little help from Ronon, and stepped into the trousers, using the wall for balance. "Where'd you get the knife?"
"Won it off Lorne in the last poker tournament."
"Really?" John picked up the knife from the counter and turned it over in his hands. Razor sharp, double edged with a slight curve, intricate carvings on the hilt in a language he didn't recognize. "Where did he get it?"
Ronon shrugged. "You'll have to ask him."
John turned it over again then handed it to Ronon. "I'll do that."
The fine lines around Ronon's eyes smoothed a little as he sheathed the blade. "I've got a subspace tracking device, too."
John glanced up from the sandals he was failing to buckle. "You what?"
"I asked McKay for it before we left." Ronon looked away. "Just in case."
"We don't have subspace tracking devices."
If John hadn't felt so weird, he would have been amused, knowing the animosity that normally existed between Ronon and Todd. Then again, that was before Tyre and enzyme and brainwashing.
"You ready?" Ronon asked.
John nodded. "Where to?"
"I figure we have two options – escape or blow the ship."
"Well, I have to say I prefer the first option especially since I left the C-4 in my other uniform."
The side of Ronon's mouth curved upward. "Escape it is, then."
"Any idea where we are?" John breathed deeply, trying to force away the sluggishness flowing through his veins.
"No, but we've dropped out of hyperspace. They're getting ready to offload something."
"Dart bay?" John asked.
Ronon nodded. "Dart bay."
John followed Ronon into the hallway and through a maze of corridors. They managed to avoid most of the patrols, and the few Wraith drones they encountered didn't give them a second look. Ronon stopped short when they heard voices ahead, but there was no place to hide. A dark-haired woman rounded the corner, her face lighting up when she spotted Ronon.
"Kell!" she called. "Have you heard? We're… Who is that with you?"
"Him?" Ronon stepped forward, his hand sliding through his hair. "I found him wandering the halls."
He moved so quickly all John caught was a flash of the blade before her eyes went wide and blood spurted. Ronon caught her and held her still until she went limp.
John stared, slack-jawed. "Who was that?"
Ronon peeked around the corner then strode forward quickly and dumped her body in a room. "Her name was Arla."
"What did she do to you?"
"She helped me." Ronon wiped the knife on his pants and sheathed it. "She was a worshiper, born on this hive." Ronon's eyes, usually so fiery, were flat. "She would have turned us in."
"There had to have been—"
"There wasn't. We need to go before someone else comes."
Ronon stalked ahead, and after a moment, John followed. They finally reached a part of the hive he recognized since the Wraith must only have one floor plan. John took a confident step forward and Ronon jerked him back.
"Something's coming," Ronon whispered.
They hid in an alcove with a line of sight to the corridor. A rumble turned into three people pushing a hovering pallet which carried a webbed mass that looked slightly familiar. John sucked in a breath as his heart crashed against his ribs when his mind made the connection.
"Pods," he hissed. "Like Michael's hybrids were in."
"Looks more like Iratus bug nests to me," Ronon replied.
John's head swam at the thought. "Maybe we should blow the ship up."
Ronon's body stiffened. "I know that guy."
"The little one. He was on the transport to the river." Ronon's face twisted into a snarl. "He's the one who sold us out."
John grabbed Ronon's arm. "You don't know that."
"What other explanation is there?"
"Maybe he's playing a part, like you were." John said it with conviction.
Ronon's eyes widened at the implication of John's words.
"Let him go, Ronon. We need to get out of here."
Ronon tracked the group's movement, not relaxing even after they'd disappeared.
"Come on, buddy," John said. "We need to go."
John trailed a hand down the wall to keep his balance as they threaded their way to the dart bay. It was alive with activity. Darts zipped in and out while several cruisers were being loaded in the distance. John blinked rapidly, hoping his eyes would focus enough for him to hit the right controls. He had yet to learn enough Wraith to be able to read most of the display on the opaque canopy.
"Can you do this?" Ronon asked, looking pointedly at John's white-knuckled grip on the wall.
John forced his hand open and stood straight, wavering slightly. "Yes."
"Good enough for me."
John scanned the bay, finally locating a dart in a section being used but not yet totally depleted, and better still, with no Wraith lurking about. "You know the drill. I'll be right back."
Ronon nodded and ducked down. John hurried to the small craft and climbed inside. He lifted off and searched the display until he found the only life sign in the vicinity of where Ronon had been, pleased and terrified to note the darts could distinguish human from Wraith. No wonder they were so efficient in cullings when troops were on the ground. He flew over and depressed the beam control.
When the buffer registered Ronon's pattern, John banked the dart and headed to space.
"Oh, God." Rodney gaped at the screen, willing the tracking device signal to return. "Please."
"What has happened?" Teyla asked, her voice wobbly with fear.
"Probably a glitch," Rodney hedged as he typed frantically. "Radek—"
"Checking," Zelenka answered.
Rodney dashed at the sweat trickling down his face. Blood roared in his ears while his brain supplied all the possibilities of why the signal had disappeared, each one more horrible than the last.
The conference room doors opened to allow Woolsey and Lorne to enter.
"Doctor McKay, you said you had…" Woolsey trailed off. "What's wrong?"
"The tracking device stop working," Zelenka answered. "We—"
"We are not receiving the tracking device's signal." Rodney shot a dark look at Radek. "We don't know why. Yet."
Lorne's face fell. "You said you had good news."
"We did," Rodney replied, "until about five minutes ago. The hive dropped out of hyperspace."
Teyla straightened in her seat. "Where?"
"Shit!" Rodney clenched his fists to keep himself from throwing his keyboard through the monitor. Diagnostics showed their sensors working properly. The signal had simply vanished. "I'm sorry. What?"
"Where is the hive?" Teyla repeated.
"Oh, um…" Rodney scrubbed his hands over his face. "In this system." He called the star chart up and zoomed in. "We're still searching the database for information on it. Right now, we know that we haven't done any exploration of this quadrant, and none of the planets have a gate address in the registry."
Lorne frowned at the screen. "So, it's doubtful humans live there. What reason would the Wraith have for going to an uninhabited world?"
"If it is uninhabited," Radek said. "There may be populated worlds without gates."
"True," Lorne admitted.
"We know very little about the Wraith." Radek pulled off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. "Very little about their culture or society. They must need fuel for their ships. They get their clothing from somewhere."
Rodney rolled his eyes. "A Wraith mall?"
Radek's brows lifted. "Where do you think their clothing comes from?"
"Well, I doubt they are dropping by the local market for it. Have you ever—"
"Gentlemen," Woolsey interrupted. "The system?"
"What? Oh, yes." Rodney flipped through several screens until he located the database search parameters. "Like I said, no stargates…" His heart seized as the planetary information popped up. "Oh, no."
"What is it, Rodney?" Teyla's face was pale, almost certainly a reflection of his own.
"These are Wraith planets. They are in the heart of Wraith territory."
Her jaw tightened while Lorne moaned and Woolsey's head dropped.
"Rodney," Zelenka whispered urgently. "Look."
The signal was back.
Ronon stumbled and rolled. A dart whined in the distance. He climbed to his feet and spun in a circle, disoriented. The last thing he remembered was the flash of the culling beam. Sheppard had rematerialized him in a clearing with reed grasses that reached to his waist; a heavy mist obscured the rest of the view. Good cover – for him and anyone else out there. A faint glow on the horizon indicated either sunrise or sunset.
The dart's whine grew louder. Ronon ran as it came into view, but it didn't follow him. The ship careened on its side, bobbing slightly. Ronon dove into the grass as it turned. The dart slowed then flipped and plummeted, sparks flying from its tail and belly when it slammed into the ground. Ronon fumbled at his side and cursed when he hit dead space instead of his blaster.
He crept forward, his every sense tuned to his surroundings but never taking his eyes from the dart. He weaved through pieces of burning debris and approached the open canopy from the back. He drew his blade and leaped.
Ronon sheathed the knife and scrambled onto the crumpled nose of the ship. Sheppard was unconscious and bleeding. Years of medical training from the military, Melena, Beckett, and Keller raced through his mind. The one thing he shouldn't do was the one thing he had to do – move Sheppard without knowing the extent of his injuries – but he couldn't wait. He had no idea if other darts were in the area. Getting caught was not an option.
He pulled Sheppard's limp body from the wreckage and settled him across his shoulders. The rising sun turned the gray haze a blinding white, but the breeze rustled leaves to his right. Ronon kept low to the ground and hurried toward the sound, sighing in relief when low-hanging branches came into view. He went as deep as the weak light allowed then gently lowered Sheppard to the ground.
Blood dribbled from a nasty gash on Sheppard's forehead and the right side of his face was bruised. His head lolled as Ronon checked for broken bones; he didn't flinch even when Ronon hit the deep laceration and bruise on his back. Satisfied that Sheppard wouldn't bleed out, Ronon settled him beneath some dense brush and patted the toe of his sandal.
"I'm going to find water. Don't move."
Ronon stood, took a deep breath, and listened with his entire body. A gust of wind made limbs snap like whips and carried the scent of loam and vegetation. A small animal scurried nearby. Insects chirped. Birds chattered. And in the distance, water burbled. He moved swiftly in its direction and discovered a small stream. Ronon scooped a handful and groaned as the deliciously cool water ran over his face and down his throat. He drank greedily then frowned. He had no containers. How was he going to get some of it to Sheppard?
He poked through the dead branches, leaves, and rocks that littered the bank of the creek until he found a piece of wood that some creature had gnawed hollow. Ronon grabbed a rock and scraped the inside smooth then dipped it in the water. Not perfect – it had a small leak and didn't hold much – but it would do for now. He hurried back to where he'd left Sheppard, relieved and concerned to see that his friend hadn't moved. Setting the makeshift bowl out of reach, he eased Sheppard from under the leafy covering and propped him against a tree.
Ronon tore a short strip from his shirt, dipped it in the water, and washed the blood from Sheppard's face. The gash on his forehead wasn't as deep as he'd feared. He tore a longer strip and wrapped it around John's head, hoping to prevent infection. Sheppard moaned, and his lids fluttered.
"Come on, Sheppard." Ronon patted his face gently. "Wake up."
Sheppard grunted then bolted upright with a gasp. "What… Where…"
Ronon caught his shoulders. "Easy, buddy. You landed hard. Are you hurt?"
"Uh, no?" Sheppard winced and raised a hand to his head. "Maybe. What happened?"
"I was about to ask you that." Ronon offered the water to Sheppard and sat back. "What do you remember?"
Sheppard sniffed then took a drink. "Oh, that's good." He gulped down the rest. "We were on a hive, and I stole a dart."
"I know that part."
"Well, I'm still catching up." Sheppard cradled his head in his hands and blew out a deep breath. "I joined a squadron of darts leaving the hive, but I broke off when we got near the planet. Um…" He flushed a brilliant scarlet. "I must have blacked out. I know I skimmed the treetops. I remember reading an energy signature on the far side of the mountains then beaming you out. After that…"
"After that you flopped around like a fish on dry land then you slammed into the ground. What mountains?"
"Hmmm? Oh, I don't know." Sheppard glanced around, his face puckering in confusion. "There were mountains somewhere. I crashed?"
"Yep. Good thing you weren't going very high or very fast. You still made a big mess."
Sheppard snorted lightly and closed his eyes as he leaned against the tree. Then his eyes flew open. "Wraith?"
"Haven't seen any. Were the ones you flew with headed here?"
"Yeah. Do you have any idea where 'here' is?" Sheppard asked.
"No. Think it has a stargate?"
"I'm hoping that was the energy signature I saw."
Ronon stood and stretched. "Guess we should go find it then."
"Wait a second," Sheppard called. "You still have that tracking device?"
"Yeah." Ronon crouched down. "Why? You thinking the Wraith might be tracing it?"
Sheppard shrugged. "They'll figure out a dart is missing. If they are scanning for transmissions, they might find the signal."
"Won't Atlantis be looking for it, too?"
"McKay will have been following it since we left. He's paranoid that way. He'll know where we are."
Ronon pulled the sheath from his hair, popped the tracking device out of it, and smashed it with the hilt of his knife. "What about our sub-cu transmitters?"
Sheppard rubbed his left arm. "I don't know. We've never had problems with them before."
"They haven't been scanning for us, either. If they hit the right frequency…"
"Yeah, that would suck." Sheppard chewed his bottom lip for a second. "You know where it is?"
Ronon nodded. "I need some light though."
He extended a hand to Sheppard who took it and pulled himself to his feet. They weaved through the trees until they reached the edge of the grove. They crouched in the brightest spot they could find, which wasn't saying much. Sheppard pushed up his sleeve and offered his arm. Ronon squinted, searching for the tiny scar left by the injection gun. He rubbed his thumb over it and felt a hard lump. He wiped his blade on his leg and placed the tip on the scar.
"Um," Sheppard grinned sheepishly, "I hate to sound like Rodney, but you have cleaned that knife recently, right?"
Ronon waggled his brows. "What's your definition of 'recently'?"
"Some time after you used it to gut a fish."
Sheppard grunted and turned his face away when the knife slid effortlessly into his arm. He hissed as Ronon twisted the blade, hunting for the transmitter. Sweat beaded on Sheppard's forehead then metal hit metal and, with a flick of his wrist, Ronon plucked the transmitter out.
"Shit," Sheppard breathed, "now I know why you didn't go into medicine."
"Quit whining." Ronon tore another strip of his shirt and bandaged Sheppard's arm then handed him the knife. "Your turn."
Sheppard glanced at the bloody blade. "Shouldn't we clean this?"
"Now you really sound like McKay."
"If Rodney were here, he'd be telling us exactly how unsanitary this is, along with all the diseases we're going to catch." The amusement faded from Sheppard's eyes. "I'm glad he and Teyla are safe on Atlantis."
"Me, too. They'll find us, you know."
"I'm counting on it." Sheppard wiped the knife with a few leaves then polished it on the leg of his trousers. "Ready?"
Ronon gave a short nod and held out his arm. Pain rippled down his arm when the blade pierced his skin, and radiated in staccato bursts as Sheppard dug for the device. Ronon groaned when it ripped free.
"Hurts, doesn't it?" Sheppard pounded on both transmitters with the hilt of the knife until they were shattered. "Let's fix that arm."
Once a bandage was tied neatly in place, they peered into the clearing. The air was thick with mist. A meadow of grasses more blue than green extended as far as Ronon could see.
He listened with all his senses, but didn't detect anything. He stepped into the clearing, Sheppard on his heels, and turned, scanning every reed, every tree, every bush. Nothing.
"Mountains." Sheppard jerked his head behind them.
Ronon followed his gaze. "Where?"
"On the other side of the trees. Keep watching."
Another gust of wind stirred the mist, and it broke for a quick second, long enough for Ronon to spot an impressive range of peaks that rose up behind the small forest they'd been hiding in. It was going to take hours to reach it then probably a couple of days to cross.
"You're sure you saw an energy signature on the other side?"
"I'm not sure of anything, really. My head was swimming, and Wraith isn't my forte. Remind me to add language lessons to my list of things to do when we get back." Sheppard sighed. "But as far as I could tell, there was an energy signature over there."
"It could be anything." Ronon hated not knowing where he was going. Too easy for Bad Things to happen.
"You got a better idea?"
Ronon was certain Atlantis would come for them, but waiting while the Wraith hunted you was suicide. "Let's go."
Teyla stood in front of the monitor, staring at the darkened signal, silently begging it to return. Minutes had ticked by, too many minutes to be interference or any of the other excuses she had made. Deep inside, she knew John and Ronon were alive and in a great deal of danger. Raised voices interrupted her musings, and she turned her attention to the meeting.
"—our people behind!" Evan growled.
"I understand that, Major," Mr. Woolsey replied. "Give me a viable option. The Daedalus and Apollo are in the Milky Way. As Doctor McKay pointed out, there are no stargates in that system. A jumper gating to the closest planet would take – how long, Doctor?"
"Six hundred forty-seven years," Rodney mumbled.
"Six hundred forty-seven years," Mr. Woolsey emphasized. "How do you propose we go after them?"
Evan glared at the far wall, his jaw tight. "I don't know."
Mr. Woolsey stood. "Then gentlemen, and lady," he nodded at Teyla, "when you have something, let me know. As of right now, Colonel Sheppard and Ronon are classified MIA." He stopped at the opening doors and faced them. "I'll inform the SGC. When the Daedalus returns, I'll have Colonel Caldwell check out that region first."
When the doors shut, Evan slammed his fists on the table. "We have to do something."
With a final glance at the display, Teyla took her seat. "I agree. Ideas?"
"Finish the work on a hyperdrive for the jumper?" Radek suggested.
Rodney rubbed his eyes, looking more exhausted than Teyla had seen him since Elizabeth died. "That would take too long, seeing as how we completely burned up the last one. We might as well wait for the Daedalus."
"Steal a Wraith cruiser?" Lorne shook his head. "Wouldn't work. Never mind."
"Why wouldn't it work?" Teyla asked.
"Besides the fact we don't know where to find one? You are the only person who can operate it and it doesn't have shields or a cloak. I can't imagine we'd be lucky enough to steal one from an affiliated hive. We'd be sitting ducks."
Any other time, she would be amused by that expression. "Of course, you are correct."
Rodney's eyes lost focus. "What about the Travelers? They have an Aurora class ship."
Teyla nodded. "How do we contact them?"
Rodney grimaced. "I don't know."
"Is there a way to track the ship?" Radek asked.
"No." Rodney propped his chin on his hand. "When Sheppard had us do some repairs after the Replicator battle, I searched for the homing beacon. The circuits had been fried by either age, radiation, or battle damage, and when I tried to replace them, Larrin had me tossed off the ship."
Teyla closed her eyes. She had hoped for another option. "We could contact Todd."
Rodney leaned forward to gape at her. "Todd? Are you— I mean, that's… that's…"
"Not a bad idea," Evan finished. "Go on."
"Colonel Sheppard gave him the preliminary data on the Hoffan virus when I was Michael's prisoner," Teyla said.
"And we gave him the rest when he came through with the information about Michael holding one of our people. Turned out to be Carson instead of Teyla, of course," Rodney interjected.
"It is my understanding from Jennifer that we learned much more from Carson, data that we did not have to give before. Carson has intimate knowledge of the modifications made to the original virus since he helped Michael make them." Teyla brushed her hair from her face. "Would Todd not find that useful?"
"Maybe," Rodney hedged.
Radek nudged his glasses higher on his nose. "Perhaps Todd would help out of respect for Colonel Sheppard."
"I don't know." Evan's forehead scrunched as he shook his head. "I think he has a certain kind of respect for the colonel, but, well…"
"Todd always has an agenda." Rodney pushed away from the table and began to pace. "He doesn't do anything that doesn't benefit him in some way. We can't trust him."
"I agree – he cannot be trusted." Teyla glanced at the monitor. "However, we have no other options if we wish to rescue Colonel Sheppard and Ronon. I fear that the wait for the Daedalus is too long."
Rodney swallowed thickly and met her eyes. "You think they're still alive?"
"Yes. We know the hive dropped out of hyperspace, most likely to cull a planet. You suggested the reason the signal disappeared and returned the first time was probably a culling beam." A smile tugged at her lips. "We know John is fond of stealing darts."
Evan grinned. "You think he flew them off the hive."
Rodney's eyes shifted and lost focus. "Hmmm… So, they escape the hive, Sheppard beams Ronon to the planet, and then…what? The tracking device stops working?"
"I would destroy it," Evan said. "It's a Wraith tracking device."
"Okay." Rodney nodded, relief flooding his face. "They could really be alive." He sat suddenly and blew out a breath. "And stranded on a planet with no stargate, in Wraith territory."
"Do you think they know?" Radek asked.
"It does not matter," Teyla said. "We know that they cannot escape."
"We're the only chance they have." Evan stood. "I'll speak to Woolsey."
Teyla rose and faced him. "I think we should go together. All of us."
As one, they left the conference room and walked to Mr. Woolsey's office. He stood at the window overlooking the gateroom atrium, watching the activity below, his face unguarded. Teyla felt a pang of sympathy at his lost expression. His tenure had been rife with adversity thus far, and his background suggested he was woefully inexperienced. He looked up when Evan cleared his throat.
"Major Lorne." Mr. Woolsey's ears turned red. "I didn't realize… What can I do for you?"
"We have an idea," Evan stated. "We want to ask Todd for help."
"Todd…" Mr. Woolsey's eyes flicked away then back. "The Wraith who once fed on Colonel Sheppard?"
Evan nodded. "We've allied with him a few times in the past year. We think we might be able to convince him to help us."
Mr. Woolsey listened thoughtfully as they laid out their plan, nodding, asking pertinent questions. He tugged the zipper on his jacket a little higher and asked, "Do you think this has a realistic chance of working?"
"Does it matter?" Rodney asked. "No, seriously, does it matter? What's the worst thing that could happen? Todd captures them? I think they stand a hell of a lot better chance dealing with him than with whoever is running that hive or that planet. If Todd won't go, all we've lost is time, which is very valuable, of course, but still—"
"Rodney." Teyla held his eye and gave a small smile.
"Yes, well," Rodney cleared his throat, "I don't think we have anything to lose by asking."
Mr. Woolsey leaned back and folded his arms over his chest. "I agree. Make the call. Let's see if he'll bite."
Sheppard's harsh breathing echoed loudly in the shrouded valley, but Ronon resisted the urge to offer him a hand, knowing the look and the answer he'd get. Hiking for hours through forests and meadows mostly hidden by a fog that wouldn't go away and keeping every sense alert had led to a weariness he hadn't experienced since he'd stopped running. He had no idea how Sheppard was still on his feet.
The terrain had steadily steepened over the course of the last hour, and when Sheppard stumbled over a rock and fell to his knee, Ronon was done.
"Time to make camp," he announced.
"No." Sheppard pushed to his feet. "We need to keep going."
"Because…" Sheppard glanced around then grinned sheepishly. "I'm sure I'll come up with a good reason if I think long enough."
Ronon scanned the area, searching for a defensible position. "We're at the base of the foothills. We need food, water, and rest in order to make that hike, and it'll be dark soon." He spotted an outcropping of blue-veined gray stone nearby. "Come on."
The rocky area blocked most of the wind, which was becoming noticeably cooler, and extended far enough to shelter them from the elements. Ronon cleared a spot for a fire while Sheppard gathered tinder and wood.
"You know how to start a fire?" Sheppard asked.
"Yeah, but it's been a while. Got used to my blaster. You?"
Sheppard nodded. "SERE training." He sighed. "But it's been years. Remind me to add a refresher course to orientation."
"You going to teach it?" Ronon rummaged through the wood until he found a softwood branch and a hardwood stick. He carved a groove in the branch wide enough for the stick to fit in.
"Are you kidding?" Sheppard tucked tinder at the bottom of the branch then began to stack kindling and firewood in the cleared area. "I was thinking of having Teyla do it."
Ronon scraped the stick down the groove in the branch as quickly as he could. Tendrils of wood curled away. He increased the speed and pressure. His shoulders burned and sweat popped out on his upper lip. He dashed his face against his sleeve but didn't stop. Another grueling minute passed then another. Then smoke. Sheppard blew gently on the smoldering wood until a tiny flame sparked. Sheppard held the tinder to it and both men held their breaths. When the tinder caught, Sheppard moved gingerly to the stacked wood and tucked the tinder around the kindling. Another minute later and the wood began to burn.
Ronon rolled his shoulders and wiped his face. "Teyla should definitely do it."
Sheppard laughed. "We could charge admission."
"We'd get rich." Ronon glanced at the crackling fire. "You didn't put the water scoop in there, did you?"
"Nope. It's on top of the overhang."
Ronon pushed to his feet. "I saw some tracks a little ways back. I'll find something to eat then some water."
"I can find water. I'm not an invalid."
"I know that, but you haven't had a chance to sleep off that sedative and you banged your head pretty hard during the crash."
Sheppard scowled at him. "I'll be fine. I'll keep the fire in my sights."
Ronon hesitated, wanting to argue and knowing it wouldn't do any good. "John—"
Sheppard's expression softened into a smile. "You've done everything else today, big guy. I think I can manage some water."
"Fine," Ronon relented.
They headed in opposite directions. The mist had already turned gray and was rapidly becoming black. Ronon hurried to the tracks he'd spotted – small paws that were hopefully attached to an equally small body, one small enough for his knife to fatally penetrate. In the hush of the woods, every rustle and crunch was magnified. The years had taught Ronon patience and how to stand perfectly still. He blended with the trees and waited. Minutes later, he was rewarded with a furry little creature with big ears, a pointed snout, and stubby legs. It stopped, sniffing the air. Ronon held his breath. When the animal turned away, Ronon let the knife slip through his fingers until he held the blade by the tip. He stepped and flung with one smooth motion. The knife buried into the creature's neck. It gasped weakly and stumbled sideways then crumpled and stilled.
Ronon made sure it was dead then pulled the knife out and carried it back to camp. Sheppard was already there, smiling smugly as he sipped from the scoop. Ronon quickly skinned the animal and put it on the spit Sheppard had made. He grabbed a handful of dirt to scrub the blood off.
"Hold your hands out." Sheppard held a bowl of water, a real bowl.
"Where'd you get this?" Ronon asked, rubbing his hands briskly as Sheppard poured water over them.
"Found it. There's a stream nearby. It was caught in some debris along with pottery shards and some shredded material that might have been a tent once."
"People?" Ronon trailed his fingertips over the bowl. Not much bigger than the cereal bowls they had on Atlantis but made of polished wood.
Sheppard shrugged. "I didn't see any evidence of settlers or a village, but I think the stream runs through the mountains. Could be people on the other side of the range. Maybe someone was camping in the mountains and lost some of their stuff."
Ronon fought the urge to hug the bowl. Not knowing where the gate was – when had he started thinking of it as the gate instead of the ring? – made him nervous. An escape route was a necessity. But something as simple as a bowl gave him hope that they weren't as trapped as he'd feared. "Good bowl," he said. "Too bad it's not a blaster."
Sheppard rolled his eyes and chuckled then hunched forward with a wince.
"What is it?" Ronon asked.
A familiar stubbornness made Sheppard's chin jut out, and his eyes shouted a denial. Then his shoulders sagged. "My chest hurts."
"Let me see." Ronon kept his face and tone neutral. Hiding injuries was stupid on the best day, and deadly in a situation like theirs, but that didn't mean Sheppard would accept being pitied or coddled.
Sheppard scooted closer to the fire, groaning as he pulled his shirt over his head. The skin from the edge of his collar bone to above his right hip was mottled red and purple.
"Lay down," Ronon said. "I'll try to not hurt you."
Nodding, Sheppard eased back. Ronon pressed gently on his ribs, breastbone, and collarbone. Sheppard hissed and grunted when he hit tender spots but didn't cry out like anything was broken.
"Your abdomen isn't rigid and I don't feel any breaks."
"I've had cracked ribs before. This doesn't feel like that." Sheppard tugged his shirt on then lay back down. "I think it's just a bruise."
Sheppard grinned wryly. "Thanks." He blinked sleepily. "Tell me about the hive."
Ronon's heart crawled into his throat. "What do you want to know?"
"You know," Sheppard shrugged a shoulder, "how long were we there? How'd you escape? Any intel we can use."
"Oh." Ronon leaned against a boulder and stretched his legs as he related the superficial information about the hive. After a few minutes, Sheppard's eyes closed and his chest rose and fell rhythmically. "You awake?" When Sheppard didn't answer, Ronon lost himself in the fire's flames and recounted his days as a worshiper.
John had drifted off, but a loud crack of a log in the fire woke him. Ronon's voice droned in the background, but John didn't bother to open his eyes, intending on going right back to sleep. Then what Ronon was saying sank in – daily worship, removing bodies from cocoons, ignoring the screams of the dying as the Wraith fed. Hell itself for Ronon, but he'd endured it to find him. This time, the pain in John's chest had nothing to do with the bruise.
John grunted and shifted, keeping his eyes closed and vowing to never let Ronon know he'd heard. He evened his breathing and concentrated on not reacting.
Cloth rustled against stone, and Ronon was silent for so long John thought he'd fallen asleep.
"It was worth it," Ronon murmured. "All of it. And I'd do it again."
"Ow!" Rodney rubbed the spot where Teyla had pinched his leg for the sixth time. "I bruise easily, you know."
"Yes, I know." Teyla arched a brow at him when he opened his mouth to protest. "Major Lorne is doing a fine job piloting the jumper. Please refrain from commenting on it further."
"I can't help if I talk when I'm nervous."
Teyla blew out a slow breath. "Try."
Rodney slouched on the bench and stared at his shoes. Sitting in the back was wrong. Lorne piloting was wrong. Irritating his one surviving… his one not-lost teammate was wrong.
He was afraid nothing would ever be right again.
After an agonizing day of waiting, Todd's message had come through twenty minutes ago. Rodney and Teyla had joined Lorne's team for a meeting on this backwater planet.
"Coming up on the coordinates," Lorne announced. "HUD shows a cruiser and eight life signs on the ground."
Rodney glanced at Teyla who looked grimly back at him. "At least he's here," he offered.
"Wraith are here," she replied.
"This was your idea."
Teyla nodded. "I still believe this to be the correct course of action, but that does not change the fact they are Wraith. They are not to be trusted."
The jumper settled on the opposite side of the clearing from the cruiser. A lone Wraith separated from the group and moved toward them. Lorne exited first, followed by Teyla and Rodney then the rest of the team.
"Gonzales, I want you, Sullivan, and Jaceovich to stay here," Lorne ordered.
"That's not a request. You keep an eye on the instruments in case any other ships show up. Sullivan, keep your rifle aimed on Todd. Jace, you watch the rest of them." Lorne gave a confident smile as he waved Teyla and Rodney forward. "We'll be right back."
Rodney forced himself to take slow, measured steps behind Teyla who stalked toward the Wraith like a tiger ready to feast.
Todd's eyes widened in surprise when they neared. "Where is John Sheppard?"
"That is why we are here," Teyla replied. "Colonel Sheppard and Ronon are stranded on a planet in Wraith territory."
"Indeed?" Todd looked amused. "I'm certain the Wraith on that planet are enjoying their company."
"We need your assistance to rescue them," Teyla said.
"Your message mentioned nothing of this." Todd tilted his head, eyes narrow. "Why should I help you?"
"Because it's what you and Sheppard do," Rodney answered. "Threaten each other a lot then do what the other asks."
"He wants to know what he's going to get out of this arrangement," Lorne interpreted with a glare that should have melted Todd where he stood.
Teyla bobbed her head in understanding. "We offer new information on the Hoffan virus." She took a step forward. "We have made many discoveries since our last encounter."
"I do not recall you being at our last encounter," Todd said. "I see the information I offered was useful."
"Actually, we didn't find Tey—"
"Rodney," Teyla murmured. "Please."
"Oh, right." He'd forgotten they weren't to discuss Michael or Carson. "Sorry."
Teyla nodded at him then turned to Todd. "I appreciate the help you gave. Our past alliances have benefited both of us, and you may require our assistance in the future. We offer the same agreement as before for Colonel Sheppard and Ronon."
"Ah, but it isn't quite the same," Todd said with a smile. "You needed information before. Now you want me to intervene."
"Is protection against the Hoffan virus not worth the risk?" Teyla asked.
Todd studied her thoughtfully. "What discoveries about this virus have you made?"
Teyla's eyes hardened. "We will tell you nothing if you do not agree to help. If you do agree, you will receive half now and half when Colonel Sheppard and Ronon are returned."
"In perfect health," Lorne added.
Todd laughed. "Of course. Where are they located?"
Rodney handed Todd a computer tablet that displayed a star chart. "In this sector." He zoomed in. "On this planet."
Todd hissed and bared his teeth at him. Rodney stepped back in surprise, and Lorne snapped his P-90 up.
"What trickery is this?" Todd demanded.
Rodney exchanged worried glances with Lorne and Teyla who looked as bewildered as he felt. "What are you talking about?"
Todd stared malevolently at them for a moment then straightened to his full height. "I cannot help you." He shoved the tablet into Rodney's hands. "Leave. Now."
Rodney fumbled with the device. "But—"
"Go!" Black leather swirled as Todd pivoted and strode to his cruiser.
Lorne grabbed Teyla's arm when she started after him. "We need to go."
Rodney gazed after the cruiser as it lifted off, not moving until Lorne's hand landed on his shoulder. "What just happened?"
"I don't know," Lorne said, "but he's leaving so there's no reason for us to stay. Let's go."
The flight across the planet to the gate was tense and silent. All Rodney could think about was the look on Todd's face when he saw the location of the planet. Rodney wasn't good interpreting human expressions on his best day so his ability to decipher Wraith ones was laughable, but if he had to guess, Todd had been scared.
What was on that planet?
"Come on, McKay," Lorne said.
Rodney glanced up in surprise. The jumper was empty except for them and Teyla. He hadn't realized they'd gone through the gate, much less landed in the jumper bay. He pulled his scattered thoughts together, grabbed his pack and the tablet Todd had refused, and followed Lorne and Teyla out.
Woolsey was waiting for them in the control room. "I take it things didn't go well."
"He appeared interested then changed his mind," Lorne answered.
Lorne shrugged. "No idea."
"There's something about that planet he didn't like," Rodney said.
Teyla nodded. "I agree. His reaction to the information was quite unexpected."
Woolsey seemed to deflate with each word. "That's…unfortunate."
Rodney's mouth dried up. "What's wrong?"
"During our status update with the SGC, General Landry informed me that the Daedalus has experienced some kind of mechanical failure on its way here. They are stranded between galaxies at the moment. The Apollo has been sent to assist them."
"Then have them send us the Odyssey," Rodney demanded.
"The Odyssey is not available right now. Something about a new threat—"
"I don't care," Rodney snapped. "Tell them we need them here."
Woolsey straightened, his jaw tightening. "I spoke at length—"
"Then speak some more!" Rodney paced a couple of steps and whirled. "We can't leave them out there!"
"I do not understand," Teyla said. "Surely you must have more ships."
Lorne shook his head. "We have three intergalactic ships."
"And we are building two more but they aren't complete," Woolsey added.
Horror filled Teyla's face. "Are you saying no one is coming to save John and Ronon?"
"They're coming," Woolsey said, "as soon as they can."
"Which will be weeks from now!" Rodney exclaimed. "They'll be dead by then. You have to do something."
"There's nothing I can do."
Rodney leaned into Woolsey's face. "You mean there's nothing you will do."
Woolsey didn't back away. "Let's continue this conversation in my office, Doctor."
"Now." Woolsey spun and marched across the catwalk.
Rodney stalked after him, rage and fear fueling his steps. He stepped inside the glass room, wishing it had a real door he could slam. Woolsey took two steps in then wheeled. Rodney stopped short, refusing to back up even when Woolsey's nose almost touched his.
"Don't ever speak to me like that in public again." Woolsey enunciated each word. "Do you understand?"
"You're worried about how you look in front of your staff?" Hot blood rushed to Rodney's face. "Seriously? Two of our people – two of your senior staff – have been captured and are now stranded in Wraith territory, and all you can think about is how you look in front of Chuck and what's-her-name?"
"What I'm thinking about is those people out there have to trust me when I ask them to risk their lives, and you undermining my authority in front of them isn't going to engender that."
"No, what isn't going to engender that is you leaving two of our people behind," Rodney retorted. "Sam would never have done that. Elizabeth either."
Woolsey lifted his chin. "Are you sure about that? I seem to recall Doctor Weir leaving Colonel Sheppard in Kolya's hands."
"That was different."
Rodney threw his hands wide. "We didn't know where he was! We were searching like crazy trying to find him."
"Yet she could have saved him by giving over Ladon Radim."
"We don't negotiate with terrorists," Rodney mumbled.
Woolsey nodded. "And we don't send young Marines on suicide missions. You know that sending anyone into Wraith territory would be suicide, and Colonel Sheppard would be the first to point that out. The only option is to wait until the Daedalus or the Apollo gets here." He held up a hand. "Believe me, I tried everything I could. I can't control what the SGC does with its ships."
Rodney dropped into a chair. "We can't leave them out there. They'll be counting on us to find them."
"I know that, Doctor." Woolsey rounded his desk and took a seat. "I'm not giving up. Continue to monitor the planet and the tracking device's frequency. If you or anyone else comes up with a viable rescue plan, I'll approve it. I have no intention of losing Ronon or Colonel Sheppard on my watch." He propped his elbows on his desk and leaned forward. "Find a way to get them."
Rodney pushed himself from the chair with a nod. His mind whirred as he crossed to Operations where Lorne and Teyla were waiting.
"Well?" Lorne prompted.
"He's looking for a plan that doesn't get anyone killed."
Lorne huffed. "I'm not sure we could make a plan to serve breakfast that didn't involve some kind of risk. What now?"
Rodney leaned against the railing, arms folded. "I'm going to go over every speck of information we have about that planet. I want to know what spooked Todd."
"I will speak with my contacts again," Teyla said. "Perhaps we have been looking in the wrong place."
"What do you mean?" Lorne asked.
"Since the planet is in Wraith territory and without an Ancestral Ring, most humans would not know about it," Teyla replied.
"Of course," Lorne said as understanding flooded his face. "But Wraith worshipers might."
Teyla nodded. "Few let their allegiances be known, but there are always rumors. Someone will know where to find them."
"We already know where they are." Rodney rubbed his temples, willing away the mounting headache. "What will we get from the worshipers?"
"We do not know until we ask," Teyla stated. "Perhaps they know what is on the planet."
"You get a location on some worshipers, and my team will be ready to extract them." Lorne scrubbed a hand over his face. "If you'll excuse me, I've got a bunch of disappointed soldiers to talk to."
Lorne trudged toward the transporter, and Rodney headed to his lab. He didn't realize Teyla was with him until she materialized at his elbow when he slumped over his worktable, staring morosely at his laptop.
He didn't look up. "I should have gone with them, Teyla. They asked, and I laughed at them."
"You could not have known what would happen."
"Are you kidding?" Rodney snorted. "It's Sheppard and Ronon. Something bad always happens. I should've thought of that. They probably needed me to get them out, and I wasn't there."
Teyla squeezed his hand lightly. "If you had been, we would be searching for you as well."
"You don't know that. Maybe I could have…"
"What? Stopped a culling by yourself?" Teyla tugged at his chin until he faced her. "You know you could not have done so. You would have been captured or killed in the culling. John and Ronon are depending on us to find them. We are more likely to do so with you here."
"What if it's too late?" Rodney whispered. "What if they're already dead?"
"Do not say such things."
"Teyla, they've been missing for days, and the tracking device has stopped working."
"I was missing for weeks, and yet you found me."
Rodney shook his head. "After Sheppard did a little time traveling. I don't think that's going to happen again."
"Then something else will." Teyla gripped his shoulders. "We will find them."
"And if we don't?"
Teyla glanced away. "Rodney, please."
"I won't do this again," he said. "Be on a team. I can't—" He closed his eyes and cleared his throat. "I can't train another team leader. I'll work here in my lab." He looked up at her then at his monitor, pretending to not see the tears in her eyes.
"I do not know what I would do," Teyla murmured. "My son and my people need me, but I still feel I can do more for them by staying here and fighting the Wraith."
"It wouldn't ever be the same."
"I know." She shook herself and pulled away from him. "But it will not matter because John and Ronon will be home soon. We must continue to believe that."
"For how long?"
"For as long as it takes."
As a rule, John didn't hate planets. He'd lived in Afghanistan and Antarctica, and so far, nothing in Pegasus had been any hotter or colder. There had certainly been challenges on many of the planets they'd visited – supervolcanoes, Wraith, bugs, dinosaurs, floods, droughts, quakes, Kolya and the rest of those lunatic Genii, telepathic whales, evil crystals, Replicators, hallucinogenic flowers. But he'd never hated a planet simply for existing. Until now.
He officially hated this planet.
The ever-present mist not only brought visibility down to a few feet, it also irritated his lungs; every cough reminded him of his bruised chest and abused back. They'd been hiking for hours, and the burn in his quads told him exactly how steep the terrain was. The higher they went, the thicker the underbrush became, scratching his feet and ankles around the straps of his sandals as he stumbled after Ronon. Sweat trickled down his face and back, cooling instantly in the frigid wind.
Small chunks of ice floated in the stream they were following through the mountains. Trees that looked like bizarre hybrids of blue spruce and sequoia stretched in every direction, their branches whipping at John's face and arms. He ducked under a thick limb and overlooked the boulder hiding in the underbrush. He banged his shin on it and went sprawling, cursing in every language he knew and inventing a few words along the way.
Ronon crouched next to him. "You okay?"
"Fine." John pushed to his knees with a wince. "I hate this place."
"Me, too." Ronon wrapped a hand around John's bicep and pulled him to his feet. "Ready to stop for the night?"
John squinted at the sky, trying to judge the amount of sunlight left. "We should—" A fat snowflake landed on his nose. "—stop. Definitely."
Amusement lit Ronon's eyes, but he had the sense to not laugh. "This way."
Ronon led John to a thick grove of trees. They spent the next hour gathering branches covered in soft needles for shelter and beds. The lean-to wasn't the most impressive structure John had ever seen, but it was warm and dry. While Ronon headed out to hunt dinner, John cleared brush from the ground until he had an area of bare dirt for a fire. The smattering of snow grew to a solid covering by the time he'd ringed the spot with rocks and stacked the wood. Lighting the fire took an embarrassing amount of time, and he was soaked with sweat when Ronon returned with dinner.
"I'll get some water," John offered.
Ronon barely spared him a glance as he skinned the animal. "Okay."
John grabbed the bowl and scoop then hurried to the stream, slapping the scoop against the thin sheet of ice until he reached the flowing water underneath. Snow blanketed the forest, and a hush he hadn't experienced since childhood fell. He closed his eyes as a sense of peace washed over him until the faint aroma of cooking meat beckoned, and he carefully made his way back to camp with the water. Since the containers were made of wood, he couldn't warm them over the fire so he set them near the rocks, bracing them with sticks and pebbles to keep them from overturning.
His mouth watered when the fire crackled and hissed as the juices dripped into it. "God, I'm hungry."
Ronon nodded. "Me, too."
John huddled near the fire, rubbing his chest to get warm. His sweat-and-snow-soaked clothing leached every bit of warmth from him, and the boughs lining the shelter looked soft and inviting. Gritting his teeth against the cold, he pulled his shirt off and laid it by the fire then burrowed under a few branches of blue and purple needles.
Ronon poked at the fire, added another log, and checked the meat. With a nod, he sliced a piece and handed it to John. "Careful. It's hot."
John wrapped freezing fingers around it with a sigh. "Thanks."
They ate in silence, devouring the small meal in record time. Warmth seeped into John bit by bit, and although he was far from full, drowsiness began to overtake him. He licked his fingers clean, drank the tepid water then splashed a few drops on his hands and face and curled on his side, watching as Ronon put his shirt by John's and stoked the fire again.
Ronon stared into the blaze, seemingly mesmerized by the flames. The flickering light made shadows dance over his face, and John wondered what was going on behind Ronon's dark eyes.
"Was this what it was like?" John asked. "When you were running."
Ronon's gaze flicked to him then back to the fire. "Yes and no." He was quiet for some time, his eyes losing focus. "I knew where I was and how to get to the stargate." Sighing heavily, he lifted his head and looked out into the night. "I spent a lot of time on worlds like this. Couldn't get too near people so I picked planets known to be uninhabited."
John chuckled as a vague memory surfaced. "Most planets are uninhabited for a reason."
"Yeah." Ronon picked up the bowl. "Guess this one isn't."
"I hope that's a good thing." Sleep tugged at John, and he squirmed until he was almost comfortable. "Glad I don't have to do this alone."
"I didn't mean for this to happen," Ronon whispered.
John rubbed his nose and blinked blearily at Ronon. "What?"
Ronon twisted to face him. "This," he said, waving a hand, "is my fault. If I hadn't—"
"Stop it right now." John sat up, bracing his arms behind him. "You didn't do this. The Wraith did."
"No." John shook his head vehemently. "No buts."
Ronon slammed clenched fists against his thighs. "You don't get it! I dragged you out here to prove myself; I wanted to show you I could handle the pressure."
"First of all, you didn't drag me anywhere. I chose to come." John crawled forward until he was in Ronon's line of sight. "Second, I never doubted you could handle the pressure."
Ronon turned his face away. "On the hive…"
John's heart sank. "I was pumped full of drugs, buddy. My brain couldn't make sense of what my eyes were seeing."
"I won't let them turn me again," Ronon swore. "I'll die first."
"Look at me." John waited silently until Ronon's eyes met his. "No one blames you. No one."
"I was weak," Ronon spat. "I knew what they were doing, and I fought, but then it got all twisted in my head, and— and then I…" He hung his head, his face scarlet. "I told them that you could be turned. I wanted them to feed…"
Ronon watching impassively as the Wraith reached to feed on John had been one of the most terrifying minutes of John's life. In his darkest nightmares, Tyre didn't intervene and Ronon's laughter echoed as the Wraith fed.
John shook the images away. "You're human, you know." He gripped Ronon's shoulder, feeling the corded muscles tremble. "It could happen to any of us. What do you think would have happened if Kolya had had any idea Todd could do something like that?"
Ronon blanched. "John—"
"It's true." John's hand strayed unconsciously to the spot on his chest that ached every time he saw Todd. "You know what kept me going?" He swallowed his discomfort and plowed on, for Ronon's sake. "You. I knew you and Rodney and Teyla were coming for me. But I know how I felt when Todd was feeding and when he restored my life. If he'd done that over and over again…"
"Yes, Ronon. I would have. I would've caved," John said quietly. "I would have held on as long as I could, but eventually my mind and body would have been just as abused as yours." He held Ronon's gaze. "Would you have blamed me?"
Ronon's jaw tightened, but he didn't look away. "No."
"Then stop blaming yourself. Let it go."
Ronon swallowed thickly and gave a slow nod. John squeezed his shoulder one more time before crawling back to his spot and burying himself under the branches. Sleep claimed him quickly.
An hour later a sharp kick in the knee jerked John back to wakefulness. He bolted upright, pulse racing, expecting to be surrounded by Wraith. Instead the glowing embers showed nothing but snowfall outside. A moan and a crunch of needles caught his attention. John crawled toward the sounds, not surprised to see Ronon's eyes roll rapidly under his lids and his fingers and legs twitch.
John hesitated, not wanting his friend to feel any more exposed than he already did, but when Ronon's face twisted in pain and he cried out, John couldn't take any more.
"Ronon," John called. He had learned the hard way a few years earlier to never touch Ronon while he was sleeping. "Wake up."
Ronon grunted and flung an arm wide, barely missing the fire.
John grabbed a branch and poked his friend in the arm. "Ronon!"
Ronon's breath hitched as he writhed.
"Damn it." John shuffled over and shook Ronon hard, knowing what was coming. "Wake up!"
A fist smashed into John's face before Ronon's eyes opened fully. John fell on his back, clutching at what was going to be one hell of a shiner. Ronon latched onto John's throat with both hands, his bulkier mass pinning John to the ground. John went perfectly still, praying that Ronon would come to his senses before he snapped his neck.
"Sheppard?" Ronon jerked his hands away and scrambled off. "What…"
John rolled on his side, coughing as he rubbed his throat. "Night…mare," he gasped.
Ronon swiped a hand over his face. "Sorry. You okay?"
"Oh, just peachy." John pushed himself up, climbed back onto his pallet, and lay down with a dramatic sigh. "But when we get back, no sparring for a month."
Ronon's brows arched and a smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. "A week."
"McKay's catching up to you."
John snorted as he snuggled under the branches. "Two weeks."
"Done." Ronon patted John's ankle when he passed. "I'll let Teyla know our time in the gym will be available."
John sat up and glared at him. "She'll want to extend our sessions."
Ronon's toothy grin gleamed in the firelight.
Ronon chuckled as he stirred the fire and added more wood then lay down.
Ronon's laughter echoed in the night.
John pushed up on his elbows and squinted in the smoke-filled shelter. "What is that smell?"
"Brains," Ronon announced.
"Been tanning the hides so you'd have something to cover your feet."
John glanced at his sandals. "Oh. Good thinking, buddy. Thanks." He rounded his back and stretched his arms over his head. "But what do brains have to do with that?"
"Part of the process. You remove the brains then—"
"You know, let's skip the rest of that explanation since I'd like to keep down the little dinner I had."
Ronon snorted and mumbled something that was certainly a dig at John's manliness. A moment later, bitterly cold air blew in and the smoke began to dissipate as Ronon waved a few branches in the lean-to's opening. John gave a jaw-cracking yawn and peered out. Snow covered everything in sight, and he blinked in surprise when a brilliant beam of sunlight made the crystals sparkle for an instant.
"Sun's out?" he asked.
Ronon shrugged a shoulder. "Sorta. It's burning a few patches in the mist, but still not much visibility."
They melted some snow to drink then put out the fire. The two hides looked ridiculous wrapped around John's feet and stuffed in his sandals, but they were incredibly warm. John pushed away thoughts of brains as he wriggled his toes in the furry socks. He and Ronon tore down their shelter and continued their trek through the mountains. The hollow feeling in John's middle grew until his empty stomach rumbled loudly. Ronon's rumbled back in response.
"Right now, I'm wishing I had a few of those bars McKay has stashed everywhere," John said. "Or some MREs."
"I'd take some of Teyla's tuttleroot soup."
John laughed. "I'm not sure I'm that desperate yet."
"Could be worse." Ronon pushed a branch up for John to duck under. "Could be that stuff Laurentis had."
"Vegemite is definitely an acquired taste," John agreed. "Like haggis."
Ronon's nose wrinkled. "What Beckett had for his birthday?"
"Yep." John tilted his head up, searching the mountainside for the easiest path. "What do you think?"
Ronon tested a couple of handholds. "I've climbed worse."
"Me, too, but usually with rope and boots." At Ronon's eyeroll, John sighed. "Fine. Lead the way, Grizzly Adams."
A pile of snow landed on John's head. "I've seen that show," Ronon announced.
John squeezed his fingers in the hold and hauled himself up. "When?"
"Last year when you and McKay were on those diplomatic missions." Ronon swung sideways and landed on a shelf of rock. "Teyla made me watch them with her. She likes the animals."
"Right." John grabbed Ronon's arm and let the man pull him to the overhang. "Teyla likes the animals."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
John braced his hands on his knees and sucked in as much of the thin air as he could. "It means you've almost worn out the DVD of Homeward Bound."
Ronon nodded. "Good movie. I—" Dreadlocks flew as he whipped his head around, staring into the mist-shrouded sky.
"What is it?" John whispered.
Seconds later, the distinctive whine of darts vibrated overhead. John crouched instinctively, making himself as small as possible and covering his head even while chiding himself for being an idiot since the Wraith used sensors to find humans, not eyes. Ducking couldn't save them, not in the open like they were, but no culling beams gobbled them up, and the drone of engines eventually faded.
John straightened and met Ronon's apprehensive gaze. "How many?"
"Don't know. At least eight, maybe more."
"We're too exposed here. We need to get back to the forest."
Ronon glanced up then down. "We're closer to the top than the forest."
"You want to take our chances on the other side?"
"There's nothing for us on this side."
"True. Let's go."
Experience had taught John how to judge a mountain. This one was an easy climb, and they were no more than an hour from the top. They crested the ridge and started the steep descent down the other side. They were nearing the tree line when the mist broke for a moment.
"Oh, God," John breathed.
Several cruisers had landed near a series of structures that were too far away for John to see clearly. Darts swarmed above the settlement, but the mist returned before John determined whether they were culling or not.
"We need to get to cover," Ronon said.
They kept low to the ground as they dashed toward the pristine forest. Moss-covered rock gave way to leafy ferns and tangled vines as they made their way silently to the heart of the woods. After an hour or so, Ronon paused and cocked his head to the side, his eyes narrowing in concentration.
"This way," Ronon whispered.
They clambered up a hill, and John sighed in relief as a small brook bubbled over stones and tree roots. They skidded down to the bank and dropped to their knees, gulping handfuls of icy water.
Thirst slaked for the moment, John sat back and tilted his head skyward. "What do you think? A culling?"
Ronon frowned and shook his head. "I couldn't hear any beams."
"Then what? Some kind of worshiper world?"
"I don't know. Maybe." Ronon pushed to his feet. "I didn't see a gate."
"Me either," John admitted. "Though it might be on the other side of those buildings."
"Yeah." Ronon peered up at the forest canopy. "It'll be dark in a couple of hours. We need to make camp." He grinned wryly as John's stomach growled. "No fire."
"I figured that." John stood and stretched. "I'll see if I can find some berries or something while you make the shelter."
"You know what to look for?"
Ronon nodded. "I recognize most of the plants here."
"Well, go find me some dinner then. I'm starving."
Ronon chuckled and jogged away. John chose a spot between two large trees with low-hanging branches to build a lean-to. He was almost finished when Ronon strolled back, holding dinner in the hem of his shirt. He dumped the bounty in the bowl and scoop to take to the brook to wash. When he returned, John plopped down on a pile of soft-needled branches, feeling every bruise and laceration he'd incurred since they left Atlantis. His knee creaked and he groaned as his spine realigned. Ronon's eyes danced as he handed John the scoop filled with his half of dinner.
"Don't say it," John warned, poking through the orange berries and octopus shaped root-thing.
"What?" Ronon raised his brows and widened his eyes.
John snorted. "Oh, please. Don't even try to play innocent with me. You suck at it." He held up the root-thing. "What is this?"
"What does it taste like?"
John glared at him. "You're a riot."
"Just eat it."
John sniffed at it then broke off a piece and chewed. "Ew. It tastes worse than it looks."
"Sticks to your ribs, though. And you're beginning to sound like McKay again."
"Huh, you're right. Sorry."
John's stomach twisted painfully, demanding to be filled. After a little trial and error, he found that four berries mostly masked the bitter root. They finished up and had settled in the shelter by the time twilight had darkened into the purple of night. Something on the edge of John's consciousness kept him from falling deeply asleep so he dozed fitfully until Ronon stirred. They breakfasted on berries and some leafy plant that Ronon swore was a type of lettuce.
"What's the plan?" Ronon asked.
"Keep looking for the gate."
"What if there isn't a gate? Those buildings might be the energy signature you picked up."
John nodded. "I thought of that, but I don't know that we have any other options. We need to at least figure out what the Wraith are up to. If nothing else, maybe we can steal a dart."
They scrubbed camp and started following the brook, but it disappeared from sight after a half-mile, and Ronon couldn't find it again. Left with only Ronon's sense of direction, which was uncanny, they made their way down the mountain, staying deep in the forest. A few hours later, the terrain began to level out. The mist had lightened the closer to the valley floor they got, and when the trees thinned, Ronon moved slower and stealthier. John followed in his steps, hiding behind tree trunks and large shrubs until they reached the edge of the woods. Ronon and John dropped to their bellies and crawled into the tall grasses.
John raised his head, his eyes widening in dismay. Hundreds of Wraith moved about in the half-circle clearing in front of a series of buildings. Mostly masked drones, some were working on the three dozen or so darts there, and others were unloading from four cruisers the pods Ronon and John had seen on the hive. The buildings were domed, each large enough to hold a football field inside, and seemed to be made of the same organic material as a hive. Ronon and John exchanged a look then crabbed their way back into the forest. They scurried to a clump of trees and dropped into the underbrush.
John hung his head. "We're in a shitload of trouble."
"Noticed that," Ronon replied. "Never seen buildings like that."
"They look Wraith to you?"
John grimaced and slammed a fist into the dirt. "Of all the planets… We have to land on a goddamn Wraith world."
"What do you want to do?"
"Wake up from this nightmare." John blew out a breath. "Sorry. Um, well, I think we need to wait until those cruisers leave then see who's left. Maybe we can convince one of the Wraith to talk. No, wait, stupid idea. They're telepathic. Uh…"
"And we don't know how long those cruisers will be here."
"What do you suggest?"
Ronon shot him a flat look. "Take out as many as we can."
"With what? A knife and a bowl? I'd stand a better chance of stealing a dart."
"But you wouldn't get far. That hive is still up there, you know."
John nodded. "I know. I guess I could shoot at the cruisers. Might be able to take one out before they catch me."
"That's if you don't get caught stealing the dart."
"You have another option?"
Ronon shook his head. "Not yet. I'll think of something."
"Well, in the meantime, let's see if those cruisers leave. Atlantis will come."
"How long you want to wait?"
John shrugged. "A day or two. They've already been here a couple of days. Surely they can't have much more to offload."
Ronon huffed a bitter laugh as he stood and pulled John to his feet. "Maybe this is a vacation spot."
"Don't even think such things."
"Sorry. Forgot who I was talking to."
John arched a brow at him as they walked toward the mountain. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"Weir explained to me about that glass half-empty/half-full thing. You're a half-full type."
"And you're not? A guy who ran for seven years?"
Ronon slapped a branch away. "That wasn't optimism. It was hate."
"So you're a glass half-empty type." John didn't believe it for a minute.
"Nope. I'm more of a smash the glass and drink out of the bottle type."
John rolled his eyes. "Stop spending so much time around Rodney."
Ronon grinned. "Now, he's a real half-empty guy."
The hairs on the back of John's neck stood on end. He glanced around, pushing down panic as he tried to locate what disturbed him.
"What's wrong?" Ronon asked.
John turned slowly in a circle, but couldn't find anything amiss. "Nothing. Sorry. What were you saying?"
"McKay told me the other day—"
Ronon froze. "What?"
John shut his eyes, straining to hear over the blood rushing in his ears. He knew that sound. It was at the heart of his worst nightmares, a chittering click that turned his brain to mush.
John jumped at the closeness of Ronon's voice. "Can you hear them?"
Ronon's face scrunched, but he didn't ask any questions as he tilted his head to listen. His eyes widened. "Is that—"
"Iratus bugs," John whispered. "As if we weren't in enough trouble. I should have known when we saw all those Wraith. We've been traipsing through a forest filled with Iratus bugs."
"We haven't seen any signs…" Ronon trailed off as they ducked around a tree. "Damn."
John's chest heaved at the sight of the web strung between two trees. His mouth worked, but no words came out.
"Back up," Ronon muttered. "Slowly."
Fear, brain-numbing and muscle-freezing, mixed with rage and hate took over John's body for a minute. His entire world narrowed to the bug chittering in the center of the web.
"John, we need to go."
He nodded jerkily but didn't move until Ronon planted a hand in the center of his chest and pushed. John stumbled back a step then turned and strode away, digging his nails in the palms of his hands to keep himself from running. They made their way carefully up the mountain through the woods until they reached a cleft in a spot bare of vegetation. Ronon gathered a few branches to sleep on, checking them thoroughly for any unwelcome visitors, then spread them out.
"I'll take first watch," Ronon offered.
John scrubbed his hands over his face. "Don't bother. I won't be going to sleep."
Ronon nodded in understanding and lay down. John pressed his back into the rock and wrapped his arms around his knees, thinking once again how much he hated this planet.
Ronon ducked under a limb and sidestepped the steaming pile of guano it hid. He balanced the bundle of firewood in one arm as he stooped to check for tracks then looked up. Beady red eyes stared back at him from a face of crinkled brown leather. The creature – some kind of large rodent – squeaked at him and lashed its barbed tail in warning before it scampered further up the tree. Ronon sighed and continued his trek back to camp.
The past three days had been some of the longest of his life. He'd certainly had days that seemed unending during his running years, but he'd been alone then, without someone else to worry about. He and Sheppard had hidden themselves as best they could on that bare shelf of rock, huddling together under the needled branches against the cold. Sheppard refused to step foot inside a cave or back in that forest. Ronon understood; what Sheppard's conscious mind wouldn't share, his subconscious had over the years in the form of brutal nightmares.
Sheppard had barely slept for the first three days after they spotted the web, finally passing out from exhaustion this morning just before dawn. Ronon waited until he was sure his friend was dead to the world then snuck away to hunt breakfast. The two scrawny animals he'd found would barely make a snack but at least they would take the edge off the hunger that gnawed his insides. When they got back to Atlantis, he was going straight to the mess hall and he wasn't leaving. Ever.
He'd filled both water containers and had taken them and his kill to camp. Now that he had wood, he could make a spit and a fire, confident the smoke would be lost in the heavy morning mist. When he reached the outcropping, Sheppard was curled into a tight ball and shivering. Ronon covered him with the branches strewn around the site, careful to keep them away from his neck, then built a fire and cleaned the animals.
As he prepared the meal, Ronon's hands shook from too little food, too little sleep, and too much adrenaline. His body hummed with it, every sense stretched, seeking sounds of Wraith or Iratus bugs, and he had no way to release it. He needed to run, to yell, to beat something until he collapsed. Three days of sitting on the same spot of ground was making him crazy, and he was afraid he would take it out on Sheppard. The knife caught then slipped as he tried to work it free, and it flew from his fingers. He clenched his fists and bit back a shout, blowing one frustrated breath after another through gritted teeth. Closing his eyes, he sought his center as Teyla had taught him, but it was burning hot with a fury that never went away. He could temper it, did most of the time, but sometimes he needed to let it flame.
Not now, though. Ronon wrestled with the rage, shoving it back down with the promise it could blaze freely when Sheppard was safe. He retrieved his knife and focused, quickly finishing the spit and setting the meat to cook. He sloshed a little water on his hands then dried them with the needles from a tree limb. Behind him, Sheppard tossed fitfully, scratching at his neck and mumbling too low to be understood. Ronon bowed his head; he'd hoped Sheppard would get a little more sleep before the nightmares started.
The fire crackled, Sheppard moaned, and beneath it all…darts, whining in the distance.
Ronon froze, concentrating. Definitely darts, lots of them, and something else. Hope soared as he pulled himself up to a crouch. The cruisers were leaving.
"Sheppard," he hissed, shaking the man's knee, "wake up."
Sheppard bolted upright with a strangled cry, his eyes wild, unfocused, and filled with fury. Ronon caught him and covered his mouth with a hand. Sheppard struggled in his grip until their gazes locked. Taut muscles relaxed a bit.
"Sorry," Sheppard mumbled.
"It's fine." Ronon jerked his chin toward the sky. "Wraith are leaving."
Sheppard's eyes went wide as he tilted his face up. "I can't hear them."
"Almost gone now."
"All of them?"
Ronon shrugged. "Only one way to find out."
They made quick work of the meal, and Ronon doused the fire while Sheppard splashed icy water on his face, raked his fingers through his hair and rubbed bloodshot eyes. Exhaustion and fear had dug deep grooves around his eyes and mouth, and Ronon had to shake away the mental comparison with his memory of Sheppard after Todd had fed on him.
The trip back to the settlement was slower than the first time. Sheppard flinched at every chirp and rustle, finally relaxing when they reached the perimeter of the forest and crawled into the meadow.
Ronon pushed up until he could see over the top of the rippling grasses. He looked back to Sheppard and grinned. "All the ships are gone."
"Good." Sheppard hunched next to him, his eyes sweeping the area. "Any movement?"
"Haven't seen any."
"Let's go see what they've been doing."
Ronon nodded and crept toward the closest building. He hesitated at the edge of the meadow, stretching every sense for an indication of Wraith. The area between the grasses and the buildings had no cover at all, the ground bare and somewhat scorched from the exhaust of darts and cruisers. When he detected nothing, he dashed forward in a half-crouch with Sheppard on his heels. He flattened himself against the side of the building, listening with every fiber of his being.
Ronon pressed a hand against the building, feeling the spongy Wraith covering squish under his fingers. Suppressing a shudder, he glanced at Sheppard who was scrutinizing the structure. It towered over them and had no visible openings. Sheppard's face puckered in a frown as he explored the wall thoroughly with his fingers and eyes. His hand hit a depression and a portion of the wall split and curled inward.
Sheppard stepped inside cautiously and Ronon followed, squinting into the darkness. The putrid stench of Wraith hung heavy in the cool, damp air and grew stronger as they slid along the wall. The corridor stretched as far as Ronon could see with hallways branching in every direction.
Sheppard ducked into the first room they found and Ronon hurried in behind him. The space was small and filled with electronics that pulsed steadily.
"Hmmm." Sheppard touched a bank of consoles lightly. "Definitely going to have to take those Wraith lessons."
Ronon peered at the squiggles, trying to match any of them to the few words he'd learned while serving on the hive. "This one says temperature. That one is security…override, maybe?" He turned to the next set. "I think this is some kind of countdown."
"To what?" Sheppard leaned over his shoulder.
"Come on," Sheppard said. "Let's see what else is here."
They slipped into the main corridor and crept to the next room.
"Whoa," Sheppard breathed.
Row after row of the pods they'd seen on the hive filled an area the size of Atlantis' gateroom. They walked between the sacs of black and purple, each about the size of the training dummy torso in the gym.
"What do you think is in them?" Sheppard asked.
"You know what's in them. They're too similar to the pods holding Michael's creatures to be anything other than egg sacs."
Sheppard grunted then reached for one and ripped it open. Viscous purple slime spilled out along with an egg twice the size of the football the Earthers were so fond of tossing around. Sheppard caught it out of reflex, grimacing in disgust as the purple gunk smeared over his shirt and squished between his fingers. He stared at the egg for a moment, his face twisting with rage, then hurled it to the ground. The shell shattered, and thick pink fluid went everywhere. Sheppard tore open the next pod with a garbled shout and smashed another. Ronon watched, fascinated at a version of his friend he rarely saw – infuriated and out of control. Sheppard shoved past the empty pod and reached for another.
"Wait." Ronon grabbed his arm. "It will take us days to destroy all these eggs. If we're going to do that, we need to do it all at once, not one at a time."
Sheppard heaved another egg, his eyes flat and cold as it smacked into a wall and dribbled to the floor in a pink smear. He took a deep breath and slowly turned his gaze to Ronon. "You're right." His eyes flicked back to the way they came. "Go find some kind of accelerant, anything that will burn hot."
"What are you going to do?"
"Figure out how to shut down the sprinkler system."
They hustled toward the entrance. Sheppard ducked into the control room, and Ronon slipped outside, pausing to sniff the air when a faint, acrid odor teased him. He considered everything he'd learned and seen on the hive, and a vague memory surfaced – Menear returning to quarters covered in an oily orange substance. He'd been doing maintenance on a dart just like the Wraith had been doing the other day in the clearing. With a grin, Ronon skulked to the scorched area, his eyes tracking every rut and crushed blade of grass, searching for traces of any used fuels or lubricants and spotting a trail of dark splotches between buildings. Adrenaline flooded his veins when he followed the path and found dozens of waste containers that were typically jettisoned before the Wraith entered hyperspace.
Ronon grabbed as many as he could carry and raced back inside, dribbling the orange liquid down the corridors and dousing the first few pods in each room. Sheppard joined him, and half an hour later they had laced every room in the building.
"Now what?" Ronon asked.
Sheppard didn't answer. He stormed into the control room and ripped a power conduit from the wall. It sparked and hissed as it hit the ground. Sheppard sloshed the last bit of fluid on the panels he'd shattered and on the floor. The puddle spread toward the live conduit.
Ronon tugged Sheppard's arm. "Let's go!"
They dashed outside and into the next building to find an almost identical hallway lined with rooms.
"Damn," Sheppard swore. "Another hatchery?"
Ronon opened a door and sucked in a breath. "Not exactly."
Small, transparent cocoons formed a circle in the center of the room, each one containing a sleeping infant Wraith.
Sheppard stepped in beside him. "Oh, my God. What is this place?"
"Wraith homeworld?" Ronon guessed. "The pods they were offloading…"
Sheppard nodded. "The queen's eggs. I mean, I knew some Wraith were born as children after our run-in with Ellia, and we've never seen any kids on a hive. They had to be raised somewhere, but I hadn't considered where." He leaned forward and peered into the cocoon. "They look almost human."
Ronon joined him. Other than facial slits and gray skin, the infant could be human. No hair, no markings. Tiny vines snaked from the cocoon to its veins and abdomen, and Ronon blinked in recognition. The same technology was used on hives to keep humans alive until the Wraith were ready to feed.
"What should we—" Ronon wheeled as the pounding of footfalls reached his ears. "Hide," he hissed.
Sheppard leaped behind a cocoon and Ronon pressed himself into a corner, but the humans sprinting past didn't give the room a second glance. Their shouts were almost incoherent though the word "fire" hung in the air.
Ronon grinned in satisfaction, imagining how many people would be saved now that those Wraith would never hatch.
"Were those folks slaves?" Sheppard asked.
"Worshipers," Ronon answered. "Must be the caretakers here."
Sheppard's brows shot up. "Humans raising Wraith. Now I've heard it all." He shook his head. "Wonder where they've been. We've been roaming around without seeing anybody."
Ronon smiled grimly. "Wraith are arrogant. It's like on the hive ship – very little security. They don't think they have anything to worry about. We should grab one of the worshipers, convince her to tell us where the gate is."
"Not a bad idea." Sheppard crept forward and peered out the door. "Come on."
They sneaked to the entrance and into the space between buildings, waiting for someone to separate from the group battling the blaze and come near. Suddenly the door to a building directly opposite them burst open, and Sheppard gasped when small children spilled into the clearing.
"What the hell? Did the recess bell ring?"
Shock crashed through Ronon. They were laughing. The Wraith young – gray skin, facial slits, white hair to their shoulders – were laughing as they tumbled into each other and scampered in every direction. Ronon's control over his fury began to unravel. How many human children had been orphaned, had died, while Wraith offspring had lived and flourished in perfect safety?
Ronon quivered with rage as he took a step forward, but a hand on his arm stopped him before he could take another.
"We need to get out of here," Sheppard whispered. "If one of those kids spots us, we're toast."
Red haze filled Ronon's vision. He jerked from Sheppard's grip and took another step.
"Ronon!" Sheppard hissed, moving in front of him. "Where are you going?"
Ronon blinked rapidly, sucking in huge lungfuls of air as he grasped at the coil of anger lashing wildly in his chest. He jerked a nod at Sheppard and allowed his team leader to pull him between the buildings and around the back. They hovered at the rear corner of the burning hatchery until the worshipers were fully engaged in fighting the fire and then sprinted for cover in the prairie grass.
The crawl to the tree line took every ounce of Ronon's self-control. He slumped behind a trunk as wide as a jumper, arms and legs shaking, Wraith laughter ringing in his ears.
Sheppard peered at him, forehead creased in concern. "You okay?"
"Let's get out of here," Ronon choked out.
Sheppard offered a hand, and Ronon let him pull him to his feet. They stumbled forward a few steps, rounded a man-sized fern…
…and came face-to-face with a Wraith boy.
The child cocked his head to the side and smiled, and blood pounded in Ronon's ears. The thrum of his pulse shook his body while his vision tunneled to a gray face and yellow insect eyes.
His fingers tightened around a fragile neck.
Nails scratched him.
A distant voice shouted.
A fist slammed into his face, and he roared, flinging the slight weight in his hands away and charging his attacker.
"Ronon!" Sheppard bellowed. "Stand down!"
He jerked to a stop, panting heavily in Sheppard's face. "What?" he yelled.
"What the hell are you doing? He's a kid!"
"He's a Wraith!" Ronon spat, throwing his arms wide.
"A Wraith, Sheppard, a Wraith, like the ones who destroyed Sateda." Ronon clenched his eyes shut, but the images surfaced anyway. "Like the ones who killed Melena and my family." He slammed his fists into his thighs. "Who almost turned me into…"
Sheppard shook his head. "He's a child like Ellia."
Ronon stalked away then whirled. "So what?"
"So what?" Sheppard repeated. "So, he's a kid. He hasn't done anything wrong yet. He's not to blame. We can—"
"What?" Ronon snarled, spittle flying. "What do you think you're going to do? Find a home for him? Who would take him?" He swiped the back of his hand over his mouth. "How would we get him there? What about the rest of them?"
"No!" He sliced the air with his hands, not caring that they trembled with rage. "They are Wraith! They deserve to die!"
"I can't let you kill him."
"Why not? You," Ronon stabbed a finger at Sheppard, "smashed the eggs. It was your idea to torch the hatchery. What did you think we were doing then?"
Sheppard's eyes went wide. "That was different."
"How?" Ronon demanded.
"It— it— I…" Sheppard glanced away.
Ronon leaned into his face. "You said we would be toast if they spotted us. Well, one has. Maybe you see a difference between destroying eggs and snapping that…" He whipped a hand toward the unconscious Wraith. "…thing's neck but the Wraith won't. They will find us and kill us if they know we're here."
Sheppard rubbed his eyes. "I know, but there has to be another way. He's a kid…"
Ronon strode over and stared at the limp body. He frowned, trying to see what Sheppard saw. He recognized that the Wraith was small and seemed to be no older than Ronon had been when his grandfather had died of Second Childhood.
But instead of innocence, all Ronon saw was a feeding maw that would suck the life out of humans one day. Melena engulfed in flames. Sheppard being fed on. Tyre and Ara and Rakai.
The Wraith who turned him into a worshiper.
Ronon slammed his heel into the Wraith's neck, feeling the satisfying crunch of bone and cartilage through the thin sole of his shoe.
"Ronon," Sheppard whispered, "what have you done?"
"What needed to be done." Ronon moved a few paces away, not ready to see the disappointment in Sheppard's eyes yet.
Sheppard sighed heavily, and the silence stretched for so long Ronon wondered if he'd left. When he turned, Sheppard was gazing at the Wraith, his face unreadable, and then he stooped and picked up the small body.
"We need to hide him. One look at him and they'll know we're here."
Sheppard walked away and didn't look back. Ronon stared after him, wishing he'd chosen to see the disappointment in Sheppard's eyes instead of reading it in the set of his shoulders and the stiffness of his gait. Ronon followed in silence, climbing steadily until they reached a small cave.
"Stay here," Sheppard said. "Don't disobey me this time." He hesitated then swallowed thickly and strode in.
Ronon paced in front of the cave's mouth – three strides one way, three the other. He could hear Sheppard's ragged breathing and the clatter of rocks then nothing. He waited a heartbeat then another. He took a step forward and came face-to-face with Sheppard, his face streaked with dirt and his fingers bleeding.
"Let's go," Sheppard said gruffly.
Ronon fell in beside him. "I know you disagree with what I did—"
"Disagree?" Sheppard interrupted. "You killed a child after I told you not to."
"Don't you get it? He would have turned us in."
"Oh, I get it. I get that you thought it was the right thing to do. I get that you deliberately disobeyed. I get that you weren't willing to even discuss options."
"No!" Sheppard wheeled, his eyes flaming. "You told me you wanted to prove that you could handle the pressure, that I could trust you."
Ronon flinched. "You can trust me!"
"When? Every other day? Whenever Teyla is around?"
"We couldn't let him live. He was Wraith. What about that do you not understand?" Ronon growled. "You saw a child. I saw a creature that would kill hundreds of humans. I saved lives."
"That wasn't about saving lives. That was about vengeance." Sheppard took a step forward. "I saw your eyes."
"What was your solution? Give him a cookie and send him home?"
Sheppard's eyes narrowed. "You didn't give me a chance to come up with a solution. I might have agreed with your assessment, but you didn't give me enough time to consider it."
Ronon huffed and stomped away, trying to rein the rage back in. He had made the only choice that could have been made, but he had been impulsive. No one was chasing them. He should have given Sheppard the opportunity to come to the same conclusion. He hiked without thinking, suddenly realizing they were back at the outcropping campsite. He dropped down and looked at Sheppard.
Sheppard slid down beside him. "I don't know."
Nightmares plagued John. He quickly gave up trying to sleep, no matter how much his body begged for it, and lay with his arms folded beneath his head, listening to the mournful moan of the wind. Every time he closed his eyes, he saw the tiny body he'd buried under a pile of rocks in that cave. He'd considered every possible scenario in the last few hours and had come to the conclusion that Ronon had done the only thing that would keep them alive, but it still left a sour taste in his mouth.
Was his life worth more than a child's?
Even a Wraith child's?
He knew Ronon was also right about what that child would grow up to become, but killing kids went against everything John stood for, everything he believed in. And yet he'd purposefully smashed those eggs, seeing only shells and pink goo. It had been easy to do when they didn't look at him and smile.
"You awake?" Ronon asked.
John sighed and stared skyward at the fog, missing the stars so much it hurt. "Yeah."
Tree needles rustled, and Ronon's dark hulk separated from the shadows. "There's not a gate on this world, is there?"
"I don't think so." John pushed up to rest on his elbows. "I mean, there could be on the other side of the planet or something, but I don't think there's one around here. I only saw one energy signature powerful enough to be a gate, and it has to be whatever is powering the settlement. Besides, it would be too risky. If the Ancients had found this place… Or humans for that matter."
"If Sateda had known…" Ronon's voice grew thick.
John nodded. "Can you imagine what the Genii would have done?"
"What are we going to do?"
John knew that tone. Ronon was ready to go down swinging. Was it time for that? Atlantis would come if they could, but John didn't know how much longer he and Ronon could hold out. They were exhausted, weak from hunger, and unarmed. The Wraith would find them. Even if they'd never run into that kid, they couldn't stay hidden in a forest infested with Iratus bugs and little else.
"You got some ideas?"
Ronon scooted close, pressing his back against the mountainside. "There are still several containers of that lubricant. I say we burn the place down."
"That's suicide, and you know it."
"What's suicide is trying to evade the Wraith on a world without a gate. We're stuck here, and you know it."
"Atlantis will come." John hoped he sounded more convinced than he felt.
Ronon's grunted. "We don't know that they know where we are. We've been gone for weeks."
"You think they would've been here by now if they were coming." John's instincts screamed no, but the niggling doubt inside was growing.
"Yeah, I do." Ronon turned and leaned close enough that John could see him. "I ran from the Wraith long enough to know when my luck was running out. We've evaded the darts and the bugs so far, but we're wearing down. We need to hit them while we can, while the element of surprise is on our side, before another hive comes and we have adult Wraith on our tail."
"You don't think there are any adults here?"
Ronon shrugged. "Maybe a few. Those other buildings…"
"For the older kids."
"Yeah, and I'm guessing the Wraith don't use worshipers to educate their young."
John dropped his chin to his chest and rubbed the knotted muscles in his neck and shoulders. Could he do it? He wasn't afraid to die – he didn't want to, but he wasn't afraid to, no effective soldier could be – but could he kill children in the process? Because that's what would happen if they set fire to those buildings.
"John, they are Wraith. In a few years, they'll be culling worlds and feeding on humans. It could be Teyla or Rodney or Torren—"
"I know!" John hissed. He blew out a deep breath. "I know," he repeated, a little more calmly. "Just…give me a minute to get used to the idea."
They sat in silence until the sunrise began to lighten the haze. Ronon's logic was sound, and the thought of Wraith feeding on his friends – including Torren in the list had been a particularly low blow – made his chest ache, but when he tried to envision attacking the settlement, he saw children, not Wraith.
"I can't, Ronon," he whispered. "I can't kill children."
Ronon didn't answer, merely squeezed his shoulder.
"Atlantis will come," John continued.
"Hope so." Ronon pushed to his feet and stretched. "We're going to need a better place to hide until they show up."
"We can go back to the other side of the mountains," John suggested, giving a half-hearted smile when his stomach growled loudly, "maybe after breakfast?"
"I'll see what I can find."
Ronon jogged off to the right. John climbed to his feet, gathered the water scoop and bowl, and headed to the small brook to their left, keeping an eye out for webs and bugs.
He never saw the Wraith.
Awareness came back slowly – a throbbing headache, numbness in his shoulder, tingling in his extremities.
Oh, please God, no.
John kept his eyes closed and his limbs limp as he listened, praying to hear Ronon snoring over the crackle of the fire.
A boot slammed into his knee. "I know you are awake, human. Stop pretending."
The voice definitely had the distinctive Wraith reverb, but something was off. The pitch was odd, wavering, like a boy hitting puberty. John opened his eyes and swallowed a laugh. The Wraith glowering at him was shorter than Teyla and skinny as a rail. His hair, white and frizzy, touched his shoulders and the markings around his left eye were barely visible. John glanced around quickly. The room was the same basic design as the ones in the hatchery, but this one was dim and seemed empty.
The Wraith youngster – boy? teenager? – stood tall and sneered. "You will tell me how you got here and what queen you serve."
John rolled to his feet, towering over the kid. "Or what?"
The boy blinked and took a step back. "You dare defy me?"
"I command you—"
"Oh, please," John snorted, "like I'm going to obey Eddie Munster."
The loud sigh from behind John sent spikes of fear through him and made the kid hang his head.
"I am sorry, Instructor," the boy said. "I have failed your test."
"Perhaps," a decidedly adult male voice hissed. "Or perhaps this human is more than he appears."
Shit. Shit, shit, shit. He was royally screwed now.
Black leather rustled as a Wraith taller and bulkier than Ronon stepped around John. His hair was banded at the nape of his neck, and a black half-circle with jagged edges on the right side of his face stood out against his green-tinged skin, but it was the missing left eye that caught John's attention. No scars – just a void where his eye should have been.
He leaned into John's face and sniffed. "Such defiance," he purred, a smile slowly forming. "You are no worshiper." The smile disappeared as his gaze flicked away then back. "Did you set the fire?"
"What fire?" John asked, hoping the Wraith couldn't smell a bluff.
The Wraith growled and stepped into John's personal space. "Did you destroy the eggs?"
John knew two things. It didn't matter what he said because that Wraith was going to kill him, and the only way he could protect Ronon was to die quickly.
"The eggs with the shiny green shells and the pink goop inside? Were they some of your relatives? I can never tell you apart," John taunted.
Instead of exploding in typical Wraith bluster, the male stepped back, a crafty look on his face. He nodded, and John's arms were suddenly encased in the steel grip of two Wraith drones. Heart hammering madly, John kicked and bucked but couldn't get away as they dragged him backward and slammed him against a spongy wall. Cocoon vines wrapped around his lower body, arms, and neck, leaving his chest unobstructed and vulnerable. John gulped air while he fought the panic. The Wraith killed one way. He'd known what would happen before he'd opened his mouth.
The adult Wraith sauntered over, a sadistic glint in his eye. "Today, you will learn to interrogate," he announced.
"I've already had that lesson," John said. "It was boring."
"I wasn't speaking to you, human," the Wraith replied. "Who would like to try first?"
John's eyes widened as at least eight teenagers moved into the light. The boy who had addressed John first stepped next to the adult.
"Have you completed your asraulch yet?"
The boy nodded proudly. "Ten days ago, Instructor."
"And what did you think?"
"It was…" the boy stared at his feeding maw, "…unsatisfying."
The adult nodded. "Our worshipers offer themselves willingly. This one," he waved at John, "will not be so bland."
The boy reached a hand to John's chest. John closed his eyes, going to that place in his mind where he kept his happiest memories – his eighth birthday when Dad came home early for once to take him to see Evel Knievel, his first solo flight, Nancy's smile the night he proposed, stepping through the stargate—
Pain ripped through John in erratic bursts, much like the first time Todd had fed. He'd hoped it wouldn't hurt as much, but he thought it might actually be worse. His body jerked as he gasped, the agony overwhelming his ability to scream. His skin was on fire; his muscles spasmed; knives stabbed at his brain. He convulsed as his heart stammered and stuttered.
The contact was broken. John sagged forward, held upright by the cocoon. When he had the energy to lift his lids, the boy was staring at him, panting, lust in his eyes.
"More," the child demanded.
"No." The male pushed him away. "Interrogation is about control, yourself as well as your subject. It is give and take until you get what you want."
John twisted away instinctively when the Wraith placed a hand on his chest.
Then the euphoria hit.
He inhaled deeply as life poured back into him. And enzyme, he reminded himself, but oh, God, it felt good. He shuddered as the high enveloped him. When the Wraith pulled away, John leaned toward him before he caught himself and jerked back.
The Wraith smiled knowingly. "You have received the gift before. You know what it holds."
John turned his face away, pulling up the mental images of Ford, Tyre, Ronon. The enzyme was dissipating, but he knew it wouldn't take many more feedings before he turned. He would give all of it up – Ronon, Atlantis, Earth.
"My people know where I am," John announced. "They'll come with all their ships and wipe out every Wraith on this planet." He chuckled and looked up. "Maybe they'll grab some of these little brats and drop them off on a few human worlds so everyone can have their revenge."
The Wraith slammed his hand into John and began to feed, leisurely. John grunted, amazed to feel the life ebb in tiny increments then speed up and slow down again. It hurt even more, like he was being flayed alive, dissected. John fought the pain and his desire to live. He had to give up.
The agony stopped suddenly and enzyme flooded into him. John gasped as the pleasure centers in his brain all fired at the same time. He relaxed into it, relishing the buzz, before he realized what he was doing. He tried to twist away, but the Wraith pressed harder. John's body vibrated with ecstasy. His head thudded back against the wall.
"Where do you come from?" the Wraith asked.
John's eyes flew open, and his mental barriers crashed into place, but he didn't trust himself to speak.
The Wraith's gaze hardened. "Who is next?"
A tall, willowy female stepped forward. "I am."
The adult stepped back, head lowered in deference. "Of course."
"Oh, good," John laughed weakly, "a queen in training."
She studied him carefully then drew a fingernail down the side of his face. "Tell me where you come from."
Her voice echoed in his mind, but distantly, like a whisper. She was young, perhaps younger than the boy. "I've always wanted to know if they taught you to do that or if it was instinct. Which is it?"
She frowned at him. "He resists me."
"Try again," the adult encouraged, respect in his face and tone.
She stroked John's face. "Where are you from?"
John jerked out of her grasp. "Look, honey, I've dealt with queens a lot older and a lot tougher than you and I haven't given up the goods yet. You're wasting your time with your little mind tricks."
"Insolent pest!" she shouted, digging her nails into his chest.
John cried out as she fed. Her touch was different. His nerves became brittle, tearing and breaking under the onslaught. Bitter cold engulfed him. The knife in his eye jabbed and twisted. Numbness spread from his chest outward. Just like with the Iratus bug.
"Control," the male whispered. "Your goal is not to kill him, but to make him wish he was dead."
The feeding slowed then came in spurts, each one more painful than the last. The screams he couldn't force out earlier were ripped from his throat. He trembled as his life bled away, grayness creeping into the edges of his vision. The numbness reached his extremities, and he relaxed, welcoming the encroaching death.
"Good. Now, restore him."
"No," John breathed.
But life was already returning. His blood sang with enzyme. Numbness and fatigue faded away as his bones and muscles strengthened.
"Stop," the adult said. "You have done well."
"He is not fully restored," she replied. "I must learn all of your knowledge so that I may join the coven."
"There is no further knowledge to be gained from a full restoration, but if you wish it…"
She pressed her hand to John's chest, taking one last agonizing sample of his life. "Now, you may proceed," she declared.
"As you wish. You," he pointed to the first boy, "restore him."
The child moved forward quickly and touched an inexperienced hand to John's chest. Enzyme gushed, uncontrolled, into John's system. Pleasure bordering on pain pounded through him, and he groaned as his knees buckled. He slumped in the grip of the cocoon, ashamed of his need but hoping the high would continue forever.
"Control," the male advised.
John blinked drugged eyes open. The adult held the boy's wrist, changing the position and the pressure. John's breathing hitched as the flow slowed and the potency increased.
The adult smiled in approval. "Ask your question."
"Where are you from?" the boy asked.
John shook his head.
The boy grinned. The euphoria evaporated, and pain blasted through John. Tendons corded in his neck as his muscles seized violently. His teeth clattered together until he thought they would break.
The agony increased as he was shredded. Tears welled, spilled.
"Now, reverse it."
John howled as the boy gradually stopped feeding. He let his head fall forward, lacking the strength to hold it up. Vines covered his arms, but his hands were visible – wrinkled, spotted, twisted with arthritis. Then the reversal started, and his fingers straightened, strengthened, smoothed. His body rejoiced, humming with pleasure and enzyme.
"Stop, but do not remove your hand."
John raised his head when the euphoria disappeared. The boy's eyes were wide with awe. The adult looked smug.
"A little more."
The boy nodded. John sighed as something delicious raced into his veins.
"Where are you from?"
John blinked, too weak to hold his head up for long. The words confused him. He floated lazily on the chemical high.
"Stop," the adult said.
The ecstasy ceased. John twitched, moaned.
"More," a deep voice instructed.
Pleasure coursed through John. He smiled, relishing the reprieve from the pain, the hunger, the exhaustion.
"Where are you from?" the boy asked.
The answer bubbled forth, and John choked it back before it could escape, knowing it was dangerous but not sure why. He shook himself, grasping for the tattered remnants of his self-control, his sanity, his very essence. He felt so good, but his body was trembling to the point that he knew he'd fall flat on his face if something wasn't holding him up.
"Where are you from?" the child repeated.
"What?" John stared at him in confusion.
"Continue," the tall one said to the boy.
John's body buzzed. He closed his eyes, sinking into the sensation.
"It doesn't have to stop, human. This reward can be yours anytime you want it. Tell us what we wish to know."
John lifted his gaze to the adult, struggling to make sense of his words. A wave of dizziness swept over him, and his head lolled to the side as he squinted at the figures before him. He couldn't quite make out their features. They were wavering, distorted. Was he drunk? Maybe he'd gotten some bad Chinese food. Maybe it was Halloween.
"Is it Halloween?" John slurred. "Those are great costumes. Where'd you get them?"
The big one sighed. "Enough, Young One. Human minds and bodies are weak. They can only take so much at a time."
John looked at his chest when contact was broken, feeling suddenly bereft. Handprints of red were smeared over the front of his shirt. Pain sparked along every nerve ending, and John gagged as the room swirled around him. The ache in his head blossomed until he saw stars.
"We will return after you recover, human. Then you will tell us what we wish to know."
John tried to raise his head to see who was talking to him, but when he moved, agony exploded in his chest and radiated in every direction. He slumped in the arms of the cocoon and surrendered to the darkness.
Ronon's skin prickled as an insect scurried across the back of his hand, but he ignored the sensation, refusing to risk revealing his position. When Sheppard hadn't returned from getting water by the time the meal was ready, Ronon had hurried to the creek and stumbled on the discarded bowls and the unmistakable tread of Wraith boots. Two sets of small tracks bordered a smear of crushed underbrush. Something, someone, was being dragged. Ronon had followed the trail out of the forest, through the tall grass, and directly to the building on the far right of the settlement, the tracks easily discernable in the scorched soil. He had crept silently through the grass to its edge and had lain there, unmoving, for what seemed like years but was actually only a few hours.
The door curled open and a female Wraith strode out followed by several young males who hung back, heads lowered in deference until she disappeared into the next building. Then the boys turned to the smallest of the group, their voices blending together as they bombarded him with questions. Even with Ronon's exceptional hearing, he struggled to understand what they were saying. Closing his eyes, he concentrated.
A laugh quieted the group. Ronon squinted, catching a glimpse of the smallest boy, wreathed in smiles, as he stared at his feeding maw.
"It was power," the boy said. "The ones during the asraulch stopped the hunger pains, but this one…" His head lifted. "I felt myself grow stronger each time."
Ronon pressed his face to the ground, choking back a scream, not bothering to listen to the rest of the fading conversation. He'd known from the second he saw the tracks what the likely outcome would be, but to hear those…those…kids talking about killing Sheppard like that…
White-hot rage blasted through Ronon. He gathered his feet under him, coiled, knife in hand. He would make them pay for what they had done. Years of killing adult Wraith would make this easy. He would—
Impulsive! his mind screamed. His instincts had kept them alive, but they'd driven a wedge between him and Sheppard. He blew out a ragged breath, feeling more alone than ever. The one thing he couldn't do was make a mistake. He would happily die killing the ones who'd murdered Sheppard, if he was dead. There was a chance, a small one, that Sheppard was still alive, that they hadn't taken all of his life yet.
Which meant Ronon couldn't be careless with his. Not yet. He had to get to Sheppard first, to see with his own eyes if his best friend was dead. How was he going to search that building without getting caught?
"Think," he hissed.
Ronon studied the structures in front of him – the scorched hull of the hatchery, the incubator facility, buildings for children, others that he assumed to be living quarters for adolescent and teenaged Wraith plus some for the human caregivers and probably a few adult Wraith. They must hold kitchens, educational space, labs. He frowned. What was he missing?
He closed his eyes and groaned. How could he have been so stupid?
The Wraith would never leave their young defenseless or isolated.
Ronon slunk through the prairie grasses until he reached the rear of the building the teens had left. He sprinted across the bare ground and flattened against the wall, every sense tuned to the hint of an alarm. When nothing happened, he slid along the back of the structure and darted to the next one. As he rounded the curve, he noticed another building standing separate, behind the semi-circle of domed facilities. Since he still hadn't detected an alarm being raised, he dashed toward it, pressing his hand to the spot where he'd seen Sheppard open the door on the hatchery.
The doors parted and Ronon stepped inside, an instant of joy at seeing ships squashed when he determined what they were. Cruisers. The only kind of craft Sheppard couldn't fly. Wrong gene. Never had Ronon wished so badly for Teyla or McKay to be there than in that moment.
Ronon stared at the two cruisers, at a loss. The Wraith knew they were here, and if Sheppard was alive, he wouldn't be for long. Time was short. They were out of options.
Sheppard didn't deserve the horrible death that being fed on would bring. If he could get Sheppard out, hide him, let him die in peace, then Ronon would be free to die himself, and to take as many of the Wraith as he could with him.
Ronon stepped toward the cruiser, trying to recall everything he'd seen McKay, Teyla, Sheppard, Michael, anyone do. He had no idea what the minimum complement was to fly a cruiser, but having two ships here meant that adult Wraith definitely lurked somewhere on this planet. Maybe two, maybe two hundred, but it didn't matter really. He had to hurry before one caught him. Once he figured out how to get onboard, he moved carefully through the ship, his footsteps echoing loudly in the empty corridors. He came to a junction and stopped at a dark control panel. Power, he needed power.
He'd been on enough cruisers to know where the bridge was so he jogged to the access shaft and climbed to the proper level. Moving from station to station, he pressed buttons and toggled switches until the lights came on. A bit more trial and error made the engines whine and the ship vibrate. He studied the read-outs, berating himself for never making the time to learn some science. He had been surrounded by some of the most intelligent people in two galaxies. Why hadn't he taken advantage of it? Ronon chuckled to himself. He hadn't because he'd assumed he wouldn't need to, that McKay or Zelenka or Carter or somebody smarter than him would always be around. And now it was too late.
Still, Ronon had learned a few tricks from McKay by watching what the man was doing while pretending not to. He needed to overload something, but he wouldn't be able to until power was at full. He poked at the controls, searching for the right command, frowning at the rapidly scrolling data. If he was reading it correctly, the engine startup was going to take quite a while, time Sheppard didn't have.
Ronon pushed away from the console and stalked across the command area, his mind in overdrive. The body needed recovery time from feeding. If Kolya had figured that out, the Wraith had to know. So either Sheppard was already dead or the Wraith were letting him recuperate enough to withstand the next round of questioning. Either way, the explosion would hopefully divert enough Wraith away from Sheppard for Ronon to know for certain. If Sheppard was dead, Ronon would use the chaos to kill as many Wraith as he could before they killed him. If Sheppard was alive…
Overrides. Ronon would need to override the safety protocols in order to overload the engines. He checked the gauges again. Power-up would be complete in a little less than an hour. He turned and headed to engineering.
Muscle cramps woke John – his legs, arms, back, stomach. John tried to move, desperate for relief, and grimaced when the cocoon held him securely. His body was drenched in sweat, and he swallowed a whimper as a massive migraine pounded. His skin was too tight. His nerves were on fire.
He rolled his head to the side and retched.
John had spent enough time at Ronon's bedside to recognize that the enzyme was leaving his system. He might not suffer to the extent Ronon and Tyre had, but it wasn't going to be pretty.
If he lived that long.
John forced his eyes open and found his one-eyed Wraith buddy watching him. "Who'd you piss off to get assigned to babysitting duty, Jack?"
The Wraith's face scrunched into a scowl. "Jack?"
"Gotta call you something."
"You may call me Master."
John barked a laugh, wincing as his headache spiked. "That'll be the day."
Jack tilted his head, his forehead creasing in puzzlement. "Even knowing your fate, you are still defiant. Where does such insolence come from?"
John would have shrugged if he could. "It's a gift."
Jack growled and took a step forward. "One that I shall enjoy ripping from you."
"That's what they all say," John replied. "Hasn't happened yet."
"Yet?" Jack repeated, his putrid breath making John's eyes water as he leaned in close, studying him. "Not a worshiper but you have received the gift of life," he mumbled, more to himself than to John. "Few humans have encountered a queen and lived yet you claim to have done so on more than one occasion."
John's pulse pounded as the Wraith paced thoughtfully before him. Most of the time since his capture was a blur of agony and euphoria. What the hell had he said?
"We have heard rumors of an alliance between a certain faction and…" Jack turned, something close to astonishment flickering over his features before a wicked grin formed. "Lantean."
John kept his expression rock hard. "What does that mean?"
"Yes, of course," Jack murmured. "The strength and defiance of those occupying Atlantis is well known. But how did you find…" Rage twisted his features into a snarl. "He and his hive will be hunted and destroyed!"
Something creaked nearby then rapid footsteps announced the return of the teens.
"We have returned as ordered, Instructor," one of them panted.
John groaned. Damn telepathic link.
But Jack didn't acknowledge their presence. "How long before your people get here, Lantean?" he demanded.
The kids reacted instantaneously, their eyes wide as they babbled to each other. John tried to think of how to turn the assumptions to his advantage, but the enzyme was toying with him, singing promises of sweet relief if he gave them what they wanted. He blinked and shook his head, swallowing the rising bile as the migraine ratcheted up another notch.
Jack was watching him carefully, a cruel glint in his eye. "You want this?" he asked, reaching for John's chest.
John's body screamed yes while his mouth said, "No!" But it didn't matter. He gasped as the rush went straight to his brain and the pain melted away. Adrenaline and enzyme roared through his veins, and he was certain he could have defeated every Wraith on the planet singlehandedly if he'd been free of the cocoon.
But why? Why fight when this could be yours all the time, whenever you need it?
John frowned at the thought. Where had that come from? He forced his eyes open and found every Wraith in the room staring intently at him.
The thoughts bombarded him, offers of reward and freedom and untold joys if he'd just surrender.
And he wanted to. Oh, how he wanted to. His mind demanded it. His body begged for it. With the enzyme flowing through him, he felt like he could do anything. Like Superman.
"No," he whispered. "Stop. Please."
The connection disappeared. John felt like his head was wrapped in cotton. He was close to hyperventilating, and his heart was trying to hammer out of his chest. The room swirled around him and distorted voices murmured on the edge of his hearing. He closed his eyes and begged death to hurry.
Two small hands slammed into his chest, and pain that he hadn't imagined possible exploded through him, his cells ripping apart as different appetites competed for his life force. They tore at him, fought over him, pushed, pulled, yanked, shredded. He couldn't scream; he couldn't even breathe. John's eyes flew open and he stared down at two male adolescents he hadn't seen before, their heads thrown back in rapture. It only lasted a minute – the longest minute of John's life – before Jack pulled them away, but the damage was done. Palsy wracked John's frame, and the brief glimpse he got of his chest reminded him of Sumner just before he'd pulled the trigger.
"Perhaps I should leave you like this," Jack said, "and watch as you die from withdrawal."
John didn't have the strength to respond. He let his head flop forward and did his best to breathe. Something boomed in the distance, and the building shook, or maybe it was his body. But when the Wraith traded alarmed glances, John allowed himself a small smile.
"Give 'em hell, Ronon," he murmured.
With a jerk of his head, Jack sent the young Wraith scurrying for the door. "How many of your people are here?" he asked.
John smiled. "All of them."
He braced himself mentally as Jack pressed a hand to his chest, but instead of the death he expected, enzyme trickled in. John groaned, fighting the euphoria, the ghostly images swirling around him, the whispers in his mind.
Another small burst of enzyme. John sucked in a stuttering breath as the buzz in his head grew.
A soft voice spoke in his ear. "Tell me. The pain will end." The pressure on John's chest changed and his mind spun as an intoxicating high hit. "How many?"
The seep of enzyme stopped, and John moaned.
"Do you want more?"
John nodded, unable to stop himself.
Enzyme shot through him for a second, and he shuddered as it hit his brain. Then it stopped and the pain returned.
"Tell me and I will make the pain go away."
One answer couldn't hurt, could it?
John lifted heavy lids. "What was the question?"
Jack smiled, and John relaxed in anticipation of his reward.
"How many of your people are here?"
"Just one," a low voice rumbled.
John cried out as a large body plowed into Jack, ripping his hand away and slamming him to the floor. He squinted into the darkness, struggling to follow the fast-moving shadows and the smacks of skin on skin. His mind was wrapped in a fog, dominated by pain.
An enraged cry echoed in the room followed by the sickening slurp of a blade plunging into flesh and a gurgle.
John forced trembling neck muscles to hold his head up as a form staggered toward him. "Ronon?"
"Hey." Ronon's eyes flicked toward him then away immediately. "Sorry I'm late."
"You need to go before the others come back."
Ronon refused to look at him, making a show of studying the cocoon controls. "Not without you."
"If I'm half as old as I feel, I won't last the day. You need to get out of here."
The muscle in Ronon's jaw jumped, confirming John's fears, but he didn't budge. When he pressed a couple of buttons on the panel, the vines retracted, and John slumped forward. Only Ronon's quick reflexes kept him from hitting the floor face first.
"Ronon, please," John begged. "Leave me."
"I can't move." John's head lolled to the side and he stared at the wrinkled skin and atrophied muscles of his arm. "I'm dead already."
"Not yet, you're not." Ronon grunted as he scooped John in his arms and stood. "So quit arguing."
John sighed dejectedly and let his head rest against his friend's shoulder as they slunk down a hallway. When they slipped outside, he caught a glimpse of a massive fire raging through several buildings. Wraith and humans alike battled the blaze, too consumed with what they were doing to notice Ronon dart across the clearing and disappear into the rippling prairie grass.
Ronon laid him down, continuing to avert his eyes. "Can you move at all?"
John tried to lift his arm but nothing happened. "No."
"It's okay. I'm going to turn around and pull you onto my back. It's gonna hurt."
"Everything hurts," John mumbled.
Ronon turned then reached back and pulled John's arms around his neck. When he rose to his hands and knees, he clutched John's wrists in one hand and tugged John's shirt with the other until he was balanced. John choked back a cry as his abused body stretched, and then he was lost in a haze of pain as they jostled and bumped toward the forest. He was barely conscious by the time Ronon lowered him to the ground.
"Hang on, Sheppard."
Ronon's voice sounded funny – all tight and thick. John wanted to open his eyes, he really did, but they wouldn't cooperate so he bobbed his head in a semblance of a nod. Pain, steady and constant, held him as tightly as the cocoon had. Powerful arms lifted him easily, and John tried to relax to the strong heartbeat that thrummed near his ear.
Agony spiked in his chest and radiated up his neck and down his arms and legs. His feet throbbed; his fingertips tingled. When the headache exploded behind his eyes, he had no strength left to fight.
With a strangled gasp, John let go.
"No," Ronon whispered.
Sheppard lay limp in his arms, his face gray. Ronon dropped to a knee and gently lowered his friend to the ground, pressing shaking fingers to his neck. A thready pulse thumped weakly in response, and Ronon sagged in relief. He knew they were dead men, but he wasn't ready to let go yet.
"Hold on, buddy, just a little bit longer."
Ronon lifted Sheppard and stood, searching for a place to hide. He had no idea how many Wraith had been at the settlement, or how many were left, but all of them would come, and he needed a spot that was defensible. Capture was not an option this time. They would have to kill him. At least he and Sheppard would die together.
He struck out for the mountains, willing Sheppard to keep breathing with each step he took. He reached the base of the foothills an hour later and paused to scan for caves. Sheppard twitched and moaned as sweat beaded on his forehead, and phantom sympathy pains shot through Ronon's chest. Withdrawal was beginning. He swallowed a scream, using his mounting rage to climb faster. For withdrawal to begin this soon the interrogation had to have been horrific.
The hike was tough. He gritted his teeth when some loose stones skittered under his foot and he landed hard on one knee. Ronon was weaker than normal thanks to hunger and exhaustion, but he couldn't quit so he struggled to his feet and continued on. Underbrush tried to trip him, and the mist was disorienting, but he finally spotted a series of caves a couple of hours later. The first one was nothing more than a dent in the mountainside, and the next one reeked of decay. The third one, though, had a mouth partially hidden by an outcropping and was shallow enough to not be sheltering bugs of any kind.
Ronon slipped inside, his head brushing the roof as he took four long strides to the back wall where he laid Sheppard lengthways, checking and finding a pulse again. Then he busied himself with setting a few alarms in the surrounding terrain – carefully constructed piles of rock that would dissolve in a clatter if anyone breathed too hard on them. They wouldn't stop the Wraith from reaching the cave, but at least Ronon would have a warning before the Wraith descended on them. He intended to go out fighting, and he couldn't do that if the Wraith caught him by surprise.
When he went back inside, Sheppard's breathing was raspy, and he was writhing in a pool of sweat. Ronon knelt and removed John's shirt, careful to not touch the mass of wounds on his chest. He tore off a sleeve then balled up the rest and placed it under Sheppard's head.
"Wish I had some water for you," Ronon said as he wiped Sheppard's face with the remnants of the shirt sleeve, "but I forgot to bring the bowls."
Sheppard's lids cracked open. "R-r-ronon?"
"Where are we?"
"Found an empty cave. It's safe."
Sheppard arched up with a pained gasp. "Wraith?"
Ronon looked away, unable to bear looking at what those monsters had done to his friend. "They'll be coming."
"Please—" Sheppard twisted with a broken cry that ended in a sob. "Please, kill me."
Ronon shook his head. "No. Atlantis will be here."
"Oh, God, it hurts." Sheppard sucked in a ragged breath.
He clutched Sheppard's shoulders. "I know, buddy. Just hang on."
"I can't," Sheppard whispered. "I'm old, Ronon. I won't live through withdrawal."
"Yes, you will. I won't let you die."
"You can't stop it." Sheppard moaned, one hand fumbling weakly for his chest. "Please, don't let me die like this."
Ronon pressed the heels of his palms to his eyes then jabbed his fingers in his hair, trying to swallow emotion that wouldn't be contained. Had he sounded like this? He had vague memories of demanding Sheppard kill him, but he'd hoped they were fragments of a nightmare.
Sheppard clawed at the ground as another spasm shook his frame, tears leaking from his eyes and blood from his lip. "Please, God, Ronon, I'm begging you. Don't let them take me again. I can't withstand another interrogation. I'll tell them everything."
"I won't let them, John."
"Only way to make sure is if I'm dead." Sheppard's entire body convulsed as his muscles drew up in cramps, his cry echoing against the stone walls. "They'll find us if we stay together. You have to go, and you have to go without me."
"We talked about this already. I said no."
"Can you—" Sheppard's eyes went wide as he gasped then pulled in a wheezy breath. "Can you protect me?" He groaned and shivered. "Sure you can stay alive long enough?"
Ronon wanted to say yes, but he knew the truth. "No," he mumbled.
"Then there's only one option left."
Ronon fingered the knife, searching for a place inside him that would let him slit John Sheppard's throat. But he couldn't find it. All he found was memories – practical jokes on McKay, morning runs, Sheppard offering him freedom from the Wraith for nothing in return, surfing lessons, hearing footsteps in that abandoned building on Sateda and knowing he would see Sheppard's face when he looked up.
He looked down at that face now – ravaged, wrinkled, bruised, twisted in agony – but all he saw was his friend. The emotion he'd been fighting shattered something inside him and ran down his cheeks. "I can't."
Sheppard lifted an arthritic hand. "Then give me the knife."
Ronon clenched his eyes shut. "John—"
"Promise me," Sheppard panted, "that you won't go back there. Promise me that you'll live until Atlantis gets here."
"They aren't coming," Ronon snapped.
"Yes, they are. They will always come. You have to believe that. Now, promise me."
"I promise." Ronon hoped Sheppard bought it.
"Give me your word, your oath as a Satedan."
Ronon's chin dropped to his chest. "You have my oath," he ground out, deciding that if Atlantis came for him, they weren't leaving until this planet was nothing more than a memory.
Sheppard curled inward, his breath hitching. "Knife."
Ronon extended the blade hilt first, holding it steady as Sheppard's gnarled fingers wrapped around it. He had no doubt that Sheppard had the guts to do it and he couldn't stand the thought of watching his friend's blood pool on the cold stone floor so Ronon stalked to the opening, breathing hard through his mouth. He clenched his fists when he heard Sheppard grunt and the blade hit the ground.
"Damn," Sheppard whispered.
After a few minutes of hissed curses and clattering steel, Ronon turned around. Sheppard held the knife in his right hand and was aiming for his left wrist, but he was too weak and palsied to slice deep enough to do any damage. Blood welled on shallow cuts to his neck
Humiliation left red splotches on his wrinkled cheeks when he raised his eyes to Ronon's. "Help me."
Sheppard closed his eyes, swallowing thickly. "Please."
"Don't." Something twisted in his chest, stealing his breath, as he strode over and dropped to his knees. "Please don't. Don't ask me to do what I can't do."
"I can't." His voice cracked and he glanced away as the tightness in his throat worsened.
Sheppard cried out as his muscles seized, and he stared at Ronon with pleading eyes as another convulsion hit. For the first time in his life, Ronon considered breaking his oath as a Satedan because if he slit John's throat, he would have to slit his own. He couldn't live with killing his best friend but he couldn't condemn him to a death like this.
He removed the knife from Sheppard's spasming fingers and waited for him to still. Once the tremors ended, he pulled Sheppard's back against his chest, listening to the raspy wheezing of lungs that couldn't draw enough air.
"I don't know what to do," he whispered.
Sheppard slumped against him, laying his head back against Ronon's shoulder. "Yes, you do."
Rocks clattered outside.
Ronon flinched then eased Sheppard down and hopped up, flipping the knife until the handle was secure in his palm. He hurried to the opening and flattened his back against the wall that flanked the entrance as a long shadow filled it. He coiled, ready to strike, planning to attack from behind when the Wraith stepped inside.
"Ronon, no," Sheppard ordered, staring from the back of the cave at the form hovering in the opening.
Even as weak as he was, Sheppard's voice still carried enough command authority to stop Ronon in his tracks. He wanted to kill the Wraith; he needed to. He glanced to Sheppard, wondering why the man would sign their death warrants like that since he was the one who didn't want to be taken again. Was he delirious with pain? Hallucinating? Had they turned him?
He shoved aside the doubts. Sheppard's last memory would not be of Ronon disobeying again. He lifted his chin, ready to meet his fate.
The tall Wraith strode in.
"John Sheppard, what have you gotten yourself into this time?" a familiar voice asked.
"You know, I was j-just thinking that," Sheppard's breath hitched, "the only thing that c-could make th-this worse would be f-for you to show up."
Todd chuckled again. "Were you now?"
Ronon glared at Todd. "What if he's working with them?"
"He's not. They think he's responsible for us… being…" Sheppard's eyes went wide, and a scream ripped free as his body contorted.
Ronon dove toward him, pulling Sheppard in his arms to protect his head from the stone floor, cursing Todd for watching. Sheppard wouldn't want anyone to see him like this, much less an enemy. Then the tremors stopped, and Sheppard slumped in his arms, unconscious and barely breathing.
"Is he alive?" Todd asked.
"What do you care?" Ronon snarled.
Todd stood tall, his expression neutral as he stared down at Ronon. "You are correct. I will leave you now." He turned toward the entrance.
"Wait." Ronon pressed his forehead to the top of Sheppard's head. "I hope this is what you'd want, buddy," he whispered. He couldn't believe he was going to do this, but he'd do anything to save Sheppard's life. He looked up at Todd. "Can you help him?"
Todd stopped and glanced over his shoulder. "You have murdered our young. Why should I help you?"
"Murdered your young?" Ronon growled. "You have murdered millions of humans, and you think I'm going to care about killing a few Wraith?"
"We kill to survive."
"What do you think we were trying to do?"
Todd faced him, tilting his head slightly. "Perhaps. Or perhaps you were executing them."
"Sheppard says the only good Wraith is a dead one." Ronon glared at Todd. "He's right."
"I see. I will be sure to give your regards to Atlantis the next time we speak."
Ronon fought back the instinct that insisted he rip Todd's throat out. "Why are you here?"
"If you're not here to help us, why are you here?"
Todd hesitated then, ignoring the question, stepped forward and knelt down to study Sheppard. "I can strengthen him, but I cannot ease the withdrawal pains."
Ronon hugged Sheppard tightly to his chest. "Can you make him young again?"
"The gift of life is possible." Todd shot him a curious glance. "Would you offer your youth so that he may have his?"
Ronon held his gaze. "Yes."
Todd's eyes narrowed as he scrutinized Ronon. "I believe you." Then he smiled. "Fortunately for you, I had a snack before we arrived."
When Todd reached for Sheppard's chest, Ronon moved his hands but didn't let go, though he had to turn his face away, unable to watch. Sheppard gasped and shuddered in his grip, a low moan escaping. But under his fingertips, Sheppard's muscle mass increased, and his heartbeat and breathing grew strong and steady. Ronon turned back to watch hair thicken and darken, wrinkles smooth, and age spots fade. Sheppard took a full, deep breath in what seemed like forever and exhaled easily then relaxed into sleep.
"Withdrawal will be painful," Todd said, "but he should be strong enough to survive it."
Relief so overwhelming that Ronon couldn't breathe flooded through him. He clenched his fists to stop the trembling. "What now?"
"Now, we leave." Todd stood and headed to the entrance. "The hives populated by this world will be here soon."
Ronon frowned. "The hives… Not your hive?"
"Of course not." Todd stepped toward him. "If this had been my queen's young, I would have killed you the instant I walked in. You have crippled this faction immeasurably. They will come and relocate the survivors, but it will take them years to rebuild their population."
Ronon lifted Sheppard and followed Todd outside. "You mean if you don't destroy what's left of them."
Todd shrugged. "If the opportunity presents itself. But right now, I have more pressing matters."
He glanced up, and Ronon did the same. A dart was honing in on them. Ronon took a step back toward the cave.
"It is mine," Todd said. "Look around you. There is no place to land."
Ronon nodded, closed his eyes, and for a second time, deliberately allowed a culling beam to take him.
They materialized in the dart bay of a cruiser and were immediately surrounded by drones. Ronon curled as much of his body around Sheppard as he could, his eyes seeking an escape route.
"You have no place to go," Todd said. "You will not be harmed. Come with me."
Controlling his panic had become second nature over the years so with a final glare at the drones, Ronon followed Todd through the empty hallways of the cruiser. After the fourth turn, he felt the hyperdrive kick in.
"Where are you taking us?"
Todd stopped in front of an open holding cell and gestured him through. Ronon wanted to argue, should have argued, but the physical and emotional toll of the past few days had drained him. He would save the little energy he had left for when it really counted. He stepped inside and gently laid Sheppard on the floor then turned back, but Todd had disappeared. Ronon slid down, stretching his legs in front of him and leaning against the wall then scooting a little to prop Sheppard's head on his knee.
He didn't realize he'd fallen asleep until Sheppard flailed and curled inward with a cry. When Ronon tugged at his shoulder, he jerked away from the touch, scrambling backward in panic.
"Easy, Sheppard. It's me," Ronon murmured.
Sheppard's back hit the wall. "Ronon?" He squinted into the darkness, disorientation twisting his features. "Where are you?"
"Here." Ronon crawled over and reached out slowly, gripping his arm. "How do you feel?"
"Lousy. Got the mother of all migraines and my skin's trying to crawl off." Sheppard slumped back and cradled his head in his hands. Then he traced his fingertips over his face, his jaw dropping in wonder, and blinked in Ronon's direction. "Am I dreaming?"
Ronon grinned. "Nope. You're gonna hurt, a lot, but you're gonna live."
Sheppard ducked his head, his breath coming in small gasps. Ronon squeezed his shoulder, and Sheppard grasped his arm in return, letting the silence stretch.
Then Sheppard groaned and reached for his calf. "This is just the beginning, isn't it?"
Sheppard leaned his head back, grimacing. Sweat beaded at his hairline and trickled down his face, pooling at the hollow of his throat then streaking through the dried blood on his chest.
"Don't let me—" Sheppard shuddered, wincing in pain. "—do anything stupid."
"I won't," Ronon promised. "I've got your back."
Sheppard twisted, kneading his bicep. "Where are we?"
"Holding cell on Todd's cruiser."
"Holding cell? Why?"
"I am repaying all the hospitality you have shown me." The cell doors curled open and Todd stepped inside. "Although I decided to forego the chains."
"That's big of you." Sheppard pushed himself upright. "Where are you taking us?"
"Ah, so many worlds to choose from. Perhaps I'll collect the reward our Primary has offered for you."
"Who?" Sheppard asked.
"Or perhaps I will give you to our rival hive's queen as a gesture of goodwill."
Ronon leaped to his feet and wedged himself between Todd and Sheppard. "I'll kill you first."
Todd chuckled. "Will you now? Perhaps one day I will allow you to try."
Sheppard wiped the sweat from his eyes but couldn't seem to stand up straight. "You didn't come all this way just to nab us for a rival queen. Quit your posturing and tell us where we're going."
"Atlantis," Todd announced. "Your people have something I need, and now I have something they need." He strode out and the doors closed behind him. "We will arrive in a few hours."
Ronon stared after Todd's retreating form, stunned. They were going home. Sheppard slumped to the floor and wrapped his arms around his legs, pressing his face to his knees. Emotion lodged in Ronon's throat, and he paced the length of the cell then braced his hands on the far wall, head bowed.
"You okay, big guy?"
Ronon didn't turn. "You think he's telling the truth?"
"I don't know." Sheppard rubbed at the web of scars on his chest. "Everything's a little fuzzy. I mean, he is a Wraith, but he helped us. Didn't he?"
"Yeah, he did." Ronon moved next to him. "How are you doing?"
Sheppard blinked at him and scratched his arms until he broke the skin. "Um, not so good, I think." He fidgeted and groaned as his legs twitched. "I feel… Am I dying?"
"Don't listen to him, Ronon. He can't be trusted."
"I know that."
"He's going to kill us." Sheppard's eyes darted around the cell, following something only he could see.
Ronon grabbed his shoulders. "Stay with me, John."
"Oh, God, it hurts," Sheppard moaned, writhing, his gaze locking on Ronon. "Please, make it stop."
"I would if I could, buddy."
"Then ask Beckett… No, he's not here." Sheppard clutched at the tatters of Ronon's shirt. "Get Todd back here. He can help me."
"No, he can't."
"Right, right." Panting heavily, Sheppard rubbed his eyes then raked his fingers through his hair. "Why can't he?"
"Because the enzyme messes with your mind. The more you have, the more addicted you become."
"Oh, yeah. I remember." Sheppard rocked back and forth, scratching at his arms and neck. "I'll be crazy, like Ford. Like you."
Ronon flinched but didn't look away. "Yeah, like me. You'll say a lot of things you don't mean, just like I did."
"I knew— knew you didn't mean it." Sheppard wiped his face on his knees, shivering so hard Ronon had to catch him to keep him from falling. "Though the look on McKay's face was priceless when you told him you'd kill him if he touched Keller again."
"I said that?"
"Yep." Sheppard gasped, eyes squeezing shut. "I think he believed you until you threatened to kill Kanaan for touching Teyla."
Ronon winced, glad Teyla wasn't holding a grudge. "Kanaan was there?"
Sheppard shook his head. "You woke up in the middle of the night and screamed at me to bring him there so you could do it."
"Enzyme makes you stupid."
"Yeah." Sheppard's breath came in ragged pants. "But it also makes you feel good."
Ronon closed his eyes, fighting away the memory of it racing through his veins, strengthening him. Warping him.
"Not for long. You'll feel worse afterward."
Sheppard stared at Ronon for a long moment, his pupils huge and his breath coming in rapid gasps. "You don't want me to have any." His forehead scrunched then his eyes widened. "You want all the enzyme for yourself."
"That's not true. I'm trying to help you."
"No, you aren't." The tendons in Sheppard's neck corded as another tremor shook him. "If you were trying to help me, you'd bring me some enzyme."
"I don't have any."
"Then ask Todd!" Sheppard's eyes bulged and he clawed at his neck until he bled. "Help me!"
Ronon clenched his jaw. "I can't do that," he stated quietly.
"I knew I couldn't trust you!" Sheppard shoved away from Ronon. "Get away from me!"
"This is all your fault! You did this to me!"
Ronon jerked away, the words hurting worse than any punch could have. "You don't know what you're saying."
"You're wrong. I'm finally seeing the truth for the first time. You want me dead so you can take over running Atlantis." Sheppard clawed at the wall and pulled himself to his feet. "I'll see you in hell, first."
Sheppard swung clumsily at him. Ronon batted him away like he was a child. Snarling, Sheppard lunged, ramming a shoulder into his middle. They went sprawling. Sheppard clambered over and slammed a fist into his temple. Ronon grunted and pushed away.
"Don't make me hurt you, John."
"Go ahead and try," Sheppard taunted. "You're weak, a coward."
Anger flooded through Ronon, and he stepped forward, fist drawn back, before he caught himself. "That's not true, and you know it."
"I won't let you kill me!" Sheppard punched at him again.
Ronon caught the blow and pinned John's arms to his side. "I'm not trying to kill you. I'm your friend."
Sheppard thrashed in his grip. "Liar!"
"Listen to yourself. It's the enzyme talking."
When Sheppard couldn't break the hold, he smacked his forehead into Ronon's mouth. Ronon staggered back with a grunt but didn't let go. Sheppard twisted and slammed a knee into his ribs.
"John, please stop."
Sheppard dropped to the ground and planted a foot in his stomach, throwing him over his head. Ronon slid into the wall, and Sheppard ran for the door.
Ronon wrapped his arms around Sheppard's chest and tossed him across the cell. Sheppard scrambled to his feet and barreled into him. They hit the ground and rolled. Sheppard swung again but Ronon ducked the blow and grabbed him from behind.
"You said not to let you do anything stupid. Remember that."
He flipped Sheppard around and slammed a fist into his jaw. Sheppard's eyes rolled back in his head, his knees buckling. Ronon caught him and eased him to the floor. Sheppard's skin was flushed and slick with sweat, and shivers racked his body. Ronon had never felt so helpless.
"He is one of strongest humans I have ever met. He will survive this."
Ronon wheeled, blocking Todd's view of Sheppard with his body. "Get away."
Todd's gaze drifted up to meet his. "You are very protective of him, despite his actions and words."
"I said, get away."
"He means so much to you that you would die for him?"
Ronon stepped forward, fists clenched. "I wouldn't expect you to understand."
"Indeed?" Todd gave a slight smile. "And what do you know of Wraith?"
He rushed forward. "I know that you kill us; you destroy any world that dares to defy you. You suck the life out of us then give it back until we…we…" He swallowed the rising bile and shoved away from the tangled vines of the door.
Todd's face twisted in revulsion. "Not all Wraith use such vile means."
Ronon turned back, confused. "What?"
"I told you once – the gift of life is for our most devout worshipers and our brothers." Todd's eyes flicked past him to Sheppard. "To use it in any other way…"
He gaped at the Wraith, trying to wrap his mind around what he was hearing. "You saying you've never done it? Never turned a human into a worshiper?"
Todd stared down at Sheppard, clenching and unclenching his feeding hand. "We will be arriving at Atlantis shortly." With a final glance at Ronon, he spun away.
Ronon watched until he disappeared around a corner. Sheppard had told him this Wraith was different, but he had never believed it. He'd held back from killing him because Sheppard had said so and the times they had allied together had benefited them both.
A groan from behind ripped him from his thoughts. Sheppard writhed, his face contorting with agony.
Ronon knelt beside him and gripped his shoulder. "Hang in there, buddy. We're almost home."
Glassy eyes peeked from under heavy lids. "Ronon?"
"Yeah, John, it's me."
Sheppard rolled on his side and retched, his limbs twitching uncontrollably. Ronon held his upper body still and brushed back sweat-soaked hair.
"Make it stop, please."
Ronon tore his gaze away from Sheppard's pleading eyes. "I can't, but when we get to Atlantis, Keller will."
"Atlantis?" Sheppard struggled to sit up, shaking so bad his teeth chattered. Ronon pulled him up and let him brace his back against his shoulder. "Where are we?"
"Todd's cruiser, remember?
Sheppard hunched over, panting. "Oh, yeah. Wait, how'd he know where to find us?"
"Don't know," Ronon replied. "I didn't ask."
"How does he know where Atlantis is?" Sheppard frowned. "Did you tell him?"
Ronon sighed. "No, I didn't tell him. He found us last year when he came looking for the Replicator code."
"Right, right. We can't trust him, you know."
Sheppard stiffened, the muscles under Ronon's hands spasming. He held Sheppard as the convulsions increased and moans turned into screams. Sheppard thrashed, his voice cracking as the shouts dissolved into choking sobs. He finally slumped, spent.
"Ask Todd," Sheppard ducked his head, "for some enzyme. Please."
Ronon moved in front of Sheppard. "No. You have to hold on a little longer."
"I can't," Sheppard whispered, the tremors beginning again.
"Yes, you can." Ronon grasped Sheppard's face with both hands and tilted it up until their eyes met. "We're so close. You can't give up now. And you'll never forgive me or yourself if I let you ask Todd for enzyme." He gripped Sheppard's shoulders and gave him a good shake "Buck up."
Sheppard huffed. "That's my line."
"It's a good one."
Space warped around them as the cruiser dropped out of hyperspace. The cell door curled open and drones appeared.
Ronon pulled Sheppard to his feet, keeping a supportive hand in the middle of his back. "Come on. Let's go home."
Rodney rubbed his eyes then checked his watch. Eight hours of interrogation had resulted in exactly nothing, like all of the others. He couldn't fault Teyla and Lorne. Short of ripping the guy's fingernails out, they had done everything they could to persuade him to tell them what he knew about the Wraith planet. He had readily confessed to being a worshiper, whatever was in that syringe of Lorne's had seen to that, but if he knew what was on that planet, he wasn't telling. Rodney didn't think he knew. None of the worshipers they'd questioned so far had known.
Lorne glanced up and shook his head. Rodney shut down the holding cell's forcefield to allow Lorne and Teyla to exit then turned it back on again.
"Another waste of time," Lorne muttered. "How many does that make it?"
Teyla's lip pressed in a thin line. "Seven."
Rodney glared at the worshiper who had his head down and was breathing heavily through his mouth. "Whatever is there is obviously not common knowledge. Do you think—"
"Doctor McKay and Major Lorne to the gateroom."
Rodney rolled his eyes. "What now?"
"Please prepare the prisoner," Teyla told the guard at the door. "I will return for him shortly."
"What are your people doing with these worshipers?" Lorne asked as they rounded the corner and headed to the transporter.
Teyla's eyes glittered. "Meting out justice."
A few years ago, Rodney would have been shocked, would have loudly denounced it as barbaric. Now, he had a sudden desire to help, and from the look on Lorne's face, he wasn't alone. He wasn't sure what that said about them.
The last several months had proven to him just how tough the Athosians were. People he'd disparaged as simple, ignorant farmers had survived an ordeal he could barely fathom, had insisted on going back to the world they had been taken from, and had rebuilt their society literally from scratch.
Teyla was the toughest of them all. He'd never doubted her instincts and abilities – he'd seen what she could do to a man with nothing but two sticks – but until her people had been taken, he hadn't realized how far she would go. Even their return and the birth of her son hadn't dimmed much of her rage. Losing John and Ronon had only fueled it more. These days she stalked around Atlantis so fast Rodney had a hard time keeping up.
They stepped out of the transporter and into the frantic chaos of the control room. Lorne shot a concerned glance at Rodney as they jogged behind Teyla toward a monitor that Woolsey, Zelenka, and a couple of techs were huddled around.
"What's going on?" Rodney asked.
Woolsey straightened, his features pinched. "A Wraith cruiser just exited hyperspace. It will be here in ten minutes."
Lorne tapped his comm. "All military personnel to battle posts."
"Thank you, Major," Woolsey said. "I'd like you to go to the chair room since…" His eyes flicked to Teyla and Rodney. "Please have your second in command report here at once."
"Yes, Sir." Lorne strode away, relaying orders as he went.
"Can we identify the ship?" Rodney asked.
Woolsey's brows arched. "You think it might be Todd?"
"Well, I hope so," Rodney replied. "Unless another group of Wraith have found out where we are. Is the cloak on?"
"Yes," Chuck answered. "We raised it as soon as the cruiser registered on the sensors. No way to know if they spotted us, though. And we aren't detecting any type of signal to identify them."
"It is Todd," Teyla murmured, her eyes unfocused, staring into the distance. "He is…agitated. Something is wrong." Her forehead puckered as she concentrated. "The voices are quiet. No, silent." She shook her head. "No, that is still wrong. They are missing." Her gaze focused on Rodney. "When we were near his cruiser before, I could sense hundreds of them. Now, there are perhaps fifty."
Woolsey's face drained of color. "A mutiny?"
She shrugged. "I do not know."
The possibilities were endless, but one in particular made fear curl into a cold lump in Rodney's stomach. What if… No. He wouldn't even think it. But he might check it out. He moved to a station and initiated a scan of the cruiser. His knees wobbled when the results came back – no battle damage. Whatever had happened to Todd's crew hadn't been in a fight over a certain crazy Satedan and a crazier lieutenant colonel. There was still hope. Only eight more days until the Daedalus arrived.
"Hold on, guys," he whispered.
"Sir," Chuck called, "we are receiving a transmission from the cruiser. Audio and video."
Rodney climbed out of his seat and leaned over Chuck's shoulder. "The patch we made a couple of years ago should still work." He pressed a couple of keys. "Route it through there."
Chuck nodded and began working. Major Teldy, Lorne's second, entered and stood silently to the side. A moment later Todd's face appeared on the monitor.
"Ah, Doctor McKay and Teyla." He inclined his head slightly. "Your presence will allow this negotiation to move more quickly than I had anticipated."
Woolsey cleared his throat and stepped forward. "I am Richard Woolsey. We met when you were here before."
"I remember." Todd's lip curled in distaste. "What happened to Colonel Carter?"
"I am her replacement."
Todd's head tilted. "Are you now? A pity. I had hoped to have another opportunity to shake her hand."
Rodney looked at Woolsey. "What?"
"Never mind." Woolsey crossed his arms over his chest. "Why are you here?"
Todd frowned, glanced off to his left then turned back with an apologetic smile. "I wish to accept your previous offer. With a condition."
Hope gushed through Rodney, but Woolsey, to his credit, barely flinched. "What condition?"
"I wish to speak to the human who helped the one you call Michael create the virus."
Rodney wiggled a finger in his ear, certain he must have misunderstood. How did Todd know about Carson?
Woolsey's expression didn't change. "What are you talking about?"
Todd's eyes flicked to his left again and he jabbed a hand irritably before addressing Woolsey. "It was well-known among the Wraith that the Tainted One had one of your people. He could not have—"
"You knew?" Rodney snarled, leaning toward the monitor, gripping the console hard enough to leave fingerprints in the metal. "You goddamn son of a bitch! You knew he had him all this time and you never said anything?"
Todd's eyes widened innocently. "I told you where to find him."
"But you— I—" Rodney spluttered, glancing at Teyla who smiled calmly as she reached around him and muted the conversation.
She angled away from the camera so Todd couldn't see her face. "He is Wraith. Anything he says or does will always be to benefit him."
Woolsey turned as well. "You think he's up to something?"
"Of course," Teyla said. "If he is here and asking for more than we offered, he has something that he believes we will want."
"Suggestions?" Woolsey asked.
"Well, if we can't let Lorne take target practice with his ship, I say we ask him what he's got," Rodney said.
Teyla nodded. "I agree."
"Very well." Woolsey waited until Rodney unmuted the connection. "If we agree to let you speak with him, what do you offer in return?"
"John Sheppard and his friend."
"I see." Woolsey adjusted his glasses. "The man you refer to isn't here. I will need to make arrangements."
Todd cocked his head to the side, looking amused. "Then I shall wait."
"What?" Rodney exclaimed. "You aren't going to go get them? They could be dead if you wait much longer."
"If they are, you will get nothing," Teyla stated.
Woolsey's eyes narrowed then widened as his jaw tightened. "You already have them."
Todd smiled and gestured toward his left. Rodney sucked in a breath. Short of being dead, Ronon and Sheppard couldn't look any worse than they did when they stumbled into view. Ronon was filthy from head to toe, his hair matted, bruises and cuts on his face and arms, clothing in tatters, thin, exhausted. But Sheppard…
Sheppard was hunched over, leaning heavily against Ronon, his bare chest crisscrossed with scabbed-over scars from feedings. Healing lacerations and contusions peeked from under a layer of grime that sweat was carving rivulets through. Tremors shook him nonstop, his breath came in short pants, and cloudy eyes darted everywhere.
"Oh, my God," Rodney breathed. "You bastard!" He swallowed the rising bile. "What the hell did you do?"
Something indefinable shifted in Todd's expression. "This was not my doing."
Sheppard's head lifted. "McKay?" He jerked away from Ronon and lunged at Todd. "You touch any of my people and I'll kill you!"
Todd stepped back, his face impassive, and Ronon wrapped his arms around Sheppard from behind, turning him toward the camera. "McKay is on Atlantis, John. Look at the screen."
Sheppard squinted then relaxed a little. "Oh, hey, McKay. Hi, Teyla."
Rodney couldn't force any words out. He glanced down when Teyla's fingers laced through his. He squeezed back and blew out a couple of breaths while he cut the video feed to every monitor except the main one, and then looked up and smiled.
"Hey, Sheppard. How are you?"
"Been better." Sheppard grunted then doubled over for a second before huffing a laugh. "Withdrawal's a bitch."
Sheppard looked up, his eyes bright. "Don't give him a damn thing. That's an order."
Todd ignored him. "I will return Sheppard and Ronon to you once you have delivered all of your research on the virus and the human who created it."
"We don't have…" Rodney trailed off when Teyla's iron grip clamped around his wrist.
She stepped forward. "Where is your crew?" she asked Todd.
His eyes narrowed. "What are you doing?"
She took another step forward and closed her eyes. "What happened on your ship?"
Todd roared and shook his head. "If you try that again, I will kill them," he growled.
Teyla gasped, her eyes flying open. "Most of his crew died after they fed during a recent culling."
Woolsey tugged his jacket into place. "We will give you all of our research into the Hoffan virus, but it isn't possible to speak with Doctor Beckett."
"I need both. The doctor will not be harmed. Your people may observe."
"No, you don't understand. He isn't here," Woolsey replied.
"Then get him." Todd glanced toward Sheppard who was sweating profusely. "You might want to hurry."
"He's on Earth, you idiot," Rodney snapped.
"Rodney," Teyla admonished.
He pulled away from her and stepped toward the screen. "He's a cl— Michael experimented on him. He's recuperating back home. It would take weeks to get him here. Sheppard doesn't have that kind of time." Rodney spread his hands wide. "Carson recorded everything he could remember before he left. It's all in the research."
"Curing this plague is in the best interest of both our peoples," Teyla said. "We will give you the research, including all of Doctor Beckett's notes, but speaking with him is not possible."
Todd whirled and stalked toward Sheppard. Ronon backed away, pulling John with him, and collided with a drone. Rodney held his breath.
"Don't touch him," Ronon warned.
Todd leaned into Sheppard's face. "Will they let you die to protect the other one?"
Sheppard laughed. "You know they will. You were there last time."
Teyla moaned, a low pained sound that matched the ache in Rodney's chest.
"They're telling you the truth," Ronon said. "Beckett's really not there."
"Why should I believe you?" Todd asked.
"Because if you don't, you'll get nothing. Because if he dies, you'll have to kill me to stop me from killing you, and when you do that, Atlantis will blow your ship into a million pieces."
Todd studied Ronon for a minute then nodded. "You have a point." He turned to the camera. "You may send one of your ships to collect them. I will allow you to leave once I have received all the data."
The monitor went black.
"Have Major Lorne and a medical team report to the jumper bay immediately," Woolsey ordered, "and begin uploading the Hoffan research to Todd's cruiser."
"All of it?" Chuck asked.
"Every last bit," Woolsey confirmed then turned to Rodney and Teyla. "Go get them."
Rodney dashed down the stairs after Teyla toward the mission ready room then backtracked to find Major Teldy who was still in Ops. "Make sure the halls from the jumper bay to the infirmary are clear. I don't want to see anyone, and I mean anyone, when we take Sheppard and Ronon through there."
Teldy nodded. "I've already given the word. The way will be clear."
Rodney turned to go then paused and looked over his shoulder. "Thank you."
Then he ran faster than he'd ever run in his life.
Teyla fumbled with the zipper of the tac vest then stifled a scream and sat down, flexing her fingers and blowing out slow breaths that brought no calm. When boots pounded in the hallway, she schooled her features and tried the zipper again.
"Hey," Evan greeted as he entered, his hands automatically checking pockets and weapons, "where's… You okay?"
She nodded then shook her head. "I cannot get the zipper to work."
"Let me." Evan knelt in front of her and tugged the zipper into place. "They're going to be okay, you know."
"We've been searching for so long." Teyla closed her eyes and exhaled. "Thank you."
"Believe me, it's a good thing I already had mine on." Evan handed her a handgun and a radio. "Now, where's McKay?"
"Right here." Rodney skidded into the room and snatched a vest. "I had something to take care of." He got tangled in the straps and swore, the harsh Satedan consonants sounding quite wrong coming from his lips.
Teyla swallowed the hysterical giggle threatening to spill and glanced at Evan whose brows had shot toward his hairline.
"Is that even physically possible?" Evan asked.
Rodney shrugged. "Ronon says it is. Would somebody help me with this damn vest?"
Teyla batted his hands away and pulled it on then zipped it. "Perhaps Ronon will demonstrate for us."
Rodney blushed a delightful shade of red. "God, I hope not."
Evan plugged his headset into his radio and adjusted the earpiece. "We ready?"
Teyla fastened her thigh holster, slid another clip of bullets in her vest, and grabbed her P-90. "Yes."
"Wait." Rodney loaded his handgun then tucked a scanner in his pocket. "Let's go."
They dashed out the door and up the stairs to the jumper bay where Jennifer and Marie were pacing, both carrying large med kits. Evan raced up the ramp and had the jumper prepped by the time everything and everyone was loaded and settled.
"Flight, this Jumper One. Ready for departure," Evan said.
"Jumper One, this is Flight. You are a go."
Teyla resisted the urge to hug the back of Evan's seat as the bay's ceiling opened and the jumper lifted into the sky. Displays flickered and sensors beeped, but she kept all of her focus on the stars above them, searching for the cruiser that held the missing members of her family.
"There it is," Rodney whispered, his hands in constant motion.
She soaked in the sight, privately acknowledging the irony of being pleased to see a Wraith ship.
"What if it's a trick?" Rodney asked. "What if he takes us captive, too?"
Evan lined the jumper up with the opening to the dart bay. "Captain Billings is in the control chair, ready to blow it out of the sky on Woolsey's order."
Rodney stared at him. "That's not exactly comforting."
"Wasn't supposed to be." Evan landed the jumper then stood, switching off the safety on his P-90. "Let's hope it isn't a trick."
Marie flinched when something pounded on the rear hatch. "Sorry."
Teyla offered a quick smile as she raised her weapon. Evan and Rodney stood beside her, guns drawn, as the ramp lowered.
Ronon and John stood alone outside. They looked worse in person than they had on the viewscreen. John was barely upright, most of his weight slumped against Ronon and his head drooping to his chest. Ronon gazed at them with dull eyes and staggered sideways as another tremor shook John.
"Oh, God," Evan murmured.
Teyla rushed forward, but instinct told her not to touch. "It is good to see you."
John shivered uncontrollably. "G-g-good to be s-seen."
"Ronon?" Teyla frowned when he stared blankly at her. "Bring him in."
Nodding, Ronon followed her in, dragging a shuffling John at his side. He turned his body to block everyone from seeing John then helped him settle in the space between the bench and the bulkhead.
"Don't." Rodney grabbed Jennifer's wrist when she stood. "Let Teyla."
Teyla smiled gently at Ronon and moved toward him cautiously. "Ronon, do you know who I am?"
Exhausted eyes lifted to hers. "Yeah."
She knelt in front of him. "Do you trust me?"
"Jennifer and Marie are here to help. John is very sick, and they need to tend to him." When he blinked languidly at her, she reached out and placed her hand on the side of his face. "You are safe."
He stared at her, his eyes hollow and old. She held out a hand that he took, allowing her to pull him to his feet. They moved to the other end of the bench to give Jennifer and Marie room to work. Rodney babbled to John about Batman and chess and anything else that came to his mind. She didn't think John was listening, too busy scratching his arms and neck, until Rodney stopped. John's head whipped up, his eyes wild as he clutched at Rodney's sleeve.
"Okay, okay, um, sure." Rodney sent Teyla a pleading glance. "What should we talk about?"
"Anything," John insisted, clawing at the floor. "Just talk."
"Colonel, I need you to hold as still as possible so we can insert the IV needle," Jennifer said. "Can you do that?"
John's hand fisted in Rodney's jacket. "I'll try." Veins bulged in his neck and his back arched, but the shakes slowed to twitches.
Jennifer inserted the needle and taped it quickly. "You did great." She glanced to the cockpit. "Major?"
Evan shook his head. "Bay doors are still closed. Atlantis completed the upload a few minutes ago. I guess the Wraith are verifying it."
John cried out, writhing.
"What's wrong, Colonel?" Jennifer asked.
"Muscle cramps," Ronon answered.
While Jennifer dug frantically through the kit for the proper medicine and Marie massaged John's calf, Teyla scrutinized Ronon. His eyes never left John, his fists were clenched, and every muscle was as tight as the string on a bow. He quaked under the strain of holding himself together and watching him do so was almost more than she could bear. Unable to sit and do nothing, she spotted a pack of antiseptic wipes and took a few, gathering his hand in hers.
He pulled away. "Sheppard first."
She reached for his hand again and wiped the cool cloth over bruised knuckles and sliced skin. "Jennifer and Marie are helping him. You need attention as well."
"Doors are opening," Evan announced. "We're outta here."
As the jumper headed into space, Teyla continued cleaning Ronon's hand, washing away layers of blood and dirt, wishing she could take away the events that put them there.
"No, wait!" John screeched, struggling to get up. "We have to go back. We don't have any enzyme."
Ronon jumped but Teyla blocked his path. "Sit and let us care for him."
Rodney grappled with John, trying to catch his flailing limbs, squawking as a fist slammed into his eye. "Ow! Damn it, Sheppard. That hurt!"
"Let go of me!" John kicked and squirmed. "I need— I need…" He sagged, his mood changing like a switch had been flipped. "Help me," he begged. "Make it stop."
Rodney clenched his teeth so tight the muscle in his jaw jumped. "I know it hurts. We'll be home soon."
"Home?" John blinked rapidly and grabbed Rodney's arm. "McKay?"
"Yep, it's me, your good friend, Rodney McKay. You're breaking my arm."
John craned his neck. "Ronon?"
"Right here, buddy." Ronon pulled away from Teyla and climbed over Jennifer to crouch at John's side. "How are you doing?"
John frowned, his eyes darting between Ronon and Rodney. "Is this a trick?"
"No," Ronon said. "We're almost home."
"Teyla? Where's Teyla?"
"Here." She stepped over Jennifer and knelt between Ronon and Rodney. "I am here, John."
John squeezed Rodney's shoulder and brushed shaking fingers along Teyla's jaw then looked to Ronon. "We made it."
Ronon nodded, swallowing thickly, and glanced toward Lorne then gasped and stood. "Come here, Sheppard. You gotta see this." He reached down and pulled John to his feet.
"He needs medical attention," Jennifer said.
"He needs this more," Ronon answered, helping John to the co-pilot seat.
Atlantis lay below them, a golden glow in the deepening twilight as the sun set behind it. John clung to the armrests, trembling but mesmerized by the sight. Ronon's entire body shook, his fingers denting the chair's headrest, but his shoulders relaxed a little.
"God, she's beautiful," John whispered.
Evan smiled and suddenly they were soaring over the spires and swooping between towers. John's expression softened as he stared out the window then his mouth twisted in a grimace and he doubled over, clutching his stomach. Ronon eased him out of the chair when the convulsions began.
"Doc," Evan called.
"Home, now, Major," Jennifer instructed as she pushed past Ronon to kneel at John's side.
"Already on it," Evan replied. "Auto-pilot is engaging."
By the time they landed, John was screaming and thrashing wildly. It took all six of them to get him onto a gurney and strapped down.
"Wait!" Ronon called as they sprinted for the door. "Sheppard wouldn't want—"
"I took care of it," Rodney said. "No one will see him."
They dashed through empty hallways to the infirmary suite where three nurses waited. Teyla recognized them as the ones who had spent the most time with Tyre and Ronon during their withdrawal. They wheeled John into the isolation room, and his screams were cut off when the sound-proof doors closed.
Ronon slammed a fist against the door. "Sheppard!"
Teyla laid her hands on his shoulder. "Let them do their work. He is safe with them."
Ronon jerked away and stalked across the room.
"Oh, my God." Rodney leaned against the wall and jammed his fingers through his hair. "Did you see his chest? How many times did they feed on him?"
Ronon kicked the far wall and spun around. "I don't know."
Rodney's brows shot up. "You don't know? How can you not know?"
"I wasn't there!"
Rodney pushed away from the wall. "Where the hell were you?"
"Stop it," Teyla commanded. "Now. There is no blame here."
"I—" Rodney closed his eyes. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean it that way."
Ronon turned his back.
Teyla touched Rodney's elbow. "Go brief Mr. Woolsey. Jennifer should have John settled by the time you finish."
He glanced toward Ronon, who was pacing in ever smaller circles, then nodded and left.
Teyla sighed and stepped toward him. "You know that Rodney does not always think before he speaks. He has worked tirelessly to find you. He is—"
"Right." Ronon turned toward her, arms crossed tightly over his chest. "He's right. I should have been with him." He blew out a shaky breath as he pressed himself into the corner. "I should have gotten to him before they…they…"
"Ronon." Teyla reached for him but he shrank away from her and sank to the floor.
"I did things…" He leaned his head back, staring at the ceiling. "…things I swore I'd never do." Tears trickled unheeded down his face. "The look on his face when I…"
Teyla's heart twisted. "You did what you had to do to survive. John knows that."
His breath hitched as his chin dipped toward his chest. "You don't know what I did."
"But I know you." She sat down and scooted next to him. "I know that both of you are still alive." She clasped his hand between hers. "I know that you do not have to tell me anything, but I am here if you wish to talk." She winced as his crushing grip tightened on her fingers. "I know that nothing you say will change my love for you."
He leaned forward, shoulders shaking. Ignoring the stench and the grime, Teyla wrapped her arms around him and pulled him to her, stroking his hair and humming softly.
John remembered the jumper and screaming then nothing. Finally, the pain dimmed enough that he became aware of his surroundings, and he found himself in the infirmary with people in gowns and gloves flitting around him. Every inch of his body hurt. Muscles spasmed, his insides throbbed, and his throat felt like he'd swallowed sandpaper.
"Doc?" he rasped.
Keller's head whipped up from the data pad she'd been studying. "Colonel?" She handed the pad to a nurse. "Have her check those results again. They can't be right." She turned back to him. "I know you are in pain. We are analyzing blood samples now. We'll give you something as soon as we are sure it's safe."
"Okay." John blew out a breath and glanced around. "Ronon?"
"Doctor Cole is looking after him." Keller's eyes flitted over the monitor by his head. "Besides being pumped full of enzyme, are you hurt anywhere else?"
"Don't think so." He twisted as a cramp rippled across his abdomen but his body wouldn't move. He glanced down. Restraints.
"Sorry," Keller said. "We had to get you off the jumper quickly and you were thrashing so we…" She gestured at the cuffs on his wrists and ankles. "I'll have them taken off."
"No." John shook his head. "Leave them. You'll need them."
She hesitated. "Are you sure?"
The nurse from earlier returned and handed the pad to Keller. "Doctor Chen says these results are correct."
Keller frowned at the data pad. "I don't understand." She looked at John, her gaze drifting to his chest. "Colonel, were you…fed on by more than one Wraith?"
John clenched his fists, riding out another spasm and fighting the memories. "Why?"
"Enzyme is unique to each Wraith. It has markers and proteins, some of which apparently shouldn't be mixed, like different blood types can't be mixed. We're showing at least four distinct enzyme types in your system and they are fighting each other."
"What does that mean?"
"It means it's going to get worse before it gets better."
"Great." John huffed a laugh. "Just what I needed." He inhaled sharply as pain rocketed down his spine. "Am I going to die?"
"Not if I can help it," Keller replied. "We'll do everything we can, but it's going to be rough." She bit her lip. "And with the way these enzymes are reacting, painkillers aren't an option. Try to remember that."
"I'll try." John arched up when the convulsion began, feeling a scream rip from his raw throat before he was lost again in the haze of pain.
Time passed in a blur. Nothing in his world made sense. He was home, but he was tied down. Agony lanced through him, sharp bolts that sizzled down nerve endings and made muscles spasm, but no one would make it stop. He cajoled and wheedled then begged and threatened then shouted and cried, but the pain didn't end. He was never alone, though. Every time he woke, one of his team was by his side – washing his face with a damp cloth, holding his hand, rubbing healing creams on his wounds, but mostly talking. The words weren't much more than noise, but he clung to the voices. They could be trusted, unlike the ones in his head.
As the hours passed, the true voices grew louder until the whispers in his mind became an echo of a memory. After a couple of days, the pain faded and the words formed ideas and concepts that he understood.
"…vow to not cut his hair until his enemies were defeated. Sorgath Nur, author of the Code of Warriors—"
"Is that why you don't cut yours?" John asked.
Ronon's head jerked up, eyes wide over the top of the book. "Sheppard?"
"Hey, big guy." John smiled tiredly. "You look better."
"You, too." Ronon's gaze darted away. "I better get Keller."
"Ronon, wait." John paused until Ronon met his eyes. "I wanted to say, I mean, you know, for everything you did…"
"Sheppard, you don't have to—"
"Yes, I do." He tugged against the restraints then took a calming breath and tried again. "You saved my life, several times. I don't know how you found me on that hive, but you did, and you found me again when that Wraith…" John clenched his eyes shut as the memory returned unbidden – Jack's hand pressed to his chest, ripping the life from him, giving it back, enzyme coursing through his veins.
"John." Ronon was leaning over him, shaking him.
"Sorry," John choked out, sucking in a delicious lungful of briny Atlantis air.
Ronon patted his shoulder. "I know how you feel."
"Yeah, I guess you do." John ignored the blush heating his face. "Anyway, I wanted to say thank you. You kept me alive, and you didn't let me do anything…stupid." The blush grew hotter. "Even though I tried. And I said some things—"
"Enzyme makes you stupid, remember?"
"Good, 'cause I didn't do anything you haven't already done for me." Ronon set the Satedan history book down and stood. "I'll get Keller."
After he left, John tested the restraints again, trying to not think about how much it felt like being held in that cocoon. The silence was unnerving. Every beep and click of the medical equipment startled him. Circulating air wafted from the vent nearby, tickling his nose. He attempted to scratch the itch with his shoulder but the angle was off. He fidgeted, counted the dots on the ceiling tile, recited all the best one-liners from The Princess Bride.
"Come on, Ronon," he urged.
He pulled against the straps. They still wouldn't budge. He closed his eyes, knowing that Teyla swore meditation made everything better, but images popped into his mind – leering Wraith faces, greedy hands sucking the life from him, cocoons and egg pods and lifeless bodies. He was trapped. He struggled but couldn't get away. Oh, God, he was going to die. He couldn't breathe.
"Get them off him now!"
"I'm trying, McKay. Hold him still."
"Be calm, John."
Gentle hands cupped his face while others pressed on his arms. Suddenly his wrists were free and he bolted upright, gasping for air.
"Relax, Sheppard." Rodney grasped his shoulders. "You're hyperventilating. You have too much oxygen in your lungs. Slow, even breaths." He held John's hand to his chest. "Like this."
John nodded, doing his best to match his breathing to Rodney's. After a few minutes, the tightness in his chest dissipated, and he slumped back, exhausted, finally noticing the others in the room.
"Hey," he said, feeling humiliated. "Sorry for the drama."
"There is no need to apologize," Teyla said.
Ronon tapped his leg. "Flashbacks suck."
"Why don't you three grab a bite to eat while I do a quick exam," Keller suggested, pulling the curtain to cut off any arguments. "How are you doing, Colonel?"
John scrubbed a hand over his face. "Better now, but maybe you should tell me."
Keller listened to his heart and lungs then drew some blood. "We'll have this analyzed, but I suspect it will come back clean. The last batch showed almost all of the enzyme has left your system."
"Physically, about the same as you minus the enzyme. Mostly scrapes and bruises. He was a little dehydrated and undernourished, but we've taken care of that. You had a particularly nasty laceration on your back that was slightly infected and of course," she waved at his chest, "those."
John glanced down, surprised to see neat white bandages dotting his chest.
"How are you, really?"
He met her eyes. "Right now, I'm just grateful to be alive."
She nodded and squeezed his hand. "We're happy to have you back." She notated his chart then studied him for a moment. "You're going to need to talk to Doctor Sanders."
The psychiatrist was a kind man with a military background and he exuded a peace that put John at ease. While John had difficulty talking about his experiences and his feelings, he understood the need for the evaluation. He'd seen too many soldiers try to tough it out on their own and crack under the strain later. He would tell Sanders what he could, though not all. Never all. Some things couldn't be shared.
"Would you like something to eat?" Keller asked.
At the mention of food, John's mouth watered and his stomach growled. "Absolutely. What's on the menu?"
"Let's try some clear liquids first since you haven't eaten in a while. If you can tolerate that, we'll move up to something more substantial."
Keller snorted. "Like pudding. Steak comes later."
The broth she brought him was a hit. He was slurping down the last bit when his team returned, smelling of fajitas and chocolate chip cookies. His grumbling over not being brought any was interrupted by a jaw-cracking yawn. He wriggled until he was comfortable and let the voices of his team lull him to sleep.
Nightmares dogged him. He jerked awake for the third time in an hour, his mouth filled with the bitter taste of adrenaline and rage. He sucked in air between clenched teeth and exhaled through his nose, trying to get his breathing under control and to make the damn heart monitor stop shrieking.
"John?" Teyla hovered off to his right. "What do you need?"
"The last month of my life back," he snapped then grimaced. "Sorry. Didn't mean to take it out on you."
"You have no need to apologize." Teyla handed him a cup of water which he gulped. "If I could give the time back, I would."
He laid his head back and stared at the ceiling, hating the irritation that bubbled over. "I don't want pity."
"I do not offer it." She was so quiet he finally lifted his head to see if she was still there. She was. "You, Ronon, and Rodney are part of my family. Our souls are intertwined." She held his hand with both of hers, stroking her thumbs over his knuckles. "When you hurt, I hurt."
His throat tightened at her touch, the gentleness such a stark contrast to the memories swirling in his mind that his chest twisted painfully with emotion. He clenched his eyes shut and swallowed the sob that threatened to break free.
She pressed her forehead to his. "Do not let what happened destroy you. Do not hold on to the hate and anger. Let it go." She pulled away. "I will return in a few minutes."
When the door snicked shut behind her, John turned his face to the pillow and let the tears fall.
The next morning, he felt better until he freaked when the nurse's stethoscope wiggled near his head, convincing him an Iratus bug was attacking. He was still floundering in a sea of rage when McKay entered, tray piled high, talking before he even sat down. John plastered a smile on his face and nibbled on his toast and oatmeal while McKay babbled.
"What I don't understand is where Ronon learned how to blow up a cruiser."
John paused, spoon half-way to his mouth. "What are you talking about?"
"Oh, um," Rodney gulped down coffee, "he said that was how he got you out. He blew up a cruiser as a distraction."
"A Wraith cruiser."
"What other kind of cruiser would there be on a Wraith planet?"
John rolled his eyes. "I don't know where he learned it unless it was from watching you do it. What did he say when you asked?"
Rodney flushed a rosy pink. "I didn't ask."
"Why not?" John stirred his oatmeal absently.
"He's not, you know, speaking to me right now." Rodney winced. "I kinda accused him of letting you get hurt."
The spoon clattered on the tray table. "You did what?"
"I didn't mean to," Rodney protested. "I asked a question and it came out all wrong."
"McKay," John sighed, groaning inwardly. "He saved my life, more than once."
"I know that." Rodney pushed his food away and hunched forward, elbows on knees. "I've apologized, but he won't listen." He glanced up, eyes filled with remorse. "I don't know what to do, John."
"I'll talk to him." John sipped his juice and eyed Rodney's leftover scrambled eggs and bacon. "How are things in the lab?"
Rodney brightened and launched into a litany of complaints about incompetent scientists and unfinished experiments. John nodded in the appropriate places while he contemplated Ronon. His friend had always carried the burden of Sateda but it had seemed lighter until Tyre betrayed him. The crushing guilt of becoming a Wraith worshiper had lifted during their kayak race, but John had noticed Ronon's bowed shoulders and unwillingness to meet his eyes the past couple of days.
When Rodney took a breath, John asked, "Have you been back to Liros?"
McKay's brows knitted together. "Where?"
"The planet we went to for the race. M8I…"
"Oh, yeah. M8I-548. There were a few survivors. Captain Johnson is heading up the rebuild. Lorne sent a couple of squads. Why?"
John smiled, relieved to have something new to occupy his mind. "I have an idea."
Ronon stumbled when the stick smacked his knee. He whirled to block the next blow, but Teyla ducked and spun, attacking from his blind side. They landed in a tangle of limbs and despite his best efforts, she pinned him quickly. He shoved at her, but she held him down then sat on his chest.
"When did you last sleep?"
"Went to my quarters after my shift with Sheppard."
Teyla thumped his shoulder with a bantos rod when he tried to rise. "I did not ask when you were in your quarters. I asked when you were asleep."
"I slept…" He stopped fighting when she arched a brow at him. "I don't know. What difference does it make?"
"The difference is Jinto could defeat you right now." She rolled smoothly to her feet and offered him a hand up. "Perhaps you should reconsider Doctor Keller's suggestion."
"I don't want any drugs. I'm fine." Ronon stomped to the bench and chugged some water. "Doc said so."
"Jennifer said your body was healthy enough to go back to active duty," Teyla corrected, dabbing at her face with a towel. "But we both know your mind is not."
Rage flooded through him and before he realized what he was doing, he was charging at Teyla, stick raised high over his head. She deflected the blow easily and planted an elbow in his sternum and a forearm to his head. He reeled backward, landing hard. She twisted his arm behind his head until his muscles quivered from the strain.
"Your anger and exhaustion are making you reckless. You are not fit for a team right now. I will not have you endangering my life or yours or anyone else's." She released him then crouched in front of him. "I have read your report and John's, and I know both of you well enough to imagine all the parts you left out. What you went through was…unspeakable, but you survived. It is in your past now. Leave it there."
He sat up and wrapped his arms around his knees. "I'm trying. It's following me."
"I understand." She gave a small smile and sat next to him. "I still dream of Michael."
"What do you do?"
She sighed and brushed hair from her eyes. "I hold Torren and Kanaan. I remind myself that the only power Michael has over me is what I give him. I meditate. I know," she held up a hand, "that you do not care for it, but it relaxes me. And if that doesn't work, I take the pills Jennifer gave me."
"There is no shame in seeking help when you need it." She patted his hand then gathered her belongings and left.
Ronon stared after her, lost in thought. He had resisted taking the drugs, preferring to rely on his own strength to get him through the night terrors and flashbacks, but now he wondered if it had been the right choice. In the week since their return, he had eaten his fill, luxuriated in the shower, and enjoyed the comforts Atlantis offered. Sleep was elusive, though, and his body was paying the price. He snapped at people over stupid things, couldn't concentrate. His coordination sucked, and his reflexes were dull. Teyla was right; he'd get somebody killed if they went off-world.
He climbed to his feet, stuffed his towel and water bottle in his bag, and headed to the infirmary. Keller was at a worktable, frowning at a data pad. He took a quick left, detouring to Sheppard's room. The door was open, and he peeked in. McKay was bent over a laptop, typing furiously and muttering to himself. Sheppard was curled on his side, limbs loose in sleep. His hair had been trimmed to its normal spikiness, his beard was gone, and the few bruises still showing were a mottled yellow. A scrub top hid most of the scars. He looked safe.
Something that had been coiled tightly in Ronon's gut unwound a little.
Ronon flinched when McKay's voice caught him off-guard, reminding him why he'd come to the infirmary. "Hey."
McKay set his laptop aside and approached. "Keller's running the last round of tests. If they're clear, she's going to release him."
"Good." Ronon turned to go.
"Ronon, what I said—"
"No, it's not."
Ronon glanced back over his shoulder.
"I really didn't mean to…" McKay shoved his hands in his pockets and rocked back on his heels. "You're always there, you know, racing in at the last minute to stop the bad stuff from happening. I guess I took it for granted. What happened to Sheppard wasn't your fault."
Anger flared for a second, but Ronon wrestled it back down. "Yeah, I know."
"Oh, okay." McKay turned and took a step then turned back. "I'm glad you're home."
The sincerity in the statement caught Ronon by surprise, and he felt a genuine smile blossom. "Thanks, McKay. It's good to be home."
McKay smiled in return then flushed and shrugged awkwardly. "Okay, well, see you later."
Ronon nodded and slipped out to find Keller who looked relieved as she handed over a packet of pills and a page of instructions. He went to his quarters, dialed down the lights and the temperature, swallowed a pill, and lay down. He slept through the night for the first time in weeks.
Determined to not rely on the pills, Ronon used them only when absolutely necessary, battling his demons by himself as much as he could. Based on the bags under Sheppard's eyes, he wasn't the only one. He spent the required time in Doctor Sanders' office, haltingly recounting their time with the Wraith in broad strokes. Sanders never pushed for details and Ronon rarely offered them, but the man was sharp, able to see through the camouflage without calling him on it.
He and Sheppard spent the next week getting their strength back – jogging, eating, sparring, eating, sleeping, eating. At first, they ate in the infirmary under Keller's watchful eye. Teyla brought a selection of fruit from New Athos and set it by their beds. Whenever Ronon had the urge to horde, he glanced at the bowl and reminded himself that food was always available. When Sheppard was released, they began taking meals in his quarters. Ronon pretended to not notice the wrappers crinkling in Sheppard's pockets when he walked. While he never actually ate any of the PowerBars in Ronon's presence, he kept his hands in his pockets most of the time.
McKay and Teyla dropped by occasionally at mealtime, inviting them to the mess hall, smiling patiently when they declined, bringing them trays filled to overflowing. He and Sheppard didn't discuss their reluctance to be in public; they just didn't go out when most of the population was around, choosing to jog in the early morning hours and spar late at night. Ronon assumed Sheppard's reason was the same as his – too many eyes watching – but he knew they'd have to face it eventually.
One morning after their jog, Ronon decided it was time. He clapped Sheppard on the shoulder when they reached his room. "I'm going to shower. Meet you back here in a few minutes and we'll go get breakfast."
Sheppard hesitated in the doorway, startled. "You want to go to the mess?"
Ronon held his gaze, watching the discomfort flicker in his eyes. "You up to it?"
Sheppard's hand strayed to the neck of his t-shirt then he made a fist and stuffed it in his pocket. "Yeah. I'll be ready."
Ronon nodded and hurried to his room, stripping off sweaty clothes and rinsing off. He pulled on the shirt and pants that made him feel the most like himself and the new boots Teyla had bought him then went back to Sheppard's quarters.
Sheppard was in his regular uniform, sitting on his bed lacing his boots. Ronon didn't question his choice, although Sheppard was not on duty, or the fact that the overshirt was buttoned to the top.
Sheppard slapped his hands on his thighs and stood. "Yep."
They walked to the transporter and stepped out on the mess hall level. Ronon kept his eyes focused on the entrance, ignoring the gawking scientist and the two Marines who snapped to attention when they passed. When they entered, Sheppard's chin lifted and he nodded casually to the folks in line as he grabbed a tray and perused the food choices. Only someone who knew him like Ronon did would see the stiffness in his spine and the tension in his shoulders. Ronon stood to his left and a step back, blocking anyone from coming at Sheppard from behind.
A few people spoke or waved a welcome, but most followed them with their eyes, conversations pausing as they passed. When they sat down, Sheppard's forced smile vanished and a hand sneaked unconsciously to his collar. Ronon glared at the scientists at the next table until they flushed and turned back to their food.
Sheppard stirred his coffee. "Wonder where McKay and Teyla are."
"It's early for McKay. Teyla's probably feeding Torren." Ronon made himself chew the bacon slowly.
"Oh." Sheppard looked at his watch. "Guess so." He glanced around then folded his bacon in a piece of toast and took a big bite. "God, that's good."
Ronon grunted in agreement, trying to not swallow the entire bresha in one bite. He'd missed fruits and vegetables more than he'd thought possible.
"Hey, there you are!" McKay's voice rang over the chatter.
Irritation flickered on Sheppard's face as every head turned their way until he caught sight of McKay and burst out laughing. Ronon followed his gaze and snorted juice out of his nose.
McKay was blue, a vivid blue that might actually glow in the dark. His face, his hands, his teeth and eyes.
"What the hell happened to you?" Sheppard choked out.
McKay blinked innocently. "What?"
"What?" Sheppard repeated. "What do you mean, what? Have you looked in the mirror lately?"
"Oh, this?" McKay held up his hands. "I had a run-in with a disgruntled piece of tech. Keller says it will fade in a couple of days." He dropped his tray on the table and scooted his chair up. "It's fascinating really. Apparently it's a child's toy. You can turn your entire body any color you want. Even my—"
"Oh, God, please." Sheppard held up a hand. "Don't go any further."
"May I join you?" Teyla asked.
"If you can stand to be seen with us," Sheppard replied, bracing an elbow on the table, his smile genuine.
"I think I can manage." Teyla took a seat. "What are your plans for the day?"
Sheppard launched into a list of things he had to do, starting with going through a million or so emails. Teyla listened, nodding thoughtfully, while McKay shoveled in breakfast, oblivious to the stares and giggles around him. That's when Ronon saw it, the almost imperceptible wink from Teyla and the answering flash of a grin from McKay. Rodney might not be subtle but he was effective. No one in the room gave Ronon or Sheppard a second glance.
For the first time since they had returned, Ronon felt normal.
Being classified as available for light duty didn't have a whole lot of meaning for Ronon other than his team was not allowed to go on missions. He trained with the Marines, but only the ones he considered advanced and only with someone else in the room in case his rage got the better of him. Sheppard, on the other hand, had paperwork. Lots of paperwork – personnel evaluations and requesitions, inventory, mission reports.
Ronon was certain he got the better end of the deal.
Life was slowly reverting to routine. Ronon was sleeping through the night, usually without the aid of pills. He and Sheppard walked down the halls without people wanting to touch them or stare. Teyla and McKay could be in the same room with them and not have to glance at them every five seconds to make sure they were still there. Sheppard still flinched when someone reached toward him, but at least the panic attacks had stopped.
Ronon and Sheppard were leaving the Wraith language class Doctor Phillips taught when the citywide intercom burst to life.
"All available personnel to the gateroom. Refugees are incoming."
"Refugees?" Ronon asked.
Sheppard shrugged. "Don't know anything about it."
They hustled to the gateroom as the gate burst to life. A couple of filthy Marines staggered through followed by a mass of people and animals.
"What the hell?" Sheppard muttered, hurrying down the stairs and disappearing into the throng.
The noise was deafening – children screaming, people sobbing, animals squealing and yelping, even a couple of wagons squeaking across the floor. Woolsey was shouting orders from the control room overhang while Teyla darted down and grabbed the hand of an elderly man. Scientists and doctors converged, trying to separate the injured from the merely terrified.
Ronon caught snatches of conversation as he waded through the horde to where two women were pushing a cart filled with valuables. A quake had destroyed their village and the valley where it had been was flooding. He knew the Athosians would take these people in, and he was sure the Marines who'd brought them here instead of the alpha site were going to get a lecture from Sheppard that would make a lasting impression.
He moved the cart out of the way and led the women toward a nurse then turned, searching for Sheppard in hopes of catching part of that lecture.
"Damn," he whispered.
Sheppard was on the other side of the room, pinned in a corner by three hysterical teenage girls. Which would usually be amusing to Ronon except that they were clawing at Sheppard's chest. John was doing his best to free himself without hurting them, but they wouldn't let go, their nails raking over his shirt as they clutched it in their fists. Sheppard's face was bone white and his body jerked as he gasped. A panic attack was imminent.
Ronon shoved his way towards Sheppard, but the crowd was thick and unruly, pushing and shouting as soldiers yelled orders. No matter which way Ronon tried to move, people were there, clogging up his access to Sheppard.
Then Lorne appeared, all charming smiles and soft assurances as he herded the girls away from John. Before anyone else could approach, Zelenka moved in front of Sheppard, his face buried in a data pad as he carved a path through the people to an exit. Sheppard followed on his heels and disappeared down the corridor. Zelenka's eyes flicked toward the hallway then he nodded at Lorne and returned to the control room. Ronon exchanged smiles with Lorne as he hurried past, deeply satisfied to know that others were as protective of Sheppard as he was. Well, almost as much as him anyway.
He found Sheppard on a small balcony near the jumper bay, the one he went to when he wanted to fly but couldn't. Sheppard had a white-knuckled grip on the railing as he dry-heaved over the side. Ronon waited patiently until Sheppard took a deep breath and slid to the floor.
Ronon sat opposite him. "You okay?"
Sheppard folded his arms on top of his knees and rested his forehead on them. "I thought so until about ten minutes ago." He looked up. "How long is this going to last?"
"Don't know," Ronon said. "I still have flashbacks from when Tyre took me."
Ronon flushed. "Yeah. Doc Sanders says they'll go away in time."
"What if I can't do this anymore?" Sheppard leaned his head back and stared at the sky. "What if I freak out every time someone touches me like that?"
A smile flashed then was gone. "You sound so certain."
"I am certain." Ronon leaned forward. "Look at me." He waited until Sheppard's eyes drifted to him. "No one expects you to be a hundred percent but you. It takes time. Trust me, I know. But you'll get there."
"How do you know?"
Ronon smiled. "I know you. And it's okay if you stumble sometimes. We've got your back – me and Teyla and McKay, plus Lorne and Zelenka and everyone else here. You're not alone."
"I know." Sheppard ran his fingers through his hair and scratched the back of his neck, trying to hide the blush staining his cheeks. "Thanks."
Ronon shoved Sheppard's knee with a booted foot. "You think Woolsey's got the gateroom cleaned up yet?"
Sheppard's mouth twitched. "I say we don't go to find out. After all, we're still on light duty." He glanced up at the sky and cocked an eyebrow. "Wanna go for a ride?"
"You allowed to fly?"
The smirk blossomed into a wicked grin. "I haven't asked today."
Ronon stood and pulled Sheppard to his feet. "Then let's go."
Finally the day came when Keller and Sanders declared both of them ready to return to active mission status.
Ronon was cleaning his blaster when his door chimed. "It's open."
The door slid open and Sheppard strolled in. "Hey." He spotted the weapon and grinned. "Teyla told me they recovered that."
Ronon snapped the energy cell in. "Yeah." He twirled it and stared down the sight. "What's up?"
"Grab your gear. Enough for a couple of days."
"Where are we going?"
Sheppard's smile was enigmatic. "You'll see."
Ronon kicked through the pile of clothes in his floor and grabbed his favorite leathers and a long duster coat. He crammed them in a bag along with his whet stone, two throwing spikes, and a dagger. A box of cherry Poptarts, a canteen, and clean socks went in as well. He slung the bag over his shoulder and headed to the gateroom where Teyla and McKay were already kitted out and waiting, Teyla looking amused and McKay looking like McKay.
"Where's Sheppard?" he asked.
McKay waved a hand toward Ops. "Said he forgot something."
"Sorry," Sheppard called, slipping a folded paper in his vest and jogging down the stairs. "You ready?"
Ronon spread his hands. "Yeah. You gonna tell me where we're going?"
"Chuck, dial it up for us." Sheppard adjusted his P-90 and kept his eyes on the gate. "It's been a while since we've worked together as a team. Thought we might spend a little time together."
McKay wrinkled his nose. "You're not going to make us hold hands and sing, are you?"
"Yeah, McKay, that sounds like me, doesn't it?" Sheppard retorted.
"I'm just saying I don't do touchy-feely kumbaya stuff."
"I'm shocked to hear that." Sheppard blew out a deep breath as the wormhole formed. "Let's go."
Ronon kept his hand on his blaster as he stepped through, gasping when he emerged on the other side. "Liros?"
"Yes," Sheppard answered softly.
The booths and flags near the gate were gone. So were the people. Sheppard led the way toward the village in the distance. As they neared, Ronon spotted Marine BDUs among the native garb. The scents of paint and freshly cut wood mixed with roasting meat.
"Survivors?" Ronon asked.
Teyla nodded. "Two hundred and twelve. They insisted on rebuilding. Halling has offered a portion of our crops in exchange for their assistance during harvest."
They stayed for about an hour. Sheppard chatted with the Marines while McKay consulted with one of the engineers on some building specs. Teyla played with the children, and Ronon walked through the new buildings, wondering how long they would stand and how long these people could last before they realized that their numbers were too few to survive as a society.
Despite the mid-afternoon sun, the chill in the air was enough to make him take his duster from his bag. He shook it out and pulled it on then turned as Sheppard approached.
Sheppard grinned. "Now we do what we came here for."
"You forgot to mention how cold it is here." McKay zipped his jacket higher. "I suppose the water is this cold, too."
Ronon turned to Sheppard. "Water?"
"Thought we might try going down the river again." Sheppard waggled his brows. "You up for it?"
"Gotta build our own boat again?" Ronon asked.
"Excuse me?" McKay interrupted. "Did you say 'build'?"
"I told you that before," Sheppard said.
"But I didn't think you were serious. Who builds their own boats?"
"My people do," Teyla said.
"Well, um…" McKay's face reddened. "Good, because I'm sure neither of these two know how."
Teyla smiled. "I did not say that I built them, Rodney. I have never constructed a boat in my life."
McKay turned to Sheppard. "Tell me you know what you're doing."
"Of course, I know, Rodney."
"Oh, God, we are all going to die."
Sheppard laughed as he began hiking toward the riverhead. "Come on."
Ronon leaned forward. "Did you memorize the instructions from last time?" he whispered.
"Nope." Sheppard pulled the folded paper from his vest. "Printed new ones."
"Think he'll notice?"
"He will when I give it to him. It's printed in Ancient."
Ronon chuckled. "Couldn't get Zelenka to print it in English?"
"Didn't need to," Sheppard said. "I trust the two of you to figure it out."
"Absolutely." Sheppard clapped Ronon on the shoulder. "I know I can depend on you."