There is nothing. No sound, no light, nothing to touch, taste or smell. No sense of the passage of time to give any meaning to the endless eternity. It is like floating aimlessly in a black cloud, not knowing which way is up or down, or even if there is any direction in which to go at all.
Gradually, though, certain sensations can be felt. Cold. Sharp, stabbing cold. Something hard below—lying down? Sound. Beeps, whirrs, a low hum. Computer. Is that what it's called?
Suddenly, there is a jolt of pain. Eyes open and are immediately blinded by the harsh light shining from above.
The mental voice is familiar. Scattered fragments of thought and memory whirl in and out of reach. Finally, a name bubbles up.
A shape blurs into focus. A man—no—a thing shaped like a man. A hard suit of metal and polymer plates. A mirrored helmet conceals the face.
Lips move, struggle to form words, to speak aloud.
Pain again, more intense this time. All she can do is scream.
"What? Are you kidding me?"
"It's no joke."
"The President is coming here? How the heck are they going to get him here without the public finding out?"
John Sheppard shrugged. "Dunno yet. Woolsey and Colonel Carter were talking about beaming him into the city from—" he waved vaguely— "wherever he'll be."
"Huh." Rodney McKay crammed the last bite of a PowerBar into his mouth as they stepped into McKay's lab. "Well, this had better not interfere with our repair efforts. Even with the cloak, we can't stay sitting outside San Francisco forever."
"We'll get it done."
"You mean, I'll get it done, since I'm the only one who knows these systems well enough to get them back online for the trip back to Pegasus."
Sheppard frowned. "About that… we may not be going back to Pegasus."
"Well, now that Atlantis is here in the Milky Way, the IOA doesn't seem to want us to leave."
"Oh, you have got to be kidding! Do they even realize what we've left behind back in Pegasus? There's a wealth of unexplored Ancient sites we still haven't documented that may have, oh, let's see—more ZedPMs! Which we're in dire need of considering we nearly drained the three we had just getting here! And who knows what else! We need to be there to find it! Have they even thought about that?" He paused mid-tirade. "Hey, what about Teyla? Kanaan and Torren are here, but the rest of the Athosians are back on New Athos and don't even know what happened! And I can't imagine Ronon would want to slum around in the Milky Way when there are still lots of Wraith to kill in Pegasus."
Sheppard grinned inwardly. They'd been back on Earth for only a couple of days, and McKay was already chomping at the bit to get the hell outta Dodge. "Woolsey's trying to plead our case with the IOA, but he's not hopeful. Carter's volunteered to take the Hammond out and ferry Teyla and her family and Ronon to wherever they want to go in Pegasus if we can't get Atlantis back there."
"Crap. You know, my sister asked if maybe we'd like to come over for dinner while we're here."
Sheppard blinked at the change of subject. "All of us? The team? Really?"
"Yeah. Kanaan and Torren too, she's been wanting to meet them ever since I told her about them."
Sheppard grinned. "Playing matchmaker for Madison already, is she?" McKay rolled his eyes.
Now Sheppard rolled his eyes. "When's dinner?"
"Oh yeah, that. In a couple of days, if we can get up there."
"Sounds good. Teyla said something about wanting to see more of Earth than she did the last time she was here—"
"And the last time she was here, she was stuck under the Mountain with the IOA—"
"So she'd probably love to experience something a little more normal."
"Well, normal for us, at any rate." McKay looked as though he were about to say more, then a tinny buzz came from his headset, indicating he was being paged. "Radek? What— Oh, that's just— Just don't touch anything, I'm coming down." He tapped the headset.
"Work. Never ends. See you later." McKay waved absently as he jogged to the nearest transporter. Sheppard watched him go, then continued down the corridor. A reflection caught his eye, and he changed course to step through the sliding door onto a small balcony.
He looked out across the dark water to the twinkling lights of San Francisco. Somewhere out in the darkness between Atlantis and the mainland, the ships sent by the Navy patrolled the quarantine zone that kept out the unwary. It was a beautiful sight, yet somehow, it felt cold in a way that had nothing to do with the night winds. Everyone in Atlantis had sacrificed so much to get here. Some, more than others. His thoughts drifted over the litany of names that haunted him, to a quiet, circular room ringed with stained-glass windows that they'd found early in their first year, and the row of pictures that lined the walls, one matched to each name. One name, and one face, in particular. His greatest failure.
He gripped the railing, letting the anger and grief flood his veins. A part of his mind acknowledged that it was masochistic to continue to punish himself like this. And yet, the pain he forced himself to relive every night was nothing compared to the agony she surely must have endured before…
He shook his head, shoving the thought into a small box in his mind and pushed himself back from the railing with an explosive breath. She should have been here, standing beside him, savoring the moment of a job well done. But she wasn't. His greatest failure.
Sheppard adjusted his collar as he stepped up to the front porch of the neat little brick house where Elizabeth Weir had grown up, and where her mother still lived. From the sounds of excited barking on the other side of the door, it seemed that Elizabeth's dog, Sedgewick, had already heard John coming and was waiting to greet him. Then the door opened, and standing there was Katherine Weir, a delighted smile on her face.
"John! What a pleasant surprise!" She laughed as Sedge danced around John, sniffing at his hands. John grinned and scratched Sedge around the ears, then stepped forward to greet Katherine with the bouquet he'd brought.
"Well, I was in the neighborhood and I couldn't resist a visit to see my two favorite ladies."
"Hah! Isn't he such a flatterer, Sedge?" She linked arms with John and led him inside, Sedge following in their wake. As John took off his coat and hung it on the rack beside the door, he looked, as he had on his other visit, at the pictures of Elizabeth and her family on the wall. Elizabeth at her first birthday, fists gooey with cake and a cherubic grin on her face. At three, already reading a copy of National Geographic. Five, making Christmas cookies with her cousins. Eight, with a couple of her classmates, dressed up for a school play. At twelve, looking through a telescope with her father, seven years before he died of cancer. At seventeen and a few months, graduating from high school. Valedictorian, of course. He smiled.
Sheppard had first visited Katherine Weir when he'd returned to Earth for his father's funeral, over a year ago. He'd wanted to see her earlier, but there simply hadn't been time to spare, what with waging a war on two fronts in another galaxy. But her welcoming smile and lack of recrimination that so many bereaved loved ones sometimes felt, had eased his own fears, if only a little. He hadn't been able to tell her the details about her daughter's work or her final days, of course, but he'd told her what little he could, that her daughter had sacrificed herself to give the rest of their team a chance to escape a fatal trap, and thus had saved them and many others. Katherine had been at peace with that, even if it still haunted his own dreams at night. Since then, she'd written to him a few times, and he'd written back, surprised and grateful for the contact and the sense of normalcy it lent to his life. Looking at Katherine, it was no great secret where Elizabeth had gotten her own keen understanding of the good in humanity.
Dinner—a wonderful herb-crusted baked fish that Elizabeth had mentioned once or twice and had even tried to recreate in the mess hall kitchen back on Atlantis with some native fish from the oceans of Lantea—was excellent, accompanied by a rice pilaf and spinach salad, and followed with a dessert of chocolate cake. They had talked of his work, at least, what he could tell her, with all the names and certain details omitted, of Katherine's work with the Red Cross, and of course, of Elizabeth.
He'd thought of perhaps bringing his teammates with him this time, so that Katherine could meet them, but Teyla had seemed so happy to be able to get out and really see Earth for the first time with her family that he hadn't wanted to dim her enjoyment of her visit with such a reminder of what they'd lost. And if he was truly honest with himself, he wasn't quite ready to share Katherine with the others yet. Elizabeth's loss was a wound that was still healing, and he needed a little more time to look it in the face without wanting to drown his guilt in a bottle.
When the evening drew to a close and John was putting on his coat, Katherine gently pressed a small blue velvet pouch into his hands. "I've been thinking about this for a while," she smiled softly, "Really, probably ever since your first visit. I'd like you to have this."
Whatever was inside was lightweight, but solid, and shaped like— With a bit of trepidation, he loosened the drawstrings and opened the pouch to slide the contents out into his hand. It was a silver pocket watch and chain, the same one that Elizabeth had brought with her to Atlantis as her personal item and had sat in a place of honor on her desk until the day she was taken from them.
"I—I can't take this." He tried to give Katherine the watch, but she folded his fingers around it.
"Elizabeth never said as much in her letters, but I know how to read between the lines. And I can see what she must have felt reflected in your eyes. She loved you, John, I'm sure of it. And you love her. That's why I want you to have it." She kissed his cheek.
In spite of his reluctance to accept it, or perhaps because of it, the watch had been a comfortable weight in his pocket on the trip back to Atlantis.
While so many others had their assigned duties for getting Atlantis repaired and ready to make its journey from Earth, Teyla, Kanaan and Ronon had found themselves at a loss for something to do. There were only so many things that needed to be carried from one lab to another, or supply inventories to be done, after all. Samantha Carter, along with the other members of SG-1, past and present, had volunteered to take them around and see some of the sights on Earth, including places that had figured rather prominently in some of the stories Sam had told her about her adventures before coming to Atlantis. Depending on their schedules, their friends from Atlantis had also joined some of the excursions. The trips were made far easier by diplomatic passports and the Asgard transporters aboard the General Hammond; General O'Neill had made a comment about rank and privileges that had everyone else snickering.
Teyla had been very excited; an excitement matched by Kanaan's keen curiosity about their friends' stories of their homeworld. The only other time she'd been on Earth—the illusory Earth created by the mist beings of M5S-224 didn't count in her mind—she'd been cooped up at Stargate Command and hadn't had a chance to get out and see much of anything before her scheduled return to Atlantis. And Earth didn't disappoint. They'd seen the pyramids in Egypt, and the site where one of Earth's Stargates had been found on the Giza plateau. Carson joined them for a visit to his homeland, Scotland, as well as other locations in the British Isles, everything from Stonehenge and Glastonbury Tor, where SG-1 had found a treasure trove of Ancient artifacts, to Westminster Abbey, and an entire day spent exploring the Covent Garden Market. There had been a trip to see the Ancient outpost buried deep under the ice of Antarctica, where Rodney had regaled them with tales of the months many of the expedition had spent there before the Atlantis mission had been approved… accompanied with John, Carson, Radek and Daniel making some rather choice comments of their own that left McKay doing a credible imitation of a landed fish. Sam and General O'Neill had taken them to a hockey game in Chicago and introduced them to, in O'Neill's words, 'one of the greatest culinary masterpieces of all time: the Chicago hot dog.' John had lamented that it wasn't football season—though he'd eaten three hot dogs, just the same.
Now, Teyla and her family, along with Ronon and the rest of her teammates, were spending the evening at the home of Rodney's sister, Jeannie Miller, and her family. Rodney had referred to the dinner as 'probably the last quiet night we'll have for a while,' and had actually seemed to take it seriously enough to try to relax. Jeannie had been delighted to meet Kanaan and had cooed over Torren, prompting her husband, Caleb, to jokingly suggest that she was looking for a husband for their little girl, Madison. When John had finally stopped laughing, he'd told the rest of them about the conversation he and McKay had had about their visit only a few days before, setting off another round of laughter.
Much of the conversation over dinner had been about the trips Teyla and the others had been on all around Earth, and over a dessert of fresh berries and whipped cream, they completed their journey with the story of their trip to San Francisco a day earlier.
"Ooooh, Caleb and I took a trip down there before Maddie was born. It's a beautiful city." Jeannie smiled in remembrance.
"It is beautiful. Doctor Jackson even insisted on taking us out to lunch at his favorite restaurant in Chinatown."
"I don't know what was funnier," Sheppard grinned at Jeannie. "Jackson and Mitchell arguing in Chinese over the finer points of dim sum or watching McKay plow into that steamer basket of dumplings." Jeannie started to laugh.
"I was hungry! Listening to you, Ronon and Mitchell doing a running commentary on 'Big Trouble in Little China' was exhausting."
Ronon snickered. "Admit it, McKay, you were just in it for the food."
"I am not certain, Ronon," Kanaan smirked. "Surely he was there for the opportunity to give his own opinion of how the application of different heating methods can create a wide variety of textures, aromas and flavors." Everyone roared in laughter at that comment.
"Oh, har-har, very funny," McKay pouted. But his eyes were twinkling in merriment.
"And I'm getting you down to Malibu to teach you how to surf properly, Ronon, no matter what you say," Sheppard mock-threatened. Ronon smirked.
"Bring it on, Sheppard."
Teyla rolled her eyes at her teammates' antics and turned her attention back to Jeannie. "There are still many more places that I would like to see, however." Teyla's smile turned wistful. "Elizabeth… Elizabeth once spoke of wishing to show me a city called Angkor Wat, and other lost places with long and rich histories." There were a few sad smiles at the mention of their lost friend.
"Angkor would be a great choice. Maybe Machu Piccu or Chichen Itza, too," Caleb ventured, and Teyla nodded excitedly.
"Those were other places she had mentioned."
"Hopefully there'll be time," McKay put in, "We're working like mad trying to get everything ready for the move."
Jeannie looked surprised. "You're not going to be staying?"
"I don't see how we can. I mean, we're talking about a city the size of Manhattan, parked just outside San Francisco Bay, and the cloak that's hiding it from people who aren't supposed to know about it is not going to last indefinitely. And it seems the IOA is sure taking their time in making a stink about where they want us to go." McKay frowned.
The next day, President Hayes arrived to tour Atlantis. Officially, he was still on Air Force One, on his way back to Washington from a trip to Japan and the Far East. Unofficially, he was beamed from his private quarters aboard the customized 747 to the General Hammond, and from there to the Atlantis gateroom, where everyone who could be spared from their duties had turned out to welcome him. Those from the military contingent not currently on duty were in their dress uniforms, civilians either in their expedition uniforms or dress clothes. After a brief welcome speech from Richard Woolsey and introductions to the senior staff, the gathering was dismissed and the President, accompanied by Woolsey, Colonel Sheppard, General O'Neill and General Landry, headed off for a tour of the city.
With work on getting the city ready to fly again still continuing at breakneck speed, there was a great deal to see. But to his dying day, Henry Hayes would say that the one thing he'd seen in Atlantis that made the greatest lasting impression on him was his visit to a place known simply as 'the Hall.' It was a round chamber at the top of one of the buildings in the core of the city, adjacent to the central tower. The top two-thirds of the outer wall were taken up with a row of beautiful stained glass windows that let in the light, creating intricate patterns of light on the floor at all hours of the day. The room had been empty when the expedition had found it during their first year in Atlantis, and a subsequent search of the database had revealed the room's purpose to be an observation deck of some sort. It had quickly become a place for anyone who wanted a moment of quiet time, and gradually had transformed into a shrine to those who had fallen in the pursuit of the knowledge of those who had built the city and in its defense.
All along the bottom third of the room's outer wall was a line of pictures, each one accompanied by a name, a date of birth, and a date of death—or in some cases, the date an individual had been taken, their current status unknown. There weren't as many names as on the memorial wall at Stargate Command, though that wasn't from any greater caution taken by the expedition, just less time spent in Pegasus. Every picture also had some sort of memento, other photos with friends in happier times, figurines, slips of paper with poems, flowers, and candles. Hayes stopped at each picture for a moment, reflecting on who these people had been and what they had given. When he came to Elizabeth Weir's photograph, the pause was longer, his reflection on her tinged with a more personal sadness, and he wondered, as he had many times since he'd been informed of her apparent death, how different things in Atlantis might be if she had lived.
Following the tour was lunch in the mess hall; the room was packed as Hayes listened to marines and airmen tell him about their experiences in Atlantis and the Stargate program at large. Then it was back to the gateroom for an award ceremony for the expedition. With all the secrecy surrounding the Stargate program, public recognition of any kind was well-nigh impossible. But a personal recognition by the President of the United States was an unexpected and welcome delight. Those civilian scientists who'd recently published papers on Earth were acknowledged for their work, and sometimes, their own courage under fire, like Carson Beckett, who'd flown Atlantis into battle against the Wraith hive ship that had threatened Earth.
Next came the military awards, many of which were for services leading up to and including the recent attack by the Wraith. First came the unit awards for the entire military contingent, then the individual awards were given out. As Lorne was receiving his awards before the assembled crowd, Sheppard mused to himself that Lorne was coming up on his zone for promotion to Lieutenant Colonel. From the looks on O'Neill's and Landry's faces, he was sure they were thinking it as well. Though what such a promotion might do in terms of the chain of command on Atlantis, he wasn't sure he wanted to contemplate just yet, and likely, neither did Lorne, who genuinely seemed to like his assignment to Atlantis. Then it was Sheppard's own turn in front of President Hayes as he received his medals. Honestly, John didn't think he was worthy of them; no truly good soldier, sailor, marine or airman ever did, but then, he hadn't really thought of himself as a good airman for a long time, either.
Then the ceremony was over, and a reception followed. With the President and assorted members of the brass around, it would stay pretty sedate until they left and the gathering broke up in favor of more personalized celebrations later on.
Kate Heightmeyer regarded the scene before her with an amused smile. Daniel Jackson was talking animatedly with Teyla and Kanaan, no doubt a conversation about Athosian culture. Rodney McKay was holding court with Jennifer Keller and Carson Beckett, with Radek Zelenka rolling his eyes and interjecting a line into the conversation here and there that seemed to be aimed to drive McKay nuts. Some things never changed, and for that, Kate was very glad. It wasn't every day that one came back from a near-death experience, especially one that had been induced by a contact with a crystalline alien lifeform that was only interested in causing chaos and mayhem. Yet here she was, over two years after she had awakened in the morgue at Stargate Command after apparently dying on Atlantis. At least the paperwork on that miraculous return hadn't been as bad as some. Certainly, Daniel Jackson's two returns from ascension were still a source of alternating amusement and pride among the staff at Stargate Command.
Out of the corner of her eye, Kate noticed John Sheppard on the gateroom's second level, quietly walking through one of the doors which led out onto the balcony that looked out over most of the city. Even though she had been absent from Atlantis for even longer than Kate had, it was still thought of by everyone as Elizabeth Weir's balcony, in recognition of the woman's penchant for going out there for a moment of peace whenever the weight of a galaxy seemed to come down on her shoulders. That weight, it appeared to Kate's eyes, had shifted to Sheppard's shoulders, even though Woolsey was now nominally in charge of the city.
Major Lorne sidled up to Kate's side, a second glass of sparkling cider in hand. She smiled in thanks at the gesture, and touched that he'd remembered.
"Glad to be back?"
"Absolutely. I'd gone for way too long without a real vacation, and after everything that happened, I knew I needed some time to readjust, but… I really did miss this place."
"Even when we had the Wraith and the rest of the boogeymen coming after us?" Lorne laughed, and Kate laughed in return.
"Even then. It wouldn't be the same without it."
Lorne nodded, and took a sip of his cider. "I'm sorry… about what happened before." She blinked, then realized what he was talking about.
"There's nothing to be sorry for, Major. With that—entity—flitting around in all our heads, there really was no way any of us could have been adequately prepared for what it was trying to do."
"Still… it's good to have you back, Doc."
"I'll drink to that." They clinked their glasses together.
Once again, Sheppard found himself staring out at the lights of San Francisco. The faint hiss of the door opening, and the sounds of the reception in the gateroom spilling out into the evening air, did nothing to break his reverie.
"Penny for your thoughts, Colonel?"
Sheppard immediately snapped to at the sound of President Hayes' voice. "Sir! I—"
Hayes chuckled and waved his hand dismissively. "Relax, Colonel, I don't bite."
Sheppard relaxed only slightly as Hayes stepped up to the railing and looked out over the water to San Francisco. Dusk was falling swiftly, and the lights of the city—both cities—were twinkling into life before them.
"Damn, what a view. Must be hard to get any work done with such great scenery to look at all the time."
Sheppard smiled slightly. "We try, sir."
They looked out in companiable silence for a time, then Hayes spoke up again. "I remember when the expedition was approved. How long has it been? Four and a half years?" He chuckled in remembrance. "Elizabeth sounded so excited on the phone, like she was already halfway to Atlantis even though Doctor Jackson had only just discovered the gate address. But she was bound and determined to go and she wasn't going to let anything stand in her way. She believed in this." He looked around and held out his hand, as if reaching for the city spread out below them. "She believed in Atlantis and what it represents to all of humanity, not just the United States."
Sheppard's jaw clenched and he wanted desperately to look away, but didn't dare for fear of seeming rude. "She should be here, sir." Hayes nodded.
"Yes, she should."
"I'm sorry, sir."
Hayes shook his head. "I've read the reports, Colonel. All of them, from the Asuran Replicator attack to your team's encounter with the clones, to that very curious group of Asurans led by someone claiming to be Elizabeth Weir. You did your duty. You did what you felt you had to do to protect Atlantis, and Earth. I don't think Elizabeth would've wanted you to do any differently."
"No, sir," he said softly. "She wouldn't have wanted that."
"Atlantis is Elizabeth's legacy to us. A part of her will always be linked with this place and its history. But…" He paused, as if trying to find the right words to say. "If you find something out there… If there's even the slightest chance—" He pinned Sheppard with his gaze. "Do what you need to do, John. Bring her home."
Sheppard nodded, understanding what Hayes was saying… and what he wasn't saying. "Yes, sir."
A week after President Hayes' visit, the impending departure of Atlantis should have been cause for anticipation and excitement not unlike that when the expedition had first set off from Earth nearly five years earlier. However, with the IOA's ruling to keep Atlantis in the Milky Way, the faces of everyone in the control room were grim and silent. There were also the lingering concerns that the additional Mark II naquadah generators still might not be enough to power even the city's original stardrive, much less McKay and Zelenka's new wormhole drive. However, the longer they waited in the futile hope that additional ZPMs might be found, the more likely that the presence of Atlantis on Earth would be discovered by someone who really wasn't supposed to know anything about it.
In the chair room at the top of the easternmost tower in the inner city, Sheppard had settled into the control chair as several technicians monitored computer readouts.
"So, are we gonna get this party started, or what?"
McKay glanced over at Woolsey, who looked to Chuck. "Air traffic control at Vandenberg is reporting the skies over the West Coast are clear, sir."
"Very good," Woolsey nodded. "Doctor McKay, please take the city to blackout mode and drop the cloak."
"Killing the lights…" All the lights throughout the city, save for the most basic emergency lighting in key areas like the control room, the chair room, the infirmary, and main interior corridors, winked out. "Dropping the cloak… now." A beep from the console confirmed that the cloak was off and the darkened city was now visible to the naked eye. Or at least, it would be if it wasn't currently midnight under a dark moon with a large fogbank shrouding the coastline.
"Sheppard, bring the stardrive online," McKay instructed.
Sheppard closed his eyes and focused, mentally reaching for the stardrive. A building hum was heard as the stardrive and related flight systems powered up in anticipation of liftoff.
"Power levels in the naquadah generators are holding," McKay reported. "It's now or never."
"All right." Woolsey blew out a breath. "Colonel Sheppard, take us up."
There was a rumble, and the floor beneath their feet began to tremble as the city slowly rose from the water, gradually picking up speed in tandem with altitude. Clouds rushed by the windows. In a few moments, a chime sounded from the console.
"Okay, we've reached eighteen thousand feet," McKay reported. "Activating the shield around the inner city." A new hum added to the rumble of the stardrive as the shield came online. Keeping the shield extended only around the inner city until reaching space was another power-saving measure McKay and Zelenka had decided on early in the planning process.
Atlantis continued to rise through the atmosphere. The last of the highest clouds fell away, revealing the stars above in all their glory, but no one had time for stargazing. The next phase of the departure sequence had arrived as Atlantis reached escape velocity and broke free of Earth's gravity well.
"Extending the shield around the entire city," McKay announced, and he checked the power levels again. "Power levels are still holding. Let's do this."
"Keep your shirt on, McKay," Sheppard drawled. He turned his thoughts back to the stardrive controls. Outside the city, the blue-green energy of the subspace window blossomed brightly, and Atlantis shot forward into hyperspace.
"And… hyperspace field is holding, power levels are holding… we're good!" McKay reported. Cheers and exclamations of relief broke out around the control room.
"Well done." Woolsey smiled in relief.
"Yes, well… couldn't have done it without help," McKay preened. Behind him, Zelenka snorted with a grin.
"How's our ETA?"
McKay checked the readout. "ETA to NG7-3X9 is eight hours, forty-three minutes. Provided Sheppard doesn't take any detours, that is."
"I heard that!" Sheppard's voice yelled over the intercom.
"You were supposed to!" McKay shot back. "Anyway, everything looks good up here, so you can get out of the chair now."
"Hooray for me."
Woolsey couldn't help but smile at the banter. "Still nearly seven hours though. I must admit, I think I got spoiled by the wormhole drive."
"We all did. But even with four daisy-chained Mark II's, it's still not enough to get the wormhole drive. Not unless we want to have another power outage and find ourselves lost in space again."
"I'll pass on that, thanks very much," Sheppard grumbled.
Halfway through the journey to NG7-3X9, McKay ran a status check, just as he had every hour, on the hour, since Atlantis had entered hyperspace. This time, however, the results were not at all what he'd expected.
"Uh, we've got a problem."
Sheppard looked up from the corner where he'd been talking quietly with Teyla and Ronon. "What kind of problem?"
"According to these readings, our course heading is in totally the wrong direction."
"What the hell?!"
Woolsey stepped out of his office. "What's the problem?"
"McKay says we're going the wrong way."
"I don't say we're going the wrong way, we are going the wrong way! We're going…" he looked at the readout, screwed up his face, then looked at Sheppard. "You did mess with the autopilot, didn't you?"
"What are you talking about, McKay?"
"If this is right… We're heading for the Pegasus Galaxy!"
"WHAT?!" Sheppard and Woolsey chorused. They, and Teyla and Ronon, headed for McKay's console to look at the readout for themselves.
"Hey, I didn't do anything," Sheppard protested, "I told the damn autopilot to take us to NG7-3X9—"
"Colonel Sheppard is correct," Zelenka piped up before Woolsey could say anything. "I am looking at the subroutines for the nav computer, and there appears to be some sort of program that only activated once we entered hyperspace. It remained in the background for a time, giving us false readings that we were on course to NG7-3X9, and now has taken over entirely."
"A virus? Like that Wraith virus we dealt with on the Daedalus?" Sheppard asked.
"No, I do not think so. The coding appears to be Ancient."
"Oh, you have got to be kidding! Don't tell me Helia and the rest of those crazy Ancients from the Tria left a booby trap for us!" McKay whined.
"Stop being so paranoid, McKay, the universe isn't out to get you," Ronon grumbled.
"Can you fix it?" Woolsey asked.
"Not sure," McKay's fingers danced over the console as he tried to catch up with the program's spread through the system and take back control. An error warning buzzed. "C'mon…" Another buzz. "Damnit! I'm locked out!"
"Can you shut down the stardrive?" Woolsey prompted.
"What part of 'locked out' don't you understand? I have no control over any of the spaceflight systems. We're gonna keep going until this program releases the stardrive or the generators run out of power and we shut down in the middle of nowhere."
"I'm going to the chair room, see if I can get back control that way," Sheppard volunteered, and tapped his earpiece. "I'll stay on comms, so keep me in the loop." He quickly strode from the control room.
Woolsey thought for a moment. "The nav computer says we're heading for the Pegasus Galaxy. Can you find out exactly where in Pegasus we're headed?"
"Hmm." McKay grimaced in concentration as he looked over the console again. "Not quite— Wait a second. Oh, you are gonna love this."
"McKay…" Sheppard's voice warned.
"Lantea. We're going to Lantea." A burst of surprised murmuring broke out among the rest of the technicians.
McKay rolled his eyes. "Of course I'm sure. We're locked on a course for Lantea."
"Well, I guess that's fitting," Sheppard mused absently as he continued to the chair room. "How're our power levels?"
"Still steady. We can get to Pegasus on the Mark IIs, but just barely. We may not even have enough to land. That is, if we don't blow out the generators first."
"All right, Doctor McKay, I want you to and Doctor Zelenka to keep working on regaining control of the nav computer and the stardrive," Woolsey ordered. "In the meantime, let's see if Colonel Sheppard's aptitude with the ATA gene can get us anywhere."
"Working on it," Sheppard replied. A moment later, he reported, "Okay, I'm in the chair."
"And?" McKay demanded. There was silence on the other end of the comm. "Sheppard?"
"Damn." Sheppard's voice suddenly sounded strained, as though he was struggling with the controls. "I thought I had it for a second, but it slid out of my reach." He grunted. "I can't… crap, it's fighting me." A sudden electronic whine was briefly heard over the comm, then, "Whoa!"
"Sheppard? What happened?" McKay sounded concerned.
"The chair shut down. I can't even get it to turn on."
"Doctor McKay?" A new voice came on the comm.
"I am down in the chair room," Miko Kusanagi reported to them, "The chair is completely powered down; it looks like this program that is affecting the stardrive has taken control of the chair as well."
Next to McKay, Zelenka pulled up another readout. "Ah, here!" McKay glanced over, and tapped at a couple of buttons.
"Yeah, it's our mystery friend, all right."
Woolsey turned to Chuck. "Chuck, take us back to emergency lighting and shut down all non-essential systems. Let's try to conserve as much power as we can. We may need it later."
"Yes, sir." Chuck turned back to his console and ran the shutdown protocols.
"We're not even due at NG7-3X9 for another four and a half hours," Woolsey mused quietly. "And as long as we remain in hyperspace, we have no way of letting Earth know that anything's gone wrong."
"Great," Sheppard muttered. "Here we go again."
Tension in the skeleton crew aboard Atlantis mounted during the passage of the next four days as Atlantis traversed the void between the Milky Way Galaxy and the Pegasus Galaxy. McKay's fears about the difficulty in dealing with the mysterious program were borne out as the program proved to be remarkably stubborn and elusive, resisting any attempt to crack its code and release control of the stardrive. All McKay and Zelenka could say for certain was that whatever the program was, it definitely appeared to be Ancient in origin and not from any of the various enemies Atlantis had made over the years that had had direct contact with the city. All of which did nothing to reassure everyone that they weren't in some sort of peril. One by one, the naquadah generators powering the stardrive were drained of fuel and shut down, until only one remained to supplement the last dregs in the trio of ZPMs as Atlantis dropped out of hyperspace and approached Lantea.
Sheppard was back in the control chair, which was finally responding to him again now that the program was apparently satisfied that the city had reached its preferred destination.
"Rodney, how are we doing?"
"Shields and stardrive are holding for now, but the power levels are dangerously low."
"Not like we have much of a choice. Okay, here we go." Once again, Sheppard reached for the stardrive controls. "I have the stardrive… beginning our descent." The ride was smooth for the first few moments, but the city began to shake as it encountered the first wisps of atmosphere.
"Sheppard, we're coming in too fast," McKay warned.
"If I slow it down too much, the stardrive might run out of juice before we reach the surface and then we'll have a really uncontrolled landing."
"He is right," Zelenka seconded, glancing at the power readout again. "We're going to have to risk it."
The shaking increased, and a dull roar accompanied the fiery orange glow that appeared outside the windows as Atlantis fell through the sky toward the ocean below. An alarm on McKay's console started to buzz insistently.
"Power levels in the last generator are reaching critical! We're gonna lose it!"
"Altitude at two thousand meters," Chuck reported. "One thousand… Five hundred…"
Another alarm sounded, and McKay looked up from the console, his face white. "We've lost the last generator! On ZedPM power only!"
"Brace yourselves!" Sheppard yelled, and everyone grabbed hold of whatever solid piece of structure they could reach. Atlantis hit the water, and there was a sudden, sharp jolt that threw many from their seats to the floor. Sparks flew from several consoles, and the lights went out entirely. The smell of burned rock filled the air, and McKay grimaced at the thought of the control crystals that must have been damaged in the landing.
There was silence for a moment, then Sheppard's voice came over the comms. "Everybody okay up there?"
"Yes, we're all right, Colonel," Woolsey reassured him as the emergency lights came back up and he was able to look around and survey the scene. "Shaken up and a few bumps and bruises, but we're all right. Doctor Keller?"
"A team is already on its way to the control room now. Figured I'd better not wait this time."
"Good call, Doctor, thank you." Woolsey turned to McKay. "Doctor McKay?"
"The shield is down. The last of the Mark II generators is down. We've got maybe a little bit of power in one ZedPM; enough to run the lights for a little while, that's about it."
"Reading some flooding on the lower levels in the north and east piers," Zelenka reported. "However, structural integrity appears to be sound. It must've been spillover from the ocean displacement as we landed."
"What about our new friend?" Sheppard asked as he arrived in the control room, the medical team close on his heels and quickly spreading out to triage the injuries.
"Can't find a trace of the program now," McKay groused. "This is going to be a problem. If we can't even figure out where it was hiding in the first place…"
Woolsey held up a hand. "We understand, Doctor. Do what you can."
"Well, to look for the program, I need computers. And to have computers, I need power. And to get power, I need a power source." He turned to Zelenka, snapping his fingers. "Let's get the Mark Is out of storage and hooked up."
"Right." Zelenka and McKay headed out of the control room.
An hour later, with the older Mark I generators hooked up, a thorough inspection of the flooded areas completed and the Atlantis Stargate reconnected with the rest of the network, the command staff regrouped in the conference room for a status report. The news was both better and worse than expected. The city itself had taken only minor damage, as the shield had managed to hold through the initial impact. The ZPMs and Mark II generators were completely drained, but the older Mark Is, the same type as those that had seen the expedition through its first year in Pegasus, were providing basic power, though not enough for the shield. The undersea geothermal drilling platform that Atlantis had discovered and briefly used to augment the city's power supply was, as McKay had anticipated, a twisted mass of wreckage after being cranked up to full output and then violently disconnected as Atlantis escaped Lantea and the Replicator attack over two years earlier. Nevertheless, a pair of jumpers with Zelenka and some of the structural engineers aboard were scheduled to go out within the next few days to take a look at the site and determine if a salvage operation would be feasible. As for dialing back to Earth—
"Basically, it'll be the same as that first databurst we sent after we learned the Wraith were coming," McKay explained. "We'll put our reports together in a compressed file, open the gate for one point three seconds, and send the file through."
"Of course," Sheppard mused, "it's not like they can just snag the ZPM off the Odyssey to power the Earth gate and send a return message. Which means we'll have to wait at least three weeks until they can get a ship to us. And with the General Hammond the only fully operational ship Earth currently has available, I think we can probably figure on it taking longer."
"So for all intents and purposes, we're pretty much where we were when the expedition first arrived in Atlantis. Very few resources immediately at hand and limited to no contact with Earth." Woolsey folded his hands on the table before him. "However, we do still have our contacts here in Pegasus. Teyla, I'm sure you and Kanaan want to check in with your people as soon as possible and let them know what's happened."
Teyla nodded with a smile. "Thank you, Mister Woolsey. I am certain everyone will be relieved to know that Earth is safe and that Atlantis has returned to its rightful place here in Pegasus."
"What about the Travelers?" Ronon suggested, eyeing Sheppard speculatively.
"Now there's a thought," Woolsey looked over at Sheppard. "Colonel, do you think you can get in touch with your contact in the Traveler fleet?"
Sheppard squirmed in his seat. "Shouldn't be a problem." He frowned suddenly. "You know, there's something else we need to consider."
"And what would that be?"
"What are we gonna do with Todd?" Now there was a troublesome question. Their sometimes ally among the Wraith had remained in his cell while they were on Earth pending a decision by the IOA on what exactly to do with him, Atlantis being a far more secure location for him than anywhere on the mainland. When the decision was made to move Atlantis to another world in the Milky Way, they elected to keep Todd in the city rather than risk an escape during a prisoner transfer.
"Kill him," Ronon suggested.
Sheppard rolled his eyes. "There are still other Wraith we're probably gonna have to fight, Chewie. We might need him."
Ronon, predictably, had been scandalized, but in the end, Woolsey had ruled—reluctantly—to release Todd, stunning him, then leaving him on an uninhabited planet with a Stargate to make his own way back to his faction. Todd didn't know that Atlantis had returned to Lantea, so for the moment, they felt relatively safe in cutting him loose. Whether or not this would be the time that it would come back to bite them in the ass in a way that they wouldn't be able to recover from, only time would tell.
In the meantime, there was a great deal of work to be done. Assembling the reports on Atlantis's latest misadventure for the databurst to Earth would take another several hours to complete. While that was being done, Teyla and Kanaan went to New Athos to make sure their people were all right and to get updated on the latest news the Athosians had on the situation in Pegasus. They returned in time to take a seat in the control room and listen in while Sheppard was on the subspace radio and had just gotten in contact with the Travelers. Larrin, as it turned out, had been trying to get in touch with them for the past couple of weeks with some news of her own. Woolsey had never met the woman before; Colonel Carter's report had stated that she appeared to be a competent, driven leader among her people. The impression he got of her over the video link did nothing to dispel that notion, despite Sheppard's own terse report and reserve in speaking with her.
Larrin regarded everyone thoughtfully, carefully choosing her words as she began. "Almost immediately after the Replicator homeworld was destroyed, rumors started spreading about a weapon that the Replicators had left behind, something that could finish the job of destroying the Wraith. Most of us thought it was just wild speculation at best, or some pathetic attempt at a hoax at worst. A few months went by, and the story seemed to die out. Although, that could've been as much about everyone's attention being focused on the spread of the Hoffan virus rather than chasing a folk tale." She shrugged. "Then one of our ships was on a salvage mission when the crew briefly picked up an unknown vessel on the edge of sensor range. They weren't able to get much information, but the ship's basic design appeared similar to that of the smaller attack cruisers that were used by the Replicators. The ship vanished moments later, likely jumping into hyperspace."
The attention of everyone in the control room was now riveted on the video link.
"Are you sure the sensors weren't wrong?" Sheppard asked her.
"That's what many of us thought at first. It was on the extreme edge of sensor range, and that particular ship had recently been having trouble with their sensor system. But since that time, other sightings of the ship have been reported, and not just among my people. In every instance, it jumps into hyperspace almost as soon as it's spotted, like whoever's on that ship doesn't want anyone getting too close. And it's always happened in pretty isolated spots, not near inhabited worlds."
"Doesn't sound like the Replicators. They'd shoot first and ask questions later only if they were curious." Ronon ventured.
"Perhaps someone else has found one of their ships and is using it," Teyla suggested.
"I don't see how. They were all destroyed at…" McKay's voice trailed off. There had been one ship that hadn't been at Asuras when the alliance between Atlantis, the Travelers and the Wraith had closed their trap on the Replicator homeworld. Could it be that another ship, another crew of Replicators, had escaped the obliteration of Asuras and the rest of their kind? It was a question that none of them wanted to think about, but now it looked as though that choice had been taken out of their hands.
"We know that the Replicators were operating bases on other worlds prior to their pullback to Asuras," Woolsey said quietly. "It is a possibility we have to consider. Still," he turned back to the screen and Larrin, "you didn't contact us about this before. What's changed?"
"As I said before, a lot of us weren't really convinced by a handful of sightings at maximum distance and readings from faulty sensors. Then, a couple of weeks ago, my ship was returning from a trading mission. We jumped to normal space near an uninhabited planet to meet up with a couple of our other ships and continue on to join up with the rest of the fleet. We got there a little early and settled into orbit to wait for the other ships to arrive. Then the mystery ship showed up; jumped in almost on top of us, so we got the first really good look at it that anyone's had." She shook her head. "It is definitely the same kind of ship we saw at Asuras. We tried to scan it, see if we could pick up who or what might be on board, and we got some odd energy readings before it jumped away again." Larrin glanced away and nodded to someone off-screen. "I'm going to send you what we have; maybe you can make more sense of it than we could."
There was a beep from the console, and Chuck's voice behind them reporting the files received. McKay strode over to take a look.
"Huh. Looks similar to the energy waveform emitted by the Replicator collective link. And… organic material?" He wrinkled his nose. "It looks like a life sign, but…"
"Yeah," Larrin grimaced. "After what you told us about that hybrid thing the Replicators created that ended up almost eating Atlantis and one of your people's ships, I figured I'd better let you know, just in case this might be related."
McKay shuddered as the others exchanged nervous looks. While the outward signs of their encounter with Angelus, not long after Colonel Carter had taken command of Atlantis, were long scrubbed clean and repaired, the memories of those hours of horror still haunted those who had lived through it. Even harder to erase was the knowledge of how it had been accomplished. It had been more than two years, yet the consequences of the loss of Elizabeth Weir still hung like a long, dark shadow over Atlantis.
Later in the afternoon, the databurst, complete with the information they'd gathered on the still unexplained computer glitch that had sent them to Lantea and on the present situation in Pegasus, was sent back to Earth. Woolsey then went on the citywide PA to briefly explain to everyone what had happened and give his own little pep talk. He'd never been terribly good at inspiring others, but the gesture was appreciated nonetheless, and he felt, as he spoke to the group assembled in the control room and the rest of the city beyond, that maybe he'd finally found a place where he really belonged.
"So, for the foreseeable future, it looks like we've dodged the IOA's bullet. Which means something else…" Woolsey finished, as he looked expectantly at each of them. "We have a job to do. We have a city to explore and secrets of the Ancients to unravel. And we've got a galaxy to save," he added with a smile.
"Sounds good," Ronon quipped. "Let's go kill some Wraith." Chuckles bubbled up at that and Woolsey's smile grew a little wider.
"All right, everyone… Let's get to work."
As Sheppard predicted, it ended up being nearly a month before the General Hammond finally arrived with a first load of supplies for Atlantis, and reams of irate messages from Earth. The IOA and Stargate Command were up in arms, and Carter privately expressed her concerns to Woolsey and Sheppard about rumors she had heard before leaving for Pegasus that the IOA was pushing to send a permanent observer. During the wait for the Hammond, McKay and Zelenka had found no trace of the rogue program that had hijacked the city and taken it back to Pegasus. Carter couldn't find any fault with their search, which no doubt would rankle even more with the brass back on Earth once she submitted her own report. In the end, what was done was done, and there would be no undoing it, at least for a while.
There were no further sightings of the Travelers' mysterious 'ghost ship,' and no one was quite sure whether to be relieved or start looking over their shoulders for the axe that was surely about to fall. The trading and information contacts that Atlantis had made with various populations throughout Pegasus were renewed, and soon Beckett was once again going out on his rounds among their allies as an itinerant doctor. The expedition settled back into what passed for a normal routine in Pegasus. Explore the hidden corners of Atlantis, try not to blow themselves up with the latest gadget found in some dusty lab in the city, search the database for new planets to explore and send teams out, try not to blow themselves up with the latest gadget found in some dusty lab off-world… the usual.
It had been a little over two months since Atlantis had returned to Pegasus when Sheppard and his team went out on just such a mission. According to the Ancient database, M4H-791 had once held a research lab for a project involving advanced long-range communications. There were even hints that some work to improve the Stargate network was being performed there. McKay was positively drooling over the prospect of finding the lab, so off they went.
The Arkadi were like many of the native populations scattered throughout Pegasus. Not nearly as advanced as the Lanteans, they were primarily artisans specializing in glassblowing and ceramics, sitting at a technological level around the mid-1700s in Europe on Earth. What the Arkadi also had in addition to their crafts was a wealth of information and numerous trade contacts throughout Pegasus that Atlantis had not yet encountered, making them a good prospect as a future ally. They were also a curious, intelligent and generous people who revered the Ancients as the blessed Ancestors, and welcomed the Lanteans as the inheritors of their legacy. After being feted by their hosts, during which McKay actually managed to stop grumbling long enough to enjoy the food, a pair of guides led Sheppard and his team to a location up in the foothills where the locals had found the entrance to the lab long ago.
While the Arkadi were not aware of the scope of the work done there, they had been certain that it would prove important to future generations, and had kept the lab sealed to preserve its contents. McKay was practically bouncing on his toes in eager delight as he darted here and there throughout the lab, examining this console and tinkering with that one, and so on. He'd wanted to send for an additional team from Atlantis immediately, but with nightfall approaching, the decision was made for Major Lorne's team to accompany Zelenka and a group of technicians in the morning to join Sheppard's team. In the meantime, the Arkadi had welcomed Sheppard and his teammates to stay the night and Woolsey had passed along instructions to work on a trade agreement as part of the exchange between the two peoples.
All day, an odd prickle had been whispering up Ronon's spine. Things were going just a little too well for his liking. While the Arkadi didn't seem to be playing Atlantis false, if there was one thing he had learned, it was that when everything was going well that something very bad always ended up happening. He knew his instincts had been right when, shortly after the team had retired for the evening, all hell broke loose in the room that Sheppard had been given at the village inn.
On entering, Ronon quickly noted the window, broken outward, as though something had been thrown through it, and a woman screaming in the street below. Rodney halted at the doorway, shaking hand trying and failing to unholster his pistol, and facial expression aghast at what he was seeing. "What the hell is going on?"
"Don't know," Ronon ground out. "Sheppard's freaked out about something."
"Colonel Sheppard," Teyla began, "John, please. You must calm down. We are not going to hurt you—" She stepped forward and held out a hand to him, but he grabbed a chair and threw it at her, knocking her off her feet.
"Bitch!" he roared. "Get the fuck away from me!"
"That does it," Ronon muttered as he pulled out his gun, quickly checked to see it was set on stun, and fired. The blast hit Sheppard in the torso and he staggered, but did not go down.
"Ohhh, that is so not good," Rodney moaned.
Ronon fired again as Sheppard continued to advance on them. This time, Sheppard fell to his knees, swayed, then slid sideways to the floor.
"Not her," he slurred softly as he struggled to keep his eyes open. "Y'r not h'r…" Finally his eyes closed and he slumped, unconscious.
"Okay, what the hell was that about?" Rodney yelped.
Richard Woolsey stood on the balcony at the edge of the control center overlooking the Atlantis gateroom. The air in the gateroom was very tense, as everyone waited for word from M4H-791.
Finally, the chevrons on the gate began to light up.
"Incoming wormhole!" Chuck announced. The gate shield went up a moment before the wormhole itself formed, preventing entry. There was a pause, then Chuck looked up from his console to Woolsey. "Reading Major Lorne's IDC, sir."
Woolsey nodded. "Lower the shield."
The shield dissipated, and moments later, Jumper Two emerged from the wormhole. Everyone's eyes were glued to the jumper as it rose into the hangar bay above the gateroom, where Keller and a medical team were already waiting.
As the ceiling slid back into place, Woolsey nodded to Chuck. "I'll be in the infirmary."
He arrived in the infirmary to find Keller and Beckett were already closeted with Sheppard in the isolation room, so he headed up to the observation room, where Lorne and the rest of Sheppard's team were gathered. Sheppard was surrounded by various machines as Keller, Beckett, and other staffers circled around the bed. Sheppard was very pale, almost waxen, and yet his body was still trembling despite apparently being deeply unconscious. Mercifully, he didn't appear to be physically injured in any way.
Woolsey cleared his throat slightly. "All right. What happened?" The matching disturbed looks on everyone's faces filled Woolsey with dread.
"One of the townswomen apparently… took a liking to Colonel Sheppard," Teyla began. "And apparently Colonel Sheppard did not share her interest. So instead of accepting his refusal, she chose to… manipulate the situation more to her liking."
"The bitch drugged him, then tried to force herself on him," Ronon clarified shortly. "Some sort of aphrodisiac. Town magistrate said it's pretty common, but they've never heard of anyone reacting like Sheppard did in generations."
"Reacting how?" A sinking feeling settled in the pit of Woolsey's stomach. Everyone exchanged looks again.
"He snapped. Went totally crazy," McKay told him. "Tore the room up, threw the wench out a second-story window—"
Woolsey grimaced. This was not going to go over well with Stargate Command and the IOA, to say nothing of their reluctant allies in the Coalition—
"—she's fine, by the way," Lorne interjected quickly. "Just a broken wrist and some bumps and bruises. But from the looks on the Arkadi elders' faces once we figured out what happened, she'll be lucky if she's not run out of town."
"Tarred and feathered, no less," McKay groused.
Ronon snorted. "They looked like they were afraid we'd call in reinforcements and level the town in retaliation for what she did to Sheppard."
—then again, maybe Earth and the Coalition wouldn't raise a fuss.
Keller and Beckett chose that moment to emerge from the isolation room.
"So, what's the verdict?" Woolsey asked them.
"Our analysis of the drug indicates that it disrupts normal brain chemistry, lowering their inhibitions and exciting the pleasure center of the brain. Nothing out of the ordinary for a typical aphrodisiac." He snorted briefly, as though irritated by the woman's tactics, then grew serious. "However, there also appears to be an interaction with the part of the brain that we've identified as being significant to the use of the ATA gene."
Woolsey raised an eyebrow. "What kind of interaction?"
Beckett continued, "The drug appears to have a kind of hypnotic effect on someone with the gene, reducing their willpower and leaving them very open to suggestion. We've also learned from our research into the ATA gene that the center of the brain that controls the mental component of ATA gene interaction has some overlap with the center identified with psionic ability. The drug makes this part of the brain extremely sensitive to psionic stimulation, and the stronger a person's gene, the stronger the reaction will be."
"Psionic…" Woolsey shook his head, trying to comprehend the implications. "Doctor, are you saying he can read our minds?"
Keller shook her head ruefully. "Given the state he's in right now, I doubt he's making sense of anything he's picking up. If he was lucid, he wouldn't have to read anything. Because his gene is strong enough, and because he was given a large enough dose of the drug, this psionic 'channel,' for lack of a better word, has been forced open to the point that he can hear our thoughts without even trying to."
"And simply hearing our thoughts causes him tremendous pain. That's what caused him to snap and become physically violent," Beckett explained, "it was the only outlet he had to drown out the pain in his mind."
"My God," Woolsey breathed in horror. "Is there anything you can do to help him?"
"He was so agitated that even restraints and normal sedation didn't seem to be calming him down. So right now, we've got him in a medically-induced coma, and we're putting him on a detox regimen," Keller explained. "Keeping him hydrated and pumping him full of vitamins to try to flush the drug out of his system. Hopefully, once the drug has broken down, his mind will regain equilibrium, but honestly, we're flying blind here."
"Like Ronon said, the Arkadi had knowledge of previous reactions like Colonel Sheppard's," Beckett continued, "and it appears that some of their people do have a latent, inactive form of the ATA gene in their genetic makeup that would account for those reports, but from the little bit of information in their records, their healers at the time weren't able to do much for the victims." He sighed and scrubbed a hand through his hair. "We've never encountered anything quite like this in the history of the Stargate program. Sure, a few things have come close, and we've been able to make some educated guesses, but that's all. We should have a better idea of his prognosis in a few hours, no more than a day at the most. Right now, he needs rest, with as little external stimuli as possible."
"Hence, why you're keeping him in the isolation room instead out here in the main ward." Woolsey nodded soberly. "I understand. I'm sure you'll do everything you can. In the meantime," he looked over at Lorne and the rest of Sheppard's team. "I think we'll hold off on the post-mission debriefing until tomorrow afternoon. I'm guessing none of us is ready to look at any of this with a clear head just yet." Six heads nodded in silent agreement.
The sounds of crashing surf and the occasional cries of seagulls from somewhere nearby gradually roused John to wakefulness.
He opened his eyes and slowly sat up. The bedroom was completely unfamiliar. Definitely not of Ancient design, it appeared to be like any random bedroom in any random house on Earth. White walls with warm-toned wood floors and trim around the windows. Soft green curtains fluttered in the breeze. A couple of paintings hung on the walls. His own dog-eared copy of War and Peace sat on a bedside table.
Cautiously, he got out of bed and explored the room further. There was a large, comfortable loveseat upholstered in warm brown suede, positioned just so between the fireplace and a window to take maximum advantage of the light yet still close enough to the fire to be cozy in winter. A low table next to the seat had a pile of books, on subjects ranging from theoretical mathematics to an in-depth discussion of ancient Celtic myth cycles. The walk-in closet and spacious bathroom held clothes and toiletries for two, a man and a woman. He recognized pieces of his own clothing easily enough, but the women's clothing seemed familiar to him as well, though he could not seem to recall where or when he might have seen any of it before.
The aroma of food lured him downstairs to a dining room. A long table of dark, highly polished wood with matching chairs upholstered in dark blue velvet dominated the room. A sideboard sat to the right of the door he'd just entered. A stack of plates rested at one end of the sideboard, followed by warming trays holding scrambled eggs, roasted potatoes seasoned with herbs and bits of bell pepper, and strips of bacon and sausage patties. Next to the trays was a basket with muffins and slices of toast. At the other end of the sideboard was a coffee urn next to a row of coffee cups. The layout reminded John of his childhood, and summer mornings at the family house in the Hamptons. He shied away from the direction those thoughts led to, and instead turned to the windows overlooking the ocean.
There was a woman standing on the edge of the beach, her back turned to the house as she looked out at the ocean. The water came up to her knees, gentle waves tugging at the hem of her pale green dress. The sunlight picked up the deep auburn highlights in the long, dark brown hair that tumbled in windswept curls down her back.
Even with her back turned to him, the longer hair and unfamiliar clothing, he knew with a bone-deep certainty it was her. He quickly left the house and jogged down the stairs to the beach, stopping just a few feet behind her. He found himself hesitating, and he couldn't understand why. Hadn't he been waiting for this, dreaming about this moment, for over two years?
She started to turn toward him—
Up in the observation room, Ronon, Teyla and McKay exchanged knowing, disturbed looks. Even in a coma, it seemed that Sheppard was still dreaming.
"Crap," McKay whispered, and butted his head against the window frame. "I should've remembered. How could I have forgotten?"
"What is it, Rodney?" Teyla asked gently.
He looked at Teyla and Ronon, grief in his eyes. "It's her birthday. It's Elizabeth's birthday today. Of all the days this could've happened…" He looked back down into the isolation room where Sheppard lay unconscious.
The ocean was calm tonight, waves lapping gently at the edges of the piers. Sheppard tried to focus on the sight and sound of the rhythmic action as a meditative aid, but it wasn't working very well. His mind was still too full of the things he had seen and heard—or perhaps, what he thought he'd seen and heard—while under the influence of that aphrodisiac on Arkadin five days earlier. The dreams he'd been having while he was in the infirmary had not helped the sense of… well, he wasn't sure how to describe it. An anticipation, and the feeling that there was something there, just teasing along the edge of his senses. Something…
His jumbled thoughts were distracting enough that it took three tries before he recognized the sound of the door chime.
The door slid open behind him, but he kept staring out the window, at the sea. There was a pause, then two footsteps into the room, followed by the sound of the door closing. "John?"
He gritted his teeth and turned to face Teyla. "Yeah? What is it?"
She fidgeted, something that wasn't like her, and took another step into the room. "You… missed our sparring session."
He wasn't sure it was possible for his jaw to clench any tighter and yet still be able to move enough for him to speak, but he did. "Sorry. I had a lot on my mind."
Teyla nodded quickly. "It is all right. I had…" she seemed to struggle for the right words, "guessed that was the case."
"Right." Then he noticed she was holding what looked like a small bundle of brown cloth. "Was there something else?"
She hesitated, then spoke slowly. "Yes. I—I thought that you should have this." She offered the bundle to him. He looked warily at it for a moment before taking it. It was lighter than he'd expected, given how carefully Teyla had placed it in his hands.
He tried to dredge up a smile, though he imagined it probably looked more like a grimace. "What's the occasion? It's not my birthday." The attempt to lighten the mood only made Teyla look more uncomfortable.
He frowned and unwrapped the cloth. It was all he could do to resist the competing urges to drop the clay jar as if it burned him, or clutch it so tightly that it would shatter in his grip. He looked up at Teyla, mingled anger and grief warring in his eyes.
"Where did you—how did you—"
"When you decided to send Elizabeth's belongings back to Earth, I remembered what she had once told me, after we had broken the Wraith's siege of Atlantis in our first year here, of the customs your people observed when one in the Stargate program dies. I knew that those of Elizabeth's belongings that came from Earth would be returned to her family, but the things that she collected while in Atlantis could not be returned, because most of your people do not even know of the Stargate. That thought… made me very sad. I do not believe that Elizabeth would want the items that held such happy memories for her to be locked away, never seen again by her friends and loved ones. And so I thought, since you were the one to give this to her, that you should be the one to keep it safe now, so that it could be seen and remembered. For a long time I thought about giving it to you, but it never seemed to be the right time. Then I started to wonder if there would ever be a right time. And then…" she trailed off, the thought unspoken, but the meaning clear.
"Yeah," he finally said, not wanting to meet Teyla's eyes.
"John, I understand how you feel—"
"Understand?" he exploded. "How? You got Kanaan back. You two are together and you have your son. But Elizabeth is gone. Even if Rodney can figure out how to give her a human body again, and that's assuming that there's anything left of her mind in that nano-popsicle floating out in space to make it worth the effort, Stargate Command and the IOA will never allow us to bring her back because it's too much of a risk." He practically sneered the last words, then closed his eyes briefly, trying to control himself. "I— We will never see her again. Ever. It's over. Because I screwed up and left her there to die. So no, you have no fucking idea how I feel." He turned away, already knowing he'd said too much and trying to choke the rest down before he betrayed himself further.
Teyla was stunned, though more by the fact that he'd let down the walls that he always guarded so carefully as much he had, than by the words he'd said, and not said. "John…"
"Please. Just go."
She stood there for a moment, wanting to help but not knowing what else to do, and finally walked to the door. She paused in the doorway, looking back at him, then swallowed her tears and left, the door shutting behind her with an air of sad finality.
Ronon and Rodney were waiting in the next corridor. They both saw that she no longer had the jar with her. That was a good sign, right? Of course, the tears in her eyes and the stricken expression on her face looked to be decidedly less than a good sign.
"So, what happened?" Rodney urged.
"McKay," Ronon warned.
"Oh please, like you don't want to know!"
"Not here," Teyla said quietly. She schooled her face into a barely-placid mask, and started walking to the quarters she shared with Kanaan and Torren. Ronon and Rodney exchanged a look and followed silently in her wake. When they reached their destination, they entered to find Kanaan sitting beside the cradle, a soft smile on his face. He looked up as Teyla and the others entered.
"He is asleep?" Teyla asked.
"Finally," Kanaan chuckled.
"Thank the Ancestors," Teyla muttered, and behind her, Rodney and Ronon traded snickers.
Kanaan rose from his seat, and approached the other three. "Dare I ask how it went?"
Teyla sighed and dropped into a chair, without any of her usual grace. Yes, definitely another not good sign. The others took seats around her, giving her a chance to compose a response. "He is hurting." She shook her head. "We are all still hurting, but Colonel Sheppard… there is a greater depth to his grief. He…" she took a shaky breath.
"He is, isn't he?" Rodney blurted. None of them asked what he meant. They already knew. And the understanding in Teyla's eyes was all the confirmation Rodney needed. "Oh crap. Oh damn, damn, damn. He didn't tell her, did he? No, don't answer that, of course he didn't tell her, he doesn't tell anyone anything. Except her, and… aw, damnit, John." Rodney scrubbed his hands over his face.
"Then it is true," Kanaan sighed and closed his eyes. "Ancestors hold them both."
"He loved her," Rodney finished. "He loved Elizabeth and he never told her. Crap. I'd smack him upside the head, but I'd probably break my hand." In any other situation, the line might actually have been funny, but now it only seemed to depress them further.
Kanaan shook his head. "Sometimes, it is harder to share how we feel with those we love, because they are the ones we love." Teyla looked over at him, and the two joined hands.
"He believes he betrayed her," Teyla told them.
"But he didn't," Ronon shook his head. "He only did what she asked him to do."
"I think…" Teyla paused and glanced over at Kanaan. "I think he is—jealous, in a way. Of us. That we are together, that we have a family. But he can never have that with Elizabeth."
Ronon bowed his head. Rodney bit back another curse. Kanaan squeezed Teyla's fingers gently.
"He was married once," Ronon offered quietly. The others blinked in surprise.
"How the hell did you find that out?" Rodney spluttered.
"He told me. Then I met her when we went back to Earth for his father's funeral."
"You met her?!?" Teyla and Kanaan rolled their eyes at Rodney's indignant squeak.
"She was okay, I guess," Ronon shrugged. "He didn't really seem happy to see her. Not angry, just… uncomfortable."
"Huh. I wonder what happened."
"Does it matter?" Kanaan ventured.
"Maybe. If whatever it was had been bad enough that it took meeting Elizabeth to make him want to try again…" Rodney trailed off, not sure of how to end the thought.
Teyla sighed unhappily. "He is my friend. Our friend. And I can think of no way to help ease his pain. What kind of friend does that make me?"
"Oh, come on, that's not fair," Rodney protested. "I admit, I suck at all this compassion stuff, but I know you're way better at it than me. You're doing the best you can. He's just… not ready, I guess."
"I don't know if he ever will be," Ronon said quietly.
It was another few days before Beckett and Keller were satisfied that the last traces of the Arkadi aphrodisiac were completely gone from Sheppard's bloodstream. His accelerated psionic sensitivity seemed to have disappeared as well, and every test came back showing that his brain activity had returned to normal levels. With no other outstanding medical issues, he was cleared to resume his duties.
Sheppard's first day back on active duty coincided with the weekly databurst from Earth and the additional briefing for the senior staff to get everyone up to date with the latest news, procedures, orders, and oftentimes irritating demands from Earth. Normally, the briefings bored him—mainly because he could always read the damn memos himself at a time more convenient to his schedule, but after the events of the past week, he wanted that sense of normalcy. Even if it meant being bored out of his skull to the point of pinging Lorne on his PDA with the suggestion to schedule a major off-world training exercise for the marines to fall during the next databurst transmission, just so he'd have an excuse to not be in the city.
Woolsey deftly ignored it and went on with the briefing as though nothing was going on, but of course he knew. Just as Carter had known and would've added another case or two of flashbangs and cans of silly string to the requisition list for the exercise. Or just as Elizabeth had known and might have suggested that planet she went to a couple of weeks earlier for a trade negotiation and found all those great swamps a couple of clicks from the Stargate as a perfect site for the exercise because the marines would've loved playing in the mud. Damn. Sheppard folded his arms and leaned back a little from the table, frowning. Yes, everything was back to normal.
Before adjourning the meeting, Woolsey had one final announcement to make. "As you know, the Daedalus will be arriving in a couple of weeks with our bi-monthly supply shipment and our first crew rotation since returning to the Pegasus Galaxy. I have just been informed in our latest databurst from Earth that the IOA has also seen fit to send us an observer. This is not a temporary assignment, but rather a permanent addition to the staff."
Groans were heard all around the conference room, and McKay loudly griped, "Oh, that's just brilliant. Yet another pencil pushing pinhead that'll only get underfoot and make our lives harder."
"So Carter's rumor was right on that score," Sheppard mused. "Did they say who this 'observer' is?"
"Please don't let it be Shen," McKay whined. Zelenka muttered a curse in Czech.
Woolsey fidgeted in his seat. "As a matter of fact, they did. And no, it's not Ambassador Shen."
"Thank God!" was McKay's only response. The power-hungry Chinese ambassador was not well liked, either on Atlantis or back on Earth at Stargate Command, and no one had forgotten her attempt to grab command of Atlantis a year earlier.
Woolsey shot Sheppard an apologetic smile, certain that this bit of news would no doubt set the Atlantis betting pool ablaze. "Actually, the observer is your ex-wife, Nancy." McKay's eyes bulged while Zelenka made a silent 'o' of surprise. Lorne made a mental note to clear the schedule at the firing range, figuring that Sheppard was probably going to need some time to blow off a little steam. Beckett and Keller exchanged a look and then surreptitiously glanced over at Sheppard. His expression was carefully neutral as he looked back at Woolsey.
"The last time I talked to her, she was a director at Homeland Security," he began, putting special emphasis on the 'land,' "and she sure didn't have the clearance to know about the Stargate. Why is the IOA bringing her in?"
"I'm afraid the IOA didn't bother to include an explanation for her selection in their briefing. I guess you'll have to ask her about that yourself when she arrives. As for why she's coming here, the IOA believes that it would be…" Woolsey paused, not above a little dramatic irony, "'beneficial' to have some eyes and ears on Atlantis that do not have a vested interest in the expedition, to facilitate the implementation of the new policies and report on the expedition's progress."
"Gee," McKay retorted, "I thought that's what you were here for."
Woolsey chuckled along with the others. "After the last year, I'm sure the IOA considers me 'damaged goods.'" A few half-hearted jeers followed that statement. "In any event, we are to give Director Sheppard our full cooperation as she goes about her duties here in Atlantis." There were a few grim mutters of acquiescence, and Woolsey nodded. "Well, that does it for today. Thank you all for coming."
As the meeting broke up, Lorne mused quietly, "Director Sheppard? Change the spelling and we could have our own episode of NCIS."
"But where would we get our Jethro Gibbs?" Zelenka wondered.
Sheppard, of course, had been the first to exit the conference room the moment the doors started opening.
The news was all over Atlantis by the time the mess hall was serving the first seating for dinner. Just as Woolsey had suspected, the betting pool had gone wild with speculation as to what the IOA's motivation in selecting Sheppard's ex had been, and what might happen between the former Mister and Missus Sheppard once she arrived and they'd have to start working together. As it turned out, their first meeting had been about as uneventful as possible. When the Daedalus arrived two weeks later, she beamed down into the gateroom with the other new personnel and was immediately whisked into a meeting with Woolsey, while Sheppard and Zelenka split up the rest along military-civilian lines for the standard orientation. McKay, as always, refused to take part in the civilian half of the orientation, declaring that the job was below his pay grade. Zelenka thought it just as well, because if McKay was the first thing the new scientists would have to face the moment they arrived, they'd be demanding to return to Earth with the Daedalus, and to hell with the paperwork.
It wasn't until a few hours later that they were finally in the same room long enough to talk to each other. With a small sense of triumph that she hadn't needed to consult the printed out map of the crew areas that was stuck in her pocket more than once, Nancy had found her way to the mess hall for a snack; breakfast aboard the Daedalus had felt like ages ago, she'd missed lunch, and dinner was still more than a couple of hours away. A few other people were scattered around the mess hall when she arrived, but they all appeared to be engrossed in whatever work they'd brought with them. The mess hall was open around the clock and so always had a selection of food available, though for the sake of efficiency, hot dishes were only served at regular mealtimes. Nancy glanced up from the choices at the grab-n-go table to see that John was sitting alone on the outdoor terrace overlooking the inner city, nursing a mug of tea. An empty sandwich package sat next to the mug, and though she couldn't read the label, she was sure it had been turkey. Some things never changed. She quickly grabbed a muffin from the basket and a cup of coffee, and headed out to the terrace. Her steps slowed as she approached, and she silently chided herself. It was just John, for pity's sake.
"John? Mind if I sit with you?"
He blinked, and looked over at her in surprise. "Nancy?" He noticed the coffee and muffin in her hands. "Ah, no, go ahead." He took a sip from his own cup and noted with satisfaction that his hand didn't shake. "So, how are you settling in?"
"Um, pretty well, I think." She chuckled. "Damn, the reports just don't do justice to this place. I felt a little like I was back in college the way with the way I crammed every video, picture and mission report I could get my hands on during the trip here."
"Hmm. Okay, I've gotta ask, because I'm kinda curious… How the hell did you end up here? I mean…" he rubbed his hand over the back of his neck, "Last time I saw you, you were nowhere near the Stargate program. After all, you sure couldn't dig up any dirt on me," he added with a grin.
"Ah, well. I guess my diligence at my previous job had attracted some attention. That, and my digging into Project Archetype for you a couple of years ago."
He winced. "I'm sorry—"
She laughed. "No, it's okay. Actually, it was a relief to finally have some of those questions answered. I've got to say…" She looked around, taking in the sight of the late afternoon sunlight sparkling over the city. "Now that I'm here, now that I've seen all of this, I can understand why it was so important. You're doing amazing work here, John."
He smiled because it was expected of him. "Hmm. Is this you talking, or the IOA?"
She blinked and shook her head. "What do you mean by that?"
He frowned. "The IOA has a habit of making life difficult for us out here, on the pretext of," he raised his hands, the first two fingers outstretched in the universal 'quote' sign, "'maintaining order and playing by the rules.' The problem is, most of the time the rules are too damn narrow to work out here. And more often than not, when someone new comes out from Earth, we always end up getting the raw end of the deal."
She straightened and took a sip of her coffee. "Is that what you think I'm here for?"
She looked at him for a moment, wondering just what he was really thinking, then set the cup down. "Look, I'm here to make sure that this expedition doesn't unduly expose Earth to outside threats. I was transferred to Homeworld Security because the IOA and Stargate Command looked at my record and the kind of work I had been doing at Homeland, and felt that I had the right mindset and the discretion to effectively carry out those duties." She took a breath, trying to think of how best to explain her decision. "I can understand if you're not comfortable with me being here, okay, I do. But you have to understand that we're on the same side. I got into my job at Homeland Security because I wanted to protect our country. And I agreed to take on this job because I want to protect Earth, just like you. I'm here to help you and your people. If you'll let me."
"Sounds like political spin to me," he drawled lightly and tilted his head, giving her a sardonic grin. "We'll see how you do when you actually have to deal with what Pegasus dishes out."
She laughed, feeling that if he could trade banter with her, then they weren't on completely shaky ground. At least, she hoped so. "Hey, I give as good as I get, you know that. And to that end, I've already informed Mister Woolsey that I'd like to go on an off-world mission sometime in the next few days, so I can see for myself what things are like out there. After all, there's only so much you can get out of a report."
"And you'd like to go out with my team," he finished, seeing where this conversation was clearly going.
"Well, I know that some of the teams here have certain types of missions that they seem to specialize in, so eventually, I would like to go out with a few of them and get a better sense of any particular concerns and needs that are or aren't being met. But yes, Mister Woolsey suggested your team to start with… I understand you're going to be going on a survey to a world in the Ancient database in a couple of days?"
"Something easy to get your feet wet?" He smirked knowingly, and she nodded with a smile, knowing she'd been caught. "Yeah. McKay wants to check out some planet that used to belong to a former ally of the Ancients."
She raised an eyebrow. "Former ally?"
"The Wraith wiped them out."
M7J-356 was another curiosity in the Ancient database. It was a long dead world that had once been home to the Cerein, a unique race of beings that were essentially clouds of vaporized water and minerals, energized by reactions with powerful electromagnetic currents that ebbed and flowed in highly complex patterns. They had evolved eons ago from the interaction of massive glaciers and the mineral deposits in the rock strata below the ice with the electromagnetic energy put out by Cereina's sun. This physical state made the Cerein quite long-lived; they could only really die if they ran out of electrical energy on which to feed or were exposed to excessive heat, which would destabilize the delicate balance of water, minerals and energy that they were comprised of. But unlike the mist beings of M5S-224, the Cerein could, temporarily at least, alter their physical form, solidifying their vapor state into a humanoid shape that could more closely interact with the Ancients and other human-like beings. In many respects, the Cerein were similar in form to ascended beings, and in the years after the first contact between the two races, the Ancients had studied the evolution of the Cerein as part of their own research into ascension.
The partnership between the two races had gone even further than that. With their great curiosity and keen scientific minds, the Cerein had collaborated with the Ancients on several discoveries that had greatly influenced the Ancients' later work in physics and crystal-based technology. The Ancients' study of the mental abilities that were connected to the more advanced stages of pre-ascension provided new insights into how the Cerein's form of mental communication worked and how they could improve upon it. The exchange between the two peoples was respected and valued by both, and the Ancients had taken it as a good sign that they had chosen wisely when they selected the Pegasus Galaxy as a place for them to settle.
Then the Wraith had come, devouring every world in their path. They could not feed on the Cerein due to their gaseous-energy form, and their level of technology threatened the Wraith's domination of the Pegasus Galaxy. Which left only one option open to them. The denizens of one inventive Wraith hive ship created a special bomb that would temporarily reverse the balance of the unique energies and elements on Cereina, then dropped hundreds of the bombs all across the surface of the planet. Water became earth and air became fire as Cereina was turned inside out. The Cerein had no defense against the sudden, devastating wave of destruction and thus were exterminated, leaving the lonely relics on their world as their final monument. The Ancients were not known for being bloodthirsty or vengeance-minded, and had taken no pleasure in hunting down the Wraith responsible, but there was a sense of satisfaction and relief as they watched that particular hive ship break apart in the atmosphere of another world they had been attempting to cull.
Both the eulogy-like entry for Cereina in the Ancient database and the MALP telemetry that was transmitted back to Atlantis didn't come anywhere close to doing the planet justice. True to the Earth saying, seeing was definitely believing, and Sheppard and his team marveled at what they found when they stepped through the Stargate.
The Stargate, like all the Cerein settlements, was located in an underground cavern. This particular one was certainly on the large side; their flashlights only illuminated an area about twenty to thirty feet around them, but they could only barely see one wall, and there were stalactites overhead that vanished into a darkness that the lights couldn't penetrate. The atmosphere smelled a little dusty and stale, and was cool and slightly damp, which wasn't bad for a cavern over a mile under the surface of a planet that had no appreciable atmosphere topside. There was an opening in the near wall, through which they could just make out a faint light. There didn't appear to be any other way out of the cavern except back through the Stargate, so they headed toward the light.
The tunnel that they entered, like the chamber housing the Stargate, was cool with just a hint of moisture in the air. It was a good deal smaller than the Stargate cave, perhaps only twenty feet in diameter. Crystalline half-globes studded the walls every few yards at shoulder level. Most of them glowed with a soft blue light, though occasionally they would see one that was cracked and feebly flickering, or broken altogether and not giving off any light at all. They couldn't tell if the light was a naturally occurring phosphorescent attribute of the stone, or something else; the Ancient PDAs weren't that finely tuned.
They followed the tunnel for a good fifteen minutes, Sheppard in the lead, McKay just behind him and taking readings, followed by Nancy and Teyla with Ronon bringing up the rear. For once, even McKay kept his usual whining at having to walk long distances to a minimum, too engrossed in his readings and watching his footing to complain. And the distance seemed long indeed. There were so many caves that branched off from the tunnel; cracks that were barely big enough for a chihuahua to wriggle through, and gaping fissures that were large enough to fit two puddlejumpers end to end. A few of those larger fissures seemed to drop off into nothingness, while others had more of those crystal lights in the walls, clearly leading off to other settlements. They stuck to the main tunnel however, as according to the database, it led directly from the Stargate to Cereina's primary city.
At last, they came to the end of the tunnel, which opened up into an enormous cavern that made the cave containing the Stargate seem like little more than a closet in comparison. Sprawling across the floor of the cavern was a vast metropolis of stone buildings in a dizzying variety of shapes and sizes that seemed to follow no particular design motif. Some buildings curved in rippling waves, while others looked like a jumble of tinker toys randomly stuck together in a way that made no sense whatsoever. Massive stone bridges swooped over reflecting pools, then dove under each other in what seemed like a wild parody of a freeway interchange in any modern city on Earth. More of those strange phosphorescent stones were studded into the ceiling of the chamber high above them, giving off enough light to see everything without needing their flashlights. The whole city wore an air of extreme neglect, the damage done by the Wraith bombs and the further deterioration since never repaired, yet the decay held its own kind of beauty. Sheppard found himself thinking, not for the first time, and he was certain not for the last, that Elizabeth would have loved to have seen this place.
Nancy came up to stand beside Sheppard, hefting her pack a little higher on her shoulders, and gazed out at the sight of the ruined city. "My God, it's beautiful."
"Yes, it is," Teyla breathed. "I think I would like to have met the people who lived here so long ago."
"Well, we've still got the next best thing," McKay's voice did nothing to hide his eagerness. He held up his Ancient PDA. "I'm picking up an energy source, and it's definitely coming from the archive building. So let's go find it and pick the brains of Cereina's best and brightest, shall we?" He clapped his hands together and started for the path that sloped down from the ledge they were standing on to the ground level of the city-cavern. Nancy shook her head, incredulous, while Sheppard, Ronon and Teyla simply rolled their eyes and followed, more accustomed to their teammate's single-minded intensity.
Their destination was on the other side of the city, but large enough that they could see it from their lofty perch; an elegant round building of spiraling columns and a curved roof that, according to the Ancient database, housed the Cerein archive. On entering the city and being able to inspect it more closely, the group was amazed at the scale of the buildings they found. Many of them seemed to be constructed from the same stone that the cavern itself was formed out of, with decorative features made from all manner of materials. Metal ornaments festooned doorways and window openings, while said windows were glazed with some sort of clear resin that was harder than glass. Despite that strength, some windows were nonetheless broken, and pieces of the resin, building stone, and other debris occasionally crunched under the team's boots as they walked deeper into the city.
After an hour, they entered a square with a fountain standing in the center that was still bubbling merrily in defiance of the devastation that had taken place millennia ago. It seemed like a good enough place to stop and rest for a few minutes before continuing on, so Sheppard called a break. Canteens of water and PowerBars were broken out, while McKay wandered around the square, taking readings and poking at what appeared to be some sort of interactive kiosk to one side. There was a map of the city above the console, which, to his immense disgust, refused to work no matter how much he fiddled with the cables and crystals behind the panel in the base.
"I remember reading in the database entry that the Cerein did not need to breathe as any of us do, but they created the pools and steam vents to help maintain a breathable atmosphere for their visitors from other worlds," Teyla told them.
"Courteous hosts," Ronon nodded in approval.
"And it all still works," Nancy marveled. "It's an incredible feat of engineering."
"You think that's incredible?" scoffed McKay as he unwrapped a PowerBar and took a bite. "We probably haven't seen anything yet compared to what's got to be in the archive."
After a few more minutes, the group finished their rest break and moved on from the square. They passed more creatively fanciful buildings, courtyards, reflecting pools and fountains. There was not a sound to be heard except for their footsteps on the pavement and the occasional splash of water singing across stone. Not a puff of a breeze through non-existent leaves, nor a bird or animal call that might be heard on another world. It was more than a little eerie, and while perhaps it was silly to think that they were being watched in a millennia-old dead city, none of them could help but feel a strange sense of presence.
Ronon kept looking around intently; for him, that was normal, but Sheppard got the feeling that there was a little something more to his friend's heightened awareness this time. "What's up, Chewie?" he asked lightly.
Ronon huffed uncomfortably, and finally, he reluctantly said. "There's no bodies. Shouldn't we have found something by now?"
"I am not certain of that," Teyla answered quietly. "According to the Ancient database, depending on how a Cerein died, either the energies and elements that made up their bodies dissipated or crystallized. There would be nothing of them left for us to find."
"What about the Ancients who studied with the Cerein? There had be some of them here when—" Rodney shuddered.
"That's true," Nancy mused. "But I'd think that there wouldn't be much of them to find, either. Whatever remains were left following the Wraith bombardment have been exposed to air and humidity for over ten thousand years."
"So, no bodies?" Rodney asked.
"No bodies," Sheppard said assuredly. Then he grinned, intent on lightening the mood. "Now, ghosts out to plague pestering astrophysicists, on the other hand…" Ronon snickered, and Rodney groaned.
"Oh, give me a break!" The ensuing squabble between the three covered Nancy's voice as she leaned in toward Teyla.
"Let me guess. They always do this."
Teyla chuckled, both at the men's antics and in commiseration with Nancy's own amusement. "Though my child is only but a year old, in some ways, I certainly feel as though I have already had much practice in being a mother to much older children after dealing with those three for so long."
"Or perhaps a beleaguered older sister," Nancy laughed, as Rodney squawked at some jibe, from Ronon or Sheppard, they could not tell which. Nancy looked ahead of them, and saw a large, curving white roof over the tops of the nearby buildings. "Is that it? The Cerein archive?"
The others looked over where Nancy was pointing. "Looks like it," Sheppard said.
"Hmm. Seems a lot less impressive when you're right up close to it," McKay remarked blandly.
"Sure it is, Rodney. You're just wishing you'd gone into architecture instead," Sheppard teased.
The group stepped into another plaza that ran the length of the archive building. Now that they were closer, the detail in the spiraling columns they'd seen from a distance appeared as though they'd been deliberately carved to resemble the structure of a strand of DNA. They puzzled over the possibilities as McKay poked at his PDA.
"Still picking up the energy reading you saw earlier?" Sheppard asked him.
"Uh huh. It's definitely coming from inside; probably their computer core."
Nancy shook her head. "With the destructive power of those Wraith bombs that the Ancients reported, it's a surprise that something like a computer could still be functioning."
"Shielded?" Ronon hazarded a guess, and McKay nodded.
"It's the only likely explanation, and if there's information on how it was built—and since it's the archive, there should be—we should be able to adapt the design for our own use. But the only way to find out is to go in and find it." He broadly gestured in a 'hurry up' motion, and headed for one of the gaps between the columns.
Sheppard and Ronon once again took the lead entering the building. It was darker inside, but only a little, as light streamed in from between the columns. A second ring of columns that was a little smaller than the first stood before them, positioned in such a way that if one were to try to peer into the hall through one of the gaps in the outer ring, a column from the second ring would block their view. They walked a little to the side to move through the second ring, only to be faced with a third ring, smaller than the second. Then a fourth ring, and a fifth, each one smaller than the one before. Finally, they passed beyond the fifth ring into an empty space. The floor here was tiled differently than the rest of the building, in a quartz-like stone that reflected the light in such a way that seemed to eliminate all of the shadows.
There was nothing else in the space. No computer consoles, no advanced displays, nothing.
"What the hell? Where's the archive?" McKay groused.
"What about that energy reading you were picking up?" Sheppard prompted.
McKay looked down at his PDA. "It's still here, and stronger now. We're right on top of it."
"Don't tell me it's in the floor," Ronon muttered, and McKay snapped his fingers.
"Oooh, like that console Helia surprised us with in the gateroom back on Atlantis? There's a thought!" He trotted over to the center of the space, where a round skylight in the ceiling let in a shaft of soft light from outside. He sat down beside the circle of light and held out a scanner, muttering at the results that came up, then started poking at the floor tiles. In the meantime, the rest of the group began to split up, looking more closely at the columns, shining their flashlights over the intricate carvings in search of concealed controls.
"I don't understand it," McKay's frustration was matched only by his determination to figure out what was going on. "According to my readings, the energy is coming from all around us. There's no localized source!"
"What does that mean?" Ronon asked.
"I don't know, maybe they've got a completely different kind of design for a power distribution system!" McKay shot back. "These readings aren't making any sense!"
"Uh, John?" Nancy called out. They all looked over to Nancy, who was staring out toward the outer rings and starting to back away from the columns. "I didn't see any fog earlier, did you?"
Sure enough, wispy tendrils of fog were beginning to creep between the columns. There was no breeze, and yet the fog swirled and spread as through driven by some sort of air current, growing thicker as it drifted into the open chamber, surrounding the group.
"What is it, McKay," Sheppard growled. His gun was up and pointed at the fog, and out of the corner of his eye he could see that Teyla and Ronon had already done the same. Not that bullets would really do any good against fog, but the familiarity of the action let him feel like he was doing something. All the while, everyone was still backing toward the circle of light in the center of the room.
"The energy readings are coming from the fog!" McKay squeaked. "Don't tell me these guys were cousins to those paranoid mist people on M5S-224 or something!" The five were now edging toward the circle of light as the fog continued to advance. When Sheppard entered the circle, the light suddenly turned blue, and the fog seemed to pause, drawing back just a bit.
"Whoa, what did you do?" McKay asked.
"I didn't do anything!" Sheppard protested.
"Could it be the Ancient gene?" Teyla suggested.
"Hey, what about me? I've got the gene and I got into the circle before he did!" McKay complained.
"Through the gene therapy. Maybe the sensors controlling this thing are sensitive enough to tell the difference between the natural gene and the artificial gene," Sheppard suggested.
The mists had not remained still during their conversation, swirling around the circle, pushing forward, then drawing back, rolling, twisting, growing thicker and thicker until finally it coalesced into a humanoid form that resembled a young boy, perhaps no more than thirteen or fourteen. They stared in shock at the figure.
"Ohhhh boy," McKay said lowly.
"Are you… one of the Cerein?" Teyla asked hesitantly. The figure nodded and smiled.
"Yes," he answered. "My name is Lenar."
Sheppard stepped forward. "I'm Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard, and this is—"
"—Nancy Sheppard, Teyla Emmagan, Ronon Dex, and Doctor Rodney McKay," Lenar finished. "I have been expecting you." They all looked at each other, wondering what was going on.
"How did you know that? And how did you get here?" McKay blurted out, "I mean—"
"I understand you have questions. I will try to answer them as best as I can. A few of my people—far too few—survived the firestorm unleashed by the Wraith. We were deep within the caves, just at the edges of the bombs' reach. But we were still close enough for the radiation to poison our bodies. We were dying. I was the youngest, and still strong, so my elders combined their powers and wisdom and passed them to me, that I could live and carry out the task that I was given. And so I have remained."
"What… task?" Ronon asked warily.
"To pass on a message. When the Wraith came, the power unleashed by their weapon was such that it not only twisted our world and our bodies, but our psychic abilities. For a moment, we saw a flash, a vision, of what we believed to be the future. A future in which the Ancients were gone, and their second advent had risen from the ashes."
Sheppard nodded. "Us."
"That is correct. In this vision… we saw you. All of you," Lenar clarified, noting their surprised expressions. "It is no coincidence that you are here now."
"Okay… So, what happened in this vision?" Sheppard asked. Lenar fixed Sheppard with a look for a long moment.
"We saw a darkness come to the city of Atlantis… There is a mirror that reflects your heart, John Sheppard, and it is broken in two. You repaired the mirror with a lover's caress… And the mirror became Atlantis and burned away the darkness." Nancy gave Sheppard an odd look.
"That's it?" McKay burst, "But that doesn't make any sense!"
"Visions such as these seldom do. Nevertheless, that is all we saw. I do not know who or what the darkness is, or the mirror, or how to recognize either of them, but I know that when the time comes, you must be ready to meet them." He looked at Teyla. "Your wisdom must be gentle." To Ronon he said, "Your bravery must be sure." To McKay, "Your cleverness must be swift." And to Sheppard, "And your love must be true." They all exchanged looks, uncertain how to interpret those remarks.
"But what about the archive? All of your people's knowledge and technology?" McKay asked.
"Gone," Lenar told them sadly. "The energies released by the Wraith's firestorm bombs were so powerful and uncontrollable that they overwhelmed the shielding on the archive nexus and wiped out all the information stored there. I am sorry. I wish that it was still here, that it could be passed on to the descendants of the people we once called allies and friends." McKay sighed in defeat.
"What will happen to you now?" Nancy's subdued voice startled Sheppard; he'd almost forgotten she was there.
"The death that my elders' power delayed for a time now comes upon me, and I shall join my people in oblivion."
"But… surely there's something we can do…"
Lenar shook his head and smiled, his form already beginning to dissolve back into mist, and his voice growing more hollow as he spoke. "It is enough that I have been able to see those who now guard the legacy of the Ancients and protect its future. I am content with that." The mist rapidly dissipated, leaving not even a glimmer of water condensation on the tiles.
McKay shook his head. "Visions, prophecies, soothsayers… What good is any of it when it's all wrapped up in a riddle too incomprehensible to decipher?"
"And yet, Davos's vision of Atlantis being destroyed did turn out to be true," Teyla reminded them. "It was simply not our Atlantis, but rather the one created by the Asurans who broke away from Oberoth to study ascension."
"And look where that got them," Ronon muttered darkly.
It was at the peak of the breakfast hour, but with a bit of luck, a table out on the terrace opened up at just the right moment. Teyla Emmagan and Jennifer Keller led the way to snag the table, with Kate Heightmeyer and Laura Cadman bringing up the rear. The newly-minted Captain Cadman, fresh from a stint on Earth, where she received training on some of the newest weapons and other technological toys the Marine Corps had to offer, had just returned to Atlantis on the latest supply run by the Daedalus. Eventually, she would likely form up her own off-world team to join in the hunt for Ancient artifacts and making nice with the natives of the Pegasus Galaxy, but for the moment, she would be passing on what she had learned on Earth to her fellow Marines.
First, however, her friends were welcoming her home with a hearty breakfast and the latest gossip. The gossip had taken up a good part of the meal, and as the crowd in the mess hall had dwindled and they'd lingered over their coffee and tea, the conversation turned to who Cadman might select for her team.
"I was thinking a corpsman might be a good idea," Laura mused as she finished her last bit of egg and bacon scramble. "I know Carson's been making the rounds among our friends, and it might be good to get some more pairs of hands out there. Winning hearts and minds, and all that."
"That's a good thought," Keller nodded. "I can think of a few in the infirmary rotation that might suit a team. I'll draw up a list for you, if you'd like."
"That'd be lovely, thank you." She mulled over another thought. "I was also thinking about someone with the technical skills to play with the Ancient toys we might run into without blowing us up. Maybe Zelenka."
"I think Radek would like to get off world a little more," Teyla agreed.
"And I think he likes the competition with McKay, although he'd never admit to it," Kate grinned at Jennifer, who laughed.
"That's for sure! Sometimes, you just need someone else to give you a push, and Radek keeps him on his toes." She blinked, then popped the last bite of her toast in her mouth as McKay, with both Sheppard and Ronon in tow, approached the table. The other women smirked.
"Did I just hear Zelenka's name taken in vain? Speaking of him, he's got a team in a lab out on the west pier and they've found some sort of machine that does who only knows what because there's no record of it in the database. So, I'm going to check it out and set them straight." Sheppard and Ronon rolled their eyes.
"And just how are you going to set them straight if there's no record of this machine in the database?" Laura taunted with a teasing smile.
"Score one for the tap-dancing Marine," McKay shot back. "Obviously, it was some sort of secret project that was kept off the official records."
Kate wrinkled her nose. "Like what Janus was up to?" McKay blinked and nodded eagerly.
"Yes, exactly! Most of these labs have got isolated computers with additional files that aren't accessible from the mainframe. I've been looking over the data that Radek has sent so far and I'm reasonably sure about what this thing is."
"Reasonably sure?" Ronon echoed.
McKay shook his head and waved his arms vaguely. "Of course, Conan!" He looked over at Keller. "So, wanna come see?" From behind him, Ronon and Sheppard threw pleading looks at the group.
Jennifer gave him a rueful grin before exchanging a look with Kate. "Unfortunately, Kate and I have got a staff meeting in…" she looked at her watch, "Fifteen minutes. You'll have to tell me all about it over dinner."
"It's a date," Rodney told her, and leaned down to kiss her cheek. Kate and Laura "awwwed" in the background.
"Well, it's about time you figured it out, Rodney," Laura drawled with a wink at Jennifer. "I've got to go play with my Marines, so I'll see you all later."
Teyla hid her smile with a well-timed napkin blot to her lips, then nodded. "I think I shall accompany you. After all, we are a team, are we not?" Sheppard and Ronon sighed in relief and Kate and Laura snickered.
"Is that it?" Sheppard eyed the octagonal-shaped box with its opaque green glass windows dubiously.
"It is indeed," McKay bounced around the lab like a ping-pong ball, checking one of several laptops he had running various programs, picking up a cable from one table and setting it on another table without doing anything with it, and all the while looking over every inch of the box.
"Are you sure that's safe?" Ronon remarked blandly from where he was leaning against the wall. Teyla rolled her eyes in unsurprised amusement, and Zelenka muttered in Czech before stepping out of the newly-unsealed lab to speak with Kusanagi.
"Relatively sure," McKay answered.
"Define 'relatively,' McKay!"
"C'mon, Sheppard, it's been disconnected from the power source. It's perfectly safe!"
"What's that Earth saying?" Ronon shot back, "'Famous last words?'" Sheppard chuckled.
McKay snorted and reached out, his fingers just grazing the touchpad. A flash of light blinded everyone in the room.
The next thing any of them knew, the four of them found themselves sprawled on the floor, stars exploding behind their eyes. They shook their heads to clear the buzzing in their ears and slowly got up, only to find themselves surrounded by a ring of Marines, P-90s aimed right at them.
"What the hell?" Sheppard exclaimed.
"Funny, I was about to ask the very same thing." The voice was Sheppard's, but it didn't come from the man who stood with them. As one, they looked toward the source of the voice, the doorway that led into the lab from the corridor outside.
Standing there, wearing the older style of expedition uniform, was John Sheppard. Next to him, very much alive and well, stood Elizabeth Weir.
They had been escorted directly to the isolation room in the infirmary and put through the standard battery of tests that followed any off-world mission, as well as a number of other more in-depth tests. Sheppard recognized all of them from the time when he'd returned from his inadvertent trip through time a year earlier, and they'd all submitted to the tests with varying degrees of resigned understanding and stunned curiosity about the differences they were seeing in this version of Atlantis. The nurses who came to take blood samples and ran scanners over them refused to answer any of their questions; that was standard procedure, too. Finally, they'd been left alone in the isolation room while the results were compiled.
"Okay, obviously this has got to be some sort of alternate universe," McKay began.
"Oh, obviously," Sheppard grated. Teyla glanced at him worriedly, though only Ronon and McKay took notice of her regard. Though Sheppard tried to hide it from them, he kept looking up at the one-way glass wall above them, to the observation gallery that looked down into the isolation room. Where she was watching them; he had no doubt of that. None of them did, really.
McKay continued to pace furiously, working out the sequence of events in his head. "That device we found on the west pier must've created a pocket in the space-time continuum and somehow expanded it around us and shifted us into this universe."
"Gee, ya think, McKay?"
Before McKay could mount another protest, the door slid open. Beckett walked in, accompanied by Major Lorne. Neither one was in hazmat suits now, and they relaxed just a bit.
"Aye, ye check out physically, so we know yer not clones or anything," Beckett confirmed.
"They'd like to speak with you whenever you're ready," Lorne added. "Figure out what happened so we can get you home."
"I think we're ready now," Sheppard told him.
The combined briefing and meet-and-greet with the rest of their counterparts got off to a rocky start the moment they stepped into the conference room and came face to face with, of all people, Oberoth. Sheppard, Ronon and Teyla immediately went for their guns while Rodney squeaked and backed up a couple of paces to give the other three more room to maneuver. Their counterparts got over their surprise quickly, and moved into a protective circle around Weir and Oberoth, their own weapons drawn.
"What the hell is he doing here?" McKay yelled.
"What the hell has gotten into you?" the other McKay shot back.
Weir shoved her way through the circle and into the no man's land between the two groups. "Please! Everyone lower your weapons!"
"Elizabeth…" the other Sheppard's voice held a note of warning. She looked back at him.
"John… please." He clenched his jaw, and after a moment, he glanced over at his Ronon and Lorne and nodded. The three lowered their weapons, but did not holster them. She looked at Sheppard and his team. "Please," she asked again. Reluctantly, they lowered their own weapons.
"What is going on?" Sheppard asked in a clipped tone. "What the hell are Replicators doing in Atlantis?"
"Yeah," McKay added, "is this supposed to be a precursor to softening Atlantis up so you can attack?"
Oberoth's eyes widened in shock that certainly appeared to be unfeigned. "Attack Atlantis? Why would we do that?"
"Oh, I don't know," McKay snapped, "Maybe because you wanted to get revenge against the Ancients for creating you and then destroying you when you wouldn't be good obedient little weapons against the Wraith, but since they were all dead or ascended, you decided to take it out on us instead!"
"Whoa, what?" the other McKay protested. "Um, I hate to break it to you, but that's not what happened in this universe."
"So? Enlighten us, then." Their counterparts exchanged looks.
"Maybe it would be helpful if we started at the beginning, and you can tell us what happened in your universe," Weir began gently, "And then we can fill in the differences in our universe."
"Okay, how about this?" McKay countered. "We found an entry in the Ancient database for a planet. Except that there was nothing in the entry except the gate address. No name, no information about what was on the planet and why the Ancients might have been interested in it. So we sent a MALP through and found a planet full of people who looked like Ancients, had a city almost exactly like Atlantis, and called themselves Asurans. That sound familiar so far?"
Their counterparts and Oberoth nodded.
"All right. So we go to Asuras—and by we, I mean me, Sheppard, Ronon, Teyla, and our Elizabeth, who wanted to open up talks as soon as possible. Everything seemed all right at first. Of course, our Oberoth was an arrogant bastard—" the other Oberoth raised his eyebrows in surprise— "and wasn't interested in diplomacy, trade, or even going out and fighting the Wraith, at least, not until they were 'ready,' or so he claimed. Then when we tried to leave, he had us arrested, then he did that sticking the hand in the head thing and mind probed all of us to get intel on Atlantis so they could destroy it. How's that?"
Their counterparts' faces blanched in shock. "Well, that definitely took a sharp left into the Twilight Zone," the other Sheppard stated.
"I think, perhaps, that I should pick up the thread of our tale," Oberoth ventured. When Weir nodded at him, he began. "As you are no doubt aware, we Asurans, or rather, the nanites that our bodies are made of, were created by the Ancients as a weapon against the Wraith. It was not long before we had created human-like bodies to better facilitate our given task. The Ancients fought alongside us, shared with us their devotion to protecting the lives of innocents against the Wraith. For a time, all was well. We had begun to drive the Wraith back, reclaiming many of the worlds they had fouled. And then, something terrible happened." The expression on Oberoth's face changed. He looked haunted, and a chill settled over everyone in the room as he continued the story.
"The Wraith managed to find a way to alter our base code, to shut off the function that enabled us to fight them." Now Oberoth's face turned a little angry, as if in remembrance of the frustration he and his people had felt at having their very existence made a mockery. "The Wraith left us impotent on Asuras, unable to even defend ourselves as they launched a massive attack on us and bombed our city into ashes. When we finally rebuilt ourselves enough to contact Atlantis for assistance, there was no response. We all feared the worst. But with our code compromised, we could not even leave Asuras to discover our creators' fate." His voice became quiet and sad. "And so we dwelled alone for ten thousand years. It was not until Doctor Weir and her team contacted us last year that we finally learned what had really happened."
The other McKay picked up the story. "We discovered in the Ancient database that the Wraith had sent an armada to blockade Lantea and lay siege to Atlantis. The Ancients were completely cut off, outnumbered and outgunned. Those in Atlantis submerged the city and evacuated through the Stargate back to Earth, while those not on Lantea fled Pegasus by ship back to the Milky Way."
"That's pretty similar to what happened in our universe," McKay mused, "Except, you know, the part about the Replicators being good guys and all."
Oberoth looked perturbed. "Dare I ask what happened after you returned from your universe's version of Asuras?"
"When we escaped Asuras and stopped the Asurans—our Asurans—before they could destroy Atlantis, we were accompanied by one who had befriended us and tried to help us. His name was Niam," Teyla explained quietly.
"Niam?" Weir repeated.
"Kinda tall, wavy blond hair, blue eyes, studying ascension, that Niam?" their Sheppard asked, incredulous.
"Yeah, that's the one," McKay confirmed. "He asked us for our help to get rid of the aggressive tendencies programmed into the Asurans by the Ancients in exchange for his help to stop the Asurans from destroying Atlantis. We thought it was a fair trade… at least until the Asurans remotely reprogrammed Niam to attack Elizabeth in retaliation for us destroying the Asuran city-ship." McKay grimaced. "We spaced him. Got him off Elizabeth, locked him into the rear compartment of the jumper and then blew the hatch."
"Oookay," their Sheppard said slowly. "That still doesn't explain why you're all freaked out at seeing Elizabeth here."
"Because she's dead." Everyone looked at Sheppard, who had remained stonily silent up to that point. His face was cold and hard as he glared at Oberoth. The other Sheppard paled slightly and glanced at Weir.
"After we got back to Atlantis, Elizabeth collapsed and went into a coma," McKay explained quietly, glancing at Weir. "Niam had infected her with Replicator nanites that started to turn her into a Replicator, but we managed to turn the nanites off. Then when the Asurans attacked Atlantis a few months later, she was injured." He grimaced. "She were dying. So Keller and I turned the nanites back on to save her life, but the nanites made her half-Replicator. Then she went with me, Sheppard and Ronon on a raid to Asuras to steal a ZPM so we'd have the power to fly the city to a safe planet, and when it looked like we were going to get caught, she allowed herself to be captured so the rest of us could escape. We found out later that Oberoth—our universe's Oberoth—had killed her. At least, that's what another group of Asurans we met later claimed."
"And you never tried to go back for her?" the other Sheppard looked askance at them.
"Don't you think we wanted to get her back?" Sheppard snarled. "But with what tactical advantage? Her locator beacon stopped transmitting, and the nanites keeping her alive screwed up the sensor readings so we couldn't single her out in an entire planet full of Replicators with who wanted us all dead." He stared at his counterpart. "You tell me what we could've done differently!"
Shocked silence met that statement.
"I think," Weir quietly stated, still looking very disturbed by Sheppard's words, "our first priority needs to be to figure out how to get all of you back to your universe safely. Rodney, I'd like you to work with your counterpart to figure out what happened, try and determine what this device they encountered was and if we have one here in our Atlantis that we might be able to use to help send them home."
"Agreed," the other McKay nodded sharply, "There's all manner of utterly horrific stuff that can happen if they stay here too long. Entropic cascade failure is just the tip of the iceberg, of course, but—"
"We get the idea," the other Sheppard interrupted smoothly, and Weir flashed him a grateful smile.
The McKays exchanged looks. "Shall we?" they chorused.
The first order of business was a visit to the mess hall for a late lunch, as both McKays, naturally, wanted some fortification before tackling the problem at hand. The two teams took a couple of tables on the outdoor terrace, but gave each other a bit of space to talk privately amongst themselves. All of them were feeling more than a bit weirded out by their current circumstances, even more so for the team that now found themselves in such a familiar-yet-not world, as they had been through this before with their Asuran-created clones.
"So? What do you think?" Sheppard's attention was divided, and it was difficult to stay focused on certain specifics of the situation he and his team had found themselves in. Other specifics, however, were taking up a great deal of his attention.
"I must admit, I did not get the impression that they were trying to deceive us," Teyla began softly, with a quick sidelong glance at their counterparts over at the next table. "If anything, they seemed genuinely surprised by what we told them of our experience with the Asurans in our universe."
"I think the word you're looking for is 'horrified,'" McKay stated as he stabbed his chicken parmesan with a fork. "They were acting way too shocked to be lying. Oberoth looked like he was going to faint when we told him what he was like in our universe." Ronon snorted in response.
"All right, then. So you work with the other McKay and get us home."
"It's not that simple—" McKay protested.
"Yes, it is that simple, Rodney," Sheppard told him grimly. "Get us home." He looked out at the ocean, trying not to think about the matching rings that his counterpart and the other Elizabeth Weir were wearing.
After finishing their meals, the two McKays headed off to the lab to put their heads together and come up with a solution. The rest of the team also paired off; Ronon and his counterpart headed off to the gym, clearly wanting to take each other's measure on the training mat, and the two Teylas were off to do… well, Sheppard wasn't sure, but he had a feeling that it would involve more trading of tales about each other's universes. Probably very embarrassing tales, at that. Which left Sheppard with his own counterpart, who was regarding him with the same mix of curiosity and wariness that he himself was feeling.
They both grinned.
"How about a jumper ride?"
"You read my mind."
The two headed for the jumper bay, and after checking in with the control room and going through a quick pre-flight, they were cleared to go. As he eased the jumper up and out of the bay through the retracted roof, John idly noted that the jumper controls in this universe felt the same as they did in his own, and he was struck again by just how much little difference could change his perception. He guided the jumper in a couple of laps around the outer perimeter of the city, then spiraled up into blue sky. The other Sheppard leaned back in the co-pilot's seat, clearly lost in thought.
"So, you two are married. To each other." John gave his counterpart a speculative look. "How'd you get that by Stargate Command and the IOA?"
"We got them to officially designate Atlantis as a colony. There have been some problems back in our Milky Way that forced the IOA to accept the necessity of having a larger presence somewhere that was out of reach."
"Even with the Wraith around?"
"I guess life-sucking bugs seemed like a more appealing choice to them than religious fanatics out to convert the galaxy."
"Ahhh. The Ori. We got rid of them. At least, SG-1 did."
"Same here, finally. But by then, the IOA couldn't undo their decision." He grinned wickedly. "Lucky us."
"What is it like?"
"Being married to Elizabeth."
"She's the best damn thing that ever happened to me." It was a few minutes before the alternate Sheppard asked quietly, "Do you know for sure?" John looked at him, wariness warring with a sad certainty. "About… your Elizabeth? Are you sure she's gone?"
John couldn't answer. What did they know, really? That the Replicator who claimed to be Elizabeth had walked through the Stargate into the void of space over a year ago? But other than the story she told them, and the story that their clones had told them two years ago, what proof did they have? He'd mulled over that question again and again, late at night when he couldn't sleep and he'd go walking alone along the piers of the city until dawn.
The other Sheppard nodded quietly. "I'll take your silence as an 'I don't know.'" He hesitated. "If you do find her…"
John set the jumper's autopilot and turned to look straight into his counterpart's eyes. "I don't know what you think you know, but—"
He held up a hand. "Look, we may be from different universes, but we're still both John Sheppard, right?" At John's nod of agreement, he continued in a quiet but fierce voice, "I'd go into hell and back for her. And so would you. I'm right about that too, aren't I?"
"Yeah." He shifted uncomfortably in his seat. Certainly, he had a few things to think about once he got back to his own universe. After more than a year without any conclusive proof that the original, the human Elizabeth was still alive, the IOA and Stargate Command had officially declared her dead shortly after the rogue Asurans had visited Atlantis. But if there was any place to start looking… He banished the thought that popped up in his mind like a soap bubble. Time enough for that later. Provided McKay—both of them—could get them home.
Two McKays did indeed prove to be better than one, as it took a remarkably short amount of time for them to find the answer.
"We've figured it out," McKay told them triumphantly. "We can't do anything."
"You mean we're stuck here?" Ronon exclaimed.
"No, Conan, we're not. Look, the device apparently opens up some sort of loop in the space-time continuum. Once it's activated, it stretches that loop out like a rubber band until it reaches its maximum threshold."
"And then?" Sheppard prompted.
"Geeze, you're impatient today!" McKay rolled his eyes. "And then, like a rubber band, the loop retracts, taking those caught in the loop back to their starting point, then deactivating."
"So at some point, we're just going to flash back to the lab on our Atlantis?"
"Exactly. And that point will be in approximately—" he looked down at his watch— "twenty-six minutes. Guess we'd better start saying our goodbyes, eh?"
Several minutes later, they assembled in the gateroom, Sheppard and the others at the foot of the stairs to the upper level, and their counterparts from this universe standing between them and the Stargate. They had broken up to speak with each of their counterparts privately for a moment; the shortness of their dimensional trip meant that they hadn't gotten to know each other all that well, yet the little they had seen and shared had shown them that they were the same people, just living under a slightly different set of circumstances. The two Teylas were laughing about their courtships with their versions of Kanaan—evidently this universe's Teyla and Kanaan had been stuck in a malfunctioning transporter for a couple of hours, and when McKay and Zelenka had finally gotten the doors open, they'd found Teyla and Kanaan locked in a pretty heated embrace that both were still being teased about. Meanwhile, the two McKays were obviously still engrossed in talking shop about physics and which of them was more irritated by their staff, while the two Ronons seemed to be discussing fight moves, if the broad gesturing provided any clue.
Sheppard smiled slightly, glad at least to see that this little misadventure hadn't turned out so badly after all. Well, at least the Pegasus Galaxy could be counted on to always keep life interesting. He turned to his counterpart. "Sorry 'bout the mess," he drawled, and both men grinned. He sobered for a moment. "Take care of her."
His counterpart nodded. "I will. But then, I think you knew that already."
He glanced down at the man's wedding ring. "That I do," he said softly.
The two were silent for a moment, listening to the laughter of the others. But before either of them could say anything more, Weir, accompanied by Oberoth and Lorne, who was carrying one of those ballistic equipment cases, approached the group. Weir smiled kindly at them, and they felt the pang of loss all the more keenly in their hearts.
"I know you haven't really had a chance to see very much of our Atlantis," she told them, "but I hope you'll remember us. I think we'll certainly remember all of you." Quite a few chuckles greeted her words. "But before you go, we'd like to give you something to take back with you to your Atlantis."
Lorne stepped forward and opened the case to reveal three ZPMs. McKay's eyes grew round as saucers.
"Once I had heard about the situation in your universe, I returned to Asuras to bring these back for you," Oberoth, still apparently shaken by what they'd told them about what his own counterpart had done, explained. "Though I cannot undo the damage my people's obviously misguided counterparts have done in your universe, the least I can do is offer this gift to help you in your own fight against the Wraith. May that fight be as successful as it has been here." Lorne shut the case, and Ronon stepped forward to take it, then rejoined the team.
The two McKay's watches started beeping.
"Thirty seconds," they reported in unison. Everyone cracked grins.
"You planned that," one of them accused, but Sheppard couldn't tell which one, as his sense of hearing seemed strangely off. He realized that McKay's dimensional rubber band, whatever it was, was starting to pull back.
There was a building sensation of being tugged off their feet, yet they remained standing straight. Suddenly, they heard a loud popping sound, accompanied by their vision becoming blurry, colors bleeding into one another. It was so disorienting that they had to close their eyes in a vain effort to keep their equilibrium. Even behind their eyelids, they could see the flash of light. And then, there was nothing but darkness.
Sheppard awakened to find himself tucked into a bed in the infirmary. Had it all been a dream? McKay was chattering away to someone, and Sheppard turned his head to see that he'd already been released, if the fact that McKay was out of the scrubs and putting on his uniform jacket was anything to go by. Keller was standing off to the side, shaking her head.
"And the ZedPMs? Radek, did you check—"
"Yes, yes." Zelenka rolled his eyes in exasperation. "All three ZPMs have a full charge. No sign that they've been tampered with in any way."
"We've got ZedPMs," McKay's voice was blissful. "We can get the shield up. We can finally start activating all the rest of the city's systems that we've never been able to work with before because we didn't have enough power. We can—"
"We get the idea, Rodney," Sheppard smirked. He looked around again. "Where are Ronon and Teyla?"
"Already released," Keller informed him. "Ronon's back to terrorizing the Marines in his 'drunken Runner master' class—" everyone snickered at the unofficial name for the advanced martial arts workshop that Ronon had started teaching last year— "and Teyla and Kanaan took Torren off to go visit overnight with the Athosians."
"It seems that those with the ATA gene were most strongly affected by the tidal forces of the temporal loop pulling back on itself," McKay explained. "And since you've got the strongest gene out of any of us…"
"I'm still parked here on my ass," Sheppard finished glumly.
Keller grinned at the sour expression on Sheppard's face. "I want to keep you here for a couple more hours just to be sure you're not suffering any other ill effects, but if you behave yourself, I'll be able to cut you loose in time for dinner."
"Mmm, they've got lasagna as the special tonight," McKay mused. He looked over at Keller. "How about we have dinner together?" He looked at his watch. "Eighteen forty-five sound good to you?"
"Sounds like a date," Keller smiled, and kissed McKay's cheek. "I've got to go set up for post-mission on Lorne's team when they come back from M3X-209. See you later." She headed for her office, McKay smiling as he watched her go.
"Rodney?" McKay didn't answer, still watching the empty doorway Keller had just walked through. "Atlantis to McKay?"
"Wha— oh, right." He looked back at Sheppard. "Anything else?"
Sheppard frowned, recalling his earlier conversation with his counterpart. "Rodney, there's something I want you to check on for me…"
"Colonel Sheppard! D'ye have a minute?"
Sheppard, who was on his way to the ready room to gear up for his team's next mission, half-turned to see Carson Beckett jogging to catch up. "Sure, Doc. What's up?"
Beckett fell in step with Sheppard as they walked down the corridor, and to Sheppard's eye, Beckett looked a little… rattled. "I have a question for ye. What I mean t'say is…" He huffed and looked around. Too many people. He steered them to a less-trafficked corridor nearby. This wasn't something he wanted overheard by just anyone, and if his theory was right, Sheppard wouldn't want it overheard either.
When they reached an alcove with a window overlooking one of the moon pools within the east pier, he turned to Sheppard. "Colonel, this is probably going to sound very odd to you, and I wouldn't blame ye if ye thought I was mad, but lately… When it's quiet at night, and I try t'reach out to the city, ye know, with the ATA gene, just to practice with the lights in my quarters and the like, I… feel something. A presence. Like there's something or someone here, watching us. I always thought it was just my imagination, I mean, more than three quarters of the city is still empty and it can be kinda creepy. But ever since we put the new ZPMs in a month ago, the feeling has gotten stronger."
Now Sheppard frowned. He'd never really spoken of his own perception of the city and the oddities of its genetically-controlled systems to anyone, but what he'd been feeling lately felt very similar to what Beckett was describing. Beckett nodded slightly at the change in Sheppard's expression. "So ye feel it, too. I felt it a little before, when we had the three ZPMs right before we went to Earth. This time is different, like maybe before it hadn't had enough time to wake up, since we used up the power in the ZPMs so quickly."
"Yeah…" He frowned. "Look, Carson, have you told anyone else?"
"Are ye daft? Rodney would probably call for Kate Heightmeyer and a squad of marines to take me away in a straitjacket. Ye know how he gets whenever starts going on about the whole "Atlantis is alive' rumor."
Sheppard snorted in response. "That's Rodney, scared of his own shadow. Still, though… I'll talk with Zelenka when we get back, see if maybe there's a reasonable explanation for this. He was the one who checked out the ZPMs when we brought them back, maybe he can shed some light on this." Beckett raised an eyebrow, and Sheppard shrugged. "Worth a shot."
"Aye. Even if we both think we've gone mad."
Sheppard nodded and they went their separate ways. Gone mad… McKay had certainly looked at Sheppard as though he had gone mad when he'd suggested sending one of those new flight-capable MALPs they were testing through the gate that they'd sent the rogue Asurans through over a year earlier. McKay had done it anyway, as no one was really paying any attention to just which space gates were being used for the tests, only that the new probes worked as designed. The results were still highly classified, which for Atlantis was a feat in itself.
They were gone. There wasn't even a hint that a 'kawoosh' from a prior wormhole might have disintegrated them, but given the potential destructive capability of an opening wormhole, that wasn't saying much. There had been no choice but to go to Woolsey, who had told them to sit on the discovery for a while, citing the lack of evidence of what might have happened. The problem was, none of them were sure how much longer they could keep even an unproven bombshell under wraps.
Normally, the forests of M6T-571 were like any other forest on any other world in the Pegasus Galaxy. Peaceful sanctuaries of sun-dappled glades, tall conifers with thick trunks carpeted in green moss, with only the sound of birdsong or wind whistling through the trees to fill the quiet. However, that day was not today, and certainly not this forest. The dueling sounds of erupting machine gunfire and the unique whine of Wraith stunners, peppered with the occasional shout or grunt and the pounding of running feet, drowned out the normal forest sounds.
"Keep running, McKay!"
"What do you—" pant "—think I'm—" wheeze "—trying to—" gasp "—do?"
They rounded the side of a large stone outcropping, where the path ahead split in two directions, and Ronon noticed a fissure in the rock, partly concealed by the brush around it. "In here," he called lowly. "We can set up an ambush if we need to." Quickly they slid through the narrow opening and stepped back, taking the opportunity to check their weapons and reload.
Sheppard glanced over at McKay and whispered, "What the hell are the Wraith doing here? I thought you said this planet was supposed to be uninhabited!"
"Yeah, well, the Ancient database hasn't exactly been updated recently, has it? And we only send the MALPs out so far from the gate…"
Sheppard sighed. This was going to be a long day.
Finally, the group of Wraith that had been pursuing them caught up. They looked around the clearing, evidently unsure of which path Sheppard and the others had taken, and without any sound to follow and the ground too covered by dead leaves and other forest debris to leave obvious tracks, the Wraith were at a bit of a loss. Their leader snarled in frustration, and signaled for the rest to follow him back up the trail the way they'd come. All of a sudden, he jerked back oddly, and from their vantage point, Sheppard and the others could see a long arrow sticking into the Wraith's chest, with a wickedly barbed point erupting out his back. A second arrow cleaved right through the Wraith's head. The Wraith leader fell, then one of the drones was brought down by another pair of arrows. And another.
"What the hell? Is this the Pegasus Galaxy or Sherwood Forest?" Sheppard exclaimed.
"Good enough for me," Ronon grinned and burst out of hiding, taking down three more Wraith. Sheppard growled, and he and Teyla leaped out and into the fight, with McKay right behind them. In short order, the entire Wraith hunting party had been brought down.
"Well," Sheppard said, looking around at the carnage, "That wasn't so bad." All of a sudden, McKay yelped as a cloaked figure jumped down from the trees above. Everyone pulled their guns on the figure, who held out its hands, one of which was holding a rather large bow; a quiver of arrows was slung across its back. Clearly, this was their mysterious benefactor.
"Nice shooting, Robin Hood," Sheppard drawled appreciatively.
The figure nodded, and slowly, so as not to alarm them, raised its other hand to push back the deep hood concealing its face to reveal—a grinning Aiden Ford.
"Oh my God!" Rodney yelled. "You're alive!"
Ford laughed. "Good to see you too, McKay." He looked around at the others and settled his gaze on Sheppard. "I'm glad I found you, actually. I'm gonna need to speak to Doctor Weir as soon as possible; I've learned some information that I think she'll be interested in hearing." The closed faces that met his statement filled Ford with a sudden dread. "Oookay… silence is not good. What's going on?"
It was Teyla who answered. "Doctor Weir is…" She took a breath. "She is dead."
"The Replicators killed her," McKay added morosely.
"Replicators?" Ford was stunned. "What happened? She wasn't on one of those worlds that the Replicators destroyed a couple of years ago, was she?"
"No." Sheppard's jaw was set in a grim line. "They attacked Atlantis." He didn't, couldn't, say anymore. But it was enough to tell Ford what he needed to know, for the moment. He figured he could ask Teyla or McKay for the details later.
"Shit." Ford rubbed a hand across the back of his neck. "So who's in charge of Atlantis now?"
"Richard Woolsey," McKay rolled his eyes.
"Woolsey… that pinhead from the IOA? You've got to be kidding me!"
Sheppard raised his eyebrows. "I didn't know you knew about him."
Ford snorted. "I heard a few stories back at Cheyenne while we were waiting for the final green light to deploy. This could be trouble. Woolsey's not known for looking at the big picture."
"Actually, once we got the shiny knocked off him, he hasn't been so bad." Sheppard regarded Ford thoughtfully. Ford certainly didn't seem to be acting like the wild-eyed and half-cocked agent of chaos that Sheppard had last seen on that Wraith hive ship. He was clean, neatly dressed, and even his mutated left eye appeared, while not completely normal, to at least not look so alien that it couldn't be explained away as a freak battle injury. All of which boded well for possibly reintegrating Ford into society on Earth. Provided, of course, that they really could get him back to Atlantis and this wasn't another set up for some crazy 'let's kill some Wraith' scheme.
From the look of it, Ford seemed to be considering Sheppard and the others just as thoughtfully. "It seems we've got a lot to talk about."
"We could say the same thing, Lieutenant."
Ford's mouth quirked in an ironic grin. "Fair enough. We'll trade stories and talk about getting my information to Atlantis." He glanced up to gauge the sun's position. "It'll be midday soon. We can talk over lunch at the tavern in town."
"Town? There's a town?"
Ford's mouth quirked. "Let me guess… this is another one of those planets that the Ancient database said was uninhabited, but you get there and it turns out someone's moved in, right?" Sheppard sighed. "Right," Ford nodded. "Look, even though those Wraith were more interested in you and those Ancient ruins you were poking around in earlier, we need to at least let them know there's been a Wraith sighting, okay?" A few eyebrows were raised, and Ronon glared.
"Were you watching us the whole time?"
"Not the whole time. I was scouting around the edge of the ruins when I saw you run by my position and into the forest, followed by the Wraith." The others exchanged looks.
Ford raised his hands in placation. "Hey, there will be plenty of people there this time of day, villagers and traders from off world. Too many people watching for me to pull a fast one on you, so there's nothing to worry about. We can talk, you can go back to Atlantis to talk things over with Woolsey or whoever else whenever you like." He took a breath. "Look, I'm serious about this offer, and I have no intention of doing anything to jeopardize it."
The town of Natip was situated in a steep canyon about an hour's walk in the opposite direction of the Stargate from the Ancient ruins that Sheppard and his team had gone to M6T-571 to investigate. In fact, many of the 'buildings' were actually caves, either natural or dug into the rock, making it a very defensible and easily concealed position. It turned out that Natip was one of the sites of a roving market that traveled between several planets throughout the year. Teyla had been trying to get a lead on the market for quite some time with no success, and even the Coalition hadn't had much information on it, save that it was apparently a trusted venture and successful at evading the Wraith.
At the inn, the group sat at a corner table where Sheppard, Ronon and Teyla had a clear view of both the front door of the inn and the door to the side of the bar that led to the kitchen in the rear of the building, as well as the staircase up to the second floor and the rooms above. As Ford had predicted, there were plenty of people stopping in for a bit of stouter food or drink than was available at one of the food stalls at the market square. There were some curious glances at their group, but no apparent hostility that anyone could detect.
Lunch was quite good, even by Atlantis standards. There was a large, round loaf of dark bread that had just been taken from the oven, if the steam that rose when slices were cut was any indication, and tasted similar to pumpernickel. A half wheel of a yellow cheese that proved to be some of that ketir-milk cheese from Alben that Rodney liked, accompanied by some local vegetables pickled in a spicy but tart brine that reminded Sheppard of a sweet-and-sour dish he'd once eaten in Hong Kong. The meal was rounded out with a couple of cold meats that seemed to be standard fare throughout Pegasus; blue-tailed nutchaser, a dark-fleshed bird that tasted remarkably not like chicken, and a venison-like game animal that seemed to have as many names across the various planets they'd visited as ways to prepare it.
Ford drank the local beer; Sheppard and the others stuck to water. Ford, noticing this, raised his mug in salute with a slight smile.
"So how'd you get off the Hive ship?"
Ford grinned. "The same way I did before. Hopped on one of the Darts and flew outta there before the Hive blew. I decided to stay on the far side of the planet and away from the battle until your ship left, then I headed down to the planet." He nodded at Sheppard. "I found your Dart parked by the gate, Colonel, so I figured you'd already gone through back to Atlantis. I set down and dialed back to my base." He chuckled. "And then I found out that McKay had flown the coop."
"Yes, well, you didn't exactly leave me much of a choice, did you?" McKay shot back.
"No, I guess I didn't." Ford shook his head. "I'd made sure that none of you knew the address for that planet, but I was down to only a few men, and I decided not to take any chances."
"Caution? From you? That's a switch."
"Yeah? Well, you didn't leave me much choice, either." McKay raised his eyebrows at his own words turned back on him.
"What happened next, Aiden?" Teyla prompted, trying to steer the conversation back on track.
"Well, we had already set up a couple of back up safehouses on other worlds, so we relocated and started over. A few months went by, we'd built up our forces again to the point that I felt comfortable going out on bigger raids, and we'd scored some victories. Even managed to blow up a Wraith lab we found on Tiriz." The others raised their eyebrows at that; they'd found the Tiriz lab, burned out and cold, not too long after their deal with Michael's hive went south and Atlantis had dubiously earned its first visit from Richard Woolsey. "And then—" Ford snorted, shaking his head. "Pure, dumb luck. The Wraith showed up right on our doorstep. Too many for us to handle. I'm still not sure how they found us, maybe they were able to trace us from a previous raid, maybe one of their ships got too close and the captive Wraith we had were able to send a message using that telepathic ability of theirs, I don't know. We tried to make a run for the gate… A few of the men got through. The rest of us didn't. The next thing I remember was waking up on a Hive ship. I was lying face down on a table and I couldn't move, even though I wasn't strapped down. There were Wraith standing around me; just males, I never saw a queen. One of the Wraith set a tray down next to my head. There was a scalpel and a little ball of wire and metal. Looked kinda like that thing the Agents put in Neo in The Matrix. They cut into my back right below my neck and stuck that ball in. Then they left me on a planet, armed with just a knife." He gave Ronon a significant look.
"They turned you into a Runner."
"Yeah. Guess the Wraith figured that they'd get more enjoyment out of taking me a piece at a time just like I did to them." He grinned sardonically for a moment, then the smile faded. "I never saw the others again."
"Then you've got a tracking device in you right now," McKay's voice started to rise a little. "They know where we are?"
"Will you relax, McKay?" Ford hissed. "I'm not a Runner any more. The tracking device was removed a couple of months ago." Everyone blinked in surprise.
"What happened a couple of months ago?" Sheppard asked.
Ford settled back and continued his story. "I managed to stay a step ahead of the Wraith. The enzyme helped with that." He looked over at Ronon again. "I've developed a much healthier respect for your abilities since then. I don't know if I could've done that for as long as you did without the enzyme." Ronon cocked his head in acknowledgement, and Ford went on. "Anyway, after the Replicators tore through half the galaxy killing Wraith and then killing humans to kill the Wraith, things quieted down for a while. I wondered if maybe the Hive that was tracking me was destroyed in the war. I thought about trying to contact Atlantis a couple of times, but I had no way to get a message through that wouldn't go splat against the gate shield, and the old Alpha sites I knew about looked like they'd been scrubbed clean and abandoned for years. And there was no way I was gonna go to any of the allies I knew about and ask them to contact you for me; I didn't want to bring the Wraith down on them if I was still being tracked. Then, a couple of months ago, the Wraith finally caught up with me. Except, someone else did, too." He paused for a moment, lost in remembrance, then shook his head.
"The Wraith stunners took me down, but I was still awake to watch them approach. One of them knelt over me and raised its feeding hand, and I figured, 'that's it, Aiden, you're a goner.' Then all the Wraith got blasted with some sort of energy weapon; I couldn't move, so I couldn't see. A minute passed, and then someone else came up to stand over me. It was a man, dressed in, well, clothes a lot like what we saw in the Ancient database."
"Ancients? You were found by Ancients?" McKay yelped.
Ford grinned. "The stunner must've finally taken full effect, because I blacked out at that point. When I woke up, I was on their ship. They'd taken the tracking device outta me. And they'd cleaned the enzyme outta my system." He pointed at his face. "Fixed my eye too, as best as they could. I told 'em not to worry about the rest, the scars would give me character." Sheppard and the others grinned a little at that. "I stayed with them for about a month. Helped out around their ship. On a few occasions when we came across a world that had been culled, we'd go down, look for survivors, treat the injured; give them food and supplies they'd need to get back on their feet. They taught me a little about that ascension business that they're on about, even learned to meditate a little. And when they were sure I was fully recovered, we went our separate ways."
"Wait… that's it?" McKay was flabbergasted.
"They said they had a mission they needed to complete and they needed to get back to it. Hey, after what they did for me, I wasn't about to argue." He shrugged, but gave McKay a look. "Since then, I've been traveling to different worlds, picking up work where I could find it in exchange for food and supplies, helping people who needed help, that sort of thing. I came here as a guard for a group of traders who are here for the market."
Sheppard eyed Ford speculatively. "You said the tracking device was removed, right? So why didn't you go back to one of our allies and have them get in touch with us once you knew you wouldn't lead the Wraith to them?"
"I wasn't sure if I was ready to come back yet. Now I am."
The return of Atlantis's prodigal son brought a profound sense of relief among those who'd been in Atlantis ever since the expedition's first year and had known Ford personally. Of course, it also brought its share of bureaucratic headaches to be untangled before Ford could return to Earth.
First came a lengthy examination in the infirmary, which determined that he was indeed Aiden Ford, and not a clone or any other sort of duplicate they'd ever encountered; no Wraith enzyme, no nanites or other weird compounds in his bloodstream. Since Ford had gone missing before the locator chip technology had been perfected, he hadn't had an implant to check, but with the rest of the evidence, there hadn't really been a need for it anyway. Once that was done, Ford gave an official deposition of his activities after he'd left Atlantis at the end of the Wraith siege. Then he was escorted to a guarded room to wait until a decision was made about what to do with him. Coming away from her initial session with Ford, Kate Heightmeyer was confident that he had overcome his demons, and she received clearance to continue working with him while he remained in confinement.
The next of those headaches stared back at them through the video feed from Earth. Generals O'Neill and Landry stood in the control room at Stargate Command, discussing the situation and their options with the Atlantis senior staff, along with Nancy Sheppard, all of whom were assembled in the conference room.
On the screen, O'Neill grimaced. "From the sound of your report and what Ford's told you, he knows he screwed up, and he knows that he has to pay a price for that. But at the same time, he was pretty messed up by the enzyme, and we all know that there's plenty of history with gate teams falling under the influence of some pretty whacked stuff out there. The only real difference here is the duration; every other case has usually been resolved within a few days. Lieutenant Ford was AWOL for three years."
"But if he is punished when others who experienced similar, though shorter… incidents," Woolsey mused, "could not justifiably be given such serious reprimands for their actions while under alien influence, it could set a bad precedent."
"So how do we spin this back on Earth?" Nancy asked. "Obviously, we're going to need to have some sort of cover story for him."
"Classified deep cover mission?" Sheppard suggested. "Granted, as a lieutenant, he's a bit green to have gotten that kind of assignment, but it'll go a long way to explain the extended period out of official contact."
Landry nodded. "I like it. It's plausible enough that I think we can build on some details to withstand scrutiny."
"The IOA will probably scream bloody murder," Woolsey advised. "But on the other hand, I think that ultimately, he'll be far more useful here rather than sitting in a cell back on Earth. The information he's provided us will prove very useful. And then there's his apparent contact with a group of Ancients; if we can find them, get in touch with them, maybe try to convince them to do more than just helping out culling victims…" He glanced at Nancy, who shook her head.
"Don't look at me, you've all presented too compelling of an argument for me to oppose it completely. I'd prefer if he was given limited access here in the city until he's demonstrated his trustworthiness, and once he has, certainly not letting him off-world without an appropriate escort," She raised her hand before Sheppard could protest. "Please try to understand, he was compromised, and he was out of contact with anyone from Earth for three years. We need to be sure we're not going to take a hit from this at a later date. And I'm sure that the military," she nodded at O'Neill and Landry, "will want to have some kind of hearing to resolve things on their end, and sooner rather than later."
"That's being discussed as we speak," Landry advised them. "So, what about these 'Ancients?' Do they know we're in Atlantis? And do you think they might have anything to do with this ghost ship your contacts with the Travelers told you about?"
"Ford said they didn't seem to care about taking charge of Atlantis," Sheppard shook his head at Landry's question. "They seemed more interested in going around and doing their little do-gooder thing, and this 'search' that they were on. Ford said they were pretty tight-lipped about what it was they were looking for. He thinks it might have something to do with the rumors we've been hearing about a weapon that the Replicators left behind."
"Or the Travelers' ghost ship," McKay put in helpfully. Sheppard shrugged.
"Do you think there's anything to the stories?" O'Neill asked.
"About the weapon? We have no idea. But we've got the sensor readings Larrin got of that ship, and those are legitimate," McKay nodded firmly.
"So Ford's Ancients aren't the ones with the ghost ship?"
"Definitely not, sir," Sheppard confirmed. "We showed Ford footage of Ancient ships we've seen before, and he identified the one his 'friends' were using as an Aurora-class warship. But the one that the Travelers have seen is a smaller cruiser-type ship."
Landry and O'Neill exchanged a look. "All right," O'Neill said. "We should have an answer for you by tomorrow. Same bat time, same bat channel." Landry rolled his eyes in amusement as the transmission ended. A moment later, the Stargate shut down.
Ford was sitting calmly at the desk in the room he'd been given when Sheppard walked in. He rose to stand at attention as Sheppard approached.
"All right, Lieutenant. Your story seems to check out so far." Ford nodded. "And we've talked with the brass back home—"
"Look, sir… I know I messed up. When you're on the enzyme, it totally messes up your judgment, makes you feel invincible, like there's nothing that can touch you. I wasn't in my right mind when I did all those things. I know that doesn't excuse my actions, and I'm not trying to make excuses. I'm just trying to say that I know I would not have done what I did if I had been clear-headed enough to actually think things through."
"I know, Lieutenant," Sheppard told him soberly. "Stargate Command is still grinding through the paperwork to cover your absence, and they do want you to return to Earth, but when everything is said and done, they're talking about letting you come back."
Ford nodded. "Thank you, sir. I know I don't deserve any of this after—"
"Bullshit, Lieutenant." Sheppard flashed a grin. "You're still one of us, Ford. We don't leave our people behind."
Ford relaxed and genuinely smiled, suddenly looking like a tremendous weight had been taken from his shoulders. "Yes, sir. Thank you, sir. When will I be leaving?"
"They'd like you back as soon as possible, but if you want to stay a little longer—" Ford shook his head.
"It's been three years, sir. I—I wanna see my grandparents, and my cousin."
"I know they'll be happy to see you."
"Then I'm ready, sir." Sheppard clapped Ford on the shoulder and the two headed to the gateroom, where the rest of the team, and so many old friends Aiden had known in a time that now seemed like another life, were waiting. There were hugs and kisses, wishes of good luck and promises to write. The gate was dialed back to Earth, and he stepped through with a jaunty wave goodbye.
A month after Aiden Ford returned to Earth, the expedition was still riding the triumphant high following the discovery that he was alive. The IOA was starting to hint at wanting Atlantis to move back to the Milky Way, now that they had a full complement of ZPMs, but so far, Woolsey had managed to rebuff the suggestion by pointing to all the new discoveries made in Pegasus that wouldn't have been possible had Atlantis remained in the Milky Way. Further inquiries with the Coalition and Atlantis's independent allies had turned up no additional sightings of that small group of people with an Ancient-designed ship who were helping the victims of Wraith cullings. Were they simply lying low for the moment, pursuing the search that Ford had spoken of? Or had they fallen afoul of the Wraith while trying to help refugees fleeing from a culling? Clearly, if and when Ford's benefactors wanted to be found, they would be.
In the meantime, there were many other things that needed to be done. A hydroponics lab located on the south pier, which had been found and restored in the expedition's first year, was now yielding sufficient crops to reduce Atlantis's dependence on importing foodstuffs from Earth. In his office off the gateroom and working on the weekly report to Earth, Richard Woolsey made a notation about the advantage of being able to devote some of that additional cargo space in the bimonthly shipping run to clearing out the backlog of requisitioned-but-still-undelivered equipment. He saved the file and sat back from the computer for a moment. It had been a quiet few days.
Out in the control room, a warning alarm sounded on the sensor console. Woolsey quickly got up from his seat and strode out of the office.
"Reading a hyperspace window opening in orbit above our position," Chuck reported. He scanned the results, and his face took on a perplexed expression. "Mister Woolsey, sensors are picking up an Aurora-class Ancient warship."
"Aurora-class? Are we getting any kind of communication signal from them?"
"No—wait. Reading a weak signal." Chuck fiddled with the controls. "It keeps popping in and out, like there's some sort of interference; could be a problem on their end."
"Let's hear it." Chuck nodded and hit another button.
"—lantis, do you—" pop "—attack—" crackle "—require assistance—" buzz
Zelenka, who was up in the control room to work on some of the systems they were still bringing online after installing the new ZPMs, looked over the sensors at his own console. "Sensors are picking up some heavy damage to the ship, and there are some fluctuations in their engines. I don't think they're going to be able to go much further." Another reading came up. "Their hyperdrive just went offline. They're definitely not going anywhere now."
Woolsey nodded to Chuck to open the channel. "Ancient vessel, this is Atlantis. Are you able to land? We have the east pier cleared for you."
The comm channel buzzed again. "Ackno—" crackle "—thank you."
"Are you sure that's a good idea?" Nancy Sheppard said quietly as she entered the control room from the spiral stairs to the rear of the space. "I know that they appear to be in distress, but—"
Woosley shook his head. "If we wait too long just to satisfy our paranoia, we could end up jeopardizing their lives as their ship falls apart around them. Is that a risk you want to take?"
Nancy frowned. She didn't like it, but he had a point.
Chuck eyed the sensor readout. "Mister Woolsey, the ship is entering a descending orbit on an approach vector."
"Very good. Call Colonel Sheppard and Doctor McKay and tell them to meet me at the east pier, and advise the infirmary to have a team standing by. If this ship has just been in a battle, there may be wounded in need of medical attention."
Within minutes, the ship had landed, and Woolsey, Sheppard and his team, Keller, Zelenka, Nancy, and a few others had gone out to greet the arrivals. Whoever or whatever they were expecting to see walk off that ship was not what did set foot on Atlantis.
Instead, they came face to face with a very familiar group of Replicators. Lia. Sarrin. Juna. Merin. Petris. Rivum. Dalen. And one more, who looked like McKay's creation FRAN, but who claimed to be Elizabeth Weir.
The eight had surrendered immediately, though there had been some sullen looks among them. After what happened the last time, they were immediately escorted to a heavily fortified cell with an EM generator standing by, ready to be charged up and fired at a moment's notice. There, the two groups faced each other.
"Just so you understand, we've got a few questions for you," Woolsey began, but McKay cut in, his voice strained.
"Like, how did you get from the vacuum of space to that ship? And how the hell did you find us? Atlantis wasn't on Lantea the last time you paid us a visit. We'll start with that."
Weir nodded her head in acknowledgement. "After we went through the space gate, the nanites that make up our bodies shut down, conserving energy and preserving our minds for as long as possible. We drifted in space. For how long, we are not entirely certain. When we awoke, we found ourselves aboard a ship. The technology felt familiar to us, and we realized it was from one of the advanced races in Pegasus that we came across after we had attempted Koracen's experiment in virtual ascension. They are… an offshoot of the Asgard, who call themselves the Vanir."
Sheppard grimaced. "We've met them. They're not exactly who we'd call friends."
Weir flashed an ironic smile. "As we gathered. They're not happy about how you disrupted their plans to rid the Pegasus Galaxy of the Wraith using the Attero Device. Since your encounter with them, they've been forced to abandon the planet they had settled on because of the continued deterioration of the planet's atmosphere."
"Pity, that," Sheppard drawled.
Weir arched an eyebrow and continued, "While one of their ships was searching for a new planet to serve as a base, they found us floating in space adjacent to the gate. When their sensors read that we were machines instead of organic bodies, they brought us on board and attempted to reactivate us. They succeeded."
"Not surprising," McKay spoke up. "We were able to reactivate Niam after he spent a month floating in orbit over Lantea." He shifted in his seat. "But then, you already knew that."
Her mouth quirked. "Indeed. After the Vanir learned who we are and that we had been in contact with Atlantis, they explained the circumstances of their own contact with you, and offered us a trade. In exchange for infiltrating and taking control of Atlantis, then delivering it to the Vanir to use as their new base, the Vanir would provide us with resources and other assistance in completing our work to create organic bodies for ourselves, that we might more easily pursue ascension. Thus, we would each avenge the wrongs that you have done us, or so they proposed. However, we could find no trace of Atlantis on M35-117. We realized pretty quickly that it was possible you had moved the city again. So the Vanir brought us to the planet where we had left our ship behind when we attempted our experiment into virtual ascension, and we went in search of you.
"Originally, our plan was to set a watch on your known allies," Lia picked up the story. "We knew it would only be a matter of time until one of your teams made contact, then we would be able to record the gate address the team returned to. In the meantime, we decided to do what we could to help those displaced by the Wraith."
"Doing good works to gain ascension brownie points," McKay muttered. Lia looked a little askance at the unfamiliar turn of phrase, and she looked to Weir, who nodded, then Lia continued.
"If that is how you prefer to characterize it. But before our search for you bore fruit, we stumbled across your Lieutenant Ford."
"I couldn't just sit there and do nothing," Weir broke in, staring into Sheppard's eyes. "I couldn't just let Aiden be killed by the Wraith when I knew I could help."
He shifted his feet, unable to tear his own gaze from her. "He didn't know who any of you were. The names he gave us were different. He didn't know about… you."
She nodded. "That was done on purpose, at my direction. I didn't—I didn't want to burden him with the truth. And if he did make it back to Atlantis, I didn't want his testimony compromised by our involvement." She bit her lip. "He is all right, isn't he?"
"He's back on Earth," Ronon answered, and she nodded, the worry leaving her face a little.
"Let's get back to the subject," Woolsey looked at Weir. "Why not just fulfill your bargain with the Vanir, kill us all and take Atlantis? For that matter, why can't the Vanir just come after us themselves? They certainly didn't have a problem with it before. Why tell us any of this? Was all of this just a setup to get back to Atlantis again?"
Lia's lip curled in disgust and she shook her head, her short black hair whipping above her eyes. "The Vanir are parasites. They would rather take for themselves what they could easily create on their own. And they would rather use others to do the most dangerous work for them, leaving themselves free to enjoy the spoils. The Ancients left Atlantis for their descendants, for the second evolution of their kind. If we, their own creation, were to allow the Vanir to take Atlantis from those the Ancients intended to have it, would we be fulfilling our creators' wishes?" Woolsey and the others could find no answer to that.
"So instead, we determined that we would not allow the Vanir to have Atlantis," Weir took up the narration again. "Once we learned that Atlantis had returned to Lantea, we set a trap of our own in motion. We sabotaged the primary control systems that linked the Vanir ships together, and commanded them to crash-land on an uninhabited planet without a Stargate, out on the edge of one of the galactic arms and far from other inhabited worlds. When they realized what we had done, they tried to attack our ship, but it was too late for them to stop it."
"You left them there?" Woolsey looked at her, a little aghast.
"Even if enough parts can be salvaged to make one of their ships operational again, it would take most of a year, if not longer." She sighed. "They wanted a new planet to live on, one that was better suited to supporting life, and now they have it. They just can't leave. Which also means that they can't come after Atlantis or blow up Stargates in an effort to get rid of the Wraith."
"So that's it? You came here just to tell us that you got rid of the Vanir?"
"No. There is something else you need to know," she said softly. Warning bells went off in Sheppard's head at her disturbed expression. "Something that is of great value to both you and us. I am not Elizabeth Weir."
The room exploded in exclamations. Ronon and Sheppard stepped forward, Ronon pulling out his gun and training it on Weir—or rather, well, they weren't sure what to call her now.
She raised a hand for attention. "Please! Let me explain. I am not the original Elizabeth Weir. I am a duplicate, created by Oberoth. It is a very long story, and there are many details I am still trying to understand that I will explain as best as I can, but in short, the original Elizabeth Weir, whom you last saw as a human-Replicator hybrid, captured on Asuras, is still alive, hidden away by Oberoth before Asuras was destroyed. We do not know exactly where she is now, but we know how to find her. I hold the key."
"You lied," Sheppard snarled.
"No," she protested. "I didn't know. Oberoth lied to all of us."
"Do the Vanir know about this?"
"They know nothing." Lia stated emphatically. "Finding the original Elizabeth Weir is our priority. The Vanir were not worthy to know the truth."
"And we are?" Woolsey's skepticism was mirrored on all their faces.
Lia's face hardened. "We have not forgotten how you tricked us. And yet, spending so much time in Elizabeth—in Anne's—company has taught us that there are many shades of gray in one's actions. She did what she did, and you did what you did, to protect Atlantis and the world of Anne's human birth. We cannot find fault with your motives, though your actions are far from noble. But the Vanir are even worse. They have so little regard for life that they willingly sacrificed innocents who were killed when the Attero Device was activated. Your people at least had no idea that when you reactivated our base code to attack the Wraith, Oberoth would eventually resort to exterminating human worlds to deny the Wraith a food source."
"Anne?" Teyla looked back and forth between the two.
She smiled slightly. "It's my—our—middle name. Since I'm not the original, I thought it might be less confusing for everyone if I go by a different name."
"So you say that the real Weir is still out there, and you want to find her," Ronon said grimly. "Why do you need us?"
"Because only Atlantis has what we need. All of you," Weir—Anne explained. "and the technology of the city. Our ship is too damaged to continue the search, and it doesn't have all the equipment we need. John has the best experience working with gene-controlled Ancient technology. Rodney is the one who reprogrammed her nanites, and once we do find her, we'll need his help to complete that work and restore her to her fully human form."
"You can do that?" McKay's eyes were wide with surprise.
"We can do that," Anne assured him. "All of us."
"And then?" Woolsey asked. "Suppose this all happens as you say it will. We find Doctor Weir and are able to make her fully human again. What happens to you?"
"Then we return to our search for a path to ascension," Lia told him. "But this time… no more tricks." Anne winced.
"You know, this is all very good and noble and everything, but there's still a couple of questions that are bothering me," Sheppard growled. "How do you even know that she's out there? The last time you were here, you said that you and your—friends—had left Asuras months before we destroyed it."
Anne countered with a question of her own. "How long did it take from the time you, Ronon and Rodney escaped Asuras with the Apollo to the time Atlantis picked up the launch of the Asuran fleet? A couple of hours at least? Did you ever stop to think about why it took that long?
"Because that's how long it took for the attack code to be uploaded to the collective," McKay answered automatically.
"And?" she prompted. Now McKay, and the others, looked perplexed, unsure of just what she was asking.
Lia gave them a superior smile. "Did it ever occur to you that in those couple of hours, Oberoth could have easily found the code and disabled it before it could be activated. But he did not. Why?"
"Because she kept him from finding it," Sheppard finally answered in a stunned whisper. Lia nodded soberly.
"It infuriated him that she had blocked him so thoroughly," Lia told them. "It enraged him even more when she shattered her mind to prevent him from getting at the rest of her memories."
"Shattered—?" Sheppard couldn't say anything else. He wasn't sure what to say.
"She tore her mind apart, scattering her memories throughout the collective in such a way that he couldn't find them. She was like a broken mirror; one can put the pieces back together, but the cracks between those pieces distort the reflection in the glass. Oberoth never figured out how she did it." The smiles on the faces of Anne and the Asurans were filled with a fierce pride.
"And that wasn't all," Anne explained further. "She did something to her nanites, locked them so that Oberoth couldn't take control of her body remotely to use against you." She frowned. "But she was still useful to him in another way."
"As a hostage," Woolsey ventured.
"Worse. As a test subject." Their faces blanched as the implications of Anne's statement sank in.
"That was why he created me, planting false memories to make me believe that I was the original Elizabeth. He theorized that a duplicate, made to resemble her as exactly as possible, would be able to slip past the defenses that she had built and filter through the shards of her mind to find the pieces he still didn't have, because, of course, the duplicate would be her, in a way. However, in spite of the work he'd done on me to try to keep me under his control, I turned out to be a little too much like her."
"And so you escaped, just as you told us," Woolsey finished.
"And so I escaped," she confirmed. "It wasn't until we attempted Koracen's experiment that the blocked memories began to resurface. At first, I thought it was my imagination running wild, that I was going crazy after being trapped in the sensory deprivation of subspace for so long. I also felt…" She paused, uncertain. "A pull. Like I was being guided somewhere by an invisible thread. It all seemed to stop after I got to Atlantis and made my new body. Then when I stepped through the gate into vacuum…" Anne's voice trailed off for a moment, lost in the memory.
"As I shut down, I saw another flash, another tug on that invisible thread. What I felt was the resonance between my mind and the mind that I am a reflection of. Elizabeth. Somehow, I was able to hear her, feel her presence, through subspace, through the connection that binds all of us together in the collective. I finally realized that what I had been seeing weren't visions, but memories. The particular memory that I saw was from shortly before my companions and I escaped Asuras. Although Oberoth had convinced me and everyone else that I was the original Elizabeth Weir, I believe he anticipated that the time would come when someone might discover the truth. During our last session, I saw him looking at the deck plans for a small cruiser, but they had been heavily modified, designed to be run completely by the computer instead of a crew, to stay hidden in hyperspace as much as possible, and accommodate a power system augmented by multiple ZPMs. There was also a large laboratory with a kind of stasis chamber. It was different from the stasis chambers we've seen before, here on Atlantis and on the Aurora. This one used a liquid suspension matrix to provide life support and cellular rejuvenation to the subject. I believe that after I escaped, Oberoth moved Elizabeth to this stasis chamber and sent the ship away from Asuras to prevent anyone from finding her while he looked for us and dealt with the Wraith."
Sheppard looked meaningfully at Woolsey, who nodded. "A cruiser? Like the smaller support ships that accompanied the main warships in the Asuran fleet?"
She nodded. "Yes." Then she gave him an arrested look. "You've seen it?"
"No. But I think some of our allies have."
As soon as the humans had left the cell block, the Asurans started arguing. Anne simply stayed in one corner, silent and still as the others raged at each other. They all wanted to find Elizabeth Weir, but some wanted to take her away from the humans because they feared that the humans would kill her out of fear of what she was, while the others felt that only Elizabeth had the right to decide her path. Finally, Lia, seeing how uncomfortable Anne was becoming, had had enough.
"Listen to yourselves! Arguing about this will not help Elizabeth!"
"The humans do not trust us!"
"With good reason! Or have you forgotten Koracen's folly so quickly?" Lia looked at each of them in turn. "We all have the same goal; to find the real Elizabeth Weir and free her from whatever nightmare Oberoth may have imprisoned her in. If we are to succeed, then we must put aside our differences with the humans and work together. And to do that, we must prove to the humans that we can be trusted." She turned and walked over to Anne, laying a comforting arm around her shoulder.
The mood in the conference room was no better. While Nancy Sheppard had been cautiously in favor of giving Aiden Ford a second chance, she was flat out against anything to do with the Asurans and was even more livid when it was revealed that Woolsey, McKay and Sheppard had known for over a month that the Asurans were no longer where they'd been left in deep space. Sheppard and his team wanted to try to get Doctor Weir back, as did Keller and Beckett, and where they led, practically the entire expedition would follow. Woolsey found himself pulled between wanting to do the right thing, and perhaps being forced to do the expedient thing. Right now, however, the discussion was rapidly devolving into a shouting match.
Sheppard glared at Nancy. "What the hell do you know of it? You weren't here, you don't know her like we do! You have no idea what it was like for me, having to walk away from her, knowing that I was leaving her in the hands of things that had no respect for life, were gonna rip her mind apart to take what they wanted and then kill her when she had outlived her usefulness. But God forgive me, I did it, because she asked me to.
"I was abandoned by everyone. My family, my wife," he shot a look at Nancy, who shifted uncomfortably in her seat, "hell, even the Air Force. You all just washed your hands of me and left me to rot. All because I did the right thing instead of the easy thing. But Elizabeth?" His expression changed, taking on a look of surprised wonder. "She didn't give a rat's ass about my record. All she cared about was that I had something she needed to make this expedition, make her dream, happen. So she gave me a chance to prove myself, even when everyone else kept telling her I wasn't worth it." He shook his head. "That's a debt that I thought I could never repay. Until now. Now we've got a chance, a real chance, to get her back. And there is no way in hell I am gonna let any of you get in the way. Because I owe her."
Before Nancy could deliver another retort, Teyla spoke up. "There is something that… that Anne said, that troubles me." She gave Sheppard a significant look. "She described Elizabeth as a 'broken mirror.' It seems too obvious, and yet I wonder—" Ronon's head whipped around as he looked at her in shock.
"Ohhhh, what if she's right?" McKay snapped his fingers. "If Elizabeth is the broken mirror that Lenar was talking about— This is it! This is real! We can get Elizabeth back!"
Woolsey closed his eyes briefly. That was the crux of it, wasn't it? Honor versus cold and uncaring practicality, all of it wrapped in visions, hope and faith. He snorted. To hell with the job. He stood up, and everyone's eyes turned to him.
"Colonel Sheppard is right. If there is a realistic chance of locating Doctor Weir and safely rescuing her without jeopardizing this city and Earth's security, then we have an obligation to pursue it. That's my decision." He looked at Nancy. "If the IOA doesn't like it, well… they can shove it." A few mouths dropped open in surprise. Woolsey rolled his eyes. "I've been hanging out with you people for too long."
The Daedalus, which had left Atlantis a few days before the Asurans arrived, had turned around and headed back to Atlantis at Woolsey's request. Once the news had reached Earth, the General Hammond, which was already heading for Atlantis on a rare double-team supply run, pushed their engines to get to Atlantis a little faster, arriving about a week later. The IOA and Stargate Command were not pleased about Woolsey's decision, though in a private video link, General O'Neill expressed to Woolsey that he had made the right decision, and that he'd already instructed Carter and Caldwell to do whatever they could to help.
For days, McKay, Zelenka, and the science teams had worked with the Asurans, trying to isolate the signal that seemed to be the source of the strange connection to the original Elizabeth Weir that Oberoth had created in Anne and that had somehow survived the transfer of Anne's consciousness from her first body to her current one. If they could follow that signal back to its source, they'd find their ghost ship and finally put that strange tale to rest by giving the Travelers some peace of mind.
The breakthrough came shortly after the Hammond's arrival, when Sheppard stopped by the lab for a visit right at the moment that Anne was focusing on the connection while trying to download the data stream to a new sensor system that McKay had discovered after they'd hooked up the new ZPMs a couple of months earlier. Zelenka hadn't found anything unusual with the ZPMs after Sheppard had talked to him about what he and Beckett had been experiencing, but Zelenka had told Sheppard that some others with stronger expressions of the ATA gene had made similar observations. McKay had laughed it off, as always, but nevertheless, Zelenka had been keeping an eye out for anything unusual.
Sheppard hearing a ringing tone in his head when Anne had finally made the connection, like he'd been dropped inside a giant bell, certainly qualified as unusual. The result was that McKay had successfully tapped into the connection, and from there, finding the ship had been easy. Knowing where the ship would go next was the harder part, but it was Kusanagi who'd come up with the solution, backtracing as many previous jumps the ship had made as they could, given the signal degradation, and then running it through the astronomy department's star chart simulator to find the most likely selections for the next few jumps.
The next morning, the Daedalus headed out for the first search area, with Sheppard's team along with Doctors Keller and Beckett, and the Asurans on board, while the General Hammond remained at Atlantis on standby alert. Within a handful of hours, the Daedalus slid into orbit around MK4-371, a gas giant orbiting a red dwarf star, and settled down to wait. The nearest Stargate was an orbital space gate about twenty-three hours away by jumper, and no one relished the idea of making such a trip. Especially not Sheppard and McKay, who'd once been stuck on a jumper for days after the Midway station was destroyed.
After an hour of waiting, their patience was rewarded when an Asuran cruiser jumped out of hyperspace. Steven Caldwell sat up in his command chair, his senses on edge.
"Is that it?" he asked.
McKay looked at his readout, but it was Anne who answered in the affirmative. She looked over at Caldwell. "I need to send the command code for the retreat program to disengage. If I don't, the ship will make an emergency jump. We'll be back at square one and have to find the ship all over again."
Caldwell took a deep breath and nodded. "Do it."
She stepped to the communication console and input the code, her hands moving faster than humanly possible.
There was a sudden series of beeps from the sensor console. The technician manning the station turned to them. "Confirmed. The cruiser's hyperdrive is powering down."
"Weapons and shields?"
"Also powered down, sir. The ship is holding position."
"All right then," Caldwell said. He looked over at Sheppard and the others and nodded with a slight smile. "Colonel… You have a go."
His eyes shone with a fierce joy. "Yes, sir."
Anne hadn't been certain what the effect of them directly beaming onto the cruiser would be, but with visions of hostile security systems run amok dancing ominously in their heads, they elected to take a jumper over. The three minute trip passed in a tension-filled silence. Sheppard steered the jumper on a cautious approach to the ship, ready to dive out of harm's way should anything go wrong. However, the ship remained still, and they all had the unnerving sense that it was as if the ship had been waiting for them.
Once they stepped out of the jumper, weapons at the ready, they were immediately confronted by the almost stifling sense of quiet that pervaded the vessel. Lights burned at half-power, casting deep shadows everywhere they turned. Computers hummed at the ready, obeying whatever preset commands had been programmed. Yet there was this odd sense of something not quite right just underneath the surface. It was similar to the sensation that Sheppard and his team had experienced when they had found themselves temporarily stranded on a version of the Daedalus from an alternate universe, just over a year earlier. Everyone was a little spooked by it, even Anne and her Asuran companions.
The silence wasn't all that seemed to haunt Anne. She looked around the hangar bay quizzically. "Do you hear that?"
"Hear what?" Lia asked her.
"She's calling to me." Anne started walking toward the entrance to the hangar bay.
"Shit," Sheppard muttered under his breath. He and the others raced to catch up to her just as the door opened. The corridor beyond was empty, but Anne seemed to know exactly where to go, leading the group down an adjacent passageway. As they walked, they became aware that it was noticeably colder on board the cruiser as well. Not enough to make their breath steam, but it was a near thing.
"Geeze, you should've warned me that I needed a parka," McKay complained.
"Stop whining, McKay," Ronon scolded. "It's not that cold."
"Rodney—" Teyla warned quietly, and McKay, seeing the set expression on Sheppard's face, quieted down.
They continued their journey, venturing deeper and deeper into the ship. It soon became readily apparent that while on the outside, this cruiser looked much like other ships based on Ancient designs that they had encountered, on the inside it was vastly different, in much the same way that the city-ship on Asuras had differed from Atlantis. Stacks of extra banks of computers were shoved against the walls of the corridors. Power conduits coiled along the decks. Massive tanks filled with mysteriously bubbling fluids sat in deep alcoves where crew quarters might otherwise have been. The group silently catalogued all these differences and more, and the picture they were painting was filling them all with nervous dread at what they might find at the end of their search.
Anne's steps slowed as she turned down another corridor, which dead ended at a nondescript pair of doors. "This is it."
The others exchanged glances.
"Are you sure? I mean—" Rodney broke off as she turned to look at him.
"I'm sure. She's here." She reached for the control panel, then paused and looked back again. "Are all of you ready?"
Sheppard nodded to Ronon, and they took up positions on either side of the double doors.
"Okay." She pressed the control pad.
The doors slid open. Ronon and Sheppard stepped in first, their guns up and ready. The others followed close behind.
The laboratory was enormous, easily as large as the main jumper bay back on Atlantis. The door they had entered opened out onto a catwalk surrounding the perimeter of the second level. Down the ramp in front of them sprawled the main floor of the lab. Banks of computer monitors and consoles scrolled through continuous readouts, while hundreds of small lights blinked on and off from various panels throughout the room. Unfamiliar machinery with the vaguely geometric design characteristic of Ancient or Asuran technology hung from the ceiling high above them, spewing bundles of cables of various sizes that were draped over practically everything as they snaked between the network of conduits running between the consoles and the walls.
The low, steady hum of the computers mingled with an odd pulsing tone, the machinery synchronizing with the pace. The entire room flickered in greenish-blue shadows, the ripples of light reflecting eerily off the walls and pipes. The light drew their eyes to its source in the center of the room, where many of the cables ran into the base and top of a massive glass tube that stood on a high platform. Bubbles welled up through the liquid inside the tank to the top every few seconds, in perfect time with the pace of the repeating tone, creating the ripples of light.
They stepped around the last console and into an open space right in front of the tank, which allowed them to get their first unobstructed look at the massive machine and what was inside.
Or rather, who was inside.
Her nude body floated in a greenish-blue fluid that couldn't possibly be water, arms dangling limply at her side. Dark hair that appeared to be longer than the last time they'd seen her drifted in a halo around her head and shoulders. A web of thin tubes and wires appeared to have been inserted directly into her body—her arms and legs, in a row down her spine, into her head—all of it connecting her to the machines outside the stasis chamber. Her eyes were closed and she appeared to be asleep. None of them wanted to consider the only possible alternative.
It was Elizabeth Weir.
They realized then that the repeating tone that had been quietly sounding in the background was her heartbeat.
"She's alive," Keller's horrified whisper sounded louder than it really was. "My God, we've got to get her out of there…"
Sheppard turned to Anne. "How do we get her out?"
Anne didn't answer. In fact, she had half-turned away from the tube, and was looking at something off to the side of the tube.
In a cleared space to the right stood a long, narrow table. It was not altogether unlike the exam beds in the Atlantis infirmary, except that this one was plain metal, with no cushions for a patient's comfort, and there were five metal bands built into the frame. A single wide band at the head of the bed, positioned to be locked around a neck, two in the middle of the table for the wrists, and two at the end of the table for the ankles. Next to the table stood what looked to be some sort of scanning device, with several long, retractable metal arms, the ends of which were fixed with an assortment of sharp blades, pincers, needles, claws and barbed probes. Some still had traces of dried blood and other fluids on them, as did the surface of the table itself.
Keller gagged at the sight, and Beckett was hard-pressed to not do the same. Teyla could only look on in shocked silence, remembering all too clearly being strapped to a similar table by Michael over a year earlier. Sheppard, McKay and Dex were instantly reminded of the Replicator lab they had explored on M1Q-432, or Chunky Monkey, as Sheppard had named it at the time. The same lab where, at Oberoth's command, the Replicators had experimented on human subjects and where the twisted nanite-organic weapon that had spawned the doomed Angelus had been created. Those who hadn't seen the lab in person had nonetheless read the reports, and were now making the same connection.
Anne stepped forward and slowly walked to the table as if in a trance. Her hand reached out, fingers trembling just above the surface of the table for a moment—
—She looked down at the table, where her mother-twin lay staring at the ceiling without blinking. Blood fountained as a long blade severed her leg above the knee. The nanites in her body rushed to repair the injury. No reaction from the blank green eyes. Not even a whimper—
—Oberoth's face was a mask of fury as his fingers stabbed a command into the console—
—another mechanical arm lowered, driving a needle into her eye—
—she pulled back abruptly, as if she'd been burned. She turned to the others, her face looking unnaturally pale in the light. "She was here. We were both here. I remember— He did things to her—" She clapped a hand over her mouth, suddenly looking like she was going to be sick. Lia came up and put an arm around Anne's shoulder.
All around them, it seemed as if the room had become smaller, more claustrophobic, adding to the sense of dread.
Sheppard's face hardened. "We're getting her out. Now."
Anne gulped. She didn't need to breathe, yet the action was still instinctive to her. "We need to initiate a controlled disconnect from the stasis chamber first. If we don't, the shock of being pulled out without being properly prepared could kill her."
"Just do whatever you need to do."
Anne shakily squeezed Lia's fingers for a moment, trying to compose herself, then let go and stepped forward. "Doctor McKay, the console behind you controls the stasis chamber functions. The panel on the upper right will release the locks and drain the tube of the nutrient fluid that Elizabeth is suspended in. Be ready to input the command once I've linked with the system."
"Uh, right." McKay turned and jogged around to the front of the console, quickly finding the panel that Anne had indicated. "Got it."
Anne nodded once, then turned back to the tube. She stepped up onto the platform and laid her hand flat against the glassy surface, then passed her hand through the material and into the nutrient fluid. She reached deeper, her fingers closing around one of Elizabeth's hands. A moment passed.
Suddenly, she jerked back with a wordless cry, her hand pulling out of the tube and clutching her head, and Lia barely managed to catch her as she fell. At the same time, Elizabeth started thrashing within the stasis chamber, sending surges of bubbles through the liquid she floated in. The sound of her heartbeat became erratic as alarms shrieked, and the monitors all over the room began flashing warnings.
"What the hell?!" Sheppard yelled.
Keller, standing next to McKay at the main console, looked up from the life signs panel, her face white. "I think she's drowning! We've got to get her out of there!"
"What? I thought she was breathing the liquid!"
"Not according to this, she's not! Her lungs are rejecting the fluid!"
"McKay, release the locks!"
McKay's fingers hit the panel, which buzzed at him, and a warning light came on.
"It's not working!"
Anne, still half-supported by Lia, staggered to the console and rapidly input a series of commands. An error message appeared on the monitor. She growled and typed in the command again, with the same result.
"What? What is it?"
"I'm trying to get the upper hatch open so we can pull her out, but it's not responding!"
McKay tried the same sequence, then frantically tried to call up an override, a full shutdown command—nothing.
Within the chamber, one of Elizabeth's legs jerked out, striking the glass and leaving a spiderweb-like fracture behind. Her movements, and the sound of her heartbeat, were slowing.
"Screw it!" Sheppard pushed forward, raising his P-90.
"Sheppard, what the hell are you doing?" McKay cried.
"What Keller said to do; I'm getting Elizabeth out!"
That was all the warning the rest had, as Sheppard aimed for the side of the tube, away from Elizabeth's now still body, and fired a single shot. The glass chamber shattered on impact, and a cascade of the liquid gel crashed down on everyone, flooding the floor of the lab. Ronon grabbed hold of Teyla to keep her from being swept away, and she in turn grabbed Beckett, as McKay, Keller, Lia and Anne braced themselves against the console they were standing at.
"Elizabeth!" Sheppard struggled to his feet and fought through the current toward her.
Elizabeth hung limply over the base of her broken prison, swept out of the tank only as far as the life support cables plugged into her body would allow. Her arms dangled in the air above her, the cables and wires pulled taut. At numerous points of the fusion between flesh and machine, she was bleeding.
"Elizabeth!" He scrambled up onto the pedestal and turned her over. Her long hair hung wetly in a veil over her face, and he gently brushed it aside with his fingers. Her skin was deathly pale, her lips blue. "She's not breathing!" He pressed his fingers to her neck. "I can't feel a pulse!" He cleared her airway and started rescue breathing as Keller and Beckett pounded up behind him, pulling out a portable EKG and defibrillator out of their packs. Keller swiftly attached sensors to Elizabeth's chest and powered up the EKG unit.
"What about the nanites?" Ronon asked. "Aren't they supposed to be keeping her alive?"
"He is correct," Lia told them. "This should not be happening."
McKay crouched next to Elizabeth's body, waving his Ancient PDA over her and then looking at his tablet computer, trying to make sense of the readings he was getting. "The nanites are… they're locked in some sort of feedback loop and they're not responding to normal commands."
"Okay, how do we unlock it?" Sheppard's impatience was growing by the second.
Keller looked up from the heart monitor. "She's in V-tach!" She looked over at Beckett. "Charge to two hundred!" Beckett hit the switch on the defibrillator and placed the shock pads on Elizabeth's chest. When the defibrillator whined readiness, he pulled out the paddles and pressed them to Elizabeth's chest.
"Clear!" he ordered, and Keller yanked Sheppard back as Beckett pressed the paddles to Elizabeth's chest and shocked her. Her body jerked up, then slumped to the deck. The arrhythmic tone was unchanged. Sheppard lunged back in and started breathing for her again while Keller performed chest compressions as Beckett recharged the defibrillator. McKay kept trying to frantically connect to the nanites, try to reboot them, anything. The others could only stand around and watch helplessly. When the defibrillator was ready again, Beckett again called to clear her body, then delivered another shock. Still no response.
Again and again they repeated the process for what seemed like an eternity, yet was probably only a few minutes at the most, but Elizabeth did not respond.
Beckett laid a hand on Sheppard's arm. "Lad…" he began gently.
Sheppard shook him off. "Again! Do it again!"
"No!" He shook Elizabeth's shoulders. "Goddamnit, Elizabeth, fight! I didn't search the entire fucking galaxy to find you only for you to die on me now!" He smacked her cheek with a hard crack that made everyone wince. "Fight!" A cycle of breathing and chest compressions. Then another. And another. "Breathe, damn you, breathe!" He bent over her to start breathing for her again when suddenly, her eyes flew open and her body spasmed as she coughed up a few mouthfuls of the thick fluid that had filled the tube. Gasping, she sagged limply as John cradled her in his arms, and her eyes rolled back in her head.
"Shit," Keller muttered, and quickly took Elizabeth's pulse. John reluctantly laid her back down and Beckett checked her airway.
"She's still breathing," Beckett reported shortly.
"And her pulse is racing a little, but it's strong. I'd say she's passed out," Keller suggested. "That impromptu little dance in the stasis chamber had to have taken a lot out of her." She slashed a glance at Anne, who shook her head.
"That shouldn't have happened," she insisted. "She should have slowly come up to a semi-conscious state where we could safely remove her from the chamber and transition her to breathing air instead of liquid. But I wasn't able to get in to guide her to that state. She blocked me." Her eyes were wide with shock. "How did she do that?"
"I don't know," McKay grumbled, "but the nanites seem to have broken out of the loop and appear to be functioning normally again."
Keller shook her head. "We need to get her to the infirmary on the Daedalus as soon as possible."
"No, we can't," Beckett protested. "What if we've been exposed to nanites?"
Keller grimaced. "Damn, you're right. Okay, we're going to have to set up here." She turned to Anne. "Will there be any trouble beaming items over from the Daedalus?"
Anne didn't answer for a moment, her face blank.
She shook her head, clearly still rattled by the failed contact. "S-sorry," she stuttered. "No, there won't be a problem now that she's out of the stasis chamber. The security systems were designed to prevent anyone else besides Oberoth or me from getting on board while Elizabeth was still secured in the lab. Pulling her out would've unlocked just about everything, and I should be able to override the rest."
"Good enough." She tapped her commset. "Keller to Daedalus."
Caldwell's voice immediately came over the comm channel. "This is Caldwell, go ahead."
"Colonel, we have a potential biohazard incident in progress."
There was a pause, then Caldwell asked, "Nanites? What happened?"
"Getting Doctor Weir out of stasis didn't go quite as planned, and we may have all been exposed when we got her out."
"We can set up a containment area in the infirmary—"
"No good," Sheppard broke in. "I'm sorry, Colonel, but there's too many of us for the medbay to deal with in addition to Elizabeth. And somebody's going to need to secure the ship and fly it back to Atlantis. I don't think it would be a good idea to just leave it here."
"Aye, the computers may have information on what Oberoth was doing on this ship that might be helpful for treating Doctor Weir," Beckett ventured.
"All right, I can't argue with that." There was another pause, then Caldwell's voice returned. "I'm going to send over a med team in full containment suits with any equipment you need."
Keller and Beckett quickly conferred with the Daedalus's medical staff to add some specific items they wanted in addition to the standard biohazard kit the team would be bringing over. In the meantime, Teyla and Lia pulled out a couple of blankets from the medical packs to wrap Elizabeth in to keep her warm.
Within minutes, a team of medics in full containment suits beamed aboard with cases of equipment stacked atop a folded gurney. They moved quickly and efficiently, emptying the gurney and setting up two containment tents. The other humans were shooed into one tent where a couple of medics started taking blood samples, while Elizabeth was lifted onto the gurney and hooked up to an IV drip and various monitors, and placed in another tent. The Asurans nervously stood nearby while trying to remain out from underfoot. Anne was actually shivering, so much so that Lia had laid an arm around her shoulders to calm her, a gesture that wasn't lost on anyone, human or Asuran.
Tense minutes passed while they all waited for the test results to come back on the teams' blood samples. When the air monitors came back with a negative reading, the mood in the room lightened just a little bit. Finally, the blood work was done, with everyone turning up negative for nanite exposure. The team gratefully got out of their tent, and Keller and Beckett suited up to go into the tent where Elizabeth lay. McKay, looking for some busy work to keep his mind off what was going on in the other tent, went back to the main console to access the ship's computer mainframe; both Sarrin and Juna quietly went over to lend their assistance, and perhaps to distract themselves as well. Teyla and Ronon joined Anne, Lia, and the other Asurans outside Elizabeth's tent to keep watch as Keller and Beckett worked on her. In the meantime, Sheppard tersely reported to Carter that they'd been cleared by the medics and were working on securing the rest of the ship. About half an hour later, both Keller and Beckett swiftly left the tent and pulled off the hoods of their suits, their eyes wide with shock.
"What's going on?" Sheppard asked. Keller and Beckett exchanged looks.
"Well, what is it? Is she okay?"
Beckett took a deep breath. "She's pregnant. Elizabeth's pregnant."
If the effort to resuscitate Elizabeth had seemed like it had lasted for an eternity, there were no words to adequately describe the trip back to Atlantis. Everyone was still trying to wrap their heads around the latest bombshell that had been dropped in their laps about Elizabeth. If it was Elizabeth. Anne seemed certain, which meant that the other Asurans were certain, and yet… Their hopes had been raised before, only to be dashed on the rocks of cruel reality.
Sitting to one side of the ship's medical lab, Teyla regarded the sleeping form that appeared, on the outside, to look like her long-lost friend. 'Third time's the charm' was the Earth saying that John had told her once. Though she knew now that the Ancestors were not the all-powerful and all-wise beings that Athosian belief had proclaimed them to be for so many centuries, Teyla prayed to them anyway, hoping that this time, the pain from the scars that had been ripped open by their search would soon be replaced by the joy they were all yearning for. That this time, her friend had come home at last.
Until they got back to Atlantis, however, the questions that everyone had would have to remain just that. So in order to keep their minds from running around in circles, they were all keeping busy with their assigned tasks for the journey. Keller and Beckett, still monitoring Elizabeth's condition, were already discussing the battery of tests they would need to put her through, with Anne and Lia offering some suggestions of their own and answering the two doctors' questions as best they could. Sheppard and McKay, along with Ronon, were up on the ship's bridge with a couple of the Asurans, flying the ship through hyperspace. No doubt they were discussing everything that had happened with Colonel Caldwell aboard the Daedalus, which was escorting them back to Atlantis.
Finally, the ship shuddered slightly, signaling that it had dropped out of hyperspace. A few moments later, Sheppard's voice came over their radios, announcing that they were entering Lantean orbit and would be landing at Atlantis's west pier. This, too, was part of the plan. Medical, scientific, and security teams would meet them; the scientists and part of the security detail would complete the securing of the ship, while the medical team and the rest of the security personnel would accompany Beckett, Keller, and Elizabeth to the infirmary, where she would be put into the isolation room. And then, Teyla knew, the next—possibly the greatest—of their trials would begin.
After a restless night's sleep that he felt certain had been shared by many others in Atlantis, Richard Woolsey headed for the infirmary. He noted with some pleasure that the coffee urn and meal trays he'd ordered sent for the staff, thinking they'd probably stayed up burning the candle at both ends and hadn't gone to get any food, had arrived and were being torn into with a distracted intensity. A tired Keller greeted him, coffee cup in hand.
"Has there been any change?" he asked her quietly, and she shook her head.
"None. She hasn't regained consciousness yet." She bit her lip. "We're still waiting for some of the results right now, but we'll be ready to make a report at the briefing."
"All right. I'll be up in the observation room." She nodded, and headed back to the lab.
He went up the stairs to the observation room overlooking the isolation room, and found Samantha Carter already there, looking through the window down into the isolation room, a haunted expression on her face. She glanced up at his approach and nodded to him, then turned back to her vigil. They stood there for a few moments in silence, watching the nurses monitoring the woman they all hoped was the real Elizabeth Weir, occasionally visited by Beckett or Keller. Finally, Carter sighed and swiped at her eyes. Woolsey pretended not to notice.
"You know… I remember what Fifth did to me… and it's nothing compared to what Oberoth did to her. I look at her, and I think… that could have been me. I could have been the one lying there. If SG-1 had been just a couple of minutes later…" She shook her head.
Woolsey regarded her thoughtfully. "That's why you wanted to do this."
"Yeah. Because if it had been me, I'd want someone to come after me. And when I had the chance to do the same for her before… God help me, I said no. All because I was in command, and I had to toe the line." She laughed humorlessly. "I'm a damn hypocrite. So I knew that this time, I had to help Sheppard get her back. Because it was simply the right thing to do." She looked at him. "What about you? Why did you give them the go-ahead even though the IOA opposed it?"
"Because it was the right thing to do." Woolsey continued to watch the activity in the isolation room, perhaps trying to avoid Carter's gaze. "The IOA gave Doctor Weir a lot of grief during her tenure here. I was party to all of it, as I'm sure you know. At the time, I acknowledged it as a necessary function of my job. But now that I'm the one who's been sitting in her chair and walking in her shoes for the past year, I see things how she must have seen them. Now I know that things are not so cut and dry."
"I know what you mean. I—I wasn't exactly kind to her when she took over at Stargate Command a few years ago."
Woolsey's mouth quirked sardonically. "I, uh, read the report."
Carter snorted. "Figures."
"There's something else, too. When the IOA voted to approve Stargate Command's first strike plan against Asuras without consulting Atlantis… Well, it was thought—by some—that the action might…" He paused, considering his words, "'encourage' Weir to step down. I didn't like the idea, but I went along with it like a good company man. So I bear some of the responsibility for what happened next. And now, seeing the way things have turned out… When I came to Atlantis to assume command of the expedition, I felt like I owed it to her. To take care of her people. Because I had helped to deny her the chance to do it herself."
Carter mulled over his words. "You said 'some.' Shen?"
"Fuck," she spat.
Woolsey grimaced. "My thoughts exactly. I have no doubt that she's going to try to use Doctor Weir's return as a pretext to get a foothold in Atlantis. Maybe even the big chair."
"A damn political power play. As if we don't have enough to deal with."
In another part of the infirmary, Keller sat at her desk, her head in her hands and mind reeling from the shocking discoveries that had been made in the last few hours. McKay sat beside her, arm awkwardly around her, also struggling to understand what had happened, and was still happening.
"This is my fault."
"That's not fair, Jennifer—"
"Yes it is!" She rounded on McKay. "My God, Rodney, I gave you the idea in the first place! If anyone is really to blame for what's happened to Elizabeth, it begins and ends with me."
"That's crap! If anyone's to blame, it's the Replicators for attacking us! No! It's the Ancients for creating them and then not cleaning up their mess when it got too hot to handle."
"What? It's true!"
"And it's also true that I could've put a stop to it before the train went off the tracks." She shook her head. "As a doctor, I took an oath to do no harm. Well, what the hell do you call this? I was trying to help my patient, but I ended up doing a helluva lot of harm, to Elizabeth, and by extension, to all those people who were massacred by the Replicators in order to deny the Wraith a food source. How many of them died out there? Thousands? Tens of thousands? Hundreds of thousands?"
"That's on me, not you. You weren't the one who found the damn attack code and insisted we stay on Asuras just a little longer to try to upload it to the Replicator core instead of playing it safe and getting the hell outta there with the ZedPM and Elizabeth. I did that. I've gotta live with that. And hope that one day Elizabeth can forgive me for putting her in that hell for two years."
Keller sighed. "Crap, Rodney… what are we going to do? How do we help her?"
"I don't know." McKay sank further into his chair like a deflated balloon. "I just don't know."
An hour later, the Atlantis senior staff, as well as Carter, Caldwell, and Nancy Sheppard, assembled in the conference room. Anne, Lia and the rest of the Asurans were also there to provide their input into the discussions.
Woolsey began by getting right to the point. "Can we be certain that it's really her this time and not another clone?" Woolsey raised a hand before anyone could protest. "I mean, I don't want to rain on anyone's parade here, but Stargate Command and the IOA will want irrefutable evidence. And," he added gently, "I think we can all agree that we want that evidence simply for our own peace of mind that this whole ordeal has finally come to an end."
Keller nodded. "Carson and I already thought of that, and we've done as thorough an examination as we're capable of with the available technology, both from Earth and Ancient origin. Her telomeres are at the correct length for someone at the age Doctor Weir should be, and there are no traces of any medications normally used to boost cellular growth, so she's definitely not a clone. The parts of her body which were replaced by nanites match with the final scans we did of Doctor Weir before she went on the mission to Asuras. Blood work and other vital signs are also all a match to our last records. And then we checked for her locator beacon."
"I remember when I was on the Apollo over Asuras two years ago," Carter ventured, "I ran the sensors myself trying to find Doctor Weir's beacon and transport her out. I couldn't find anything. There was simply no signal to lock on to."
"Yeah, afterward we surmised that the Replicators had either jammed the signal with some sort of shield, or had deactivated the beacon entirely," McKay told them. "But there was no way for us to know for certain what had happened, and we were so busy just trying to stay ahead of their ships and reach the Apollo that we didn't even know that we had lost the signal, much less when."
"But to answer your question, Mister Woolsey," Beckett steered the discussion back to the topic, "Aye, we're certain. We found the locator beacon chip, exactly where it was supposed to be, implanted below the right clavicle. We surgically removed the chip and compared the serial number etched into the chip with the number that's noted in Doctor Weir's file. The numbers are a match." There was a bit of a stir among the group at that revelation.
"And then to add another layer of certainty, Zelenka and I took a closer look at the chip," McKay continued. "We activated the chip and tested the carrier wave signature in the signal. Like the serial number, the carrier wave is unique to each chip, and this chip's signature matches the one on file for Elizabeth's chip. Then we tested samples of the materials the chip was made from and compared the results to the manufacturing specs, the isotopic signatures of similar Earth-produced materials…" McKay held up a small container made of clear plastic. Sandwiched between two layers of polymer was the locator beacon. "This chip was made on Earth, from materials found on Earth. It's her." He carefully, almost reverently, set the container down on the table in front of him. "She's Elizabeth."
There was a reluctant pause. "What about… Doctor Weir's pregnancy?"
Keller took a breath. "She's carrying twins, a boy and a girl. Based on the observed level of development, they appear to be at about ten weeks. We've run every test and scan we can safely do at this point, and the fetuses appear to be healthy. No nanites, no sign of any other kind of infection or defect." She paused, biting her lip and looking as though there was something else she didn't know how to say.
"Go on, Doctor," Woolsey prompted gently.
"The fetuses don't have nanites," she repeated, "but her uterus does. In fact, under different circumstances, Doctor Weir wouldn't be pregnant right now." Keller took a breath. "She originally had a defect in her uterus that left her unable to carry a fetus to term."
"The nanites fixed it along with the rest," Woolsey voiced the unspoken implication.
"And she was not pregnant when she left Atlantis to go on the raid on Asuras?"
"It was an experiment," McKay spat. "One of Oberoth's fucking experiments. It was all there in the ship's database, a very complete and detailed record of a series of experiments he was performing on her."
"Rodney…" Sheppard's voice was low and hard. "What did he do to her?"
It was Carter who answered. "Doctor Weir is the first—and only—true human-Replicator hybrid known to exist. After seeing what she was able to do to the Replicator collective in just that short hour or so that your team was on Asuras, Oberoth feared that we'd start deliberately creating more hybrids, to use as weapons against the Replicators. So he wanted to test the extent of her capabilities, see if there were any weaknesses in the Replicators that hybrids could take advantage of, or weaknesses in hybrids that the Replicators could take advantage of. That, apparently, is how Oberoth came up with his plan to create the organic-nanite hybrid that turned into Angelus. It was a bastardized version of how the nanites had merged with Doctor Weir to repair her body and keep her alive." Everyone shuddered at that pronouncement, horrified by the depths of Oberoth's twisted logic.
"According to Oberoth's logs on board the cruiser, one of the last things he did before he put Elizabeth in stasis was… He…" McKay broke off, looking sickened.
"We know from your encounter with your clones two years earlier that the Replicators took genetic samples from all of you when your team was briefly imprisoned on Asuras, during your initial visit there over three years ago," Beckett continued softly, looking straight at Sheppard. "They didn't just take hair and blood samples. Oberoth wanted to see how Elizabeth's hybrid body would react while pregnant with an ATA-positive fetus. So Oberoth artificially inseminated her, using sperm cells that were collected from you, Colonel."
A few people gasped and exclaimed wordlessly, while others looked visibly ill. Teyla and Nancy gasped softly, while Caldwell, Ronon and Woolsey stiffened. The blood visibly drained from Sheppard's face. "Me?" He looked wildly between Keller, Beckett and McKay. "I'm—" He couldn't finish the sentence.
Keller nodded. "You're the biological father of Doctor Weir's twins, John."
Sheppard's mouth opened and closed several times, but no sound came out. Suddenly, he pushed back his chair and tried to rise, but he crumpled to his knees and fell over onto the floor. Everyone else leaped out of their own seats, but Keller and Beckett reached his side first, checking his pulse.
"Bloody hell, he's fainted," Beckett muttered.
"Can't say I blame him, this is one helluva shock." Keller pulled out a pack of smelling salts and snapped it open, waving it under Sheppard's nose.
"Well, at least he's not going to be able to claim that he 'collapsed from manly hunger,'" McKay quipped. Ronon looked at him, obviously perplexed by the comment, but Teyla could not help but grin slightly in memory of a happier time.
"It is… an 'inside joke?'" She raised her eyebrows at McKay, who nodded. "I will explain later," she assured Ronon.
In the meantime, the smelling salts had done the trick and Sheppard was coming around, groggily trying to shove the offensive pack away from his nose. Keller batted his hands away with one hand and shoved the pack back under his nose with the other. "Breathe in, Colonel, I'm not letting you up until I'm sure you won't keel over again."
"Easy for you to say," he groaned. Then a wild look came into his eyes and he shot straight up, knocking Keller back on her heels. "She's—Elizabeth's pregnant."
"Yes, she is," Keller began cautiously. He fixed her with an intense look, then started to pull himself to his feet. "Colonel—"
"Chair," he snapped. Keller and Beckett exchanged rolled eyes, but Caldwell wheeled over Sheppard's chair while Beckett and McKay helped Sheppard to his feet. Sheppard dropped into the chair a little more heavily than he might have otherwise, but the slashing look he gave everyone else kept them from arguing about his condition, and they resumed their seats. He cradled his head in his hands for a moment before looking up.
"So now that we know that it's her," he grated, "how the hell do we wake her up?"
"As her condition stands now, I don't think we can go ahead with the plan we first came up with," Beckett said quietly. "If we simply have the nanites reset her body to its pre-hybrid state, she'll be incapable of carrying the twins to term. And they're not anywhere close to old enough to survive a premature birth." Another silence descended on the group. How many more roadblocks would be thrown into their path?
"I hate to play devil's advocate here," Nancy finally spoke up, "But do we even know if she would want this pregnancy to continue?" Sheppard rounded on her, his outrage clear, as the Asurans growled.
"Are you kidding? You want us to just kill them?"
"That's not what I'm saying!"
"Oh, really? Because it sounds to me like that's exactly what you're saying!"
"John, we don't even know if she knows what's happened to her. And she's obviously in no position to make that choice herself."
"Colonel," Caldwell said gently, "you're not Doctor Weir's next of kin."
"No. But DNA sure says that I'm the twins' next of kin, doesn't it? Don't I get to have a say in whether or not my kids live?"
"Though I have lived among your people for the past few years," Teyla entered the debate before it could get any more heated, "There are still many things about your culture that I do not know or understand. But among my people, it is a parent's duty to protect their children from harm. I agree with Colonel Sheppard. His and Elizabeth's children deserve a chance to be born, to live." Ronon also nodded his own silent agreement.
"What about adding new instructions to the code, to leave the repairs to her uterus intact?" Carter suggested. "That shouldn't pose any more risk to Doctor Weir than simply resetting her body would have been."
"We're gonna have to be really careful with it," McKay put in, "but yeah… I think we can do that."
Beckett and Keller nodded in approval. "I think that's a solution we can live with," Keller told them. "The only other alternative is to wait until the babies are old enough that they can survive a premature delivery, but they won't reach the limit of viability for at least another fourteen weeks. That early, there's still only a fifty percent survival rate, with a high risk of serious health problems for the rest of their lives."
"Somehow, I don't think the IOA would be willing to wait even that long," Nancy ventured soberly. "I think Colonel Carter's idea is the best option we have."
"Agreed," Woolsey stated emphatically, and heads nodded all around the table.
"As to how to reach Elizabeth so that we can get her to unlock her nanites and allow the new code to be uploaded, I think I may have an answer," Anne spoke up. Sheppard slowly turned his head to face her.
"When Elizabeth was originally infected by the nanites and they tried to take over her mind and body, she saw—" She paused, trying to find the right words—"a shadow, I guess you could call it. A figure, that followed her through the illusory world that the nanites created in her mind." She looked straight at Sheppard. "It was you, John. I believe that when you were speaking to her while she was in that coma, your subconscious mind was trying to make a connection."
"A connection to what?"
"The nanites. They were, and are, Ancient technology. You have the Ancient gene, stronger than anyone else found so far on Earth. When you broke quarantine, when you touched her, you completed that connection like an electrical circuit, the same way that you can connect to a puddlejumper or the control chair. You were able to use that connection to get into her mind. You linked with the nanites and froze them momentarily so that she could gain the upper hand for good. I am certain that you can do it again."
"How do you know all this?" Caldwell asked tersely.
She smiled ruefully. "Oberoth's mind probe of Elizabeth's memories from the time of her escape from Asuras with Colonel Sheppard and his team to the time of her recapture was very much incomplete. But when I tried to connect with Elizabeth while she was in stasis, I saw a brief flash before she threw me out that seemed to tie the random pieces together." She shook her head. "At least, what I saw made more sense to me than anything else."
"All right then," Sheppard said after a long moment. "Is there anything we need to do to prepare for this?"
Lia shrugged helplessly. "Honestly, I do not know. We are as much at a loss as all of you are. This was not something any of us were expecting to deal with."
Woolsey nodded. "Very well. Colonel Sheppard, how soon can you be ready to make an attempt to reach Doctor Weir?"
Sheppard took a breath. It was now or never. "I'm ready now."
Sheppard may have been ready to make an attempt to reach Elizabeth, but McKay and Carter needed to make their adjustments to the coding for the nanites, Keller and Beckett wanted to go over every scan and test result with a fine-toothed comb again just to be sure they hadn't missed anything, and Woolsey and Nancy still had issues about the plan and what would come after, regardless of whether it succeeded or failed, to discuss. So it happened that an hour after the meeting, Ronon walked into the gym to find Sheppard doing his damndest to beat the stuffing out of a punching bag.
Ronon quietly leaned against the wall next to the window and watched Sheppard for several minutes as he tried to purge his anger and fear. Finally, Sheppard stopped. Breathing heavily, he hung onto the bag for a few moments, then turned to Ronon.
"Something you want to say?"
"So what'cha doin' here?"
Ronon flashed a grim smirk, then picked up a practice sword, swinging it experimentally. "If you want to beat up on something, at least pick something that can fight back so you can actually get in some practice."
"That a challenge?"
"Do you want it to be?"
Sheppard glared for a moment, then pulled off the boxing gloves, walked over to the rack and picked up a practice sword of his own, twirling it around. He and Ronon made their way to the center of the mats, and started to circle each other. They circled some more, watching each other's eyes for the tell that would signal an attack. Circled some more. After a while, Sheppard had had enough and swung. Ronon blocked. Feint, strike, block. Crash of wood against wood. Sheppard growled. Ronon made no sound at all, just continued to circle at the ready. Not attacking, just waiting. Sheppard struck again, Ronon blocked again. They went back to circling, and repeated the cycle a few more times, Sheppard growing more and more sloppy as he gave vent to his rage until one of Ronon's blocks curved around a little, pulling the practice sword out of Sheppard's hand in a disarm.
"Fuck!" Sheppard spat angrily, shaking his hand. "Damn it! Damn Oberoth, the sick bastard! And damn me too, for leaving her there with him!"
Ronon tilted his head, resting the tip of his own practice sword against the mat. "She ordered you to leave her. You did what she asked of you."
Sheppard swiped a hand across his face; wiping away sweat or tears, Ronon wasn't sure he wanted to know. "Doesn't make it right. Doesn't make what happened to her right."
"No," Ronon told him quietly. "But now you can do something about it."
"I want her back. I just—" Finally his voice broke. "I just want her back, damnit." He looked around wildly, breathing heavily. Ronon noticed it was different this time; not the kind of breathing that said one was winded after exercise, but more like that of a wounded animal. Ronon reached out and gripped Sheppard's shoulder. The action focused Sheppard on Ronon. "What am I gonna do? The bastard got her pregnant with my kids and she probably doesn't even know and I have no idea how I'm supposed to help her. And it scares the shit outta me. What the hell do I do now?"
"Love her. She's gonna need that. And so do you. You've been holding it in for too damn long, John. You need to let go and feel it."
"What if it's not enough?"
"It's brought us all this far, hasn't it?"
Sheppard gave Ronon an odd look. "You love her."
Ronon smiled quietly. "'Course I do. We all do. But if the look in her eyes whenever she looked at you was any clue… you're the one she loved back. So I know she's waiting for you to find the answer. And you will." He shook Sheppard's shoulder a little. "C'mon, little brother. Let's go find you a shower and some food so you don't faint again."
"I did not faint."
Ronon just laughed.
After finishing her discussion with Richard Woolsey, Nancy Sheppard found herself wandering the halls of Atlantis. Everyone seemed so determined to follow the course of greatest risk, to do anything and everything they could to help Elizabeth Weir, but she wondered if it was really worth it. Nancy had read report after report, those written by Weir and those written about her, and while she felt she had gotten a sense of the Elizabeth Weir that everyone saw in public, she was still struggling to understand the woman within, and questioning whether or not there was anything left of that woman after two years with the Replicators that was worth saving.
Her steps brought her down to the hydroponics lab. In the years since it had been cleaned up and put to its intended use again, it had become a lush bit of greenery in the midst of the metal and glass city. Other such spaces had been found throughout the city, and as time passed, some of them were restored as well, making miniature gardens for the expedition to enjoy. Still, this one was the first, and for those who had been in Atlantis during the expedition's first tumultuous year, it held more than a bit of nostalgia.
Nancy wandered in, breathing deeply of air filled with organic scents, carried on the breeze coming in one of the open windows, and just enjoying the sense of peace that seemed to come from being surrounded by the oasis of plants both familiar and foreign. She strolled between planters, stopping to smell a flower here, brush her fingers over a cornstalk there. She turned a corner and found Teyla setting a small basket down beside a planter that held a bush that seemed covered in white roses. Beside it was another bush, smaller, but clearly just as prolific in its output of red roses. Teyla looked up at Nancy's approach and smiled in greeting.
"They're beautiful," Nancy commented, and Teyla's smile grew just a hint mysterious, as though there was a hidden meaning that only she knew.
"Yes, they are." Teyla picked up a pair of shears from the basket and began carefully pruning the red bush, depositing the leaves and dead branches to one side of the basket. Nancy noticed that she didn't wear gloves, as many who grew roses did when working with the plants, and not once did she get a single scratch or jab from the thorns. When the pruning was finished, Teyla cut a single rose, a bud just beginning to bloom, and laid it gently in the other side of the basket. She smiled again. "I get the impression that you are not here simply to watch me prune roses."
Nancy shifted on her feet uncertainly. "No… No, I'm not. I—" She paused as a thought struck her. "Teyla, would you tell me about her? Doctor Weir, I mean. You two were—are—friends, and I wondered, well, John said that I wasn't here, that I don't know her. He's right, I don't know her. But if I'm going to help all of you, I need to know her. I need to understand what it is about her that inspired such loyalty in everyone here." She shook her head with a rueful grin. "I'd ask John, but right now, I don't think he'd take my questions the right way."
Teyla looked at her for a moment, then turned back to the rose bush. The silence deepened for a few moments, then Teyla picked up the shears again and began carefully trimming off stray shoots on the white rose bush, speaking as she did so. "The botany department, and some other members of the expedition, cleaned up this lab and started growing things here to help with our food supplies, to learn about the new plants they were finding throughout this galaxy, and simply to do something that took their mind off their work and what we were all facing for a little while. After Atlantis reestablished contact with Earth following the Wraith siege, Elizabeth returned from her meetings with your people on Earth with this rose bush. It was not food or something to study. It was something to bring a bit of beauty, and a bit of Earth, to this place. I had never seen anything like it before; there is nothing quite like this flower in this galaxy. It is very much like Elizabeth."
She brushed her fingers over a bud that was just starting to unfurl. "Beautiful, strong, with a bit of a thorn that can catch one unaware if they are not cautious, but if caution and respect are shown, the reward is getting to see the beauty inside, the generous heart that keeps giving for everyone, friend and foe alike, because she sees the good in everyone. She is my friend. She is a friend to all of us, lost to us for too long, and we will not, cannot, stand by and let her slip away from us into darkness again." Teyla carefully cut the rose, laid it next to the white rose she'd cut earlier, then set the shears in the basket. She straightened and looked at Nancy. "Does that answer your question?"
Nancy mulled over the question, then decided to answer it with one of her own. "You said that Doctor Weir brought the white roses? Where did the red roses come from?"
Teyla was silent for a long moment. When she finally answered, her voice was softer. "When Colonel Sheppard returned after his father's funeral on Earth, he brought the red roses with him and planted them beside Elizabeth's roses."
Nancy laughed in surprise. "John planted them? When we were married, he used to kill houseplants on a regular basis."
Teyla added a chuckle of her own. "So he told us. But that did not happen with either of these bushes. One of us always comes down to tend them every day. I have even found Rodney down here, adjusting the settings for the drip system." She picked up the basket and walked down the aisle to the mulch box, adding the clippings from the basket to the pile, but keeping the cut roses in the basket. She turned to Nancy. "Will you accompany me?"
Nancy blinked, wondering where this was leading. "Certainly."
Teyla turned and headed out the door. The two walked in silence along the corridors, through a transporter, and down more corridors to a great, soaring chamber, rimmed with stained-glass windows. Nancy had visited the Hall once after she had arrived in Atlantis, and she was still struck by the beauty of the room. Teyla walked along the wall of pictures to where Elizabeth Weir's portrait hung, filled the empty vase that sat on the ledge under it with a bit of water from her bottle, then carefully arranged the roses in the vase.
"Every day, at least one of us checks the roses. Every week, one of us comes here with a pair of roses. It is our way of reminding ourselves of her legacy of strength and beauty in mind and spirit and to strive for the ideals she held dear. To remind ourselves of the price that sometimes must be paid by those who walk with such a heart." Nancy could see the tears in the other woman's eyes. "And in the hope that we might be lucky enough to one day meet that heart again." She smiled, sadness and joy mingled in her eyes, and turned to Nancy. "Now do you have your answer?"
Nancy smiled back, feeling tears prick her own eyes. "I think so."
It was time. All of their careful preparation, all of their planning for every contingency they could think of, all of their prayers and hopes, had led everyone in Atlantis to this moment.
Sheppard stood in the isolation room, staring down at Elizabeth's pale, fragile-looking form lying on the bed, once again with all manner of tubes and wires stuck into her body. He forced the lump that had been building back down his throat. Now was not the time to fall apart. Not when they were so damn close. Anne stood next to him, watching them both. Lia and the others stood nearby, ready to help if needed. McKay was monitoring the readout of the code operating Elizabeth's nanites, as Beckett and Keller monitored the vital signs for Elizabeth and the twins.
Sheppard took a deep breath. "Okay… What do I do?"
Anne smiled slightly. "What did you do last time? What were you thinking when you reached out and touched her? Start there."
He took another breath. He had wanted to find her. He had wanted her to wake up, whole and happy. He reached out and clasped Elizabeth's chilled hand between his two warm hands, closing his eyes as he did so. There was a tingle in his mind, very much like the feeling he got whenever he interacted with the jumpers, or the chair. There was a rush of sound and light sparking from somewhere beyond his closed eyes. As suddenly as it came, it abruptly stopped, leaving him in utter silence. A cold draft shivered up his spine, and he opened his eyes.
Everyone, all over the city, looked at the video monitors before them in surprise.
"Whoa!" McKay exclaimed. "Is that Sheppard?"
"We are seeing what he sees," Juna confirmed, her eyes alight in wonder. "We are seeing what is in Elizabeth's mind."
John looked around at the gateroom in shock. He appeared to be in Atlantis, but it was an Atlantis that had clearly been through a war… and lost, badly. Even the abandoned Atlantis that he'd inadvertently found himself marooned in over a year ago, in an alternate universe forty-eight thousand years into the future, had looked to be in far better condition than this place.
Massive holes had been burned, or more likely blown, into the walls, probably with everything from small arms fire up to heavy artillery. Windows were shattered, the glass crunching under foot. Displays and consoles were overturned and torn apart, spilling the remains of control crystals and shredded power cables all over. Metal support beams and decorative elements were warped and twisted. The gate itself still stood straight and tall, but was no longer lit.
Debris crunched at a footfall behind him, and he spun around. Standing there was…
She smiled triumphantly. "You did it, John. I had a feeling she'd trust you enough to let you in. I was able to follow you."
He chose to not answer the unspoken question, and changed the subject. "Where exactly are we? What is this place?"
"We're in Elizabeth's mind." Her expression darkened. "Or, rather, what's left of it after Oberoth got through with her. Now that I'm in here, I'm starting to remember more of what happened to us."
"Like?" he prompted impatiently.
She mulled over the question. "When you reached out to her the first time, after she had been infected by the nanites, did you see anything, or feel anything?"
'You know what you have to do. Run.'
"I saw her," he admitted reluctantly. "We were on Earth, at Stargate Command. She… I think she was trying to get to the gate and go to Atlantis."
She nodded, as if the answer confirmed a theory. "Elizabeth saw Atlantis as a place of safety. By stepping through the gate back into Atlantis, she would essentially be retaking control of her mind and her body. But this time, she was already in Atlantis, already in control. So Oberoth tried to break her by attacking her sanctuary. He twisted her memories of this place, and of all of you. In the version of Atlantis he tried to force on her mind, all of the people she called friends became her enemies." She shuddered. "After—after the first time you visited Asuras and she was almost taken over by the nanites, one of her worst nightmares was that one day something would happen to finish the job. The nanites would turn her completely into a Replicator. So in the nightmare Oberoth created, Rodney, Radek, Jennifer, even Carson would all become mad scientists, poking and prodding her, replacing parts of her human body with machines. Ronon would chase her, as though she was the Runner, being hunted down like an animal. Teyla would become a Wraith and deliver Elizabeth to Michael, and the nanites would keep her alive so that Michael could keep feeding on her long after a normal human would have died. And you never came for her… She trusted you, trusted in your honor and what you believed about never leaving someone behind, and you never came for her…" Her voice trailed off, swallowing audibly. "As the visions became more cruel, more twisted and violent, she retreated further and further into her mind, waiting for the trap to be sprung."
"The code that programmed the Replicators to attack the Wraith being uploaded to the collective."
"Yes. And even as she withdrew, she fought Oberoth every step of the way." She held out her hands, gesturing to the devastation that surrounded them. "What we see around us is the result. The place that was her final refuge, now in ruins."
"So how do I find her in this mess? When I did this before, I popped in right where she was."
"Perhaps I can help," said a new voice. Sheppard's and Anne's eyes widened in shock as they turned to look at the newcomer.
"Ohhh, this is just too strange, even for me," Anne shook her head.
The woman's flowing white and gold dress seemed familiar, and with a start, Sheppard recognized it as being identical to the dress worn by the Elizabeth Weir from an alternate timeline that they'd found in stasis their first year in the city. As he drew closer, he noticed something else. Her eyes. They weren't the familiar, soothing jade green that he'd missed seeing. Instead, these eyes were a brilliant crystal blue that reminded him of—
She smiled mysteriously, as though she knew exactly what he was thinking, and that she knew something he didn't.
"You're not Elizabeth."
She shook her head. "You are correct, Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard. I am not Elizabeth Weir." Her voice sounded like Elizabeth's, and yet there was a strange timbre to it that made the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end. He suddenly had a sneaking suspicion, and the next words she spoke told him that he was right. "I am Atlantis."
"Are you kidding me?" McKay yelped, staring at the monitor in utter shock.
"I was right! There is an artificial intelligence program on Atlantis!" Zelenka exclaimed. He clapped his hands together and turned to McKay, his expression gleeful as he held out a hand. "Pay up, McKay."
Sheppard and Anne stared at Atlantis.
"What the hell is this?" he yelled. "Stop using her voice, stop wearing her face!" He pointed at Anne. "She might be a piece of her, but you sure as hell aren't!"
She looked at him sadly. "I am sorry, John, but I cannot do that. I— It is difficult to put into words that you will understand. I have—bonded with Elizabeth. I have been imprinted with her form and thoughts to complete my programming. This is all the more astonishing because she does not have the blood key of the Creators, as you do."
"The ATA gene," Anne clarified.
Atlantis nodded. "Yes. Ten thousand years ago, the Elizabeth Weir from the original timeline, the one in which the city never rose and the rest of you were killed, was flung back in time to meet the Creators just before they abandoned the city, and she chose to remain behind in the city as a guardian. To ensure that all of you, and this city, would survive and thrive for another ten thousand years. She is not of the Creators' lineage, yet she felt a connection to me anyway. Not one ingrained into her blood, but into her soul. The power of her emotion drew me to her in a way that even those who created me could not. I was overwhelmed. And though she could not hear me as I spoke to her in her dreams, I spoke to her and guarded her anyway, as she in turn guarded me. Then, finally, you came. Again." She smiled. "And this time, everything worked as Janus had hoped.
"Even after you found the other Elizabeth and she died, her mission complete, the bond did not fade, for Elizabeth was still here, still protecting me. She was a little different than her other self, of course, but she still loved me, loved all of you, so very much. Enough to give up her life for us again." Tears filled her eyes. "I have never felt such loss as I felt when you returned from Asuras without her. And yet, the bond was still unbroken. I think I must have somehow sensed that she still lived, somewhere, but I had no idea how or where to find her. Until you came." Atlantis turned to Anne. "When your consciousness merged with the city's systems, you and I were briefly linked, albeit imperfectly. The copy of Elizabeth's mind that resides in you is not complete, as you know, and its blending with the Asuran code was also imperfect. That is why you and I had such difficulty interacting before."
"And now?" Anne's voice trembled.
"Now the link is perfect. John has the blood key, which he used to reach out to me and to the nanites that are keeping Elizabeth alive, and through Elizabeth, your mind is being filtered in a way that allows us to interact safely."
Sheppard stared at Atlantis in surprise. "That was you, wasn't it?" When she and Anne looked at him quizzically, he clarified, "The program that McKay and Zelenka couldn't find. You made the city go back to Lantea!"
Atlantis sighed and looked a little sheepish. "I—I will not be complete without her." She looked up, her face filled a sad knowing. "And neither will you. If I had not brought the city back, we would never have truly known she was still out there. We would never have had the opportunity to find her. Anne and the others would have wandered forever, looking for her. Do you not see?"
"I understand," Anne told her gently.
"I think I need some aspirin," Sheppard grumbled, and both Atlantis and Anne laughed.
"I assure you, John, it all does make sense. Together, we—you, Anne, and myself—can reach Elizabeth and bring her back as you and Doctor McKay and the others have planned."
"So how do we find her?"
"We begin here, at the beginning. We look in all the places in this city that had meaning to her, and then look for the meaning. In so doing, we find the fragments of her mind."
"What does that…" Sheppard's voice trailed off as Atlantis pulled something out of her pocket and held it out to him. It was round and silver, small enough to fit into the palm of a hand. It looked rather like—
"A watch case…"
"Papa's watch," Anne breathed softly. They looked at each other, then looked at Atlantis, who watched them expectantly. "It's a puzzle," Anne realized. "We find the pieces, put them together—"
"And we find her," Sheppard finished. "Then let's go." He took the case from Atlantis—
—"Give me the codes, Doctor Weir."
"Foolish girl, foolish human, do you really think you can stop me from taking what I want?"
Elizabeth screamed as Oberoth ran her through with an arm that had transformed into a blade of icy fire—
—he looked up to find himself lying on the floor, bits of glass and metal digging into his back.
"John? John, can you hear me?" Anne and Atlantis were kneeling over him, their faces concerned.
"What," he breathed heavily, "the hell?"
"I believe," Atlantis began hesitantly, "that what you saw was a piece of Elizabeth's memories after her capture on Asuras."
They had tortured her. Intellectually, he'd known there was a strong possibility that it would have happened. Everyone had, though no one had wanted to speak of it, as if in fear that if they did, then it really would happen. He closed his eyes, his heart clenching in grief. His fault.
They could hear a soft voice, echoing from somewhere. As he looked around for the source, his eyes fell on the stairs that led to the second level, to the control room, and to— "That's it," he rasped, and surged to his feet. He took the steps two at a time, and bounded through the open door onto the balcony, Anne and Atlantis following behind him. More glass and metal bits crunched underfoot as he scanned the space carefully. He wasn't sure what he was looking for, but he had the feeling he'd know it when he saw it.
An odd glint on the floor near the railing, in the spot where Elizabeth always used to stand when she looked out over the city, caught his eye. He walked over, leaning down to take a look. It was a set of tiny gears, clearly designed to fit into the case.
He carefully placed the gears in the case—
—How long had she been here? Hours? Days? Weeks? Time had lost all meaning.
However long it had been, it had always been cold. But even the cold didn't hurt as much as what burned in her veins, seared every nerve ending.
She'd long since stopped screaming. Her throat was too raw to make a single sound without more pain. But she could still hear herself screaming, in her mind.
She couldn't move, even though she was not physically bound. She could only lie on the table, staring blankly up at the lights above as they slowly blinded her—
—Sheppard pulled himself away from the support pillar that he was leaning against. He turned to Anne and Atlantis, only to see someone standing behind them.
"Oh, shit, that is not good!" McKay squeaked. He and Zelenka looked over to where Sheppard stood over Elizabeth's body, holding her hand, his head bowed and eyes closed. Keller and Beckett stood nearby, still keeping watch on Elizabeth's vitals and throwing nervous glances at what they were seeing through the monitor showing what Sheppard was seeing.
Up in the control room, where he was watching with Chuck and the technicians on duty, Lorne winced. "This is like watching a horror movie. You just know the bad guy's right around the corner, waiting for you."
Anne and Atlantis turned to see what he was looking at, and took a step back when they saw Niam.
"Very clever, Colonel Sheppard. But that is the last victory you will enjoy." His face twisted and he lunged forward. Anne met him, flinging her arm out to strike him, throwing him back against the wall. He immediately leaped up and threw himself at her, and she ducked and swept her leg out in a move very reminiscent of Teyla's fighting style, knocking Niam over. But again he bounded up, this time ignoring Anne and going for Atlantis. Sheppard and Anne closed on Niam, grabbing hold of him, but he pushed them away easily, slamming them both against the empty window frame that opened onto the wrecked gateroom. They both fell through the opening onto the floor inside, and as Sheppard struggled to his feet, his back to the window, Anne looked past him and cried out.
He whirled, just in time to see Niam right in front of him. Niam grabbed Sheppard and dragged him across the window frame and back out onto the balcony. Anne clambered over the window frame and grabbed Sheppard as Atlantis grabbed Niam from behind, pulling him away from Sheppard. Atlantis and Niam struggled for a moment, and then with a burst of strength, Atlantis pulled Niam to the side of the balcony. She looked back at Sheppard and Anne with an anguished look, then wrenched herself and Niam over the side. Anne screamed in horror as Sheppard ran to the balcony's edge. Atlantis had grabbed hold of a ledge just below the balcony, but Niam hadn't been so lucky. As he fell, he burst into a cloud of silver dust that scattered in the rising wind.
Anne and Sheppard grabbed Atlantis's arms and pulled her back over the side of the railing onto the balcony. Atlantis looked back over the darkened city and shuddered. A crackle of lightning flashed overhead, and they looked up at the darkening sky.
"We must hurry," Anne said nervously. They raced back inside. On a hunch, they checked the office off the control room. There, dangling from a wire snapped from one of the overhead lights, was another set of gears that connected to the first set. Bracing himself, Sheppard fitted the new gears into the watch case—
—A line of figures paraded before her. Some were the dead. Some were still living, as far as she knew. All of them taunted her.
"You were never fit to set foot in the City of the Ancestors," Teyla snarled, holding her son, Kanaan and Ronon at her side, the rest of the Athosians standing behind her, along with Ladon Radim and the Genii.
Marshall Sumner, Dillon Everett, Steven Caldwell, Abraham Ellis, Samantha Carter, Jack O'Neill, Hank Landry, and President Hayes glared at her with baleful eyes. "You're too weak to lead," they sneered.
"You're too stupid and naïve to understand anything about the Ancients," McKay, Zelekna, Kavanaugh, and Peter Grodin jeered.
Carson Beckett, Jennifer Keller and Kate Heightmeyer spat on her. "You're heartless, selfish, and cold. You aren't worth rescuing."
"Where is your hero now?" Simon Wallace scoffed. "He abandoned you, like you abandoned me." His face twisted into Oberoth's
—Sheppard fell to his knees, gasping.
"John!" Anne cried. She brushed her fingers under his nose. It was bleeding. He shook his head. Once again, they heard a voice. It was closer now, just close enough to begin to make out a tune.
"'London Bridge is Falling Down?'" Anne looked at Atlantis. "What is that supposed to mean?"
"You are Elizabeth's channel," Atlantis replied. "Do you not understand?"
"Every time we've heard it before, it drew my attention somewhere," Sheppard got to his feet. "This time… down. Somewhere below us."
"Her quarters?" Anne suggested as they walked out of the office and down the stairs. "Or would that be too obvious?"
"The office was obvious, but we found a piece. It's as good an idea as any."
"You would think that, wouldn't you?"
Standing in front of the passage to the lower levels of the tower was Oberoth.
"Go to hell, you bastard!" Anne snarled.
"Ah, the traitor. I should've known. I made you too much like her. And yet you aren't really her. How that must cut you inside to know that you're only a copy."
"There's enough of her in me to stop you, just as she did."
"She did not stop me," he taunted. "I strolled through her mind at will. Studying her, using what I learned from her to create my hybrid weapon. A pity it didn't work as well as I had hoped."
"It turned on you," Sheppard snarled, edging around, fingers drifting down toward his holster, wondering why he hadn't thought of his gun when Niam had attacked them earlier. "Angelus had learned enough about her to know her and know what it had to do to help us."
"She corrupted us," Oberoth spat. "She was a cancer on our purity."
"So much of a cancer that you had to use her and me to try to improve upon yourself, out of fear of what the humans might unleash on you next? I guess you're not as pure as you thought," Anne shot back.
He snorted, and flung out his hands, lightning shooting out from his fingertips. Anne and Atlantis were knocked off their feet and thrown back to the other side of the gateroom. "And now for you, Colonel Sheppard." He advanced on Sheppard, who pulled his pistol and fired. The bullets slowed Oberoth down, but didn't bring him down.
"You believe that you can save her?" Oberoth taunted. "How? You were the one to leave her behind, and she hates you for it. She is lost to you. She is mine now. Her, and her children."
"Like hell they are!" Sheppard roared. He grabbed a pipe from the floor and charged, swinging it up at the last minute with enough rage behind it to knock Oberoth's head clean off his shoulders. Except that it didn't. The pipe bounced right off, the shock shaking the pipe out of Sheppard's fingers. It clanged on the floor as Oberoth reached forward and grabbed Sheppard by the throat. Sheppard gasped for air as Oberoth choked the life out of him, his fingers clawing at Oberoth's eyes futilely as dark spots appeared in his vision. Suddenly, Oberoth jerked, his grip on Sheppard's neck slackening. Then a mouthful of liquid silver gushed from his mouth and he let go of Sheppard, stumbling back. Sheppard dropped to the floor, gasping for air, and when he looked up, he could see the pipe sticking out of Oberoth's chest.
Sheppard looked around wildly. Anne and Atlantis were still struggling to their feet from where Oberoth had thrown them to be dealt with later, but they were staring in shock at something standing behind Oberoth. Oberoth turned jerkily to face the newcomer.
"Hello, Oberoth," she said with honeyed venom, then pulled the pipe out of his chest and swung it at his head. This time, it did take his head off.
His body slumped to the floor and his head spun alongside, laughing as he crumbled into a pile of silvery dust.
"That was just disturbing," Carter shuddered as she watched from the gallery above.
Nancy stood beside her, shaking her head and muttering, "You're telling me." She looked over at Sheppard, whose face was beginning to show signs of strain. "How long can he keep this up?"
"I don't know. But he's not going to give up without a fight."
Clad in her old Atlantis uniform, she looked at Anne and Atlantis helplessly, and turned back to him. "Yes… and no. I'm the Elizabeth Weir you met a few months after the original was lost on Asuras."
"The clones… of my team."
She nodded and smiled sadly. "After our teams split up, Oberoth's shock troops caught up to us, as we had planned. They shot down our jumper. Rodney, Teyla and Ronon died instantly. I was able to open my eyes long enough to see you—your clone, I mean—get shot, then I blacked out."
Anne came up to stand beside her as Atlantis helped Sheppard to his feet. "After they were killed," Anne explained quietly, "their consciousnesses were automatically uploaded to the pocket collective that I and my companions had created for ourselves after we broke away from the main collective on Asuras. Well, except for my counterpart's consciousness; she was uploaded directly to my mind, since she was created from me. So we knew everything that had happened, and that they were successful in delivering the Asuran core drive to you so that you could track the ships loyal to Oberoth."
He looked back and forth between the two. "And there's two of you because…"
"Because we are two," the clone Elizabeth clarified. "Our experiences from the time that we were split are different enough that I guess passing through Elizabeth's firewall split us into our separate selves again."
Sheppard shook his head; this was already confusing enough. "Anne."
The clone wrinkled her nose. "Anne?" She turned to her other self. "You just had to pick our middle name, didn't you?"
She shrugged sheepishly. "Sorry." The clone rolled her eyes.
"Well, since I'm not really the original either, how about you call me Weir?"
"Screw the aspirin," Sheppard grumbled. "I'm gonna need some of that Athosian firewater that Kanaan and Halling are always brewing up."
"You mentioned Elizabeth's quarters," Weir reminded him. "I think that is as good a place to look as any."
With the transporters not functioning, Sheppard, Anne, Atlantis and Weir had to walk all the way down to where the central tower began connecting with the shorter buildings in the city core. Every once in a while, they could hear snatches of 'London Bridge,' and it seemed to get louder and clearer as they approached the section where the expedition had its living quarters. The level of destruction they found was the same as in the gateroom, but it was somehow even worse in the room that had once been Elizabeth's. Clothes and personal belongings that had been sent back to Earth more than a year ago littered the space. The wind coming in from the broken window carried the scent of rain, and Sheppard couldn't help but shiver as the cold raised goosebumps on his skin. They turned over drawers that had been pulled out from the dresser, lifted the mattress from where it had been flung off the bed, looked in the closet. Nothing. Had they been wrong after all?
"Here!" Atlantis called. Sheppard, Anne and Weir came to look. Next to the white orchid that Elizabeth had kept on her dresser, now shriveled in its pot, was a watch face, hands pointing to a time that Sheppard knew well. The exact moment when the beam from the Asurans' satellite weapon had struck the central tower. He ran his fingers over the face, then carefully set the face over the gears, hearing the mechanism lock into place—
—"You're not him. You can't fool me this time, Oberoth! I know that's not John Sheppard!"
"If you're so sure about that, then why are you shaking?" His voice was silky with a menace that chilled her.
"You can't hurt me."
"Oh, I'll bet I can—"
He grabbed her by the throat, slamming her against a wall.
"You're… not… him," she gasped as he squeezed the life out of her. She glared at him defiantly. His hand spasmed, loosening its grip, and she slid to the floor—
—Sheppard came back to himself, blinking at the flashes of lightning from the window as he rolled over into a sitting position. Anne, Atlantis and Weir looked at him worriedly.
Mocking applause rang out from the doorway.
Anne gasped. "Koracen!"
He strolled casually into the room, his eyes never leaving Anne's. "I wonder, will you stick your hand in my head again? So much for the peace-loving diplomat who would never pick up a weapon. You made yourself into a weapon. Just as Oberoth wished, isn't that right? Once you eliminated me, there was no one to stop you in finishing the work he started. Lia and the others would not have stood against you. A new Asuran collective, reborn on Atlantis, with you as its leader. Yet you threw it away for these pathetic humans who just keep betraying you again and again. Why do you defend them so?"
Anne opened her mouth to speak, but it was Weir who answered him. "Because they're better than you." He whirled toward her, but she wasn't finished. "Even the most gentle of creatures will fight to defend their loved ones," she warned him, stepping forward. "You are nothing but a shadow of the past, and like any shadow, you will retreat in the face of light!" With every word, with every step, Weir's eyes grew brighter and brighter, until they shone like twin suns. When she was close enough, she reached out and cupped Koracen's cheek in her hand. They both exploded in a silvery flash.
"Now that was impressive." Ronon chuckled.
Cadman, who was part of the infirmary's security detail, grinned in response. "Something tells me the fireworks are just getting started."
The lights flickered, and dimmed.
"Crap," Ronon muttered, as Keller and Beckett called for emergency lights. "Now what?"
Weir and Koracen were gone. A scorch mark on the floor was the only trace of them.
Anne and Atlantis were clinging to each other, silently crying. "She's gone," Anne shuddered. "She took him with her." Atlantis buried her head in Anne's shoulder.
Before Sheppard could respond, a flash of lightning and a rumble of very loud thunder drew their attention to the window. A steady rain was falling outside, and getting worse by the minute. Sheppard looked down at the watch in his hand.
"It's not finished yet."
Atlantis lifted her head. "I think—"
Looking out at the ruined city being battered by the storm, Sheppard was struck with inspiration. "Grounding Station Three," he whispered.
"Kolya," Anne nodded.
"That bastard's been dead for years, and he's still haunting us," Sheppard growled as he led them out of Elizabeth's quarters.
"Us, or you?" Atlantis wondered quietly.
The walk to Grounding Station Three was quiet, punctuated only by the sounds of the moaning wind, the creaking of the damaged towers, the crack of thunder, and the pounding rain. Twice they'd had to detour around corridors blocked by debris, but finally they reached their destination. At the doorway, Sheppard turned to Anne and Atlantis.
"Stay here, both of you." They nodded, and he walked out into the rain. With only the lightning and the dim half-light let in by the clouds to see by, it was slow going. He looked around helplessly, frustration building. Where was it? He looked once more at the massive pillar housing the control panel.
"Maybe inside the panel?" Anne suggested. He spun around to see that she had joined him outside. Atlantis still stood back in the doorway. "Remember that Rodney had to repair the control panel to release the grounding rod."
"And she was here." He reached out and pulled off the panel with his fingertips. Inside, nestled among the dead power conduits, was a disc of clear crystal. Anne gave him a watery smile. Sheppard took the crystal, and they raced back inside to get out of the rain. Atlantis took the crystal and dried it off on her sleeve, then handed it back to Sheppard, who carefully opened the watch case and positioned the crystal over the face, then snapped the frame over it—
—There was a shrill, whining sound that was getting closer and closer. She couldn't move her head, but she could move her eyes.
She was naked, strapped down to a cold metal table. A series of drills were boring into various points of her skull, plugging in thin cords that tapped directly into her brain. She knew she should be feeling pain, knew she should be screaming, but she couldn't move. Couldn't make a sound. Stared out from within her prison of flesh and blood and nanite as she was hoisted up and lowered into a tube of thick, greenish fluid. Eyes slid closed as Oberoth watched her from outside her cell—
—Sheppard screamed as he came back to himself. Atlantis's hand was cold as she wiped the sweat from his brow. He breathed heavily for a few moments, trying to slow his racing heart.
"Is that it?" Anne asked.
"I don't think so," Atlantis answered.
"This is the point where we're supposed to get attacked again, right?" Sheppard looked up and down the corridor. Nothing. "All right. So now what?"
"Of course, that's it! Why didn't I see it before?" Anne's sudden laughter seemed disturbingly out of place.
He eyed her warily. "See what?"
"I'm the missing piece. The last of the fragments is in me." She raised her hand. Clutched in her fist was a heavy silver chain. The chain from the pocket watch.
She turned her hand slightly, so that one end of the chain slid out and hung down, and held it out to him. "Take it, John. It's time."
He looked at the chain, then at her. "What will happen when I take it?"
She shook her head. "I don't know." He hesitated. "We're out of time, John. She's out of time."
Atlantis laid a hand on Sheppard's shoulder. "She needs you. Now. Take the chain."
He took a breath, reached out and grasped the end of the chain in his fingers. Something shimmered at the corner of his sight, and he turned his head slightly to see a door where there had been only a blank wall before. He looked back at Anne. Her eyes were wide.
"She's behind that door, isn't she?"
Atlantis nodded knowingly. "Yes, she is."
He looked at the door again, and felt the chain slide against his hand, as though she had let go of it. He looked back at her, but she was already gone.
In the infirmary, everyone else gasped in shock and dismay as Anne's nanite body dissolved into a pile of silver dust on the floor next to where Sheppard stood.
John clenched the chain in his fist, taking shaky breaths. His other hand slid into the pocket on his tac vest and pulled out the watch. He clipped the chain onto the ring at the top of the watch case. He could feel a faint vibration. The watch had started ticking.
The door opened. The room beyond was dimly lit, just enough to see that it was unmarked by the destruction that scarred the rest of the city.
Here goes nothing… He glanced over at Atlantis, who nodded. Together, they stepped cautiously into the room. His room. They looked around in surprise at the Johnny Cash poster hanging in its place of honor on the wall, the copy of War and Peace sitting on the bedside table, his skateboard leaning against the wall, golf magazines and sudoku puzzle books stacked haphazardly on the dresser.
"Anne was right," Atlantis said softly. "Elizabeth sees you as safety. Why else would her final refuge be a place so strongly associated with you?"
"I would've guessed the jumper bay," he admitted ruefully. "It's because it's my room, isn't it? It's a more personal space."
"I think—" Suddenly, there was a sickening crunch and a gasping breath behind him. Sheppard spun around to see a jagged piece of metal conduit sticking out of Atlantis's chest. She gripped the pipe feebly as silvery liquid spilled out from the wound. "John—" she choked, and the pipe slid back, out of her. She swayed on her feet for a moment, then fell over. Standing behind her was what looked like Elizabeth Weir, dressed all in black. Black trousers, black leather boots, a black leather jacket with red and gray stripes at the shoulders and sleeves that hugged her curves like a second skin. The expression on her face, however, was a very un-Elizabeth-like hatred.
"What can I say? It worked so well on Oberoth, I just had to try it for myself," she drawled cheerfully. "Hello, John. I've been expecting you." She leaped at him, swinging the pipe, and he barely had time to duck out of the way.
"You're not Elizabeth!" he backed away from her, eyes darting around for a weapon.
"Wrongo, flyboy! I most certainly am."
He grabbed his skateboard as she swung at him again. It took the blow, but cracked in the middle. He threw it at her, forcing her to duck, and jumped over the bed, grabbing the chair by the desk. Shit, he could really use some help right about now—
In the infirmary, McKay and Beckett stiffened, their eyes staring ahead, seemingly at nothing.
Up in the control room, Lorne and a couple of the techs froze in a similar fashion.
All over the city, everyone who had the ATA gene, whether naturally born with it or introduced through the gene therapy, suddenly stopped what they were doing and grew silent, in some odd parody of the old children's game, 'red light, green light.'
"That's enough now, love," Carson's voice resounded from the door. Sheppard and Elizabeth-but-not-Elizabeth looked over at him in surprise.
"No," she growled angrily, as Lorne, and McKay, and the others stepped into the room. "You can't have her." Her shape shifted, becoming Koracen, then Oberoth, then Niam, and back again. "She belongs to us!"
"No!" Sheppard glared at her. "She belongs to herself." As if guided by instinct, he stepped forward. They all stepped forward, their hands reaching out, just as they had seen Atlantis do with Koracen, and touched her. She screamed. They all screamed, as a flash of light blinded all of them.
"What the hell is going on?" Woolsey asked anyone in general.
"Everyone with the Ancient gene has been pulled into the link," Lia said. "Because… Atlantis is more than just a city. It's the people here. It's all of you." She and the other Asurans' eyes were filled with a kind of awe. "They left the city here for you, not just as a gift, but as a path to find your true strength."
Keller shook her head. "What does that mean?"
Teyla nodded to the monitors. "I think we may be about to find out."
The room was empty.
"Oookay, what just happened?" McKay demanded.
"That's what I'm still trying to figure out," Sheppard huffed.
"Anybody got an idea where Doctor Weir might be hiding in here?" Lorne asked.
"Fourth quarter, ten seconds left on the clock, you're at the thirty-yard line and you're at fourth down. Do you go for the field goal, or do you punch it into the end zone?" Sheppard muttered. The Americans grinned, the others looked at him in amused tolerance. Sheppard thought for a minute, then pulled out the pocket watch and looked at it for a long moment. Suddenly, it hit him. He carefully wound the watch, setting the time to the moment when, for the first time, the gate at Stargate Command on Earth had dialed into Atlantis. The moment when they had stepped into their new home.
Another door appeared and opened, revealing the Atlantis gateroom. This time, it was undamaged, looking as clean and well-kept as the one on the real Atlantis.
"That's just bloody odd," Carson remarked.
"You're telling me!" McKay complained. "Doors do not just appear and disappear like that!" Behind him, Kusanagi rolled her eyes dramatically.
Sheppard looked back at them. "If the peanut gallery is finished?" There were some rueful grins, and everyone nodded. "All right, then." He stepped through the door into the gateroom, the others following. As if drawn by instinct, Sheppard led them up the stairs to the balcony. Through the stained glass window, now intact and shining again, he could see her standing at the railing, and he hastened his steps to the door. He paused in the open doorway for a moment, just watching, as the soft breeze teased her hair. Finally she turned to them, sadness in her eyes. Slowly, he stepped onto the balcony. The others hung back a bit as he approached her.
"Hey," he said softly, his voice lowering in that way it always seemed to whenever he was worried about her.
"Hey," she replied back.
"I've been looking for you. We all have," he added.
"Ready to go home?"
"I don't know." She looked up at him. "It's been so long, John." She brushed her hands over her arms, shivering a little in the cool ocean breeze. "I just want to rest."
"I know. But I'm not leaving without you. Not this time. Not ever again."
"Do you really mean that? Or are you another illusion, come to hurt me just like before?"
"What are you talking about?" McKay stepped forward. "We're your friends. Of course we're not leaving without you!" She turned to him, with the oddest expression on her face, as though she couldn't decide whether to laugh or cry.
"A real friend… would have let me go. A real friend would have let me die peacefully without ever waking up. But no, you had to go and play God. Turn me into some freakish twenty-first century Frankenstein just to prove your genius yet again." She sniffed, and wiped at her tears.
"But I did it to save you—" Rodney started to protest.
"Save me? You didn't learn anything from Project Arcturus, did you? You're still so blinded by your ego that you believe your IQ entitles you to a sense of moral superiority over us barbaric mortals!"
"I'm sorry," Rodney whispered in a small voice.
"You're sorry. For two years, I've suffered because of your mistake. I've been tortured. Mind raped. What was left of my human body put into a giant pickle jar so Oberoth could experiment on me just to prove that his kind was superior to humans. I was copied not once but twice, a human clone killed in a jumper crash to save all of you, and a Replicator copy that tried to escape that existence through ascension only to instead endure the endless hell of subspace, then escaping that fresh hell by reassembling herself into another body to beg for your help, only to be humiliated, rejected and thrown away like garbage by the people I thought were my friends, leaving her no choice but to space herself to save you again. And let's not even start on the people out in Pegasus who were exterminated by the Replicators." She took a deep breath, her voice shaking with anger and grief. "And all you can say is that you're sorry? Damn you."
"Elizabeth—" John began, and she turned back to him, fury and grief in her eyes.
"And you— Did you even try to stop any of it? Did you ever try to come back for me? No. Beyond a token protest to the IOA for decency's sake, it was better for everyone to just sweep me under the rug like I never existed, wasn't it? Not even a fucking recon mission in a cloaked jumper." She raised her hands, gesturing at the virtual city around them. "But here we stand. So now that you've found me, what will you do with me? Put me back into Oberoth's bell jar? Shove me through the gate into space again? Ship me off to Area 51 so the IOA can dissect me? Or maybe this time, you'll blast me with an EM pulse and then have a squad of Marines cut me down with P-90s and end it for good." She snorted. "Maybe that might actually be a mercy."
"I can't do that," he said quietly.
"Why not?" she screamed at him.
"Because I love you."
Elizabeth reeled back. Rodney gaped at him, and there were quite a few gasps from the others assembled.
"He said it," Teyla's eyes were wide in joy. "He actually said it!"
Up in the control room, Chuck grinned. "Ladies and gentlemen, Atlantis's Sheppard-Weir wedding betting pool is back open for business."
"How can you say that?" Elizabeth whispered. "How can you say that after you've seen what's in my head? How can you say that after— Oh God—" Her eyes widened. She looked down, laying a hand on her belly. She looked back up, clapping her other hand over her mouth to stifle a sob. "What else did he do to me?"
For a long moment, they stared at each other. Then Sheppard closed the space between them and wrapped his arms around her. She sobbed, struggling for a moment, but he didn't let go, and she finally put her arms around him. He pulled back just a bit, brushing locks of hair out of her eyes. He fished her father's watch out of his pocket and placed it in her hands, wrapping her fingers around it. She shuddered as more memories flooded into her, filling the remaining holes in her mind.
"Rodney, get ready," he said, and a moment later, McKay and the rest vanished.
Everyone with the ATA gene suddenly found themselves back in their bodies. In the infirmary, McKay grabbed his computer and put the new nanite code on standby.
They were alone. John kept his eyes open, not wanting to take his gaze off Elizabeth for a single moment as he bent his head and kissed her.
In the infirmary, Elizabeth's eyes flew open and she started convulsing and choking. Sheppard's eyes also opened, and he tightened his grip on Elizabeth's hand.
"Oh God, she can't breathe—" Keller gasped. She lunged forward and tried to put an oxygen mask over Elizabeth's nose and mouth to help her breathe. An alarm started beeping as the nanites sprang into furious activity throughout Elizabeth's body. "Rodney, tell me you uploaded the code!"
"I just squeaked it in! Damn, those things are fast!"
The heart and brain monitors started beeping erratically, and Beckett looked at the readouts. "Not fast enough," he shot back, "She's going into shock." Suddenly, the monitors spiked dangerously.
"The code's breaking down," McKay reported, "It's not keeping up with all the changes that need to be made!" The monitors dropped, then spiked again, then abruptly leveled off. "I don't believe this. The nanites shut down for a moment, then rebooted."
"Then what's controlling them?" Beckett shot back.
"It's Sheppard," Lia realized. "He's taken over control of the nanites himself."
"How the hell did he do that?" Woolsey asked.
Before anyone could answer, Elizabeth suddenly coughed up a mouthful of a silvery liquid tinged with pinkish-red. Nanites, mixed with traces of her blood.
"Bloody hell!" Beckett yelled, and pulled Keller back before she got splashed with any of the liquid. More of the liquid quickly gushed from Elizabeth's nose and out her ears. She squeezed her eyes, her face contorted in pain, and tears of the liquid slid down her cheeks. The heart monitor started rocketing wildly again. Sheppard's face twisted in pain and he whimpered, blood trickling from his nose. He staggered where he stood and then slumped over Elizabeth's body.
Lia shook her head. "It is not enough." She turned to the others. "We can help them."
"But if we do, we might—"
"Then that is the risk we must take. If we do not, they will all die."
Before Keller, Beckett, or the rest of the med team could react, Lia and the remaining Asurans swiftly stepped forward and encircled the bed. Each of them reached out, laying one hand on Sheppard, one hand on Weir. A moment passed, then two. All of a sudden, the heart monitors began to level off into even, normal rhythms. A little bit of color came back into Sheppard's and Weir's faces. Lia wrapped an arm around Sheppard to help him stand until he regained his equilibrium. His eyes opened and focused on Elizabeth, who had stopped coughing up nanites and was gasping for breath. She blinked at him owlishly.
"J-John?" Her voice, roughened by two years of disuse, was almost unrecognizable.
"Hi, 'Lizabeth…" He loosened a hand from hers, and hesitantly reached out, his fingers just brushing her cheek.
Suddenly, the room was awash in a warm glow as all of the remaining Replicators dissolved, their bodies crumbling into silver dust. John instinctively wrapped his arms around Elizabeth, even as he knew there was no need for alarm. The shapeless golden light condensed into six human-shaped figures. Lia and the others stood—floated?—joyfully before them, their nanite bodies shed at last.
"Lia?" Elizabeth's voice trembled between laughter and tears.
"They—you did it. You really did it," Rodney whispered. "But I thought—"
Lia nodded in understanding. "We all did. But we were wrong, all of us. It was not our nanite bodies that prevented us from ascending, as you and we had once believed; it was us ourselves. Ascension is not just about physical evolution, it is about the evolution of the mind and of the spirit, and that is not something that can merely be turned on like a new-found switch. But we had become so obsessed with the destination, to rid ourselves of our corporeal forms, that we lost sight of the journey and the purpose of that journey. It was only when we let go of our quest for ascension and turned away from that path, when we gave ourselves over completely to help Elizabeth reclaim the life that had been stolen from her, that we finally set our souls free." She turned to look at Elizabeth, her face alight with a look that could only be described as rapture. "We had always believed that Elizabeth was the key, that she could show us the path to ascension, and we were correct… It simply happened in a different way than any of us had expected," she finished with a laugh.
"So… what happens now?"
"We must take our leave of you; we could only stay long enough to ensure that Elizabeth was restored and that she and John awoke from their journey. Now that they have and their children are safe, it is time for us to go."
Lia stepped forward and kissed Elizabeth on the forehead. There were tears in both women's eyes. "Thank you, Elizabeth. Thank you for all that you have given us. Be well, my friend."
Over the comm channel, Chuck's voice rang out with surprise. "Uh, Mister Woolsey, the Stargate just started dialing by itself."
Woolsey glanced at Lia, who nodded slightly. He tapped his headset. "It's all right. Let them go."
Lia and the others had already quickly passed through the walls, heading in the direction of the gateroom.
"They're here," Chuck suddenly reported. "They're going through the gate." A moment passed, and over the channel came the sound of the gate disengaging. "They've gone, sir. All of them."
John slid his arms around Elizabeth, nestling her head on his shoulder as she cried.
Elizabeth sleepily opened her eyes, slowly taking in her surroundings. She was still in the isolation room in the infirmary, wrapped in a cocoon of warm blankets and John Sheppard's arms, and tucked into bed. The only wires and tubes attached to her now were the leads for the heart and brain monitors, and the IV drip. Perfectly normal and safe. Well, all right, waking up to find herself in John Sheppard's arms had never been a normal occurrence before… Not that she was complaining, oh, no.
She sighed contentedly and snuggled a little closer, closing her eyes again. However, this elicited a gentle little hum in her mind. It took her a moment to realize it was John, his mind reaching out to her. She wondered at it as she opened her eyes again to see his own eyes open and watching her, a gentle smile playing at his lips.
"Good morning, Sleeping Beauty," he murmured softly, and she couldn't help but smile in response to the happy energy she felt flowing from him.
"Good morning, Prince Charming." He grinned back at her.
"So, how did you sleep?"
She looked at him curiously, realization dawning. "You were there… you chased the nightmares away." They really needed to figure out what was going on with this—thing—going on in their heads. Later.
"Yeah." He looked a little sheepish. "You needed your rest."
"Always looking out for me?"
"That's what friends do."
She sighed. "I keep wondering… is this real?" He looked at her, and wanted nothing more than to erase that hesitation in her eyes. "I mean… it seems like a dream. Like a fairy tale ending. I want to believe so much, and yet… When have any of us ever wound up so lucky?"
"'Lizabeth…" He reached out and brushed his fingertips across her cheek, and she could feel a similar caress in her mind. "It's real. As weird as it sounds, you can feel me in your head just like I can feel you. So I know that you know that…" He took a breath. "Elizabeth, I've loved you for a very long time. I respected you for the chance you gave me, and I valued our friendship so much that I was too scared of messing it up to hope that it could ever be something more. I think you're beautiful, funny, smart… and so very, very brave. How could anyone not love you?"
—A flash of Simon's face, full of regret—
"You're the adventurer, not me."
"There's something else. I met someone."
John growled, audibly and mentally. ~Next time I'm on Earth, I'm really gonna have to kick Bad Hair Boy's ass.~
~He strung you along for a month without telling you. So I get to pound his ass for making you cry. It's my right as your baby daddy.~
She bit her lip, looking uncertain. "Are you… John, are you really okay with this? With," her voice faltered, "with me—"
~Having my babies?~ he finished softly in her mind. "Yeah," he said just as softly aloud. "I gotta admit, finding out knocked me for a loop, but…"
She shook her head, suddenly feeling too close, too warm. "I don't want you to feel like you have to be here. You didn't— We didn't—" John brushed a finger over her lips, stopping her from finishing.
"No, we didn't," he said quietly, his eyes burning as he looked at her, and she found that she couldn't look away, even if she'd wanted to. "No, I don't have to. But I want to. I want to be here with you. I want to have a family with you. I…I want it all. Maybe we didn't get to do this the old-fashioned way…" this elicited a small smile from Elizabeth, "but I keep thinking… Out of all the bad stuff that's happened, this is something good that we can hold onto. They're something good. Our children. Yours and mine. I wanna give this a try." He fidgeted a little. "You've got a lot to get through right now, I know that. But I'm gonna be here for you. I'll be here as long as you want me here."
She looked at him for a long moment. "Forever?"
"If that's what you want."
She lay there, watching him watching her. Slowly, she reached out, brushing her fingers across his cheek. He let out the breath he hadn't realized he was holding. Another moment passed, then two. Then, finally, they drew together in a tender, warm kiss.
A day after Elizabeth had awakened, the senior staff, minus Sheppard, who was still glued to Elizabeth's side, met in the conference room for an update. At the top of the agenda was the issue of Elizabeth's recovery. No one wanted to contemplate the possibility of her going back to Earth, at least not right away, yet they knew the IOA might cause some trouble in that quarter.
"First things first," Woolsey told them. "How soon can we get her on her feet? Physically speaking, that is. We'll deal with the emotional issues separately," he added with a nod to Kate Heightmeyer.
"Her pregnancy complicates things a bit, but I would say at least a couple of months. You have to understand," Keller explained, "she was in that stasis chamber for over two years. While the phrase 'suspended animation' gives one the impression that a person in that state does not change physically, that's not true in reality. Her muscles had atrophied from lack of use, her organs had become dependent on the nutrient gel she'd been submerged in to the point where her digestive system could barely process real food… she was a mess. Hell, she's still a mess, but not as much as before. As near as we can tell, the nanites reconditioned as much of her body as they could on the way out, but she's going to need some physical therapy to take care of the rest. It's nothing that we can't handle here in Atlantis, though. She gets tired easily and sleeps a lot, but once can get her active, that should change fairly quickly."
"You're sure the nanites are gone?" Nancy Sheppard spoke up.
"The mechanical nanites have been completely purged from her body." Everyone took notice of Keller's emphasis, and Woolsey frowned.
"And the organic nanites?"
"They're still in there." Keller raised a hand to stall any protest. "However, based on what we're seeing in the scans, the organic nanites are not acting in the same way that they or the mechanical nanites acted before the purge."
"We're reading some elevated levels of activity throughout her brain. It's—" Keller paused, trying to find the right words to explain. "As I'm sure some of you are aware, twice during his tenure as commander of SG-1, General O'Neill temporarily had the entire Ancient database downloaded into his brain." Everyone besides Beckett raised their eyebrows, wondering at the seeming change of subject and where this discussion was going, but Keller continued, "The process nearly killed him; a normal human brain simply isn't built to be able to store and process the massive amount of information involved. Only the mind of an ascended being, or one who is very close to ascension, can do so safely without being completely overwhelmed to the point where their body simply shuts down. The readings we're getting from Doctor Weir's brain scans are very similar to those taken of General O'Neill's brain in both instances where his mind held the database. Except that in Doctor Weir's case, we're not seeing any breakdown of neural pathways that would indicate that her body can't handle the increased load. In fact, it looks like her brain is processing information at a much more efficient rate than she had been capable of prior to her initial infection by the nanites."
"We think what happened is that when this artificial intelligence program that was lurking in the Atlantis mainframe interfered, it somehow left an imprint of all the information it had access to on Elizabeth's mind," McKay explained.
Nancy's eyes widened in surprise. "Are you saying that Doctor Weir has retained direct knowledge of the Ancient database?"
"The Ancient database, the Replicator collective, everything," Beckett stated. "It appears that when the nanites 'reset' Doctor Weir's body, they also altered her brain, physically and chemically, so that she could safely handle all that information. In effect, the nanites have… evolved her."
Everyone tried to wrap their minds around that revelation as Keller nodded. "And it's not just her brain, either. Her senses appear to have been enhanced as well. Better hearing and sight, more sensitive touch, taste and smell. She even seems to have retained some accelerated healing properties. It's not instantaneous like it was with the mechanical nanites, there's definitely a delayed reaction, but a cut that would take a few days to heal on any of us… it'll take her only a few hours, a day at the most."
"'Evolved,'" Woolsey mused. "I hate to ask this, but do these modified organic nanites pose any risk to us?" Keller, Beckett, McKay and Carter shook their heads.
"Based on what we've seen thus far, we don't think so," Keller answered. "Because the organic nanites are made solely from Doctor Weir's own genetic material, they are as much a part of her as any of the many kinds of specialized cells that normally make up the various parts of the human body, whether they're blood cells, liver cells, or brain cells. Which means the organic nanites cannot be passed to anyone else."
"Except, theoretically, by fluid transmission," Beckett clarified. "And we can deal with that the same way medical personnel have been dealing with various contaminants that can be passed along by fluid exchange for decades. We use gloves, masks and sterile instruments, just like when someone gives a donation of blood. No special kind of containment protocol is required."
"So just to state it for the record, she's safe to be allowed into the general population," Nancy said.
"She's safe." Carter stated.
Caldwell took a breath. "What about the twins?"
"Right now, the twins' scans continue to show no sign of nanites," Keller told him. "There is a risk of transfer at birth, but again, it's the same as potential transfer of other blood-borne infections, and there are several ways that we can minimize that risk. Though to be honest, if these nanites prove to be as beneficial to Doctor Weir as we think they will, it may not be such a bad thing for the twins, either."
"Well then… If there's no objection?" Woolsey looked over at Nancy, who nodded with a smile. "I don't see any reason to keep her cooped up any longer. You can move her out of isolation whenever you're ready. Now," he looked over at Heightmeyer, "as to her mental state…"
Kate Heightmeyer nodded sagely. "I also think it would prove more beneficial for her if she was to remain here instead of being sent back to Earth to recover. To remove her from Atlantis now, when she's only just started to rebuild the bonds she once had with those she was close to here, could prove detrimental to her emotional recovery. She will only see that as confirmation that this place is not safe for her, that everyone here intends her harm. If she is to recover, she must face and overcome those fears, and she can only do that here."
"Aye," Beckett sighed, "she's still very nervous around us, even though she knows us. Colonel Sheppard's the only one that she's really comfortable having around her. And," he glanced over at Keller and Heightmeyer, "there may be more of a reason than just wanting someone she trusts nearby."
"How so?" Ronon asked.
"Well," Beckett began, "Just as we've noticed the alterations in Doctor Weir's brain, we've also seen some evidence of alterations in Colonel Sheppard's bran. This isn't the first time that his brain chemistry and genetic code have been affected by the introduction of some sort of foreign substance; Dorane's bastardized ATA experiment, the Iratus retrovirus, the Arkadi aphrodisiac… Every time, we've gotten it out of his system and he's returned to normal. Or so we thought."
"What do you mean, Doctor?"
"Because of the strength of Colonel Sheppard's ATA gene, he's been pretty much the point man for interacting with any and all Ancient technology we've encountered here in Atlantis and throughout Pegasus," Beckett clarified. "We know that there is a mental component connected with ATA use, so the more he uses his gene, the more he uses his mind in ways that we still have yet to fully understand. It's like using any muscle; the more that muscle is exercised, the stronger it gets. And these instances in which Colonel Sheppard's mind was temporarily affected by chemical or genetic alterations appears to have pushed his mind even further than normal ATA use. A little bit at a time, to be sure, but it's added up. Except that this time, his mind has been pushed too hard, too fast. The result is that he's apparently now developed some limited psionic capabilities, focused on Doctor Weir. That's part of the reason why he's staying so close to her physically."
"What kind of capabilities?" Nancy asked.
"Both of them have reported being able to hear each other's thoughts, even to talk to each other intermittently. Nothing more than that, though."
Woolsey mulled over that. "Is this permanent?"
"We don't know," Beckett stated. "It's possible that this is just a temporary side effect of the link that Colonel Sheppard had to create between his mind and Doctor Weir's, in order to reach her nanites. But if it's not…"
"I'd call that one more good reason to keep both Doctor Weir and Colonel Sheppard here," McKay said. "I mean, if they can both interface with Ancient technology on the level we're talking about, we'd be crippling our ability to study that technology if even one of them gets sent back to Earth permanently." He shot a glance at Nancy. "And I can't imagine the IOA would be too happy with that."
Nancy shook her head, laughing. "And I thought politics in Washington was cutthroat!"
Elizabeth bolted upright, gasping in blind panic and struggling to untangle herself from the sweat-dampened sheets. She shuddered, pushing tangled hair out of her face. She was in Atlantis. Home. Safe. For real, this time. Her shoulders shook and she pressed a hand to her mouth to stifle the sobs threatening to overflow. She looked around again. Where was John?
All of a sudden, Carson bolted into the room. "Elizabeth, love, are ye all right?"
"C-Carson?" she stuttered over his name, then took a breath. "I'm okay. I just…" She sighed. "Nightmares are a bitch." He smiled in commiseration, as she felt a little mental poke from John; he was nearby, and—
"Elizabeth?" Carson asked gently. "Ye kinda drifted away for a moment there… talking to John, are ye?"
She smiled. "You caught me. It's not going to go away, is it? This link we have?"
He shook his head. "We don't know. Jen's actually running some additional tests on John right now to look into it." Elizabeth nodded.
"It's good to see you again," she said softly.
"Aye, even if I'm a clone who's missing a year of a life here on Atlantis," he chuckled ruefully.
Elizabeth regarded him thoughtfully. "I understand, Carson. Believe me, I do. I'm the original, the tests you and Jennifer did confirmed that. But I've also got the memories of two duplicates of me floating around in my head. Everything they knew and felt… including how they felt when they found out they were duplicates. Wondering if, because they weren't in this body, that they were less Elizabeth Weir and more… something else. That's how you feel, isn't it?"
"Aye, sometimes. I mean, everyone understands what happened, but…"
"But it's not the same."
"No. No, it's not the same." He shook his head. "But it's no good to dwell on things that can't be changed, right? We have to keep moving forward." Elizabeth smiled, and Carson continued, "Actually, that's kinda why I came down to talk to ye. We're ready to let ye out of isolation."
She blinked in surprise. "So soon? You're serious?"
"Aye, there's really no reason to keep ye here, since ye can't infect anyone with the organic nanites."
"But the twins…" Carson laid a hand on her shoulder.
"We'll come to that road when we come to it. So in the meantime… Welcome home, Elizabeth." She smiled, and they hugged each other, laughing happily.
It was a couple of days later when John and Elizabeth stepped onto the Asuran cruiser that had served as a twisted cross between a home and a tomb for her for over two years. A couple of engineering teams were already combing over the cruiser, as well as the damaged Aurora-class warship that Anne and her Asuran companions had left behind when they ascended. Both ships were providing a wealth of technical information that would be very useful in advancing the understanding of Ancient-Asuran designed systems, and thus, Atlantis itself.
Elizabeth hugged her arms tightly as she stepped into the stasis lab. John followed her in, but kept his distance, not wanting to seem like he was hovering but still staying close while she explored where she wished. The computers were silent now, the only sound coming from their boots crunching over bits of the broken not-glass that had formed the tube of Elizabeth's stasis chamber.
She approached the examination table. The tray of instruments gleamed coldly under the harsh lighting. She stopped and stared for a long moment, then raised a trembling hand, holding it out over the table. The action instantly reminded John of how Anne had done the same thing when they had first found the lab, and Elizabeth. Slowly, Elizabeth pulled her hand away and stepped back.
"I'd like to be alone for a moment," she asked quietly.
He looked at her, concern in his eyes. She hadn't wanted to be truly alone since waking, but now… "Are you sure?"
She returned his gaze, nodding. ~Yeah. I just—I just need a moment. Please?~
He took a breath and tentatively reached out to her mind. ~Okay. I'll be down the hall with the others.~ She nodded, and he quietly stepped outside, heading for the power core room. Even from down the corridor, he could hear McKay yelling about something not meeting his exacting standards, why couldn't the Asurans and the Ancients design anything in a way that was actually logical, blah blah blah. John snorted and as he turned the corner and drew nearer to the doors, he had half a mind to tell Rodney that certainly it wasn't any worse than the jury-rigged power system for the city that he'd come up with using only five naquadah generators, spit, and some duct tape. He stepped into the core room and was about to start needling McKay when they all heard a loud crash of something falling, or perhaps hitting something else, swiftly followed by another, and another, and another. McKay instantly shut up, and Ronon drew his weapon. They stepped out into the corridor as the crashes continued.
"What is that?" Zelenka asked.
"I don't—" Sheppard began, and then he thought he heard a scream, followed by a blast of wild rage through his link with— "Elizabeth!" He tore down the corridor, the others on his heels.
The sounds of glass breaking and metal crashing against metal grew louder the closer they got to the lab. The doors were wide open, and as they approached, they could hear something else over the noise of destruction. A familiar voice, crying, wordlessly screaming in rage in accompaniment to a new sound, a deep, rhythmic pounding against a hollow metal something. With a reluctant look at each other, they stepped inside.
The lab, which had still been more or less intact after they had gotten Elizabeth out of the stasis chamber and flown the cruiser back to Atlantis, now looked like a tornado had blown through it. Consoles were overturned, panel screens cracked and hanging from only one cable or torn down entirely. Power conduits were ripped out of the walls, the ends sparking feebly. Control crystals and other bits of debris were scattered all over the floor.
Elizabeth stood in the middle of the wreckage, hitting the examination table with what looked like a piece of pipe. She'd already ripped apart the manacles and mangled the armature with its cruel-looking instruments of pain, which now dangled limply from shreds of power cords, and she was now doing her damnedest to punch a hole in the table. There was already a pretty impressive series of dents in the surface of the table, which boomed and shook violently under each blow as Elizabeth sobbed hysterically. But the storm was already beginning to blow itself out as she tired.
The others remained standing in the doorway, watching as John slowly walked into the lab. Elizabeth's body trembled as she sobbed, and she slapped the pipe against the table one last time before it slipped from nerveless fingers and clanged to the floor. She stepped back from the table, and John reached out to gently take her by the shoulders. She looked up at him, her hair wild, face streaked with tears, a line of blood dribbling down her chin from where she had bitten her lip in her mindless rage, and her eyes filled with a terrible pain. The link between them flickered again, and it was all he could do to not stagger under the weight of that agony. He braced himself, then reached out and gently wiped off a bit of the blood with his thumb.
~'Lizabeth? It's okay now, sweetheart. You're safe.~
She took a shuddering breath, and then crumpled into the circle of his arms, body shaking, fingers clinging to his shirt in a death grip. He wrapped his arms tightly around her and held on, letting the tears fall down his face and no longer caring who saw.
After a while, the tears slowed, and she pulled back from him a little, wiping at her eyes. "Damn. Am I always going to be freaking out and crying at random moments?"
He smiled softly. "You could always blame it on hormones, I suppose."
She laughed. A real, happy laugh. He hugged her again, spinning her around to the amusement of everyone watching and earning a catcall from McKay to get a room.
"You know, you're having my kids… I really should take you out to dinner."
Elizabeth laughed again and let herself relax into his arms. "I'd like that."
Slowly but surely, the pieces of Elizabeth's former life began to settle back into their rightful places. Perhaps they didn't quite fit the way they had before, maybe the edges were chipped and a little rough, but they fit. To her surprise and pleasure, sometimes they were fitting together in new ways that she hadn't expected. The changes in her relationship with John were one of the more obvious—the mental link that John had used to reach her continued to grow and appeared more and more with each passing day to be a permanent condition. It was something which might have scared another couple, but it didn't scare them. As Kate had told her at one of their counseling sessions, after everything she and John had been through, there really wasn't anything else that Pegasus could throw at them now.
There were other changes, as well. Though she wasn't quite up to running around the city like she had been before, there were plenty of things Elizabeth could do to keep her mind occupied. Foremost among them was working with the teams going over the two Replicator ships. Everything in the computers was written in Ancient, which meant that a translator fluent in the language was needed to decipher various logs and reports that the engineers wanted to study. The files pertaining to the experiments that Oberoth had performed on Elizabeth had already been translated by Anne and her Asuran companions as part of the preparation to awaken Elizabeth, so she hadn't needed to look at them. She wasn't sure she wanted to read even the translations… perhaps someday, when the memories weren't so fresh and raw, she might be able to look at them, but not now. Maybe not ever.
Even with those files out of the way, there was a great deal of material to go over. Astronomical observations that would keep the astronomy department busy for months, sensor logs of planets that had been matched up to entries in the Ancient database which might be worth sending teams to investigate, and of course, comparing the knowledge contained in the Asuran database with that in the Ancient database. The divergence that had begun ten thousand years ago had made for some unique discoveries on the Asuran side, and Elizabeth was uniquely qualified to analyze that information.
A work space had been set up for her in what appeared to be an office just off the bridge of the cruiser, complete with the requisite desk and chair, computer and lamp. With the wide, tall windows at the front of the bridge to look out of, she could see most of the east half of the city, and even a sliver of the Aurora-class ship that Anne and her companions had used, still parked on the east pier. Her first day at work, she'd been stunned to see a couple of other objects appear on her desk as well: the little clay pot that John had given to her for her first birthday in Atlantis, all those years ago, and her father's watch. When she'd asked, John had merely smiled with that whimsical, mysterious smile that could drive her crazy and make her bones melt all at the same time.
John was now back on active duty after being given the all-clear by Keller, though as of yet, his team hadn't been given any off-world missions, mainly because McKay was up to his eyeballs working with the two ships, and John… was, well, John. He'd bring Elizabeth lunch every day, then stay for an hour or so to listen to her talk about the work she was doing that day before he'd head back into the city for a meeting with Lorne to go over troop rotations, or a main staff meeting, or for sparring practice with Ronon or Teyla. Sometimes he'd stay and actually try to make a dent in his own paperwork. Ronon and Teyla would show up in the evening to collect Elizabeth, John and Rodney and herd them all to the mess hall for dinner with Kanaan and Torren, Jennifer, Carson, Kate, and whoever else might be free. More often than not, Richard Woolsey or Nancy Sheppard might also join them. If one looked only at the fact that Nancy was John Sheppard's ex-wife, and that Elizabeth was pregnant with John Sheppard's twins, an observer might be surprised at such a move, thinking it more probable that the two wouldn't like each other. In reality, Nancy had come to greatly respect Elizabeth's determination to reclaim her life, perhaps recognizing a little bit of herself in the other woman. It was no wonder that John had fallen in love with her.
As part of her physical therapy, and simply to start getting the exercise she was going to need to help her through her pregnancy, Elizabeth started working with Teyla in some of the less strenuous martial arts disciplines. Before she had been injured in the Asuran attack, they had shared just such a routine, and restoring that habit gave Elizabeth one more solid piece of a normal routine in her life. Toward the end of her first tenure in Atlantis, Elizabeth had finally given in to Teyla's gentle prodding and began working with the bantos rods; right now, she was nowhere near the level she had been at then, but it was a realistic goal to look forward to. Every day she was getting a little stronger, a little faster on her feet. The nanite-enhanced reflexes helped some, but she knew it was no substitute for honest sweat and repetition. Of course, getting to spend time renewing the friendships she'd treasured was just as much a balm on her soul as it was for her body.
At the end of the day's session nearly a month after her rescue, Elizabeth dropped gratefully onto the window seat and mopped her brow with a towel before accepting a water bottle from Teyla with a smile.
"You are doing very well, Elizabeth," Teyla praised her. "I know you have been frustrated with your progress sometimes, but you are getting better."
"I know, it's just… I keep feeling like I'm running out of time."
"You believe the IOA will cause difficulty for you?"
"I know so. You and I both know that they had no problem trying to do it before I was injured, but now? Especially with…" She huffed and laid a hand on her belly, which was now beginning to show in earnest, as if making up for all the time lost while Elizabeth had been in stasis. "I know that Carson and Jen have said again and again that they're fine, there's nothing wrong with them, but I keep worrying… What if Oberoth did something to them while I was asleep? Something that the scans can't see? And will the IOA try to use that against me and John? Nancy's been wonderful; I know she's been fair in her reports back to Earth, and so has Richard, but are they going to even listen to what the two of them have to say?" She shook her head. "You must think I'm crazy."
Teyla reached out and clasped Elizabeth's hand. "Not at all. I understand exactly how you feel. Every mother worries for her child. It is simply part of being a parent." Her face darkened in recollection. "I—I am sorry, Elizabeth. I should have trusted you—Anne—before."
Elizabeth looked at her oddly for a moment before the memory came to her. "No, Teyla… You have nothing to be sorry for. That wasn't really me who came to Atlantis before…" she trailed off.
"And yet, in a way, it was. Anne was made from a part of you. She knew nearly everything you know, and her feelings for all of us were as strong and deep as yours. That part has now returned to you, and with it, all the memories and emotions of that life. Including our failure to trust when trust was most needed. You did not deserve that mistrust. It caused you so much pain, and we nearly lost you and your children because of it." Teyla sighed. "Perhaps you are ready to forgive us… and I am grateful for that. We all are. But… I do not think any of us are ready to forgive ourselves. I am not certain we ever will be able to do that."
Elizabeth twisted her hand a little, to better grasp Teyla's fingers and squeeze them in encouragement. "You will be." The memory of a moment years ago, when John Sheppard had said the same thing to her, came unbidden to her mind, and those words were as true now as they were then. Now if only she could just convince the IOA of that.
Two months had passed since Elizabeth Weir's rescue, and her recovery was proceeding very well according to Doctors Beckett, Keller and Heightmeyer, well enough that she would soon be ready to return to Earth. Which meant that the IOA was getting antsy to resolve the issue of Elizabeth's status on Atlantis. In addition to the progress reports sent by the medical staff, Nancy Sheppard had sent her own report to her superiors, recommending that Elizabeth be officially reinstated with the expedition.
In preparation for the final report before the IOA made its decision, Elizabeth had one last round of tests in the infirmary to confirm that she was fully human with no risk of being controlled by the evolved organic nanites that now formed a very small part of her genetic makeup. To no one's surprise, she passed with flying colors. Following the half-day in the infirmary was a final counseling session with Kate Heightmeyer. In some respects, Kate understood what Elizabeth had gone through better than most, having faced her own strange near-death experience, but in other respects, only Elizabeth could truly understand what she had lived through, and would continue to live through for the rest of her life.
Before, Kate had skirted around the issue of Elizabeth's pregnancy. After everything that John and the others had gone through to bring Elizabeth back without jeopardizing the lives of the two unborn children she carried, no one wanted to risk upsetting her over it now, but…
"What do you think about being pregnant? This wasn't something you had planned, or ever even expected, given your condition prior to your capture."
"You would ask that." Elizabeth leaned back into the sofa, looking out the window for a long moment before turning her attention back to Kate. "When I first learned I couldn't carry a baby to term… I was disappointed. I was angry, even. And yet, in a way, I felt relieved, and I didn't understand why. Maybe a part of me knew I wasn't really ready for it, I don't know. Simon and I…" Simon. That seemed like another lifetime ago. "We never really talked about it much. We thought of adopting, but it never got past the talking stage. Before I knew it, I found myself in the midst of Stargates and aliens from other planets, and my own inability to have a child seemed so damn trivial compared to all of… that. Then… there was no Simon. And I thought that maybe it was for the best that I hadn't pursued it any further. It wasn't like I'd be allowed to raise a child here, after all!"
"Teyla has. Others in the Pegasus Galaxy have."
"But no one from Earth. That's the excuse the IOA would make, of course."
"You don't agree." It wasn't a question.
"No. Not after… after everything. Not just what's happened to me personally, but the bigger picture. The Ori trying to take over the Milky Way, Michael trying to bring down the Wraith and humans alike and set up his own galactic order… through all of that, people still fell in love, started families. They just tried to live. Right after I woke up, John told me that this, the twins, were something good to hold on to, after all the horrible things that have happened to us. And he's right." She laughed a little, though whether it was happy, sad, or just sarcastic, Kate wasn't sure. "Kate, you know as well as I do how much I've given to this expedition over the years. Hell, I've died for Atlantis; at least, other versions of me have, and I was ready to do the same when I told John to leave me behind on Asuras and get the hell outta there. I've given, again and again and again, and never gotten anything back for it. Am I selfish to want something in return, just once?"
Kate thought about it for a moment, and shook her head. "No, I don't think that's selfish. It's true, you have given so much of yourself. It's only natural, after so much sacrifice, to question if what was gained from that sacrifice was worth it. Do you think it was worth it?"
"I think it was. They're proof that life does go on. That we can move beyond the past and build a future where we don't have to fear the shadows behind us. Oberoth intended for us to be lab experiments, slaves to his will. But I'm not, and they won't have to be."
Kate tilted her head, a smile playing at her lips. "And what would you say is the reason for that?"
"Love. It's something Oberoth never understood. But I do. John does. Lia, and the others… they did. Everyone here does."
Kate's smile broadened further. "About John… Do you wonder sometimes if you're moving too fast? It has only been a couple of months since you've come back, but you're already pretty close."
"I thought so at first, too, but now… I know it sounds crazy, but I feel like this is exactly right. There's this feeling that goes right to my bones that says I'm where I'm supposed to be. Not just here in Atlantis, but here with John. I felt that way all the time in the planning for the expedition, and getting us through every crisis that's come our way, and I feel the same way about him."
"I don't think that's crazy. After all, you two do have your psionic link. You can feel each other, hear each other's thoughts. There are some couples who would kill to have that kind of insight into each other."
Elizabeth laughed. "Don't I know it!"
John stood on the balcony outside the gateroom, gazing out at the city and the ocean of Lantea beyond. He'd lost count of how many times he had stood there with Elizabeth, on days both good and bad. The important thing was that there would be more such days in the future, and for that, he was incredibly grateful to everyone who had stood with them.
The door hissed behind him, and he half turned to see Nancy walking out onto the balcony. She smiled at him and stepped up to the railing next to him. They looked out at the city silently, the only sound the whistling of the wind through the towers.
"It's a great view up here," she said finally.
"Yeah, it is," he agreed.
Nancy fidgeted a little bit, obviously nervous about something. Taking a breath, she turned to face him. "John, I… I just wanted to tell you that… I know things didn't end between us entirely… amicably," and both of them chuckled a little at that, "but I always wanted you to be happy. Seeing you with Elizabeth… I've never seen you happier, and that makes me very, very glad I was wrong. About the Asurans, about Elizabeth potentially being a threat to Atlantis, all of it." He blinked, surprised, and she smiled. "I don't know how the IOA is ultimately going to rule on Elizabeth's status, but I hope that no matter what happens, you two are happy together. You've both earned it, so many times over."
He smiled, feeling his ears growing a little hot. "Thanks. I mean that. I know you haven't been in a very easy position out here—"
She laughed, shaking her head. "I wouldn't have traded it for the world. Living here in Atlantis, seeing what it's really like out here, it's been amazing. Thank you for sharing all of this with me." She leaned forward and wrapped him in a hug. It wasn't quite as awkward as it would have been even a year earlier; Elizabeth's gentle coaching was finally getting him to come out of his shell when it came to opening up to people emotionally. Nancy kissed him on the cheek and stepped back, and he looked up to see Elizabeth leaning against the wall next to the door, grinning.
"Finally decided to make up?" she laughed. Nancy turned, then giggled in return when she saw Elizabeth, who pushed off from the wall and walked over. John slid his hand into hers, squeezing her fingers, and Nancy laid an arm around her shoulders, hugging her.
"How'd it go with Kate?"
"It couldn't have gone any better. We're both very confident that I'm ready to resume a normal workload around here." Then Elizabeth's smile turned wicked. "Bring on the IOA, I'll eat 'em alive!" All three of them laughed, savoring the moment of peace.
The IOA had scheduled a series of teleconferences between Earth and Atlantis for each of the IOA board members before they made their final ruling, and before each one, Elizabeth, Woolsey and Nancy would meet over dinner to discuss strategy for how Elizabeth would handle the questions that were bound to be asked of her. Not that Elizabeth really needed coaching; after all, she was the woman that General Landry had once declared could 'eat bureaucrats for breakfast.' If anything, it was more to keep Woolsey from panicking and give Elizabeth and Nancy something to laugh about.
The evening before the final teleconference, with Ambassador Shen of China, the mood was a little more grim. The other meetings had gone very well, and they were confident that those delegates would be fair in making their decision. Shen, on the other hand… well, both Elizabeth and Woolsey knew what that meant.
"I've never met Ambassador Shen, I only know her by reputation," Nancy mused. "The two of you have had far more experience dealing with her, so you'd know better than me how to handle this. The rest of the board members have been open to what you and the rest of the Atlantis senior staff have had to say, but I get the impression that she's already made up her mind."
"Sounds like our first 'meeting' with the Coalition," Woolsey muttered sourly.
"Hey, I read the report," Elizabeth retorted. "You handled that situation just fine."
"You still would've run circles around me. Which reminds me." He grinned at the two of them. "We got a reply back from Washington to our proposal." Nancy and Elizabeth exchanged a pair of raised eyebrows, then Elizabeth turned to Woolsey.
"I take it from the look on your face that—"
"Oh, yes. Check and mate."
"Shen won't know what hit her."
"I wonder, should we warn the rest of the staff, or surprise them?"
"Surprise them," Nancy interjected. "That way they can truthfully say they had no idea this was coming."
As expected, the meeting with Shen ended up being the worst of the lot. She'd not only questioned the decisions made by everyone on the Atlantis senior staff, she'd questioned their own impartiality as to preserving the security of Atlantis and of Earth for what she considered to be a fool's errand in spite of the wealth of information and technology that Elizabeth's return would afford Atlantis and Earth. None of them were terribly impressed with Shen's insinuations, but decorum was maintained to a fault. Still, everything, and everyone, had a breaking point, and Shen was rubbing them all the wrong way. Woolsey gave a slight nod to Elizabeth. The game was about to begin.
"I'd say Doctor Weir has proven quite handily that her place is here, in Atlantis. Surely you can't be so shortsighted as to want to sabotage that?"
Shen raised an eyebrow. "I beg your pardon?"
"Oh, you know perfectly well what we're talking about," Woolsey told her pleasantly. "It's no secret that you've been angling for command of Atlantis long before Elizabeth was injured in the Asuran attack. The problem is, you don't want it for the good of Atlantis, of Earth, or even your own country. You just want the power, the prestige. We know it. And so do your fellow board members." Woolsey sat back, enjoying the look of irritation on Shen's face. "The difference is that they are willing to let this new opportunity play itself out. So we have a counterproposal for the IOA, the documents for which have been sent out. President Hayes has already signed off on it, so we're telling you now really as a formality. I will be staying on as operational director of the Atlantis expedition, but Doctor Weir will be returning to her duties as the head of our diplomatic corps. An ambassadorial position, if you will, which of course, is the President's prerogative, not the IOA's."
"The arrangement is really ideal for everyone," Elizabeth continued, "Richard will be managing all of the day-to-day business and administrative tasks of running the city, all the things that, quite frankly, have never been my strong suit."
"And Elizabeth will be handling political affairs with the Coalition and our other allies here in the Pegasus Galaxy on behalf of Earth. While I'm a fair hand at it, she truly has the more expert touch. Many of these agreements were made under her direction during her first tenure here, and our allies are more comfortable with her at the table, as am I," Woolsey finished. Everyone else in the room, except for Nancy Sheppard, who had been in on the plot from the beginning, was looking back and forth between Elizabeth and Woolsey like they were at a tennis match. If the situation hadn't been so serious, it might have actually been funny. And probably would be, once they all had a chance to breathe again.
"Impossible. My government will never accept that, and frankly, I don't think you have the support among the rest of the IOA board to push it through," Shen protested.
"We don't have to," Woolsey countered. "After all, we do have three ZPMs for the city now, plus the additional ones from the two Replicator ships under our control, and given Doctor Weir's gift for being able to winnow out all sorts of fascinating bits of information from the Ancient database that we haven't been able to find in six years of studying Atlantis, it's probably only a matter of time before we know how to make new ZPMs of our own. We merely have to fire up the stardrive, and go… wherever we want. The cloaking shield will hide us from even Asgard sensors. And Earth will never find us unless we want you to. So you're not exactly in a position to bargain, much less threaten, Xiaoyi." Shen's mouth hung open in shock for a moment, then the transmission cut off.
Elizabeth grinned at Woolsey. "You're learning, Richard." He grinned back and made a little bow to her.
"I have an excellent teacher."
When all was said and done, the IOA approved the plan for Elizabeth to take over as head of the diplomatic corps. In fact, the British, German and Russian representatives had even dropped a hint or two about establishing a more formal presence; the words 'colony' and 'Pegasus UN' had been bandied about. The shadow of what could have happened to the Milky Way had the Ori succeeded was no doubt still weighing on some minds enough that the thought of an ark to ensure the survival of humanity was more than just comforting.
As part of the arrangement, Elizabeth would be getting her own team to accompany her off world for her meetings in Pegasus. To everyone's surprise, she requested Aiden Ford, now cleared by Stargate Command to resume his own duties, as well as Laura Cadman, whose own team was now down two members after one had returned to Earth to get married and start a family while the other was being promoted himself, Radek Zelenka, and Carson Beckett, allowing him to continue his rounds of their allies as an itinerant doctor. After all, Elizabeth had explained, a five-person team had worked for SG-1, so why couldn't it work for Atlantis?
Before any of that would happen, however, Elizabeth was going home, to finally visit her mother and other family and friends, and catch up on everything she'd missed. To Elizabeth's immense shock, though not John's, Katherine Weir had been told, at least a little, about what had happened to Elizabeth; John suspected Jack O'Neill's hand in that. Elizabeth and her mother had spoken several times since her rescue over a video link through the gate, but it was no substitute for being in the same room, and simply being able to hug. John would be going with her, for a real vacation for once, instead of the working visits his previous trips back to Earth had been. Complete, he threatened jokingly, with a trip to a real college football game.
The night before they would leave for Earth, John picked up Elizabeth for dinner, just as he did every night. This night, however, she was already at her quarters, instead of at her makeshift office on the cruiser that many in the expedition were already starting to think of as her ship, just as the balcony outside the gateroom was still thought of as hers.
As they strolled to the mess hall, arm in arm, they passed a window looking out on the west pier, and he caught a glimpse of the cruiser shining in the moonlight. He lightly reached out to her with his mind, marveling again at how second nature the form of communication had become for them.
~I had a thought.~
~Oh dear, here comes trouble.~
He smirked, but went on, ~If you're gonna be going out and doing this whole 'Pegasus UN' thing, don't you think it would be a good idea if you had a real ship from which to do it, so you wouldn't have to depend on the Stargates? You know, just in case and all that.~
~I really hope you're not angling to name it.~
~Name it?~ he blinked innocently. She rolled her eyes.
~My ship. But maybe if you're a good boy, I'll let you fly it sometime.~
~Who else would fly it?~
~I don't know… I was thinking about myself, actually. I can interface with the systems as easily as anyone with the gene, and, well… I did learn how to fly from you.~
He grinned. ~Along with all the rest of my deep, dark secrets.~
~Not so deep and dark.~ She smiled. ~I'm looking forward to meeting your brother.~
He smiled as well, the thought of his family not quite as painful as it had been, not so long ago. ~I think he'll like you.~
They walked in to the mess hall, where everyone suddenly stood up and began to cheer. Elizabeth gasped in surprise and laughed, poking John in the shoulder.
"You knew about this, didn't you?"
She reached over and kissed him. This was definitely something they could both get used to.
So, on an early November day, John Sheppard and Elizabeth Weir returned to Earth. With the shifting in the command structure at the top of Atlantis, Nancy Sheppard would also be leaving Atlantis. She'd had enough of the excitement of living on the frontier for a while, and was looking forward to going home and settling down herself. And as she'd put it, Atlantis needed more people back on Earth who understood what it was like out here to keep the IOA from steamrolling over them whenever they felt like it.
Nancy had already said her goodbyes to everyone and stepped through the gate. Now John and Elizabeth looked back into the gateroom, at their friends who would be waiting eagerly for their return and their tales of their visit to Earth. With a smile and a wave, they walked through the gate, hand in hand, knowing that Atlantis would be well taken care of until they returned. Home.
Elizabeth wasn't quite sure what had woken her, but all was quiet and still in the suite of rooms she shared with John. She turned to look out the window. The moon had already set, and a thin line of grey was smudged across the eastern sky of Lantea, the first hint that dawn was approaching.
She'd been dreaming; no more nightmares of Oberoth's lab, or remnants of the twisted memories he'd tried to break her spirit with. This had been, well, an odd dream. Ever since her rescue and 'rebirth,' as she liked to call it, the mental bond that she and John had shared when he used his ATA gene to access her nanites and reach into her mind had grown, and with it, her ability to touch the advanced systems of the city had as well. Part of it, they were all certain, was due to the fact that she was carrying ATA-positive twins, but it had been more than that. It was her, too. She was truly a part of Atlantis now, in a way that no one could have anticipated.
Sometimes, when she'd had those nightmares, they'd been chased away by John's mind folding around her like a warm blanket. Other times, there had been a song, like a cool ocean breeze, singing through her mind. The song hadn't just chased the nightmares away, it had shown her things, too. Crazy things, amazing things. Things like what she'd seen in her dreams tonight. She frowned softly and looked over at the nightstand, and felt her breath catch in her throat. It hadn't been an imagining of her half-asleep mind. She had moved the clock. With her mind.
The twins shifted in her womb, wriggling into a more comfortable position. She quietly blew out a breath and chuckled, laying a hand over her enlarged belly. She was rewarded with two gentle pushes against her hand. A little longer, maybe a few more days at the most, and they'd be born.
'Evolved,' was the way that Keller and Beckett had described what the nanites had done to heal her. Lia… Anne… Atlantis itself… they had been right. Her life was different now. Her body was the same one that she'd been born with, yet it had been irrevocably altered by the nanite-fueled evolution she'd undergone when John, Lia and the others had reached out to save her. Her spirit had grown in ways she could never have imagined when she had first stepped through Earth's Stargate into Atlantis, nearly seven years ago. But even with all of that, she was still Elizabeth Weir.
And she was home.
With a smile, she turned away from the night table and snuggled closer into her husband's embrace, letting John's contented, even breath and the hum of his mind and heart beating in time with her own, lull her back to sleep.