Title
Pegasus Purgatorio
Prompt
Big Bang 2009.   Anything goes.
Summary
It is difficult to write a paradise when all the superficial indications are that you ought to write an apocalypse. It is obviously much easier to find inhabitants for an inferno or even a purgatorio. (Ezra Pound)
Pairing
Sheppard/McKay
Rating
NC-17
Word Count
114700 words
Notes
Betas (almost too many to mention and I think I might have forgotten a few, that's how long this damn thing has taken): Kathgrr, for line-by-line-by-line help; WordWitch; KisaHawklin (for helping me rein in Romantic!John); CookieMom; Jer (for timely swats); Ladyholder (for timely hugs and encouragement); Susan, of course, Celtic Tiger (I think, yes?); and OMG Gnat, even after a freaking car accident;  If I've forgotten anyone, please forgive me. This story ATE MY LIFE. Seriously. I'm almost at the point of wrapping it in a burlap bag and throwing it in the river. Before starting this story, you might want to read And All the Seas. You don't have to, but it gives you a bit more focus on the beginning of the story. This is what happens in between And All the Seas and Prodigal Sails, which can be found on my website.

There are also acknowledgments: Douglas Adams for being the world's best writer, even posthumously; Bill Watterson for Calvinball; Stephen Hawking for not being boring; Ted Bunn from UC Berkeley for being a freak about black holes; Wikipedia for being always available; half a dozen dead physicists for helping me learn stuff that almost made my head explode; Robert Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke for teaching me how to write good technobabble; everybody from Monty Python; and Neil Gaiman, because I wanna be him when I grow up.
Warnings
This story has warnings; they are listed at the end of the story.
Jump to the warnings.
Companion Artwork
  • Purgatorio by Lenkti

THE FIRST DAY:


John woke slowly, aware he wasn't at home, wasn't in his own bed. Normally that would have been cause for him to wake quickly, to literally go from zero to sixty in a couple of seconds flat, but…

It took him a moment, but then it all came back in a rush. It helped that he no longer felt the gentle, all-encompassing murmur in the back of his mind that said Atlantis to him, that said home to him. They were on P5Y-337 and Atlantis was gone. The Asurans had destroyed it.

Bastards.

Sounds of raspy, rapid breathing brought him crashing back to the here-and-now. He was on a 'jumper, and that meant the breathing came from…

"Rodney?" When there was no reply to his whispered query, John fought his way out of the tangle of sleeping bags and emergency blankets to stand. Whoa, he was naked, and boy, the 'jumper smelled of sex and traces of someone freaking out. By the faint light of the moon (or moons, he couldn't remember which it was), John saw Rodney huddled on the copilot's seat. He was wearing a pair of boxers with his knees drawn up to his chest, his arms around them and his head resting on them. John snorted, smiled and shook his head, unexpectedly overcome with tenderness — he'd never realized how much he felt for Rodney until they became unlikely lovers in the face of catastrophe. "Hey, McKay," he murmured, resting his hand on the back of Rodney's neck. "Panic attack?"

Rodney appeared to be on the verge of hyperventilating but managed to nod. John gently rubbed the back of Rodney's neck, trying to be soothing, calming. "I don't think we've got any paper bags. Should have made sure to stock them."

His reply was a weak, almost indignant snort. "No, I'm serious. Paper bags are important. When you don't need them to breathe into, you can always use them as puppet decoys." John kept his voice low and his hand where it was, on the back of Rodney's neck, one finger feeling for his pulse. "Though you need some lipstick or red paint for that."

"Jerk." Rodney's breathing was slowing, as was his heartbeat.

"Hey, I'm just trying to be practical here." Practical. They were trapped in Pegasus with only a well-stocked 'jumper to rely on. Well, that, and McKay's brain. "Deep breaths, buddy." Not that John didn't need to do it as well. They were trapped. John tried to push it aside but the word kept shoving back into his brain, jumping up and down, demanding attention.

"We're going to die here," Rodney gasped and John felt his muscles tighten again.

"No. We're not." Maybe f he said it loud enough, he'd actually believe it.

Slowly, Rodney's breathing evened out, his pulse rate lessened. His voice was a bit less breathy when he said, "You can't know that. Not even you." He looked up into John's face as he continued. "And why aren't you freaking out?" Rodney's voice was raspy and exhausted and John had never seen such naked vulnerability in anyone's eyes.

"It's a rule," John replied, completely straight-faced. "Two man missions, only one is allowed to freak out at a time. When you're done, I'll take a turn."

"Oh." John counted seconds in his head until Rodney frowned. Good… only two seconds; not too far gone, then. "Oh. It's the… the kidding thing. Bastard."

John grinned. "Had you convinced, though, didn't I?" For a split second, John was torn — part of him wanted to give Rodney a gentle noogie, and part of him wanted to lean down and kiss that balding crown. Having the choice freaked him out, but before he could decide which to do, Rodney had already begun to uncoil from his seat. John managed to ruffle his thinning hair, a clearly inadequate compromise. "C'mon, lie down. We're safe here for the moment, and we'll think better on a full night's sleep."

"There's too much to do," Rodney protested, though he allowed John to pull him to his feet. "And one of us should stand guard…"

"I guarantee it'll all be there in the morning. Lie down, McKay." John steered them to the nest in the aft compartment. "The 'jumper's a better watchdog than either of us. I've got the proximity alert active, she'll let us know if something comes up. We're still cloaked, too."

"Power drain?" Rodney murmured as he finally settled down on the blankets.

"Not a worry yet," John replied, stretching out, pulling one of the sleeping bags over them both. "Sleep, McKay."

Rodney did, passing out almost immediately, a testament to his exhaustion. Now that he got Rodney under, however, John found himself unable to sleep. His brain kept churning, remembering the last moments of Atlantis and the absolute horror he'd felt as the 'gate whooshed shut. His anger, he knew, would sustain him in the short term, but in the long term, he had no idea what to do. Rodney had salvaged the control crystal so they could return to Earth, but that required a huge power source, like a ZPM, and those were a little hard to find.

Then there was Rodney. John had known the attraction between them was mutual; hell, they'd been flirting almost since the day they met. Rodney had become something very like his other half, the guy who actually got him. John couldn't have acted on that attraction before, not and still have kept his commission. Well, probably not. He just knew he wouldn't have given up Atlantis, not even for Rodney. What had changed was pretty obvious, but was it really wise to finally act on that attraction?

John's thoughts were derailed when Rodney groaned softly, rolled over and molded himself up against John's body. He was warm and pliant and his gentle breathing on John's skin felt like… felt like… It felt like home. Rodney felt like home to John. He smiled in the dark and took a deep, shaky breath. His worry didn't exactly fade, but it was easier to shove back, push it away. They'd be all right. They'd weathered worse — hey, they were alive, free, uninjured, they weren't trapped in a Wraith holding cell and waiting to be fed on. And they were together. As long as they were together, they'd be fine. Yeah. He might even begin to convince himself of that, too, if he repeated it enough.

To his surprise, he fell asleep.


Morning came and the sun shining into the 'jumper woke them. They rose and dressed and John noted Rodney was far too quiet — always a bad sign. John surreptitiously watched him as they dressed and rummaged for food. There were MREs for breakfast and even instant coffee, though it wasn't to Rodney's taste and barely warm. "First thing we do is find real coffee," he mumbled as he drank his first lukewarm cup.

"And an espresso machine," John agreed. He was rooting through their stores, trying to figure out how much food they had. The 'jumper they were in had been designated the 'emergency' 'jumper; it was always kept stocked with as many essentials as possible. So they had more than six month's worth of MREs, a fully stocked emergency med kit, replacement clothing, camping gear, weapons and enough C4 to choke a horse. A large horse. They didn't have a lot of potable water but that wasn't an issue, not with the ability to boil fresh water and water purification tabs. There were still plenty of inhabitable planets in Pegasus, though very few had people any longer.

Rodney snorted. "Sure, why not. We could open a cafe. Even a nightclub." He was studying the deck of the 'jumper, not looking at John or out the forward screen.

He hadn't even noticed John was watching him, and John's concern ratcheted up another notch even as part of his brain kept churning — they could hunt for food, too. Ronon had taught John a lot about the indigenous species in Pegasus. "Sounds good. You could play piano and I'll play guitar. We'll have to find someone to sing, though." He sat and started pulling things out of his way-overstuffed backpack, trying not to think about Teyla and her beautiful voice. At least she was safe in the Milky Way.

"Need to find a sax player, too." Rodney's voice was tired.

"Right. Somebody named Sonny or Rico."

Rodney was silent for a few long moments. "I don't even know where to begin," he finally said quietly.

John bit his lip and concentrated on emptying his backpack. He was positive he'd put the portable chess set in it. "We need a list. Start it at the beginning — here — and end it with us going back to Earth." He didn't think a McKay Meltdown was in progress, but he was going to have to watch for it carefully. The panic attack the evening before did not need to be repeated; by either of them. John's calm was precarious, something Rodney did not need to know, something John didn't even need to feel.

"Ah. Yes. Go from 'here' to 'Earth' and just expect a miracle somewhere in the middle." Rodney sounded peeved and John could deal with that, far better than he could cope with hysterics. "We're trapped here! We have no way to get home, and no one will come get us, except maybe the Wraith looking for some appetizers on the way to getting fried by the fucking Asurans! Tell me how that translates into us returning to Earth."

John looked up at Rodney and smirked. "Because you'll figure it out."

The smirk apparently wasn't strong enough, because Rodney frowned thunderously. "Are you even listening to yourself? To me?"

"Yes, Rodney, I'm listening to you." John turned, put his hands on his hips and returned Rodney's frown. "Yes, we're stuck here in Pegasus. Yes, we only have a well-stocked 'jumper and some equipment — at least for now. But we also have your brain and my skills and we will get back." John shrugged, trying to gently push Rodney into aggravated, because an aggravated Rodney was a Rodney he understood, one he could deal with, one who worked a hell of a lot faster and better. The trick was to keep him at aggravated and not tip him over into furious.

Rodney's eyes narrowed as he stared at John. "I know what you're doing," he said and John had to bite back a smile.

"I'm not doing anything," he replied, giving his best shot at innocence. "I just have faith that you'll figure out the best way to get us out of here. You could even build another hyperspace generator for the 'jumper, I mean, you've done it once, you can do it again, right?"

"Not without a power source and not for the kind of distance we're talking about!"

"Then we'll find another way. There's got to be a naquadah generator somewhere, maybe at one of our alpha sites. Right?"

Rodney's eyes widened and he started snapping his fingers. "Wait…"

John stared at Rodney and when nothing more was forthcoming, said, "You remembered something. What? What is it?"

Rodney started jiggling in place, his gaze skittering all over the 'jumper. "It's a place, places, it's where we need to go. Radek and I… we started these… I don't know what you'd call 'em. Caches? It was just after that storm, you remember, when the Genii…"

"Yeah, I remember," John said flatly. The less said about that time, the better. "You and Radek did what? What caches?"

"We realized we might get caught away from Atlantis, and if we did, we'd need equipment. So we started loading consoles and hiding them—"

"Consoles?" John blinked in shock. "What kind of consoles?"

"Well it's not like Atlantis didn't have a bunch to spare." Rodney sounded defensive and looked like a kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar. "So we loaded them up with as much of the database as they could hold and started hiding them. And mark-two naquadah generators, we started stockpiling them."

It took John a long moment to remember how to speak. "You've been… you stole generators?"

"No!" Rodney said, his voice indignant. "We didn't steal them! They were ours, we just… relocated them."

"All those generators… the SGC kept sending us generators and they kept getting 'lost' and I kept telling them I didn't know how…" John ground the heel of one hand into his forehead. "You stole them."

"We didn't steal them… wait, you were getting into trouble?" Rodney looked vaguely guilty. "Why didn't you say something? When we didn't hear anything we thought they didn't care! We could have come up with a better cover story if you'd told us!"

"Why didn't you tell me about… wait, wait wait. You've got the database? And generators? Are they secure? Where are they?"

"Of course they're secure, who do you think you're dealing with? And I think we have a dozen generators, maybe eighteen consoles, it's not the whole database, not by a long shot, but it's a good chunk of it, and they're all over the place. Underground mostly, and—"

John reached through the flailing hands and grabbed Rodney, pulled him in and kissed him hard. "You devious son of a bitch!" he said when he broke the kiss. Rodney looked shocked. "Our chances just doubled! Tripled!" He kissed Rodney again, and if there had been room, John would have twirled them around.

When he broke the kiss for the second time, Rodney was flushed and his face was a bizarre mixture of turned-on and terrified. It sobered John fast. "Rodney?"

"I don't know what… I don't know…" Rodney reached up with one hand and tugged John back down to his lips. "Why are we doing this?" he whispered into John's mouth.

"We've been heading this way for a while, haven't we?" John murmured. He wrapped one arm around Rodney's back and pulled them closer together.

"Have we?" Rodney was panting and hard against John's hip, as hard as John was.

"I know I have…" John kissed him again. "Do we have to talk about it?" he asked, in a voice that was far more plaintive than he'd intended. "Because I'd really, you know, rather not…"

Rodney's voice was wry as he replied. "Typical." He huffed a short laugh out, then dove in for another kiss. "I want to know, though," he whispered after gently pulling away. "I want to… I guess I want to make sure. It's because we're alone now, isn't it."

It wasn't a question and John closed his eyes and pressed his forehead against Rodney's, resigned to not getting any anytime soon. "Yeah. Well, safer for me. Safer for us." Which made no sense, but… "You know what I mean." Rodney was a genius, after all.

Rodney leaned back and studied him. John couldn't read his expression so held his breath, waiting for the next word. "If we get back—"

"When."

Rodney grimaced. "If we get back to Earth, you'll still be—"

"No. I won't." John pursed his lips and nodded. "When we get back to Earth, I'm resigning."

That seemed to throw Rodney; he broke their embrace, took a step back and blinked in shock. "But it's everything to you! Flying—"

"I don't have to be military to fly, not even to fly the really cool stuff — the SGC will want me for my gene alone, they've proved that already. Rodney, the only reason I stayed military was because of Atlantis. I was never going to be promoted again, I would have been in civvies four years ago except for the SGC and Atlantis." He took a deep breath. "But Atlantis is gone, now. And…" With another deep breath and a hard clench of his diaphragm, he pushed out, "This, you, us, it's more. I couldn't show that, before."

John thought he'd never seen Rodney so floored. Flabbergasted. Other 'F' words that implied complete and utter amazement. And maybe just a little scared to death mixed with thrilled too, because now both sides of Rodney's mouth were curving ever-so-slightly up but his eyes were wide and he swallowed, noisily. John forced himself to not look away, to wait him out, to wait for whatever Rodney had to say.

What finally came out was a breathy, "Really?"

"Yeah. Really." And please don't make me talk about it any more, John mentally begged.

"I… I mean, I… I'm pretty screwed up, I don't even know if I… you know, if I can even do…"

"I'm about as screwed up as you are, McKay," John replied, taking a shaky breath. "I thought we'd already established that a couple years back. I mean, you've been in my subconscious too."

"Huh." Rodney reached out slowly, cupping one of John's cheeks with his hand. "I hate the thought that I have to thank those bastard Asurans for doing this to us," he murmured.

"Yeah," John breathed, leaning in for a kiss. It was so incredible and he… "I want to blow you. Can I blow you?"

The look of shock on Rodney's face was comical. "I… yes! I mean, you have to… you know how? Who in their right mind would turn…"

John yanked them back together, muffling Rodney's words with another kiss. He'd always suspected they'd fit together, but the reality was so much more, so much better. Rodney's lips were soft and his tongue was even softer, inviting John's in to come and play. While John's mouth was busy, his hands had their own agenda, unsnapping and unzipping and untangling until he finally got into Rodney's pants. Rodney moaned and the sound was like his very own porno flick.

The deckplates were hard on his knees, but John barely noticed. Instead he concentrated on the erection in front of his face, red and leaking and smelling like sex and unadulterated Rodney. A glance up, through his messy hair, told him Rodney's eyes were about to fall out of their sockets and he was panting so hard his face was as red as his dick. John let his smile disappear by swallowing Rodney down. And God, if Rodney's mouth had tasted good, his cock was five times better. And it was going to bring John off, so he struggled to open his own pants and to take himself in hand.

Rodney must have seen him, because he choked and jerked before abruptly coming in John's mouth, gasping and shaking, his legs trembling. The bitter taste, the smell and the sounds Rodney was making were all John needed, and he came too, striping the floor and dribbling a little bit on Rodney's shoes.

It was tough, but John managed to hold on to a swaying Rodney so that they ended up more-or-less horizontal, probably looking like refugees from a bordello. Their breathing slowly evened out and Rodney didn't seem inclined to let go of John anytime soon.

They couldn't bask in the afterglow long, of course, and Rodney was completely incapable of being silent for very long. "Wow."

John grinned, certain it was smug and not caring. "Still got it," he murmured, his breathing slowing.

"Yeah, I'd say so." Rodney's voice was as shaky as John felt. "Now I'm gonna have to send those fucking Asurans a bouquet."

He couldn't help it; John burst out laughing. He rolled over to his back and laughed so hard he almost cried. Rodney loomed over him, looking down at John with concern and laughter on his face. "You okay?"

Hell, it was probably PTSD. "I don't know," John gasped out, struggling to get himself under control. "I will be." He lifted his hand and grabbed Rodney's stubbly face, shaking it gently. "You need to shave, McKay."

"Pot, kettle," Rodney replied, his grin softening. "And yours is much worse, Cousin It."

"And we both could use a shower." The last of the giggles finally overcome, John sighed. "I think more than coffee, we need to figure out how to get a hot shower."

Rodney closed his eyes and hung his head. "Oh, God. Cold baths in ice cold streams."

"Yeah. That's about the size of it. So, where're these caches?"


Rodney and Radek, the wonder twins, had created eight caches. Each one had at least one console, sometimes three or four. Each also had an attendant naquadah generator and at least two spares. The easiest one to get to was on P3M-736, the same planet where they had found Ronon.

"Cave complex, hostile environment, yadda yadda," Rodney had explained when John had asked why. "We tried to stick with planets the Wraith wouldn't want to visit. Though we've got a big cache on one of our agrarian beta sites, the caverns there were too good to resist."

The planet wasn't any more hospitable than it had been before, though they had lucked out and it was night upon their arrival. John put the 'jumper down as close to the rocky outcrop as possible, after first doing a quick sweep via orbit, checking for people. "The largest animal here is in the ocean," Rodney said, distracted by the HUD read-out and his life-signs detector. "The high UV ratings tend to keep anything larger than a mouse from developing."

Once at the site — and boy, did it bring back memories for John, as well the ache of absent friends — Rodney led them into the cave. "Stay here," he instructed John as they entered. "It's rigged to explode if any biosign other than me or Zelenka come near it. Before you ask, no, a mouse wouldn't set it off but a Wraith probe would. Just stay put until I call you."

Rodney walked ahead, to the back of the cave, which was deeper than John remembered. At one point, he stopped and was engulfed in a blue beam, obviously being scanned. The blue light winked out and Rodney went deeper, around an outcropping and out of John's sight.

After a few moments, he reappeared. "Okay, come on back. When the scanner hits you, just stand still."

It didn't take long, but the strictures they had to go through reassured John that the other caches would be safe. Sometimes it helped to be paranoid.

Stacked against the back of the cave were boxes and crates filled with what turned out to be four naquadah generators, spare crystals, lab equipment, laptops and even one box full of MREs. Rodney's favorite, of course. John laughed as he went through the stuff and Rodney turned and gave him an inquisitive look. "It's like Christmas!" John said. Rodney merely rolled his eyes and went back to one of the two consoles.

After a few minutes, Rodney spoke again. "Perfect. Everything is perfect, just how we left it. I have to assume the rest of it on the other worlds are too. So. How much of this stuff do you think we can fit into the 'jumper?"

John looked around, frowning, trying to picture space in his mind. "I don't know, most of it, I think, though not both consoles. Why? Wouldn't this be a good base of operations?"

Rodney turned and frowned at John. "No."

"Not a good base? Why not?"

"No underground parking for the 'jumper. We need a place that's shielded."

"We can keep the 'jumper cloaked—"

"For how long? No, we need that 'jumper and we're going to need to take care of it. And that means lowering the power consumption."

"But we need a place that's convenient, big enough to live out of and defensible. This place is defensible and an unlikely home to humans," John insisted.

"But we can't park the 'jumper in the cave. And if we get the remaining consoles, this cave won't be big enough for all of them."

"But I don't want to use the beta site, it's too familiar to our enemies. Now, if we could use the Genii homeworld…"

"Which will be radioactive for the next million years or so." Rodney sighed. "But you're right, that would have been perfect."

"What about the planet where Sam broke her leg? There were underground mining complexes, right?"

Rodney frowned. "Maybe. How about the world where the Taranians… wait. No."

"Absolutely not." John suppressed a shudder. "And not the Iratus bug world either."

"Duh." Rodney turned back to the console. "Let me power this down and turn off the generator. If you can start moving the small stuff, I'll join you with the big stuff in a minute."

"Hang on." John thought for a moment before continuing. "No. We'll leave the consoles and all but one of the generators here, come back to them later, once we've decided where to go. It makes no sense to take them with us if we don't know where we're going."

Rodney sighed. "All right, all right, fine. But we need to take the food and the other supplies with us. Give me a minute, I'll help you."

"Okay." John lifted the first of the cartons filled with MREs before realizing what Rodney had done. "You are going to help me with this, McKay," he said, frowning at Rodney.

Rodney flapped his hands at John without turning. Once the consoles were powered down, however, he did keep his promise and helped move stuff. He complained about it, though, and that reassured John. Complaint was McKay's default setting; if he was complaining, everything was status quo.

Once they were loaded, John sat in the pilot's seat and looked over at Rodney, riding shotgun. "Okay, where to?"

Rodney sighed and looked out the forward port — the sky was getting lighter. "Right. We need… what do we need? Defensible…"

"At least. Very defensible, which means a 'gate nearby, or close enough to… I don't know. Bury it for defense but uncover it when we need it. And some kind of garage-like place for the 'jumper, since you feel we need underground parking."

"Hmmm." Rodney had his thinky-face on and John could almost see the smoke coming from his ears. "Underground. We need underground, for shielding if nothing else. Could the 'jumper lift a stargate?"

John blinked. "Huh. I don't know, though I doubt it. We could try it, at least. You mean to put a 'gate underground with us."

"Yeah. We can't leave the 'jumper's cloak on twenty-four-seven, we don't have any way to recharge the fuel cells."

"The generators—"

"The power output from a naquadah generator isn't stable enough to directly feed a 'jumper's cells. In Atlantis, we had the buffer of the Ancient power grid, which was able to take a direct output from a naquadah generator. Think AC/DC currents."

"Oh. Okay." Back to square one. "So, a cave complex, big enough for the 'jumper and maybe the stargate, but one that has several exits."

"Yeah. Bolt-holes."

"With the consoles, it should be easy to set up a remote perimeter, too. Right?" Rodney nodded. "And running water would be nice. Lots of caves have water; generally that's what makes them."

"Yeah, that's true. The water would have a high mineral content—"

"Room for the consoles, for the 'jumper, for us. A place for a fire. Wood, nearby, or at least peat, for fuel." John scratched his chin; he really needed a shave. "Big enough for more people, too, once we start rescuing them."

Rodney turned and stared at him. "And while we're dreaming, how about a pony?" he asked, his voice acerbic.

John grinned at him. "I'll be sure to put that on the list. Hey, and a bunch of ZPMs, too. Maybe a battleship. I'd really like a battleship."

Rodney dropped his head in his hands. His voice was muffled when he said, "You are clearly insane."

"Maybe, but it's the good kind of insane. Aim high, McKay. It's that list I talked about — start here, end with us going back to Earth."

"Fine. Let's just find a good 'for sale' fixer-upper cave complex and— Oh!" Rodney snapped his fingers. "P34-227!"

He knew that designation. John frowned, trying to place it. "That's… that's…"

"It's where… uh… Ford." Rodney suddenly looked uncomfortable. "You remember, where—"

"His base of ops, yeah. I remember." Unfortunately.

"We'd have to check whether it was clear, but it was an extensive complex and could be pretty well-suited to our needs."

"It's vacant." John shook his head. "At least it was. I checked, off and on. Hoping…"

Rodney winced. "Sorry. We don't have to—"

"No. It's a good idea. Let's go check it out." John got the 'jumper going and lifted, dialing the 'gate as he closed in on it.

"I'm sorry," Rodney said. "Didn't mean to bring up… you know. Old memories. Bad memories."

The 'jumper reached the stargate and John hovered before it, thinking. "It's just that… He'd always show up. And we lost Elizabeth only to find her again; she should have been dead too."

"She was dead," Rodney said softly. "Just like Carson was. We got both of them back because they were—"

"I know, McKay." John accelerated smoothly through the 'gate. "I know."


The cave complex was vacant and dusty, clearly disused for years. Some of the furniture had fallen apart but the big dining table was still there, as were most of the chairs and some of the beds. The oil lamps John remembered were still there and still usable; they lit a couple and turned off their flashlights. A few boxes had disintegrated and there was the strong smell of rotten vegetables, but nothing horrific. The only thing living appeared to be rodents. Rodney was sticking to John like glue, clearly weirded out by the place, even though he'd swept it with the life-signs detector to verify it was empty — of humans, anyway.

"There were… uh… Wraith, he kept Wraith…"

"Gone. Dead. Ronon came back with me a few months afterwards and made sure."

Rodney stared at him. "They were dead?"

"Pretty much. We made sure they were, then burned their bodies." John shrugged. "Didn't seem right to just let them starve to death."

"You should have told me. I would have come with you."

John shrugged again. The entire affair was one he was willing — hell, eager — to forget. "Let's check out that southern entrance, I think it was big enough for the 'jumper."

They ended up separating. John found the big cave mouth and measured it with his eyes. It wasn't big enough for the 'jumper but it might be made to be, with the judicious use of some C4. Rodney would know how to place the charges to maximize their use. In fact, the only thing wrong with the caves was their lack of internal water, though there were a couple of streams and a small lake nearby. The 'facilities' weren't very good either, but at least they were inside, and John figured he could make it less smelly with a few shovelfuls of peat. Thankfully, Rodney's idea of 'essentials' included toilet paper.

In fact, the only real things wrong about the whole complex were the ghosts he saw everywhere. He wandered through the area Ford had used as a training room, peeked into the bedrooms and had a look at the storage areas. It would take a lot of work to clean stuff out, but it might be worth it. They wouldn't get a better area dropped into their laps.

As long as he could get past the memories.

Rodney was in the area designated as 'research,' checking out the primitive computers, poking at wires in a halfhearted way. "McKay?"

He turned and sighed. "It's just… I remember so much. Jace was a good guy, he could have been trained into a real scientist." Rodney's shoulders slumped. "Such a fucking waste."

"Yeah. I know." Tentatively, John put his arm around Rodney's shoulders and was gratified when Rodney sagged into him. "Maybe we shouldn't stay here."

"No, it's a good spot." They were silent for a few minutes before Rodney spoke again. "Maybe we could make it our backup, a base while we're looking for another one, a more permanent one."

"Hmm." John thought about it. "Yeah. That might work. Besides, it would take a lot of work to get it cleaned up and ready to use permanently."

Rodney sighed. "Yeah. Let's get some lunch, heat some water, wash up and shave. You know I always think better on a full stomach."

"We just ate breakfast, McKay," John said, just to bait Rodney and help him out of his funk.

"Ah, yes, the famous Sheppard clock. Just meaning close to three hours ago and it wasn't much then! And I want some real coffee." He pulled back and frowned at John, who just shrugged and smiled. "Jerk," Rodney said fondly.

John moved the 'jumper over to the southern entrance to off-load some of their equipment and supplies, asking Rodney to look the entrance over to see if it could be enlarged.

"I think so," Rodney said, inspecting the walls of the cave. "After I eat, I'll bring a scanner over here and test the upper surface. Now, can we hurry up with the food?"

Some things never changed, John thought. McKay bitching about food would always be a constant and he found that idea was actually a relief… and a source of amusement.


They brought in a good chunk of their supplies and Rodney started a fire in the cast-iron stove Ford had scrounged from somewhere. Lunch was more MREs, but there was coffee (still instant but at least hot and with real sugar) and cold, clear water from the stream. As they ate, McKay pulled a notebook out of somewhere, which might have explained why his backpack weighed a ton, and began writing things down with a pen.

"Right. So, priorities," he began around a mouthful of food. "For the moment, a clean, dry and relatively safe place to live. Yes?"

John swallowed before talking. "Yeah. I think we can stick around here for the time being. Can you set up a secure remote perimeter?"

"Yeah. I'll need at least one of the consoles from P3M-736." He grimaced and shook his pen. "Damn thing, it must be clogged."

"Writing with a pen, McKay?" John smirked at him. "How very twentieth century of you."

Rodney glared. "Sometimes you just need to see a thing on paper or on a whiteboard and there are no longer any of the latter in Pegasus. Now. Let's talk about possible planets."

"Maybe we should talk about planets we can't use," John said, finishing his turkey sandwich. "Genii homeworld is off-limits."

"No kidding. As is the Alpha site."

John frowned. "You sure about that?"

"Yes." Rodney shook his pen at John. "Between Todd and Michael it's been completely compromised."

"Todd's dead. And Michael—"

"We never saw a body for either of them." Rodney glared across the table. "I refuse to write anyone off until I see a corpse and maybe not even then, at least for the two of them. Moving along. What about Hoff? We've both been inoculated against the virus."

"Maybe. They did have all those underground bunkers filled with books." As he spoke, John had to concede with Rodney's thinking about both Todd and Michael. After they'd rescued Teyla, they'd blown up the building and thought with Michael was still in it, but yeah. The jerk was about as resilient as a cockroach.

"Most of which have probably been destroyed." Rodney sighed, drawing John's attention back to the matter at hand. "Here's a thought — Sateda."

"Oh." John blinked. "That's a definite maybe. I doubt the Wraith would find it interesting or useful. You said you've got caches on our agrarian beta site? How about the caves there?"

"Not big enough for the 'jumper. Maybe we could excavate them, make them larger; we could check I suppose. We could try M7G-677. We never checked for caves."

"And the kids are all in the Milky Way, now." Their ZPM, taken after their evacuation, had lasted just long enough to get everyone but John and Rodney off Atlantis. "We should have asked."

"Why would we think we needed anything other than their ZedPM?"

Well, Rodney had a point there. "Point. Put it in the possible category."

They talked all through lunch and clean up, adding planets to the list of possibilities, ruling others out immediately. Once they had a good working list, Rodney turned the page over. "Okay, now we make a list of what we need as soon as we have a place to live."

"Right. Top of the list is ZPMs."

"Oh, yes, since they're just lying around on planets for the taking, like diamonds!"

"Rodney."

"All right, fine. I've, uh, actually given some thought to it." Rodney looked down as he spoke and John knew it wasn't going to be good.

"What?"

Rodney took a deep breath. "We could go to M7R-227 and get as many as we—"

"No."

"Look, the Asurans can't hurt us, not with—"

"McKay, that's a no and I mean no. Yes, you managed to get the 'three laws' patch in—"

"Which means they can't hurt humans directly!"

"But they're still blowing up suns," John said loudly and clearly. "Suns with inhabited worlds."

"Yes, it's a workaround they've managed to achieve—"

"No."

Rodney sighed. "Will you at least think about it?" he asked. John answered him with a scowl meant to indicate there was no way in heaven or hell he was going to actually contact those fucking replicators. He didn't know how to be more direct other than tattooing it to his forehead, but knowing Rodney, he wouldn't leave it alone.

"How about sensors?" John asked, trying to change the subject. "Long range or even medium-range sensors could be a big help to us."

"Oh." Rodney sat up straight and blinked. "Yeah. We've got two consoles with the software and a couple of plasma screens, I could set it up relatively easily. One here and one wherever we settle."

"That's good. That's great. The more warning I get the happier I'll be."

"Are we just going to stay here, then?" Rodney's voice was tentative.

"For now." John nodded. "I know, it's pretty hard to deal with, but it's the best we've got at the moment."

"Okay."

Getting the console to their temporary home and setting up a passive perimeter took most of the afternoon but it was worth it in the end; John felt enormously more secure with it in place. Rodney set up an alarm sound that would wake the dead if any of the entrances to the cave complex were used, but limited it to only a two-second blast, which would be all they needed anyway (the sound blast itself was as much a weapon as a defense). Then he tied the console somehow into the 'jumper's HUD so it would also alert them if the 'gate was activated or if a ship appeared in their system, with a second, not so earsplitting sound. It would be enough, and even as paranoid as John was, he was satisfied.

While storing some of their supplies, they found the old boiler and Rodney verified it was still in working order. It took them a while to get the water to it — and Rodney guaranteed he'd have a working water pipeline in by the next day — but it was worth it. Hot showers and clean clothes felt fantastic after the adrenaline rush of the last few days.

Dinner was more MREs: canned stew and slightly stale crackers. John could tell Rodney was missing 'real' bread as much as he was. Clean up was easy and then they got the list out again.

"So, scanners and ZedPMs at the top, what else?" Rodney asked. "Fresh fruit and vegetables would be nice."

"If we find any inhabited planets, I'll be massively surprised," John replied, leaning back in his chair and pulling his boots off. "But we can try Belkan. And Oswilla too, I guess."

Rodney wrote them down. "Yeah. Crops are probably rotting in the fields these days. Meat?"

"I can do some hunting. Ronon's taught me a lot about indigenous species. "

"Okay, that's good." Rodney sat back and rubbed his eyes. "I think we've got enough here to work on."

"Yeah." A yawn caught John by surprise. "The mattresses were pretty much gone but the bed frames are still sturdy. I spread out four sleeping bags across the boards of the biggest bed and it seems to be fairly comfortable." Rodney was blinking at him and John had to smile. "I thought it might be nice to actually sleep tonight, on something resembling a bed. "

"Y-you mean… together? Really?"

"Well… only if you want, I mean, it would be better if we bunked together anyway," John said, trying hard to be nonchalant and hiding his own nerves. He was still a little unsure about starting this relationship, even though he'd wanted it for so long.

"Uhhh… yes?" Rodney swallowed and his eyes were like saucers, but there was no mistaking his arousal as he jumped to his feet, he was almost vibrating.

John grinned and went around the table to give Rodney a gentle kiss. "Well, come on," tugging Rodney out of the room.

The bedrooms were small, but clean and dry for all they were a bit musty. He didn't know where Ford had gotten his furniture, though he figured it was from culled worlds. At least the beds were actual beds, even though the mattresses hadn't been much more than bags filled with soft grass. Pretty much  everything that had been made of organic matter had disappeared — disintegrated or eaten by rodents — but four sleeping bags spread out in the biggest of the bed frames made a comfortable substitute. John had already moved their backpacks to the room and made sure Rodney had a good supply of his homemade sunscreen within easy reach.

Rodney's face was red and he was trembling, but even with his clothes on, John could see the bulge of his erection. John was just as excited and nervous, very carefully lowering the zipper of his BDUs and biting his lip as he worried his boxers off. Rodney had opened his trousers but was no longer moving. Instead, he was staring at John, at John's body but mostly at John's groin, and he was beginning to breathe heavily. "Rodney?" It suddenly hit John that they hadn't seen each other completely naked, not in the light, anyway.

"I… you…"

McKay without words turned out to be an incredible turn-on. John crossed the space between them and kissed Rodney again, just because he could. "Come on, let's get these off you. No ripping; we can't afford to lose these clothes yet."

Rodney snorted weakly but let John undress him, let John get them horizontal on the bed. Then they were skin to skin and that was so, so much better. Rodney had all this skin and John wanted to explore every square inch of it — and part of him wanted to claim it too, though he had no idea where that thought came from. He was hoping to find Rodney's biggest hot spots, but apparently that was his whole body — wherever John touched, Rodney either moaned or shivered or both.

By the time John got to Rodney's dick, it was leaking heavily and just as taut as every other part of Rodney. John carefully rolled away and reached for Rodney's backpack and the sunscreen tube. Rodney whined and reached for him. "Don't…"

"S'okay," John replied. "I want…" John rolled back and looked at Rodney, feeling his smile grow into a grin at Rodney's stunned-bunny expression. "I'd really like it… I mean… I'd like you to…" God, this talking shit was tough, but he knew he needed to, wanted to. "I'd like you to fuck me, if you want," he pushed out, all in a rush. "Only if you want," he added, watching Rodney's eyes grow even bigger. Maybe he was taking it all too fast, but God, he'd wanted this for so long it was hard to wait any longer. "Do you? Want to, I mean."

"Want to? Me? You?"

"Yes, me and you." John put the tube in Rodney's hand. "Here. You can use this."

Rodney looked at the tube blankly. "Huh?"

John's grin grew wider; Rodney completely overwhelmed by lust was pretty amusing. "On me. You can use it on me."

Either Rodney's brains had become disconnected due to the pressure of his dick, or he wasn't… "Lube, Rodney. I want you inside me and I can't do it without lube."

"In… In… what…?" Rodney looked like he was moments away from an aneurism. "Oh… you… you mean… uh, anal…"

Okay, yeah, maybe he really wasn't. "Rodney?" Rodney blinked at John owlishly. "You've been with… you've…" Rodney gulped and John closed his eyes, trying to keep from laughing. "You've never been with a guy, have you, McKay?"

"Well… yeah… sorta?" Rodney looked utterly deflated. "I'm not getting any, am I? Look…"

John grinned and tossed the tube on the floor. "Oh, yes you are, Dr. McKay. And soon, I'm going to give you a lesson you're not going to forget." He prevented more babbling by kissing Rodney. "This is just fine for me," he whispered when he ended the kiss, stroking Rodney's cock.

"Oh! Are you… are you sure…? I think I could… could… oh, God, don't stop…"

It took Rodney a few seconds to get with the program, but then his big, warm hands were on John's dick, stroking him with a rhythm that was just this side of incredible. "Yeah…" John drew out the word with a sigh. "C'mon, Rodney, tighter… please…"

With a soft whine, Rodney came all over John's hand. John leaned up and over Rodney, putting his hand over Rodney's limp one, masturbating himself with both, wanting to come all over Rodney too, to mix everything about themselves together. When he came, it was with a deep groan and a shudder. He barely managed to fall away from Rodney, not on him, but he still kept touching Rodney, kissing his shoulder. That strange feeling, the desire to claim, to… to… what, cherish? Where the hell had it come from? John didn't like it and shoved it back, but it was still there, gnawing at him, bugging him. He'd never felt it before and it scared the shit out of him.

"God, that was hot," Rodney said breathlessly. "So hot…" He turned his head and pulled John's close enough that they could kiss. "You're so hot, so fucking… I'm sorry, I don't know how… I'll learn, I'm sorry…"

"S'okay, Rodney," John said softly, kissing that crooked mouth again. "We've got plenty of time to experiment." He carefully wiped them up using somebody's t-shirt. Laundry was going to be difficult, and it wouldn't do to get the sleeping bags too nasty. Or t-shirts, he added mentally with a sigh.

They were still kissing when they fell asleep, between one moment and the next. The last thing John thought was that it had been pretty damned good for a first day by themselves — lost, adrift and in deep, deep shit — in Pegasus.


THE FIRST WEEK:

The next morning, Rodney wanted to talk and John, of course, didn't. But something inside him told him this was the most important thing he'd ever have, and he'd better make a stronger effort than he had with Nancy… or with any of the others he'd cared for and let slide away.

They had overslept, because, as Rodney said, hello, sleeping in a dark, quiet cave? Not to mention a very hot body, in more ways than one. John found he couldn't disagree.

It was like waiting for the other shoe to drop — they visited their stinky toilet, made breakfast, made coffee, and sat down opposite each other at the big table, all without speaking in anything other than grunts. The trepidation inside John flowered as soon as Rodney spoke.

"I wanted…" He stopped and sighed and John waited. He sure as hell wasn't going to start any big conversations. "I guess, I needed to say… sorry. For last night."

Well, that was different. "Say sorry?" John said, frowning.

Rodney frowned right back at him. "Well, yeah. I mean, I know about, you know, stuff like that, I just never…"

Ah. "Rodney, it's okay, you don't have to apologize, really. Maybe, uh, I should, I mean, I just assumed you'd…" John waved his hands between them.

"Well, yeah. I mean, that was obvious." He sighed again. "It's just that I don't have, you know, a lot of, well… experience. In that way."

A horrible thought occurred to John and he spoke before thinking. "God, I didn't, I mean, I didn't push myself on you, Rodney, that's the last thing…"

"No! No, don't think that, Christ, no. Never." John was certain Rodney's alarmed look was a mirror to his own. "I wanted it, I mean, I've wanted it for a long… I guess for a long time." His expression twisted into something almost wistful. "From the first time we were here, I think. Really."

John blinked. "Huh?"

Rodney chuckled weakly. "I don't remember a lot from then, I was so hopped on the damn enzyme, and then I took… well, what amounted to a whole vial, remember? To get back."

John remembered. He suppressed a shudder; when Carson had told him what Rodney had done, John almost had a coronary right there on the spot.

"But what I do remember was you, you being… I don't know, nice isn't the right word because even back then you were usually nice to me, when you weren't teasing the hell out of me, but I remember you helping me. Trying to help me deal. With Ford, with the enzyme, with all of it. And when you didn't come back from that mission…" Rodney lifted his head and looked into John's eyes. "All I could do was freak out; I was just terrified. I knew I had to help, to do something, because I couldn't lose you, I mean, Teyla and Ronon too, but it was you, you especially. I think it was then I started to… I mean…" Rodney trailed off and John read the panic on his face.

It was suddenly hard to breathe, because John knew what Rodney was going to say, knew it would be words he always had trouble saying, and God, even though he thought he felt the same there was no way in heaven or hell he could hear or say them. "I know," he blurted. "I do. And I… I mean, I think I feel… I mean…"

Rodney's expression softened and the panic seemed to leave his eyes. "Really?"

"Yeah." Well, that was infinitely better than having to say the words. "And we can take it slow, I meant it, last night, it's not like it's a race. I'd be happy with just what we did do. Last night. You know."

"Wow." John decided he liked that soft smile on Rodney's face, one he hadn't seen before, one that just might be for him and him alone. "I'd like to… I mean, I want to, uh, you know, practice? Blowing you. I never had a guy do that to me and it was hot, it was so hot, I want to learn… I want to learn everything."

"Okay. We can do that. And we'll go slow." John smiled and wondered if his grin was as goofy as Rodney's was.

He suddenly realized he didn't care if it was. Even if it completely terrified him.


They settled into a routine quickly. They would get up with the sun — or rather, the alarm on John's watch — and start working. The morning was dedicated to food, coffee, deciding where to go that day, designing and building essential 'things,' such as a makeshift refrigerator, or a pipeline to bring fresh water into the cave. Also, at least in John's case, clearing out some of the four years worth of junk. There was a convenient cliff about three minutes by 'jumper, and the larger stuff went there.

Rodney found the wheelbarrow on their third day. John was not as amused as Rodney was.

Their situation kept ambushing John at odd moments. He'd look for something — toothpaste, beer, his latest issue of X-Men — and realize again exactly where he was, exactly how much crap he — they — were in. Luckily, Rodney hadn't noticed those times when John would carefully slink away in order to shove his panic back behind big, thick, strong walls. John knew all too well that Rodney's equilibrium was in large part dependant on John's remaining calm, cool and collected. He knew that if he lost his shit, Rodney would probably do pretty much the same, or worse. So it was absolutely imperative that he kept his panic and terror under tight wraps, no matter how hard it was to do so.

They scratched five possible worlds off their list by their fourth day. Some of those were worlds where Rodney and Radek had created caches of technology; the more important equipment they moved back to Ford's cave. They argued endlessly — over everything from where the Asurans would hit next, to the relative merits of Eartha Kitt's Catwoman as opposed to Julie Newmar's. They talked fondly of their friends and wondered what they were doing, but some things were off-limits — like Teyla's baby, like Lorne's injuries. Their list of essential things grew, and John was careful to put down a battleship for him and a pony for Rodney. It was those little things that helped, that distracted John (and, by extension, Rodney) from how much trouble they were in.

They took a break on the afternoon of the fourth day for a raid on whatever goods they could find on Oswilla. The normally bustling marketplace was empty and desolate, so they didn't stay long. They found bread — or rather, some hard stuff that reminded John of matzo — some dried meat, some fruits and vegetables that were still edible, and a great deal of iron pipe. John found the makings for real bread in the baker's shop and brought the paraphernalia back, unsure whether he wanted to try his hand at it. Their best find, though, was soap. Rodney complained it was too harsh, but a decided lack of antiperspirants meant they had to bathe at least once a day.

On the fifth day, Rodney discovered that the Lantean sun was in the process of going nova. He had been calibrating the new sensors and said it took forever to figure out why the starscape looked wrong. It upset them more than perhaps it should have: after all, they hadn't lived there for quite a while. "They didn't have to do that, goddammit," Rodney said, his voice shaking. "There were no people left in the system, for God's sake."

"I know." John felt as much rage as Rodney. "I think they just did it to… I don't know. Get back at us, maybe."

"Sam." John turned at Rodney's words and frowned. "No, not that Sam. Whale Sam. All the other whales too." John sighed in sympathy to Rodney's words. "Fuckers. God damned—"

"I know. I know." John squeezed one of Rodney's hands and after a few moments, Rodney squeezed back.

They had only six planets left on their list. In the meantime, Ford's cave had become far homier. Rodney found the camouflage cloth they had used on the dart and John used it to cover most of the 'jumper, since Rodney wasn't certain they could enlarge the southern entrance while still keeping it intact. It seemed safe enough that they could turn off the cloak most of the time. Ford's cave was a good compromise as a hideout, but John wouldn't feel safe enough until they had at least three equally good places to squat. Rodney had convinced John they were going to have to stay underground and Ford's caves simply weren't deep or safe enough. They needed more but they just weren't finding it.

The morning of the sixth day, John decided they would take a day off scouting planets. Neither of them were in the mood anyway, feeling depressed and missing friends and loved ones. John went out hunting and bagged two of the alligator-like things that Ford had told him about. Their meat was salty but pretty good, and a steady diet of MREs had become a little too monotonous. He also set a couple of snares — he'd found the equipment in yet another dusty, musty corner of the caverns.

Catching was easy, preparing was hard. John knew how to skin and dress animals, but he was out of practice — as he explained to Rodney, several times.

"Remind me to never watch you to do that again," Rodney grumbled as John made another slice into the flesh of the critter. "I don't know if I'll be able to actually eat it, assuming you'll actually be able to get it to a point where it can be cooked."

"I'll get there," John replied, his voice testy and trying very hard to avoid wincing — he was actually grossing himself out and was beginning to wonder if Rodney was right and it would never be edible. "I'm just not as good at this as, I don't know, Ronon. Or any Athosian hunter, even Teyla, but really Ronon. He was better at doing this and I let myself fall out of practice."

"Ronon was better than us at a lot of things," Rodney agreed, leaning against the wall of the cave. "He had to be, after all, when you're…" Rodney's voice trailed off and his eyes grew big. "Runner. Runners. I've gotta…" He turned and dashed back into the cave proper.

John gave up on the alligator-thing for now. He wiped his hands on a handy scrap of towel and followed, trying to figure out where Rodney's frantic brain had taken him now.

"Runners, runners," he was still muttering by the time John got to the lab.

John blinked in shock. "Runners. Do you still have the frequency—"

"Yes, yes, busy now, no time to chat…"

John rolled his eyes — he hated it when Rodney did that. Before he could open his mouth, though, Rodney glanced up at the big plasma screen and said, "Hah! There. Eight of them, their signals blinking around Pegasus."

"Why would they even do it?" John murmured. "Their food supply has got to be really short."

"For the ones that are pure Wraith, yeah," Rodney muttered. "But I'm sure there are a lot of Michael's mutants out there, and who knows, they might be just as freakish as their cousins are."

"Okay, then, eight runners. Or more, these scanners don't cover the whole galaxy, right?" John peered over Rodney's shoulder, mentally tagging each world.

"No, no, just our quadrant." Rodney pointed to one near the top. "That's M4H-212, we were just there two days ago, remember?"

"Yeah…" John thought back. "We almost settled there because of the Genii complex. Good thing we didn't, I guess."

"Well, yeah, but you know, this planet is vulnerable too," Rodney was busily futzing with the sensors, pulling in on that section of the galaxy. "If a runner shows up here, we could be toast."

"No, it's not that bad, not with only eight runners out there." John rubbed his chin, thinking. "The odds are with us in that case. So, you think we should offer a home to one or more of these guys?"

"Well, yes," Rodney said, shooting a frown over his shoulder at John. "I mean, we can't just leave them there."

"But we also can't just go get them," John replied. He boosted himself up on the metal table Rodney used, pushing equipment aside. "For starters, we can't be sure they're all runners. Todd used that frequency too, remember?"

Rodney turned away from the scanner and leaned against his desk. "But Todd's hopefully dead and what else could they be?"

"Wraith worshippers, for one," John said, ticking off his fingers as he spoke, "on the run from their 'home' hive. Todd or another Wraith. Replicators, trying to lure Wraith in. Michael's mutant brigade, doing the same."

"Okay, okay, you've made your point." Rodney sighed. "And if they are genuine runners, we can't bring them here until we've managed to neutralize the transmitters. I don't know about you, but I'm kind of reluctant to perform surgery on any of them."

"Another good point." John swung his legs. "Could you destroy it while it's still embedded in them?"

"Sure, if the runner doesn't mind dying with it!" Rodney said with typical McKay scorn. "I might be able to mask it, I think." He grimaced. "Maybe."

"There's got to be a way to fuck it up without removing it."

Rodney furrowed his brow, turned and began tapping at his laptop, dismissing everything else completely. "I'll let you know when dinner's ready," John said wryly, figuring Rodney didn't even hear him, but not taking offense. That's how Rodney worked. Knowing there were humans out there going through the same thing Ronon had gone through almost made John lose his appetite.


Rodney had no ideas by dinner (MREs again, since John gave up on the alligator-thing and pitched it in their trash heap), nor by midnight, the deadline John created for him. The one thing John did not want was for Rodney to revert back to his Atlantean bad habits, oblivious to everything around him. He knew it would happen at times, it couldn't be avoided, but when it wasn't essential, John decided it wasn't going to happen.

"C'mon, McKay. Bedtime." John hesitated for a moment in the door as he spoke, but didn't really expect an answer. He got a grunt, which was more than normal. "McKay. Bedtime."

"No, I've got to—"

"No, you've got to sleep. C'mon." John put his hands on Rodney's shoulders and tried to turn him.

"Stop it, dammit, I've got to—"

"What, you don't want a blowjob?"

"—to… to… what?" Rodney turned and looked up at John, his expression a comical mixture of annoyance, surprise and lust. "That's not fair."

"All's fair in love and war, Rodney, and if you want a blowjob, you're going to have to come to bed." John grinned at Rodney's scowling face. "Oh, please. That expression hasn't fooled me for something like two years."

Rodney blinked. A smile slowly spread across his face, ruining his sour expression. It was a smile John had only started to see and it scared him as much as it pleased him. "Well…" Rodney said, but he closed the lid to his laptop and tentatively took John's proffered hand. "I guess it wouldn't exactly be masculine for me to turn down a blowjob…"

"There you go. We have to uphold the male standards around here. And besides, you did say you wanted to learn how." At the entrance to their bedroom, John stopped them for a deep kiss. Male standards for sure, but he had no intention admitting to Rodney that John had rarely, if ever, kissed the few men he'd been with. He'd never been sure if he was missing anything, but now, he didn't care. Rodney-kisses were worth waiting for.

They were getting better, more efficient at stripping, though Rodney still seemed a bit body-shy around John. But it was a matter of cleanliness to go down to nothing, since they still weren't sure how they were going to get their clothes clean. John's suggestion of beating them on rocks was met with an eyeroll from Rodney. They were going to have to do something soon, because John was just about out of clean underwear. Rodney said he was going to devote a day to getting water piped into the cave — and maybe they could do that tomorrow, while Rodney cogitated on how to rescue runners.

But that would be tomorrow. For now, John stretched out over Rodney, his weight on his elbows and knees, bracketing Rodney's torso; close enough to feel Rodney's heat but not close enough to do anything but kiss. Rodney whined into his mouth, arching up, trying to get to John, to touch him. John broke the deeper kiss and began a series of little, openmouthed kisses down Rodney's body, stopping at various places, places he was coming to understand were real hotspots on Rodney's skin, the skin he was fast becoming addicted to.

Somewhere, in the back of John's brain, a little voice told him he was going overboard. It said he was falling for Rodney, falling for a man, getting in too deep, allowing his feelings to tug him too far into unsafe waters. It worried John, it scared him, more than a little, and he knew if he allowed himself to dwell on the idea, on the voice, he'd back off. He knew he'd cool down, he'd retreat and make sure what he had with Rodney was just sex, sex and nothing more than that.

Then Rodney would look at him like he hung the moon, and the scary feeling, the worried voice would turn into something else — still worrisome, still frightening, but good too. It would say this thing with Rodney was strong and right and just maybe everything he'd ever wanted. Not that it still didn't still terrify him, of course, but it was much easier to ignore something good. Good things didn't usually blow up on you with no warning. So he did like he always did and repressed everything behind nice, thick iron doors that had no key.

They might have been haphazard about bathing, but there was nothing bad about how Rodney smelled. John breathed deeply before licking a stripe up Rodney's dick. Rodney gasped and arched, babbling something about how good it felt, how much he loved John doing this to him, maybe even a statement on the weather — John had long ago learned how to tune most of what Rodney said out. The important stuff came through, and that's what counted.

An idea popped into John's head and he hesitated, briefly, but then decided to go for it. He let Rodney's cock slurp off his tongue long enough to get one finger wet with his saliva, then went back down as he moved that finger carefully to Rodney's ass. He didn't do more than press gently against the entrance, but the effect on Rodney was electrifying. He jerked, gasped and came in John's mouth, hard enough that John couldn't swallow it all.

Gentling him through the aftershocks, John lifted his head and grinned at Rodney, who was still reaching for breath. "Good?" he asked, aware how smug he sounded.

"Ah… Uh…"

Cool. McKay without words again; John was going to have to start keeping a scorecard.

"I… ah…" Rodney seemed to be coming off his high. "I wanna… want to do that… to you…" He drew in a big breath. "How did you know?"

"Guessed." John heaved himself up until he was lying next to Rodney. "I love it, and I figured you might too." He nudged his erection against Rodney's hip, a gentle reminder.

"You do?" Rodney rolled to his side and took John in hand. "We've got to practice more."

"Yeah, yeah, oh God," John groaned, thrusting into the almost perfect heat and tightness of Rodney's hand.


They spent most of the next day working on bringing water into the cave. Rodney claimed doing something with his hands would actually help him think, and it was a definite hands-on job. They had enough pipe, lifted from a variety of places, taken whenever they saw it. They had good water under pressure too, as the spring which fed the lake was just up the hill from their cave. Rodney explained how the water probably carved out the caves before being diverted to its present bed.

"What would do that?" John asked, grunting as he hefted another section of pipe for Rodney to fit.

"Anything, earthquake, people, animals, whatever, and you're going to give yourself a hernia doing that. Come here, I'll show you how to do it right."

They were done by mid-afternoon, and it was a thing of utter hideousness but it worked. John went out to check the snares he'd set the day before and found he'd caught a big critter like a groundhog, only with very long, sharp teeth. Cleaning it was a hell of a lot easier than the not-alligator, and soon he had it cut into chunks and simmering in broth with vegetables. He had no idea what the vegetables were, but he remembered seeing them served by Ford.

"Oh my God, that smells good," Rodney said, returning from checking on their pipe project. "I wish we had bread left over. Oh, and those bird things, I found a nest up the hill. Do you think they'd be good for eating?"

"Dunno, but we can try 'em. I think Ford had eggs of some kind or other, didn't he?"

"Yeah. And I think I found their vegetable patch, or what was left of it. It's over by the spring." Rodney sat in one of the chairs at the small table in the 'kitchen' area. John was cutting up some kind vegetable,  blue-green in color, which he thought might taste good with stew. He hoped. "We're settling in here, aren't we?" Rodney asked quietly.

John paused and sighed, but didn't look up. "Yeah. I… Yeah. Guess so."

"What's so bad about that?" Rodney's voice was still soft and tentative. "It's a good place to call home, at least until we can figure out how to get back."

John dumped the last vegetable-thing into the pot and sat back down, slouching on the chair. "I don't know," he said. "I want to have more, and yeah, it's a paranoid thing, but I keep thinking about the city and what we needed there. Well, that, and wanting to go back."

Rodney nodded but didn't look up. His finger worried a chip in the small table's surface. "Me too. I want to go home, but home was blown up. So now I don't know where to go."

There wasn't much to say to that, especially since John agreed with him. He stretched and scratched the back of his neck. "I think we're…" He had to push the words out, but they came. "I think we're gonna have to… to… I don't know. Redefine home." He swallowed and looked up, gratified to see the same discomfort on Rodney's face as he felt. "For now. Anyway."

Rodney was studying the table as if he were looking at each individual molecule of the wood. "It's funny," he said softly, "but aside from that first freak out, I haven't felt that panicked. Our living conditions are incredibly primitive, we don't even have a proper toilet or bed and I miss Jeannie like crazy — and no, you're not allowed to tell her that — but… It's like, like my body or brain is saying I must be fine, because John is here. It doesn't seem very logical, but…"

"It's… kind of like that for me, too, I think," John blurted. In reality, he thought, Rodney was his home, and that actually terrified him far more than being alone against the Wraith and the Replicators.

They looked up at the same time, and John blinked as he looked into Rodney's eyes. They held the contact for a while, and John marveled how little he was losing it. He saw — he hoped he saw — that same feelings he was never, ever going to acknowledge, and knew Rodney would have no problems with that and might feel the same way and…. And John suddenly realized, he was in deep kimchee in a lot more ways than he'd originally thought. And maybe it wasn't such a bad thing after all.

"You think that stew is about ready?" Rodney asked, that small, sweet smile on his face.

"Sure, why not. Let's give it a try."

The stew was terrible, though Rodney heroically ate half of it. John made a pledge to find salt somewhere. Maybe Belkan, he recalled a general goods store there. And maybe sugar, too, since Rodney had a sweet tooth and it would be nice to feed it, maybe.


THE FIRST MONTH:

John had completely forgotten about M1K-439, the planet with all the waterfalls. When they came through the 'gate, Rodney smacked himself in the forehead and said, "Waterfalls! Geologic faults! I'm an idiot!"

They found a huge cave complex behind one of the waterfalls, one with several bolt-holes and ample room for the 'jumper to park. In fact, the biggest access to 'the garage' was directly through the curtain of water. John thought it was ultra cool, though when he christened it the Batcave, he could almost hear Rodney's eyes rolling. And the 'jumper got a good wash every time they flew her through it — a double win.

It took them two weeks of steady work to make the Batcave habitable, less than it would have been had they not had experience working on Ford's cave. Rodney moved the last of the consoles into it and set up the perimeter, giving John a dirty look when he asked about remote energy readings.

"You're just now wondering this?" he asked scornfully. "Didn't I say I'd be the brains and you'd be the beauty in this relationship?"

"I am not beautiful, I am manly handsome," was John's reply. He bounced on his toes and gave Rodney his most insufferable smirk.

A 'shopping trip' to Belkan netted them a lot of stuff the Batcave didn't have, including two big beds, one for each lair. John nearly broke his back installing a cast-iron stove, and Rodney nearly sprained something putting in the heavily shielded exhaust pipe for it. John carefully did not bring up the fact that they had no doctor around should something be broken, sprained or punctured. It was a source of panic for him, so much so that he sometimes woke in the middle of the night from dreams where one or both of them were dying of a common cold, an allergic reaction, or a fall down a step or ledge. So far, he'd managed to keep Rodney from knowing about those particular nightmares. Rodney seemed to have his own and John carefully didn't ask.

He missed Carson. It was hard enough having to say goodbye to the man once, but when he died the second time, it felt like something had been ripped out of John's chest. Rodney still wouldn't talk about it, and John knew it was too soon, too much, and even forever might not be enough time to get over it.

To give himself something different to do, John started playing with making bread. He wasn't very good at it, but he kept trying. Rodney gave John his first blowjob, which also wasn't very good — too much teeth and not enough suction, though John would never have said so. John cracked up at Rodney's expression over the taste of his come, then had to reassure him that he didn't find it all that palatable either.

It took Rodney more than two weeks and a lot of trial and error, but he finally came up with a way to disable the runners' tracking device. "I had to be certain it would work the first time," he said in reply to John's ragging him on it. "Unless we find a doctor, those damn things have to stay in and I'm not risking revealing our existence for anything, thank you very much."

John knew when to back down. In truth, he'd never really worried about it, because he knew Rodney would come up with something reasonably safe. And while they were waiting, two more runners had popped up. It still didn't make any sense to John that the Wraith would be creating runners this late in the game, when the war with the Asurans had to be limiting their resources. He supposed it could be related to their incredible arrogance, which was even greater than McKay's had been at his very worst. Regardless, he resolved to be extra careful in their contact mission.

"So, what's the deal? How does it work?" he asked, hanging over Rodney's shoulder.

"The power source for these things is incredibly tiny and incredibly powerful." Rodney pulled up the schematics for the device on the big plasma screen. "Remember all the testing I did on it? It's the Wraith equivalent of an Eveready battery… or, wait. Think of it as a hearing aid battery, one that would last around ten years or so."

"Yeah, that makes sense," John said, nodding. "I don't think they ever had anyone who lasted as long as Ronon."

"Probably not. I couldn't cause an overload on the power source without melting the device — and subsequently killing the runner." Rodney grimaced. "Fuckers. I know they put it where they did so that if anyone tried to get it out, it would kill them. Since I couldn't destroy the power source, I had to figure out a way to disable it. To use it up so that it would die, naturally."

John raised his eyebrows and nodded. "Thereby ensuring it can't ever be picked up on any scope."

"Exactly!" Rodney grinned and poked John in his chest with one finger. "Do you remember how we zeroed out the ZedPM on P24-339? The planet of the broken down version of Atlantis?"

John blinked, trying to think back. "Oh! The planet with the hot blonde."

This time he could not only hear, he could feel Rodney roll his eyes. "Yes yes, let us do remember planetary designations by how frequently we get laid."

"I turned her down, Rodney," John said, in his best put-upon voice. "And it doesn't matter, because yes, I remember how you depleted the ZPM; you turned on the stardrive and that… Oh." Depleting a battery.

"Yes, oh, because that's kind of what I'm doing here. I'm forcing the device to boost its signal until the power supply dies. Once I figured that part out, the rest pretty much fell into place."

"I think I get it. You're going to mask the signal somehow and force it to boost its power?"

"In a way. Say what you will about the Wraith, they come up with some excellent ideas. It's a bi-directional signal, the strength of which depends on how far away it is from the receiver, which is on every hive ship, I presume. It seeks out the closest ship — the signal and receiver access subspace — and the power goes up or down as necessary." Rodney rocked back on his heels, smirking. "So I built a receiver, we'll put the runner in a place that will jam any signal — also known as the puddlejumper, once I get through with her — and force the device to boost the signal until it dies."

John couldn't find fault with it. "I knew you could do it," he said, and kissed Rodney, hard on the mouth. "So when do we pull this off?"

"Uh…" Dazed and confused, John's favorite way to see Rodney. "I'll let… let you know," he said before grabbing the back of John's neck and yanking him back down for a kiss.


It didn't take long to put the extra shielding in the 'jumper, then all they had to do was wait. Rodney watched the sensors, waiting for one of the runners to change planets while also keeping an eye on the Wraith hive ships — they didn't want to get too close to a runner tagged by a hive. Finally, a runner popped up on Manaria. John and Rodney got on the 'jumper and gated through, cloaked, Rodney keeping a close eye on the sensors. Preoccupied by his scanner, he gave John vague directions.

"That way," he said, waving in their two o'clock position. "We've got to get him on board."

John adjusted course, looking for a moving target. It was twilight on the planet, which didn't help any. "McKay, I need the HUD to find this guy."

"Oh. Okay."

Rodney hit something on his laptop and gave control of the HUD to John. There he was, a blip behind that ruined building, or maybe under it? "What's your plan to get this guy on board?" John asked, trying to figure out where to land.

"My plan? I'm just the brains, Pinky, you're the brawn."

"Wait a minute, I thought I was beauty?" John said, not taking his eyes off the HUD. "If we're going to cartoons, now, I can think of a few better than that, Elmer." There was a spot, hover-and-squat, it looked like.

"Ha ha. Just go get him. I'll stay here and monitor the situation. Leave your radio active!"

John lowered the back hatch, unable to resist his normal tease as he headed aft. "Be right back. Anything you want from the store? Quart of milk? Flavored lube, maybe?" Grinning, he took off, his hand on his P-90, just in case.

The building was only partly ruined; built with typical Manarian care and thoroughness, it would probably outlast anything but the sun going nova. One side had been blown in, but the other three were still standing, and it was more than likely that there was an intact basement. John stepped carefully through the partially demolished front door, sweeping the area with the light on his gun. "Hey," he called, softly. "Not the Wraith, here. You want to come out? We can help you."

Something crashed beneath his feet and he stepped back sharply, into the doorway. "Seriously, not the Wraith. We've got food and supplies. Come on out, you'll see."

Except where his flashlight lit it, the building was completely dark. He could see fragments of what had probably been furniture and a couple of other doors, most of them hanging broken from their hinges. He pulled out the life-signs detector and saw the spot that represented the runner was beneath him. John swept the room and saw an open doorway across the room and to his right that appeared to have stairs going down. He moved carefully, hugging the wall until he could see the passageway and the steps going down.

According to the life-signs detector, the runner was stationary against the wall farthest from the steps. John tested each step carefully, wary of traps. He knew he would set them and sure enough, two of the steps were rigged to collapse. He tripped them and stayed where he was. "Hey. I know you're here, I'm not Wraith and not Asuran, I swear I'm not here to hurt you. Can you come out? I've got food and supplies, and I'm willing to share."

There was silence for a long time, so long that John was about to speak again, but then he heard a faint voice. "Go away."

John frowned. The voice sounded very young, not that of a grown man. "Come on, I don't want to do that, I want to help." He kept his voice soft and gentle. "We're kinda not safe here, you know, the Wraith will show up sooner or later." He waited again. "I'd really hate to leave you here. You sure you don't want to come out?"

"You… you're trying to trick me, I know it, you're from the Blessed," the voice said, sounding hesitant and scared.

"The what? I don't know what that is," John replied, keeping his voice gentle. "We're just a couple of guys trying to stay alive here. We're not a threat to you. Honest."

John could hear raspy, panicked breathing from across the room. He did his best to exude calmness and safety, but really wish Teyla were with him. "Hey, now, it's okay. Come on over here, we can talk. Really."

There was a scuffle of feet and John turned, the light on his P-90 picking out a shadow against the wall. The room was filled with stuff — it looked like any basement or attic on Earth, actually, so John felt right at home. The runner appeared from behind something that looked a little like a mattress propped up against the wall. He raised his hand to shield himself against the light.

"Oh, hi there. Sorry, didn't mean to blind you." John moved the light and felt his breath catch in his chest — the runner was a kid. A gangly, maybe teenage kid and he had a hard time controlling his rage. "Come on over here, are you hungry? We've got food in the — in our ship."

The kid came closer, warily. He looked almost exactly like a puppy who'd been kicked one too many times and didn't want to trust anyone. "You… you're not…"

"My name's John. What's yours?"

"Chand. Chand Agran. Where… you've got food?"

"Yeah, Chand, we do." John kept his voice soft. "Come on, I'll take you to our ship. It's shielded so the Wraith can't pick you up."

Chand finally closed the distance between them and in the light, John could see the boy was covered with bruises and his nose looked broken. He was filthy and dressed in rags and John wanted to hit someone, hit whoever had hurt this kid. "We're up here, Chand." He touched his earpiece. "Rodney? We in the clear? I've got a passenger who looks hungry."

"Nothing anywhere near us and the 'gate is still clear," Rodney said. His clipped, sharp words told John he'd been listening in. Wait until he saw Chand, John thought. He was going to be livid.

They got up the stairs and out the front door, John being careful not to crowd Chand. He kept up a low-voiced running monologue, nothing special, just working at being calm. When Chand saw the 'jumper de-cloak, he stopped and his eyes grew wide. "That's… that's a ship from the Ancestors!" He turned and looked John up and down in the light from the open hatch of the 'jumper. "Are you from the City of the Ancestors? We thought you were all dead."

"Rumors of our demise, et cetra," Rodney said, coming back to meet them. "But Atlantis is gone. I'm Rodney."

"Rodney is my partner, Chand," John said, indicating Chand should board. "He's going to turn off the transmitter so the Wraith can't find you any more."

"The what?" Chand looked confused and in the light of the 'jumper, John realized how skinny and wounded he was.

"The Wraith put a transmitter in your back so they could find you," Rodney said brusquely. "I'm going to disable it so they can't find it."

John had grabbed one of the MREs and opened it, handing a sandwich to Chand. "Here, it tastes like chicken, you'll love it."

Chand didn't say no. He opened the package and tried to shove the whole meal in his mouth. "Hold on there, cowboy," John said, chuckling. "We didn't rescue you only to have you choke to death. There's plenty more where that came from."

"Can you lift us and take us through the 'gate? The jammer is active," Rodney said to John before turning back to Chand. "Come on, sit down. I'll get started on the transmitter."

Finally clearing his mouth, Chand said, "What are you talking about? What transmitter?"

"What they put in your back, what the Wraith did to you to make you a runner." John kept half an ear on the conversation behind him as he lifted and headed for the 'gate. He knew Rodney would keep Chand from seeing their destination, just in case the kid was a plant. But John's Spidey Sense told him that wasn't an issue, that Chand was the real thing.

"Do you mean what the Blessed put in me? Is that a transmitter? What does it do?" Chand sounded a bit calmer, which was better. And what — or who — the fuck was 'The Blessed?'

"The Blessed? What's that? You mean you weren't made into a runner by the Wraith?"

"Is that what they did to me?" Chand put his food down and his face twisted up. John turned away, dialed the 'gate for the Batcave and waited for it to stabilize as he listened. "They told me… told me they were… were sending me… sending me out for the… the Wraith… Oh, Ancestors, is that what this thing does?" Suddenly Chand sounded near tears and John almost felt that way himself. What the fuck was this 'Blessed?'

It was a good thing that progress through a 'gate was automatic for a 'jumper, because John might have missed it entirely.

"Here. Turn around." John heard Rodney's sharp intake of breath, it was that loud. "Christ. Sheppard, do we still have the smaller med kit in the 'jumper?"

"Yeah," John said. "On the wall behind me. What's the deal?"

"Whoever put it in him didn't bother to do a good job." Rodney sounded six degrees past furious and John was glad it wasn't directed at him.

"ETA three minutes to the Batcave," John said, more than willing to let Rodney deal with things back there.

"Good." Rodney got the kit and went back aft. John didn't hear any further conversation since he needed to be careful when parking the 'jumper behind the water.


Chand's back was a horror, actually worse than his front, which should have been difficult. They had to treat him while he was in the 'jumper; John took over the medic's role while Rodney made sure the transmitter was well and truly dead. Even though the incision where the thing was embedded wasn't healed, it was still too deep for either of them to be comfortable about pulling it out. So John disinfected that wound and several others, applied butterfly bandages and gave the poor kid a dose of antibiotics and a big bottle of water. He'd wait to put in stitches once Chand was clean.

It didn't take long to drain the power in the transmitter. "Either it was old and nearly dead, or it was a different type, but it's no longer functioning." Rodney closed his laptop with a decisive snap. "You need a shower, Chand. Then we can feed you some more and make sure you're properly stitched up."

Chand still looked like he wanted to bolt. "You don't have to stay with us," John said, pitching his voice low. "You can eat, shower and whatever else, and I'll be glad to fly you anywhere you want."

"I…" Chand bit his lip before speaking again, in a tremulous voice. "Mam said… she was sorry. She said we should have gone with you, we'd have been safe. But Pa was so sick…"

John exchanged a quick glance with Rodney. "Come with us? You mean when we offered to get people out — away from the Wraith? To a different place?"

"Yeah." He took another drink of water and appeared to be calming. "She though she could make Pa better. So we didn't go. Then Pa died and the City of the Ancestors didn't answer. It died too, so we heard."

Rodney sighed and closed his eyes. "I'm sorry," John said, feeling unaccountably guilty. "We should have gone back."

Chand didn't appear to have heard him. "So when the Blessed came, telling us to come with them, to be safe, Mam got me and Sann — she's my sist— was my sister — and we went with them. We thought they were you." Chand's voice got even softer, so quiet John almost couldn't hear him. "But all they wanted to do was turn us into Wraith. Mam said she'd rather die." Chand sniffed and he began to cry, his words mixed with hiccoughing sobs. Rodney passed him an almost clean rag to use as a handkerchief. "So they killed her. And Sann. And put something in my back and told me the Wraith would eat me."

"Christ," Rodney breathed. He was pale and looked to be seconds from crying or punching a hole in something or both.

John was suddenly overcome with a horrible feeling. "Chand, what's the Blessed, a group of people? Do you remember their names?"

Chand nodded, his head jerking up and down. "They said they were The Blessed Ones, the Blessed from new Athos. The headman's name is Kanaan. He was… he was the one. He put the thing in me."

John had to close his eyes and concentrate on calming down. All he wanted to do was smash something, hit something, blow something up — preferably Kanaan and the rest of Michael's mutant brigade — and he still had work to do. "Let's get you washed up, Chand," he said. "Rodney, you think we've got some clothes to fit him?"

"Yeah." Rodney's voice was strangled and in his eyes, John saw the same rage he felt. "I'll go find some. Come on, Chand."

John led Chand into the Batcave, showed him where the shower was, gave him soap and towels and told him to be careful then left him to it. As he stepped out of the space they called the bathroom, he ran into Rodney, who was carrying some clothing. "Jesus, John, he's nothing but skin and bones. I've got no underwear at all for him, but these sweats have a drawstring and the shirt—"

"McKay," John said softly, touching his shoulder, stopping the flow of words.

"—can be… Yeah?"

"I know. I feel the same way."

Rodney swallowed. "If he's alive, if that bastard is alive, then maybe the baby…"

John felt that hope too. He remembered the despair on Teyla's face when they rescued her, when she told them of Kanaan's treachery to her and the other Athosians who refused to be turned into pseudo-Wraith. He remembered the incredible pain on her face when they returned to tell her they hadn't found the baby. "Maybe. Maybe. He'd be what, a year and a half?"

"Two?" From around the corner, they could hear their 'shower' start up. Rodney put the clothing on the small bench just inside the room and turned away. He wrapped his arms around John and just held on, sighing when John gave as good as he got. "The baby might be alive," Rodney whispered.

After a few minutes of just holding each other, John said, "We've got to revise the list."

Rodney pulled back slightly and looked at John, frowning. "What list?"

"The list of things we need to do. Remember? Fuck up the Wraith, then fuck up the Replicators? Well, now we've got to fuck up Michael's mutant brigade too." John paused and considered briefly. "Not necessarily in that order."

"Then we go home in your battleship," Rodney said, shaking his head. "You're certifiable."

"Yeah." John held on for a bit longer then reluctantly broke the hug. "C'mon, we need to get some food into our stray, then I've got to put some stitches in him. I hope I remember how."

"I hope you do too, because I sure won't do it." Rodney sighed but headed towards their kitchen area. "I miss Carson."

"I do too, buddy," John replied, following him. "I do too."


Once clean, dry, stitched up and fed, Chand slept for sixteen hours straight. They didn't dare leave him alone in the Batcave, especially since their security system didn't recognize him, but they put the time to good use. Rodney tried to enlarge the range of their scanners to pick up more runners and John tried more cooking, in between exercising. He'd turned one of the larger areas of the Batcave into a sort of gym, and though all his gear was probably waiting for him at the SGC, he felt a duty to the rest of his team to keep in shape. At both locations, he'd set up a good three-mile running track. That helped, especially when he was feeling anxious or depressed, but he couldn't leave the cave while Chand was there.

While he slept, John and Rodney talked about Chand so John could make sure they were on the same page. John was afraid that Rodney would want to trust the kid immediately, but was pleasantly surprised to find Rodney had become as paranoid as John.

"You were right, we don't have any idea who these runners are." Rodney picked at the last of his MRE. "I never in a million years would have expected this… atrocity by those damn mutants."

John let the quiet between them steep for a few moments, before quietly saying, "We still don't know for sure if he's real or a plant, you know."

Rodney rolled his eyes. "Who are you trying to convince? Me or you?"

"Okay, fine, but still."

"Yeah, I know." Rodney sighed.

When Chand woke, he found John stoking the fire in their huge stove. John turned when he heard the boy's footsteps. "Hey, look who's awake. How do you feel?"

Chand smiled shyly. "Hungry."

"Well, you've come to the right place. We've got some vegetable things and some meat from what looks like a cross between a groundhog and a Tasmanian devil. Get yourself some water, do you know how to use that pump?"

"Oh. Yes." Chand pumped himself some water into one of the metal cups stacked in a haphazard way on the shelf next to the sink. He took it to their big table and sat down. John put a dish of vegetables in front of him. "I'll have the stew ready in a bit. I'm still not very good about cooking, sorry."

Chand had his mouth full but he nodded. "S'good," he managed to mumble.

"Thanks!" John beamed. "I'm no chef, but we can't count on the food we brought from Atlantis."

Pausing, Chand said, "Is that the City of the Ancestors?"

"Yeah." John concentrated on the bubbling stew — he'd gotten better, but he still had a tendency to burn the bottom out of whatever he cooked — while he answered. Rodney and he had decided on a couple of easy tests to figure out if Chand was on the level, so he started with the easiest. "Where are you from, Chand?"

"I was born on Manaria," he replied, after drinking some water. "That was… that was my house. I was hoping to find someone." John turned and found Chand's face to be screwed up, his eyes brimming. "Everybody was gone. Our house was almost gone. All the houses. Even… all the houses." Chand's voice was sad and damp.

"How old are you, Chand?" John asked quietly. He moved the pot to the back of the stove and sat down at the table opposite Chand. Rodney was in his work area, but he'd be in soon enough.

Chand took a deep breath, though his head didn't come up all the way. "I have seventeen summers." John had to look away, to hide the rage he felt at someone who would hurt a goddamned kid in such a way. "I was pledged to the physic, she said I had promise and might make a good apprentice."

"You said you had a sister?"

"Yeah. Sann." Chand swallowed heavily. "She had nineteen summers and was working with Pa, his assistant. She was stepping out with Rory, and he's gone too. Betha was… she was too, she was gone. I looked." He sniffed. "They're all gone."

"Was Betha your girlfriend?" John asked softly.

Chand only nodded, his head still down. A large drop of moisture hit the table's surface under Chand's face.

John rose and went back to the stew, to give some space to the poor kid. "We can go back to Manaria today, if you'd like. You can look for some of your stuff, like clothes. We really don't have much in the way of clothes, here." Chand  nodded again. Deciding the stew was ready, he dished out a large portion. "Here you go, I hope it's actually edible. We did find salt, recently, but I'm no cook. I'm better than McKay is, though, so you're stuck with me for now."

It smelled good, at least, and Chand dug in. After a few bites, he looked up. "It's pretty good," he said. "Do you have bread?"

John sighed. "No, though I've got the stuff for it. I just don't know what I'm doing. Every time I've tried it's been a disaster."

Chand's expression lightened. "I can help, Pa was the best baker in Ondo, our village. I'm not as good as Sann is—was, but I can do it. I think." He smiled, and it was both sad and shy. "I could pay you back for your help. I'd like that."

"I think we'll be in your debt if you do!" John said, laughing.


They went back to Manaria that evening, and after checking it out thoroughly, decided it was safe for a short while. Chand pulled out clothing, a few mementos and his father's baking paraphernalia from the remains of his house. The kitchen hadn't been completely destroyed, but Chand didn't seem to want to stay long, for obvious reasons. He also took them to a larger house, which he said had been the physic's house/office. There the damage was a little more extensive, but he still managed to find several unbroken bottles and pouches, as well as some books.

Rodney stayed in the 'jumper and monitored all radio and subspace frequencies but came up dry. If Chand was a plant, he wasn't showing his hand, at least not yet. Despite his natural wariness, John still felt that the kid was the genuine article: a hurt and depressed young boy who desperately needed a home.

That night, they sent Chand off to bed with a warning not to go outside, since it was dangerous. He solemnly promised not to and went to his guest room with a few books, some of what he'd salvaged from his home and the physic's house.

John and Rodney discussed it that evening. "Let's not rescue anybody else for a couple of weeks," John said, wrapping Rodney in his arms. Their new bed was wonderful — wide and soft and perfect. One of the things they had done in the Batcave was to put wooden doors in, giving an illusion of privacy, at least. Ford's cave had some doors, but most of the 'rooms' had ceilings that were too high, making it impossible to seal them off with standard size doors.

"Okay," Rodney said, murmuring into the skin of John's back; little moist puffs of air. They were spooned together and Rodney was pushing his erection into John's cleft, making them both shiver. "I'm pretty sure he's the real deal, though."

Grinding back on Rodney's dick felt so damn good. "Yeah, I'm inclined to believe you." John sighed happily. "We might have bread in the morning, too."

"For that alone I'm willing to give him the keys to the 'jumper for date night." Rodney kissed John's back, sending little goosebumps down John's spine. "God, I can never get enough of you," Rodney continued in a strangled voice.

"Cuts down on spontaneity," John gasped as Rodney squeezed him tightly.

"We are both over forty," Rodney fired back. "And are in possession of a good bed. We do not need to have sex on the kitchen table."

"Aw damn." John pushed back harder. "God, I want you to fuck me," he whispered, his cock so hard it ached.

Rodney's breath stuttered in his throat. "You like it that much?"

"Christ, yes." John closed his eyes, trying to rein in his libido. "I've played with your ass, you know how good it is."

"It's just… I mean… such a small opening…"

John grinned. "Roll over, on your stomach." Rodney frowned but complied. John shifted so he was kneeling between Rodney's legs. "Lift up, on your knees." Rodney gave him a cautious look. "Don't worry, you'll like this. You know I wouldn't do anything you don't want me to, right?"

Rodney's caution melted away. "Yeah. I do. Sorry."

John just grinned. "It's okay. Come on, up on your knees." They'd gone about that far in previous weeks, but John thought he'd try something new to loosen Rodney up. Once Rodney was comfortable and at the right angle, John carefully spread his butt cheeks and licked his cleft, right over his hole.

Rodney was so surprised he jumped almost all the way off the bed. "Holy fuck… what…? What did you…?"

Instead of answering, John just did it again. Rodney started trembling and a fine sheen of sweat broke out all over his body. "Oh… God… John… God…"

It took a lot of trust for John to rim someone. He'd only done it a couple of times before, and Nancy hadn't liked it, she felt squeamish about it. Rodney's reaction was incredible, incoherent, and he was shaking so hard John could barely hold on.

It took John a moment to realize Rodney was pleading with him, his entire body taut with wanting to come. "Please… please… please…" was apparently all he could say. John had a sudden idea; he lifted up, planted his knees, and carefully raised Rodney so that they were upright, John's front to Rodney's back. John left his dick where it was and it peeked through, coming up from behind and just below Rodney's balls. John couldn't see it, not at that angle, but he could feel it and it felt unbelievably good.

"Oh… oh… oh Christ… please!" John could just see Rodney's dick from over his shoulder; it was dark red and almost straight up, with beads of pre-come wetting the crown.

"Touch yourself," John rasped. "C'mon, Rodney, touch yourself…" John thrust forward, rubbing through Rodney's cleft, almost there himself.

Rodney took himself in hand and began a brutal rhythm. After only a few seconds, he let his head fall back against John's shoulder and came, a deep, almost desperate groan fighting its way out of his chest as he came all over his hand and John's dick. In coming, he squeezed his thighs together and that last little bit of constriction was it; John came too, making him so weak he almost fell over.

They panted against each other for several long moments before John's knees protested such acrobatics. He carefully maneuvered them so they were lying on the bed again, still spooned together. "Oh my God," Rodney said, his voice slurred almost to the point of incomprehension.

"Liked it, huh?" John was barely able to talk himself.

"Gee, you think?" Even Rodney's sarcasm was muted by the sated tone in his voice.

John chuckled. Carefully, he stretched out, ignoring the aches in his back and knee — getting older was a bitch. But then again, if getting older meant he could have fantastic sex with Rodney McKay on a regular basis, then maybe it wasn't so bad after all.


THE FIRST YEAR:

Rodney was working on finishing the heating coils for their new, bigger water heater, and John was annoying him, when the proximity alert went off. John stood up. "Must be Darche coming back."

"Oh, good. I hope he bagged a few more of those chicken-things." Rodney pushed his work aside, ready to follow John.

"You always think with your stomach, McKay," John said, and laughed when Rodney poked him in the side.

Darche had indeed brought more of the chicken-things, already plucked and ready for dismemberment and roasting. The noise drew Chand from his lair, book in hand. He greeted both with big grins. "You brought four!"

Darche had apparently had adopted Chand as the little brother he'd never had. "Your empty stomachs inspired me."

John laughed and looked pointedly at Rodney, who gave him a fake-outraged expression. "I do not eat as much as Chand!"

"Yes, you do," said Darche, with his deadpan humor. That was one of the other ways he reminded John of Ronon, aside from them having been runners for a long time. Darche was nowhere near as tall as Ronon, but was as muscled and had as long a reach — he reminded John more of Teal'c, in fact, except he was bald. He'd been almost dead when they found him, rescued him and deactivated his transmitter. He was still pretty close-mouthed about his past; all John knew for sure was he was from Hoff.

Chand laughed and John laughed too, just to hear it. Their little family was getting more comfortable with every day that passed. Darche was mostly living in Ford's cave, when he wasn't out trailing other runners or blowing up Wraith and the Blessed's ships, but he made it a point to come by the Batcave at least every other week to report in. It was because of Darche they could use the cave complexes at M4H-212 and P3X-447 as a buffer for the rescued runners, to make sure they were aboveboard and not spies for the Michael's mutant 'Blessed,' the Wraith or the Asurans.

"Come on, Darche, Rodney and Chand can cook while we spar."

"Just be glad you've got at least one decent cook here!" Rodney shouted after them as they walked away.

"I really am, too," John confided as he and Darche entered the big open area they called the gym. "I'm especially glad I don't have to do it any more."

Darche pulled out two of their long quarterstaffs, giving John a raised eyebrow. "You weren't that bad at it."

John nodded and took one of the staffs as Darche tossed it to him. "Oh yes I was."

They started out slow, stretching muscles and easing into full-on sparring. John could hold his own for a good half an hour while sparring with Darche, but eventually Darche's longer reach, greater stamina and, dammit, lack of years, overcame John and they had to stop.

They were cooling down by walking in tiny circles — John felt vaguely relieved that Darche was out of breath too — when John asked for a 'report' on the other runners.

There were currently two at M4H-212 and three at P3X-447. "You were right about Liden," Darche said, rubbing his bald head with the towel. "He left last week without speaking."

"So that means we've got two at — what's the name of that planet?"

Darche rolled his eyes. "Gantric. I tell you that every damn time."

"So I'm old, get over it." John threw his towel at Darche's smirk.

"Yes, we've got two at Gantric and two at Dalem. I think we can bring Rike in, though."

"You do? Hmm." John pushed his arms against the wall and leaned in to stretch his hamstrings. "Okay. You want to bring him to Ford's caves first?"

"Sure. One last test. But I think he's going to be fine."

John nodded. "Sounds good to me. Let me know when you do."

"You still want me here for the next couple of days?" Darche slung his towel around his neck and followed John out of the room.

"Yeah, if you don't mind. I'm still a little leery of leaving Chand here alone, but you did not hear that from me."

"He'd be fine, you know, Rodney told me he hasn't had a nightmare in weeks."

"Yeah, but you and I both know we'd be happier with him not being alone, and anyway, I really think we should always have at least two here at ops base." John kept talking as they walked. "We might want to try that at the other locations once we get more people and can set up more scanners and equipment. You can have first dibs at the shower, I'll see you at dinner."

Looking for Rodney, John poked his head in the kitchen but only saw Chand, humming happily as he made a mess with vegetables and not-chicken parts. Rodney was, of course, back in the lab, also humming happily as he worked on something. Life with Rodney was like living with an invention machine; he was always coming up with new things for them to use — a refrigerator with a freezer, an electric stove, convection heaters, tiny, piezoelectric subspace locator beacons, a can opener — all the mod cons the average cave-dwelling hermit could use. It was pretty amazing, actually, and one of the many reasons why John was glad Rodney was around.

Quietly entering, John snuck up behind Rodney and pinched his butt, just to watch him jump and curse.

"That is sexual harassment!" Rodney said, as he turned and smacked John on the arm.

"Ow! And that's spouse abuse!" John countered. He boosted himself up on the table, his regular spot. "So, listen. I've got a plan."

"Oh, Newton save me. What now? A hot tub?"

About to roll his eyes, John paused. "Actually… could you do that?"

Rodney sighed. "Plan, plan, come on, busy man here."

"Fine. I asked Darche to stick around for a couple of days so you and I could take some time off."

Rodney just stared at him, blankly.

After a moment, John said, "McKay? Anyone in there?"

"What?"

"Time off, McKay. Like a vacation. It hasn't been that long, has it?"

"Vacation?" Rodney's voice was all kinds of scorn. "May I remind you we're in what amounts to the middle of a war? That we have enemies all around us? That all it would take was—"

"Now I know you need a vacation," John interrupted. "We're leaving immediately after dinner." John hopped down and walked to the door.

"Sheppard!" Rodney yelled, but John just waved his hand — well, more accurately, his middle finger. No matter what, they were going to take at least a day off.

When he got back to their room, he threw some clean shirts and underwear into a duffle, then on his way to shower, he tossed the duffle into the 'jumper. He knew how to head his scientist off at the pass.


Roasted not-chicken with vegetables and bread, fresh from the oven; dinner was heaven. The four of them sat in near-silence, which was a testament to how good Chand had become at cooking. At the end, there wasn't much left except some bones and half a crust of bread — then Rodney grabbed the crust and that was it.

Darche pushed back from the table, patting his stomach. "Good. Thanks, Andsa."

Chand smiled brightly. "You're welcome."

"Okay, before we get started on cleanup, I've got a few things for us to talk about." John slouched back in his chair, trying to hide the fact that he was loosening his belt. "First off, Darche is going to stay a couple of days while Rodney and I take a bit of a vacation."

Just as he expected, the objections started immediately.

"I don't need to be watched, I'm not a baby," Chand said, his voice hurt.

"No, you're not," John agreed. "But we can't afford to compromise security. I don't want anything less than a two man team here at the hub." He turned to Rodney. "And why, exactly, did we start referring to the Batcave as 'the hub'?"

"Because Captain Jack is infinitely cooler than Bruce Wayne and I don't know why we need to take a vacation in the first place!" Rodney had his old stubborn face on and John sighed.

"You're coming with me and that's the end of it. Now, Darche had some good news about one of our newbies, Rike. If he comes in to the family, we might start giving thought to that new setup on Hoff." John looked between Darche and Chand.

"Are you sure?" Rodney asked Darche. He was frowning. "We've only had him in for—"

"Six weeks, Neysa." Darche spoke slowly, as he always did when talking to Rodney. John was pretty sure he did it only because he knew it drove Rodney crazy, just like his nickname habit did. "You only had me in for four and a half."

"Oh, all right," Rodney grumbled. Darche was completely straight-faced, but his eyes were nearly dancing with repressed laughter. "It would probably be a good thing anyway. Our coverage of that quadrant is a bit thin. A node there would gain us a lot more."

John nodded. "Good. If Rike pans out, then, that's our plan. I also like it because it means added security. Now we'll clear up, then Rodney I are leaving."

Rodney groused for the whole washing up, bitched and moaned and complained even after they were in the air, getting ready to go through the 'gate. John ignored it completely, just let it wash over him.

It was late afternoon on P5Y-337 and John nodded to himself, satisfied. He'd timed it just right. He put the 'jumper down next to the small shack he and Darche had built over the past couple of weeks and said, "The captain has turned off the fasten seatbelt sign and you may now disembark. Thank you for flying Puddlejumper Airlines."

Rodney snorted but followed John off the 'jumper and even carried the backpack full of supplies out the rear hatch. "I still don't know why we're doing this, do you have any idea how much work I still have to do? I've been…" His voice trailed off. He stopped and frowned when he saw the building. "Uh… what…?"

"Darche and I put it up. C'mon, McKay, we've got time to build a small fire and I've got the last of the marshmallows to make s'mores."

"You do not," Rodney said, his eyes growing wide.

"I do so. Chop chop, McKay."

John busied himself building a fire and setting out their supplies while Rodney spread their sleeping bags in the small building, over the worn tarp which was the 'floor.' Sand made a lovely bed, but only if it was covered with something like a thermal sleeping bag. John knew Rodney would obsessively check for every possible irritant before spreading the bags, so he didn't pay much more attention to it.

The sun was a last gleam of rose gold off to their four o'clock position, making the ocean, about a quarter mile in front of them, a wine dark sea. The fire was burning briskly and John had found the perfect marshmallow sticks. Rodney was being uncharacteristically quiet, setting off the usual alarm bells in John. A couple of times when John would sneak a peek at Rodney, he found Rodney doing the same to him.

They sat down at the fire, backs against a convenient log, and Rodney fiddled with his first marshmallow. Finally, after another furtive glance his way, John said, "Okay, McKay, what's the deal?"

Rodney looked surprised and taken aback. "Um… What do you mean?"

"Just out with it. You've been too quiet so I know there's something going on."

Rodney had perfected the 'deer in the headlights' look, he should get a Nobel in it. "I… um…"

John sat there, his marshmallow nowhere near the fire, and waited for Rodney to finally spit out whatever had been bothering him.

Finally, Rodney flushed a red that had nothing to do with the fire, ducked his head and said, "I'm sorry."

Okay, that was unexpected. "You're sorry? For what?"

"Um…" Rodney frowned and blinked. "For… forgetting?"

And that pushed it into the land of the surreal. "Forgetting what, McKay? What the hell…?"

Rodney was beginning to look as confused as John felt. "Uh, whatever it is… I mean, we're here, so… an anniversary? Have we been, you know, a… a… couple or something? For six months or a year or however long…"

"We've been out here… we haven't been out here six months, have we?" John tried to count days or weeks or months in his head, and while numbers were often his bitch, memory was a bit sketchy. Could it have been six months?

"I don't…" It was like they were talking in two different languages or something. Well, McKay was. "Isn't that what all this… the marshmallows and chocolate and alone…?"

"It's a vacation, McKay!" The light bulb over John's head finally lit. "You thought this was for something special? Like an anniversary?"

"Well, yeah." Rodney looked completely confused. "I mean, I haven't been in that many… you know…"

"Relationships. You haven't had any, have you?"

Rodney gave him an affronted look. "I have so— Okay, no, not so many, but I have had— forget it. I just thought that's what people in relationships did, you know, have special times."

John rolled his eyes heavenward and sighed. "Rodney, we're guys. I can guarantee you that I will not now; nor will I ever do something stupid like that." His marshmallow caught fire and John had to act quickly to get it out. When it was, he reached for the chocolate and the soft flatbread Chand made because there were no more graham crackers, not in this galaxy. After a moment, as he made his s'more, he continued. "This was just us, just getting away from it for a night. It's been a stressful pain in the ass for… uh… however many months it's been. We need a break."

"Huh." Rodney was more careful with his marshmallow — he heated it up until it was a perfect brown (of course) before reaching for the chocolate and bread. "Maybe I should have gotten into a relationship with a guy sooner than this."

His mouth full of incredible sweetness, John mock-glared at Rodney. "Nope. No more relationships. Just me."

Rodney did a credible double-take and started to laugh. "Was that a proposal, Sheppard?"

"Oh, for God's sake." John reached over and smacked Rodney on the back of the head. "Make your s'more. We've only got a few marshmallows left."

They ate in peace for a little while before Rodney spoke again. "Where did you find these, anyway?"

John was being more careful with his second. "In the 'jumper. Cubby 9-B. I think we had a bag in there for those times when we'd go camping. They just never got taken out."

"They're probably stale as shit, then," Rodney mumbled around a mouthful of chocolate, bread and melting marshmallow.

"Yeah, probably, but I don't see you complaining."

Rodney's expression was incredulous, and John read it to mean are you kidding me? Rodney had a point; when you're lost in the Pegasus galaxy, you take your goodies where you can get them, and even stale marshmallows can be food of the gods.

It didn't take long to work through the last of the marshmallows. They had more chocolate, though, most of it from Rodney's caches. Apparently, chocolate (along with the toilet paper and coffee beans) was considered essential in Rodney's universe. John wasn't disputing it, though it was going to be rough when those coffee beans ran out. John repackaged the rest of the food and tossed his stick into the fire. "Was good," he sighed, patting his belly.

"Yeah." Rodney had another square of chocolate before copying John's motions. "So, um. You told Darche to bring in somebody else?"

"Yeah. Guy's name is Rike." John tossed another small log on the fire and leaned back with a sigh. "He's a tall, skinny guy, you remember. Looks a little like a red-headed Abraham Lincoln."

"Oh. Yeah." John glanced at Rodney to find him staring into the flames.

"What?"

Rodney waved one hand. "Nothing. I just, I guess, I don't know."

John watched him for a minute and when nothing more was forthcoming, he reached over and grabbed Rodney by the back of his neck and shook him gently. "What? You have a problem with bringing Rike in? With something else?"

"No, no," Rodney said, batting John's hand away. John just scooted closer, pulling Rodney's whole body into his arms. "I mean, it's a good idea, the runners. Darche is okay—"

"You just get upset because he teases you, Neysa," John chuckled.

"Stop that. That whole nickname thing he does is no less annoying when you do it." But Rodney relaxed back into John's embrace. "I guess… I guess it just points out how long term we are out here." He sighed. "And the fact it doesn't bother me more bothers the heck out of me. If that even makes sense."

John smiled and rested his cheek on Rodney's head, sighing his understanding. Yeah, he got that, all too well. Chand, Darche, now Rike… and who knew how many others before they could figure out how to get back to Earth, if they ever did.

"A part of me feels guilty, you know," Rodney said quietly. "Like maybe we should be trying harder to at least send a message back to Earth. I mean… they have to be looking for us. Worried about us."

And there it was, the vague feeling John had too — that they really didn't want to go back to Earth, that they were just as happy in Pegasus even without Atlantis. He didn't say anything, didn't agree or disagree or dispute Rodney's statement but he had the feeling that Rodney understood it was the same for him. He was almost ashamed about the feeling and didn't really understand why. He just knew it felt something like freedom.

After a long while of just sitting there, watching the fire die down to embers, Rodney finally stretched against him. "Maybe this was a good idea," he said.

"Don't give me any credit now, McKay," John said with fake annoyance.

"Hey, I'm just saying. It's nice. Weather's good, and I'm more tired than I thought. So. Yeah. You occasionally have good ideas."

John rolled his eyes but didn't bother to release Rodney to smack his head. So, they were in the middle of a war where every side was against them — so what? As far as John was concerned, you have to live your life or it wasn't even worth breathing. It was a philosophy that had gotten him through a lot of adversity in his life. And if it meant he was suddenly in a sexual relationship with a sarcastic, balding, genius Canadian, then who was he to complain? "C'mon, let's go to bed."

"I thought you'd never ask." Rodney got to his feet, complaining all the way, carefully brushing the sand from his clothing.

They'd grown more comfortable with each other over the however many months it had been. Rodney, especially, had become far more at ease around John. They were learning how to be intimate, John figured, because though they'd been friends for more than five years, they'd just become lovers. And Rodney, it turned out, was one hell of a lover. John had never suspected he'd carry his meticulous, scientific method to having sex. And there were times when it was a pain in the ass — literally — it certainly made bedtime interesting.

John built up the fire again, more for illumination than warmth, did his business at their toilet tree, and followed Rodney into the shack. "Is it safe to… you know, let our guard down here?" Rodney asked, pulling at the hem of his t-shirt.

"Yeah," John said, flopping onto the sleeping bags after toeing off his boots. "We've got this 'gate on alarm, the 'jumper's monitoring subspace, and we're halfway around the world from the 'gate, so even if we had an activation, we'll be safe long before we'd be spotted." He pulled his t-shirt off and tossed it aside. "I wouldn't let my guard down, Rodney, not even for you. Especially not for you." He unzipped his BDUs and started worrying them off.

Rodney blinked. "Huh. I think that's the nicest thing anybody's ever said about me. Normally, people want to sacrifice me to whatever threat there is."

"Well, there are times…" John allowed and took his smack to the head in stride. He grabbed the hand that had smacked him and used it to pull Rodney in close for a kiss.

The next several minutes were spent trying to get naked while not breaking their kiss — it was amusing and silly and unbelievably, ridiculously exciting. Eventually, they were skin-to-skin, hard, panting, gasping in laughter. John ran his fingers up Rodney's sides then swallowed the giggles he got in exchange. Rodney managed to get to the back of John's knees in retaliation, but the squirming such a maneuver required tipped them from sweet and silly foreplay to do-something-anything-right-NOW.

Since he was in the area anyway, Rodney nuzzled John's dick, getting groans out of both of them, then slowly sucked on the head. Rodney's blowjobs were becoming spectacular; if there was a  Nobel prize for cock-sucking, Rodney would have it. It wasn't so unbelievable; because when Rodney turned his formidable attention to doing anything, he worked at it until he became perfect. John had been his very willing lab rat.

Normally, John would have been happy for a sixty-nine, but now they had the time and the privacy to do more. He dragged Rodney up until they could start kissing again, smiling at the taste of his own pre-come in Rodney's mouth. "Front pocket of my BDUs," John murmured when he broke to breathe.

"Hmm?" Rodney left John's mouth and began kissing his way to John's neck.

"Condom. Lube." John tilted his head to give Rodney more access. "Fuck me, c'mon, McKay, please?"

Rodney's breath stuttered. "Oh, God…" He turned and frantically clawed for John's pants, his enthusiasm making John chuckle, breathlessly.

"Left front pocket," John murmured, in order to keep Rodney from destroying them in his haste. Those were his last, un-ripped pair; he didn't want to lose them, not even for sex with Rodney.

Rodney found both and turned back to John, triumphant. John smiled, hoping it was a lazy, turned-on one, but thinking it was probably hungrier than he wanted. Rodney closed his eyes, took a deep breath, let it out slowly and said, "You want to turn over?"

"Nah," John said, stretching out on the sleeping bag. "Like this."

"You sure?" Rodney said, even as he rolled the condom on himself and squeezed a large dollop of his sunscreen-lube onto his right hand. "I… John, I don't want to hurt you."

"You won't." And John knew that was true, because Rodney used so much lube it was surprising John didn't squirt right out his hands. "Come on, Rodney."

"Yes, yes, I know, hurry up," Rodney groused under his breath. John could hear the arousal through the words and grinned.

Rodney slowed down again as he prepared John, driving John almost insane with want. But Rodney knew what he was doing, his focus split between his fingers, slick with lube and pushing into John, and John's face, intently gauging arousal and readiness. "C'mon, McKay," John gasped as Rodney hit his sweet spot. "Now… now please…"

"Okay." Rodney's voice was hoarse and raspy and sounded on the very edge of coming. He took a deep breath, lifted John's legs over his thighs and began pushing in, gently and slowly, driving John out of what was left of his mind. "God. John. John!"

It felt so good, it felt like heaven, and John just allowed himself to melt into the sand beneath their sleeping bags. Neither of them lasted long, it was too damn good for that. John came with a barely controlled whine at the back of his throat, curling up off the sleeping bag, clenching what felt like every muscle in his body. Rodney followed him, gasping and dripping sweat, shaking.

They fell into a heap on their comfortable bed, Rodney mostly off John but not all the way. John felt Rodney slip from his body and sighed, smiling. The top of their shack was flickering in and out of the light, as their fire died down.

"You really like it." Rodney's breath was slowing and his voice was soft and incredulous.

Understanding what he meant immediately, John said, "Yeah."

After a moment, Rodney added, "I want to try it. I like it when you, you know, play with my… my ass. You know. Teach me?"

John had to chuckle, even as he sighed and let himself drift towards sleep. "Okay."

"What's so funny?"

With another soft snort, John said, "When the student is ready, the teacher will come."

Rodney groaned but didn't lift his head from John's neck. "I hate you."

"No, you don't." John smiled at the dimly seen ceiling. It felt good to be outside for a change, instead of underground.

Rodney sighed, a wistful and happy sound. "No. I don't."

Just before John slipped into sleep, he heard Rodney say, "Have you been thinking about the ZedPMS on—"

"No, Rodney."

"Nuts."


John pulled the tab from the last bit of C4, then walked out of the room. Making sure everyone was where they were supposed to be — Darche nodded to him in confirmation — John announced, "Fire in the hole," and lit it up.

There was a satisfying whump. Smoke and debris came pouring down the corridor where they stood, so Rike turned on the big fan to draw it out. Once it was possible to breathe in there again, John and Darche carefully entered and looked around. The back wall had become mostly rubble, enlarging the cavern significantly.

"Okay, looks good," John said. "We'll let it sit for a while and tomorrow I'll bring Rodney by to check the stability."

"This is going to make things much easier," Rike said, looking around.

"Yes," Darche agreed. "If we use this for storage, we can open up two more rooms for sleeping, which is good."

John nodded and followed the two men out. "Yeah. You're getting cramped." Rike particularly needed a larger space, since he was tall enough to be a basketball player. "At least we haven't seen any new runners for a couple of months."

They moved into the cavern proper. Rike said, "You want an ale, John? Darche?"

"Sure, thanks." Darche nodded and Rike brought out a frosty pitcher with three metal cups. "What's the word out there?" John asked, looking between the two of them. "And Rodney wants me to tell you to ease up on the C4. That stuff doesn't grow on trees, you know."

Darche smirked. "You mean Rodney cannot make more?"

"Not that," John said, rolling his eyes. "Everything but that and don't ask him about it, not unless you want to live through an extended lecture on the properties of explosive nitroamines. Besides, he's been holed up in the lab for the last couple of weeks. The only time I see him is when I force him to eat and when I cover him up as he sleeps on his stool. I don't know what he's working on, but it must be big."

Thoroughly familiar with Rodney's habits, both Rike and Darche chuckled. As they did, Honol limped in, slapping dust off his leather trousers. His dark face was almost white from it. "Greetings, John. May I join?"

"Sure," John replied, waving his cup. Honol poured some ale for himself and sat. "You're just back? What's going on?" Honol was the latest member of their family, and the only one not to have been a runner. They had found him left for dead on a planet once occupied by the Blessed and nursed him back to health. He would forever have a limp and because of it, was several inches shorter than Rodney; but when it came to the Blessed, he was a ferocious fighter.

"The Blessed have taken another hive ship," Honol reported. "I went to check up on a rumor of a new stronghold of theirs, and found them busy at work on it."

"Shit." John took a deep breath, a deep drink of his ale, and banged the cup on the table. "What does that bring them to?"

Darche shook his head. "Hard to say, Onsa. Fifty?"

"Our best guess is there are only a handful of real hive ships left," Rike said. "Real meaning filled with Wraith. The Machine-Men attack them and they flee."

"And if only the Asurans would kill them all then commit ritual suicide," John muttered. He poured himself more ale and drank deeply again. He didn't miss the concerned looks that went between the other three people seated at the table, and wasn't surprised when Darche spoke again.

"We have our own reasons for hating the Blessed, Onsa." Darche's voice was pitched low. "We know they are aware of us, and we all know that concerns you. I think it is time you filled in the gaps in our knowledge."

Darche had to have been a politician — or a soft-scientist, as Rodney thought — on Hoff, because his diction, his word choice often sounded intellectual to John. He sighed and realized Darche was right, they had a right to know. Even if he didn't want to remember it.

He stared into his cup as he spoke. "Teyla Emmagan, daughter of Tagan, was the leader of the Athosians when we got here." And she had been John's first friend in Pegasus. "She brought her people to Atlantis, they fought with us, helped supply us, were everything we needed out here."

Darche and Honol were nodding. "My people used to trade with the Athosians," Honol said. "They were an honorable and peaceful people."

"Which is part of the reason why Kanaan calling Michael's mutants 'Blessed of Athos' rankles as much as it does," John growled.

"You have said that name before." Honol frowned at John. "Who is Michael?"

In for a penny, John thought. "Well, that's related, so I guess I might as well go there too." Even just giving the bare bones of the story, it took a while. John didn't look up to meet anyone's gaze while speaking; he still felt some shame for the whole sordid mess.

"This was an attempt to turn the Wraith into humans?" Darche asked intently when John paused.

"The Wraith started out as human?" Rike said, his voice incredulous. He and Honol had found it difficult at first to refer to anything of the Ancients as anything but worshipful.

"It was a stupid, shortsighted, arrogant project, okay?" John tried to keep his voice from rising but was only partially successful. "We weren't born here, we didn't really understand the Wraith."

"You sound as if you regret the project, John. Do not."

Honol's words were such a surprise that John raised his head to look the other man in the eye. "But—"

"I was not aware the Ancestors used us as playthings," Darche said, glancing at Honol. "But it doesn't surprise me. Nothing surprises me any more." He nodded. "What you attempted to do was honorable and meant with nothing but good will. The fact that it did not work is not on your head."

"What happened to Teyla Emmagan?" Rike asked after a moment of silence.

John took a deep breath — he was constantly surprised by the absolute decency of so many in the Pegasus galaxy. "Teyla and a friend, she'd known him since she was a kid and trusted him, got together, and she got pregnant. Not by plan, but she was happy with it. Then the Athosians disappeared. We found out later it was Michael. He wanted them for some damn experiment, which turned out to be making them into mutant Wraith who were free of the feeding compulsion but not of the aggression." John rubbed his forehead and took another drink of ale. "It all had to do with the Hoffan virus, the one every damn person in the galaxy seemed to contract." John didn't have to look at Darche to know he winced over mention of the virus. "He wanted Teyla's baby, said it was his missing link or something. So he managed to capture her before she had the baby."

Before John could continue, Darche and his damnable insight asked, "Who was the father of the baby, Onsa?"

John closed his eyes. "Kanaan." He drained the last of his ale before speaking again. "He went to Michael willingly, betraying Teyla, betraying their son, all of it. We finally got to Teyla, but she'd had the baby and he wasn't in the building. We blew it up, destroyed Michael's cruiser, tried to find evidence that the baby was alive or dead but couldn't. We thought Michael was dead—"

"Kanaan killed him." All three at the table looked at Honol. "He bragged about it, how he had killed the Most Blessed as he called him — it had to be the one you call Michael, the one who started it all. Even now, their encampments are surrounded by the heads of those they have killed. Most are Wraith but some are human."

"Does he have the baby?" John demanded, kicking himself for not asking Honol sooner about Kanaan and the Blessed. Of all their family, he knew the most about Michael's mutant brigade, since he had been held captive by them.

"He has a boy with him he refers to as son," Honol replied and John's heart leapt. "But he is not a baby. The son of Teyla Emmagan would still be a babe, yes?"

John let the air go out of his body with the last of his hopes. "Yeah. Jayarre would be two, at the most."

"Jayarre?" Darche asked with gentle, sad humor.

John couldn't reply so he merely nodded.

"This boy was tall, John. A stripling, not a babe. I am sorry."

John just nodded and swallowed hard. After a moment, he said in a rough voice, "That's why I want Kanaan so badly." He clenched his jaw. "If I ever get my hands on that bastard, I'm going to kill him slowly."

All three at the table nodded somberly.

"They know of us," Honol said after a moment. "They know from where you came, yes? By the puddlejumper ship."

John nodded, sighing. "Liden, and the other one, Anders?"

Darche nodded. "Because of them, we are no longer able to use the refuge on Gantric."

"It's a surprise they haven't been searching for us." Rike was frowning into his cup. "Especially if they know how you feel about them."

"I think they have their hands full fighting the Wraith and hiding from the Asurans." John took a deep breath and slapped his thighs. "Okay, I'd better get back, make sure Rodney eats. Honol, how are the two with you on Dalem?"

"They are well. I believe we can bring them in soon."

"Good. That'll bring us up to what, seven? Nine including Rodney and me?"

Darche nodded. "I have seen no new runners on the scanner for over a month."

"Neither have we. Okay, keep me posted. And I think we should make it a rule to go out in pairs, from now on, no more soloing. It's getting a little too hairy out there at the moment and I need you guys."

It took only a few moments to get to the 'jumper and 'gate back to the Batcave, and John spent the time thinking. Why weren't The Blessed coming after them? Kanaan had to hate John almost as much as John hated him — their last confrontation wasn't exactly amicable. If for no other reason than to avenge Teyla for the loss of Jayarre, he wanted Kanaan dead.

They'd have to keep a sharper eye out, make extra sure of the new runners that came in. And maybe soon, they'd be able to take care of the so-called 'Blessed,' Michael's mutant brigade. John shook his head. He was really regretting not allowing Ronon to kill Michael when they'd had the chance.

It was quiet in their home complex. John found Tarn at the big table they used for just about everything: he was disassembling and cleaning P-90s. He looked up as John walked in. "Sheppard," he said in his ruined voice.

"Hey. Where is everybody?"

"The boy tends his animals. McKay…" Tarn rolled his remaining good eye and John snorted.

"Yeah. Right. Okay. I'll go take McKay something to eat. Sparring this afternoon?"

Tarn nodded and turned his attention back to his work. Tarn was a fantastic fighter, probably born of his years of flight from the Wraith. He was John's height and reach and even with his limited vision, regularly beat the shit out of John.

Of course Rodney was in his lab, he hadn't been anywhere else for days. John made a stop in their kitchen to pull out a couple of their dwindling supply of Powerbars before heading that way, because he knew Rodney hadn't stopped to eat since the morning, when John had given him a goodbye peck on the cheek like a good husband should. It drove Rodney nuts when he did it, which is why he always did.

He walked into the lab and Rodney looked up, already irritated. "There you are. I've been looking for you. Where've you been? Come here."

John closed his eyes and suppressed a sigh. "You know where I've been, McKay. I told you this morning. At Ford's caves, with the C4, enlarging it."

Rodney looked momentarily puzzled. "Oh. Yeah."

"The blast went well, we need you tomorrow with a scanner to make sure there're no weaknesses anywhere."

"Well, I hope you took it easy on the C4, that stuff doesn't—"

"—Grow on trees, yes, I know. Here." John slapped the Powerbar on the table in front of Rodney. "I bet you haven't eaten since breakfast either."

"Oh." Rodney blinked then grabbed the bar, ripping it open and devouring half in one big bite, thereby adding credence to John's practice of never getting between Rodney and food. "'S'good," Rodney said around his mouthful. "Go pick up my coffee cup."

John rolled his eyes. "I'm not your lackey, McKay."

"No, no, just go. Pick it up." Rodney took another bite and waved vaguely in that direction.

With a sigh, John walked over to the other table. Rodney's cup stood in solitary splendor, still half-filled with what was undoubtedly stone-cold tea. He reached out to find his hand banging against something, something that was surrounding the cup. Puzzled, he used both hands and traced something that was completely… "An invisible force-field? You've invented an invisible—"

"Force-field, yes, yes I have." Rodney rocked back on his heels and smirked. "And no, before you ask, it's not at all like the shields on Atlantis, it's altogether different. Something Zelenka and I had been working on, an application of the personal shield taken to—"

"It's an invisible force-field." Fascinated, John traced it with his hands. There was nothing there, nothing to see, nothing really to feel, just as if his hands were being stopped by air.

"Yes, as I said, it is, plus I think I can get it to shield both energy readings and life-signs. I think."

"You mean we could put the whole cave—"

"Well, not yet. The power requirements are insane, that alone is requiring one dedicated generator." Rodney shook his head and frowned. "There has to be a way to reduce the power consumption."

"You'll think of it." John turned and grinned at Rodney. "Wow. My boyfriend has created an invisible force-field."

Rodney opened his mouth but nothing came out; he blinked at John, who just laughed (it was not a giggle, lieutenant colonels do not giggle), grabbed Rodney and kissed him. "I've got the coolest boyfriend ever," he said quietly, intently, still smiling.


John was with Tarn and Chand, bringing in the last vegetables of the season — their first real harvest, something that bothered John on some level — when the 'gate alarm went off. He spared one glance at Tarn before all three of them ran for the cave. There was no scheduled 'gate activation, which put them all on alert.

Rodney was in the lab, of course, and turned as they thundered in. "It's Darche," he said, pointing to the man's image on the plasma screen.

"What the—"

"John, Tarn, Chand," Darche acknowledged them. "Rike and I have heard word of another runner." He paused, looking at them intently. "But there has been no sign of an active transmitter and the runner has been identified as a woman."

"A woman?" Rodney spluttered. "You're sure?" John was equally flabbergasted. They had yet to find any women made into runners. Ronon had speculated the Wraith only chose the strongest and most powerful for runners, so they'd have the best sport. He'd never known of any female runners either.

Darche shook his head. "I don't know for certain, Neysa. We were on Belkan when we heard of her."

Belkan had been partly taken over by a cadre of violent mercenaries, people John had no intention of saving even if the Wraith were on their way to cull. It had become a good place to hear rumors about the Blessed, about what worlds had been culled and what the Wraith were up to. "There's no trace at all of a transmitter?" John asked. It had been months since they'd rescued another runner, and they now had three strongholds — Hoff, Ford's planet and the Batcave — for the eleven of them, each base provided with a subspace emergency device of Rodney's making.

"None. It bothers me too." Darche nodded. "I propose we go to check it out. I have the address."

"Trustworthy source?" Tarn asked.

"Not in the slightest. Which is why I wish to go in readiness, with force. From what we have heard, she is an older woman named Neera. But that is all we know."

"Neera," John said, frowning. "Where have I heard that name before?" It rang a bell in the back of his mind but he couldn't put his finger on it.

"Another of your harem, perhaps?" Rodney's voice was acerbic but John knew it was all for show.

He gave Rodney a raised eyebrow while saying, "Sounds good to me, Darche. Tarn? I think Darche, you, and me; in the 'jumper; cloaked. I don't want to put any others at risk."

"You take what's-his-name too," Rodney interrupted, scowling. "The guy with the gene. Either that or I'm going too."

"I was going to suggest Wenser come with us too, Neysa." Darche looked like he was holding back a smile.

John rolled his eyes. "Fine. What's the address, Darche?"

Darche held up a piece of paper with the address and John could hear Rodney feeding the coordinates into the database. He watched as Rodney pulled up the star map and spoke again. "That's way the hell out there, almost at the edge of the galaxy, almost beyond our sensor pickup." Rodney turned and frowned at the screen. "We have reports that the Wraith are still active out there."

"Yes, I know." Darche looked worried and that worried John.

John nodded at Rodney, who looked increasingly concerned. "Okay. We'll pick you up in three hours. Sound good?"

"We will be ready." Darche reached out and the connection went dead.

"I don't like this," Rodney said, and Chand nodded, looking at John with big eyes.

"I don't either." John looked at Tarn, who shook his head. "We need to gear up. Let's get the rest of the harvest in and grab some lunch before going."

It didn't take long to prepare. John was in the bedroom he shared with Rodney, pulling on his boots when Rodney came in. "This could be a plant. It could be Michael's mutants setting a trap, or the Asurans, or Wraith—"

"I know, Rodney." John concentrated on lacing his boots up tightly; they were getting worn and he didn't know whether he'd be able to replace them.

"It smells, that's what it does, and not like the toilet. We've never heard of a female runner, they just don't—"

"I know, Rodney." John stood, settled his tac vest on his shoulders and checked the straps on his holster. "I'll be careful. Darche is as good as Ronon, and Tarn is better. We'll be fine."

"You have to be. Careful, that is." Rodney had his arms wrapped around himself and wouldn't look at John. "We don't have either Carson or Jennifer here. You can't go grandstanding like you usually do."

"I swear I won't. We'll be back before you know it." He zipped up his vest and took Rodney's face in gentle hands. "It'll be okay."

"And no flirting. Especially if it's some bimbo you knew from way back when."

John grinned. Rodney was just so cute when he was jealous. "No flirting. Got it. And we'll keep in touch, I'll make sure to ping you just before we leave." He leaned in and kissed Rodney carefully, still marveling that he had the right, the privilege to do so.

"If I don't hear from you in two hours, I'm coming after you." Rodney's sour voice was belied by the easing of tension in his arms, in his relaxing face. "Just…"

"I will, Rodney." John kissed him again. "I swear."


The database designation for the planet was M33-998, and it was a space 'gate. That fact just tripled John's internal freak-out-o-meter because in order for a 'runner' to be there, a spaceship would have been required. That limited it to Wraith, the Blessed or the Asurans, and all three of those were on his short list of Those-To-Avoid-Until-Rodney-Builds-Me-A-Battleship.

Wenser was piloting, at John's suggestion, and John had him do a high-level orbit, twice, to find out what was on the planet. The HUD showed a lot of life-signs, all animal but one; John pinpointed the only human source, at the edge of a thin forest by a pond. There was a small plume of smoke coming from what looked like a shack.

He pointed the area out to Wenser. "Put her down just south of there, in the field, it's open enough and would be easy to hide if we have to. Darche? You and Tarn ready?"

They nodded and John supervised Wenser's landing, which wasn't too bad at all. The guy had come a long way, though he was still nervous about piloting the 'jumper. "Good job. Put her on standby and get your weapon. Tarn, get the hatch." Wenser did as he was told and as John stood, he pulled his long, red hair back from his face and bound it with a leather tie.

It was mid-afternoon but cold, like fall. John pulled the life-signs detector out and swept the area but nothing showed up. The HUD had told him the area was dirt, not rock, and nothing showed up indicating caves of any kind at all, so he wasn't terribly nervous about another Genii fiasco. He was just nervous in general.

On closer inspection, the shack turned out to be more of a lean-to, a shoddy piece of work that looked like it would fall over if anyone sneezed at it. They stood on the ramp to the 'jumper for a few moments, waiting, then John indicated Wenser and Darche should stay put while he took Tarn with him to the shack. As the two of them approached, a figure appeared from the woods behind, laboriously dragging a large branch of wood.

It was a woman, an older woman whose hair was mostly white and whose face was lined. She looked up, saw them, dropped her burden and turned to go back to the forest. She didn't make it far, though, tripping and falling hard after just a few steps.

"Hey, come on, we want to talk you," John called out, walking slowly closer.

"Don't hurt me!" The woman cried, trying to crawl into the woods. "Please! I don't have anything!"

John shared a concerned look with Tarn. "It's okay, really, we're not here to hurt you." She didn't appear to be a trap; she wasn't strong enough to do anything. "Come on, come over here. We've got food, if you're hungry." They hung back, not wanting to spook the woman further.

She was a mess, her hair matted and her clothes tattered. She half-turned, looking back at them over her shoulder. "You… you're from the Blessed?"

"No, we're not them. And we're not Wraith or Asuran either. We're just… we heard about you and thought you might need some help. Are you a runner?" As John spoke, Tarn moved away, towards the pond, scanning for any hostiles. John touched his radio and said, quietly, "Wenser, anything on the scans?"

"Nothing." Wenser's voice was tiny in John's ear. "Everything's clear. I don't think she's a trap."

"Yeah, I'm beginning to feel the same way. Stay out of sight for now, she's skittish."

As John spoke quietly, the woman sat up. She still looked terrified, and John could hear her short pants for breath from where he stood. "You… You're not…"

"Look, we're just here to help. You look hungry, we've got food, okay?"

"You have… weapons… you could…"

"Of course we do, it's dangerous out here." John smiled, tried to plaster his best, most innocent look on his face. "All we want to do is help."

She was shaking her head, rolling up to sit with her hands tightly around her legs. "You… you're going to hurt me…"

John suppressed a sigh. "No. We're not. Honest. Come on, let us help." With sudden inspiration, he added, "Look, we can leave you some food in your shelter, and we'll go stand way over there. I'll even eat a bite of it while you watch, so you'll know it's not poisoned."

She didn't relax but didn't object either, so John motioned for Tarn to bring him the sack of food they'd brought with them. He put it underneath the lean-to and opened it, pulling out a container of cold, roasted not-chicken. "Here you go, good food." He pulled off a strip of meat and shoved it in his mouth. "Safe, too. We'll just go stand over there."

He and Tarn backed off until they were standing near where the 'jumper was parked, still cloaked. She sat where she was for a long moment before finally rising slowly and limping to the sack of food. As she began rooting through it — still with one eye on them — John muttered, "This is pathetic. There's no way in hell this is a trap."

"I'm inclined to agree." Darche's disembodied voice was as soft as John's. "She's old, but there's something wrong about it…"

"Fed on?" Tarn asked.

"Maybe."

"I think so too," Wenser said.

John grunted but said nothing else. There was something about the woman that bothered him, just the way her name did. He'd met her, he was sure of it, but he couldn't figure out where or when.

Food seemed to make her less wary, so John approached again, with Tarn hanging back on his six, just in case. "Feel better?"

"Thank you," she said. "It… it's been a long time. Since… food. Real food."

John smiled crookedly. "I'm glad to help, then. Are you a runner? We're not picking up a transmitter."

"A… a what?"

"A runner." John frowned, everybody in Pegasus knew what a runner was. "Marked and hunted by the Wraith."

She flinched at the word. "N-no. Not… not that."

"Hmm." John shook his head. "Well, someone had to have put you here. How did you get here? What's your name, where are you from?"

"Not…" She turned away. "I know you," she whispered. "I am Neera. I… I am not from… here. The Blessed… they turned me away, put me here." Her face was twisted up. "Punishment. For what I've done."

She curled inside herself again and finally John remembered. Remembered a cold Wraith cell, Ford, a stupid plan, and a girl planted on him to find out where he lived, where the new feeding ground was… and…

"Fuck," he ground out. "Neera. I knew I'd heard that name. You stupid…" He had to turn away, had to, because otherwise he would have drawn his nine mil and shot the bitch in the face.

"John?" Tarn was there, watching Neera over John's shoulder.

"She's a fucking Wraith worshipper!" John snarled, his hands clenched in fists so tight they hurt. He turned back to face her again. "So, the time of the great awakening, huh? How's that working out for you?"

"Onsa." Darche was suddenly beside him, one big hand warm on John's shoulder.

"She's the worst kind of scum," John growled, giving words to his sudden, red-hot fury. "Just leave her here to rot."

"John. No." Tarn's rough voice just made John angrier.

"Let me tell you something," he said, glaring at her. "This guy here, Tarn? He's got only one eye and almost no voice. Do you know why? Because he screamed it all out, watching the Wraith eat his wife and kids. Then the Wraith stuck a transmitter in his back and hunted him for three years. That's what the Wraith are, you batshit insane, incredibly stupid bitch. Cows don't worship the butcher!"

Darche pulled him away, pushed him back. "This is not you," Tarn said, as quietly as he could, following them. "Don't do something you'll regret."

John couldn't remember ever being so livid, so angry. Not when his dad 'disowned' him, not when his mother died in a useless, preventable accident, not when he had been ordered to leave men behind, not even when Rodney had nearly been fed on by a Wraith queen. It scared him how furious he was, and that just made it worse. So he did what he had to do, and pushed it down. Hard. "Leave her," he said flatly. "Let her die here."

"No, please…" It was as if John's words freed her own. "Please, don't leave me alone, I… I have… have information, I… know where there is a… a ship… I can…"

John turned on his heel and walked into the 'jumper. Behind him, he heard Darche and Wenser talking with her, but he tuned it out, he had to. He sat in the pilot's seat, called up systems, did one last HUD sweep that found nothing. Behind him, he heard his team board, heard them raise the hatch. "Stand by for launch." His voice was as flat, as inflectionless as he could make it, and he ignored all questions sent his way.

The 'jumper lifted and he headed for the space 'gate as quickly as he could, dialing the first in what was a series of space 'gates, ignoring everything else. The last sequence brought him back to the Batcave, and he flew the 'jumper through the waterfall with his usual precise care. When he set her down, he lowered the hatch, powered her down, and radioed Rodney. "We're back. Meet us in the kitchen." Without waiting for Rodney's acknowledgement, he stood and walked out.

He heard Darche and Wenser say his name, try to touch him, but he avoided them. Rodney appeared in his way, frowning and glancing at his team. "What…?"

"Sit down. She was a trap."

Well, that killed the questions Darche, Wenser, and Tarn had, at least. Everyone sat gingerly and stared at him as though he was a Wraith. A hungry Wraith. "She's nothing but bait. If I had to bet, I would say the Wraith but it's more likely Michael's mutants."

"She said she had been fed upon." Darche's voice was tentative and he was frowning, looking between John and Rodney. "John said she had been a Wraith worshipper."

"Not was. Is." John's flat voice brought attention back to him.

"Who is she?" Rodney asked, exasperated.

"Do you remember — no, wait, you wouldn't. You weren't with us, you were dying of enzyme overdose in the infirmary at the time." John saw Rodney's eyes grow wide with comprehension. "The girl the queen set up for us, for me, I told you about her." Rage bubbled up inside John again and he ruthlessly suppressed it. "You remember Teyla trying to explain Wraith worshippers?"

Rodney's mouth was a thin, slanted line. "It was that girl, the one who threw herself at you like a deer in front of a car. That one."

"Yes." John glanced at Darche and Wenser. "What did she say to you?"

Wenser, still young enough to feel mortified by dumb mistakes, was looking down and turning red. Darche took a deep breath and said, "She said she'd been fed upon, by 'her' queen. She said the queen had taken her son, a young boy, and fed on him as well." Darche paused and took a shaky breath. "She claimed to have escaped from both the Wraith and the Blessed, or something to that effect, she wasn't particularly coherent."

"Right, escaped by just stepping through a space 'gate," Rodney muttered. "So, yeah. Planted. What do we do about it, if anything?"

"She said she had the address to a ship." Wenser was still red and John thought he looked about as furious as John still felt. "Sounded like a cruiser — bigger than a dart, smaller than a hive ship. She said it was parked, still operable."

John closed his eyes and took a deep breath, letting it out slowly. "Right. Assuming she's not lying about that, it would probably be a good thing to have. Right?" He looked at Rodney who blinked back at him. "We could use it, take it apart or something."

"I wouldn't turn it down, no. But we have no way of flying it." Rodney paused and frowned into the middle distance. "Not yet, anyway."

"You think you could bypass the whole Wraith-gene thing?" John asked.

"Maybe. But all this is moot if she's lying."

"You are certain she's bait?" Darche asked. "My meaning is, does it make sense? Because if she's a plant and a Wraith worshipper, we ought to just kill her." He swallowed noisily and studied the table. "I hate the idea of letting her just starve to death out there. It looked like winter was coming on and she was completely unable to care for herself. No one deserves that."

John had to fight to keep from disagreeing with Darche and that bothered the hell out of him. He shoved it down again, kept it quiet.

Tarn coughed. "We look to you, John, in this," he said in his ruined voice. "Darche is right."

Not even Tarn, who had the most reason to hate the Wraith and their idiot worshippers, wanted to just let the woman starve to death. "Okay, fine. Rodney, you remember the shielding Michael used on the planet where he'd killed all the Taranians?" Rodney nodded, frowning. "Could you figure out a way to bypass it? To integrate it with the HUD so we could see if there's a shielded place on that planet?"

 "Well, I already cracked it, couple of years ago." Rodney's fingers twitched. "Didn't think we'd need it again, if Michael was dead. Hmm. Let me go pull up my notes."

"Good. If you can do that, then we can sweep the planet again, make sure there's no one waiting for us. Assuming there isn't, we can land, grab her, and take off again. Once we have her, we can go from there."

"Assuming they're using the same shielding techniques," Rodney said.

"The Wraith use little to no stealth tech — why the hell would they need to? What Michael's mutants would have to use would be Michael's inventions." He stared at Rodney. "Am I right?"

Rodney was frowning at him but agreed. "Is that what we want to do? I mean, land, grab her, etcetera."

"Why not. If she's of no use, we can space her." Ignoring the look of shock that went around the table, John stood. "Okay. If there's nothing else, and I don't think there is, I'm going running." John turned and strode from the room, aware that his muscles were burning from being kept rigid and not caring one fuck.

He changed faster than he usually did and was out the northeast entrance before Rodney could corner him. He didn't want to talk to Rodney, didn't want to talk to anybody, he just wanted to run until he passed out and threw up. Not necessarily in that order.

Running usually cleared his head, usually helped him lock all those inconvenient feelings back down. He had a path that, while close to the Batcave, was steep and treacherous and, at the moment, perfect. By the time he'd gone one full circuit, he was gasping and sweating but he was still furious, still so angry he could have spit nails, as Grandma Sheppard had been fond of saying. The last thing he wanted was to talk to anyone, but especially not Rodney, who was waiting for him at the cave entrance, his arms crossed over his chest, tapping his toes.

"What the fuck?" Rodney looked both nervous and angry.

"I don't want to talk—"

"Tough shit. Remember that argument we had last… uh… however long ago it was? About me keeping you in the loop on projects and stuff? That goes both ways, Sheppard."

John tried to brush past him, but Rodney was a heavy bastard and he didn't move. "Look, John, soft sciences are crap, but you don't have to have a degree to listen. I'm not Kate Heightmeyer, but—"

Sudden rage all but choked John. "Get out of my way, McKay. Now."

"What? No! You've got to—"

John consciously relaxed his hands, took a deep breath. "Move. Or I'll move you."

There was a sudden look of fear in Rodney's eyes, but John was so mad he didn't care. Tentatively, Rodney stepped partially aside and John shoved past him, heading for their room. He needed to change, he needed to shower, but he did not need to talk.

He stripped, tossed his sweaty clothing aside and headed for the shower room. There were benefits to being the boyfriend of a guy with a degree in mechanical engineering and one of them was hot and cold water coming at pressure from a showerhead, pounding muscles just right. Hell, just having indoor plumbing was great, but there was also washing machines (though drying was done the old fashioned way), electric lights… all those 'modern conveniences' that allowed you to imagine you weren't living in a cave but somewhere else. But no matter how good it was, it wasn't Atlantis.

By the time John finished with his hot shower (as hot as he could get it and not blister), he was feeling… well, okay. Not great. But the anger had mostly dried up into something that might have been despair, if he were the type of person who actually analyzed his feelings and gave name to them. Which he wasn't. At all. So when he walked into his bedroom to find Rodney sitting on the bed, he felt more tired than anything. "McKay—"

"No. No excuses, no dissembling." Rodney looked resolute and nervous and other feelings John wouldn't name. He stood and continued. "I get it. I get the guilt thing, the whole 'if anyone dies under my command it's my fault' yadda yadda, but it's got to stop. Now."

John froze, staring at Rodney with what was probably a stunned bunny expression. He couldn't have spoken even if he could have found words.

"Teyla told me what happened on M18-129, you remember, the mission where you shot me and yes, I know it was an accident. That's not the point. She told me about Holland and all of it because she said she was worried about you and yeah, I can see that happening because I get worried about you too." Rodney took a deep breath but wouldn't look away from John. "I get it, I really do, because, well, there're some… you know. For me. Gall. Collins." He swallowed, but still maintained eye contact. "Peter. Christ, Peter. So I get it, I do. But you're letting it… letting it come between you and…" He finally looked away, as if he were looking for the words he needed, even while his hands flew around, speaking for him. "Between you and the guys. You're their leader, they look to you for stuff. And when even Tarn finds words about how worried he is for you, well, I know it's serious."

He took another shaky breath, his gaze once again focused on John's face. "And you're letting it come between us. Don't do that, John. You're… you're all I've got out here, I don't think I could—"

John finally moved, because he couldn't not move, not when Rodney looked and sounded like that. He reached Rodney in one big step and pulled him up, wrapped his wet arms around Rodney's shoulders, feeling Rodney squeeze back. After a moment, John realized he was whispering in a wet, broken voice. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to… I'm sorry…"

Rodney was also whispering. "It's okay, it is, I miss Ford too, just don't… don't…"

"Never. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. It just hit…"

"She was a trigger." Rodney leaned back in John's arms, far enough to see John's face. "She was there when you lost Ford."

John nodded, closed his eyes and let his forehead come to rest on Rodney's head. "Yeah," he breathed. His throat was tight and his eyes burned, and damn if Rodney didn't make a good Heightmeyer after all. "Yeah."

"She's an idiot, like all those idiots who worshiped the Wraith." Rodney's voice was earnest. "And she deserves everything she gets because of it. But if we treat her like that, we're no better—"

"I know." John moved, buried his face in Rodney's neck, letting Rodney hold him up, which Rodney did. Rodney would always hold him up, John suddenly realized. Rodney sighed and went quiet, but he didn't force John to move, so they stood like that for some time before finally moving apart, together.


"Decision trees, gentlemen, decision trees."

No, there were no more whiteboards and dry erase markers in Pegasus, but before whiteboards, there were chalkboards and chalk. John had made the first and found the other for Rodney, to prove that he could invent things too. Rodney, of course, was outwardly disdainful while inwardly delighted — though it bothered John on some level that he knew Rodney that well. He moved that damn chalkboard everywhere, and that evening, it was in the kitchen as they sat to eat.

Darche and Wenser had stayed for dinner. When John had tried to awkwardly apologize, Darche simply clapped him on the shoulder. "We all have dark places within us, Onsa," he'd said quietly.

Chand had cooked (of course) while John had helped, and yes, it was indeed help even if all you did was wash and cut vegetables for salad, he pointed out to Rodney. As food was prepared, Rodney filled the board with lines until it looked like a poor-man's Powerpoint slide. "But what do they do?" Chand asked, setting the table and staring at the board.

"Here, at the top, is our former Wraith-worshiper and possible plant, Neera." Rodney pointed to the top of the first pyramid of lines. "God, that smells good. When can we eat?"

"Five minutes, Rodney," John replied, bringing out the salad.

"Good. Okay, so here she is. From her, we've got two possible branches — either she is a trap or she isn't. If she is a trap, then she's either in collusion or she isn't. And so on."

As they ate dinner, they stared at the board and discussed the possibilities. There were dozens of them, even figuring she was just a plant from Michael's mutants. She could also be Wraith, or Asuran, though John pointed out that wasn't exactly normal Asuran behavior.

"But if she's a trap, then why weren't they there? The Blessed, or the Wraith, or whoever?" Chand asked as he brought the meat to the table.

"Because we weren't there long enough," Tarn rasped. He looked pointedly at John, who nodded.

"I don't think anyone expected me to recognize her." John sat and they started to eat.

Food pretty much killed conversation for a while, though Tarn got up a few times to add something to the decision trees. By the time they ate dessert and cleaned the kitchen, they had it pretty well sorted out. "Is it possible to monitor a ring's activation?" Wenser asked.

"Well, yes," Rodney replied, frowning at the board. "I mean, I could do it, but them? It's either that, or she's got some kind of subspace transmitter."

"She seemed very eager for us to stay, once we said we were leaving," Darche said. "But she was alone. From what we could see, she had no food, little fuel, not even a blanket. Why would they set a trap that could expire?"

"If it's truly the Blessed who set it," Wenser said, "I would not call that unusual behavior. Honol has mentioned equally cruel and dishonorable actions on their part."

"All right then, let's consider her a Blessed trap." Darche was tapping the table with one knuckle as he spoke. His eyes were narrow but his focus was obviously somewhere else. "If they monitor the Ancestor's Ring, they will know when we go. Is there a way to spring that trap without it catching us?"

John looked at Rodney, who was nodding as he spoke. "It doesn't matter what we throw through it, as long as it's something." He looked back at John. "We could really use a MALP or one of those remotely controlled planes Carter designed."

"But we don't have either. Let's test it. Send something through and keep an eye on the 'gate from this end." John frowned at Rodney. "You said it's easy? With the tech we've got?"

"Yeah. I've got a couple of subspace transmitters that can be retrofitted. Send one through gently, self-propelled so it attaches itself to the 'gate, set it to ping with 'gate activation. We can even pick it up later, if we know it's safe."

It didn't take Rodney long to build the transmitter. They sent it through, verified it was working, then waited. The next morning, they sent three rocks through, and waited. At noon they did it one more time (though Rodney was exasperated and kept referring to John's excessive paranoia), and still, nothing happened. The next 'gate activation was from M4H-212, (Dalem, though John still couldn't remember the damn name) and they had a full complement. John and Wenser took Tarn, Darche and one of their late-comers, Jarl — their three best fighters — back to the planet. The plan was straightforward — land, grab Neera, and leave. Rodney stayed at the Batcave, with Chand and Rike, monitoring 'gate traffic while Honol, with Brama and Suud who were usually stationed on Hoff, waited for the 'jumper on Dalem.

They were expecting the worst, had planned for it, even. But nothing happened. The mission was over almost before it began and the 'jumper returned to Dalem through their usual round-about path.

Neera was even weaker than she had been. John ignored her; let Jarl, who looked like and was a roughneck fighter but was also a decent medic, look after her, until they landed on Dalem. They kept her in the shielded 'jumper while John contacted Rodney, had him come through with a scanner. When he turned around, finally, and saw her, resting half in Darche's lap, he felt like a class-A heel.

She looked like shit. She was at least as 'old' as Everett had been; sunken, frail, trembling. It looked like she'd lost more hair since he first saw her, or else he hadn't paid much attention. She was holding a canteen of water and was taking sips from it as Jarl tried to get her to eat something.

The hatch opened to allow Rodney in and he paused, looking between Neera and Sheppard, appalled. John nodded slightly and let his gaze slide away to focus on the trees outside the 'jumper's forward port. He heard murmured words but tuned them out.

After a few minutes, Rodney took the co-pilot's seat. "It's there, buried in her and singing like crazy. It wasn't transmitting before, so I'm assuming it was rigged to go off when she 'gated, or maybe tailored to the specific planet somehow."

"Can you disable it?"

"There's more than—"

"McKay. Can you disable it."

Rodney sighed. "Yes, I think I can disable it, but you've got to know this. It's not Wraith tech, they must have come up with it on their own, so the power source is different and isn't nearly as strong. I think the standard overload will work, but I'm not sure. Worse than that, they stuck it right bang up against her heart and apparently didn't worry about germs." Rodney rubbed his eyes. "It's septic, John. And my trying to disable it might mean it'll kill her."

Jarl walked up and sat in the chair behind Rodney, his dark face showing more compassion than John had ever seen from him. "She's dying, John," he said in his deep, distinctive voice. "Between the Wraith feeding on her and the Blessed nearly killing her to catch us… No amount of your magic antibiotics can save her, not this time."

Before John could even formulate a reply, Darche called out from the back. "Onsa. She asks for you."

Rodney reached out and grabbed John's hand, squeezing it tight. "How many times did Ronon tell me to let it go?" He looked earnestly into John's face. "Take his advice now. Try not to let the things in the past bother you."

John nodded shortly, stood and walked aft. Jarl followed him, but Rodney stayed in the cockpit, watching. Neera was stretched out on one of the benches, an emergency blanket covering her. Her whole body was shaking so hard it was a miracle she didn't fall apart.

"Neera." John took a deep breath then knelt on the floor of the 'jumper, close enough to touch but not wanting to.

Her eyes blinked open heavily and she turned her head. "I am sorry," she whispered. "It is not good enough, I know, but I am sorry." John didn't say anything but in a moment, she continued. "We were theirs, we were the special ones, the truly blessed. And they… and they…"

"In the end, we're all food for them, Neera." John worked hard to keep his voice neutral and calm, and he thought he'd succeeded.

"We were their own, their…" She tried to cough but it caused her whole body to spasm. Darche tipped the bottle of water he held so she could get a few drops. After a moment, she continued, her eyes nearly shut. "You were right."

John shook his head and looked away.

"I never told… never told them…" She took a gasping breath. "We were fleeing, going to a ship, a landed… s'dacc… when they… took our ship, the Blessed."

John looked up at Darche. "A what?"

"A s'dacc, it's what you call a cruiser, I believe." Darche held the bottle to her lips again; she took a sip.

"Landed," she murmured. Her eyes had fallen shut. "A ref…refuge. I did not tell them where… though… they asked."

"A working cruiser? Landed on a planet?" This confirmed what she had told Wenser and Darche, at least. "Where?"

She was silent for a long time, her shallow breaths filling the 'jumper. "Location," she breathed. "I can give you… not on the planet… of the Ring, on… on the… I can give… it." She gasped in a breath. "Message. A message to… to you. John. He… he wanted…"

John frowned. "Who?"

"The Blessed," she pushed out. "I… was to. To give, give you. From the… the one. The Blessed."

A cold knot grew in the pit of John's stomach. "Kanaan. He told you to give me a message?"

She tried to lick her lips and Darche gave her a few more sips of water. "He said. You… you took, took some… thing. Of his." Her breathing was getting more labored. "Took something. Of his. He said he… would take. Some. Thing. Of… of yours. Retal… retali…" Her words trailed off in a breathy moan.

"Neera, are you in pain?" Jarl asked, his voice slow and clear.

She made a small, soft sound that cut John to the bone. "Can we give her some morphine?" he asked.

"We don't have a lot—" Rodney started to say, but Jarl shook his head at both Rodney and John.

"I have gatta leaf extract," he said. "I can give her a few more drops. It is very powerful."

As Jarl pulled the small glass bottle of medicine out of his bag, she opened her eyes. "Please, more, let me… let me… go… please…"

John stood and walked forward, forcing himself to take a deep breath. "I feel like a shithead," he murmured.

Rodney took his hand again. "Don't. She chose her life. I missed part of what she said, just now?"

"Well, first she said that Kanaan gave her a message for me, that I'd taken something of his so he wants to take something of mine. In essence." He took a deep breath. "Then she said she wants to die." John clenched his jaw to keep it from shaking. "Do you think we should let her, help her?"

"Oh, God." Rodney released John's hand and scrubbed his face with his own. "Kanaan really does know it's you."

"It's not like we didn't know it." Those two spies were going to cost them dearly, John thought.

Jarl came forward. "I can ease her into death," he said, not whispering but not speaking loudly either. "It would be a mercy for all she's been through. It looks like she's been beaten as well; the Blessed, I presume."

John couldn't look back, couldn't look at Jarl, at Rodney, at Neera. Instead, he focused on the trees and the rocky outcrop outside the 'jumper's port, the well-hidden entrance to their hideout on Dalem. He shook his head, hard, wanting to avoid the question, the damage to Neera, Kanaan's sick message, all of it. He hadn't wanted to feel anything but anger at her, and now he was nearly overwhelmed with pity.

When he finally spoke, his voice sounded strange to his ears. "Okay. Fine. If that's what she wants." He turned to Jarl. "You can get more of this extract?"

"Yes. It's not a plant that grows widely, but… yes."

"Darche, get the address and any other information. Then we'll do as she asks." John sat heavily in the pilot's seat. "I feel like I'm kicking a baby rabbit."

Rodney didn't say anything, but John didn't think there was anything else to say.

Darche came forward after a few minutes; he was holding a scrap of paper. "I have the Ring settings. She said the ship's not on that planet, but on the third moon of the larger planet near it. Neysa, you'll need this more than I." He handed the paper to Rodney, who took it with a nod of thanks. "She's asking for you again, Onsa. You should go, though I know it causes you pain." John sighed heavily and stood, but Darche continued. "For what it's worth to you, I think you're doing the right thing." He squeezed John's shoulder as John went back to Neera.

When he came into her sight, she raised one hand, weakly. "I swear," she said, her voice as soft as the breeze, "I swear… did not tell… them. Of the… of the… s'dacc. I did not… I swear."

John couldn't take her hand, but he did nod. "I believe you," he said, mostly meaning it.

"Thank you… you… for… for the… the gift. Death… gift of… death. I go… I go join. My… son." Before she drank from the cup Jarl offered, she added, "I… I hope… your… your cl…clowns. Hope… they do… not. Do not… come. For you… come for… you. Thank… you…"

John nodded again and stepped back as Jarl tipped the cup into her open mouth, pouring the liquid a few drops at a time into her mouth. She made a face at the taste, though she swallowed it all. Within a minute, she was asleep, and her sleep finally stopped her heart. Jarl confirmed it by listening for her heartbeat, by checking for breath. "She is gone," he confirmed, his voice soft.

Again, John nodded. He took as big a breath as he could, blowing it out slowly. "The transmitter's still active, we need to get the it out of her, before we… take care of her remains. Jarl? Can you do that?"

Jarl nodded. "It was not placed with much care. I can easily pull it out."

"I'll smash it once you do," Rodney said, from behind John's shoulder, making John start with surprise. "Then we can… what, cremate her?"

Darche nodded. "Yes. I'll go get the rest, make the preparations."

"Good." John turned and followed Darche out of the 'jumper. He knew Jarl and Rodney would do what was needed for the transmitter, and fire would do the rest.

It didn't make him feel any happier, though.


"It's a six planet system," Rodney said, after checking the address of the 'gate Neera gave them. The system, as it database knew it, was displayed as on the big plasma screen. "There are two gas giants with multiple moons. The gate is in orbit around the fourth planet, the second gas giant. She indicated the cruiser was on the third moon of the other gas giant. I'm going to guess that she was referring to this planet," he pointed to the one inside the orbit of the planet with the 'gate, "and hope it's this satellite, which has the farthest orbit and is largest." He frowned. "Unfortunately, the atmosphere on that moon is toxic. Not particularly helpful, especially since we don't have the Wraith beaming tech."

John sighed, tired to the bone even though he'd not done anything particularly strenuous that day. "Okay, fine. How long by 'jumper?"

Rodney pursed his lips, thinking hard. "Sixteen hours? One way, of course. We've done worse."

"Yeah, but how are we going to get into the ship? We've got no EVA suits, McKay." John rubbed his temples where he could feel a headache brewing. "And do we have the power in the 'jumper to waste, if this turns out to be a wild goose chase?"

"I don't think we should allow the chance to pass," Darche offered.

Honol frowned. "But the 'jumper is very precious to us, as are the people who will be in it."

They argued constantly for much of the next few days. For the most part, they were all arguing for the same thing: everyone thought they should get the ship, at least visit it, see if it could be of use. Jarl pointed out it could be a trap by the Wraith. Honol discussed the tactical advantage it could get them — they still had the capability of tracing all the Asuran ships in the system but the Wraith ships were more elusive. Darche wondered if there were cocooned humans left on the ship to rescue. Rike merely wanted the chance to kill Wraith. Rodney wanted to cannibalize it, maybe removing the hyperdrive engine for their own use.

John, though, John had no idea how he felt about it, other than numb. He was more tired than he'd ever felt before, lost and alone and drifting. During the discussions where he'd sat in a corner and didn't contribute one word, he saw Rodney shooting him little, worried glances.

There was a spot outside that John had found early on when they moved into the Batcave. It was a little higher up the mountain where their waterfall originated, well shielded from prying eyes, with a ridge of hard, smooth rock making a good seat. It was both quiet and noisy, and because of the sound of babbling and falling water, John could almost pretend he was back on Atlantis, back home. He went there sometimes when cave living got too much for him, or when he or Rodney or both needed a little time alone.

Three days after Neera died, he went there, even though the sky was overcast and it was misty with rain and a little cool, with fall coming on. The day before, he'd found a note he'd written to himself shortly after they moved in, and started adding up days and weeks. To his surprise, in roughly ten days it would be exactly one year since Atlantis died. Not precisely a good anniversary to celebrate, the death of one's home, but he hadn't realized it had been so long.

He heard approaching footsteps before he saw Tarn climbing up the hill after him. He was a little surprised; he hadn't realized he'd become quite that predictable.

Tarn was good company. Aside from the fact that he couldn't talk well, he had a rather Zen approach to life, which was surprising considering what he had gone through at the hands of the Wraith. John liked him, had almost from the moment he'd met Tarn and seen his scarred face, heard his mutilated voice. He had more reason to hate the Wraith than any of them, but always counseled patience and mercy. A part of John almost envied him for his peace of mind. He reminded John of Teyla and he resolved to listen to Tarn's counsel the way he often hadn't listened to Teyla's.

He sat next to John after nodding hello… just sat, closed his one good eye and breathed. John tried to do the same but his mind was whirling so hard he could barely keep from screaming.

"Let it go, John." Tarn's voice was harsh, rough, and it appeared to hurt him to talk more than a couple of words.

John took a ragged breath. "I don't think I can." He looked over at Tarn. "How do you even…?"

Tarn half-smiled, half-grimaced and lifted his face up, so it was soon covered in mist. "Anger, hatred." He swallowed hard and nodded. "They can… you can live. With them. But." John had a feeling he knew what was coming and he was right as Tarn continued, "but they'll eat you too, worse than Wraith. Don't let them."

What could he say to that? He knew it was true, knew it from countless times in his past. "I know." He almost surprised himself with the words. Words weren't his thing; they were Rodney's servants. "I've killed a lot of people." Not that Rodney would be able to explain how he felt, either. Neither of them were good at that. "I've been a soldier a long time." Oh, fuck it, he had no idea what he meant, no idea what to say, what to do. Repression had served him in the past, it would serve him again.

"Don't." John blinked at Tarn's word, almost surprised. "You are above that, John."

Tarn sounded so certain. John just wished for the same certainty.


It took John, Rodney and Tarn over eighteen hours in the puddlejumper to get to the designated moon. They spent the time napping, reading, playing — cards and chess, and Tarn was becoming frighteningly good at chess — and, in Rodney's case, running scans. They had done as complete a scan as possible before they left, and were reassured the system was far enough out of the way to make it less desirable.

Rodney had flat-out refused to stay back, giving John his most stubborn scowl. They had some loud discussions (not arguments, just discussions) so finally Darche — his lips twitching as if to hold back a smile — took John aside to explain it. "If you two die out there, we will survive," Darche said. "It won't be easy, but we will. But if you die on the mission and he is here…"

John rolled his eyes but gave in. Somewhere inside him, he felt the same way, which scared the living shit out of him. Rodney was his biggest weakness and John just knew Kanaan knew it.

The ship wasn't exactly where Rodney had guesstimated; it was on a different, smaller moon. It wasn't crashed and didn't appear to be significantly damaged, but they had no way of getting into it. The thin, barely there atmosphere consisted mostly of methane and there appeared to have been oceans of hydrogen peroxide at one point, though they were gone or evaporated.

"There's some mild damage to the outer hull," Rodney reported as they hovered above the ship. "Can't tell if it's damage from unfriendly fire or corrosion from the atmosphere or a different source."

"Life signs?" John asked, examining the HUD's data.

"No, but that doesn't really mean anything," Rodney replied, distracted by his own, much more comprehensive scans. "We know we can't pick up hibernating Wraith and before you ask, yes, I've tried before and no, it apparently can't be done."

John grinned. Of course, if Rodney couldn't do it, then it couldn't be done. Q.E.D.

"No way to enter?" Tarn asked, standing between the two forward seats and staring down at the ship.

"Hmmm… No. I don't think so." Rodney looked up from his laptop and frowned at the ship out the port. "If we had the power, we could extend the shields to the ship and just walk to it. Like you did when you and Zelenka rescued me in the sinking 'jumper."

John nodded, letting the HUD map the outer skin of the cruiser. "But I take it that would be too much of a drain on the 'jumper's cells?"

"Yeah." Rodney sighed. "If we had the power, I could put a bubble around the entire thing, letting us do what we want to it, inside and out. But we need to hoard power for the 'jumper."

"How about adapting the cells to take a charge from the—"

"I've been working on it." Rodney's voice was sour. "Trust me, I've been working on it."

"No go?"

"No. I don't have the spare parts or crystals."

They orbited the planet once to make sure there were no anomalies or anything else of interest before they turned around and went home. Power. Everything came down to power and it was driving John mad. There had to be ZPMs somewhere. Somewhere they had missed in searching for five plus years. That was their only way out of the problem they were in.

Somewhere.


THE SECOND YEAR:

Darche all but moved into the Hub — no, the Batcave, dammit! — with them after the trip, helping Rodney catalog the information they'd gotten from the scans of the cruiser. John had stuck his head into the lab a couple of times to hear them spouting technobabble and hastily retreated. It wasn't that he wasn't able to hold his own in such a discussion, it was simply that they appeared to be having so much fun, and he didn't want to intrude on it.

He'd suspected Darche was a Big Brain and the guy had finally come clean — he'd been a military  scientist on Hoff. He had been one of many who had been made into runners in retaliation by Wraith, who had pissed-off over the drug. There had been many such, apparently. The Wraith wouldn't eat them since they knew doing so would be their own death, but it didn't stop them from using Hoffans as sport.

Darche had told John this information in private. John was very glad Carson hadn't known about it.

By the end of the second day, they looked to be winding down. John was coming down the passageway to the lab, ready to pull them out for dinner, and heard them talking.

"—Got to be a way!" Rodney sounded stressed and frustrated, two emotions that went hand-in-hand with Rodney.

Darche chuckled. "You are so impatient, Neysa. Relax. You should learn to meditate."

John could almost hear Rodney rolling his eyes. "Yes, yes, been there, done that, almost died because of it, and don't think that—" Rodney suddenly went silent. John went around the corner into the room to find him standing there, wide-eyed and pale. "Meditation," he whispered.

"Yeah, not something I'm…" John blinked as Rodney turned crazed eyes on him. "Rodney?"

"Meditation. John! Meditation! P45-229!"

"Wh—" The address hit and John felt the bottom drop out of his world. "Oh my God. But they won't—"

"I don't care if they won't! I'll just take! John, there aren't any more people in this galaxy who want to ascend!"

"Rodney… we can't…"

"Yes! We can!"

John was peripherally aware of Darche watching them, his head swiveling back and forth. "What—" he tried to interject but Rodney just talked right over him. "John, what are they going to do to us? They can't interfere because of their own damn rules!"

"John?" Darche said. "May I ask—"

"Rodney, they're not going to let us!"

"Rodney?" Darche said.

"To hell with what they'll do or not do! The situation has changed and they can't claim any more—"

A piercing whistle made John and Rodney wince and turn towards Darche, the source of the noise. "Will one of you please explain what is happening here?" he asked, his voice plaintive but his eyes dancing in mirth.

"It's a planet—"

"A bunch of idiot Ancients thought—"

"Look, it's—"

"Running away from their troubles, the damn cowards—"

"Rodney!" Finally reaching his limit, John put his hand over Rodney's mouth, accepting the glare he got in retaliation with good grace. "Do you know what ascension is?" he asked Darche, who shook his head slowly in response. "Okay. Ancients discovered how to 'ascend' to a higher plane of existence, they thought of it as the next step of evolution for humans."

"A point which is debatable!" Rodney interjected, scowling.

"Regardless." John gave Rodney a quelling frown. "It's… well, I guess you would call it evolving, it's going from the body, like we have, to light. To pure spirit."

Darche blinked, clearly taken aback. "I think I have heard of it, though I don't recall hearing the word 'ascension' before. This was a practice of the Ancestors?"

"Yeah. They used it to run away from the Wraith."

John sighed at Rodney's words. "Not all of them, Rodney."

"Most of them," Rodney said, narrowing his eyes at John as if daring him to disagree.

"A lot of them," John allowed. "At any rate, they set up a sanctuary on P45-229 where people could go and meditate until they ascended. They made it proof against the Wraith by making it a… what did you call it, McKay?"

"A time dilation field." Rodney's enthusiasm picked up at that, of course. Always the teacher. "Inside the field, time speeds up. A day on this side of the field translates to a — I don't remember, several weeks? a month? I'll have to check my notes — on the other. And how do you think they accomplished that work of engineering? Because that takes an enormous amount of power, power you can't find lying around."

"Your zero-point modules." Darche was nodding his head.

"They must have at least three, probably more, because that place has stood for over ten thousand years. They wouldn't let me have the ZedPMs when we were there—"

John interrupted him. "And they probably won't let you take them today, either."

"Look, you need power, I need power, none of this can work unless we get something vastly more powerful than half a dozen mark-two naquadah generators!" Rodney threw his hands up in the air. "If you've got a better idea, let me know!"

Thing was, John didn't have any better ideas. He'd been wracking his brains over their need for power, ever since he'd checked the 'jumper's internal cells and realized they were down to just over half-full. To do anything they wanted to do, they'd need the power from a ZPM.

They argued about it the rest of the day and into the evening, even taking it to bed with them. Rodney hadn't said a thing while getting ready for bed, which involved brushing teeth (with the really nasty but effective stuff all the Pegasus denizens used) and (at least for Rodney) flailing around in bed until some sort of magic position had revealed itself. John usually waited until that moment to slide in.

Once the light was out, Rodney started up again. "Just tell me why you aren't automatically agreeing with me."

John sighed. "Remind me again why I'm sleeping with you?"

"Because I put out regularly and give fantastic blowjobs, by your own admission. Now, tell me—"

"Rodney!" John stretched the word out until it became a whine. "Fine. We'll go tomorrow. I just…"  I just have a bad feeling about it and don't need to be called Obi-Wan again, he didn't say.

"Just what?"

"Nothing. Go to sleep, Rodney."

If John dreamed that night, he didn't remember it. Or maybe he blocked them out, one of the two.


P45-229 was as beautiful and empty as it had been years before. They popped through the spacegate and John orbited it once, checking the HUD to make sure it was still unpopulated — the last thing they needed was a phalanx of Wraith hive ships lying in wait for them, as unlikely as that might be.

They landed in the same place, pulled their backpacks over their shoulders and slogged up to the portal. As they stood before the barrier, John had the most horrible sense of deja vu. He'd spent six months on the planet, feeling abandoned and lost and very…

"Come on, come on, what are you waiting for?" Rodney pushed past him and all but leapt through the barrier. With a sigh, John followed, the familiar ripping pain not nearly as bad as it had been initially.

Rodney was waiting for him, sitting on a rock examining his tablet. "There you are. We've got the power source two kilometers that way," he said, pointing a little to the left of the cave entrance. "You ready?"

John sighed. "Fine. Might as well get it over with."

Rodney gave him an exasperated look. "Jesus, suck it up! What's the worst they can do to us?"

"Just walk, McKay," John replied sourly.

It was warm and beautiful in the field, of course; it was designed that way, forever unchanging. For the whole six months (or several hours, depending on your perspective) John had lived — been a captive — there, he couldn't remember anything but sunshine and clear, blue skies. Though he maintained his wariness, he didn't hear any sounds but the wind blowing through the grasses. He kept expecting the bellow of the monster or Teer's soft, tentative voice.

Naturally, the power trail led Rodney to the Cloister and the pool. The buildings were still standing, though in a terrible state of disrepair. It had been more than three years since John had been there; it was probably hundreds of years within the time field. Rodney walked all the way around the pool, staring at his tablet and frowning. "It's here and it's not," he muttered, frowning. "Must be… buried? Underwater?"

Setting his tablet aside, Rodney began examining the wall around the pool. Meanwhile, John paid more attention to their surroundings than to Rodney's actions. He was jumpy; the hand on his P-90 was damp with sweat.

"A-ha!" John glanced down at Rodney in time to see him press what looked like the ornamental scroll-work on the wall. There was a deep rumble and the ground beneath John's feet seemed to ripple slightly.

A very familiar three-branched pedestal rose from the center of the pool, the water sluicing away from a clear bubble of some kind over it. Rodney crowed with delight. "That's more like it!" He pressed more symbols and three ZPMs rose from their cradles.

"Stop." The voice was an unfamiliar male's; John turned sharply and raised his P-90. "This is the sanctuary, and removing the power source is not allowed." John didn't recognize him at all.

Rodney's eyes narrowed as he stood straight from his crouch. "Says who?"

"This is a refuge for those wishing to ascend," the man continued, implacable. His gaze was focused on a spot somewhere between John and Rodney. "A sanctuary from enemies and from those who would kill. Do not seek to destroy it, thus preventing others from seeking the path to—"

"Oh, it's a hologram." Rodney walked right up to it and thrust his hand through the projection, which kept calmly speaking. "Auto warning system, probably." He turned away and back to the pedestal. "Okay, we need the off switch. John, could you—"

"John?"

The soft, female voice interrupted Rodney and John sighed. "Hello, Teer."

"Are you finally ready for ascension, John?"

"No, he's not." John turned and saw Rodney, his arms crossed over his chest, glaring at Teer. "And neither am I. We're taking the ZedPMs and actually using them in defense of all those poor, defenseless descendants of yours. Something about which you would have no experience, right?" Nobody could sneer like Rodney McKay.

Teer returned Rodney's glare. "Sanctuary was left by those who came before, Dr. McKay. You have no right to destroy it. Others will come—"

"No one will come, Teer." John put his hand on Rodney's shoulder, trying to hold him back. "The galaxy is all but emptied of people. The only ones left are machines or mutants."

Teer looked at John's hand and her mouth flattened to a straight line. "It will remain." She crossed her arms, mimicking Rodney's stance.

Rodney noticed her displeasure too, by the way he glanced between John and Teer. "No, it won't. And you can just back off, he's taken."

"Rodney," John started, but Teer just kept talking, ignoring Rodney. "Don't do this, John. Ascension is your path, I have seen it. And it is the most important path, for you, for us all. Letting yourself become tied down with useless, worldly things only inhibits your true growth."

"Useless?" Rodney spluttered.

"Teer, you've seen a lot of things, and a lot of what you've seen hasn't come to pass." John was beginning to get a little pissed off at her one-track mind, though he tried hard not to show it. "I'm not going to ascend, I don't think I'll ever ascend, and there's no way what Rodney and I have can be classified as 'useless.' Give it up."

"Not to mention that back home, 'ascended' is pretty much synonymous with 'asshole,'" Rodney added.

Teer actually looked as though she were getting mad; a first, John thought. Though Rodney at his worst could probably get Gandhi pissed off, and John knew Rodney was only warming up. "What you do is a perversion on true love between souls, and it cannot lead to anything but sadness. Ascension lifts you above the petty emotions—"

"Wow, not just pomposity but homophobia, too," Rodney snarked. "And here I thought you Ancients were all sweetness and light. Bang goes another illusion."

"Look," John said, squeezing the hand he still kept on Rodney's shoulder, "we're just going to take the ZPMs and leave. We need them a whole hell of a lot more than you do."

"No." There were other ascended being barely coming into view behind her and John thought, oh, shit. "The sanctuary will remain standing."

"And just how the hell are you going to keep us from taking them?" Rodney demanded. "You're not even allowed to interfere… oh, yeah, I forgot, you can't interfere unless it affects you directly! Hello, Ori!"

"He has a point," said another female voice and John sighed again.

"Hello, Chaya," he said.

Rodney jerked around, staring first at Chaya then at John. "What is this, ascension graduation reunion? All your ascended harem coming back to haunt you?"

"McKay," John said warningly.

Chaya had a slight smile on her face. "You haven't changed much, Dr. McKay. But in this, I am on your side." She looked over at Teer. "You cannot interfere, Teer. Let them take the power modules and go."

"No." It looked like Teer's lower lip was quivering and John internally winced; he couldn't abide tearful women. "This is the sanctuary. It has stood for all those who have sought the path…"

"Chaya is right, Teer." John rolled his eyes. Now Arvid? Who else was going to show up?

"I have been watching you, watching Atlantis," Chaya said to John and Rodney. "Its destruction caused me much pain." She smiled sadly. "I thank you on behalf of all sentient people that you rescued and relocated as many as you have done."

"Chaya," John began, but Rodney interrupted him, being astonishingly calm. "Your people are at risk too," he said.

"I am aware of that. If the time comes, I will help them ascend." She turned back to Teer. "There are rules we must follow, Teer. You know this."

"Of course I do, and I also know you have broken them in the past!"

"Yes, and I pay the price for doing so." Chaya shook her head. "Look at me and see yourself if you try to stop them, Teer."

"The sanctuary must remain intact!" Teer seemed to be stuck in a groove. More ascended Ancients were appearing, and though many of them appeared to be on Chaya's side, several appeared to be agreeing with Teer. Rodney was wading right into the fight, arguing loudly and happily.

John rolled his eyes heavenward, wishing for a hole to disappear into. Arguing was so not his thing, it was Rodney's, and this looked like it would be an epic discussion. Just as he thought about finding a bench and eating a snack, he heard his name called softly, from behind him.

He turned and blinked. "Hedda?"

"Hello, John." She looked the same, though not nearly as happy.

John made an aborted move to hug her, but settled for going on one knee instead. He knew she wasn't really there and he wouldn't be able to actually touch her and that sucked.

"I missed you, John, a lot."

"I've missed you too, Hedda." She looked so solemn, so introspective. "Are you all right?"

"There is nothing else but all right here, John." She sighed. "I saw a thunderstorm. Three of them. But they weren't as good as you described."

John swallowed. "I think you have to be corporeal to really appreciate them, Hedda."

She nodded. "I think you're right."

He couldn't stand it. "Hedda, you can de-ascend, you know, come back to being a person, a little girl. I'd take care of you, you don't have to be like this." So unlike the funny, playful and loyal little girl he'd known.

"I know. But Teer wouldn't like it. And she'd miss me." Her eyes were large and luminous. "She needs me to take care of her."

John closed his eyes and hung his head.

"Come on, I need to show you something."

The debate was still raging and no one was looking at John or Hedda, so he got back to his feet and followed her into the hut used for meditation. She led him to a corner, where a door stood. John had always thought it was some kind of closet, when he thought about it at all. He'd never noticed the small, circular indentation at its center.

"Put your hand here and tell it to open," Hedda said.

Frowning, John did as she asked. It wasn't quite a door, because it slid downwards, out of sight, silently revealing what was inside.

"Holy crap," John whispered, his jaw on the floor somewhere. The space was honeycombed with deep indentations, at least two dozen of them, and inside six of them were softly glowing zero-point modules.

"This will recharge them as well," Hedda explained. "Take these and leave those on the pedestal. It will help Teer to know the sanctuary will survive."

John blinked in shock, unable to move. Finally, he went back down on one knee. "Thank you, sweetheart," he said, wishing again he could hug Hedda, show her how much he missed her.

She smiled sadly. "You're welcome. I will hold the portal open for you and your friend when you leave. Goodbye, John."

John looked down as she faded from view, fighting emotion. It simply wasn't fair that a little girl, a beautiful, fun-loving, sweet little girl wouldn't grow up properly, wouldn't experience everything she should. She would never hit puberty, never go to a dance, a party, a sleepover, never fall in love or have children.

It took him some long minutes but he finally got himself under control. He gently pulled the ZPMs from their seats and placed them on the floor. Four of them fit in his backpack, barely, and he lifted the other two in his hands as he left the hut and walked out to the common area where the loud debate was still going strong.

Coming to a stop just behind Rodney, he spoke as loudly as he could, over everyone's voices. "How about we just leave these three here and go," he said.

Rodney whirled around, his mouth open, his face furious at John's words. When he saw the ZPMs, though, he froze, his mouth still open, his face still red with anger.

"We'll take these and leave the ones in the pedestal alone. That way, the sanctuary won't be destroyed and everyone can be happy." Rodney was still frozen, his eyes bugging out. "Here you go, McKay," John said, fighting laughter. He handed the two ZPMs in his arms to Rodney, who took them like they were the most precious, delicate things in the universe. "How's that, Teer?"

Teer had that wounded expression on her face and John hated it. He knew she still had feelings for him, but all he felt for her was sadness and a little frustration. How could anyone say living as nothing but energy was better than being in a body? A messy, difficult, sometimes painful, glorious body — he'd take that over energy any time at all.

As if she could hear his thoughts, she nodded, her head drooping, and turned away, disappearing as she retreated. Most of the other combatants did the same — with Hedda's help, John had quite literally taken all the wind from their sails.

Rodney was still cradling the two ZPMs so John turned to the last one there — Chaya. "Thanks," he said, not knowing what else to say.

She smiled at the two of them. "I am glad you found what you needed, John. Go in peace."

Rodney suddenly found his voice. "We can try to warn you if the Asurans—"

"I need no warning, Dr. McKay," she replied. "But I thank you for the offer." Like the Cheshire cat, she faded from their view, the last thing John seeing was her gentle smile.

"I don't believe this," Rodney muttered, staring down at his hands. "I don't… where did you…?"

"Hedda showed me. Come on, she's going to hold the portal open for us, and the four ZPMs in my backpack are heavy."

John silently counted seconds in his head. He'd reached three when Rodney squawked "FOUR?!"


For the next week, if John wanted to see Rodney, he had to go into the lab. He brought meals in and even set up a little cot in one corner for those times when Rodney just keeled over in exhaustion, but he didn't complain. The six ZPMs sat in a row in solitary splendor while Rodney did everything but run in circles, he was so excited, and John was willing to let him have his fun.

John used the time to take a little vacation for himself. He was still upset about Hedda, about a life cut short, because that's what it felt like to him, no matter what anyone else said. He also needed time to think because having those ZPMs meant a lot of things; for him, for Rodney, for their group of runners, for all of them.

He wouldn't go far from the Batcave; he didn't need to. The days were cool as fall began to give way to winter, but going by the weather when they first settled, the winters were pretty mild. John went running or hiking up the hill behind their cave, or just sat in the sun, shirtless, soaking up warmth and thinking. Trying to figure out what the next step should be, for him, for them. Trying to put aside his own wants to determine what would be best for Rodney, because lord knew, Rodney couldn't take care of himself most of the time. If John didn't bring him food, he wouldn't eat. Well, okay, he would, but not well.

He was no closer to a plan of action when he heard Rodney calling his name. "Up here!" he replied and shortly thereafter Rodney came puffing up the hill.

John could hear Rodney before he saw him. "…hiding up here? What about our security protocols? What if we were attacked? What if I needed you to turn something on or… or…"

John turned when Rodney's voice trailed off to find Rodney staring at him, his face red, his mouth open, and his eyes wide. "What?" Then John looked down at himself and grinned. He'd forgotten all he was wearing was a pair of ragged shorts. Nice to know he still had it.

"You… uh…" Rodney blinked several times and John's smile turned into a smirk. "You're doing that deliberately," Rodney accused.

"Doing what?"

"Being… being all hot and brown and sweaty and gorgeous and don't you know about skin cancer? I hope you're wearing some sunscreen but I bet you're not!"

John laughed. "Sorry, Rodney. But I haven't been up here long and the sun isn't very strong, it's winter, sort of." He reached for his t-shirt and pulled it on over his head. "There. Better?"

"Well, no, but yes, I mean… oh never mind. I need you in the lab because I'm ready to test the force field around the Hub complex. Everybody needs to come in and I need you in the 'jumper, testing the extent of the field."

"Oh. Okay." John got to his feet and stretched leisurely, partly because he needed to and partly to see Rodney's eyes bug out. "That was fast."

"What? No, it wasn't, it took me three days!"

"That's what I meant, Rodney." John slung one arm around Rodney's shoulders and hugged him briefly before following him down to the lab.

The test was amazing. When Rodney turned the field on, it was as if the entire mountain disappeared — he could see it, at least with his eyes, but there was no sign of caves or people or even mountain, according to his instruments. Radio penetrated it, but only certain frequencies, which was reassuring. For all intents and purposes, it was impenetrable.

Once Rodney turned it off, John landed and met him in the lab. Rodney was practically bouncing, more hyper than ever. "That was pretty spectacular," John allowed. "Too bad you can't do it to the whole planet."

"If I had a big enough power source, I could," Rodney said, grinning ear to ear. "I need more parts, more crystals and stuff and I was thinking we could go to P24-339, I'm sure we could scavenge the parts I need from the other Atlantis, even though it wasn't working, it would still have—"

"Okay, okay, we'll go tomorrow." John rolled his eyes. "Make up a list, we'll take Chand and Tarn with us. Maybe Suud too."

Rodney actually came to bed that night, the first time in almost a week. He was still nearly vibrating in place over the ZPMs, so fucking excited about it all. "I can put a shield over the 'gate, hell, I could build a ZedPM-powered truck to move the 'gate into the caves! And set up shielding at all three of our primary camps!"

John fell on the bed and untied his boots. "Yeah. I've been meaning…"

"With the right equipment, I could maybe recharge the 'jumper, I can put a bubble over that cruiser, and I've had some thoughts about how to get it operational, I think I can tie the 'jumper's nav consoles to—"

"Rodney, I—"

"—bypass the need for Wraith DNA to steer the damn thing, and it has hyperspace capability, if I can get it operational again and we can—"

"McKay."

"There's just so much I wish I'd had these ZedPMs earlier—"

John stood and put one hand on Rodney's shoulder. "Rodney. Shut up for a minute, okay?"

Rodney's words trickled to a stop and he looked at John, really focused on him, his eyes big and worried. "What?"

"You're forgetting something." John paused and took a deep breath, noting Rodney's obvious trepidation. "We've still got the control crystals, we only need a power source, right? I think we should use one of the ZPMs to send you back to Earth."

Rodney blinked and took a half-step back, away from John, shrugging off his hand. "What?"

"We can do that now, can't we? With the control crystal. You said so."

At John's words, Rodney's mouth dropped open and his face was absolutely stricken. He looked like John had killed a kitten in front of him. "Wha… why?"

"Well…" Because I want you to be safe and you're not safe, not here, John thought. "I mean… well, because you could… bring back the troops. Get us help. You know. And see Jeannie, tell her you're not dead, all that."

Rodney took another half-step back. "She knows I'm not dead. Just like Elizabeth knows, and Sam, and Teyla and Ronon and all of them. They all know better than to think we're dead." He crossed his arms over his chest, but it didn't look as much defiant as protective. His eyes were focused on something over John's shoulder. "And they wouldn't come back with me, you know that. It's too dangerous. They'd be overruled if they wanted to."

Exactly, thought John. "Sure they would. You could take one of the ZPMs with you, it would power—"

"You can't take a ZedPM through a stargate." Rodney's voice was flat and John thought it trembled, just slightly.

"Yes, you can, we just did!" What the hell was Rodney talking about?

"Yes, a local 'gate, and then only because we had to, but through a galaxy 'gate, you can't—"

"Why the hell not?"

"It has to do with attenuation of the localized field and the inner-instability of the quantum foam from which zero-point energy is derived and that's not the point! If you…" He hesitated and cleared his throat. "If you want me out of your life, Sheppard, just tell me! You don't have to lie about it."

It was John's turn to blink in shock. "What?"

"You've been hiding for the last week, gone to think or something, and I know what you're thinking about. If you want Chaya or Teer or any of those ascended bimbos, just say so. God knows I'm no prize, it's a miracle you've stuck around this long as it is."

John gaped at Rodney. "What the fuck are you talking about?"

"What the fuck are you talking about? If you want me gone, then fine." He took a shaky breath and still wouldn't look directly at John. "That's the only reason I can think of for you suggesting it."

"I don't want you gone!" Where the hell had that idea come from? The massive insecurity streak in Rodney chose the weirdest times to manifest. "I just want you…" John had to pause to force the words out, but he made it. "I just want you safe." Woohoo, he'd said it. Go him.

Finally Rodney looked at him, outrage and fear evident in his eyes. "Safe? Safe?! What the hell? Do I look like a maiden in distress?"

"That's not it at all!"

"Well then tell me what it is, because I haven't the foggiest idea what you're talking about! Safe?! I'm probably safer here than back on Earth, fighting for my inevitable Nobel!"

"No, you're not!" When had he lost control of their conversation? "That's not the point! Rodney—"

"It sure as hell sounds like the point!" He jabbed one finger at John. "You're just trying to get rid of me!"

"Jesus fuck, Rodney! I'm not! I just… I want…"

"And I do not need coddling! I know I'm not as good a fighter as you or Ronon or Tarn, but I can shoot straight and—"

"But you shouldn't have to!" John was getting desperate, he hadn't expected this reaction at all. "That's what I mean—"

"Don't you dare equate me with one of your harem types, because—"

"Rodney! Would you just shut up a minute? I'm trying—"

"No! I won't! Why the hell would you think I need to be kept safe, like some damn princess in a tower, of all the stupid things you've done, this one takes the cake, you hear me Sheppard? It's not enough… there's no reason why…"

"McKay!" John bellowed. "It's because I love you, you asshole! Would you please…." John cut himself off suddenly. He felt his eyes grow wide and saw Rodney's do the same as the words he had said sank in. He winced. "I - I… um…"

Rodney's mouth was open and empty, as if he'd suddenly forgotten how to speak. His eyes had lost the trepidation and some other emotion was growing there. John wasn't sure he wanted to know what it was.

When Rodney finally found words again, they were soft and incredulous. "You what?"

John winced again and looked away. His body suddenly wanted to take him far, far away. Shit. "I… I'm sorry, I-I didn't… It just…"

"Did you mean it?"

John looked back up, almost angry at the soft question. "Course I did! I wouldn't have… have said…"

"Like a friend loves another friend."

"No! Rodney… Fuck." John rubbed his forehead, hard. "It's just… I can't…" Jesus, he was completely useless when he came to shit like this.

"Huh." John couldn't look up, but he was reassured that Rodney wasn't leaving. "And that's why you… why you wanted me to… to…"

"Yeah." Please figure it out, because I just can't talk about this, he didn't say.

"Huh," Rodney said again, then sighed. He appeared to be calming, which was probably a good thing. "You are truly pathetic, you know."

John took a deep breath and blew it out slowly. "Well, yeah." He'd thought everybody knew that. His ex-wife certainly called him that enough.

Rodney turned and sat back down on the end of their bed. John hazarded a glance at him and found him looking thoughtfully at nothing in particular. At least he didn't appear to be angry any longer, and that was probably good. Though an angry Rodney was one John could deal with far easier than a thoughtful one.

"John…" Rodney trailed off, shaking his head. He was still frowning.

It took all of John's courage to turn and sit down next to Rodney, but he made it. Sucking it up, he got out a half-strangled, "I'm sorry."

Rodney snorted. "Only you would say something that stupid as a follow up to such a declaration." He shook his head. "Only you would think it was something to apologize for. I don't think even I would be that idiotic, and that really says a lot about you."

John swallowed. "Well, we've already established I'm fucked up pretty badly in general, at least as badly as you."

"Hey, it wasn't my clown, you know." Rodney sighed. "We have this dynamic, everybody pretends I'm the hysteric while you're the laid back, take-all-comers flyboy but really, underneath? I think you're as bad as I am."

"Hey!" John finally turned to Rodney, mildly outraged. "I think that's a little unfair, there."

Rodney turned and gave him a raised eyebrow.

With a deep sigh, John conceded. "Okay, fine."

They were silent for a long minute before Rodney spoke again, clearing his throat before he did. "Don't… don't send me away, John. I know it's dangerous, and if I wanted to go, you bet I would have gone already. But we've… we've got things to do, here. Remember? Fuck up the Wraith, fuck up the Asurans…"

"Fuck up Michael's mutants, yeah, I know."

"I love Teyla too," Rodney continued, in a softer voice. "And I'm as angry about Jayarre as you, and I want to be able to tell her she's been avenged too."

John felt so frustrated he wanted to shoot something, to run away screaming. "But—"

"No!" Rodney hit him on the shoulder, hard. "No buts! Christ, you're worse than Madison!"

"Ow!" John rubbed his shoulder.

"You big baby. Get this through your hirsute skull, dimwit, I'm staying. We're staying. Now that we've got all this firepower, we can really do some damage. We might even be able to rescue more people."

"But…" John almost felt like Rodney, fumbling for the right words. "Maybe we should, I mean, even a message…"

"No. That'd… that'd be worse." And yeah, John knew that, but he also had to propose it, had to try. "If we sent a message, then didn't… if we didn't make it back…"

John made a frustrated noise. "It's just…"

"Quit it. Just get past it, move on, we're here and we're staying until we finish what we started. We owe them that much, at least." Rodney thrust out his chin, put on a mulish expression. "Clear? Good. Now, get naked, I want to fuck you through the mattress."

John started laughing, because if he hadn't, he would have started crying and that would never do. "McKay…"

"Trust me, John. Please."

John closed his eyes and swallowed against the lump in his throat. "I do," he said softly. "I really do." And with a shock, he realized he really, really did. He trusted Rodney with everything, even his body, now. He took a deep breath and shoved the worry down, locked it all away again. "Through the mattress, huh?"

Rodney looked about as tentative, as nervous as John felt. "Yeah."

"Well, okay then." John smiled and Rodney smiled back. After a moment, Rodney leaned forward and pressed a delicate, sweet kiss to John's lips. John took a deep breath then allowed his hands to come up and frame Rodney's face, allowed himself to deepen the kiss. Allowed himself to enjoy it.

He loved this, loved it, loved Rodney's kisses, loved that Rodney could kiss as well as he did, well enough to reduce John to a panting heap of hormones in a minute flat. He loved that Rodney wanted to kiss, liked spending time just making out, feeling the heat grow between them. Kissing Rodney almost made John forget his name, forget where they were, forget what deep trouble they were actually in.

Despite Rodney's initial declaration, it appeared he wanted to go slow, to make it last. They no longer felt the almost panicked urgency of their first time; it was almost as if they'd become an old married couple, a couple knowing exactly where the hot spots were on each other. Instead of frenzied ripping at clothing, they removed t-shirts, pants and boxers easily, letting them drop to the floor of their room in a more careful manner.

Their bed was the largest they could find, though John still liked to keep his feet outside the blanket (and Rodney still teased him for it). But when they were wound around each other, when it was hard for John to tell where he left off and Rodney began, the size of the bed didn't matter.

Rodney rolled them until he was on top, holding John down and John loved it, let his legs fall open so Rodney could press him down even more. They were still kissing, breaking briefly to take panting breaths, and John was so hard it almost hurt. Then Rodney thrust his dick against John's and John whimpered, it felt so good and so hot and he had to think of Kavanagh naked to back away from the brink.

"Yeah," Rodney gasped into John's neck, breaking their kiss, "oh, God, yeah…"

"C'mon, Rodney," John whispered, not trusting himself to talk any louder.

"Minute… just a… God…" It felt like Rodney almost threw himself to one side and while John shivered and bit his lip to keep from begging for more, he knew it was coming, knew what Rodney was doing.

They were almost out of Rodney's homemade sunscreen — using it as lube instead of sunscreen had depleted it rapidly — but apparently Rodney didn't care. The fingers he used to touch John's hole were dripping with the stuff, cool and slippery. It was Rodney all over, always over-cautious unless it affected him directly. Those times when he wanted John to fuck him, he was always impatient, always trying to claim he was ready, dammit, and fuck him now! But he treated John like crystal… like the way John always cared for him. It was almost enough to bring tears to John's eyes, so to mask it, he started begging.

"C'mon, I'm ready…"

Rodney took a shaky breath. "Just a little more…"

"Don't… don't need to… please, just do it…"

"Christ!" Rodney pushed three fingers inside John and John breathed deeply, feeling his cock jump as Rodney brushed over his prostate, shaking so hard he felt like he'd shake apart.

Rodney's fingers slipped out and Rodney took their place, using one hand to lift John's ass and the other to line himself up. John managed to hook one of his legs around Rodney's waist and he groaned as Rodney pushed into him, hot and hard, so damn hard. John arched as Rodney began a slow, thorough, in and out motion, driving all the way in and pulling almost all the way out, his sweat dripping from his head to John's belly.

When John came, it felt almost like an afterthought, just another step in the evolution of them, of John and Rodney rather than just John, just Rodney. Even once they were side-by-side, drowsing, it felt like they were still having sex, making love, whatever. Rodney put his head on John's shoulder and John felt his breath, warm and moist.

"We really should be using condoms," Rodney murmured. "You know we're headed for a UTI."

John snorted gently. "If I find a dispenser, I'll let you know." His voice sounded thick and rough with all the things he couldn't say. "We'll be all right. 'Sides, I miss other things more."

"Blue Jell-O."

"Doritos. And sports."

"Mm… Wonder who got the Stanley Cup this year?"

"Wonder who went to the Rose Bowl?"

"Find out later," Rodney whispered as he fell asleep on John's shoulder. John held him close, held him tight, wondering how he ever got so lucky.


Rodney, John and Darche sat down the next morning and made a list of priorities. The first three were to get the Batcave, Ford's cave and their Hoffan retreat masked by the field. That took three of their ZPMs and Rodney looked ecstatic when he realized he still had three fully-charged ZPMs left. The plan to work on the cruiser was shelved until the three of them, with Tarn and Chand, could get to P24-339 to scavenge for extra parts. With Rodney's prodding, they decided to leave early that afternoon.

The people of the world were long gone, relocated to the Milky Way months ago. The alternate Atlantis was still there, still crumbling, but the command tower was substantially intact.

They returned just after dinnertime in an extremely stuffed 'jumper — four large crates filled with crystals and parts; four sacks of seeds that looked viable, another sack of tubers that was marginal but which Chand said he could use; one large deer-like creature Darche took out with a lucky shot; and a small anvil. A good haul, for the most part, even though John hadn't found anything of use to himself personally and Rodney complained all the way back to the Batcave about the not-deer carcass.

He didn't complain about eating the delicious steaks Chand made from it, though.

John and Darche spent the next few days building and testing the ZPM cradles Rodney had roughly designed. Neither of them were mechanical engineers, but they enjoyed tinkering and had a good grasp of what the requirements were for the interface and the power output from the ZPM. Rodney was also working on a way to hook the 'jumper's power cells to a ZPM, but that was harder going. As Rodney had said (on more than one occasion), if he didn't properly calibrate the power output, the whole 'jumper would be obliterated.

So, if Rodney said it was difficult, it must be nearly impossible.

John and Darche were sharing a small pitcher of the ale Rike brewed while they waited for the last diagnostic on the power converters, sitting in the big 'room' (John called it the garage because, well, that's what it was) behind the waterfall. John sipped and made a face. "I also miss Coors," he muttered under his breath. It wasn't that Rike's ale wasn't any good, it just wasn't… Coors.

Darche turned and raised his eyebrow. "Another Earther product?"

John chuckled. "Yeah."

Darche was silent for a long moment before speaking again. "John, why do you do this?"

Frowning, John said, "Do what?" though he had a pretty good idea what Darche was asking.

"Stay, stay here, instead of going to your Earth. I know you have the capability to do so, now that we have the power canisters. Why don't you go?"

John sighed. "Darche…" and he wasn't whining, not at all.

Laughing, Darche rolled his eyes. "You are the most tongue-tied person I've ever met, Onsa. You are a good match for Rodney in that."

"Why, because he can't shut up?"

"Precisely." Though he was still smiling, Darche sobered. "You know that any one of us would do anything for either of you. We all owe you a life-debt, John."

Yeah, he kind of thought that. "Well, it goes both ways," he said, trying hard to sound coherent. "And… well, I've thought maybe… some of us should go back, go to Earth, where it's safer. Chand, maybe, he's too young."

"Yes, but he wouldn't go." Darche narrowed his eyes. "You tried to get Rodney to go, didn't you?"

John grimaced. "Maybe."

"And he did not wish to."

John took a deep breath and looked anywhere but at Darche. "Maybe."

"John, he loves you. And he is at least as angry at the Wraith and the Asurans as you are, as we all are. Perhaps more."

Well, yeah, but still. John made an impatient noise. "I want to find a way to just… obliterate them. Wipe them out of the universe entirely, but do it from a distance. From where it's safe. But regardless, doesn't matter if it's safe or not, I won't be going back until I'm done here, and that's going to take some time and work."

"And when it does, we will be happy to go with you, back to your Earth, to your own galaxy." Darche nodded. "I'm hoping to find some of my kinsmen there, though so few of us were left to relocate."

"We'll get back there," John said firmly. "And if there are any of your family left, we'll find them."

Darche chuckled. "You will have our help in beating our enemies; I don't doubt we will succeed. Rodney keeps telling all of use how smart he is, and with that on our side, I fail to see how we could not win."

John rolled his eyes. "Ah, yes, Rodney and his brain. It's gotten me out of a few scrapes, here and there." Before he could say any more, the laptop attached to the interface beeped, announcing the testing was complete. "Okay, back to work, I guess."

Darche clapped him on the shoulder. "Work is good to have. Without it, think how bored we would be?"


"No, no! Not here, over there!" John watched as Chand scurried away from Rodney's wrath (and voice) to put his box of spare stuff down where indicated. "Right! There! Where's Tarn? Tarn! Has anybody seen Tarn?"

"He's outside, getting the other box you asked him to get," John replied in a soft voice, trying to get Rodney to calm down. "We're doing fine, McKay." Rodney was so excited he was almost vibrating, a tornado of instructions, verbal abuse and fluttering attention from one thing to the next.

As he dashed off to the 'jumper, Chand approached John. "Is Rodney upset with me?" he asked, and John thought his nerves were as much to do with their location as Rodney's yelling.

John smiled. "Nah. He's just being Rodney."

Chand nodded, only partially relieved. He kept glancing around at the inside of the cruiser, as if waiting for something to jump out at him. "I still think I should stay and help."

John shook his head. "You really want to stay? Remember how nasty it was when you and Suud were helping me and the other guys clean it out?"

"Well…" Chand acknowledged that, but still seemed upset.

"Look, it was your idea to only stay a couple of weeks at a time, and that's a good idea. You'll be fine with Rike and Wenser, and I bet good money we're not going to be able to stay more than a week and a half." John looked around too — even after cleaning out all the nasty crap the Wraith apparently needed on a daily basis, the place was still creepy.

Rodney returned with Tarn at that point, arguing again. It didn't take much longer before the 'jumper was ready to return, with Wenser piloting and Chand and Honol as passengers, leaving John and Rodney, Darche, Tarn and Jarl alone on the cruiser.

Generating the field around the ship was easy. The argument over whether to move the stargate was not. It was an eighteen hour trip from the orbital 'gate around the fourth planet to the moon where the cruiser was parked, which was seventeen hours and five minutes too long for John. The 'jumper's cells were running low and if they had to make constant trips back and forth, they were going to be drained even further. It seemed a no-brainer to John, but Rodney fought him, pointing out that a distant stargate was one that wouldn't be on anyone's radar. In the end, they compromised, moving the 'gate so it was orbiting another moon of the gas giant. It still meant a six hour flight, and getting the 'gate going and stopping it bled a lot more energy they couldn't really spare, but John was slightly happier. Rodney promised he was working on a way to re-charge the 'jumper's cells using the ZPM, though, which they were counting on.

John also didn't like not having the 'jumper with them, but reluctantly agreed it was probably the best solution they were going to get, though he'd still rather have the 'gate with them.

They got to work immediately, taking things apart and trying to figure out what they did. It was exhausting, especially since none of them felt comfortable. John and Tarn instituted a constant watch, even though there shouldn't have been anything to guard against, and they checked in with the Batcave daily, making sure the cruiser's scanners jibed with their long-range scanners at the Batcave.

John would have won that bet, because after ten days, even Rodney was ready to go home. They had a metric ton of data and had pulled out entire consoles to return with them to the Batcave. "I'm just not sleeping well here," Rodney complained as he and John stretched out on their 'bed'. They had just checked in with the Batcave and Wenser would be coming out to pick them up in twelve hours. "Which is weird, because this floor is better than our bed."

"Are you saying our bed is too soft, McKay?"

Rodney's face was classic disdain at John's words. It was an argument they had regularly — Rodney would bitch about his back and John would snark about Rodney's bitching and it meant nothing but status quo in their relationship.

John was as relieved as Rodney that they'd be going back home soon. There was a subtle difference in the air, in the way things felt and tasted in the cruiser, one that made all of them jumpy. When Wenser arrived in the morning, they evacuated with all haste; even loading the 'jumper with too much stuff went well and quickly.

John piloted home. Wenser took shotgun and gave John a comprehensive rundown and what had been happening at their two live sites, Ford's cave and the Batcave. "And, among other things, two more suns have gone up."

"Christ. Okay, which ones?" John glanced back at Rodney, who was sitting behind Wenser.

"Nothing nearby, though one of them was a possible stronghold of the Blessed." He too glanced back at Rodney. "The star you call P3X-447. Gantric."

Rodney sighed and shook his head. "I hope they were there for the event."

John and Wenser nodded soberly. "Something interesting," Wenser continued. "We've picked up another runner."

"Really?" John frowned as he checked the 'jumper's settings, made sure they were on-course. "We haven't had one of them for… what? A year?"

"Closer to two." Rodney nodded. "Another Blessed trap? Or the real thing?"

"We need to check it out," Darche said, from behind John. John glanced back and saw Jarl and Tarn nodding.

"Okay. Once we get everything off-loaded, we'll get going on identifying and locating." Another runner, John thought, had to be a Blessed trap. There couldn't be more than a few thousand real humans left in the galaxy.


At first blush, the runner appeared to be the real thing. He jumped through stargate after stargate, changing worlds three or four times a day. They watched him from the Batcave's sensors, trying to figure out a pattern in the way he moved. Finally, John had to concede, "He's good. He's doing everything I would do in his place."

Darche and Tarn nodded, agreeing.

"Then how are we going to catch him?" Rodney demanded. "If he's that good…"

"Setup a strike force." John turned, indicating Darche, Tarn and Jarl. "You three with me and McKay on the 'jumper. Wenser, you're command post. The minute that guy changes planets, you give us the address and we'll dial it, go right through." He glanced at Rodney. "Regardless of whether he's a plant or the real thing, he's going to come out shooting. Gear up — stunners only."

They would have to be quick, quicker than usual, even. After waiting in the cloaked 'jumper in front of the 'gate for twenty minutes, Wenser's voice crackled over the radio with an address, and a firm, "Hurry!"

They shot through the 'gate just moments after the runner did, and John put them down just in front of it. It was night on the planet, M85-393, and the 'gate was ringed with huge rocks and large, desert-type plants. "He's up there," Rodney said, pointing to the HUD display. "Just over that small ridge. He's probably waiting for us to break cover."

"Let's try this the easy way first," John said. He keyed on the outside mic and receiver. "To the runner just over that ridge, we're not Wraith, we're not Blessed, we're not even Asuran… we want to help. We—"

"Sheppard?" The voice was weak and incredulous and John blinked in shock.

"Larrin?"

"Holy shit," Rodney breathed.

"Is she the only life-sign?" John demanded, and Rodney scrambled to bring up the HUD.

After a second, he confirmed it. "Unless she's got cloaking tech of her own, yeah."

"I'm going out." John opened the back hatch and stood. "Dial the 'gate, Rodney, so we can make a fast getaway."

Darche stood and blocked his way. "Onsa…"

"I know this one, she's a…" John trailed off and looked back at Rodney with a frown. "She's a…" He flailed his hand, looking for the right word.

Rodney snorted. "She's a pain in the ass, that's what she is, but she's probably clean."

"I can hear you, you know." Larrin's weak voice came through the pickup. "Sheppard? If that's really you, get out here so I can kick your ass."

"As long as that's all she does to it," Rodney muttered.

John rolled his eyes at Rodney's words and waved for Darche to follow him as far as the ramp. It was pitch black outside the 'jumper. "Rodney," John called softly, "de-cloak so I can see."

Once the 'jumper was visible, the ambient light in the area went up. John looked in the direction where Larrin was supposed to be and called out. "Larrin, it's me, Sheppard. Come on out."

After a moment, he heard her voice; it was shaking. "I… um… I can't. Got…"

John turned to Darche and indicated he should take Jarl around to the left while he and Tarn would go right. "What's wrong?"

"Got a… hurt my… the Ring dialing made me… you stupid bastard, why did you…"

John carefully circled the small mound and came up on her from her left, after turning on his flashlight so he could see better. "Sorry about that," he said gently. "Come on, you need a hand?" He drew in a sharp breath as he saw her. "Jesus, Larrin." Her clothes were ragged and what skin showed was caked with scabs. Her hair was mostly gone — it looked to have been partially ripped out, along with some of her scalp.

She was gasping for breath. "Get… over here… asshole…"

Darche and Jarl appeared on the other side of her. "Jarl, she needs medical attention. Tarn, help me get her up. Can you walk? Should we carry—"

"Just need… a hand… up. Nobody carries…"

"Now, don't go all proud on me, Larrin. We've got to get you on the 'jumper fast, before anyone else picks up your signal." He crouched down near her as Jarl got to her. "This is Jarl, he's the closest we've got to a medic, here anyway."

"Your ankle is not supposed to bend that way," Jarl said, shining a flashlight at her leg. "We will need to carry you."

"No… I can…"

"Larrin, shut the fuck up and let us help you get out of here."

She closed her eyes and shook harder. In the dark, John couldn't tell if she was laughing or crying. Rather than sticking around to find out, he and Tarn carefully pulled her up, while Darche braced her lower limbs and Jarl felt carefully along her leg. "Let's go."

Rodney had turned the 'jumper around so it was facing the 'gate, which was still active. They hustled and got Larrin inside, resting on one of the benches, while John ran forward to push them through the 'gate.

Their usual routine was to 'gate to three worlds in rapid succession, in order to keep any stragglers off their asses. Once they made it to P5Y-337, John put them down, cloaked, and went back to the aft compartment, Rodney on his heels. "How's she — shit." John heard Rodney gasp as he spoke.

In the light, she looked even worse than she had on the planet. He didn't know if she'd been tortured, but if not, it was as good as being so. She wasn't wearing her leather cat-suit; those were cloth rags hanging from her too-thin frame. She was pale, her skin looked like it was covered in goosebumps, and her ankle was definitely broken, though he couldn't tell how badly.

Jarl was just giving her a cup of something laced with gatta extract for the pain. "It's weak, it will not let you sleep, but it will allow you to tell us where your hurts are." She nodded and drank willingly. Jarl turned to John. "Do we have more of your antibiotics?"

"There should be some left," John nodded. "Larrin, where the hell did you come from? I thought your people all left for the Milky Way years ago!"

Darche had wadded up his jacket and put it behind her head to lift it up. Jarl was gently blotting her skin with a damp cloth. "Most of us…" she replied to John. Her voice was slurring. "Couple of… families… we wanted to… to go to the… the Island. You call it…"

"Andromeda," Rodney murmured. "That's what it's called in Pegasus."

"Yeah. Yeah." Her eyes drifted closed for a moment before she opened them to continue. "Got caught… by Wraith. On the way. Took… took us out." Her eyes drifted closed and one tear squeezed out of her left eye. "Got… most of… us." She sighed and winced. "Been in… cocoon. Long…" Her voice trailed off and it appeared she had passed out.

"John, we must get her back to the cave," Jarl said, his voice urgent. "Can we go yet, Rodney?"

Rodney had been working on his laptop, perched on the other bench. "In a minute, the thing is still active. The power source must have been newer."

John looked at Tarn and Darche. "She was a real runner?" John asked softly. "Are there more Wraith left out there than we thought?"

"We need to speak with her." Darche's voice was low and hard. "We need to know this information, Onsa." Tarn was nodding, agreeing with Darche's words.

"We can go back to the hub now," Rodney said, distracted. "We just can't let her leave the 'jumper."

John nodded and went forward again, dialing the 'gate for home.

Darche took shotgun. "How do you know this woman?"

"Do you know the Travelers?" John asked.

"Not personally, though I have heard of them." He glanced back aft. "She was a Traveler?"

"Yeah. Leader of one of the families. She and I butted heads on occasion." They flew through the 'gate and John sent the signal to Wenser to drop the field around the cave. "She's strong and resourceful and is going to make a huge contribution. I don't doubt her at all."

Darche nodded as John parked the 'jumper and radioed for Chand to meet them with the med kit.

It took almost an hour to wear out her implant. In that time, Jarl and Chand worked on her; putting an IV in, taking a blood sample for analysis, shooting her full of antibiotics, wrapping her in one of the emergency blankets. She was running a high fever and Chand thought she had a concussion, but at least her ankle appeared to be the only thing broken. Jarl agreed with Chand, but thought her ribs might be broken or cracked as well.

Once the transmitter was dead, they carefully moved her into one of the rooms, putting her on the closest thing they had to a hospital bed, trying to make her comfortable. John helped Jarl and Chand with her — pulling off what was left of her rags, gently washing her body to try and get a look at the damage, to see what should be stitched up and what should be disinfected. With every inch of skin revealed, John winced. She wasn't just in bad shape, she should have been dead as far as he could tell.

She woke with a gasp at one point, tried to flail and yell and failed miserably at both. John let Jarl hold her carefully down while he held Larrin's head and tried to get her to calm. "Shh, it's me, it's Sheppard, it's okay, Larrin. We've got you, you're safe."

She managed to focus on him, with eyes that looked bloodshot and confused. "Sheppard?"

"Yeah, it's me. Calm down, you're safe now." He lowered her head to the pillow but tried to remain in her sight. "You're pretty badly chewed up, but we'll get you better."

"Trans… transmit… transmitter," she mumbled and John nodded, trying to smile reassuringly.

"We've got it. You're fine, Larrin. Trust me."

Her eyelids fluttered shut. "Never," she murmured, but she had a half-smile on her face and John relaxed.

Jarl gave her a shot of their precious morphine and sent Chand to the lab with the blood sample. They didn't have much in the way of analysis equipment, but they had enough to help out. "She's out for now, but I'll stay with her," Jarl said to John. "Don't worry, if she wakes, I'll call for you."

John hated to leave her; he worried she might wake and damage herself, but he had to trust Jarl. When he walked out, he found Rodney standing in the main hallway of the cave.

"How is she?" Rodney asked.

"Bad," John replied. They turned and headed for the kitchen. "She ought to be dead, with those wounds. She's nothing but skin and bones, so God knows how long it's been since she ate."

As he spoke, they walked into the kitchen. Tarn was working on the big electric stove, stirring something in a pot. "We're making soup," Darche said. He was sitting on the table cutting vegetables. "Broth, mostly, with some vegetables." He looked gravely at John, who took a chair across from him; Rodney sat next to John. "If she is of the Travelers, she will be strong."

"She is." John scrubbed his face with his hands. "I wish we had better medical equipment here."

"We only took what we could, what wasn't immediately necessary," Rodney replied, sounding defensive.

"I didn't mean it like that, McKay," John said with a sigh. "You guys got more than I'd ever dream. This is something I've been worrying about for the last couple of years. What if one of us gets deathly ill? What if you accidentally eat some citrus? What if you or I fall and get injured? Jarl is good and Chand is almost better, but it's still not enough." John reached out and put his hand over Rodney's. Rodney nodded back and turned his hand so he was holding John's.

"We will do what we can." Tarn's rusty voice sounded as close to reassuring as it could get.


It took Larrin a long time to heal, and it turned out she was even a worse patient than John or Rodney. "You've got a broken ankle, Larrin." Because John knew her, everyone let him deal with her and it wasn't a job he relished. "You can't just get up and run a marathon!"

"Then get me something to lean on, some crutches or some damn thing! I feel fine!"

John rolled his eyes. "Oh, yeah, and that wince whenever you move really proves it."

She scowled at him but he could see her babying the side where her cracked ribs were. They had taken the IV out and she was up to eating broth and some soft cereal, but she filled up quickly and complained about everything.

John sighed. "Larrin. You have a badly broken ankle, infections, sores, cracked ribs, a sprained wrist… Christ, for all we know, you could even be bleeding internally." Though Jarl thought that highly unlikely, not at this stage. "You're going to have to suck it up and heal before you can get up and fight Wraith."

Her scowl turned petulant and she picked at the blanket over her legs. She was wearing an old, comfortable t-shirt of Rodney's and boxer shorts — they weren't exactly set up for women. "Then talk to me or something, because I'm going insane here." She squeezed her eyes shut and tried to shift in bed.

"I can do that. We've even got a chess set, I'll teach you and you can trounce McKay."

She frowned. "Maybe, but first, you talk to me. Why the hell are you still here, Sheppard? I thought your people had all gone back to your galaxy."

He pulled his chair closer and slouched into it. "Well, that was the plan…" He grimaced. "We were trying to get everything we could out of Atlantis, get it all back to Earth, once we'd emptied Pegasus as much as we could. We were under the gun, the Asurans were coming—"

"Those are the machine people?" she asked, looking at him with narrowed eyes.

"Yeah. They were coming and we pushed it to the limit to get everything off. They attacked and we started the evacuation." He sighed. "Thing is, it takes a buttload of power to 'gate between galaxies. We only had one last ZPM, the power things…" He looked at her to check she understood and she nodded. "We only had one and it was almost empty. Between running the shield and dialing to Earth, we over-taxed it. We got everybody out but before we could leave, we lost power."

"And the Ring closed." She nodded.

"So we were stuck." Chand came in to take Larrin's temperature and to bring her more soup. John waited until he was on the way out and Larrin was sipping her soup before he continued. "It's been… Christ, it's been close to three years now. We've been rescuing runners and setting up our command posts, here and other places. Underground. We found more ZPMs and Rodney has set up a damn good shield for us. It won't stop the Asurans from blowing up our sun…"

"They were the ones." She paused in mid-sip and looked at John in shock. "Stars kept blowing up and we didn't know why. They were the cause."

"Yeah. That's them."

She took another deep sip, frowning into her bowl. "If you found more power, why haven't you just gone back?"

"Well, we thought about it," John said, taking a deep breath and blowing it out slowly. "But we figured while we're here, we might as well do a little clean up. After all, we don't want the Wraith or the Asurans finding their way to the Milky Way."

Larrin blinked at him. "You're planning on… what? Single-handedly destroying the Wraith and the machine-people?"

"Sure. And the Blessed, too. Michael's mutants."

"Yeah, I ran into those,  you must have pissed in their milk pretty badly, because they really hate you."

"The feeling is mutual," John growled back.

She shook her head, snorting lightly in a mixture of what looked like exasperation and fondness. "Sheppard…" She shook her head again. "I can't tell if you're the stupidest man I ever met or the bravest."

John smirked at her. "I'll go with bravery. Now you tell. Why are you still in Pegasus? And how did you end up a runner? You said you met the Blessed? Where?"

She finished her soup before responding; John took the bowl and set it aside for her. "Some of us didn't want to go to your Milky Way galaxy," she began. "The families mostly voted to go, but there were a couple… we wanted to go to the Island."

"Andromeda, we call it Andromeda."

"Yes, and your names are always correct." If she could be snarky, she must be feeling better, John thought with a suppressed smile. "My family decided to go the other way. We got to the edge and found ourselves surrounded by hive ships — we didn't stand a chance." Her voice was even and clinical, but John could hear a tiny thread of anguish under it.

"Hive ships?" John frowned. "How many?"

"Ten." At his incredulous look, she added, "I know, I know, we were surprised too. I thought most of them were gone, in the war with the machine-people."

"Ten." John drew a deep breath. That changed a lot.

"There were more, actually. A dozen or more."

John felt his jaw drop. "How many?"

"They have a… a… place. It's in a system way out there, on the edge. They're growing hive ships and they have this big… something. It's like a nursery, but it grows Wraith. Lots and lots of Wraith. We picked it up on our long-range scanners before they boarded us."

"Oh, God." John sat up and dropped his face into his hands. "A cloning facility. We thought we'd shut it down!"

"A what?" Larrin asked sharply.

"We found a cloning facility, five or six years back, where they'd make dozens of Wraith at a time, hundreds, but we shut it down! We blew the fucking thing up!" He jumped to his feet and stalked to the end of the room and back, keeping from banging his head on the wall only because he knew how hard the rock was. "We blew the fucking thing up!"

"And so you assume that was the only such facility?" This time her voice was dripping with sarcasm. "You Earthers drive me crazy."

John sat back down with a sigh. "Yeah, well, we drive ourselves crazy too. Finish up, tell me the rest of the bad news before I go tell everyone else about this."

She rolled her eyes, then sighed, dropping her head back on her pillow. Belatedly, John realized what he'd said — she'd lost her entire ship, her family, to the Wraith. "Hey, look, I'm sorry," he said, reaching across and touching her hands. "I forgot about the part where your ship was taken."

Larrin shook her head. "It wasn't all of us, some of us got away by being killed."

Oh, God, John thought. He forced himself to leave his hand where it was, hoping his touch would make her feel marginally better.

"So, they surrounded us, boarded, started ripping us apart. I got knocked out and the next thing I knew, I was in a cocoon." She didn't push his hand away, at least, but she closed her eyes as she continued, almost in a monotone. "You don't stay awake the whole time, you kind of drift, time doesn't pass the same way. I'd wake up whenever they drained someone near me. Once it was Pella, she was next to me."

She paused for a long moment before continuing. John didn't think he'd ever heard her voice sounding so soft and fragile. "Then I woke up and there was this huge male, grinning at me. He lifted his hand to feed then stopped for some damn reason. I don't know why. Then they hauled me out, cut me open and put the tracker in me. Just as they were finishing up, the whole ship rocked with explosions."

John heard a soft sound from the door and he turned his head to see Rodney standing there. He'd obviously heard her speak and his face was pinched and white, his expression horrified. His gaze met John's and he bit his lip as he shook his head slowly. Darche appeared just behind him and Rodney put his finger over his lips, cautioning Darche to silence.

"The ship had been attacked and boarded. We didn't know by who, though I thought it was the machine-people. It wasn't. These people, they were half-Wraith but didn't feed…"

"The Blessed," John said softly.

"Yeah. That's what they called themselves. They 'liberated' all of us, those of us who were left alive, and then told us we had to take this drug, had to turn ourselves into half-Wraith. None of us would. So they killed us."

John drew in a sharp breath. "They just…"

"They tied us up, lined us up, held us still, and shot us in the head, one after another. When they got to me, they must have seen the blood on my back, because they started laughing. Then this big guy, he said, 'turn her loose,' and they did. They could have shot me, but apparently, they have the same sense of humor Wraith have, which is to say none. So I started running."

She opened her eyes and turned her head carefully so she could see John. "I want those assholes, Sheppard."

"Not any more than we do," John replied, his voice equally hard.

"I need to get out there, avenge my people."

"You will." John shifted but didn't let her hands go. "McKay and I, we decided we weren't going to leave until we fucked them up too. They took Teyla, took her baby…"

Larrin's face screwed up. "They took her baby?"

"The big guy, his name was Kanaan?" Rodney asked from the doorway.

"I'm not sure, maybe," she replied.

"He was the father of her baby." Rodney came into the room and put his hand on John's shoulder. "He took her baby and when we rescued Teyla, we couldn't find Jayarre, not anywhere. We think Kanaan either took him or killed him or God knows what."

"So, yeah," John said, hard on the heels of Rodney's voice, "we want them pretty damn bad too." He glanced at the door and continued in a softer voice. "That kid who's been helping you, Chand? His mom and sister were killed by them when they wouldn't change. They killed them right in front of the poor kid and then beat him up, sliced him open—"

"With a dirty knife," Rodney interjected.

"And threw him out." He nodded at Rodney, at Darche still hovering in the door, then turned to Larrin again. "Yeah. We want them pretty damn bad, too."


Larrin was extremely motivated to get better soon, but John had to hand it to her, she was doing a better job than anyone expected. She was on her feet — well, her foot, with crutches — within a couple of days and exercising regularly. Her infection went away, the sores healed and her hair started growing back out. It would still be months before she would be able to run, but Jarl figured her fracture would be able to bear weight within a month and a half. Luckily, it seemed to be only one bone in her ankle that had broken, and it had been a clean fracture.

John taught her chess and she started playing with him and Rodney, beating both of them frequently. She had extensive knowledge of Wraith systems so was able to help them with the downed cruiser project. She was also almost as knowledgeable as Rodney at Ancient systems, which meant she and Rodney butted heads with fair regularity.

One afternoon, John was walking down the hallway after his run and a shower. He had intended on dropping in to Larrin's room to see if she wanted him to bring her dinner, but heard her talking with Rodney. "It is so a valid move, you showed it to me yourself!"

"Fine, fine, whatever. I'm still going to beat you."

"McKay, you couldn't strategize yourself out of a bag of beans. That's why Sheppard and I always beat you."

Rodney spluttered and John grinned, staying out of the way and shamelessly eavesdropping. "I can so—"

"McKay, you can not." She snorted. "You don't think like a soldier and you think that's a bad thing. It's not."

"Huh?"

"You're a scientist. You figure things out for us, for soldiers. We want to do something, you make it happen."

There was a long pause, then Rodney said, "Oh." John grinned; he could see Rodney's expression, that half-pleased, half-what-the-hell-was-that-a-compliment? expression.

"It's also what makes you dangerous, and before we go any further, I need to tell you that I'm not interested in what's yours."

John frowned in puzzlement as Rodney said, "Huh? What do you mean?"

"I mean Sheppard. The guy you sleep with. There's no interest, McKay."

"Wait a minute, what the hell…?"

"Even if I wasn't scared of what you'd do to me, I wouldn't be interested, McKay. He's not my type."

John blinked in surprise. "What?" Rodney sounded almost affronted. "What do you mean he's not your type? Do you have eyes? He's—"

"He doesn't have breasts, McKay," Larrin said, interrupting Rodney right when it was getting interesting.

As her words sunk in, John frowned thoughtfully. That answered a quite a few questions, actually.

"Oh," Rodney said. "Oh! Well, okay, but I really wasn't—"

John took that as his cue and walked in. "Hey, you two. Honol bagged one of those big cow-moose things and sent over a hock, and I have it on good authority that Tarn has done something to it that makes it into food of the gods. You ready for dinner?"

Larrin obviously knew he'd been eavesdropping from the sardonic twist of her lips, but Rodney was, of course, oblivious. "Hang on, we're not done playing."

"Yes, we are," Larrin said, moving her piece. "Check. And mate in a couple of moves, and I'm starving."

Rodney turned his outraged face to the board. "What did you just do?" he demanded. "That can't be…"

John ruffled Rodney's thinning hair. "She's got you good, genius. Come on, let's get dinner for Mrs. Kasparov here."

"She's been cheating!" Rodney complained as he allowed John to pull him away. "I'm telling you, she knew all about chess…"

John winked at Larrin's grin as he pulled his scientist to their dinner.


THE THIRD YEAR:

John studied Rodney's face as the last simulation finished. "Yes!" Rodney grinned like he'd won a million bucks and his own hockey team. One of the good teams.

"I take it we're a go," John said, putting as much drawl into the words as he could, just to see Rodney's expression.

Rodney didn't disappoint. "Yes, Mr. Nothing-Ever-Surprises-Me, we're good to go." Then the shit-eating grin was back and John had to mirror it.

"Okay, then. Let's get this show on the road." John dropped to the deckplates and opened the 'jumpers forward console.

Larrin returned just as they were finishing hooking the ZPM cradle to the power cells in the 'jumper. "Got it done, huh?"

"Yeah," John replied, from his position on the floor of the 'jumper, replacing the cover. "Took him a while, though. I thought he'd lost his touch or something."

"Hello! Right here!" Rodney yelled, his voice muffled from the other console he was still buried under. "Sheppard! Do you have the—"

"Yes, Rodney. Here." John pulled himself upright as he spoke and handed Rodney the multi-meter.

"Oh. Yes. Thanks."

John rolled his eyes. "So yes, we'll soon have the cells back up to full capacity."

"No, we won't," Rodney said, his voice still muffled. "The power transfer is delicate enough as it is, I don't want to push it. I think ninety-five percent capacity is just fine."

Larrin screwed up her face. "Why don't you just run it from the power thing?"

"ZedPM! It's called a fucking ZedPM!" Rodney yelled.

John smacked Rodney's leg. "I asked that too, and he got all technobabble on me about transfer ratios and grid containment so I tuned it out. I'm sure he'll give you the whole lecture if you want it."

She got an alarmed look in her eyes and raised her hands. "No, that's fine, and anyway, all I wanted to do was let you know you've got company. Honol and Wenser were attacked on Belkan and Honol got chewed up."

"What? Ow!" Rodney yelled both words, the second after a soft thud, apparently smacking himself on the console he was under. "How? Who?"

"Finish up, Rodney, I'll rally the troops. You brought them both?" John got to his feet and cleared a space for Rodney to do so as well before following Larrin out.

"Yeah. And I sent word to Hoff for Suud and Brama to stand by. They need to know of this too."

John sighed and frowned. In the five or so months since Larrin arrived and became mobile, she had been acting almost as if she were the leader of their band of merry men, and it was beginning to chafe. He knew she had been head of her 'family', captain of their ships, but she wasn't the leader here and the sooner she recognized that, the better it would be. John was afraid it would come to blows, though, before she got the idea.

Chand was treating Honol, who was on their 'infirmary' bed. John got a glimpse of some bloody bandages and Chand gently feeling along Honol's arm before he looked away. Jarl was treating Wenser, who didn't seem as badly hurt. "What happened here?" John asked quietly, looking at Wenser.

"It was the Blessed," Wenser replied. "We went to Belkan on our usual supply run, meaning to see if there was any more information on the Wraith swarm. We were ambushed not ten minutes away from the Ring." He winced as Jarl began stitching a gash in his shoulder. "They were clearly waiting for us. Honol saved my life. Is he all right?"

"Chand's got him," Jarl replied before John could. "He'll be fine."

"We need a team meeting on this one," John said, seeing Darche and Tarn nod their agreement at his words. "Chand, let me know when you're done there. Wenser, when Jarl's done with you, go get something to eat. We'll meet in the lab in… say… half an hour." He looked around the room, seeing everyone acknowledge his words.

John hustled back to the 'jumper garage, almost running into Rodney who was coming out the back. "What happened?" Rodney demanded.

"The Blessed ambushed Honol and Wenser on Belkan, just outside the 'gate," John replied. "I've called a team meeting for half an hour. Are you done here?"

"Yes yes, I'm done with the prelim crap, it's ready to go, are they all right?"

"They will be, it's not that bad. Do we have time to run the recharge or should we wait? I want you to do a scanner sweep of our three homes and a check on the Asurans."

"No, I don't want to do it when we're rushed and I want you here for it, all the way here." Rodney grabbed John's arm. "Let's go."

They kept track of the Asurans as a matter of course, by means of the core drive Rodney had cloned off the original. Rodney refreshed the scanners and as the computer began to pinpoint the Aurora-class ships the Replicators used, Rodney tied into the 'gates on Hoff and Ford's planet in order to do a sensor sweep of 'local' space. John watched over Rodney's shoulder, almost drowning in worry. He wasn't sure why, but his 'spidey-sense' was going off like a tornado siren in Wichita.

Their team began trickling in, first Tarn, then Darche and Rike, who normally stayed on Hoff. Suud and Brama had already checked in from Hoff. Larrin came in, followed closely by Wenser and Jarl. After another minute, Honol — his left arm in a sling — and Chand followed.

Rodney was just finishing the sensor sweep. "Asurans are nowhere near us. Which is good, since the last thing we need it to be flanked. From what I can see, we have no Wraith in our section of the galaxy either."

"What do you mean, from what you can see?" Larrin demanded. "I thought your scanners could tag Wraith ships?"

"When they're close enough, yes!" Rodney replied testily. "Our long-range scanners can only cover about a third of the galaxy, and the coordinates you've given us are a hell of a lot farther away than that. And," he continued as she opened her mouth to speak, "we've got the core drive clone with us, which actually gives us the whereabouts of every Asuran ship in the galaxy. We don't have that with—" Rodney interrupted himself, snapping his fingers. "But we might." He looked at John with wide eyes. "We might!"

"The cruiser," John said, discerning his thoughts instantly. "We might have—"

"We've had it before, remember? Sort of, anyway. We need to get back to the cruiser—"

"Wait wait!" Larrin held up her hands. "Quit jumping ahead!"

"They're referring to something similar to the core drive in the cruiser we found," Darche said, his voice reasonable, and John could have kissed him. "Neysa, you're thinking perhaps we could find something similar in the s'dacc?"

"Yes!" Rodney pointed his finger at Darche, grinning a mile wide. "Now that they're no longer at war with each other, they probably have a way of keeping up on where all the hive ships are."

"Or at least have a method of finding them," John added.

Larrin made a rude noise. "That's fine but it doesn't have anything to do with the present situation."

John pursed his lips together and breathed in deeply, reminding himself she was at least partially right. "No, it doesn't, but it does help to know where two of our enemies are all the time."

"Yes, but anything you find in the cruiser won't be able to find Blessed ships, right?" Rike asked, a frown on his face.

"Probably not," Rodney agreed. "But I'll be happier knowing where the Wraith and the Asurans are."

"But the Blessed are a problem now." Larrin looked between John and Rodney as she spoke. "Cover the short term now, the long term later."

"We don't know the Blessed are a problem now," John said, keeping his voice reasonable. "Wenser, Honol, you said it was an ambush? How are you sure they were waiting specifically for you?"

"We were not the only ones using the Ring," Honol said, wincing as he tried to shift his arm. "As we left, there was a small party of traders waiting to use it. We traded news with them and they assured us there was nothing dangerous on the road to town." Honol grimaced. "We let it lower our guard, John. I am sorry."

"It was an honest mistake," John said, pushing his anger away. You never, ever let your guard down, Ronon and the Wraith had drilled that into him. But this wasn't the time or place to say it; later he could bang their heads together. He also made a mental note to ask Honol later if the trading party was worth recruiting into their group, since he seemed to trust them that much. "So you're sure it was an ambush for you?"

"They wanted me," Wenser said. He and Jarl had dragged one of the stools over for Honol, who sat. "I heard them say 'get the one with red hair,' as we were attacked."

John closed his eyes, pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed. "They wanted your gene."

"Yes, I think so." Honol nodded as Wenser agreed.

"What security measures did you take to get away?" Larrin demanded. "Did they see you dial?"

"We did the usual, three different worlds before returning to Ford's." Wenser was frowning, looking between Larrin and John. "Even if they saw me dial, which isn't very likely as most of them were unconscious or dead at the time, they would only get as far as Xorrum."

Honol drew a sharp breath. "There was blood on your hands, on my hands…"

"It takes a long time to determine the last 'gate dialed," Rodney said, heading that speculation off at the pass.

"Regardless, the question remains," John said as Larrin opened her mouth, "whether this was a security breach. They know enough about us, apparently, to know Wenser has the gene and is affiliated with me and Rodney."

"That's not a certainty," Larrin snapped.

"Yes, it is," Darche said in a slow, reasonable voice. "Chand and I were the first brought in, followed by Rike and Wenser. Anders was a spy for the Blessed, or so we presume, and he knew Wenser."

"Though we're not certain Anders was a Blessed spy," Jarl interjected mildly.

"Data indicate he was," Rodney snapped. He was glowering, looking between John and Larrin.

"Look." John broke in before Larrin could get started again. "Whatever this means, we just have to decide — do we keep up all three bases? Do we continue to go out for information and supplies? Or do we consolidate, hunker down, and stick to one place?" He looked at Larrin, hoping his gaze was mild and impersonal. "I'd like some discussion on that topic, please."

"There is no time for—"

John cut her off sharply. "Larrin, that's enough. The final decision will be mine… well, mine and Rodney's. I want to hear from everyone before that decision is made."

Larrin closed her mouth, crossed her arms over her chest and glared, but she didn't speak. It didn't matter, John knew what her opinion was. He was actually mostly in agreement with her — he didn't like how close they'd come to losing Wenser, someone with the gene who could fly the puddle-jumper. But losing one base, most likely Hoff, would mean a reduction in coverage, though he'd have to ask Rodney how much.

Surprisingly, Brama and Suud came out in favor of abandoning Hoff. "We only have a handful of supplies there, so we can empty it easily," Brama said. "And we're always at some risk due to the roving bands of scavengers."

Darche didn't like it, of course, having been born on Hoff, but he reluctantly agreed. Wenser and Honol had begun at Hoff, and unlike the other bases, there was little in the way of arable land around their underground base.

After listening to the conversation — and ignoring Larrin's glower — John finally put his hand on Darche's shoulder and squeezed gently. "Okay, that's enough. We're closing the Hoff location." He turned. "Honol, you're on lab-rat status until that shoulder heals. Wenser, you're with him for now, you and Chand pull out the duty rosters and start making changes by eliminating the site. We're going to need to find more quarters at one of our two locations; everybody let me know what your location preference is. Suud, Brama, start packing up. Rodney, Darche, Rike and Tarn, you're with me on the 'jumper to Hoff. Everybody else, start clearing out empty rooms here. Who's on KP?"

Jarl said, "That would be me."

"Cool. Let's do a team dinner tonight, so draft a couple of others to help. Everybody clear?" There were nods and everyone started drifting out. "Larrin. A word?"

John didn't miss the looks that went between several people in the room as he and Larrin left the lab for the kitchen, which was empty. He knew he had to talk to Larrin, had to rein her in, but it wasn't like he had to enjoy it. He started by immediately going on the offensive. "Do you have a problem with me?"

She looked momentarily surprised but immediately shoved it away. "Why would you ask?"

"Look, Larrin, I know you've been the head of your family, and I know what that means. But you're not there anymore."

"And this is not the City of the Ancients!"

"No, it isn't. This is our base, the base that Rodney and I created and populated with people we rescued." He gave her a level stare. "I know you want to avenge your people. I want to avenge my people too, and all the other people the Wraith and the Replicators and Michael's mutants have hurt, destroyed, whatever. But we can't. Not yet."

"I know that!"

"I'm not so sure you do. Don't get sidetracked by emotion, Larrin. Taking on any of them right now would be like throwing stones at a wasp's nest. And," he continued as she opened her mouth, "if you're going to have an issue with my leading this situation, then tell me now so we can make other arrangements."

Her eyes were narrow and her lips a thin line. "That's what this is about, isn't it? Getting into a pissing contest doesn't help the mission."

"Exactly." He nodded. "Neither does separating the forces. Make up your mind, Larrin."

They stared at each other, silent, until John heard Rodney calling for him. "I'm going to Hoff," he said. "We can discuss this further when I get back.

Larrin turned away and left the room without a word. John shook his head, rolled his eyes and headed for the 'jumper garage.


It took two and a half hours to empty the Hoffan base of everything they could need and everything that might — however slightly — lead their enemies to the other bases. They ended up making three 'jumper runs, each time taking a roundabout path back to the Batcave or Ford's world. When they were done, the 'jumper garage was packed with consoles and spare naquadah generators and the movers were bone tired.

Jarl must have gone the extra mile, because he came out with a big roast of something that probably wasn't beef but tasted like it, with roasted not-potatoes and steamed vegetables. Chand took a couple of loaves of bread out of the oven as they returned and the combined smell was mouthwatering. There was enough food for an army, or twelve starving humans, and there wasn't a whole lot left by the time they stopped eating. It was crowded and their table wasn't big enough to seat twelve, but they made do.

John talked to everyone but Larrin during dinner, figuring out who wanted to be based where. Ford's cave complex had easily housed a dozen people five years before, but the bunk beds had since fallen apart and privacy had become more important than cramming more people in.

Chand reminded John of some other caves, just over the ridge from their present quarters. It would do; they would be able to compensate and adapt to having only two bases of operation, especially now that the force-field could help shield them. It was absolutely essential they figure out how to fend for themselves, which meant clearing more land for crops. Pegasus was becoming even more dangerous as the Blessed, the Wraith and the Asurans plowed through everything on their quests to become the top dog, and John simply didn't want to risk anyone in their 'family' on nonessential trading trips.

Just before they finished and began cleaning up, John stood and got everyone's attention. "Okay, we've talked about the assignments and between them, Chand and Wenser have done a good job on the duty rosters. We're going to need to clear more land for farming, both here and at Ford's, but we need to be careful where we put it. We don't want anyone seeing it and tracking it to us. So let me know where, and we'll all help.

"Our main priority, however, is the cruiser project. We need a ship with hyperdrive capabilities and we need it yesterday — the 'gate network can be compromised and the 'jumper simply isn't big enough or fast enough. Rodney, I'd like you and Darche to go back, see if you can't get it operational. Take the subspace help beacon from Hoff with you — it'll reach us from there, right?" Rodney nodded in answer to John's question. "Good. Larrin, you've had experience working on Ancient and Wraith tech, I'd like you to go with them."

Larrin had been quiet during dinner and hadn't even looked much at John. As he called her name, she looked up, speculatively. "All right," she finally said.

When she didn't elaborate, John nodded and moved on. "Good. I'll fly you myself tomorrow morning at dawn plus two. Can I get at least one volunteer to go as well, for muscle and an extra guard?"

Tarn had a twisted smile on his face as he raised his hand. John smiled back. "Thanks, Tarn. I think that's everything. Those going back, go on ahead, we'll take care of clean up here."

Darche, Brama, Suud, Jarl and Wenser went back to Ford's planet, leaving seven to settle at the Batcave. Honol would stay in their poor excuse for an infirmary, since Chand's room was adjacent and he could monitor Honol's recovery. Rike had a room, as did Larrin — she'd had one in each location — and the only other newbie was Tarn, who had mostly stayed on Hoff. They'd work out a private room for Honol later.

John figured Rodney would be up late, getting ready for the next day, so he was surprised to find him in their room, digging through laundry. "We need to go back to Manaria," he grumped. "We need more cloth. And Brama has been after me to build that sewing machine so he can make more clothing for us."

"Yeah, but we need the cruiser more." John sat down on their big bed and unlaced his boots. "You have enough for a week or so?"

"Barely." Rodney snorted in irritation. "I'm going to want to come home for at least the night after a week, I'm sure."

"Well, I'll do laundry tomorrow, once I get back, so you'll have enough when you come home." He sighed and Rodney looked at him with narrow eyes.

"What?"

John frowned. "What what?"

"You're pissed off at Larrin."

"Well, yeah," John said, since it should have been painfully obvious.

"You're gonna have to beat her up."

John blinked in shock. "What?!"

"You heard me." Rodney sat down next to him and tugged off his shoes. "She's not going to respect you until you beat her at something other than chess. Teach her how to use the sticks."

"Bantos rods."

"Whatever." He waved his hand, clearly irritated. "You've never beaten her at anything, so she doesn't trust you fully. Beat her up, and your relationship will improve."

John finally figured out his jaw was hanging open; he closed it. "What the hell?"

"So the soft sciences are good for something," Rodney said, sniffing dismissively. "You are never allowed to tell anyone I said that, though." He paused, but before John could say anything else, he added, "Ronon would have known that."

John started laughing. "You're something else, McKay."

Rodney tried to look indignant and failed, utterly. "Just get naked. If I'm going to be without sex for a week, I'm not leaving without a reminder." He pulled his shirt over his head and threw it in the dirty laundry; John copied him. "You know, if I had known having sex with you would be so damn good, I would have jumped you years ago."

John's chuckle was almost sad. They both knew they wouldn't have been able to start this before they left Atlantis. "Just wish we didn't have to give up the city for it," he murmured.

Rodney pulled him to his feet for a kiss and a tight hug. "Duh," he said softly. "My great aunt Genevieve used to say 'it's an ill wind that blows no good,' or something silly like that. I think it means you should count your blessings."

John pulled Rodney back into his arms and squeezed. Yeah, he had blessings, all right.

After a moment, Rodney gently broke their embrace. "Come on, come on, flyboy, get naked." His smile was infectious and John had to copy it, before he tackled Rodney to their bed. "Hey!"

Before Rodney could speak further, John sealed his mouth over Rodney's, doing his best to excavate Rodney's nonexistent tonsils.

Rodney got the idea quickly and shoved, rolling them over until he was on top. A few frantic squirms and shoves later, they were naked and virtually glued together. Rodney's dick felt fantastic against John's hip, scalding hot. He released Rodney's mouth long enough to gasp, "Fuck me?" before pressing back up.

"Oh, God," Rodney breathed, moving just far enough back that John couldn't reach his lips. "Yes, yes, yes, yes…"

John managed to flip them again so he was on top and Rodney's head and lips couldn't go anywhere. The friction felt so damn fantastic he probably could have come just from rubbing against Rodney's whole body. But that wasn't what he wanted to do. Reluctantly, he lifted himself, pushing himself up with his hands until he was sitting on Rodney, straddling his hips with his knees. "Like this," he said, breathlessly.

Rodney's hips bucked at John's words and he closed his eyes. "God. Yes." His voice was strangled.

'Like this' necessitated one of them moving, and though John didn't really want to, he wanted to be fucked so badly it wasn't funny, so he moved enough to reach their little cobbled-together table. It held a small light, their smaller alarm clock and a large pot of Rodney's homemade sunscreen — a different formula he'd created with Jarl's help. John fumbled the lid off and scooped out a generous blob with two fingers — it was getting low again — and used it to coat Rodney's cock. The stuff was viscous and body heat made it incredibly slippery, so much so that after John coated Rodney with the stuff, he just leaned up and began sinking back down, one hand guiding Rodney's dick into his body.

"John, wait, you, oh, God…" Rodney's eyes rolled back in his head as John continued to slowly sink down. There was a burn, but it wasn't bad, and even though John's thighs were beginning to complain about holding him up, he had enough energy to make it slow. Slow, and absolutely fucking fabulous.

After a long, long minute, he was all the way down and panting, his body dripping with sweat. He tried to speak but couldn't quite manage it — but apparently it didn't matter. Rodney looked about as wrecked as John felt, his hands clenching around the blanket over their bed, shaking from the intensity of it all.

With a deep breath, John lifted slightly up and settled back down. The burn faded into indescribable pleasure, Rodney's cock raking over John's prostate every time John moved. As John came back down, Rodney lifted his hips up, trying to fuck harder, deeper, and both of them groaned. Finally it got to be too much, and John fell forward, his hands bracketing Rodney's head. He used the better leverage to push himself up and down, fucking himself on Rodney's dick as fast as he could, barely able to breathe from the intensity.

"Close," he choked out and Rodney nodded frantically in return.

Somehow, Rodney was able to grab John's dick and give it a few hard tugs, squeezing it just right, and John came with a shout, pouring himself over Rodney's stomach. Rodney's hand went limp as he shoved himself up, whining back in his throat as he followed John over the edge.

It took a long minute before John managed to regain higher thought processes. When he did, he found himself lying half-on, half-off Rodney, his semen and their sweat gluing them together. Rodney's breathing was slowing down and meeting John's pulse. Once John could again feel his fingers and toes, he groped around until he found a pair of boxers, using it to clean them up. He threw it in the direction of the dirty clothes pile and sagged back to the bed.

One of the bad things about living in a cave was that it was a uniform cool temperature, and after all that exertion, he felt chilled, and knew Rodney was feeling the same. Rodney was almost unconscious — as was John — but between them, they managed to get under the blankets of their bed. The last things John remembered before sleep slammed into him was turning their light off and Rodney's gentle kiss.


Rodney and his crew were only supposed to stay a week at the cruiser, but Rodney kept postponing his return, saying he was close to a breakthrough and just needed two more days… John finally put his foot down, and so Rodney agreed to return, for at least a night, to update John on their progress. John was outside, hanging clean laundry on the clothesline when he heard the alarm go off. Wet clothing abandoned, he ran back into the cave, hearing the distinctive alarm of the subspace SOS transmitter. He almost fell over Chand as he raced into the lab. "Rodney?" he gasped.

"No, it's Ford's!" Chand said, his eyes wide and worried. "It just went off!"

"Dial them."

"Already did. I cannot get through." Honol's voice was tense.

"Somebody's dialed in." John clenched his jaw. "Rike, Chand, gear up. Honol, keep dialing and if you get a connection, sing out. We need to be ready to go in two."

John had just entered the 'jumper when Honol yelled through the comm, "Got it!"

"Good." Chand and Rike sat down and John powered the 'jumper up, closing the back hatch. "Hold down the fort, turn on the force-field the minute we're out of range. You getting anything from anybody there?"

"No response yet," Honol reported. "I am picking up what looks like a cruiser on the long-range sensors. It is in orbit around Ford's."

"Copy that. We're leaving. Once we clear the 'gate, dial Rodney's location and give them an update." John cloaked the 'jumper and smoothly accelerated through the 'gate.

It was a cruiser in orbit, and John narrowly missed being hit by a barrage the moment they exited the stargate. It was clearly random as they couldn't see the 'jumper, but were trying their damndest to hit it regardless. The ground around the cave complex was dotted with impact craters, again seemingly at random. "They were trying to find it the hard way," he snarled and Rike nodded. He held position at about two hundred feet and scanned the area. In a radius of two miles around the stargate, it looked as though there had been a meteoroid storm, right up to the caves themselves, which were untouched due to the force-field around it. John shook his head; they hadn't thought about that, probably because it would take a hell of a lot of armament to accomplish.

He keyed their private frequency, the only one that would make it through the force-field. "This is Sheppard, report!"

After a second, they got a reply. "Sheppard?" Wenser's voice sounded frantic and relieved. "It's the Blessed, they popped in less than ten minutes ago and started bombarding us!"

"Is anyone hurt?"

"No, we're fine, but we can't leave the cave!"

Shit. This was a stupid strategy, one they hadn't anticipated because of its stupidity. They were cut off from the caves because of the force-field protecting them, which would have to be dropped in order to evacuate those same people. He could both hear the bombardment through the open channel and see it through the forward port of the 'jumper.

"Okay, what's your status, then?"

"You mean aside from us growing deaf from the noise?" That was Jarl. "We're doing okay. We've got food and water enough to last for a while, as long as we're careful. The pipeline from the spring hasn't been hit but if it is, we could be in trouble."

"How long is a while? I'm going to have to go get McKay and have him figure out a way for you to shrink the field enough to get you out."

"Maybe a week." Jarl was almost shouting over the blasting.

"Okay. I'm—"

"The 'gate just dialed," Rike interrupted him, pointing down.

From the 'gate poured about a dozen men, soldiers, carrying weapons. John couldn't get any closer to see exactly what they were doing, but he had a good idea — setting up a perimeter so the 'jumper couldn't get to the 'gate. "Shit!" John hissed. They were well and truly fucked. Kanaan had thought it out pretty well, playing on John's weakness — his men.

He called up weapons; they had eighteen drones, enough to maybe clear the 'gate but not enough to take out the cruiser, not unless he got lucky, and from what had happened so far, he wasn't going to risk it. He needed Rodney, needed to find a way to get everyone out of the caves and to safety, but he couldn't go easily and if he did manage to escape, there was no guarantee he'd be able to get back.

And if Kanaan's men found the water pipeline…

"Okay, I'm open to suggestions," he said, looking at Rike and Chand as well as addressing Jarl and Wenser. "We need to get you—"

"John," Wenser interrupted, "I'm getting… It's a transmission."

John closed his eyes — this day was going from bad to worse because he just knew who the transmission was from. "Pipe it through," he told Wenser.

"—assume it was you who came through the 'gate, Colonel Sheppard." Yep. Kanaan. Who else? "I think I have the upper hand here. May we chat?"

"In hell, maybe," John muttered before keying his radio. "Kanaan, what the hell do you think you're doing?"

"There you are, Sheppard. And what does it look like I'm doing? You've taken something of mine, now I want something of yours."

"This base—"

"Land and hand over McKay, and you and your people can go." John had always thought Kanaan's voice was creepy, inflectionless, much like Michael at his coldest. But now, it was all business. "I have need of him and you have need of your people. Even trade."

John closed his eyes and took a deep breath. Of course that's what the bastard wanted. Thinking fast, he decided to play coy and laughed. "That's who you want? So sorry, you asshole, but Rodney's gone. Weeks ago."

The reply came after a brief delay. "You're lying."

"Nope, sorry, not. Rodney went back to Earth and, as a matter of fact," John added, thinking fast, "I expect him any day now with reinforcements. So why don't you just toddle off—"

"You are lying!" Kanaan said, his even, steady voice taking on a slight waver and John congratulated himself for it. "None of your people would come back here, not after the City of the Ancestors was destroyed."

"Sure they would," John drawled. "And Teyla will be in the first wave, I'm sure, ready to take your fucking head off. Now clear the hell out and start running, and don't stop until you've hit Andromeda."

"John!" Rike hissed. "Barrage coming!"

John looked at the HUD and moved the 'jumper out of the way. That cruiser must have had one hell of an armament, because Kanaan sure wasn't being stingy with it. The shells hit the ground in a wide radius, all around the cave complex. "Kanaan—"

"I still don't believe you, Sheppard. But if he's gone, you will do, you do have the Ancestor's gene after all."

"What the hell makes you think—"

"I have your people under siege, it's only a matter of time before they run out of food and water. I know you have no other vessel than the one in which you ride, so there is nothing you can do. And I have other ships, all of them as heavily armed as this one is. Plus," Kanaan's voice took on a slightly smug tone, "I have what I believe the phrase you Earthers use is 'something up my sleeve.' The machine-people are on their way here to blow up this sun. I left some hints here and there that it would be a good—"

"Kanaan you shithead! I'll see you in hell before I'll let you—"

"I hold the cards, Sheppard. Not you."

"If you think I'm going to let you do what you did to Teyla's baby to me or anyone else, you're—"

"What about my son? He's of no matter to you."

John forgot how to breathe. If Kanaan was saying what he thought he was saying… "You killed Jayarre, you had to have! We looked everywhere for him!"

Kanaan laughed. "My son, Venkaan, is very much alive and well, Sheppard. Do you wish to see? Land your vessel and debark at once and I promise you, you will."

On more than one occasion, Rodney had called John a secret type-A personality, and though he publicly disagreed, in private, he thought it was accurate. He hated to have things out of his control. He hated being shown he'd taken the wrong path, chosen the incorrect function. What he should have done was to go get Rodney first, then check out the planet, but he hadn't counted on Kanaan being a royal dick and pursuing a strategy that was as boneheaded as it was effective.

Well, he hadn't done the right thing first, and now it was up to him to resolve the puzzle he'd made for himself. So John did what he was best at, what he had to do.

John changed to their private frequency. "Wenser!"

"Yeah, I'm still here," came the reply. "You want us to create a diversion—"

"I want all of you to get to the eastern exit, the one partially underground." He saw no other way out of this, and he had to know if Jayarre still lived. "I'm going to land two hundred feet southeast of it. On my mark, you cut power to the shield and get on the 'jumper while I take your place in the caves."

He heard four voices loudly protesting his strategy; two on the comm and two on his ship. "Pipe down!" he said sharply, turning with a frown to Rike and Chand. "That's an order! Once the 'gate is clear, you get back to the Batcave and from there, pick up Rodney."

"He's not gonna let us go, John!" Rike reached across and gripped John's arm tightly. "He'll take you and wait around until he can get us too!"

"No, he won't." John flew the 'jumper to the location and put her down. He stood and made his way back, opening the storage cubby where they kept the little homing beacons Rodney had created for them. "Chand, come over here and help me imbed this somewhere on me."

"No!" Chand shouted, standing. "John, you can't, we… we…"

"Chand, look, I'm sorry." John wanted to soothe Chand but he was too busy pulling out the med kit. He figured the best placement would be down on his lower abdomen. "This is part of what being a soldier, being a commander is all about. You're going to have to be strong for me, buddy," he added. He handed Chan his knife and a bottle of alcohol. "Right down here, and if you don't do it, I will, and I'm a lot messier than you are." He winced as Chand made the cut but then tuned the small pain out. After a second, he touched his earbud. "Wenser? Jarl? You guys ready?"

"Damn you, Sheppard, no!" That was Brama, who must have been clued in. "This is suicide!"

"No, you guys will go get Rodney, and he'll think of something. If necessary, I'll find a way to blow the motherfucker up, but I'd rather be rescued. That's why it's imperative you go now. You hear me? Now!" He changed the frequency on the radio. "Kanaan, call off your dogs and clear the 'gate." Chand had finished and was applying butterfly bandages to the small cut.

"Not until you're on my ship, Sheppard."

"Fuck that!" John growled, tugging his shirt back down. "I give you my word I'll let you beam me up. First you have to let my people go through the 'gate." He reached out and opened the hatch, pleased to see he was exactly as far from the exit as he wanted to be.

"And why should I believe you?"

John saw Wenser, Suud, Brama and Jarl appear at the cavern exit, all of them looking plenty pissed. Well, that didn't matter; what did matter was getting all of them to safety, and this was the best way to do it. "Believe me or not, that's how we're doing this, shithead! You can sit in orbit until McKay shows up with the cavalry or you can play things my way. What'll it be, Kanaan?"

"I could just let you sit there until the machine people come to blow you up."

"Yeah, you could, but where's the fun in that? You want me, Kanaan. Come and get me. My rules." He keyed off the radio and turned to Chand and Rike, who were right behind him. "Tell Wenser to get as close to the 'gate as he can before dialing. I want him through it as soon as the wormhole settles. And make sure he goes through our usual protocols."

"Please don't do this," Rike said, begging. "We need you—"

John cut him off, but not too abruptly. "You need Rodney more than you need me, Rike, that goes for all of you. Get him here as fast as possible and he'll get us all out if it." He turned on the radio again. "Kanaan! What's your answer?"

The bastard made them wait a few eternal seconds before finally saying, "Fine. Your terms, Sheppard."

"Get your men away from the 'gate, and I mean send them through somewhere." He turned back to Rike. "Check the sensors."

After a moment, Rike said, "The Ring is active."

"Good." He changed the frequency. "You guys ready? On my mark, then… three, two, one, mark!"

The transfer was smooth. Wenser handed John the remote for the shield as they passed each other, and John dashed to the entrance. As he ran in, a heavy body slammed into him from behind, making him fall as he turned the shield back on. "What the fuck?" He rolled and leapt to his feet to find Chand on the ground behind him. "Chand! What the hell — you've got to get—"

Chand was out of breath but he held up his hand. He was pale but his voice was steady as he spoke. "No. You need someone to watch your back, to get the shield up once the Blessed have you. Rodney would kill me if we lost one of his precious ZedPMs."

John raked his hand through his hair. "I don't have time for this… Chand, I can't look after you!"

"You don't have to! Come on, we need to make sure they're through the Ring."

John wanted to scream — damn Chand and his stupid sense of responsibility! He had to sprint to catch up to the guy, who was heading for the lab. When John ran in, he found Chand had already pulled up the sensors. "They just dialed," he reported. "Everything looks good."

The 'jumper was still cloaked, but John sent a confirmation tag so when the 'jumper made it to the other side of the wormhole, he'd be pinged before it collapsed. Sure enough, he got the confirmation and breathed easier.

"Okay, what should I do now?" Chand said, not looking at John.

John turned and took Chand's shoulder in one of his hands. "I'll radio when I'm at the south entrance. You drop the shield just long enough for me to get through then put it back up."

"Okay." Chand finally lifted his gaze to look at John. "I'll be okay, John, really. You need someone here to watch your back, to tell Rodney what happened."

John closed his eyes briefly and used his grip on Chand's shoulder to shake him gently. "If you let them get in, if you get captured, I'm going to kick your ass," he said softly.

Chand grinned, briefly. "I won't. Just don't blow yourself up, okay? The only thing Rodney loves more than his ZedPMs is you."

John wanted to say something, anything, but Kanaan interrupted the moment. "Sheppard!" he yelled over the open channel.

John took a deep breath then touched his earbud. "Okay, okay, I'm dropping the shield. I'll meet you at the entrance, you see it? It overlooks the lake."

"Two minutes, Sheppard."

John nodded, looked at Chand and began to move.


John woke with a start as cold water was dumped over him. He coughed, choking slightly and a tug on his arms made him realize his hands were tied behind him. He rolled his eyes… not again. Despite what Rodney implied, he did not appreciate being tied up. He was lying on a cold metal floor, there were boots just inches from his face, and he could feel at least two others behind him.

"Drop the shield."

Ah. Kanaan's scary, bland voice. "Forget it. You wanted me, you got me. I didn't deal for anything else."

The boots got closer and John flinched, expecting a kick. Instead, Kanaan knelt and took a fistful of John's hair, used it to pull John's head up so it was inches from Kanaan's. "You have been an irritant almost since I met you, John Sheppard, and the Most Blessed, the one you called Michael, hated you, almost passionately. Now, I'm going to avenge myself of your abduction of Teyla. I'm going to keep you alive long past the time when you would wish yourself dead. I am going to—"

"Oh, spare me the melodrama," John said, wincing as Kanaan's hand tightened in his hair. "Teyla wanted to go, she couldn't wait to get you out of her sight." John winced again. "And with breath like that, I can see why."

Kanaan let go; John's head fell to the floor with a crack and he thought, ow. He wanted to rub his head but it was hard to do without his hands free.

"I didn't want you. I wanted McKay." Kanaan's voice was as calm and even as it always had been. Kind of creepy, actually. "I need his knowledge, need it to defeat the Wraith and the machine men."

"Oh, you'll get him all right," John rasped. He tried to roll so he could push himself up but his head was swimming, making him nauseous. "You'll be seeing him come in with the fleet from our galaxy, ready to wipe you, the Wraith and the Asurans right off the face of creation."

"I don't believe you."

John shrugged then grimaced; his hands were tied very tightly. "I don't particularly care whether you do or not." Carefully, he managed to push himself up so that he was sitting on the floor. His prison was about six by four and there was nothing else in it but floor and wall. "I just want to see you dead." John looked up into Kanaan's face, and it was the face of a monster, half-Wraith, half-something else but there wasn't one iota of humanity in it any longer. "I'm just going to be upset if I don't get to do it personally."

Kanaan laughed and yeah, it was on the scary side. "I feel pity for you, Sheppard, not knowing the power and the glory of the Blessing."

"You let that monster change you, you welcomed it!" John ground out.

"Yes, I did. Perhaps I should show you what it feels like. Would you like the Blessing, Sheppard?"

John felt icy tendrils down his spine. "Over my dead body."

"I could arrange that." Kanaan smiled. "But I will not. The truth is we might be able to use you unaltered, in your original, damaged state, for various things. Your DNA, for example. The Most Blessed told me of your genetic code, and thought it would be useful. I think he was right. Having Wraith DNA made us stronger, having Wraith DNA coupled with the Ancient's gene, that would be even better." He smiled. "I think we'll use you, you or your sperm."

Suddenly so furious he could barely see, John lunged forward, snarling. If he could have reached Kanaan, he would have ripped the guy's throat out with his teeth. "You are not going to do to me what that fucker Michael did to Teyla, Kanaan! I'll see you in hell first!"

The smile on Kanaan's face grew wider as he turned and left the room, the two others with him following. The big, barred door clanked closed behind them, sounding like the crack of doom. "Kanaan!" John roared. "Kanaan!"


The guards were ridiculously careful around John at all times, something that might have been flattering but, in actuality, was a gigantic pain in the ass. They released his hands for him to eat and to use the toilet (a bucket), but made sure to tie him up again immediately afterward. And there were always at least three of them, one carrying a stunner.

He wasn't sure how long he'd been on the cruiser, or even whether the cruiser was still in orbit around Ford's. He tried to catnap but he was too uncomfortable — and too worried — to really sleep. They mostly left him alone, with his hands tied, waiting for Rodney to rescue him. John was grateful and hopeful that they hadn't found his transmitter, so he knew it was only a matter of time.

So he occupied his time by devising ingenious and painful ways to kill Kanaan, sometimes with Teyla's help, sometimes all on his own. Within his first several hours (days? It was at least one day, he was relatively sure), he'd come up with at least a dozen ideas when he heard hesitant footsteps in the hall outside his cell. He rolled to his side to look. It was a boy, almost a young man, maybe twelve or thirteen, with golden skin and hair just a little darker than Teyla's had been. He walked into view then slid down the wall opposite John's cell until he was sitting on the floor.

They stared at each other for some time in silence. Finally, John said, "Um. Hello?"

The boy frowned and cocked his head, but made no other indication he had understood John. He was definitely one of the 'blessed ones,' as he had the Wraith characteristics around the face. But John knew he'd have no feeding mark, and his hair wouldn't turn white. Like Michael, he was a hybrid, though unlike Michael, he probably started out human.

As far as John was concerned, he was an abomination.

"My name's John," John said. "What's yours?"

Again, silence, and John was too far away to tell if there was any intelligence behind the boy's light-colored eyes.

With a struggle, John managed to sit up, propping himself on the wall opposite the door. As he did so, he noticed his bindings weren't quite so tight; the rope was thick and almost gave when he shoved against it. He kept on wiggling his sore, swollen hands as he tried to make contact with the boy. "So, how do you like being stuck on a ship?" Silence. "I guess you'd rather be on a planet somewhere, with real dirt and guys to play with, huh?" John sighed. "Do you even understand what I'm saying?"

"Of course he does." As Kanaan spoke, John rolled his eyes. "This is my son, Venkaan. As you can see, he is perfectly healthy." Kanaan reached his hand out and the boy took it, used it to stand. Kanaan turned them so they were looking at John. "He might have had brothers and sisters by now if you hadn't taken his mother away from us."

It took a long, long moment to figure out what Kanaan was saying. And when the realization dawned, John didn't want to believe it. "Jayarre?" he whispered, staring at the boy.

"No." Kanaan smiled. "Venkaan. Son of Kanaan and Teyla Emmagan."

John was shaking his head, his whole body filled with horror. "That's impossible," he said, his voice still weak from shock. "Jayarre would only be about three, four years old. That can't be…"

"The Most Blessed had many secrets of the Wraith, most of which he shared with us. Rapid maturation was but one of them." Kanaan stroked the boy's hair and John had to fight back nausea.

"Oh, is that why you killed him?" John asked, wrenching his gaze away from the child who looked so much like Teyla.

"I killed him because he was my teacher and I outstripped him. He would have done the same had our circumstances been reversed."

John licked his lips. Against his will, his eyes kept being drawn back to the boy. "How very Sithly of you," he said hoarsely.

"This is how we will remain strong, grow stronger, how we will fight and win against the Machine-Men and the Wraith. And how we will test our new hybridization, the Ancient's gene with the Blessing." Kanaan looked at John and it was the stare of a reptile at prey. "I've made up my mind, Sheppard, I won't give you the Blessing. Instead, we will test it out on your progeny to see how well it integrates with the gene."

Rage suffused John; all the times he wished he had a superpower — he would have traded any of it to become the Hulk and rip Kanaan's head off his body. "You will not touch me," he ground out, barely able to see around the red of his rage.

Kanaan smiled again. "Oh, I'll do more than that, Sheppard. I promise."

John closed his eyes and sent a telepathic message to Rodney — please come rescue me so I can kill this bastard. He heard but didn't see — didn't want to see — Kanaan walk away, taking his abomination of a son with him.

He was suddenly very, very glad Teyla was in a completely different galaxy.


Sweat — and possibly some blood, too, he couldn't tell — made the ropes binding his hands slick enough to work them slightly looser, but nowhere near loose enough to get free. When he heard the telltale stomping of boots, he knew it was his time for his break for food, water and a bucket to pee in. Knowing what Kanaan planned made him almost desperate for freedom, so he resolved to give it a shot.

There were three of them, as usual, all blank-faced and vigilant. One of them grabbed John by the arm and he didn't have to fake the yelp of pain that brought him — his shoulders were taking a beating. He sagged and the second one stepped up to take his other arm, to drag him to his feet. As they reached around him to untie his hands, he sagged again, and as the one on the right moved to pick up the slack, he used the guy's weight and lack of stability to pull him into the one on his left. They went down in a tangle of limbs and the third one, the one with the stunner, stepped forward to help. John shoved hard, driving one of the goons to the one with the stunner and aiming a kick in the genitals for the other one.

He probably wouldn't have gotten very far with them — they were too careful and he was too weak — except for the excellent timing of someone (Rodney, he hoped) attacking the cruiser. The entire floor rocked with sudden explosions, throwing all four of them off their feet. John managed to recover long enough to grab the stunner and blast all three of his bodyguards. Then he pulled the heavy door until it clanked shut behind him and went to find himself some sweet retribution before he got blown up.


THE FOURTH YEAR:

"Any day now." Rodney's voice was calm with an undercurrent of panic. "Any minute, really. You need to show Larrin what a badass you are, so open those eyes so I can beat you into a pulp for trying — once again! — to sacrifice yourself. I happen to like that body, Sheppard, and take exception to your attempts to cut it into ribbons. So, come on, wake up, wakey-wakey…"

"Just so's you can beat me up again? Don't think so." At least that's what John tried to say. It came out as kind of an incomprehensible mumble and boy, did his throat hurt.

He heard a harsh intake of breath then Rodney's voice again. "John?" Lost and needy and John really hated that tone of voice.

He tried to open his eyes but they were obviously glued shut somehow, so he tried to speak again but his throat told him in no uncertain terms how bad an idea that was. What came out was a half-strangled whine instead.

There was a scrape of a chair and he heard Rodney yell "Jarl!" from the door and John winced at both sounds. Now that he was awake, his body began complaining in the worst way… his legs hurt, especially his knee, his left arm and shoulder ached like a sonofabitch, even his hair was complaining about something.

"He's awake, he's awake, you've… you've… he's—"

"I know, Rodney. Let me take a look at him." That was Jarl's calm, steady voice and it made a huge difference in John's head. "John? Can you  hear me?" One of his eyelids was pried open and the light made him wince. "Sorry, but I need to look in your eyes. How do you feel?"

Straining, John managed to push out "Like. Shit."

Jarl chuckled. "Yeah, you're going to for a while. I'm going to prop you up and put a cup of water to your lips. Don't try to do more than sip, okay? Rodney, get on his other side and help me."

Sitting up was an exercise in pain, even though he knew Jarl and Rodney were being as gentle as they could. When they let go, he was propped up on several pillows and actually felt worse, if that was possible.

"This is laced with gatta extract," Jarl said, carefully holding the cup to his lip. "It'll be bitter. It's not enough to put you to sleep, but it should cut your pain."

The water was indeed bitter and John made a face as he sipped it. "Thanks," he rasped.

"You're welcome." Rodney was fussing with John's blankets and pillows as Jarl talked to John and examined him with gentle touches. "How do you feel?"

Rodney snorted indignantly. "How do you think he feels? He's got a concussion, broken ribs, a broken arm, a dislocated shoulder and a knee that looks like a cauliflower!"

"And possible internal bleeding too, you forgot that one, Rodney." John could hear the smile in Jarl's voice as he spoke.

"Wow." The word came out as a croak. But the gatta extract was beginning to kick in and John was feeling floaty.

"Yes, wow, let's all be in awe at your incredible ability to tolerate intolerable pain." Rodney was pale and almost quivering… or was that trembling? It could go either way.

"Hey," John said quietly. He tried to reach out but winced as his left arm told him not to. "S'okay."

"No, it's not." Rodney wouldn't meet his gaze, but he did take his hand gently. "And you and I are going to have a long talk about… about…"

"Okay," John murmured, trying to keep Rodney from imploding, but it was becoming increasingly difficult. He tried to smile but his lips hurt too, so he quit trying.

"I used the last of our precious antibiotics on you," Jarl said. "Chand is busy boiling tholz root—"

"Which will probably put you into anaphylactic shock," Rodney interrupted and Jarl sighed. His expression was one of strained tolerance and John would have chuckled, except it hurt.

"McKay. Didn't we have this talk about not antagonizing the natives?" Well, that's what John tried to say, and he was pretty sure it came out like that, though definitely slurred. He caught Jarl's gaze with his own and rolled his eyes.

"You are no longer running a fever and have held down the water, so I will go see how Chand is coming along and leave you alone for a moment." He turned and glared at Rodney. "Do not excite my patient, Rodney."

Rodney snorted in a mutinous way but didn't say anything, not clearly anyway. He finished fussing with the blankets and pillows (not making any changes at all) and stood at the end of John's bed, almost vibrating in the need to not look at John directly. "I'll… I'll just…"

John had determined his right arm was still comparatively functional, at least with gatta extract in his veins, so he lifted his hand. "Rodney?"

Rodney's face crumpled and he took a hitching breath, still not looking directly at John.

"C'mon, Rodney, sit with me?" He saw a different cup with a pitcher next to the bed. "Could you maybe give me more water? My throat… feels like… sandpaper."

"Um. Okay." Rodney's voice was painfully quiet. He dragged a chair closer before pouring water into the cup. He put it carefully to John's lips. "Sip."

The water was cool and didn't have the bitterness of gatta; it felt wonderful going down. John limited himself to a few careful sips before nodding, relaxing back. "Thanks." He was still high on gatta extract, but Jarl was good, he still had most of his higher brain function. At least he thought he did. "You okay?"

"Am I okay?" Rodney put the cup back on the table — he didn't quite slam it, though John thought he wanted to. "I'm not the one who looks like he's been through a salad shooter!" Though he still wouldn't look directly at John, John could see how pale Rodney was, could see the stress lines around his mouth and eyes. "We were coming to get you! Did you have to fight the entire ship by yourself?"

Rodney's voice was shaking, John noted. A bad one, then. "McKay. It's okay. I'm all right."

"NO, you're NOT!" Rodney almost roared but managed to keep the volume low, with some effort, John noted. He stood, panting, his fists opening and closing as he looked anywhere but at John.

"I—"

"God damn you, John Sheppard. You think I don't know what you're doing?" Finally, finally Rodney turned and looked at John, who blinked in shock at the anger and sadness he saw in Rodney's eyes. "You've been doing this since we got here… hell, you've been doing it for years now and I… I…" He ran his hands through his thinning hair. "I hate it." The last three words came out almost as a whisper and Rodney sat down, suddenly thumping on the chair next to John's bed. "You think you have to be the strong one, you have to keep it together because if you don't, I'll fly apart."

John's mouth fell open but no words came out of it.

"You do all these harebrained and dangerous stunts, put yourself at risk, hurt yourself, and then you think you have to be all… so cavalier, I'm just fine, Rodney, gee, bones knit and skull fractures are never serious, don't you worry, Rodney." Both sides of Rodney's mouth were turned down. "Well, I do. Even more now, because you're all I've got, John." He shook his head. "You're hurt. You could have died. Don't trivialize that because you don't think I'm strong enough to deal with it."

Blinking, shocked, John tried to figure out exactly what Rodney was saying. "I…"

"I'd rather you not do it at all, you moron. But you keep doing it, and then you don't let me help, don't trust me to keep it together for you. After all these years… don't you trust me?"

Oh, Christ. "I do," John said, trying to swallow, feeling like a class-A heel. "I do, Rodney, I trust you."

"Then stop." Rodney reached out and took John's hand gently in one of his and John felt like sobbing. "Remember when I told you I thought we were more alike underneath? I still think that way. And, and…"

"Rodney…"

"Ronon, he taught me so much. He taught me how to be a backup, how to be a shadow, how to defend your team. I'm never going to be as good as he is, never going to be as tall, or as strong—"

"Rodney…"

"But I won't let you down. I swear."

Jesus. "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry…" Boy, had he made a mess of the whole thing. "I do trust you, God, I trust you more than I can say…"

"Just don't… don't…" Rodney flapped his hands between them and looked absolutely miserable. "You don't have to coddle me. I know I tend to get a little weird, I know—"

"That doesn't matter. You're right." John swallowed painfully and Rodney sloshed some more water in the cup, held it for him to sip from. "'M sorry," he mumbled as Rodney put the cup back.

"I… I didn't mean, I'm sorry, it's just…" Gently, Rodney picked up John's hand again and cradled it.

They sat there for a long minute, not speaking, but at least they were touching. John kept turning Rodney's words around in his mind and realized they were true. He had been coddling Rodney, but he'd thought it was necessary. Thought… shit. Thought Rodney wasn't as tough as he — intellectually, anyway — knew him to be. Obviously tougher and more observant than John gave the guy credit for.

After a long moment, John's curiosity got the better of him. "Um. How long's it been? Last thing I remember was trying to kick Kanaan's ass."

Rodney lifted his head and gave John a tepid glare. "Which was totally unnecessary, since we were on our way to rescue you."

John winced. "How? I mean, I remember… well, sort of remember hearing explosions. Drones?"

Rodney sighed. "Partly. Wenser took the 'jumper while Larrin, Darche and I managed to get the cruiser to fly… well, sort of. Once we got the transporters working, we beamed you out, and just in time too, apparently as you were surrounded by bodies and beaten half to death, you moron!"

"Rodney, I thought I said not to excite my patient?" Jarl came in at that moment, happily turning Rodney's rant off, though John was happy to hear it. He knew if Rodney was ranting, he was back to normal. "You need sleep, John. Here's some of the tholz infusion mixed with a little weak broth and gatta. Drink it down, then you are going to sleep and Rodney will be sleeping as well."

John must have been hallucinating after that, because he vaguely remembered Jarl pulling Rodney out of the room by his ear, which couldn't have possibly happened.


When John woke next, Larrin was sitting on the chair next to his bed, her legs propped up on the end of his bed and a laptop on her lap. "Hey," he croaked weakly.

She looked up. "Welcome back." Her face was inscrutable. "Water?"

He thought about speaking but decided against it, nodding instead. She lifted his head with a surprisingly gentle touch, putting the cup against his lips and letting a few wonderful drops past his lips.

"Jarl will be by soon on rounds," she said, once he'd finished. She sat back down. "Better?"

"Mm," he replied. His body was beginning to check in with various strident complaints and he would have winced, but it hurt. Practically everything hurt, including breathing. Especially breathing. "Where's McKay?" he managed to croak.

That got a reaction, at least, a small, wry smile. "Asleep. Jarl and Chand tricked him into taking a dose. He'll be asleep for another six hours, at least. Not like he didn't need it."

John closed his eyes and concentrated on not laughing. "How long have I been down?"

"This is the morning of your fifth day since we pulled you out."

Whoa. "Um… how many since I…"

"Seven days total. You were onboard that cruiser for a little over two days."

"Huh. Felt longer. They had my hands tied—"

"We know." She raised her eyebrow. "Look at your hands."

John lifted his right hand. It took him a minute to focus on it, but when he did, he blinked. It was a mess, scraped raw and bloody and still swollen. His wrists were at least as bad. "Well."

"Once we killed and spaced the Blessed who were still fighting you once we transported you aboard—"

"Wait, wait. What?" John tried to swallow and couldn't, quite. He sighed. "How about some more water and then you start from the beginning while I fall asleep?"

That got him a chuckle as well as the water. He sipped greedily and relaxed back on the pillows with his pain to await her report. He was reasonably certain he wouldn't fall asleep during it.

Larrin rolled her eyes but started. "Wenser brought your little ship through the Ring, had everyone but Chand with him and all of them were ranging from incoherent to extremely pissed off. They were yelling at us before they even got to the cruiser. McKay went crazy, and as far as I can tell, you're either the stupidest or the bravest man I've ever met, because I sure as hell wouldn't want him angry at me."

John blinked. "Do I get a vote? 'Cause I'd go with br—"

"No, you don't. We were just about ready to test the cruiser, but your situation pushed up the timetable. Between the three of us, McKay, Darche and I got the ship operational, sort of, enough to get her to the spot where your beacon was broadcasting."

"Not at Ford's?"

"No, they were several systems away by the time we caught up to them. We brought your ship with us and we both attacked. Since we had the shield active they couldn't see us, see where we were, so we had the upper hand. I used the cruiser's armament and the little ship fired some drones while Darche and McKay worked on the transporter." She shook her head and the look she gave him was somewhere between exasperation and admiration. "When they finally pulled you out, you had seven or eight of the Blessed with you, they must have been piling on. As far as I'm concerned, that pushes you squarely into the stupid category for taking on so many by yourself."

John licked his lips and managed a smirk. "Wanted to put a little fresh hell on 'em. I had a feeling I wouldn't be able to take them out myself." The smirk died as he remembered Jayarre and Kanaan. "Tell me you destroyed the cruiser."

"I'd like to, but no." She sighed. "Once we had you, it made better sense to break off and head back. We could barely get the damn ship to fly for us as it was."

Shit. Though John was a little satisfied about that, since he could theoretically still get to Kanaan and personally rip his lungs out. You take job satisfaction where you can, he thought. "We're back at the Batcave…"

"Yes, and Ford's is cleared out and we're all jammed in here. The machine people arrived as we were getting ready to leave after cleaning out the other base."

"Wait, I thought you said you couldn't fly—"

"It was McKay's idea, and he said you'd hate it. But it lets us fly the cruiser…" To John's look of alarm she continued. "The little ship is now permanently wired into the cruiser. We're still working out some of the logistics but it's doable."

Ah damn. He'd liked that 'jumper. Maybe he could rag Rodney on it later, though. "Okay, so it's what, in orbit?"

"No, actually, we landed it. They're not that big, and much easier to land. Of course, it's a long walk to get to it, since the plain where we put it down is about half a day's march east, but until we can be certain of her power supply and workability, it made the most sense." She frowned. "Why do you call the power canister a ZPM while McKay calls it a ZedPM?"

John sighed. "It's a regional thing. They mean the same, trust me."

She smiled wryly. "Well, I'm sure McKay and Darche will have you working on it soon."

"But—"

Jarl came in just as John was about to ask about Ford's planet and the Asurans. Larrin tucked her laptop under her arm and slipped out as Jarl began poking and prodding John in the name of medicine. At least John had gotten his update, concise and without frills, unlike what would have happened with Rodney. Who was probably going to tear him a new one once he woke up, but with Rodney McKay as your boyfriend, you learned to take the bad with the good.


John was a lousy patient. Even Carson had said so, hundreds of years before on Atlantis when things were still rosy and promising. He chafed at bed rest, he complained about bland food, and he absolutely loathed pissing and dumping in a bedpan. But walking to their toilet was next to impossible, something he found out when Chand finally gave in to his whining and helped him out of bed. The searing pain in his knee, ribs, shoulder and arm convinced him bedpans were a necessary evil. For a while.

Once Rodney worked out his anger (wholly inappropriate, John insisted, since Rodney should have known by this time the way John operated when there was work to do or people to beat up) over John's actions, he started bringing him work. There were schematics to examine and consoles to rewire, mechanical obstacles to overcome and functions to puzzle out and that, at least, kept John from climbing the walls in frustration — or to dwell too long on Kanaan and Jayarre. It would have been easier had John actually been on the cruiser, but beggars can't be choosers, he resolutely told himself. He made notations, yelled at Rodney or Darche or Larrin over the comm, dreamed in terms of interface crystals and gritted his teeth as he exercised himself back to normal.

It took him a week to be able to walk with the help of the cane Brama carved for him to the toilet (and to the shower, oh God, the shower!). It was another week after that before he was able to gimp along without the cane and two more before his ribs stopped hurting. The wooden 'cast' on his arm came off at seven weeks, but even then, it was tender. Suud and Brama set up free weights for him to use as physical therapy and that, at least, tired him out enough to sleep, which was a huge blessing.

After the first week, he moved back into his bed, which meant he actually slept less, since Rodney was up and down all night with ideas. But it still beat solitary on the 'hospital' bed and the mornings when he woke up uncomfortable with Rodney almost plastered against his back substantially beat everything else.

One evening as John was going over some modifications Larrin had suggested, Rodney slouched into the bedroom and nearly fell on the bed. He looked like shit and John said so.

"Gee, thanks," was Rodney's reply, in a tone too tired to even snark properly. "Those fucking Replicators have definitely taken up residence around Ford's. Looks like they believed Kanaan."

Throwing something in frustration was pretty much out of the question for a variety of reasons, so John just sighed and closed his eyes. "How long?"

"Before the star goes? I'm not sure." Rodney managed to get himself upright enough to begin peeling himself out of his clothing. "Given that I have no fucking idea how they're doing it, it could be anywhere from a year to a couple of months. At least this time we'll be able to track it."

John still felt like throwing things. "You've got no idea how they're doing it? I mean, not even theoretically?"

Stripped down to his boxers and socks, Rodney crawled under the covers. "Short answer, no. Long answer is… complicated."

"Tell me."

Rodney glared mildly at him. "Do you have any idea—"

"Come on, Rodney. I've got nothing to do but sit here and kibbitz the mods to the cruiser." He sighed again. "Maybe I'll come up with… something."

"Fine." The sigh which followed with should have been heard on the other side of the planet. "What do you know about star types?"

"Um…" John frowned as he wracked his brains. "You mean like the difference between red giants and yellow dwarfs?" Which information came primarily from reading Niven and Heinlein and watching Red Dwarf as a kid.

"Sort of." Rodney rolled to his side and propped his head up in his hand. "There are seven star classifications, O, B, A, F, G, K, M, also known by the mnemonic Oh Be A Fine Girl, Kiss Me." John started to snicker and Rodney narrowed his eyes. "Shut up. It's also divided into five categories, but that's beside the point. At the start of the list are O, B, and A, the hot, blue-white stars, think Rigel or Deneb. At the other end — well, no, but yes, but… never mind. At the other end are the cooler, red stars, think Betelgeuse. Which is a massive oversimplification."

"And the sun is in the middle?" John said, frowning.

"Sol. Yes. Pretty much. There are hardly any O type stars, they're huge, massive things that tend to self-destruct. F and G stars are where you get Earth type planets — Sol, Earth's sun, is a G0 type star, the benchmark." Rodney gave him an intent look, as if making sure he was picking it up. At John's nod, he continued. "K-type stars are usually a little too cool for planets, but it happens. And M-type stars are generally huge, red giants, but that's still a misnomer, because… fuck. Never mind."

John nodded. "No, I'm getting it, you said Betelgeuse, yeah, I remember seeing that through a telescope. I thought it was Mars at first."

"Yeah, a lot of people do that. G-type stars don't usually go into the super-giant size because of inherent instability in the…" Rodney shook his head. "Forget it, that's beside the point."

"Which is how are the Replicators blowing up suns."

Rodney made a frustrated noise. "Look, any star can, in theory, go nova because just about all stars — well, maybe not O-type — get to the phase where they're white dwarf stars, because that's just about the normal life-cycle of a star; it eventually stops the nuclear fusion which is the heart of the it. A nova occurs when a white dwarf accretes hydrogen and helium, usually from a companion star, in sufficient quantities to begin a runaway fusion process, triggering a nova. What the Replicators are doing is forcing an ordinary, middle-aged G-type star to start that runaway process long before its normal fusion furnace burns out."

John turned Rodney's words over in his mind. "Okay," he said slowly. "Let's take our sun, then. Eventually, it's going to turn into a white dwarf?"

Rodney nodded. "Yes, but not for a few billion years, and not until it's gone through the 'red giant' phase. Any classification of star can go to a sort-of giant phase, it's just more common in some than others. As Sol ages, it'll get hotter and hotter as it uses up its hydrogen, turning it into helium. It'll briefly become a red giant, then a planetary nebula, then a white dwarf. That's the 'normal' life-cycle of a star."

"But normal, middle-aged stars don't just go nova for no reason."

"No. They can't."

"They have to first go through the white dwarf phase."

"Yes."

John fell back on the pillows and once again contemplated the shadowy ceiling of their cavern room. "What causes a star to age?"

"The continuous creation of helium at its core. Look," John turned his head enough to see Rodney sit up and start gesturing with his hands, a blur in the dimness of the room. "A star is just a gigantic nuclear fusion furnace, turning hydrogen into helium. Helium is heavier than hydrogen, and that means a greater mass. Once there's a sufficient buildup of helium, gravity takes over and things get dangerous."

"Like how?"

John could feel Rodney shrug. "If the star is massive enough, helium fusion begins, which is way more unstable and dangerous than hydrogen fusion. If it's not, it turns into a mostly dead red dwarf." Rodney fell back onto the bed with a muffled thud. "Novas are incredibly rare. Which is what's driving me crazy."

John turned the situation over in his mind. He was certain that Rodney had dumbed it down for him, but he was also fairly sure he got the gist of it and he had read Hawking, not that he was going to tell Rodney — he didn't feel like hearing an hour's rant on how wrong Hawking was in his theories. Finally, he said, "So the Replicators are artificially aging F and G stars, turning them into white dwarfs, then feeding them whatever else they need until they blow up."

"Hydrogen and helium, in massive doses. And I'm talking enormous, beyond anything we could ever hope to do, at least artificially." Rodney sighed and squirmed, making himself more comfortable. "Okay, enough stellar education. Sleep now."

John chuckled quietly. Sleep seemed like a good thing at the moment, so he followed suit. He dreamed about stars and helium balloons and Rodney walking among the galaxies, juggling planets.


It took John six full months to completely recover, back to where he almost was. Getting old was a bitch because he came to realize that no matter how much weight he could leg-press, it was never going to be as much as it had been when he was twenty. Or even when he was thirty. It was incredibly depressing so he stopped thinking about it. Luckily — depending on who was asked — he had plenty of help from their 'family,' the guys he'd lived with for… could it possibly be more than three years? Once he did the arithmetic in his head he realized that yes, they'd hit year four while he was recovering. It was hard to believe.

They had the cruiser modified just about to their specifications by then. It was a crappy job, there were wires and cables everywhere and unfortunately, they couldn't get rid of all the organic parts of the damn thing, but it flew where they wanted it to and fit all of them in it, not that any of them were comfortable being in it for an extended period. Having the ZPM — having two, actually — was a huge benefit because not only did the shield make them invisible to electronics, it made them literally invulnerable, too.

As often as he could, John thought about the Replicators and what they were doing to stars. He talked to Rodney about it every now and then, running ideas by him. "Do you remember when the Asurans sent that 'gate that was just a portal for an energy beam? Pointed at Atlantis?"

They were having lunch in the cruiser, in the 'jumper portion of it. "As if I could forget," Rodney grumped, chewing on a sandwich.

"Is that kind of what they're doing to age the stars?"

Rodney kept chewing but looked up, frowning. "Like a beam of helium into the core of the star?"

"I guess, that's what you said would age a star."

"Hm. I suppose, theoretically, they could use it that way. But the power consumption, that's the whole problem. It would be massive. Beyond massive."

"But it could be calculated, right?" John had dreamed the night before of the Replicators energy beam and what it had done to Elizabeth. He hated the idea that he owed those assholes anything but if they hadn't cloned her, they wouldn't have an Elizabeth at all. "Because they'd have to be careful not to turn it into a supernova or… or a black hole. Right?"

Rodney gave him a condescending look. "A nova, even a supernova, is not the same thing as a singularity — a black hole. A black hole is caused by a gravitational collapse of a star, pretty much the opposite of what the Asurans are doing here."

"I know, I'm just thinking about the power consumption, like you said the other day." But the idea of a black hole kept pinging on the back of John's brain. What would it take, he wondered, to create a black hole of sufficient size to swallow down the Replicators, the Wraith and the Blessed, all at once? That would be something to… actually, that would be really cool. Really cool.

They had to keep the Batcave, because they needed arable land for crops and nobody wanted to actually live on the cruiser. But now that they had it and could hide it, they went back to Manaria and Oswilla and planted crops there as well. John set up a schedule rotating groups of three on each planet caring for the crops, and Rodney made sure they had subspace communicators for emergencies. And they all kept their ears open on the few planets left with free men. It was almost always men, and John figured he knew what that meant — during a war, apparently any war anywhere in the universe, women were generally the first to leave or the first to die. Plus the type of free men left in this post-apocalyptic Pegasus were not necessarily the type to value women.

The Pegasus Galaxy was dying, was already dead — it just hadn't keeled over yet. Sometimes John thought they ought to just pack it in, go back to the Milky Way and let the galaxy devour itself. But then he thought of Chand, and Tarn, and Teyla and Jayarre… those who had been most hurt by the Wraith or the Blessed or the fucking Asuran Replicators and resolved to stick it out a little longer. There had to be a way to get rid of all of them.

One afternoon back in the Batcave, John walked into the lab after his shower (Tarn had been kicking his ass and calling it physical therapy, and John knew exactly who to blame for that) to find pretty much the whole team there, watching the long-range sensors.

"There you are," Rodney said. "We've got Wraith movement."

"What?" Darche and Jarl moved aside to let him get closer to the big plasma screen. "Where?"

"It's near where my ship ran into them," Larrin said. She was glowering at the screen like it had personally insulted her. "Way off towards the Island."

"There's not many inhabited worlds out that way, which is, I think, how they managed to avoid detection," Rodney said, distracted. "But that's definitely a hive ship."

Rike pointed to a section of the galaxy on the edge of their screen. "There're two planets there, Forlosa and Wan. I thought they were both Blessed strongholds now."

"They are," Darche said, his voice as distracted as Rodney's. Unlike Larrin, his stare at the screen was assessing.

"Could it be a Blessed hive?" John asked.

"Maybe, but I doubt it." Larrin cocked her head to one side.

After a moment of silence, Darche said, "They're out of food." As everyone turned to him, he added, "They're growing hive ships, cloning fighters, they need an abundance food for that. They need more food to keep going."

"But they can't," Jarl said. "The Blessed have taken the drug. They can't eat—"

"They've figured out a way around it." Larrin's voice was quiet but carrying. "It was only a matter of time. And we know they probably had enough of them to experiment on."

John ran his hand through his hair, wishing he could dispute her words, but he couldn't. "Yeah. I think Larrin's right."

"But that's good. Right?" Everyone turned to look at Jarl. "If they can figure out a way to eat the Blessed, then I have no problem with that."

"If that's what they're doing." Rodney took a deep breath. "Could they also be cloning humans?"

"Jesus fuck." John squeezed his eyes shut and rubbed his forehead. The question made far too much sense. "Or do they have a captive breeding program?"

Everyone in the room groaned or sighed. "We need to find out," Darche said.

John was hit by a sudden idea. "We're using the transporters on the cruiser—"

"Modified transporters," Rodney interrupted quickly.

"Yes, Rodney, I know, but could we use them… or could we tweak the sensors enough to be able to tell between human and Wraith?" Rodney blinked at him. "You know what I mean," John continued. "Beam out the cocooned humans."

"But hibernating Wraith don't show on the sensors," Suud said. "Would cocooned humans?"

"Depends on whether cocooned humans are actually in hibernation." Rodney tapped his fingers on the table as he contemplated the screen.

"Could we change it?" Rike asked eagerly. "Could we pick them up?"

Rodney looked thoughtful. "Hm. Maybe. Breaking through the shields would be easy, adapting the harmonics from one ship with the same type of shields to another is child's play. But the sensors… it would depend on the calibration of them, the array doesn't understand the difference between living, moving Wraith and hibernating ones, we'd have to test…"

"Well, we can do that easily enough." Darche looked between John and Rodney. "They can't see us. Let's go scout out the whole sector where Larrin—"

Suud barked a laugh and hit Darche on the shoulder. "You've been wanting to do that since Larrin joined us!"

"But we can do it now!"

John grinned at Rodney who rolled his eyes. Darche had been the staunchest anti-Wraith in their group. "I think that's a good idea," John said and Darche lit up. "Call it a mission. Day after tomorrow? It'll give you time to futz with the sensors, Rodney."

"I'll help, Neysa," Darche said and this time, everyone chuckled.

John was on KP that day, so he wandered into the kitchen area, wondering what he was going to cook and how much he'd need. They were bursting at the seams — the caves weren't really big enough for the twelve of them, even though they'd cleaned out and opened up the smaller cavern just to the east. Everyone but Larrin was doubled up with a roomie or two. Brama and Suud had been busy making furniture for both caves but you could only put so many beds in a room before it filled up. It would help if they could live on the cruiser, but no one wanted to do that. John sighed. What they needed was the battleship he'd asked Rodney for.

Chand followed him in a few minutes later, followed by Jarl, and between the three of them they settled on dinner — not-moose kabobs with vegetables. The stuff that tasted so much like corn was ripe and they had piles of it so that was put on the menu as well. Rike had just finished another batch of ale, which would go down well with dinner.

Meal times were pleasantly loud and fun since they had all moved in together. John slouched back in his chair and watched everybody interact, missing Teyla and Ronon and Evan, Elizabeth, Sam, Radek, Jennifer… missing Atlantis. It would hit him at odd times, like now. And even though he'd recovered from the damage Kanaan had inflicted, he was still a little… sad, somehow. He'd actually welcomed the whole idea of figuring out how the Replicators were blowing up suns, because when he wasn't focused on that, he saw Jayarre's blank face.

After dinner and clean up, he took a walk around their cavern home. Tarn and Jarl were working with Chand and Wenser in the garage — hand-to-hand combat, how to react in a fight, what to look for. He nodded to them and moved on. Larrin was sitting at the dining table, field stripping guns and sharpening knives — her hair had mostly grown back in and was getting long again. At the other end of the table, Brama was inspecting cloth and laying out patterns and John had seen Rike leave with Honol and Suud just after dinner, all three of them talking a mile a minute about some wood Honol had found. He knew where Darche and Rodney would be, so avoided the lab.

Eventually, he found himself outside, in the cool dark, sitting on his favorite rock. The sky was pretty, but it had nothing on the sky of their original planet, Lantea. The Lantea which was gone, gone for good, whales and all.

"You're brooding."

Rodney's voice startled him, he must have been really deep. "No, I'm just… thinking. Working on the equations for the novas."

"No, I recognize brooding — I practically invented it — and you're brooding."

He snorted in amusement. "So speaks the Mighty McKay."

Rodney sat next to him on the rock and shoved him with his shoulder. "You should always listen to people smarter than yourself. What are you brooding about?"

"Why aren't you in the lab working on the sensors for tomorrow?"

"I'm giving the project to Darche who's almost salivating over it and that's not an answer. Why are you brooding? Still upset that you've got grey in your hair?"

"At least I have hair."

"Low blow, Hairboy."

"I calls 'em like I see 'em, Dr. Snarky."

Rodney bumped his shoulder again. "I thought we had this conversation, where you wouldn't coddle me any more?"

John sighed. Rodney was like a dog with a bone sometimes. Finally, he spoke, but it had to be softly around the lump he suddenly discovered in his throat. "Jayarre is alive."

Rodney's body became absolutely still. "What?" he whispered.

John drew a shaky breath. "Only he's not, at the same time." He swallowed and closed his eyes briefly. "It was some kind of forced growth, 'rapid maturation' I think is what he said. The kid looks like he's twelve and he doesn't speak." Shaking wasn't exactly what he wanted to do, but apparently his body wasn't speaking to his brain at the moment.

"Oh, God." Turning slightly, Rodney leaned his forehead against John's shoulder. "This isn't… How could this get worse?"

John squeezed his hand. "I don't think we should tell Teyla."

Save for the sounds of night insects and a little rustling in the bushes around them, the night was perfectly still. "I never even got to hold him," Rodney murmured, his voice thick with the sadness John felt too.

"I keep seeing him." John leaned a little into Rodney who leaned back. "I kept trying to get him to talk but he just looked at me. Kanaan said his name was Venkaan."

With a halfhearted snort, Rodney said, "Melodramatic shithead."

That made John smile, at least slightly.

"Should we try to rescue him?" Rodney asked tentatively. "Would it be worth it? Do you think he's really there?"

"I don't know." John sighed. "I really don't know."


They left the next afternoon with a full crew, their entire merry band. The cruiser (no one offered to name it) required some careful hand-holding to operate, so many of its functions were jury-rigged and fragile. They crossed the galaxy in six hyperspace hops, since Rodney didn't want to strain any of the functions, and reached the other side long before anyone was really ready for it. Especially because of what they saw as they emerged from hyperspace — most of an entire Wraith fleet, at least eighteen hive ships, cruisers, darts, the whole enchilada.

The system was a large one around a bright white star that John figured was a type F, maybe. There were four gas giant planets and two sets of asteroid belts. The Wraith seemed to have three moons running full tilt — the amount of traffic around them, the chatter they could pick up (if could you call Wraith talking 'chatter') all told them something huge was going on.

It was nerve-wracking. They knew, intellectually, that the Wraith couldn't see them, couldn't pick them up, but every last one of them became jumpy, paranoid, constantly looking behind them. Because of the freakiness, they kept it short. In five hours, they'd flown by each moon, double checked the count of hive ships and guesstimated the security put in place around the system. Rodney had scanned pretty heavily and John knew they'd all have a few sleepless nights analyzing the data.

They were just getting ready to leave when Rodney startled. "Wait," he said, staring intently at the plasma screen which translated the Wraith data. "That… looks… John." John frowned as he turned to Rodney. "Doesn't that ship look familiar?"

The ship had appeared suddenly, probably from a hyperspace window, heading in-system. It wasn't a hive ship, but Rodney was right, it did look familiar.

Suddenly, Rodney snapped his fingers. "Of course! That ten thousand year old ship we found on the Lantean sister planet, the one with the…" Rodney interrupted himself, his eyes growing wide.

John spoke abruptly, not able to censor himself. "Supply ship." Fuck.

"A what?" Darche asked sharply, looking between the two of them.

"You… it…" Rodney's face was pale as he stared at John.

"It's a supply ship. One had crashed landed during the war, ten thousand years ago and we found it." No need to go into how they found it, or what they found there. John had to push the last words out and he couldn't look away from Rodney's face. "Food. For Wraith."

Chand made gagging noises and left the bridge in a hurry. John glanced around and noticed everyone else looked about as bad as Chand had sounded.

"What can we do?" Tarn pushed out between gritted teeth.

"We could… we could…" Rodney was almost panting, looking desperately at John.

"Could we try to rescue? At least one?" Darche's voice was uncharacteristically tentative. "We think we can tell between a human and a Wraith, now, and the modifications to the transporters Neysa has made…"

He shouldn't do it. They shouldn't do it. It was too dangerous, it put them into a terrible position, strategically it was almost suicide. "Do it," John finally ground out.

Darche and Rodney almost ran to other consoles, the consoles used by the modified transporters. "Get us as close as you can," Rodney said to John, who nodded shortly and went to navigation.

It was pathetically easy to bring their ship alongside the other one, none of the Wraith could tell they were even there. The supply ship was larger than a cruiser but smaller than a hive ship, a distinctive shape and size John felt he should have recognized immediately. They followed her, sticking close for longer than John was comfortable with, since it was moving them into more populated regions of the system. Suddenly, Rodney crowed, "Got it!"

"There are four, one is very weak, we can—"

"Just get them all and do it now, because we need to get out of here." John was watching their short-range sensors with Tarn and Wenser standing at his shoulder, all three of them getting antsy.

John had his hand on the key, waiting for Rodney's mark before he fired up the sublight engines and got them a hyperspace window. The second he heard Rodney yell GO, he went, peeling them away from the supply ship and heading out of system. Wenser plotted them a course to Oswilla and John punched it, pleased to be out of that particular hell.


It was four jumps to Oswilla and John had to be firm with everyone. "No. Once we get on the planet, we'll take 'em out of  what they called the pattern buffers (since that's what they really were, and there wasn't any other name to call them), but not before." Darche opened his mouth but John wouldn't let him speak. "No. We do it in the open, with everyone armed. Period." He stared at Darche until the guy backed down, chastened.

Larrin didn't like it at all, and made her displeasure with John's actions clear. John wanted to get into it with her, but at the same time, he agreed. They were taking a risk by rescuing humans from the Wraith. Larrin was born and bred in the Pegasus galaxy and knew when to be pragmatic, when to sacrifice for the greater good. John hadn't quite lost his desire for a happy ending and it was that difference that produced the greatest friction between them.

They made it to Oswilla without incident and put down in the huge field on the other side of the planet from the 'gate, near where they had planted. John had everyone but Rodney out in the field, armed to the teeth, before he had Rodney rematerialize their rescues. When the four people appeared, John almost started crying.

They had rescued two teenagers, both girls, a pregnant woman and an older man. The pregnant woman immediately crumpled, and Jarl was moving before John could order him to stand down. Luckily, Tarn, Honol and Wenser are more cautious, approaching the other three people carefully, talking in low tones but keeping their weapons up. The kids and the old man appeared to be dazed, almost ready to keel over themselves.

John let the others handle that while he went to Jarl, who was on his knees next to the pregnant woman, murmuring to her. John went to one knee next to him. "She responding?" he asked quietly.

"She's breathing," was his answer, which wasn't much of an answer.

"The baby's dead." Jarl and John looked up at the older man who was shaking badly, leaning on Tarn. "Died a few days ago. She might be gone too." His voice was cracked and weak, defeated.

Jarl had his hand on the woman's carotid artery. "Her pulse is so weak. If the baby's gone, then…"

"We've been on that ship forever, they wouldn't feed her, any of us. Heard her crying t'other day, she said she couldn't feel the baby."

John looked around — the kids were sitting on the grass, huddled together and crying, Honol and Suud were sitting next to them, touching and talking to them. Tarn eased the older man down to the grass, closer to the kids than the woman. Darche, who had returned to the cruiser, and Rodney, came running with boxes of what was probably food and water. Chand followed, carrying the case he used to carry medical supplies; he hurried to John's position.

The woman died ten minutes later; she never woke up. Jarl looked wrecked but he conceded, if the baby was dead, it wasn't likely she would have lasted long anyway. The older man was in better shape than it first appeared, he and the kids responded well to food and water and the crew packed them away in the huge tree-house they used to watch over the crops when on Oswilla. They wrapped the woman in a used tarp and dug her a grave, as was the Genii practice. There was no shortage of helpers to dig and Brama put up a simple wooden marker, carved with the 'gate symbol for the Genii homeworld, since no one there knew her name — all the old man knew was she was of the Genii, like him. John called a meeting once they were settled, leaving Tarn to watch over their new members.

"They haven't had the drug, though they know of it," Jarl said. His voice was dull and exhausted. "They were born Genii but migrated to Dyad during the exodus, before the Wraith destroyed their planet."

Suud was sitting next to Jarl and put his hand on Jarl's shoulder. "The man's name is Tagdh," he said, speaking quietly. "The girls are Jumy and Renete. They have no idea how long they've been with the Wraith, only that it's been many days. Since they don't know of the Blessed but do know of the drug, I think it might have been as much as a year."

"Cocooned for a year?" Rodney asked, incredulous. "And not even fed for that long?"

"Clearly, there's some other element at work here," Darche said. He was frowning and rubbing his forehead as if it hurt. "If they can keep humans alive for—"

John could see where the whole meeting was heading, he wasn't a complete idiot, even if he did have problems seeing certain things coming at him. "Okay, that's enough, I think we've got the gist of it." He sighed as he looked around the room at his dejected team. "I declare tomorrow a day off, and no, no one is exempt. I need three volunteers to stay here with our new guests, then we're back to the Batcave." He looked around the table again and saw only resignation. "Rodney and Darche, you are forbidden from working on any of this until noon tomorrow or ten hours from now, whichever is longer and that's an order. Moving on, do I have volunteers?"

Jarl, of course, wanted to stay, and John gave in to that. Suud also volunteered, as did Larrin, to John's surprise. "They're girls," she replied to his question. "They're going to need to see a female face. And no, that doesn't mean that I've softened up. What you did was still almost criminally negligent."

"Maybe. But we pulled it off, and possession is nine-tenths of the law where I come from." Larrin just snorted at John's words and left with Jarl and Suud.

It was a quick trip, one hyperspace hop, back to the Batcave from Oswilla. John was looking forward to his bed to a degree that almost frightened him. Rodney didn't even put up a fuss when John herded him directly to their bedroom, with no stops allowed to the lab, and that convinced John more than anything else that they were all in dire need of a little down-time.

They took their turns at the toilet, moving mechanically. John made it to bed just before Rodney and when Rodney crawled in, John moved to hold him closely and Rodney sagged into him, in what felt like relief.

They didn't speak for a long time. John left their dim table light on as he studied the ceiling of their room. A real room, more than they had when they first moved in, thanks to their teammates, their family. Two walls were made of brick and they had a door of wood. The bed they slept on had a real frame and the dresser matched the table — well, sort of. Rodney had installed outlets in every room, so every room had power and electric lights thanks to their naquadah generator.

It was home. It wasn't Atlantis, it wasn't Earth, but it had Rodney, it had (most of) his friends, it was a place where he felt comfortable.

"I should be happy," Rodney whispered. "The mods to the sensors worked, we were able to tell Wraith from human. We successfully beamed out four…" He sighed. "Almost five people."

John squeezed his shoulders but didn't speak. It sucked, they had lost even as they'd won. He reached out and turned off the light, leaving nothing but the illuminated numbers of their alarm clock for light.

Before he fell asleep, John wondered what the gas giant planets were made of. Gas, yeah, he knew that, but he wondered if any of it were helium. He let that thought soothe him to bed, because it was far better to think of that than to wonder how many other people — men, women, children, babies — were trapped on Wraith ships, waiting to be fed upon.

Despite his resolve not to think of it, his brain kept turning back to it. But eventually, he fell asleep, Rodney curled around him possessively, taking and giving comfort.


Over the next month and a half, they made careful 'extractions' of humans from Wraith supply ships and other hives. They shadowed the system and kept scanning it, each scan gave them more information about what the Wraith were doing.

Two of the moons were 'growing' hive ships. It was a slow process, but it appeared they had a fully functioning ship within ten months after starting it. One of the moons had a cloning factory, almost exactly like the one they blew up. Darche advocated a guerrilla operation to take it out with their remaining C4, but even Larrin opposed that as being entirely too risky.

One of the humans they extracted was a member of the Blessed, which answered the question of how those would show up on the modified sensors. Larrin and Chand would have killed the man on the spot had it not been for John and Tarn. Instead, they put a bag over the guy's head, 'gated him to a different planet and left him there. They were almost certain he hadn't been aware of his whereabouts long enough to figure out what was happening to him.

They were far more careful after that, a better lesson than anything John could preach on paranoia.

Still, within two months, they had quite a little town on Oswilla — forty-seven people, most of them teenagers or young adults. As a security measure, they brought the 'gate over to the settlement and buried it. It could be uncovered fairly quickly if necessary but it just made the planet that much less of a target. With the cruiser, they were no longer dependant on the stargates anyway. Rodney made sure to leave a secured subspace array on the planet, one only a member of their team could use.

There were indeed isolated outposts of free, decent people, deeply in hiding for good reason. They did their best to find these people, leaving word with traders who seemed legitimate, interrogating those they rescued and bringing in any who hadn't been culled — but it was slow going.

The extra manpower meant larger plantings. Because it was easier to keep track of everyone all in one place, they shut down their Manaria operation and concentrated solely on Oswilla. Those rescued were never told how they were rescued, for security purposes. They were so relieved to be alive they didn't much care.

One evening at the Batcave, as they were running some standard scans of their area of the galaxy, Rodney had John report to the lab. He pointed out Ford's world. "The sun is aging rapidly," he said, as John peered at the display. Both sides of Rodney's mouth were turned down. "A couple billion years in just less than a year."

John shook his head. "So what's the timetable?"

"Less than another year and it'll be history. Maybe sooner." Rodney sighed.

A question that John had been meaning to ask suddenly surfaced. "Hey, that system where the Wraith are being busy bees, there are a couple of gas giant planets, like Jupiter."

"Yeah?" Rodney turned and looked at John with a raised eyebrow.

"What's the gas? I mean, what kind of gases are there? Is it mostly helium?"

Rodney rolled his eyes. "No dice. It's mostly methane, but has a dozen or more combinations." John made a frustrated sound and Rodney smirked. "You should have asked about emission nebulas."

It took John a second to get that before pouncing on it. "Why? Are they helium?"

"Not completely. Hydrogen is the most common element in the galaxy, well, next to stupidity. Hydrogen and stupidity, the two most common elements in the universe." Rodney rolled his eyes and John glared at him. "Anyway. Hydrogen's the building block from which everything grows, from stars to kittens. But yes, an emission nebula would be the place to look for great quantities of helium, either free-floating or made from hydrogen."

John was confused. "Then that's where they must be getting it, right? Why aren't you more excited?"

"Because that's only a quarter of the problem." Rodney perched on his high stool. "Yes, they're probably getting the gas from an emission nebula, or maybe more than one — scratch that, definitely more than one. That's the where. You come to me with a good working hypothesis on the how and how much energy is required and we'll talk."

John groaned and Rodney laughed. "What, you think I'm going to make it easy on you just because you're my boyfriend?"


THE FIFTH YEAR:

Rodney tripped over the same cable for at least the twentieth time and swore like a sailor. "This fucking ship sucks!"

Darche laughed. "I'm keeping a running tally on how often you say that, Neysa."

"Yeah, if I had a nickel," John muttered as he walked past. "This isn't getting you off the hook for my battleship, either, McKay."

Rodney flapped his hands at John. "You find me a way to build one and I'm all over that."

"Actually, just having a ship that didn't smell of Wraith would be a welcome change." Wenser was on the floor, working under a console. "At least we were able to get rid of the mist, but the floor still feels slimy."

"I am open to suggestion," Rodney said loudly, jacking his laptop into a different console. "Wenser, what's your reading over there?"

"I'm still only getting quarter power."

"Open to what suggestion?" Larrin came onto the bridge in time to catch the last of the conversation. "Sheppard, we're closing in on harvest on Oswilla."

"I know, I know," John said with a groan. "My back is already killing me in sympathetic pain."

There was a pop, a small shower of sparks and more swearing from Rodney. "This fucking ship sucks!"

"That's what we're taking suggestions about. Need help, Rodney?" John watched as Darche got down on the floor next to Wenser. "He still needs to get me a battleship because this tub certainly ain't it."

"No, no — wait, yes," Rodney flapped his hands at John again, this time pointing him towards another console. "Go over there and try to bring the buffer containment online."

"We could always steal another cruiser, maybe from the Blessed," Larrin said, walking over to the console Rodney was working on. "You're still getting that power overload?"

"No more cruisers!" Rodney said as John said, "No joy on the containment yet," and Rodney added, "Shit! Which should answer your question!"

Wenser, his voice slightly muffled, said, "Try it again, Rodney."

As Rodney began checking circuits, the console in front of John beeped. "Containment is back online."

"Yes!" Darche crowed, sliding out from under the console. "Got the crystal right here. Are the spares still in the—"

"Yes, in the aft hold, and give me that." Rodney caught the crystal tossed at him as Darche took off down the hall.

Wenser sat up but didn't stand. "I don't know how I missed that."

"All too easy to do so," Rodney said, his voice distracted as he examined the crystal. "It's not even scorched."

John turned away from the console to see Larrin looking at Rodney with a very strange expression on her face. "Larrin?"

She took a breath and opened her mouth to speak, then hesitated. "What?" Rodney asked, looking up from the crystal to her face.

"A… ship. Not a cruiser or a hive ship or—"

"Please tell me you know of another mothballed Ancient warship," John begged.

She gave him an exasperated look. "If I did, trust me I would have mentioned it. No, this is something else, I'm not even sure what it is. None of us were."

"None of who?" Rodney said, intrigued. "And what are you talking about?"

She sighed and shook her head. "Call up the star map, I'll show you." Rodney pulled up their sector on the big plasma screen. "Pull it out," Larrin said, and Rodney pulled back until most of the galaxy was displayed. "Here. The thing is here." She pointed to an area with few stars.

"In the hole?" Rodney said, blinking. He noticed everyone looking at him and added, "That's what Zelenka and I called it. There are no stargates in this sector, an irregular sphere approximately a thousand light-years in radius. We couldn't figure out why, and it didn't seem to be important enough to look into."

"None?" John said, surprised. "None at all?"

"No, there are none there," Larrin confirmed. "There's a planet here, around this star, barely able to support life. We found a… a thing, there."

Rodney rounded on her, his hands on his hips. "Can I request a little more clarity here?"

She took a deep breath, clearly irritated. "I would have to show you. It's a ship, at least, some of us thought it was a ship, but it's buried, it's not of the Ancestors, and—"

"Not Ancient?" John interrupted.

"No. We couldn't even figure out how to get in it, so we wrote it off." She reached around Rodney and used the controls to zero in on a star system, one that looked close to central in Rodney's so-called 'hole.' "It's here. Fourth planet. It's very active, a lot of volcanic activity."

"Huh." Rodney stared at the map for a minute before turning to John. "We need to go check it out."

John nodded. "Yeah."


They decided to go sooner, rather than later, since they'd have to help with the harvest immediately upon their return. It took three hyperspace hops to get there, a nondescript system with seven planets, one of which was a gas giant, and an asteroid belt. The fourth planet looked like a cross between Mars and Venus, with a busy, thick atmosphere everywhere but at the poles, which were iced-over land and over which the sky was clear.

"You're right about the volcanism," Rodney murmured, looking at his sensor detail. They had Darche, Chand, Tarn and Honol with them, everyone else was back on Oswilla, getting ready to harvest. "A couple of these are almost as big as Olympus Mons."

"One central ocean," Darche reported, watching sensor data at another console. "It's a big one, but it's soup. Very dense, with what looks like vegetative and chemical compounds. Looks like there are active volcanoes underwater too."

"It's less than it was the last time I saw it," Larrin said. "It was nine or ten years back. The whole damn thing glowed under the cloud cover, and the clouds were over the poles, too."

"Wow." John alternated looking at the two big screens, both showing the planet in different terms. "So, where—"

"Over here, this area. Just past the north polar region, between it and the ocean." Larrin pointed and John obediently adjusted their course so they were in geosynchronous orbit above the area.

"Yeah, looks like something's there." Rodney tightened in on a bluish blip. "It's big." He frowned. "Very big."

"Yes, it was. But it's buried."

"Hmm. Not… exactly." He pointed to a relatively flat area, one that looked stable according to the sensors. "Can you put us down here? There's a big break in the area covering the thing, it looks like a cave mouth. Darche, you remember how to extend the shielding so that—"

"So we've got breathable air. Yes. Though the air on this planet isn't exactly toxic."

"But there's too much in the way of particulate matter to be healthy. And the sulfides in the air would be almost like breathing hydrogen peroxide." Rodney shook his head. "I wish we had hazmat suits."

John put the cruiser down gently, testing the stability of the ground beneath the ship's struts. The sensors showed green and his gut instinct said it would be fine, but 'put not thy faith in Ace kickers' was as much a prayer as a practicality for any pilot.

"Darche?" Rodney asked.

"Yes. I'm just extending the pressure now. We should be good to go out the aft port hatch."

Outside was surreal. The roiling cloud cover was lit with constant lightning flashes and the eerie red glow of nearby volcanoes. The air was filled with the grumbling of thunder and rumbling of active volcanoes. The constant trembling of the ground beneath their feet just added to the fun. Despite the shield extending air from the cruiser, the smell of rotten eggs and puddles of water mixed with weak hydrogen peroxide splashed them, and the ground beneath their feet was hard, glassy and looked deadly sharp.

"On your toes, everyone. This is not a safe place." Rodney snorted at John's words, but he still looked alert.

It was enormous. The entrance looked partly crumbled away, partly blasted away. "This is where we dug to get to it, to see what it was, but it's a bigger opening now," Larrin said.

"Seismic activity must have fractured more of it down," Rodney murmured, gently touching the 'wall' of the cave. "It's igneous basalt. Huh. It's a lava tube."

"It's a what?" Darche asked, shining his flashlight around the huge opening.

"A lava tube. When a volcano erupts violently, and lava flows away from it in streams, the top of the lava will cool before the inside of it does. When the flow stops, it leaves an empty tube behind." Rodney shone his flashlight around. "Though it doesn't look like any I've ever seen, it's too regular."

John looked around as well, shining his light on the metal structure within the cave. It was shaped like a ship, sort of; at least it was tapered at their end slightly. It almost looked like it had been garaged in the cave — the lava tube — or as if the tube had grown around it. The area of the tube followed the curve of the… ship?… perfectly. Rodney was right, it was somehow artificial.

"We drilled, we shot at it, we put heat to it, but nothing would penetrate that hull," Larrin said, her voice disgusted. "It was as if we weren't even touching it."

Rodney felt the surface of the metal with his hands, then examined it with his tablet and a probe. "That's because you weren't," he said, distracted. "It's live. There's some kind of force field around it. Probably what kept the lava from destroying it."

"It has power?" Darche said, running his hand along the side.

John did the same. The metal felt strange, as if it were oily, and he had the feeling that Rodney was right, he wasn't actually touching the surface of the thing.

"Then how do we get in?" Larrin demanded. "I'm telling you, we tried everything!"

"You didn't have me," Rodney said smugly, smirking at her. "Give me a minute."

Larrin turned to John but he just smirked as well. If anyone could figure out the thing, McKay could. "He'll get us in."

It took a little while. The thing was massive, smooth sided, its length was as farther than they could see and it was easily five stories high or more, lost in the shadows at the top of the lava tube which had become its garage. They walked further in, following Rodney, who was following the data on his tablet. It looked like it went on forever and John was becoming excited — if it was a ship, if they could get in it, it would be the biggest thing he ever flew, aside from Atlantis herself. It would be big enough to house their whole team, plus some. If Rodney could get in, get it going…

"Ah. Here we go."

He caught up to Rodney and found him standing near an indentation in the side. "A door?"

"Probably more like a cargo bay hatch. Let me see if I can get it to…" Rodney's tablet beeped, and suddenly there were seams where there hadn't been before, seams that went up at least twenty feet high.

"Be careful, the air is likely to be—" The door pulled back and whooshed open before John could finish what he was going to say, and it changed his last word. "Fresh?"

Cargo bay would describe it. One hundred, maybe a hundred fifty feet high, fifty yards wide, with what looked like catwalks and gantries outlined in the dim light above. The door was about thirty feet wide and sixty high, an opening to a platform on a catwalk far above the floor. As they tentatively poked their heads in, the dimness receded into slowly brightening lights. It was eerie and John got a tremendous flash of déjà vu… one glance told him Rodney felt the same. It was entering Atlantis all over again.

"Do we need to worry about the door?" John asked urgently, as he was about to step inside.

"No, it's fine, there's no locking protocols I can find," Rodney replied. He glanced at his tablet. "In fact, more systems are coming online, all throughout the… Oh, wow." Rodney blinked and looked up at John in shock. "It's a ship. It's more than three-quarters the size of a hive ship!"

"Are you sure we're safe? Rodney, is it going to lock us in?" John really, really wanted to go inside but his instincts, his native paranoia, were screaming at him.

Rodney hung back, standing in the doorway, watching his tablet. "I can interface, roughly, it's not Ancient, though." He pressed some keys and frowned as they beeped back on him. "It's empty, active, but dormant. It looks like whoever left it, just shut the doors and walked away, leaving the key in the ignition." He looked up at John and his face reflected John's insecurity. "But nothing's flashing, no alarms are ringing."

Larrin joined them; Darche and Chand were a little bit further in while Tarn and Honol hovered around the door. "Is it safe?" she asked.

"We don't know," John replied. "Why would anybody just leave a ship like this lying around for anyone to get into?"

"Maybe the crew is in hibernation. Or dead." John and Rodney looked at Larrin in shock and she nodded. "Ghost ship. It could be contaminated."

"Jesus." John realized she could be right, so he pulled his life-signs detector out of his pocket; it showed nothing but them.

"Well, if it was a contagion, we're already exposed," Chand said, coming back to the group. "And would it have survived all this time?"

"All what time? How long has it been down here?"

"Could someone still be aboard?"

"We need to find out first if we're going to get trapped—"

John whistled sharply, signaling time out with this hands. "First things first," he said into the silence that followed. "Rodney. Are we in any danger of being locked in?"

"Not as far as I can tell." Rodney hadn't even looked up from his tablet. "There appears to be no security or locking protocol in effect — it's like they just parked the thing and took a walk."

John did not like the sound of that. "That…"

"Yeah, yeah, I agree, weird." Rodney glanced up and his face was as worried as John felt.

"Any idea how long it's been here?" John asked.

Rodney grimaced. "Too much volcanic activity. I'm no geologist, and I'm not even sure carbon dating would work in this situation. But if I had to guess, I'd say at least several hundred years. You don't get lava tubes of this size quickly."

"A totally alien ship, in essence just parked here, idling, unlocked." John rubbed his forehead where he could feel another headache brewing. Forget morphine, they should have packed Excedrin. "Okay, here's how we're going to play this. Darche, you're with me. Rodney, you take everyone else out and we're going to close the door from the inside — I assume it's that control there?"

"Should be." Both sides of Rodney's mouth were turned down. "John…"

"I know. But I want this ship, Rodney. We need this ship. I'll close the door. Darche and I will look around for five minutes, then come back and try the door. If it works, we'll do it for another five minutes, and so on." He looked at Rodney. "Clear?"

Rodney nodded, a jerk of his head.

They spent over an hour, going deeper into the ship every time. Radios worked fine and they began stretching the time to ten minutes, then fifteen. Finally, John made it to the door of what he thought should be the bridge and made the most important discovery. "Okay, we've got something." He hoped his voice wasn't shaking too badly. "I'm going to try to carry it out."

"What?" Rodney demanded over the comm. "What?!"

"You'll see it when we get out."

It was a tablet, a piece of something, made of the same kind of polymer the Ancients used and it had writing on it — Ancient writing. John could recognize the letters and a couple of words, one of which was 'sorrow' (or maybe sorry, he wasn't sure) but whatever it said, he had a feeling it was very important.

The door opened just as easily as it always had, something that made John breathe easier. He handed the tablet thing to Rodney, who sat with Darche and laboriously puzzled it out. "I wish Elizabeth were here," Rodney muttered. "I mean, I've got a recognition program, but it's still not good enough."

The fact that the Ancients had known of the ship made everyone a bit more nervous, but once the translation was complete…

"It's an epitaph," Darche said, blinking in shock.

"Yeah," Rodney breathed. "This is incredible. No wonder there were no stargates out here…"

"What does it say," John said slowly, between gritted teeth.

"Oh. Right. Basically, it says 'these people' — the ones in the control room? You didn't go in, right? — they were  here were from Andromeda, or points beyond, the Ancients weren't really sure." Rodney glanced at Darche, who nodded, agreeing. "Explorers. They came here about twenty-five thousand years ago—"

"Though we could be wrong, it could be closer to fifty," Darche interjected.

"Yeah, neither of us are great at Ancient timelines." Rodney cleared his throat. "From what we can tell, they made first contact by what appeared to be complete accident. And then…" Rodney sighed and rubbed his eyes. "Incompatible biologies? Jarl might understand that part better, but apparently just contact with the Ancients killed them. All of them." Rodney shook his head and sighed. "War of the Worlds all over again."

Darche picked up the story. "It appears the Ancients tried to cut off contact but it was too late. There must be… bodies, bodies in the control room, put there by the Ancients. Like a tomb. They were the last to die and the Ancients brought them back here." Darche sighed too. "Why, I don't know, since if their people ever came looking, they still wouldn't know what was going on and why their comrades died." Darche turned the thing over and frowned at the other side before going back to the front.

"Ancient thought processes," Rodney said, sounding disgusted. "Who knows what they were thinking. They might have been the actual cause of death for these poor clowns and not willing to admit it. I wouldn't put it past them."

John took a deep breath. "I think we need to get into the control room."

Rodney nodded, but it was reluctant. "Yeah. They…" He swallowed noisily. "It's not going to be pretty. Take the camera… just in case."

John nodded and collected Darche, heading back into the ship. As they reached what was the control room, Rodney radioed, saying, "They might have left the room flooded with an inert gas, for preservation. Be careful when you open it."

"Yeah. Okay." The door was operated like all the doors were, with a plate about waist high. John and Darche took a deep breath and held it as John triggered the door.

Rodney was right, the air in the room rushed out past them as the door opened and left a lingering, tannic or metallic tang behind. Even though John had prepared himself, what they found still shocked him — eight brittle skeletons lined up in a row, almost like a ceremonial burial. They were so old they crumbled upon the touch of regular air and their clothing was little more than dust. "Wow." Darche looked at John and his eyes were wide and incredulous.

Darche knelt down next to one of them, careful not to touch. "This is… Look, they're not human, though they're humanoid." He pointed to the rib cage. "Four extra ribs. The pelvis is all wrong and there's an extra joint in the legs, which are too short for humans."

"Looks about the right height, though," John said thoughtfully, crouching down. "Look at the head."

"Yes. Appears to be flattened. Oh, look, there are six fingers… and… yes. Six toes. Long toes."

"Huh." John studied them, taking picture after picture, aware time was ticking by and the corpses were decaying every second. After ten minutes, there was really nothing left to photograph. He activated the radio. "Okay, apparently, whatever got them can't get us, since the Ancients were immune. And nothing's happened to us since we opened up the bridge, so come on in, guys. Let's get busy cataloging." John stood, simultaneously saddened and elated. They could take the ship with impunity but at the same time, he felt terrible for the people who had come to Pegasus just as the Ancients had, to explore, only to find death.

"I agree." Darche stood up too and brushed off his pants. "Looks like we found you your battleship, Sheppard." He smiled crookedly and John smiled back.


Despite their excitement, they couldn't stay any longer; they had a harvest to bring in and they hadn't brought any supplies for overnight with them anyway. All the way back to Oswilla, they talked about the ship and decided that Rodney and Darche would move aboard it permanently while they rotated everyone else aboard to help out with the translation, the cataloging, everything they needed to do to make the ship work. Which, as Rodney pointed out, was going to be practically impossible since they didn't know what damn language the aliens spoke.

Five backbreaking days later, they had the harvest in and brought food and other necessities back to the new ship. On their first trip, Chand and Tarn had found what they figured was the galley because of the large, heavily insulated rooms — one cold and one freezing — and the shelves where bloated cans still stood. The latter they carefully disposed of and replaced with boxes of fresh fruit, vegetables and bread.

John was putting things away into the refrigerator when Brama came back with a small crate of pima berries, a favorite of John's (and Rodney's). "This is the last, where do you want it?"

"Oh, um, set it there, I'll put it in here in a minute," John replied, distracted by making space.

Brama grunted in reply and put the crate down in a small alcove. After a moment, John stepped out of the cold and grabbed the crate to put away while popping one of the berries into his mouth. They were almost black but where slightly tarter than the dark cherries of Earth.

When he stepped out of the fridge, spitting the stone into his hand, there was another crate of pima berries right where the last had been.

He blinked at it stupidly for a moment, then opened the door to the fridge again. The crate he'd put away was identical to the one sitting on the shelf in the little alcove, right down to the splintered middle slat. It was sitting in a small alcove and above it, there was a panel with a glowing yellow triangle. He stared at it, bemused, then lifted the crate out and put it on the floor, closing the door to the cooler.

By the time he turned back to the alcove, there was another crate of pima berries there.

He backed away slightly and touched his radio earpiece. "Rodney? I think you need to come down to the galley."

"I'm a little busy here—"

"No, you need to come down right now."

There was silence for a beat then Rodney said, "I'm on my way."

Rodney was floored and elated. Darche was ecstatic and Tarn was flabbergasted. "Will it copy anything?" Chand asked.

"Give me a loaf of bread," Rodney said and Chand supplied it. "How long does it have to be there?"

"No idea." John was still trying to take it in — if this was what he thought it was, their supply problems were over. Completely. If it would copy arms… electronics… ZPMs

Rodney took the bread out of the alcove and waited. A split second later, another loaf popped in. He took it out and broke it open, sniffing. "Smells like bread." Another loaf had appeared.

"We need to analyze it," Darche said carefully, but John could tell he was almost ready to dance on the ceiling.

"Yes, yes. But first we need to know how to turn it off." Rodney didn't take the loaf out of the alcove but leaned up to study the panel above it. The yellow triangle was still gleaming. "Was this glowing before?"

"I don't know, McKay. Probably." John studied it too.

"From what I've seen, yellow means 'on'. I think." Rodney reached up and pressed the yellow triangle. It went out. Rodney reached in and took the bread out; nothing happened. "Ah. It's off." He pressed the triangle again — it lit, but nothing happened. "And the pattern buffer was cleared."

"Cool," John breathed.

"Hmm." Rodney continued to examine the panel. He cocked his head to the side then touched a different button, using his finger to drag a yellow bar up, or so it appeared. "Who's got the original bread?" he asked, snapping his fingers. Chand handed it to him and Rodney put it in the alcove. After a second, he removed it and within another second, five more loaves had appeared.

"Damn," Tarn said softly and earnestly.

They were, of course, going to test all the 'created' foods before eating them, but John was betting they would all be normal. They put small electronics and crystals in the alcove to copy, and all of them came out working fine. Once Darche and John figured out a way to test them remotely, they made guns, ammo, P-90s and stunners — everything operated flawlessly.

"It's like fucking Christmas," John said, and not even Rodney could kiss the grin off him.

"We can put MREs in there. We can put bread, tools, medicine, Jesus, John, we're never going to need…" Rodney looked like John felt, and the elation was almost scary. "I have COFFEE BEANS left, John!"

They needed a new schedule, since Rodney and Darche were going to live in the new ship ("She needs a name," John said, then added when Rodney opened his mouth, "not Enterprise!"). The rest of them  rotated to her on a weekly basis, but spent the bulk of their time with John, who mostly stayed with the cruiser and the rest of their team, doing rescue runs and protecting the growing Oswilla settlement.

The ship was large enough for their entire family plus a couple dozen more. Darche thought there had probably been a crew of fifty, which made the last eight even more tragic. Though the original aliens hadn't been human, they'd been human enough to have the same needs — the air mixture was higher in oxygen three percent, the toilets and showers were easy to figure out, as was some of the galley equipment. The bridge was fascinating and reminded John more of the TARDIS than an Ancient ship or human ship.

Power was there, all around the ship, that wasn't a problem. Except it was, because Rodney was all but ripping his hair out trying to figure out how it was being generated. He had ruled out zero-point energy early on. Reactor energy was also crossed off, because there would be at least some kind of radiation leakage somewhere if that had been so. The engines themselves were invisible, no thrusters, no intakes, nothing — well, as far as they could see. The damn ship seemed to go on for miles inside its garage of lava tube and everything they saw was smooth and seamless. Even if they figured out the power source, they wouldn't know what made the damn thing go.

About a month and a half after they'd found the ship, John decided he was more than ready for a break. He knew Rodney had claimed one of the larger quarters for their use but really wanted more than that, and wondered if he could pry Rodney away long enough to go to their favorite tropical island world for a bit of R&R and sex. Well, mostly for sex. He had Wenser beam him directly to the ship and left the cruiser in his and Rike's control — they could always come back if John managed talk Rodney into a real vacation.

The ship — the ship which still needed a name — was still mostly empty even though Larrin and Suud had also taken up more-or-less permanent residency. They had joined Darche and Rodney in trying to figure out how to make it go… actually, how to make it do anything. Larrin and Darche were in the cargo bay where they'd first gotten into the ship, which is where John was beamed to, working on something that looked mechanical — which was about the extent as John could get in identification. Neither of them looked happy about what they were doing.

"Um… what is that?" John finally asked, squinting at it.

"If we knew that, we wouldn't be taking it apart," Larrin growled as Darche picked up a large hammer and started whanging away at whatever it was.

John beat a strategic retreat, heading for the bridge, where he was sure he'd find Rodney.

Rodney was there, or at least half of him was. The other half was under a console at the far end of the room, while Suud was sitting on a chair, working on a tablet PC (one that was probably cloned, giving new meaning to illegally copied software). John nodded to Suud who waved a hand at him without looking up… some of Rodney's less desirable habits had been catching, then.

John squatted down near where Rodney was working. "Yo, Rodney."

"John?" With a grunt, Rodney shoved himself out of the console. "What are you doing here?"

"What does it look like? Taking a break. Getting away from it all. Trying to use my sexual wiles on you in order to drag you away from all this and fuck you into insensibility."

"Your 'sexual wiles'?"

"Yeah." John scrubbed his face with one hand. "Is it working?"

"Not really. But you look like shit which I guess means you're ready for a break. What's going on?"

John helped Rodney stand as he ran down a quick list of all the things that had changed recently. "A hundred fifty-four people?" Rodney exclaimed. "You guys have been pretty busy, you sure you're safe?"

"We've been taking them in batches of six or seven at a time, never more than that from any one hive ship, despite what Tarn wants. And we've been running drills at the settlement, just in case," John said, plopping down into one of the stools around the central console. "Horn sounds, head to the beam-up spot and wait for pickup. And all our people have sub-cu transmitters implanted. I don't know how to make our equipment any safer than it is. If we get made, it won't be because we're careless."

"Yeah, but, a hundred fifty-four people. They've got to have noticed that, even if it was in little batches. And just twelve of us… well, not even that, what with Larrin and Suud staying here full time. We're spread too thin."

"But we can't relocate everyone here, Rodney, there isn't room. And we do have help, some of our rescuees have proven themselves to us and we're relying on them as, oh, I don't know, deputies." Hectic days and nights were catching up to John, and he yawned suddenly.

"Am I keeping you up?" Rodney asked, only half snidely.

"Just tired. Oh, and Chand's got a girlfriend."

When that sank in, Rodney looked delighted. "He does?"

"Yeah, her name's Jumy, she was from the first batch. They're like something out of the fifties. And it looks like Brama's putting together a harem or something, but everybody seems happy so we're not interfering. Okay, enough. Tell me what's going on here."

"God, I wish I could." Rodney raked his hands through what was left of his hair. "All this technology, it's everywhere, it's gorgeous, and I can only lay my hands on a tiny fraction of it. The matter replicators alone have made our lives so much easier—"

"Yeah, ours too, especially with more people," John interjected.

"Yeah, but there's more, John, so much more!" Rodney indicated the central column, the one that always reminded John of the TARDIS, only larger in diameter. "This section is navigation, at least we're pretty sure it is." He reached out and touched a triangular spot and the large central column lit up with a holographic display. "This is the system we're currently in." Rodney touched another spot and dragged his finger across it, causing the display to pull out precipitously. "Our quadrant of Pegasus, andit goes further, too." He touched the first button again, the light went out and he moved clockwise to the next console. "This section we think is life support."

"Or life sciences," Suud interjected without looking up.

"Suud, as it turns out, likes puzzles." Rodney managed to look both disgusted and impressed at the same time, something he was good at doing. "He's been cataloging every symbol we've run across and is in the process of teasing out the language. It's an uphill struggle."

"There's no computer?" John asked. "Something you could actually speak to?"

"Oh, yes. Of course there is." Rodney at his most disdainful was a thing of beauty. He walked to another section of console and hit a button. Immediately a deep, rich voice spoke in no language John had ever heard.

"Oh."

"Yeah. Oh." Rodney touched the button and the voice died in mid-syllable. "Then there's the whole color-coded thing. Yellow means 'on' or functional. At least, that's what we presume. Blue means danger or malfunction, the deeper the color the worse it is. Or maybe if it's blinking it's worse, Larrin thinks that and I think she's more than half right."

Oh, that just wasn't fair. "Christ. So, what's green, status good?"

"Red."

Fuck. "Fuck."

"Uh-huh. Welcome to my ulcer. They were also very fond of triangles, but I can work with that. I'm trying to interface the ship's system with some of the Ancient tech, but I don't want to destroy either and so it's touch-and-go. And I still haven't figured out what they're using for fuel and why it hasn't been depleted for twenty-five or fifty thousand years."

"Jesus Christ." John lovingly caressed the console next to his chair. "Do you think she'll fly?"

Rodney took in then blew out a deep breath. "I hope so. John, she's amazing. We could really do some damage with this ship, and did I mention I made more ZedPMs? If I can just get her going…"

"Well, show me what else you've got. Where's the captain's station?"

"Your guess is as good as mine," Rodney said.

"I don't think they had one," Suud piped up. "I think they had a command staff, all making the decisions together."

"Huh." John frowned. "Not at all like humans, then."

Rodney snorted. "The matter copiers, they're in every room, sometimes there's more than one in a room. It's obvious they're also matter creators, like the Asgard tech."

"You mean, I could go up to one and say, 'tea, Earl Grey, hot' and I'd get—"

"Assuming it knew what the hell you were saying, yes." Rodney glared at him mildly. "C'mon, we found the infirmary last week, let me show you."

On the way, Rodney opened a door to the right, just off the bridge. "I think this was probably a meeting room, but not any longer." There was a long table in it but the room was a mess, filled with equipment. "I'm going to turn it into my lab, which reminds me, next time you hit—"

"Yeah, yeah, I'll bring more equipment, what do you think I am, your personal errand boy?" John complained, even as he looked around the room. It would make a perfect lab and meeting space, so he could see why Rodney would appropriate it. "How many more rooms like this are there?"

"Your guess is as good as mine, we keep finding them. This ship is like the wardrobe into Narnia." They left the room and headed down the corridor again. "Darche found a room with what looks like couches in it. We think it might be the equivalent of a rec room? That's what we're going to use it as, anyway."

"Cool!" Every time he turned around, it seemed, the ship threw new things at him.

Jarl and Chand had already stocked the infirmary and had planned to bring anyone severely injured on the Oswillan settlement to the ship for treatment, but this was the first time John had really seen it. "They've figured out a couple of the machines," Rodney told John, "that's a scanner, about the same level of detail as the Ancient's. That, they think, is a bone-knitter, and I think they're right. We can't use any of the leftover medicine, of course, not that there's much of it left. Oh, and… um." Rodney winced and indicated a big metal door. "A morgue. Well, by inference and by the fact that there are three bodies in there."

"Alien bodies?" John asked, grimacing.

"Yeah." Rodney rubbed the back of his neck. "Pretty badly decayed, too, despite the cold. We're not really sure what to do with them so we're leaving them there. Jarl figures they were the first to succumb to whatever killed the rest of them."

Not much to be added to that, John thought, and not much else to be said about it. They left the infirmary and headed back down the corridor.

There was a sophisticated bathroom in every room of the ship, some larger than others, which only proved to John that these aliens had really known how to live. The room Rodney had picked out for them was huge, and the bath almost as large, with a tub and an enclosed room that had to be a shower. "Wow. We are so moving out of the cave into this room permanently."

Rodney chuckled. "Pretty good, huh? RHIP. Larrin called it the honeymoon suite."

"She would. Two toilets?"

"Bidet. With an automatic warm-air blow-dryer — no jokes, please, we've already made 'em all. Takes a bit of getting used to, but it's the ultimate of luxury."

John frowned as he looked around. "Where are the controls?"

Rodney sighed. "On the wall, of course, where else would they be, like on the appliance but no, they're on the wall." Rodney moved over to the wall, touching a panel by the door. "This one is for lights," and he dragged his finger down, dimming the lights, "and this one is for the tub." He pressed a large triangle which lit green. "Green, of course, is for cold, and blue is for hot." He shook his head. "I'm not sure I'm ever going to get used to that."

The tub was filling quickly with frothy, vaguely scented water. "Do you smell—"

"Yeah, all the water used for bathing smells a little floral. It took us a while to figure it out, but Darche thinks there's a mild detergent intermixed. No soap needed when you shower or bathe."

John gave Rodney a skeptical look. "You sure it's safe?"

"As safe as we can figure, and we ran tests, believe me." He shrugged. "If I don't react to it, it must be okay."

John turned and looked at Rodney, raising his eyebrows in a manner he hoped was sexy but feared was more comical. "So. McKay."

Both sides of Rodney's mouth turned up. "Yeah, Sheppard?"

"You ever have sex in a hot tub?"

"I think I'm about to. Strip."

"Strip?!" John was rapidly doing so even as he looked incredulously at Rodney. "That's worse than 'get naked!' Ah, the romance is dead."

"No, just the patience." Rodney was stripping with the same alacrity as John. "I haven't had sex with you in over a month, did you realize that? Between this damn ship and—"

They were both naked and John didn't want to wait any longer. He sealed his mouth over Rodney's, effectively halting whatever Rodney was going to say next. It had been a long time, dammit, and he was tired of waiting. Rodney apparently was right with the program too; he grabbed John and plastered their bodies together. Their mutual moan told John they were both too ready, had waited too long.

They fumbled their way to the partially-sunken tub, and John managed to wrench his mouth from Rodney's long enough to mumble, "Tub… overfill… turn…"

"No," Rodney gasped, "constant… recirc— God do that again!"

The water was hot and incredibly slick. There were ledges, seats, and water-jets keeping the water bubbly, and John felt like he was in a porno movie. Rodney just melted into his arms, warm and wet and slippery, kissing John like there was no tomorrow. Within about thirty seconds, John was at the point of no return and Rodney just followed him, both of them coming within seconds of each other, the hot water carrying all trace of it away.

"Christ," Rodney panted.

John couldn't get any words out, he was too busy trying to get oxygen to his brain, but he nodded.

They didn't let go, though, once they caught their breath. Instead, the water made them languid and dreamy. John felt like he was floating in the softest bed imaginable, or on clouds, maybe, as he kissed Rodney over and over, licking deeply inside his mouth.

They lay there for a long time, making out, kissing, touching each other, not even with sexual intent but just because. Just because…

John sighed and pulled away, letting his head fall back on the edge of the tub. Rodney was in the circle of his arms and wore an expression that could have been patented as bliss. John hummed in contentment and Rodney echoed him, before opening his eyes.

"It's been a long time since we've had the chance just to be…" John trailed off and Rodney's smile widened; he knew what John meant.

"Yeah." He studied John for a long moment, his smile fading but not completely disappearing, just morphing into something more thoughtful. "Hm. What do you know?"

John blinked. "What?" Sheesh, even his voice sounded completely relaxed and he was willing to bet his hair was flat and limp with relief.

Rodney put one hand behind John's neck and tugged his head back down. Just before their lips met again, he whispered, "I've actually fallen in love with you, John Sheppard." The words weren't spoken hesitantly, just with the same level of calm peacefulness that was on Rodney's face. John wasn't even sure he knew what he was saying.

Before John could truly register the words, before he had a chance to freeze, to panic or pull away, Rodney was kissing him again and that, combined with the water and the relaxation made it impossible for John to freak out. Instead, he just enjoyed the kissing and marveled — he was certain he loved Rodney back, but saying so twice in the same century just wasn't something he really wanted to do. Not that it mattered — Rodney already knew it was true anyway.


The cruiser returned to pick up John after six days and John simply did not want to go. Between having regular sex with Rodney (in the tub, in the shower, in the incredibly soft bed, and on one memorable occasion, against the wall of their quarters), and investigating the wonders of their new ship, going back to the primitive and 'exciting' life of guerilla warfare against three heavily-armed foes sorta paled. Tarn, Brama and Chand hadn't been down to the ship for a while, so Darche and Larrin beamed up to the cruiser to get some materials for replication while John and Rodney showed them what had been recently discovered. Chand had some new medical supplies for the infirmary anyway, and he had a couple of things he wanted to test, so he was eager for a new tour.

Suud, with John's help, had made some progress on the alphabet — they had at least determined which symbols were numerals and which were letters. Maybe. With that, Rodney had made a breakthrough because, as he said, certain things were universal and crossed every boundary, and math was one of them. They were coming to believe that while they would never be able to speak or understand the alien's spoken language, but they might be able to understand it written, at least roughly. But it was slow going, and privately, Rodney told John how disheartening it was.

Tarn was leaning against the material copier on the bridge as Rodney demonstrated the holographic map of the galaxy. John was standing next to him and so heard Tarn breathe, "Damn," in awe. As John turned his head to grin at Tarn's impressed word, he noticed something — there were five loaves of bread in the copier.

He glanced up and saw the yellow triangle was lit. He gently took Tarn's shoulder and steered them both away while he said, in a low and careful voice, "Rodney."

Rodney stopped in mid-word and frowned, then saw the bread in the alcove. His eyes bugged out, his mouth remained open but no words came out.

"What did you do?" Suud asked, drifting over in their direction.

"Nothing," Tarn said, looking from face to face. "Nothing."

Rodney finally made it over and frowned at Tarn, then at John. "Hm." He took the loaves out of the copier and waited, but nothing happened. "Hmm," he said, louder this time. He turned to Tarn. "Did you press anything? Say anything?"

John felt his frown disappear. "He said damn. You said damn." John walked to the copier and said, "Damn."

Nothing happened. Rodney pulled Tarn over and said, "Say it."

Tarn swallowed nervously but said, "Damn."

Five loaves of bread appeared and Rodney dropped his face into his hands.


John began returning to the ship every 'weekend,' and every time he did, something new and exciting  had been discovered. On his first return, Darche showed him the newly discovered area which had been a greenhouse, or at least a setup for vegetation. It had been sealed off and when they finally managed to open it, they found out why — all the plants had died and rotted. John rotated several people to the ship to help clean out the area and it took ten backbreaking days. Chand and Jarl had been excited about it, though, and wanted to immediately begin replanting. Rodney gave a tentative okay, but the area was going to need a great deal work.

The next week, John found out that Rodney had almost cracked his head open when he discovered the main hold, what they ended up calling 'the basement.' It had localized artificial gravity which was still active — Rodney didn't know at the time, but he was entering through the 'ceiling.' Once they figured out how to adjust the gravity field, they found out how much fun it was to float weightless in the huge space, and that brought out the silly in pretty much everyone. John and Rike made two metal hoops and a ball that was almost regulation so they could play basketball, both regular and null-G, the latter of which was fucking hilarious and almost always ended up with at least one of them getting hurt in some way.

Chand and Suud co-opted the ball one afternoon and started some sort of free-for-all, low-gravity game that seemed to be a combination of soccer, croquet, dodge-ball and handball, which left everyone bruised and screaming in laughter. John called it Calvinball, which mystified everyone but cracked him up. Rodney fabricated a much softer ball after that, for the sake of everyone's skin and eyes, so the next game wasn't quite so dangerous. They had found an 'alien' ball, too, though it was too soft and small to play with, and it was mostly translucent as well, making it a bit hard to see in some light. It was the source of much speculation, whether the aliens who had inhabited the ship had their children with them.

One afternoon, John turned to Rodney and said, "Shit, we could figure out some sort of self-propelled broom, we could set up a snitch and bludgers and we could play Quidditch! Goddamn, Rodney, we could play Quidditch in here!"

Rodney just gave him a horrified look and threatened to sedate him until they returned home, but John kept the idea in the back of his brain. It would be so, incredibly, cool.

Tarn and Darche began using the space as an exercise and training site, and John set up targets for weapons practice — there was no longer a need to worry about ammo or even guns, they had plenty, whenever they wanted. Adding thick padding to the walls, a trampoline to the floor, and lowered gravity meant far too much fun could be had. Larrin was the one who found the much larger copier there, about six feet square and three feet deep, hidden inside a kind of cupboard. It still wasn't large enough for their largest equipment, but it was a huge help.

It also turned out to be perfect for the world's best practical joke. Larrin and Darche put it together and executed it during one of John's visits. Larrin attached her radio to the matter copier, which she had set to the largest amount possible to fabricate, and spoke into Darche's radio, just saying 'ball' over and over until the hold was filled to the brim with the little, soft, translucent balls. Then she and Darche called Rodney and John over, opened the door to the hold and pushed them both in, increasing the gravity as they did so they'd have to 'fall' in.

"Hey!" John yelled as Rodney screamed, "What are you doing!" but the initial fear passed as they realized they were perfectly fine, could breathe and were well-supported by the balls. "I'm going to get you for this, Larrin!" Rodney yelled, but he probably wasn't heard over their laughter.

Once they finally figured out how to swim out, Chand, Tarn, Jarl, Suud and Honol were waiting for their chance to get in.

Shortly after that, John declared Rodney the winner in the naming 'contest' for the matter copiers, since no one wanted to call them 'replicators,' for obvious reasons. He declared them 'replimats,' and no one asked about Rodney's smug expression.

In the meantime, their colony on Oswilla kept growing with people they rescued from the Wraith. It was clear the Wraith knew something was going on, but it was also clear they couldn't figure out exactly what it was. Every time they changed their shield algorithm, Rodney would crack it and they'd start stealing people again. John was certain it had to be frustrating for the Wraith but he was just completely incapable of feeling any sympathy whatsoever.


"John?"

Darche's voice was soft but John was still startled; he'd been concentrating on the data from the sensors aimed at the star around Ford's, and had hoped no one would notice what he was doing. They were supposed to be in mid-transit to another rescue, due to arrive in the 'morning,' ship's time, another hour or so, and everyone else was eating and gearing up below. "My bad, didn't hear you, Darche." The datastream was complete, he shut it off and renewed the jump program.

"I didn't mean to bother you," Darche said, leaning against the nav console. "I just wondered what you were up to. I've noticed you stop here before every mission and take sensor sweeps. Can I ask why?"

John sighed and rubbed the back of his neck. He'd been afraid this would happen. "I'm… well, I'm just getting data on the star, the one the Replicators are in the process of blowing up. Trying to… to figure out how they're doing it. How much energy it's taking them." Not that it was doing him any good.

The way Darche looked at him made John think he'd almost spoken the last words aloud. "What are you hoping to do?"

The cruiser lurched slightly as it entered hyperspace. "I… I don't know. Stop them, I guess." He sighed again. It was taking so long and he was beginning to think he wasn't going to figure it out, but he didn't want to tell Rodney that. "Or something."

Darche cocked his head and gave John a sympathetic look. "You don't sound very enthusiastic about the project. What was the original purpose?"

"I… don't know. I really don't. Stop them? Re-direct them? Look." John pulled up the data and expanded the visual. "There's the huge 'gate, feeding hydrogen and helium and God knows what else into the star, and you can't see it but there are two more, situated at the star's LaGrange points — Rodney says those are gravitationally stable orbital points — doing the same thing. We're not sure where they're getting the gas, but it probably doesn't matter. All that does matter is the star's getting bigger and more unstable every day, every hour and eventually…"

John trailed off and sighed, yet again. After a minute, he continued, grateful Darche gave him the time. "Rodney had me calculate it from the available data, called it a warm up. In about seventeen months and three weeks, give or take a week, the star's going to go nova." Earth weeks. Not that anyone was counting because when he tried to translate that, he got a migraine.

"So, you have this data, you know the hows, and approximately how long." Darche was frowning at him. "What good does this information do us? To what purpose does Rodney want to put it?"

John scrubbed his face with his hands. "I guess…" Fuck. "I don't know anymore, Darche. I really don't. The calculations are insane and Rodney thinks I'm some kind of math prodigy — which I'm not," he added quickly as Darche opened his mouth. "I guess I was thinking it could be used against them. That maybe we could figure out a method to… use it to our benefit."

"How?" Darche didn't sound dismissive, didn't have that tone of derision Rodney so often had; he was honestly curious, and for some reason, that calmed John.

"Well, I know that black holes — you know what black holes are?"

"Yes, I've seen one." Darche's face took on an awed expression. "They're referenced in the Hoffan archives as well. The devourers of all, they were called. Amazing things."

"Yeah, they are." John nodded; they were pretty damn cool. "There's a way to create them, I know, though not exactly, through blowing up stars, like the way the Asurans do. I've read about it, back on Earth, and I know Rodney knows how to do it. I thought that… if I could figure out how…"

"That you could perhaps… what, trick them into creating a black hole so they would fall into it?" Darche frowned and nodded. "Yes, I understand." His face cleared and he began to look excited. "Yes! An excellent idea! For something like that, you'll need all the data you can get, then."

John shook his head as Darche spoke. "No, no it's not going to work. I don't have a clue what I'm doing. I'm not a brain, I don't—"

"Stop that." Darche reached out and smacked his shoulder. "You're coming at it from the wrong end."

"What?" Frustrated, John ran his fingers through his hair.

"You're thinking about this as if it's one of Rodney's projects, which it is, in part. But it's also a weapon." At John's confused face, Darche grabbed John's chin in one hand and shook it gently. John reared back and batted at his hand. "I've seen you use the strangest things as weapons, come up with the oddest strategies for attack and watched them all work. Don't think of this as an academic hurdle, Onsa, think of it as a weapon, as a plan of attack, something that can be used against our enemies."

John could have sworn he heard his paradigm shift without a clutch as Darche's words sunk in. "But what… I mean… I've got to first… But—" Darche hit his shoulder again and John said "Ow! Quit it!"

"How many times have you told Wenser or Chand or Rodney 'one step at a time'?" Darche asked, grinning. "Get your data first, figure the first part out, then go to the next step. Rape and pillage before you burn, Onsa."

John rolled his eyes and groaned. "I never, ever should have let Rodney show you Monty Python." Even as he said that, though, he felt a little better, looked at the situation a little more clearly. Maybe he could do something with it after all.


THE SIXTH YEAR:

"Have you got a lock?" John demanded, looking over at Wenser, who was manning the buffer containment console.

"Mmm… Yes! Five people."

"You've got a go. Beam 'em."

"Beaming now." Wenser watched his panel. "Finished."

"Good. We've done enough for this week. Break off, head for home. Honol, let me know when we're clear for hyperspace." John checked all the telltale signs for glitches and found none. The cruiser had been getting tetchey lately, but since the new ship (which still needed a name, though John really thought Nostromo was perfect despite what Rodney said) wasn't nearly ready to fly, they still needed the damn thing.

"We are clear, John," Honol said.

"Good. Opening hyperspace window now." It would be good to get back on the ground again. Winter was over and everyone was getting ready for spring planting. With these seventeen, they would be increasing their 'colony' population to well over two hundred, which was really too many. They didn't want to draw too much attention to themselves and John was afraid—

"Getting a subspace—" Wenser interrupted himself. "It's from Oswilla, they're under attack!"

"Shit!" He just knew it, their luck had finally run out. "Wenser! Have the computer set up a new hyperspace jump, a one-shot to Oswilla. I'm dropping out of hyperspace now. Honol, where's Jarl?"

"I'm here," Jarl said, skidding onto the bridge. "I heard. Is it the Blessed?" he asked Wenser, who was busy at the computer station and so just grunted in response.

"We need to assume so, but even if it's a hive ship, our people come first. Jarl, squirt a subspace burst to the new ship to let them know what's happening. Wenser?"

"Almost there…"

"Need it now, buddy…"

"Got it. Sending it to your station."

"Opening the window now." The cruiser did not like taking that large of a subspace hop and let them all know about it by groaning and juddering. John just gritted his teeth and willed the old boat to hold together. "Anything new from the settlement?"

"Not yet." Wenser's voice was terse and his face was white and pinched. "What's our ETA?"

"Eighteen hours, and that's pushing it." John wanted to kick something in frustration but knew better than to do that. The last time someone had, it had taken them a week to fix it.

What felt like a lifetime and eighteen hours later, they made it to Oswilla. The communications array had been silent since the initial alert and that only made things tenser, though John figured (hoped) it was due to the colony not wanting to call any possible attention to themselves.

"Picking up long-range scans from the system," Wenser announced. "I'm getting two cruisers in orbit and our shield over the settlement is non-functional."

"Blessed," Jarl spat.

"Probably. What's our armament look like?" Dammit, he had a skeleton crew too, only the four of them to face two fucking Blessed cruisers…

"We're full up, thanks to McKay." Wenser ran to the weapons station.

Great. At least something was going right. "Okay. Run this one by the book, guys. Attack plan delta. Honol, try to raise the settlement."

"They are bombarding the settlement," Honol said. "I have been trying to contact them and cannot get past the interference on any frequency."

"So much for spring planting," Jarl muttered.

"Time and place, Jarl," John replied firmly. "First pass. Wenser?"

"Ready."

"At your discretion."

Their attack plan was simple and relied on the fact that the cruisers could not tell where they were, couldn't even tell they were there. John set a course between the two ships and Wenser fired from both sides, full bore, targeting weapons first. They didn't do much damage as the cruisers' shields caught the brunt of it, but at least they drew fire from the settlement. To John's satisfaction, one of the cruisers actually ended up firing on the other, apparently believing John's cruiser was still between the two. Idiots.

"One more pass, attack gamma, then we swing low to scan. Honol, any word from the settlement?"

"I am reading several life-signs clustered around three of our five safety zones and all four of our sub-cu transmitters, all but one coinciding with the life-signs."

John breathed a little easier. "Any sign yet of our shield?"

"None yet."

The Blessed cruisers were firing almost randomly and John wanted to laugh; Kanaan and his mutant idiots had no concept of attack formation or defensive measures. He passed close to them again, neatly avoiding their frantic firing, and Wenser fired again, this time breaking through on one set of shields to smack into the weapons array on one of the cruisers, destroying it.

"Nice job. We're backing off for now while we run scans. Tell me what you've got, Honol, any word?"

"Still nothing."

"Jarl, what's the word on the cruisers?"

"We've crippled one, it's venting atmosphere." Jarl was splitting his attention between the two ships. "One more shot will take it out and it looks like they're trying to transfer personnel."

It was tempting. "Anything at all, Honol?" he asked, nearly pleading.

Honol sighed, looked up and met John's gaze. "Nothing."

"Fine. Jarl, you're with me, we're beaming down to Chand's group. Wenser, you and Honol use attack gamma to take out the remaining cruiser. If they run for it, let them. Once they're gone, signal. We'll need the 'gate up to evacuate, we'll send them to the Batcave." John turned to walk aft but paused, adding, "Also, scan our groups for moles, cross-spectrum, you know what to do if you find one."

He heard a murmur of assent as he collected Jarl to beam down, making sure both of them were heavily armed, just in case. But one quick look around told him he didn't need to worry — the group was frightened, injured and shocky. "Report," John barked at Chand who looked massively relieved to see them. The kid was a little green in the face and had some blood on his hands.

"We had no notice," Chand said as Jarl eased him to a seat on a nearby rock. Chand's girlfriend Jumy was there as well, helping to keep everyone quiet and calm, gaining her points in John's book. "I don't know what happened to our early warning system or our shield. We took off for the safety zones and I had everyone I was supposed to have with me — I think, anyway — but they kept cutting us off, John! Every time I led my group one way, we got cut off." He shook his head then hissed as Jarl peeled Chand's shirt off his shoulder, revealing a nasty wound.

As Chand spoke, one of the people disappeared in a blinding white light. John looked at Jarl, who was grim-faced, then touched his earbud. "Wenser?"

"That was the only one. He's in the buffer now." Wenser sounded as angry as John felt. "The remaining cruiser is powering up hyperdrive."

"Let them go." John kept his voice even with effort. "Put down in the field and extend our shield over the settlement. Get the 'gate up and ready to dial the Batcave. Call me when you're ready."

"Copy that."

John turned and looked over the group of frightened, traumatized, milling people, people he was responsible for. He was tired, strung out, pissed off, more than willing to just burn Kanaan and his whole merry band of fucking mutants. Now that Oswilla had been made, they were going to have to go somewhere else, another risk, another settlement. They'd been in Pegasus for so long, getting closer to their goal every year, but there was still more to do—

Wenser's voice interrupted his thoughts. "They just jumped. We'll be landing in five minutes."

"Copy. We're heading back to your position." John turned to Jarl and Chand. "How're you doing, Chand?"

"I'll live," Chand said, but his voice was shaking slightly. "Ran into a branch."

"Gotta learn to duck, kid," John said gently. "We'll get you patched up. Your girlfriend is doing a good job of keeping everybody under control."

"Yeah, she is, isn't she?" Chand replied and there was no mistaking the pride in his voice.

"Can you walk? We need to head back to the main settlement, find out what happened, evacuate everybody." John looked around, trying to figure out how many people he had around him.

"I can walk," Chand said, and though his face was white and pinched, John believed him.

They headed back towards the settlement at a slow march, which was about all they could manage. They met a furious Rike with a small group of settlers halfway there. "What the fuck happened here?" he demanded as soon as he recognized John.

"We had a mole," John said. "He's in the buffer. Wenser and Honol are landing in the big field and we'll be evacuating as soon as we can get everyone together."

"How did someone like that get past us? We've got screening! We've got—"

"Rike." John cut off the tirade — Rike was preaching to the choir and it was obvious the guy was stressed out. "We'll find out later. Right now we've got bigger fish to fry. You seen Tarn or Brama? And where's the rest of your group?" Each planet-side operative was in charge of close to a hundred people.

Rike scrubbed his face with one filthy hand, rubbing dirt all over his too pale face. "We were… we were out in the field. The western field, getting it ready for planting. Those fuckers… they hit us… we were too far out. I led us too far out." He sagged. "I lost 'em, John. I lost half of 'em."

Ah shit. John put one hand on Rike's shoulder — reaching up to do it — and squeezed. "It wasn't your fault, Rike. Our mole had apparently taken out the shield. You couldn't have known that." John knew how much Rike detested the Blessed; losing people to the Blessed was something that was going to rankle in him for a long, long time.

"John?"

John touched his earbud. "Yeah, I'm here Wenser."

"We've landed and extended the shield. We're going to get started on the Ring."

"Good. I'm heading back towards the settlement. See you shortly." John let Rike and Chand take the rest of the group back in a slow march while he and Jarl hurried on ahead, eager to see what had happened to the security net and to find the rest of his family.

The heart of the settlement was the 'command hut', where the shield generator, subspace communications array and the ZPMs lived. It was partially underground and as secure as they could make it, but apparently it wasn't as secure as they thought. When John entered the building, using the security code only his people knew, he found out how they'd been compromised.

"Brama!" Jarl yelled, running to his friend's side. It didn't look good, Brama had obviously put up quite a fight but had, in the end, lost. The room was a shambles and the ZPMs powering the shield and subspace communications were lying on the floor.

John swallowed hard, shoved some of the destroyed equipment away and knelt on Brama's other side. It was apparent they were already too late. "Jarl?"

"If we… if we took him to the, the ship, if we…"

"Jarl, he's gone."

"No," Jarl breathed, hanging his head.

"There are others who need you more. Come on." Dammit, everyone they lost was like a physical blow to John's head. How many had he lost under his command? Shoving it aside for now, he gently urged Jarl to his feet. "We need to get people evacuated."

"But—-"

"We'll take care of him. Just later. Right now we've got a crisis." He sighed. "Focus on the living, Jarl, for right now."

Tarn showed up before Rike did, which was a good thing as far as John was concerned. Rike was already angry, when he found out about Brama, he was going to be livid, and John needed cool heads. Tarn's group was very nearly intact and after a quick headcount John guesstimated they had lost about fifty people out of over two hundred.

He pulled his people, including Wenser and Honol who had raised the 'gate, around him to give them their orders. "Chand, who was it we beamed out of your group?"

"Lannis," Chand snarled.

"Did he have any cronies? Was he a known trouble-maker or was he a loner?"

Everyone else shook their heads, clearly not recognizing the name.

"Though I hate to assume he acted alone, but we've got no time to do anything else. Chand, you're out; get on the cruiser, hold her secure. Jarl, you're with him unless we've got other wounded and if so, I want to know now, not later. Tarn, Rike, Honol, get everyone organized for evacuation via the 'gate, we'll send them to the Batcave since it hasn't been compromised yet. Wenser, pull both the ZPM-cradle portable shields to go with the group, because I know we can't fit all of them in the cave system."

"We'll need food and supplies," Tarn said.

"Have them grab what they can, but I want them off-planet in half an hour," John said, nodding and trying to think about logistics. "We've done enough drills, they should be able to handle it and we'll have to make a run for more food ASAP." He looked between Tarn and Rike. "Do you have lieutenants you trust enough to put them in charge of security there?"

Both nodded. Rike was barely holding it together, he was almost frothing in rage. John reached out and grabbed his arm, shaking him gently. "Put it off, but hold on to it," John murmured. "We've got no time for anger, not yet."

John watched carefully as Rike struggled internally, hoping he would be able to master it. John was all too familiar with how Rike felt — it was one of the hardest things for a soldier to learn, to rise over the rage, to put it to use until you had the luxury of time to properly deal with it. Rike wasn't a soldier, dammit, not by choice.

After a couple of minutes they really couldn't afford but which John was willing to sacrifice, Rike stopped shaking and nodded. John gave him the courtesy of not remarking on it. "Arm your people and let's get going."

Half an hour was an unrealistic goal but they almost made it. John floated between groups, looking for trouble spots, helping where he could with elderly or very young people, trying to figure out how they could have let a member of the Blessed past their rigorous screening process.

There were other people wounded from the attack, but none of them too severely. Most of them he directed to Jarl, who spent his time between the cruiser and the command hut, doling out bandages and medicine. Only a very few required more than a few stitches, though there was one broken arm. It also meant they had a full accounting of the dead, which ended up being seventy-two. It could have been worse, John told himself. John saw everyone through the 'gate with the 'deputies' before turning back to the matter at hand.

He touched his earbud. "Chand, what's the sky look like?"

"We've got three cruisers and a hive heading our way, but they won't be here for a while."

John nodded, that wasn't unexpected. "Can you beam out our mole but not our new grabs?"

"Yes."

Shortly after Chand spoke, there was a flash and the man appeared, in the center of their loose circle. John felt the tension in the air as they looked at him and he heard Rike growl. "Lannis, I presume?" he asked.

The man didn't look as nervous as he should have, which was a black mark right there. "Yes, I am Lannis. You know me, Rike, why are you… what is wrong?"

"You have a transmitter on you." John drew his nine-mil and pointed it right at Lannis's head. "Give me one good reason why I shouldn't blow your fucking head off right now."

The man's eyes grew wide and he tried to back up, only to run into Tarn, who pushed him forward again. He raised his hands. "I… I don't…"

"Yes, you do." John cocked the gun.

"You killed Brama, you lousy shithead," Rike growled. "He trusted you. He trusted you. How could you…"

Lannis's eyes darted around the circle, looking for a way out. "There is none," John drawled, "way out, I mean. I'm giving you ten seconds to answer my question. Although I'll probably shoot you anyway, regardless."

Apparently deciding he was well and truly fucked, the guy just lowered his head and looked at the ground. It made John irrationally furious and he almost pulled the trigger right then and there. But before he could shoot, a thought squirmed its way into the back of his brain.

"You know what?" he said, releasing the trigger and raising his arm. "No. I can't even say you're a waste of a bullet because you're not, I'd gladly waste a few of 'em on you, but I've got a better idea." He narrowed his eyes. "Congratulations. You've just gotten culled, transmitter and all."

From across their circle, Tarn grinned crookedly, though it didn't reflect in his eyes. Rike said, "John, I—"

"We've been taking them off hive ships, I don't see why we can't put one of 'em back." He looked across at Lannis, who looked up at him in horror. "What do you say, old pal?"

"No, you… you can't, I haven't… they'll feed! No, you can't!"

"Oh, yes, I can." John touched his earbud. "Chand, please put our little friend into a buffer all by his lonesome. We'll be paying a visit to the Wraith later today and giving him back."


They buried Brama with honors on Oswilla, erecting a stone monument to him, after the Blessed had come and gone.  After the small service, they returned to the ship to get food and supplies to their refugees.

"It doesn't matter how many there are because they won't all fit in the ship!" Rike bellowed, with what was probably the leftover of fury at the asshole who killed Brama. Tarn was sitting next to him, feeding him beer and sympathy with frequent touches. Tarn was good people. So was — had been — Brama, damn it.

"Rike, we know," Darche said, in a reasonable voice which was exactly the opposite of what Rike needed to hear.

"We don't even need arable land now, not with the ship providing for us," Chand put in hesitantly.

Rodney came sliding down the steps to join them. "You're all idiots," he said, not even raising his voice. "We don't need to billet them anywhere. They don't even need to be in corporeal form."

Simultaneously, Darche said, "Neysa, don't," Rike said, "Shut the hell up, Rodney," and John said, "McKay…"

"No, listen," Rodney said, interrupting all three. "We don't even need to keep them here. We can put them all, the ones we've got, the ones we'll take, all of them, in pattern buffers. Then, when we go back to the Milky Way, we'll take them out and let the SGC psychologists take care of them."

There was stunned silence for a moment while everyone processed this. Finally, Darche said, "We don't have enough—"

"We have matter copiers," Rodney said in his most sarcastic tones. "What part of 'matter' and 'copier' don't you get?"

Everybody blinked in shock. "We could…" Suud began, but Chand interrupted him with, "But we don't have to put all of them in buffers, right?"

John realized he had a mile-sized grin of relief on his face. "No, Chand, Jumy can stay with you."

"We still won't have Brama with us," Rike said bitterly, but that was just his sadness talking, not his anger. Before they came 'home' to the ship, they had dropped Lannis off on a convenient hive ship, his transmitter beaming merrily. That helped mitigate the anger they all felt, but Brama had been family, dammit.

Before they got started implementing the plan, John said, "If there's anyone else who wants someone kept from the pattern buffer, I want to know about it right now. Bear in mind we've got limited space here, so we need to keep it down to under twenty-five, unless we've got couples who can share. You all know how to count, and you all know how many empty rooms we have. Give me a list by tomorrow morning, please, so we can pull them out before we beam."

Planning and executing were, of course, two different things. The pattern buffers were too big for even the biggest of the replimats, so they had to be disassembled and done in parts. They got the supplies to their refugees and got them settled for the short term, figuring a couple of days, tops. That night, they took one of the pattern buffers apart and duplicated each part. Re-assembling and testing them took until the next afternoon, but both original and copy worked perfectly. The next afternoon, they returned to the Batcave, pulled Jumy aside and beamed the rest into three pattern buffers, filling them to what they thought was capacity — Rodney's conservative estimate of eighty. That part, at least, went like clockwork. The filled buffers were transported to the new ship, put on ZPM power in a secure room — actually one of the smaller holds — and left to hum happily until they reached the Milky Way.

The rest of it relied on pure physical work. Darche, Larrin, John and Wenser (aided by everyone else at times) spent long hours in the basement hold, assembling new buffers and discussing their next move.

"I think we should beam out and interrogate every catch," Larrin said, to John's surprise. "What?" she asked, after seeing his face.

John blinked. "I guess I didn't expect you to say that. You've never been happy with—"

"That's recirculated water, Sheppard." She tightened a bolt with a little too much enthusiasm. "Now that you've got this ship, you've actually got a good chance of getting everybody out of this galaxy and wiping out the Wraith and the Machine-Men for good."

"And you didn't think we had that before?"

She gave him a 'duh' look and Wenser chuckled, quickly turning it into a cough as she turned her glare on him.

"She's got you there, Onsa," Darche said mildly.

"Okay, okay, I get it. Why do you think we should beam out everybody we rescue?"

"Because we need to know of any hidden pocket of human life," she replied promptly. "There could be scores of planets hiding people from the Wraith and the Blessed. We owe it to them to try and find them."

"Good point," Darche said, reaching for another part. "It will also help us decide who to keep out of the pattern buffers and on the ship. We could use another who is good at sewing."

John swallowed and looked down as the rest of them sighed. Brama had been their tailor, he'd made almost all their clothes, their leather jackets, their backpacks… since he had died, the sewing machine had been silent.

Finally, John said, "Okay. It's going to slow us down, but I agree, that's a good idea. We're going to need to document the procedure, get it down to clockwork — how many do we rescue before we beam out and interrogate, what do we tell them before we beam them back in, all of it."

The plan led to another squabble, over whether they would tell the refugees that they would be staying in the buffers until they reached the safety of the Milky Way. It was Jumy, of all people, who solved that one — she told them not to say anything. "It's not as if you feel anything inside it," she said. "It's like only a second passes. It's not really that important because they wouldn't know how much time had passed anyway."

"Well then," John said, at the meeting with the entire group, "I think that settles it." With Jumy's help, they had finished the official procedure and were nearly ready to implement. "We need to continue on the pattern buffers, and we need to test them before we put them into service and despite what Darche thinks, we won't be using Wraith." Tarn smacked Darche in the back of the head and Jumy giggled.

"Chand's suggested testing them on krelk, since whatever doesn't work we can eat," Rodney said.

"Sounds good to me," John said with a grin. "I need some volunteers to head back to Manaria with nets to catch us some birds, then."

Tarn and Wenser raised their hands. "Great, can you go this afternoon? Good. Now that we've got the replimats here, we're shutting down all the agrarian sites, though thanks to Chand and Jumy, we've got plenty of fruits, vegetables and herbs growing in botany. First priority is, as it always is, translation of ship language in order to get her going. Second priority will be search and rescue of humans. I suggest we set up a roster to rotate rescue duty with ship duty."

Within five months, they had twelve 'new' pattern buffers, all filled with refugees, and were in the process of making twenty more. Things were definitely looking up.

Rodney had tagged the hive ship they dropped Lannis off on and gave them frequent updates on it, as it certainly did draw the Blessed to the Wraith hideout. It had another unexpected benefit — the Blessed apparently alerted the Asurans to the location of the new Wraith assembly line which heated up the war very nicely. It mollified Rike that Brama's death hadn't been for nothing, but losing anyone was always too hard to deal with. Their number was small enough as it was.

It was sweet to watch all three of their enemies gang up on each other. It made their rescue operations both easier and more difficult: Rodney had to take more and more of his precious time away from figuring out the ship's operation to work on getting past stronger Wraith shields, and while the Wraith might not be paying much attention to their inventory, darting in and out of weapons' fire was certainly not anyone's idea of fun.

Well, okay, John enjoyed it. But nobody else did.


It was their last rescue in a string of them, and John was looking forward to getting back to Rodney and his ship, not necessarily in that order. The three-way war was bubbling right along, and they had enjoyed a grandstand seat of a nice little battle between a small squadron of Blessed cruisers and a couple of Wraith hive ships, where neither side had won. It was quite satisfying, especially since it allowed them to steal thirty-five people off both hives while their cruisers and darts had been otherwise occupied.

They had set up what amounted to a staging area at the Batcave, in the former 'jumper garage. It was under the forcefield and had cots, tables, chairs, as well as plenty of food, water, blankets and medicine for those rescued. Jarl and Chand always went along on the rescues now, since they had discovered their refugees were beamed out injured, malnourished or badly dehydrated (or all three), more often than not. John also always made certain to have at least two on guard with stunners, just in case they beamed out Blessed. It had happened a few times, and when it did, they stunned the men and either put them back on the hive ship or shoved them through the 'gate to Belkan, which was still considered neutral ground.

Jarl and Chand, with help from Rodney, had been working on a quick and easy blood test to determine those infected with the Blessed virus, but it wasn't completed yet. What was completed was a scanner which detected even the tiniest of power sources, to find anyone else with a transmitter, even if it wasn't broadcasting when they picked the person up. So their procedure for initial beam-out was slick and easy and went quickly and efficiently.

The last group of thirty-five they beamed out of the hive ships turned out to be in better shape than usual. They were a mixed bag, mostly middle aged or older, men and women, dressed warmly, doing the usual — looking around in shock, clumping together, staggering around and shaking. Tarn scanned them while Darche, Honol and John kept them under guard.  

One of the men managed to gather his wits about him first. "Are you of the Blessed?" he asked, his voice shaking. "We'll not have anything to do with your vile concoction, you'll have to kill us first."

John looked over at Darche and smiled. "No, we're not the Blessed. We're not Wraith and we're not Asurans, either. I'm Sheppard, that big bald guy is Darche, and over there is Jarl, with the beard, Honol is next to him, then Chand and Tarn. We're just here to help."

They looked around in confusion. "If you're not of the Blessed, then who are you?" the man asked, clearly not ready to take John's word for the truth.

An older woman behind him gasped. "Are you those from the Ancestor's city?"

John nodded, keeping his wince internal. How could he still miss Atlantis after so many years? "Yes. Well, we were."

"I told you!" the woman said excitedly, taking the man's arm and almost falling into him. "I said they wouldn't abandon us!" Behind her, several men and women started crying, a couple of them crumpling to the ground.

Uncomfortable with her emotional display, John frowned and looked over at Tarn, who had been scanning them for electronic devices. He shook his head, indicating they had come up negative. "Well, yeah, we're here now. So, when did you all get culled? We've been rescuing people off hive ships for a while now and they've all been half-dead from starvation."

John and Darche herded the group to the chairs and tables, urging them to sit. "I do not know… no more than a few days. We needed supplies," another man said, falling into one of the chairs and putting his head in his hands. "My wife…"

The older man, the one who had spoken first, sat near the second man, patting his shoulder. "We had to risk it. The winter had been so hard and we were out of so many things, we had to chance a trading trip. We did not know where else to go." He sighed and looked up at John. "I am Garen. We did not hear your message until it was too late. We tried to go to the City of the Ancestors but the Ring would not allow us to do so."

"Oh." John nodded and looked away. Larrin had been right, there were isolated pockets of humanity still scattered across Pegasus. "Are there any more of you? We can pick you all up, keep you from getting culled."

"Are you taking us to your place, to your worlds, where there are no Wraith?" The woman who had first spoken asked. She sank into a chair nearby and took a cup of water from Chand, who was wandering among the people, taking vitals, asking questions, and it looked like he was trying to get a couple of blood samples.

"Yeah. We'll be heading there once we're done making sure we have everyone here." John rubbed the back of his neck; it bothered him how they were all looking at him like their savior — he was more used to, well, he was more comfortable with — the dazed and confused half-dead types they could just stabilize and shove back into the buffers.

"We can take you there, take you through the Ring, we need supplies," the first man, Garen, said. "We are all but starving. Cerd's wife is large with child," he added, indicating the other man, who still sat with his head in his hands, "and the pregnancy goes badly. Your healers, they can help?" Garen looked at Chand and at Jarl, who was helping one of those who had collapsed to a chair.

"Of course," Chand said with a smile. "We'll get you settled here and go to your world." He held up a vial of blood and John nodded; clearly Chand was ready to get their blood checked for the Blessed virus even though it was fairly clear they weren't spies. Good. Chand was coming along well in the paranoia lessons.


Not even Tarn suspected the group of being Blessed spies, but they had all been burned so none of them would take even the tiniest of chances — several blood samples were being analyzed. Within an hour, they were ready to beam up and Darche said he knew the location of their planet.

There was understandable confusion and fear when the group found themselves on a Wraith cruiser, but that was nothing new. "We needed a fast transport and found this hanging around," John said, leading the way forward. "Just needed a few homey touches — a couple of throw pillows, new curtains. Color scheme still sucks, though."

Their planet was closer to the volcano planet than Atlantis — a pleasant surprise. It was mountainous and pretty hostile, though, which kind of explained how they escaped being culled. John left Honol and Darche on the cruiser but beamed everybody else down to the small town, nestled between three alpine peaks. Under different circumstances, John might have found it picturesque, but the town had suffered badly from the winter and it looked like an Irwin Allen disaster movie.

Many of the houses were destroyed — and they were made from rock. Roofs had caved in, landslides had swept away whole chunks of the town, and it looked like a glacier was encroaching from the nearer mountain flank. It was just dawn and frigid, the kind of cold that sank into your bones within seconds and froze you before you were even aware that you were chilled.

When they heard voices, people began coming out of the lesser-damaged homes. They actually looked worse than the refugees John's crew had pulled off Wraith hives. Some were limping, many were injured one way or another and John saw heaps of bloody, dirty bandages. Then one woman yelled, "Garen!" hoarsely and that started the limping stampede.

There was enough work to keep Chand and Jarl busy for the next couple of months — treating broken bones, abrasions, frostbite — but the most pressing matter was Cerd's wife, Arel, who looked to be about nine hundred months pregnant and starved at the same time. The woman who had greeted them (Nerag, her name turned out to be, she was Garen's twin sister and had an earful for Garen, most of which John overheard and grinned over) pulled them all to the largest of the still-intact dwellings so they could see to her first.

John left as soon as he heard the phrase 'broke her waters' because he knew better than to hang around after that. Instead, he tried to help triage the injured, seeing to the worst to make sure they were going to be able to make it until Jarl and Chand could see to them. There were going to be a lot of severed toes, fingers and worse before these people could be transported into the buffers. They needed to be medically stable, at least, before transport.

It took over an hour but finally Chand came out of the building, looking grim. "I think we've got her and the baby stable," he told John quietly. "Can we take them to the ship? Jarl and I really don't like the idea of her giving birth here. It's less than ideal."

Before John could do more than take a breath to answer (and how was he going to answer? Take a pregnant lady on board the ship? For how long? And a baby? He didn't like the idea of putting a baby or even a pregnant lady into a pattern buffer, but…) Garen's sister came storming out of the building, took a bead on him and charged.

"You. Sheppard, right? You're the leader of these men."

He blinked. "Uh, well, yes ma'am, the last time I checked—"

"Oh, don't give me that, I know your type, too pretty for your own good and a smart mouth to match. You explain to me why I should trust you with any of us, and I want a straight answer."

Before John could get his mind in gear, Garen rescued him, or at least tried to. "He kept his word, Ne. He took us away from the Wraith, checked to see if we were of the Blessed, and his healers have helped us."

"That means nothing, Gar, you don't know how to think with your head, you never have." She took hold of the front of Garen's shirt and shook him as she spoke, and that's when John saw it — she was as scared as she was worried, and that he could understand and speak to.

"She's right," he said to Garen. "You trusted us and you really shouldn't have, we could have been Wraith worshippers, we could have been Blessed trying to trick you."

"There. See?" She let go of Garen's shirt and rounded on John again. "My addled brother here tells me you were from the Ancestor's city, the city that offered escape for all of us before it disappeared. That's true?"

"Yes. That's true." John took a deep breath and decided to go for broke; something told him he'd be better off telling this woman the truth and the whole truth. "We, well, my… McKay and I, we were the last to go, and ended up getting trapped here ourselves. So we've been rounding up those who we couldn't get to, making sure we had as many as we could before we left, before we joined up with those who went before us."

"So you're just going to leave, just like that, and the Wraith and the Blessed and the machine men, you're going to just leave them here to follow you?" She narrowed her eyes at him.

"No." He met her challenging gaze head-on. "We're going to do our best to get rid of all three before we leave, ma'am. That's the least we can do."

"The least, eh? So they won't follow you back to your home and start creating trouble for you there." She nodded but her eyes were calculating, shrewd. "There's been talk for years about how you people came here from somewhere else and woke the Wraith up before they were due. True?"

"Ne!" Garen scowled. "They're guests!"

"Shut up, Garen. I want an answer."

John winced and sighed. "Look. Mistakes have been made and believe me, I've paid for 'em. I'm still paying for 'em. But I swear to you that one way or another, I'm going to blast those Wraith fuc- the Wraith out of this galaxy. Out of the universe. Does that count for anything?"

John waited, hoping his sincerity came through. He truly wanted to blast those assholes — and not only them, but Kanaan and his Blessed mutants and the Asuran Replicators too — right out of existence. There had to be a way and by God, he was going to find it. He and Rodney. He'd gotten started again working on the calculations on how much power it would take to cause a star to go nova, and maybe he'd be able to convince Rodney to try and create a black hole, too.

Nerag was still staring at him, giving him a look that seemed to go right through him, a look that went right into the heart of him and stripped him bare. A look that made John really, really uncomfortable and made him want to squirm and go clean the blackboards and erasers.

"We need to get Arel up into that blasphemous ship of yours, I reckon," she finally said, and John realized she hadn't forgiven him his sins, just given him parole, that he'd still have to work off the rest of it under her watchful eye.

He couldn't wait until she met Rodney.


They kept the pregnant woman, Arel, on her bed and just beamed the whole thing up to the cruiser along with the worst of the wounded from the town. It was only a quick subspace hop to the volcano planet and John had told Darche to send word to Rodney and the rest of the crew about what was happening and what was coming their way. He was worried that Rodney would freak out about the pregnant woman and a dozen badly injured evacuees, but to his surprise, Rodney took it in stride.

"Baby, sure, whatever; he's supposed to be an apothecary and we need people like him and she's supposed to be a seamstress which is great and we can put up with the baby but did you see that old woman? Who the fuck is she? She reminds me of my great-aunt Genevieve and trust me that's not a good thing." Rodney was babbling, and John didn't have the time or the patience to be amused by it.

"Look, you have to be nice to her," John started, but Rodney interrupted.

"Nice to her? Nice to her? Why? Why the hell—"

"Just… just…" John couldn't even articulate it himself, so he flapped his hands, realizing to late that it only made him look like Rodney.

Before he could say anything else, Jarl came running up. "Have you seen Larrin? The baby lies badly, I'm about to start an incision birth but I need Larrin's help with the anesthesia."

Things went downhill from there. Much later, John remembered a lot of yelling, some kind of hysterical screaming, a baby howling, Rodney howling, people running all over the place and then someone handing him a baby to hold. The last part was crystal clear because he had to sit down before he fell down. Then he was looking into the red and solemn face of a little old man-baby, whose eyes were a cloudy blue but deep nonetheless.

After a while, Rodney sat next to him. "Can I… I mean, can I…"

"Of course," a man said, and John realized it was the baby's father, Cerd, and wondered when he had met Rodney. "We've named her Johnha," Cerd continued, then he was taking the baby (her? Johnha?) away from John's arms and they were already feeling cold and lonely, which was ridiculous.

Rodney looked like someone had hit him with a brick — stunned and dazed, but his eyes were blinking rapidly and his lips were quivering. "Hi, there," he whispered down at the baby nestled in his big, strong arms. The baby yawned hugely and her eyes closed into sleep. "I think she likes me," Rodney murmured. "Isn't it a good sign when they fall asleep while you're holding them?"

Cerd chuckled and carefully took his daughter from Rodney. He looked a million times better than the last time John had seen him, far more relaxed and well-fed. John realized he should get up and go to the infirmary for an update, to figure out what was happening with their latest group, to make plans to get the rest of the town into the buffers and to plan for the next rescue. But it was warm on his couch (they were sitting just outside the infirmary in one of the small round alcoves that frequently popped up along the ship's companionways) and Rodney was sitting next to him; he didn't have to move yet.

"So, I take it you've had a busy day," Rodney said.

John took a deep breath. "You could say so."


"It's perfectly safe," John said in his best patient voice. "Let's try it this way. I'll beam in with a volunteer or two. We'll wait fifteen minutes, then beam us both out and you can see for yourself. You won't even feel it."

This was the reason John didn't want to discuss the pattern buffers with any of their refugees: everyone was afraid of them. But the people of Tollfru had been in pretty bad shape, which necessitated a lot of work to stabilize them before they could be put into the buffers. So, now, they were balking.

It took some serious persuasion and one terrified but willing volunteer (who afterwards didn't even realize she'd been beamed into the buffer for fifteen minutes) for the townsfolk to finally come around, but in the end they were willing. Five people, Cerd, Arel, the baby and two orphaned children, remained on the ship, and the rest were put into buffers and loaded for the eventual trip to the Milky Way.

Nerag, however, wasn't. John found her standing to one side, holding a staff and a pack, watching her people get beamed into the buffer one small group at a time, their possessions at their feet. He walked over to her. "Are you ready?" he asked her with a frown.

She gave him a preoccupied frown. "I'm not going, Sheppard."

He blinked in surprise. "But—"

"Hush, now." She turned to look at him, leaning on her staff. "I'm old, Sheppard, I have no family but Garen's left. Was married for a while but he was culled and I never fancied another. I figure there are others out there, like us, hiding, those who heard your call too late. I can help best now by finding them and directing them to you, hmm?"

Blinking, John said, "You don't have to do that. I'm sure we'll find—"

"You've got other ronts to dig, Sheppard. I reckon there's more to be done on that pretty ship of yours and then there's your project, getting rid of the Wraith and those Wraith-eaten Blessed and the Machine-Men, just like you said you were going to do." Her gaze was just as penetrating as it had been all along and John still felt like squirming under it. "Your McKay seems like a bright enough fellow, and so do you. I'm putting a lot of faith in the two of you; don't let me down now."

John licked his lips, thinking guiltily of the math project he'd let slide out of what was really a sense of defeatism. "Uh, no, no ma'am. I'll do my best not to."

"See to it. Now, where do you want me to send those I find? Not here, I think."

It took a second for him to change gears, but when he realized what she was asking, his brain finally kicked in. "Uh, no, I'm not sure I trust the mountains or the glacier over there. Um…" It didn't take but a moment to realize where to send them. "Oswilla. It's been made, but that might be to our advantage. We'll drop you off there and I'll set up a subspace communicator. We can mark it plainly and all they'll have to do is trigger it. When we pick up the signal, we'll come round." He shook his head. "Are you sure you want to do this? There are an awful lot of bad guys out there."

Nerag snorted. "A calf can't look after his dam, now, can he? I'll be fine. But I can't guarantee all the people I find will be right and proper ones, can you deal with that?"

John nodded. "We've got a blood test to weed out the Blessed, don't worry about that. Tell you what… if you think there's something hinky going on, give 'em a password. Tell them to say…" John thought for a moment then grinned. "Tell 'em to say 'klaatu, borata, nicto' when they trigger the link. That'll be a warning to us that you don't trust them."

She shook her head, obviously not getting the joke but understanding it was a joke. "Fine, then. You take me out to Oswilla and let me get started. Sooner begun, sooner done."

"Yes, ma'am," John replied, thinking about Teyla and wishing Nerag could have met her.


THE SEVENTH YEAR:

While not on rescue missions, the cruiser was remaining in geosynchronous orbit around volcano planet. Rodney had devised a way to leave it unmanned while in orbit, an remotely-activated method of beaming up and down to it. Jarl had beamed down ahead of John with a full buffer while John had mothballed the cruiser until their next mission, probably in a week or less. He was looking forward to some downtime with his favorite genius, but first he had to wade through the crowd on their front porch.

"No, no, that's got to be a number, look!" Suud passed his tablet over to Chand. He'd been on the mission with John so it must be the resumption of an old argument. "See? We've already determined this is what's on the replimats for multiple copies."

"But what if it's not a number but spelling out a number?" Chand said, his voice almost as testy as Suud's. "Rodney's said it's a logarithmic scale, you know."

"That doesn't matter!" Suud yelled and John skittered away, glad to avoid that discussion.

John rolled his eyes as he passed within earshot of Darche and Larrin, who were arguing. Again. Loudly. He figured they must like each other quite well if they were arguing that fiercely so often.

He took the ladder-stair steps two at a time and almost ran into Jumy, who was herding young Korr and Molla, both carrying trays of plants down the main corridor. "Hello, John!" Jumy called out as she neatly swerved around him. John just shook his head, smiled and continued forward, towards the bridge. Their ship was crowded, in more ways than one, and he… kinda liked it. Though if Korr and Molla were working with Jumy, then baby Johnha could be anywhere, especially since she'd recently taken her first unsteady steps. That kid had everybody in the ship twisted around her little baby fingers.

A few feet more and he almost ran into Rike, coming out of one of the side labs. "John! You're back! I fixed the hoop and the kids were wondering if we were going to play more ball. How about this afternoon?"

"Make it this evening after dinner and you've got a date," John replied. He grinned and slapped Rike on the back as he passed. The big basement hold, the one with the easily changed artificial gravity, was perfect for playing all different types of games — basketball, football, soccer… Rodney had been threatening to figure out a way to freeze the floor for hockey, and that would be fun too. And John had been trying to find a way to get a way to have sex with Rodney in a zero-gravity environment. He hadn't figured out how, yet. But he would.

But first, his beautiful ship needed a damn name. "I still don't see what's wrong with Nostromo," he said, as soon as he was through the door to the bridge.

"I am not naming our ship after that movie!" Rodney replied, not even bothering to look up from his spot on the floor. He had his tablet in one hand and was using his multi-meter probe to inspect the innards of one of the consoles. "Not unless you want me to start calling you Ripley, and oh, hi, it's good to see you too, moron."

"Nah, you could be Ripley, and yeah I missed you too, but it was only for three days, sheesh." John sat in one of the chairs and spun it around, they were truly excellent chairs for spinning. "She had a cat. And she kicked ass, too, just like you. And the Nostromo was one awesome ship."

"No.'

"I do not understand your dislike of Enterprise, John," Honol said from the other side of the bridge where he was working on… something that was glowing yellow. "Rodney has told me of its pedigree and I agree, it is most auspicious."

From the floor, Rodney flipped John off without looking at him.

"Whose side are you on?" John complained. "Not Enterprise."

"Then we seem to be at an impasse, flyboy. Ah… there you are." Rodney marked something on his tablet and pulled the probes carefully out of the console. "You got any better ideas?"

John grinned. "Yeah, but not in front of the children, Rodney."

From across the room, Honol snorted.

"Dork." Rodney lifted his hand and John obligingly pulled him to his feet. "Everything fine with the cruiser?"

"Status quo. When's dinner?"

Rodney looked at his watch, the same watch everyone in their extended family had, now that they had the replimats. "In about fifteen. C'mere, I want to show you something I just discovered in the engine room."

"What, you want to show me your etchings?" John tried for a leer but Rodney only groaned and hit him in the shoulder before walking off the bridge.

The room they called the engine room was quite small but it could be nothing else — no windows, no screens, just panels on the walls and a large console taking up the long wall opposite the door, every bit of it absolutely covered with diodes, telltales, slides and pressure-points. Of course, none of it made any sense and there were no places where fuel could be injected, or rods could be inserted, or even dilithium crystals could be put into place, so who knew?

"You know how I've been trying to figure out the power source for the ship? Well, I've been picking up the weirdest readings from this area," Rodney said, putting his tablet down on a conveniently empty piece of console. "They've been increasing as we've brought more things online. Here, let me show you." His screen lit up with something that looked like an oscilloscope but John knew it couldn't be, it was too complex.

"See here?" Rodney pointed to a wave that was along the very bottom of whatever the computer was reading, undulating very slightly, like the Sargasso Sea on a calm day. "It's radiation."

John blinked and frowned. "Rad— Should we be worried?"

"No, it's miniscule. In fact, I call it Iota Radiation, well, we call it, I mean, Sam, Sam— uh —antha, Carter, she and I… never mind, it's from black holes. We first thought it was a calibration error." Rodney touched a button and zeroed in on the wave, made it bigger. It still just barely undulated, though.

"You and Carter."

"Well. Yes. Okay, she thought it was… look. Did you read the mission reports from SG-1? The first time they ran into a black hole?"

John nodded. "Yeah, how they made the 'gate jump from one to a different one."

"Right. Right. It was our first brush with an actual black hole. In the processing of data after that, she ran across this… this… well, this data. She thought it was a calibration error because it's so minor. But then it showed up in other instances where they examined black holes. Then the Asgard, they confirmed it."

"Confirmed it wasn't a calibration error?" As was usual when Rodney was hyped about something, he was talking so fast John could barely keep up.

"Right. Well, no, confirmed it was actual data. Actual radiation. They just ignored it, because it presents no danger and only occurs around singularities. Black holes."

"Wait, wait." John rubbed his forehead. "I thought nothing could escape black holes."

"Nothing can. Well, possibly x-rays under certain, very exacting circumstances but that's beside the point. This isn't escaping. This is… okay, consider this a byproduct of black holes. Or more precisely, a byproduct of black holes eating everything in sight and yeah, it turns out Hawking was almost right but you didn't hear me say that."

"Okay…" John tried to wrap his head around Rodney's words. "So this is like… indigestion."

Rodney rolled his eyes. "No! Christ, you're not that dumb, you idiot! When you cross over into the event horizon of a singularity, you don't do it all at once, and the attenuation causes—"

"I know Rodney," John interrupted. "I've read A Brief History of Time."

Blinking, utterly nonplussed (John loved it when he could do that to Rodney), Rodney said, "You, uh, you have? And you didn't see fit to tell me this fact?"

"Yes. And I almost made it all the way through Fabric of the Cosmos, too."

"Oh for God's sake. Brian Greene couldn't… never mind. Forget it. Just… just… what was I talking about?"

"A byproduct of black holes," John said helpfully.

"Oh, yeah. Okay, then, think of this iota radiation as what's left when whatever's being torn apart on the quantum level gets, uh, torn apart. Sam called it the death-cry of atoms." Rodney snorted. "She doesn't look it, but she can be quite the gushy romantic."

"Unlike you," John said, leaning one hip against the console. Death-cry of atoms? Huh.

Affronted, Rodney drew himself up and huffed, "I'll have you know I'm quite romantic!"

"I'll remember that the next time you're yelling at me to 'just get in there already,'" John replied, fighting to keep his smile down.

"I'll have you know there is a fine line between teasing and being romantic… and you are a dick." He reached across and hit John's shoulder once John's grin finally broke through. "And that's changing the subject. Which is that I've been picking up iota radiation all along, and it's stronger here."

"Okay, then that means…"

"Hello!" Rodney glared at him. "Have you not been listening to a word I said? Iota radiation is a byproduct of singularities. That means the power source for this ship is—"

John's jaw dropped and he whispered, "Black holes."

Rodney's grin was a mile wide as he poked his index finger into John's chest. "Exactly!"

Holy cow. "But… but how?"

"I have no idea. There has to be some sort of containment field, possibly magnetic in nature. The singularity itself — or themselves, I have no idea if it's one or many — must be almost infinitesimally small, maybe pico-sized or smaller. And there's another thing."

Still reeling from the first shock, John could only nod, indicating Rodney should continue.

"Quantum-mechanical calculations of curved space-time posit that there could be such a thing as an evaporating black hole, one that basically emits all its radiation — which I speculate to be iota radiation — and then just disappears, leaving a tiny, stable remnant, possibly energetic in nature. Of course, Hawking and the rest of those clowns don't have access to the kind of actual hard data that I do, so to them, it's all theoretical. But assuming it's not, assuming that it actually is possible to create vacuum fluctuations within a very narrow, stable field — that would mean it's entirely possible to create energy literally out of nothing."

Okay, now the headache was taking on epic proportions. "Rodney, that's impossible. The first law of thermogoddamics… the law of conservation…"

"No no no, that's kid stuff." He waved his hands as if to brush John's objections away. "And quit calling it that, it's thermodynamics, you are not a freshman. I'm talking on a quantum level, things that Hawking would die to get his hands on, stuff that's been only wildly theoretical, until now. Look. It's a consequence of the uncertainty principle that it's possible for that the first law to be violated, but only for very short durations — we're talking about a fraction of a pico of a nanosecond, or even shorter than that. The universe can produce mass and energy out of nowhere, but only if that mass and energy disappear again very quickly… like, say, they either annihilate each other — if one's a particle and the other's an antiparticle — or if they fall into a black hole. Which then evaporates, leaving a remnant of kinetic energy behind to be used as power and the whole process begins again. Literal perpetual motion! On a quantum scale! It's beyond elegant!"

Rodney threw his arms wide and rocked back on his heels, looking insufferable, ecstatic and awed, all at the same time. John looked around for a chair, wanting very badly to sit down. He wondered how bruised his butt would be if he just collapsed where he was standing. "So…. You… But…"

"Until now, all of this, these ideas, these theories, were just pipe dreams to us," Rodney said, still bouncing from his toes to his heels. "But these jokers… they did it. They did it, John. To hell with quantum foam, with zero-point energy, that's like having a couple of double-A batteries compared to this. They created the ultimate, unstoppable, indefatigable power source." He patted the console lovingly. "And it's all ours."


There was a long, narrow space near the galley, taken up with tables and chairs that could have only one purpose — as a mess hall. A common room. The chairs weren't very comfortable; because of the extra leg joint of the original inhabitants, some of the chairs in the ship were angled strangely and were unusable to the present occupants. So new chairs and benches had been made for the tables by Brama, and it still stung John every time he sat down on one of them. Kanaan still had a lot to answer for.

They tried to have a group dinner every day at the same time, just as a way to catch up with people and projects — everyone had their own, usually in their own lab or recreation room. It usually turned into a gossip and joke session, noisy and fun and actually homey. Darche and Rodney would trade loud insults from across the room, and Larrin would generally add cutting remarks which would set Jarl off, and it would all go downhill fast from there. They didn't even need to have one particular person on KP, as they had all programmed the replimats with their favorite meals and it was just a matter of requesting what they wanted to eat and drink. Once they had found the 'disintegrators' (as Rodney gleefully called them) they didn't even have to worry about trash.

John ordered his dinner in a daze, still trying to comprehend what Rodney had told him. They had a (or possibly many) black hole(s) making his beautiful ship go. A black hole. Wasn't that supposed to be a bad thing?

He didn't notice Darche sitting opposite him until Rodney, sitting at the end of the table to John's left, jogged his arm.

"I just told him what's making his precious ship go and his limited intellect is trying to come to terms with it," Rodney said snidely.

John frowned and smacked Rodney in the arm. "Shut up."

Darche was chuckling. "I confess I was feeling a bit shocked myself once Neysa explained it to me this afternoon," he said.

John glowered at Rodney and began eating.

"I wanted to ask about the cruiser, John," Darche continued. "When do you want to take it out again?"

John swallowed. "I was thinking day after tomorrow, or day after that. Why?"

"Make it four days? Larrin and I have been working on some improved pattern buffers and would like to test them out. I was thinking a trip to Manaria for some krelk might be in order."

"Sure, we could try that." John shrugged. "But we can replicate those now…" He frowned and looked at Rodney. "We can, right?"

"Dead ones, yeah." Rodney was eating with his customary single-mindedness, talking with his mouth full. "We tried copying a live one but the copy came out dead."

"Yes, that's right," Darche said. "They do make good test subjects, though. I would rather use them than humans." He paused and looked thoughtful. "Unless you can find me some Blessed or Wraith."

Rodney choked and John was glad he hadn't sipped his water. "I thought we'd already talked about that," he said, once he cleared his throat.

"Chand also swears the meat of the bird tastes better fresh, not replicated." Darche rolled his eyes. "And Jumy wants to breed the birds, for their eggs. She still likes to cook things on the unit we found in the galley, the one she feels is a stove."

"Well, it could be," Rodney said, taking a swig of his coffee. "Hell, there could be an automated cook in there for all we know. We don't know a tenth of what this ship can do because we can't read any of it." He banged his cup down on the table and John saw everyone in the room sigh and nod.

"We need a damn Rosetta Stone," John said, also sighing.

"A what?" Darche asked.

"A Rosetta Stone, it's this thing, on Earth, there was this ancient civilization, Egyptian." Rodney took one last bite and talked while he chewed. John rolled his eyes but didn't say anything. "Their writing was in hieroglyphics, like little pictures of animals for letters, and nobody had a clue what it meant. Then the French found this stone, it had something written on it in both Egyptian and in Greek, which everybody knew how to read. That was just enough information to decode the language."

"Yeah, a Rosetta Stone would come in handy about now," John agreed glumly.

Darche had a peculiar expression on his face. He opened his mouth to speak but Rodney plowed over him. "Without it, I don't know if we'll ever get this ship off the ground. There're too many things that could go wrong, I don't even know where to begin. They use singularities as a power source!"

"Oh, come on Rodney," John said, desperate to negate that statement. Dammit, he wanted his ship to fly! "You'll figure it out, won't you?"

Rodney was shaking his head. "I don't know, John. At this point, it looks highly improbable." He sighed too. "About as improbable as it gets."

"John—" Darche began, but the phrase, 'highly improbable' ricocheted though John's brain.

"Highly improbable? Maybe… infinitely improbable?" he said, beginning to get excited.

It took Rodney about three seconds before the penny dropped and his eyes grew wide. "Oh no, no no no… not…"

Got it in one, John had to admit, it was one of the things he loved most about the guy. He stood. "Okay, everybody, listen up! I hereby dub my beautiful ship—"

"Sheppard! Don't you dare!"

"The Heart of Gold!"

"Oh, Christ."

Rodney dropped his face into his hands while everyone in the room turned their puzzled gaze to John. "A lovely name, but what does it mean?" Honol asked, moving to sit opposite Rodney.

This was going to be good. "Okay. There was this author on Earth named Douglas Adams, one of the best authors of all time, and he wrote a book called Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy…"


The water was hot, slick, lightly scented and bubbling; Rodney was hotter, and was hard inside him and John had to fight not to move, not to clench. He wanted to make it last. He had his arms crossed on the side of the tub and was resting his head on them, just breathing, feeling Rodney and the water all around him, inside him — Rodney's skin warm on his back, Rodney's breath moist on his shoulder, Rodney's voice rough in his ear.

"Christ, John…"

"Mmm…" John closed his eyes and tried to drift while Rodney thrust slowly, in and out, moving in time with the ebb and flow of the water and John's heartbeat. It was just so damn good and John wanted it to never, ever end. Then Rodney moved half an inch in some different direction, right on John's prostate and John couldn't help but clench, couldn't stop the moan that ripped from his throat.

Rodney bit his shoulder then kissed it, soothing the small hurt away. "Don't do that," he rasped, "or this'll be over… right now…"

"No… no… don't wanna…" John felt almost drunk with something that might have been bliss, incapable of moving, even if he wanted to. Rodney's arms tightened around him; Rodney's hands stroked his chest, petted him, leaving little sparks of sensation in their wake. Then Rodney shifted again and the wave of pleasure roared up his spine once more. It was almost enough to send him over the edge, making him shake and his breath stutter in his throat. "Jesus…"

"J-J-Joh—Joh—" Rodney seemed to be as breathless as John, incapable of speech, which might have been frightening under different circumstances. His strokes speeded up, pressing deeper into John, stroking right over John's sweet spot every time. Rodney moved slightly, so he was bracing his forehead on the back of John's neck, and his whimpers went straight to John's dick.

The water sloshed in time with their rhythm now, with Rodney's firm, deep thrusts and John's almost involuntary pushes back to meet those thrusts. It was still almost unreal, felt almost dreamy, and when he came, bringing Rodney with him over the edge, it was as if it was just another step, another thrust, another movement in a dance both of them were making subconsciously — in time, in tune, in step, together.

John was more than half asleep when he felt Rodney slip out of his body. All he could do was make a half-voiced sigh of regret, though, which was echoed by Rodney, who was still plastered against John's back. It should have been uncomfortable, but it wasn't. Instead, it felt safe. It felt normal.

After a long, languorous time, Rodney slurred, "Whoever these guys were, I love 'em."

"Yeah." You've gotta love a race that could come up with bathtubs practically built for sex. Hell, for orgies, if you were so inclined. Behind his closed eyelids, he had a brief glimpse of Teyla and Ronon joining them in the tub and to his shock, his dick twitched manfully. He choked.

Rodney must have read his mind. "Okay, who else did you put in the tub with us?"

"Uh…" John tried to banish the vision but it kept coming back, shocking him and, well, okay, turning him on which was so not what he expected.

"Oh my God, it was Ronon and Teyla, wasn't it? That's… that's…" John opened his eyes and turned enough to see Rodney's face. His eyes were huge and his face was glowing red and John was willing to bet it wasn't from the heat of the bath.

"Kinda hot?" he choked out.

"Uh…"

"Yeah."

"I… can't believe I'm…"

"Yeah. Me neither." And suddenly they were laughing, falling over themselves, laughing until tears came from their eyes. When they finally got themselves under control, they were loosely wrapped around each other and John was nosing Rodney's receding hairline, planting careful kisses along it interspersed with lingering chuckles.

After a long moment of silence, with only the bubbling of the water as background music, Rodney said, "I miss them." His voice was soft and matter of fact, but not very sad, not at all.

"Yeah." John did too. "I'm… I'm not ready to go back, though, not yet…"

"We've still got scores to settle," Rodney interjected.

"Yeah. That." John sighed and tucked Rodney in more closely to him. "It's just that…" It was so damn hard to put his ideas into words.

"This feels like home."

John blinked at Rodney's words and realized they were at least partially right. "But Earth—"

"No, not Pegasus, not even Earth." Rodney lifted one of John's hands and was absently playing with it. "The ship. Our people. Not just Darche, Tarn and Chand, but Ronon, too. Teyla, Jeannie—"

"Carson." Oh, his absence still hurt. "Elizabeth. Even Sam."

"Yeah. It's the people. But the ship, too. John, I'll get her working for you. I swear it. Even more than the city, she feels like home. Maybe it's because she's smaller."

"Maybe." John realized with a start that Rodney was right. The ship — his Heart of Gold — while feeling less sentient than Atlantis, was nonetheless as dear to his heart as the city had been. He couldn't explain it, but there it was. "I have faith in you."

"Thanks a heap," Rodney replied, his voice carrying his usual sarcasm but also a note of quiet pleasure underneath. "I'm turning into a prune. We'd better get out."

"I like prunes," John said, because he really didn't want to get out. He was so damn comfortable, he really could have slept in the tub. But it was probably a good idea not to. "Hey, have you heard all the speculation about the original tenants?" As Rodney gently peeled away from him, John stretched carefully, smiling at the small pang in his ass.

"Oh, you mean Honol's idea that they were egg-layers?" Rodney snorted.

"Arel thinks they were fleeing religious persecution." He stood and followed Rodney out, taking the towel he was offered.

Rodney frowned. "Which one is Arel?"

John rolled his eyes. "Why can't you ever remember names?"

"I do remember names! I remember your name, don't I? And I remember Darche, and Chand, and Tarn—"

"And Arel, who just the other day measured you for a new leather jacket." John grinned as he dried himself, flipping the switch that would empty the tub. Rodney had picked up his toothbrush and was scowling into the mirror as he scrubbed his teeth. John whapped him on the ass as he passed just because he could, and headed for their big, comfortable bed.

As he stretched out, he recalled their words — the Heart felt like home. Even once they managed to nail the Wraith, the Blessed and even the fucking Replicators, even after they returned to the Milky Way, he wanted to keep her. Maybe they could go exploring, just for the hell of it. Maybe they could go wherever they damn well felt like. Maybe…

Rodney crashed into the bed next to him, immediately beginning his usual rooting and rolling to get comfortable. The guy should have been a dog person, not a cat person, because he had to turn around at least three times before he could lie down and go to sleep.

"Hey." John propped his head up on one hand.

"Hmm?" Rodney sounded almost half-asleep already.

"I remember from somewhere, that a black hole could power a stargate. Right?"

With a groan, Rodney opened one eye and glared at John. "You actually expect me to think after sex like that?"

John grinned. "It's a simple question, Rodney."

"Gah." Rodney sighed noisily. "Yes. A black hole can power a stargate almost indefinitely… and, and… oh. Yes. If we could figure out how our power source works, we could have… oh."

Yeah, that's it. "What does it take to—"

"This is an almost unlimited power source. If it's actually what I'm thinking of, if it's what I think it is, then we've got enough power to—"

"Rodney, I just was wondering what it takes to—"

"—Anything. We could do anything. We could be like Archimedes, with a lever made of black holes and a place to stand that could—"

"Rodney!"

"—Could do— What?"

"Never mind." He hadn't meant to get that started, he'd only wanted to ask about the power necessary to create a black hole from a regular star. But apparently Rodney figured out more. "Go to sleep. I want to ask you some questions in the morning, though."

"John, this is important. We need—"

John put his hand over Rodney's mouth. "A second ago you were exhausted. Go to sleep." John grinned wider then removed his hand long enough to kiss those slanted lips. "Don't make me have to fuck you into insensibility, now."

Rodney smiled back. "You couldn't get it up with a crane," he murmured.

"Don't tempt me." He pulled Rodney over, tucked their bodies together and drifted off to sleep.


They slept in, mostly by design since John deliberately didn't set their alarm. But they were still up early due to long habit and Rodney's caffeine addiction. His last treasured coffee beans had addicted at least half their crew to coffee, something that both pleased and appalled Rodney. John stuck with tea, though, not wanting to get back on the coffee merry-go-round.

By the time they made it down to the mess hall, they found Darche, Suud, Chand and Honol in a tight, excited group sitting at one table, all of them talking at the same time at great volume. When Chand caught a glimpse of them, he yelled, "John! Rodney! Your rose stone!"

Rodney frowned at them as he got his huge cup of coffee from the replimat. "Our what?"

John got his tea and followed Rodney to their table.

"Onsa!" Darche said, his face lit up like a Christmas tree. "You said you needed a stone, a rose stone? Something to translate—"

"A Rosetta Stone?" John said, all but falling into his chair. He shared a wild-eyed look with Rodney. "You found—"

"We had it all along, we just didn't notice it!" Suud said, shoving across the table the plastic-like tablet they found at the door to the bridge when they'd first arrived. "We just didn't look on the back of it!"

John took the tablet Suud pushed at him and looked down. It looked the same as always, a chunk of pale green plastic-like material covered with Ancient text. Then Darche reached out and flipped it. On the back were lines; short, long, slanted, horizontal, vertical lines, ranked in columns — the same type of script— "Oh my God."

Rodney wrenched the tablet out of his hands. "This is…" he breathed. "This is…"

"It's the same writing that we've found everywhere on the ship!" Darche said, well, almost yelled, he was nearly beside himself with excitement. "Your stone, John, your stone!"

"If we assume this is the same—"

"As the other side," John interrupted Rodney.

"It has to be," Darche said.

"We can correlate the writing," Honol said.

"Match the words! We can match the words!" Chand hollered, bouncing in his seat.

John swallowed hard and shook his head. Somebody had to take control. "Okay, okay, hold it down." He took a deep breath. "Yes, this looks promising…" Promising? Promising?! "But it's going to take a lot of work, too. Right?" He looked across the table at Rodney who was looking a little shell-shocked. "Does anybody else know?"

"Know what?" Larrin asked, as she entered the room, heading for the replimat.

Everyone in the room started speaking at once and John closed his eyes.


They couldn't put off the rescue operations, they had to continue to chase after humans, but their first priority always had been the language translation anyway. They reduced the rescue ops to three days a 'week' with crews of five in the cruiser bringing back as many as they could snatch, no longer interrogating them, just storing — the buffers were crowding their room and the last time John checked, there were over two hundred of them. The Oswilla alarm hadn't gone off in weeks, leading them to believe the galaxy was damn near empty of free humans — well, those they would want to help, anyway. In fact, it was getting harder to find cocooned humans on hive ships, which was very interesting and the source of much speculation among the family.

Meanwhile, John and Darche rigged up two sets of facing chalkboards in the porch — one side with the Ancient letters and the other with the Alien letters, which thankfully they were pretty sure they had already, from studying the ship and equipment. They also listed numbers, though that wasn't as urgent.

Darche concentrated on the Ancient text, using Rodney's translation program, until he was fairly certain he had all the words properly parsed. Then he laboriously wrote each word and its translation on the board, trying for as much accuracy as possible. After that, Honol did the same thing on a nearby board, completely from scratch, at Rodney's direction, as a backup check.

John looked over Rodney's shoulder at one point. "I never in a million years thought I'd say this," Rodney muttered, "but I'd kill to have Daniel Jackson walk through our door."

Raising one eyebrow, John said, "You want me to go get him?"

Rodney scowled back and John smirked.

It wasn't backbreaking, not in the conventional sense of the word, but it was mind-breaking. None of them were fluent in Ancient, and Rodney's application really wasn't much more than the equivalent of an Ancient-English dictionary. They had no way of knowing whether the alien language was ideographic or phonemic, in what direction it was written, or even if it carried the same message as the Ancient text.

And John wasn't even certain he completely understood what 'ideographic' and 'phonemic' meant.

Once they had three blackboards of Ancient translation, they started on the other side, the Alien translation. Larrin pointed out that it looked like it was written vertically, not horizontally, and Rodney gave her one whole blackboard to try to translate using her method (which Rodney admitted to John he thought was correct, though he also thought it was right to left, not left to right).

After two days, they needed more chalk. After a week and a half, they needed more blackboards. After a month, they needed more laptops. But they were making progress — slow, painful progress that was probably never going to be complete understanding, but all they needed was enough to not blow up the ship.

Well, that, and to fly her really fast.


John left the translation project to everyone else because he thought he'd finally had a breakthrough on the power calculations, so one morning, he nervously pulled Rodney aside in the mess hall after breakfast. "I… uh, I need you to look… I mean, I need you to look. At some stuff." He wanted to scratch the back of his neck and ruthlessly suppressed the urge.

Rodney blinked at him. "What's the matter with you? What do you want me to look at?"

John took a deep breath. "I think… I think I've figured out the power—"

"The calculations? The power consumption? You've figured out…" Rodney ripped John's laptop out of his hands and abruptly sat, opening it and scanning it.

"Yeah, that," John said sourly. He sat down at the table next to Rodney and nervously sipped his tea. "It's not a continuous beam, the three super-rings, so they're not powered by a black hole."

Rodney glanced up at him before looking back down. He was tracing the equations with his finger and his lips were very slightly fluttering. "It's not?"

"No. There's a period of seventeen hours, twenty-two minutes and fourteen seconds when the process goes dead before flaring to life again, a minute and thirty-four seconds later. They've got the 'gates on a rotating schedule so there's always at least two sending material into the star."

"Well, that right there should have been a gimme," Rodney said, still distracted.

John made a frustrated noise. "I'm not you, Rodney, I can't do this stuff in my sleep, I've got to think about it, for fuck's sake."

"No, no, I disagree…" Rodney was clearly multitasking — John could tell on one level, he was checking John's math while on another, he was holding the conversation with John and it made John want to scream. "In some ways, you have a better grasp of the mathematics involved than I do. You come at it from a different angle, from a more mechanical or physical perspective. I would look at it from a physics point of view. I have a degree in mechanical engineering, but in application, I still— wait, explain this one. I think you've got the wrong variable."

By the time John looked up again, his stomach was telling him it was lunchtime. Several people had stuck their heads into the mess but had skittered away at Rodney's glower. John's tea was long gone and Rodney had managed to get through two more mammoth cups of coffee without even breaking stride in what he was reading and criticizing. John's voice was nearly gone and his head was aching and he had no idea how Rodney knew the tables could be written on with a ballpoint pen. There were notes and revised equations all over the one they were sitting at.

"Right, then!" Rodney said, sitting back decisively. "I think you've got it. With the amount of power required, it should be a piece of cake to find what nebulas they're farming and it's clear how many ZedPMs they're using as well — which I estimate to be thirty-four in tandem rigs — not that we have to resort to their puny power sources any longer, not when we have this beautiful ship and its even more beautiful power sources. So. What do you want to do with this data?"

Rodney looked at him with guileless, innocent eyes and John suddenly realized he was this close to punching him out. "You…"

Smirking, Rodney got up and went to the replimat and ordered himself a sandwich. Not even turning around, he said, "I know what you want to do, you want to create a black hole and push everybody in it."

"How—"

"I've known that since you asked me about them weeks — months? — ago, and since you told me you read Hawking and that idiot Greene." He sat back down and took a huge bite of his sandwich. "Am I wrong? So, it seems to me you've got another set of equations to work out, that of how much power it would take to 'gate — beam, maybe? — enough matter into whatever nebula they're farming to cause gravitational collapse within it. Let me know if you need any help."

With that, Rodney picked up his sandwich and his cup and left the room; John, John's laptop and the scrawled equations abandoned in his wake. "But…"

"Oh, and make sure you keep an eye on the hydrostatic equilibrium of whatever mass you choose, and if you need help calculating the Schwarzschild radius, let me know." With that parting shot, Rodney disappeared.

John slowly realized his mouth was hanging open; he shut it but didn't feel less… less… he couldn't find the right words. Rodney had just…

Hey, wait a minute, he thought. Had Rodney just said John was better at math than him? John rewound their conversation in his mind and got back to the beginning and realized that yeah, Rodney had, in essence, told John he was better at math. Than Rodney. Huh.

A slow grin spread across John's face as the realization sank in. Rodney said John was smarter at math. Now, that was a kicker.

There was a sudden sharp tug on his pant's leg and an imperious "Ja!" from around his ankle, breaking his train of thought.

John looked down and his grin got wider. "Hey, buddy!" He reached down and pulled little Johnha into his lap where she promptly blew spit bubbles of joy onto his t-shirt. "Did you know your Uncle John is smarter at math than your Uncle Rodney?"

Johnha thought that was only fair and her grin and wet diaper proved it.


THE EIGHTH YEAR:

There was a strip of paper at every station on the bridge and on it, in large, dark block letters, was written RED IS GOOD, BLUE IS BAD. Rodney and John had almost gotten it down to a mantra, because it freaked both of them out whenever red telltales began flashing. The kids didn't have as much of a problem with it, especially those who hadn't been around advanced tech so much. They didn't have as much to unlearn and there were times when John envied them more than he could ever fucking say.

"Okay, we're ready for the first test," Rodney announced through the radio. "Sections report in order."

"Botany clear." Jumy's calm voice.

"Engineering standing by." Wenser was with Suud, both of them keeping eagle eyes on all the lights as well as the laptops reading all forms of radiation.

"Medical clear." Jarl and Chand were ready for anything, at least they hoped they were. The infirmary was completely stocked and since the translations had been coming along, they thought they knew the names for some of the essential treatment machines.

"All hatches secure." Rike had followed Tarn around the ship, double-checking that everything was closed up tight and secure, and that nothing was left loose or open.

"The children are in secured quarters and Johnha is asleep." At Arel's words, John grinned crookedly at Darche. Johnha had gone from toddling to running, almost overnight, and was able to get into everything on the ship. The kid was simultaneously a menace and a delight.

"Copy that," Rodney said. Leaving the channel open, he looked at everyone on the bridge in turn. "Station one?"

"Ready," Larrin replied.

"Two?"

"Ready," Darche replied.

"Three?"

"Ready," Honol replied.

"Four?"

"Ready," John nodded, noting his excitement seemed copied in everyone around him.

"Station five reports ready. We are recording and benchmarking. We are go for test one." Rodney took a deep breath and blew it out slowly. "Commencing power ramp up."

Rodney was at the station they had translated as engineering interface. John noted his hands were absolutely steady as he reached out and drew the slider they now knew to be main power gently and slowly back towards him. There was a strip of paper taped to one side of it where he would make small notations as things came online, and they were recording everything, to hopefully confirm their translations later. It was agonizingly slow, but slow was better than blowing everything up by not understanding it properly.

"Bridge, this is engineering," Suud reported. "We're getting definite signs of increased power. The iota radiation is increasing."

"Copy that." Rodney continued to draw the slider back.

"I'm getting red here," Larrin said from her station. "In fact… Wait. Pause it for a moment, Rodney?"

"Pausing the test per Larrin, station one," Rodney said into the open pick-up. "What have you got?"

Larrin was frowning and biting her lip as she studied her console. "I think…" She touched one of the glowing triangles and suddenly the central column lit up with a three-dimensional representation of—

"Oh my God," John whispered. "Is that…?"

"So that's what that word meant," Larrin breathed around a growing smile. "Ship maps and diagnostics."

"That's the Heart of Gold, isn't it?" Darche said softly, his eyes sweeping up and down the simulation. "Inside and out?"

"There are dots… people! There are representations of those of us aboard her!" Honol pointed to the areas on the ship that John recognized, and yes, he could tell they were his people.

John looked over at Rodney and found him wearing the same wild grin John knew was on his face. "Suud, Wenser, what's it look like on your end?" he asked through the radio link.

"It's fine here, there's a definite increase in radiation and more red telltales, but nothing huge," Suud replied.

"What's going on up there?" Wenser asked.

"We've got a holographic representation of the ship, it looks like a map and diagnostics," Darche replied around his shit-eating grin.

There were various exclamations coming from all around the ship which John reluctantly put an end to. "Okay, people, we can all see it later, first we've got more work to do." He couldn't stop grinning himself, though. "Okay. Station five, continue."

Rodney swallowed his grin down (or at least tried to) and took another deep breath. "Right. Continuing ramp up of power. Report all anomalies."

John was so excited he was beginning to feel like a teenaged girl just before the prom. His ship was coming to life all around him and it was fucking fantastic. He wiped his sweaty hands on his pants as he watched his station, glancing at Rodney who was slowly drawing the slider further back.

"I am getting live indicators in navigation," Honol reported, his voice trembling slightly. "It looks as though everything is coming online."

"I'm seeing more red here, life sciences," Larrin said but was interrupted by Jumy over the radio.

"A whole new section just opened up!" Jumy yelled. "I mean, in the gardens! There's nothing there but— Ancestors! I think it's computers! And seed bins!"

"Don't touch anything, Jumy," John said sharply.

"I won't, I promise, but… but… it's huge!"

"We've got seven new machines initializing in medical!" Jarl shouted into the radio.

"Pausing test!" Rodney barked. "Sections report in order and everybody calm the hell down!"

There was a chorus of 'sorry' from all over the ship as everybody apparently took a deep breath. John couldn't help the nervous and excited chuckle that escaped him. After a moment, Jumy said, "Botany reporting new open section, about half the size of the old section, secure."

"Engineering reports stable, radiation increasing at predicted levels, standing by."

"Medical reports nine—" Chand interrupted Jarl in mid-sentence by saying, "Ten new devices are online in the med bay, no issues, standing by."

"Ten?" Jarl said and John grinned over at Rodney.

After a few moments of silence, John said, "Tarn? Rike? Report."

John was just about to get really freaked when Rike finally answered; "Sorry, we're here, we, uh…"

"Rike, buddy, what the fuck—"

"John, we've got windows."

Well, that meant everybody had to go look. There were windows all right, or closer to projection screens, lining the walls in the mess hall. They defaulted to what was right outside them (which threw both Tarn and Rike initially because it looked like a hatch — a large hatch — had opened) but they discovered the windows/screens could be set for anything at all. Darche found the dial that started the  slide show of alien landscapes that were simply amazing. Several people, including Arel, reported smaller ones also opening in the private quarters.

Once everyone had seen the damn things, they reset the test and got back to work.

"This is so incredibly cool," John muttered under his breath to Rodney, who punched him in the shoulder but was almost vibrating in excitement.

"Okay, resuming test. Check in, sections." Rodney's hands weren't shaking, but John saw him wipe them on his pants.

"Botany is clear."

"Engineering standing by."

Medical standing by."

"Hatches secure."

"Children are accounted for and are having fun with the windows."

Darche chuckled as Larrin said, "Station one is go."

"Two is go."

"Three reports go."

"Four is clear and ready," John said, trying to curb his enthusiasm.

"Five is go and resuming test." Rodney put his hand back on the slider. "Report all anomalies." Once again, he began slowly ramping up the power.

There was silence for about fifteen seconds then Honol yelped, "Navigation is online! Yellow functionality across the board!"

John was standing next to Honol and spared a glance to his console. He was right, the panel was lit up like a Christmas tree, all of it red and yellow. Honol had a fierce grin on his face and John felt his own face reflecting it.

Rodney had made a notation but kept going. Another few seconds and there was a whoop over the radio. "The whole left wall just lit up in red!" Suud yelled.

"Iota radiation is holding but the wave period is increasing," Wenser added in a slightly calmer voice. "And we're hearing a bit of a noise, maybe a faint rumbling?"

"Copy that, engineering," Rodney said, making another notation. "Continuing test."

John couldn't believe how calm Rodney's voice was when the guy looked like he was going to have a heart attack right then and there.

He was almost to the bottom of the slide, maybe only two inches left of a foot-long groove. Before he'd gone half an inch more, though, both Wenser and Suud were yelling into the radio pickup. "Red! Red! Everything's red!"

Rodney immediately stopped, lifting his hands from the slider. John could see Rodney's panel was all reds and yellows, like Honol's, even as Rodney demanded into the radio, "What are you getting down there, engineering?"

It took a few seconds but finally Wenser calmed down enough to talk coherently. "I think you just brought the main engines online, Rodney!"


Closer inspection through the cruiser confirmed that the engines of the Heart had burned for a few seconds, because one end of the lava tube had been destroyed. Thing was, however, that there was nothing to actually see in the way of engines, just like there was nothing to see in the way of windows or hatches or anything on her outer hull. The Heart was smooth and seamless and resembled a long, wide, iridescent can, from what they could now see of her, sticking out of the lava tube where she had lain for centuries.

"So she changes, she morphs," John said, rubbing his chin. "Like the ships on Babylon Five."

"Would you stop that?" Rodney said, giving John an annoyed glance.

"So why didn't John's or my panel light up as much as the others?" Darche said, reaching for another slice of sweetbread. They were gathered in the mess hall, debriefing. Well, okay, not debriefing so much as just jawing over everything that had happened during the test. Everyone was there and Johnha was sacked out in Arel's arms for her mid-afternoon nap.

"I think the translation was correct," Larrin said, "communications and weapons, or at least defense. I'm still not certain we have any specific offensive capability."

"It does make sense," Wenser said. He ticked them off on his fingers: "Navigation, engineering, life support and ship diagnostics, communication, defense. The five primary systems for a ship."

"The real question is the interface," Larrin said loudly, getting everyone's attention back on her. "We're not going to be able to fly her unless we know what to tell her." She looked pointedly at Rodney.

"Yes, yes," Rodney waved his hands irritably. "I'm working on that. I've already got one of the laptops merged into the diagnostic console and John and Darche are going to take one of the new computers in botany off-line to see if we can interface with it. We'll be ready within a week."

"A week?" John said, giving Rodney the fish-eye. That was pushing it.

Rodney stuck out his chin. "A week. You know I work best under pressure."


Well, it wasn't a week. But it was wasn't far off from that, to John's surprise. He and Darche took apart one of the new computers from the botany lab and discovered it wasn't much different from the laptops from Earth (big surprise there, Rodney told them, there was only so much you could do with binary systems and they should thank whatever deity they wanted that the aliens did indeed use binary and not something else, like base six or base one-twenty-five or something equally stupid). Because of that, the computers liked each other and talked to each other and that made life far easier, overall.

The math part was the easy part. Which meant navigation was… well, not easy, but not all that difficult. Triangulation — ship, go here. Not exactly point and click, not exactly quasi-telepathic commands, but still. John, of course, had an intuitive grasp of the computer interfaced navigation system, something he proclaimed loudly and frequently until Chand hit him in the head with a water balloon (a water balloon? When had he found time to fabricate latex and how could John get his hands on some?). Of course, that meant war, which meant the afternoon off for everyone while their clothes dried. Johnha had thought it all highly amusing and the older kids went nuts and in the end had to be confined to quarters.

About eleven days after their first test, they nervously and carefully boosted the Heart into a low orbit, and from there into geosynchronous orbit. Wenser, Darche and Tarn were on the cruiser, ready to get it out of the way should the worst happen, but it went very smoothly. They also videoed the entire event. That meant everyone could see, on the big screen in Rodney's lab, the tremendous arcs of glowing energy enveloping almost half of the Heart, boiling away acres of rock and leaving a huge, molten crater behind her as she gracefully rose from the surface of the planet.

"Plasma." Rodney's voice was so faint John almost couldn't hear it, not that he could hear anything over the roaring in his ears. "Plasma."

John couldn't have spoken if his life depended on it, his gaze riveted on the incredibly destructive, blinding bolts of energy his beautiful ship had somehow created.

"Is that what it is?" Darche asked. He was clearly rattled by what he had seen, though he just as obviously didn't fully understand it. "Like solar flares? But those are…"

"We're using plasma as propulsion?" Larrin asked in a strangled voice.

"Is that bad?" Chand asked nervously. "I mean, it looks kind of like lightning, which isn't really good… right?

"It's…" Rodney couldn't really speak either.

"I guess that explains the shield," Larrin said, her voice as weak as John ever heard it.

"There's got to be another propulsion system," Rodney finally muttered, hitting the playback on the laptop. "It can't be just plasma. It can't be. There has to be some kind of sublight engine. We've got to…"

John finally found his voice. "Okay, stop. Just… stop." He took a deep breath and realized just how frightened — okay, terrified, he could admit to being terrified in his head, just not out loud — the whole thing made him. Plasma bolts of energy, almost enveloping his ship, his ship turning into what amounted to a bomb the likes of which… "We can't… No. This just went from cool to suicidal. No. Just… no."

"John?" Darche (and everyone else) turned to look at him. "What…?"

"John…" Rodney said in a dangerous tone of voice.

"Rodney, forget it, we can't, we can't."

"Don't you dare… I will not…"

John looked at Rodney, at the stubborn tilt of his chin and realized how this was going to go down, just like it always had. But it couldn't, not now, it was too dangerous when they had an out, when they didn't have to…

"Darche, could you get everybody out for a few? I've got to talk to Sheppard for a minute." Rodney's voice sounded perfectly reasonable and calm, absolutely unlike his normal voice.

"McKay, you are not—" John started, but Rodney cut him off. "Just wait. Wait a minute."

Darche was giving John a look he couldn't decipher as he herded everyone out of the room, all of them muttering questions and frowning, looking back at John and Rodney. John rubbed his head and practiced breathing, marshalling his attack against the one he knew was coming.

The door shut and Rodney leaned against it, his arms crossed as he glared at John. "You wuss out on me now and I'm dropping you off on Ford's to witness first hand what a nova looks like."

"It is not wussing out to call this off! We're not just playing with fire here, McKay, we're like Johnha playing with C4 and a detonator!"

"Like hell!" Rodney roared. "They wouldn't have set up the ship to function with a plasma drive if it wasn't safe! If they didn't have failsafes!"

"In case you haven't noticed, we don't have six fingers and an extra knee!" John bellowed back. He took a deep breath, trying to calm down. "It's not just us, Rodney," he said. "It's the kids, it's Darche and Chand and Jarl—"

"Who are all right behind us, helping us! John, this isn't Doranda, this isn't about ego or any of it. This is about us doing the right thing."

John was shaking his head, he didn't want to hear this, not even Rodney bringing up Doranda which had made him wince because yeah, he was going to bring it up. "Rodney—"

"I know what you're going to say, I can see it in your face so let me ask you this question, let me ask it and you've got to answer me straight, right on straight — do you want to give up your Heart of Gold to the SGC? Because the minute they see her, they're going to take her, and you know it!" He reached out and grabbed John's shoulders, forcing John to look at him. "If we 'gate back to the Milky Way, if we bring back help here, bring Sam and Daniel fucking Jackson here to help us, they're going to take her away from us, John. Is that what you want?"

John wrenched himself away from Rodney's grip and slammed his fist into the wall and ow, that hurt. But it helped him focus a little bit, at least, helped him get the vision of the plasma jets arcing out of the smooth end of the Heart. "Should have named her Rama," he muttered.

"Over my dead body and did you break anything?" Rodney took his hand and caressed it. "Lunatic. John, this is our ship. Not theirs. Never theirs. Ours."

"Rodney, that was—"

"Plasma bursts. I know. Viciously dangerous and yeah, we could blow up any second, sooner if Johnha gets into engineering and starts drooling over the consoles but she won't. John. Sheppard. You idiot, look at me." It took John a minute, but he was finally able to drag his gaze to meet Rodney's eyes. "Why am I the one advocating reckless behavior here?" Rodney continued.

John leaned his overheated forehead against the wall. "I don't…" He sighed. "It's not just us. Not anymore."

"No, it's not. And it's been what, ten years?" Rodney frowned. "That's not right, it can't be ten years. It just feels like it. I know I'm tired of all this… you must be too."

John started thunking his forehead on the wall — at least it took his mind off the pain in his knuckles, because he was afraid he had cracked at least one of them. "No, you don't get it. It's not just us, it's the kids, it's—"

"You've already said that, dammit! Just shut up already!" Rodney let go of John's hand and grabbed his chin, turning his head.  "Yes. It's us. It's the kids. It's our friends — hell, our family. They're our family as much as Teyla and Ronon were, I mean are. Still are." Rodney leaned up and kissed him gently. "I know. You do guilt so very well, I'm not sure who taught you but they were masters of the craft. You sure you weren't raised Catholic?"

John glared at him. "No."

"Just asking, Jesus." Rodney rolled his eyes. "You always want to take on all the danger yourself, hoard all the crap that might happen so nobody else can have it, so you can keep everybody else safe. You can't do that, John. Not here. Not anymore. We're all in this together and it'll be okay."

"Rodney, we—"

The door flew open and Chand's panicked face interrupted them. "The kids! I'm sorry, come quick! The kids! They found something! Come quick!"

John had just enough time to wonder why it was always the kids who found the dangerous things before he was running out the door with Rodney, chasing Chand down the companionway.


"So she was never meant to be lande— Ow!" John looked at Jarl reproachfully but Jarl gave him the old stone face. He'd already told John he had no sympathy for self-inflicted wounds — he just kept right on wrapping John's hand.

Rodney had no sympathy for him either, the rat. "No, and in retrospect, I should have realized that. She's massive. You just don't land ships this big, it makes no sense." Johnha was currently on Rodney's lap, sucking her thumb contentedly, showing no ill effects of nearly being launched into space on one of the three small shuttlecraft the kids found attached to the Heart. "She's designed to stay in orbit while you buzz around on the landing shuttles, or, in our case, beam down to wherever you need to go. Well, once I get the consoles in place. I think the porch would be the perfect spot for a beaming platform."

Despite how rough Jarl was being wrapping John's bruised knuckles, John had to smile. His ship had shuttlecraft. How cool was that? "We'll have to name them. Let's see—"

"Newton, Copernicus and Einstein," Rodney said, interrupting him. "You got to name the ship, I name the shuttles." He narrowed his eyes at John, almost daring him to object.

John knew when to give in. "Okay, okay. See if Cerd can come up with something like oil paint and we'll have the kids paint the names on 'em."

It didn't completely allay John's fears about the plasma drive, but it did make sense. And it meant that they wouldn't be coming in close contact with a planet again, they'd just be in orbit.

"So we had to be in space again for the shuttles—" Jarl began, tucking the last of the bandage over John's bruised knuckles.

"To become accessible, yeah," Rodney finished for him. "Actually, we should check the ship over carefully, a lot more might show up now."

"There. Do not hit any more walls," Jarl said sternly to John. "And no sparring for three days. If you actually crack them, I'll keep you in a splint for three months instead of using the bone knitter, see if I don't."

"Okay, okay," John said, being properly sheepish.

They spent a day and a half in orbit, checking the ship nose to tail but found no more goodies. As they checked, they also began ferrying equipment over from the cruiser, beginning with the transporter consoles. Or rather, clones of the transporter consoles, making sure to keep everything functional on the cruiser as well. They weren't sure whether they were going to need it, but better safe than sorry.

Rodney tapped the Heart's power conduits and got them interfaced properly with the consoles, incidentally increasing their capability eight-fold while doing so. Within a couple of very busy days, they had duplicated every essential system from the cruiser to the Heart except for the cannibalized puddlejumper.

It was tough saying goodbye to that. Rodney found John sitting in the pilot's seat once the last of the equipment was gone. "John?"

"Yeah, I'm coming." John didn't get up though and Rodney finally sat in the co-pilot's seat.

"You still obsessing about the plasma?"

John sighed. "Not really, though it still scares the shit out of me. I guess…" He trailed off and ran his hand over the 'jumper's console. "I think you're right, I'm tired. Did you know we're over eight years out here?"

Rodney frowned and blinked. "Really? I mean, I thought it had been ten years, but—"

"Eight years and about three months. Or so. I didn't keep exact records and we've been keeping time by so many different planets and ships…"

"Yeah."

They fell silent for a while. Sometimes Rodney was a pain in the ass but most of the time, he was the perfect friend and companion. He could talk too much but he also understood the value of silence. At least sometimes. And he gave incredible blowjobs for someone who had only had one person to practice on. "I keep wanting to second-guess myself."

Rodney snorted. "You want to. Not a minute goes by when I don't. I keep wanting to call Radek or Sam, ask for input, argue with them. At least once a month I resolve to just call them, just connect to Earth through the stargate and say hi, send them some data, gloat… and… I can't. They'd talk me into coming through… and I wouldn't…" He sighed and fell silent again. After a few moments he turned and spoke again. "Listen. I had an idea about the whole black hole thing. I took a look around and I'm pretty sure I know which nebulae they're mining. And I know you've been working on the calculations for gravitational collapse. Look at the open globular cluster near P74-990 and—"

"Rodney."

"—Tell me if… What?"

"Don't." John closed his eyes and leaned back in the chair. Over eight years since Atlantis died, and he'd thought of her as his home. Guess not. "Let's just… it's late." John really didn't even know what he wanted to say. He was tired, he felt old, he missed people who were dead or were a galaxy and a half and merely a few steps through a wormhole away. He missed Teyla like part of his heart was gone, and longed to tell her about what had happened between him and Rodney; she'd be so proud and happy for him. Them.

A gentle hand on his face made him start. "C'mon Colonel Hairboy, let's go to bed." Rodney's voice was soft and gentle and made John smile and if the smile was a bit watery, Rodney didn't remark on it.


"So just a nova, even a supernova, isn't enough to create a black hole." Darche frowned down at the equations and diagrams drawn over the blackboard.

"No. It's all about this damn Schwarzschild radius," John said. "It has to fall—"

"No no no," Rodney interrupted. He slid down the stair-ladder to the porch where Darche, John and Wenser were standing in front of one of the blackboards. "That's not the only thing. Here, give me that." He grabbed the chalk from John and the eraser — a damp rag — from Darche and began vigorously erasing John's diagram but not the equations. "Look. Take a massive star, say an O type star that's above the Tolman-Oppenheimer-Volkoff limit; if it goes supernova it can't find a new dynamical equilibrium with any known force opposing gravity. So it'll go into gravitational collapse as a matter of course, rather than an iffy, possible thing like what happens with a white dwarf with a companion star large enough to supply it with enough matter to reach the Chandrasekhar limit. There. See? Now, where are you going to find massive stars? In an open globular cluster like this one, here, at these coordinates, near where the Asurans are mining a planetary nebula. Easy. Now, does anybody know where Arel is?"

All three of them blinked at the board dumbly for a few seconds before Rodney said, "Never mind, I'll find her myself," and left the room.

After a minute or so, John said, "I hate it when he does that," and sighed.

They studied the new diagram Rodney had left on the board. "Okay, so a super-massive star, or stars, going nova, might trigger it?" Darche hazarded.

"I think we should just look at this hydrostatic equilibrium thing," Wenser said, his face screwed up. "I think I understand what Rodney is saying here, but it all comes down to a star or stars not able to keep from collapsing in on themselves."

"Right, right," John said, nodding. "Collapsing beyond that damn radius. You know," he said, as a sudden idea hit him, "the Asurans are making stars go nova by feeding them hydrogen and helium. I wonder if we could hurry a black hole along by feeding it something heavy. Chucking heavy elements into a star as it's about to go nova or supernova or something along those lines."

Darche looked at John, taken aback. "What do you mean?"

"I'm… not sure. Feeding a black hole?" John studied the equations and the diagram again. "We need to have a lot of mass in there. I remember reading about how supernovas are often triggered by runaway carbon fusion, and carbon is heavier—"

"Sheppard? McKay? This is Larrin up on the bridge." John touched his radio and replied as Rodney did. "I'm picking up on a rather spectacular space battle up here, you might want to come monitor," she continued after their acknowledgment.

John traded a look between Darche and Wenser and all three went to the bridge, where they met Rodney and Honol. Larrin had the central holographic display going and yeah, from long-range scanners, it was quite a battle.

"What system are we looking at?" Rodney asked, moving around the column.

"Dalem," Larrin replied. "Blessed outpost for a while now. Looks like the Wraith have decided to take it out."

"The Wraith attacked it?" Darche asked, his voice incredulous. "Why?"

John looked at Rodney then at Larrin. "You thinking what I'm thinking?"

"That they've definitely figured out a way to eat Blessed?" Larrin said. "We've suspected it for a while."

"We've never had direct proof, though," Rodney said. "The ones we knew of hadn't had the drug yet."

"Looks like the Wraith are winning, by superior numbers at least." Darche walked around the display, checking it out from all angles. "This might be a good time to test our hyperdrive." He grinned slyly at John.

"That we may or may not have, given we've found no reference of it," Rodney snapped in reply, not even looking at Darche.

"Good time to find out," John drawled. "We've got everything moved over and we really shouldn't put it off any more."

Rodney turned and glared at him but John simply smiled back until Rodney threw up his hands in disgust. "All right, all right, fine!" Rodney said with some asperity. "I know, we need to test it regardless. If we're all going to get blown up anyway, we might as well do it sooner rather than later."

"Cool!" John grinned at everyone as he tapped his radio. "Attention Heart crew, hyperspace test in T minus thirty minutes unless somebody gives me a damn good reason not to!"


Arel had a good reason to postpone the test — she couldn't find Johnha. It only took three minutes of looking for Rodney to recall they had internal sensors which pinpointed her location: a floor-level cupboard no one had discovered in a room Arel had been using as a fabric storeroom. The low, wide space was completely crammed with what could only be described as toys; soft, plush, multicolored, alien critters along with things that jingled and other things that talked in low, comforting and completely incomprehensible voices.

"I think that answers the question of whether they had their kids with them," John said quietly to Rodney as Johnha was gently extracted from the cupboard and put to bed. She had a death-grip on a fluorescent-magenta-colored toy that resembled a cross between a Godzilla and Cthulhu, though thankfully smaller than either.

"But why?" Rodney replied, looking stricken. John felt the same way; how many alien children had died just through meeting Ancients?

Larrin also postponed their test flight, waiting until it appeared the Wraith had won and mopped up at Dalem. But an hour and a half later, they were ready to go. John took up his station at navigation, Rodney at engineering, Larrin at what they were now calling internal systems (after a protracted argument which had involved bantos rods), Honol at communications and Tarn at weapons/defense. Darche was in Engineering with Wenser. Rodney went through the usual check then brought the engines online, powering up to the proper amount and initializing them in the sequence they now knew how to do. John mentally crossed his fingers and set a course for the Dalem system and punched it, hoping against hope that the Heart of Gold knew how to access subspace.

Darche reported that main engines were definitely firing, and according to the navigation console, they were moving in that direction. But…

"I'm getting orange lights here," John said, frowning. "New lights, too, those indicators we've been having a tough time translating."

"Orange?" Rodney said, craning his neck to look at John's station.

"Yeah. Red and yellow…" John made a face. "More power, McKay. That's why there's still a couple inches to that slide."

"Makes sense," Larrin said, nodding.

Rodney rolled his eyes (of course he rolled his eyes, sarcasm and disdain were Rodney McKay's default setting, particularly when he thought someone else might possibly be smarter than he was) but at least he pulled the slide further towards him, slowly. John watched his panel closely and as soon as the last two indicators changed from orange to yellow, he touched them.

There was an instantaneous change to the entire ship; John knew he wasn't the only one to feel it. It was like all the air in the ship paused, expanded slightly, hesitated, then blew out in one breath that elongated the ship like a rubber band, or like a long balloon being stretched out. There was a sensation not unlike a giant snap, and John just knew they were in hyperspace.

"Uh… did everybody…" Tarn began but Honol interrupted him by choking out, "Look!" though he was a little too late on the directive, everyone had already seen.

"Well, I guess the windows are up here too," Rodney said unnecessarily, staring at the blurry blue of hyperspace passing by the entire 'nose' of the ship.

"And you wondered if we had hyperspace," John replied, once he'd found his voice.

Jumy giggled over the radio. "Somebody do that again while kissing me!"

"Jumy!" Chand said reproachfully, also on the radio.

"I take that to mean everybody felt that and there were no ill-effects," John said over the open link.

"It was certainly odd," Cerd reported.

"I think you should boost power a little more, Neysa," Darche said from engineering. "We're also getting a few orange telltales."

"I'm not redlining it," Rodney warned even as he pulled it back a notch.

"You mean bluelining it," John corrected him, smirking.

"Oh shut up."

Rodney ran diagnostic after diagnostic, trying to figure out how their power consumption was going as they flew, trying to find out how 'fast' they were moving, even though, as he explained to anyone who would listen, they weren't actually moving in hyperspace. But it was John who he pulled aside.

"At our current rate, we're going to be there in five hours," he whispered urgently. "Five hours, John."

John grinned. "Cool!"

"No, no moron, listen to me." Rodney looked around and got right up into John's face. "With the cruiser, we'd normally take four hops and about twenty-eight hours. But the Daedalus would take eighteen hours, John. Eighteen hours. And we're not even pushing it!" He frowned. "At least I don't think we are."

John blinked. "So we're going faster than the Daedalus?"

"I don't even think we're accessing hyperspace the same way," Rodney said. They were still speaking in low tones, though John didn't know why. "Nothing I've pulled makes sense in terms of how we normally look at hyperspace. This is a completely different—"

"Rodney," John interrupted him. "Quit whispering. I get it, I get you're excited, but this is our ship, nobody's going to take her from us. Remember? You were the one who told me that, you were the one who talked me off that particular ledge." He grinned. "Carter's going to have a cow when she sees this, isn't she?"

Rodney looked shocked for an instant, then grinned widely. "Yeah," he said. "She is."

"We can get her help and Jackson's help too, but we're not going to give them control, we've got to be clear on that." John found it hard to remain serious, he was so damn excited over his gorgeous ship, but he tried.

"Yeah. Okay. Yeah." Rodney took a deep breath.

They'd already figured out how to integrate the invisibility shield, or rather how to use it, there was no integration needed, just another console powered by two ZPMs. Rodney was pretty sure he could eventually integrate the console into the main power of the ship too, but that was for later. When they emerged out of hyperspace over the Dalem system, John whistled long and low.

"Looks like Doranda, doesn't it?" he said quietly and Rodney, his mouth a grim line, nodded shortly. Larrin had figured out how to keep the huge, panoramic windows in the bow 'open' and the wreckage they showed was very much like a space junkyard.

It took a while to navigate through the mess but they finally made it to a geosynchronous orbit over what appeared to be the nexus of the battle, centered around the stargate. The central holo display zeroed in on the ruined area, strewn with bodies and broken ships, buildings, all kinds of equipment, some still burning or smoldering.

"We need to get down there." Darche's voice was flat.

Rodney sighed. "Yes, I was afraid you were going to say that."

John snorted. "Darche, Larrin, Tarn, you're with me. We'll take Einstein, we've got it rigged with the forcefield. Full gear."

"Recon only!" Rodney shouted as they hurried down the companionway and John waved his hand over his head to acknowledge he'd been heard.

The shuttles handled differently than the 'jumpers had; slicker, more like actual flying. He could feel the air bite as they glided down through the atmosphere and couldn't help a little barrel roll, not that anyone could feel it through the inertial dampers. He had a feeling that Larrin was giving him a look from the shotgun seat, though, so he made it a point not to look at her.

The 'gate area was a wreck, worse than what the sensors had led them to believe. Dead bodies everywhere, Wraith and Blessed, smoldering bits of buildings and ships and other things, it was just a gory mess. Rodney had souped-up the life signs detector some time ago; so John flew low and slow over the devastation, looking for any signs of life, finding none.

"Not picking up anything," he said, glancing at Larrin. "I'm going to put her down just south, there's a clearing that doesn't look too bad and it's close to the 'gate."

She nodded and stood, going aft to relay the information to Darche and Tarn. The cockpit of the shuttles were much smaller than the 'jumpers, with room for only two comfortably. More than that was like cramming clowns into a Volkswagen.

They swept the immediate area again before getting out and still came up negative, but stayed on high alert anyway. It was late afternoon on the planet and cool, which did nothing to hide the stench of death and burnt flesh. There weren't a lot of scavengers yet, but they scared up a bunch of large, dark birds, about the size of ravens, a few times as they circled, and again as they landed and de-cloaked.

The silence was as uncomfortable as the situation. Using hand signals, John sent Darche and Larrin to the left as he and Tarn circled around to the right. They toed over the larger pieces of equipment, getting the occasional glimpse of a severed limb or a burned body. Tarn slapped his shoulder and pointed off to the left where there appeared to be something that might have been used as a bunker. They picked their way carefully to it, figuring out where the attack came from and how the area was overrun. The Wraith seemed to have taken the area by sheer force of numbers — there were dozens, perhaps hundreds, of Wraith drones cut to shreds all around the field of battle.

The area they were heading for was a new building, one John didn't remember from when they used Dalem as a base. It appeared to have started out as a stone house, but there was a deep basement, probably leading to some sort of catacomb. The Blessed took a page from the Genii handbook in that, building underground where they could. It was filled with bodies, mostly Blessed. Most of them appeared to have been cut down by blaster or fire but at least one looked as though it had been fed upon. It was just too hard to say, though, the damage was too severe.

John's radio crackled to life with Larrin's voice. "Sheppard?"

"Go ahead."

"We've got something."

"On our way." John glanced at Tarn and they both headed across the battlefield to where Larrin and Darche were standing, near an area which appeared to have taken heavy damage. "What do you have?" John asked as they closed in.

"Looks like we were right," Darche said, pointing down. "Clearly Blessed, and clearly fed upon."

"This guy is still attached," Larrin said in a flat voice. "What's left of him anyway."

Tarn made a disgusted noise and John agreed. Darche crouched near but didn't touch. "They've figured out a way around it, yes, but how is the question. They had to have had some of Michael's research available."

"Or found someone who had it." John looked around the mess and rubbed his chin. "Or maybe—"

The 'gate dialing cut him off. Darche stood and all four of them beat a hasty retreat towards the shuttle. They ran aboard and set the forcefield/cloak on again, though John halted just inside the hatch, invisible to the outside. He wanted to see who came through, Wraith or Blessed.

It was Blessed, Kanaan himself emerging through the wormhole, and he wasn't happy. He had a short squad of heavily armed men with him who immediately fanned out, obviously looking for survivors.

A half-baked idea began worming itself into John's brain, a way to get rid of all three of his favorite enemies at once, maybe… He turned to Darche. "You can fly the shuttle?" he asked.

Darche frowned at him. "Onsa, Rodney wouldn't—"

"No, listen. Keep the hatch open, stay cloaked, and be ready for liftoff. I'm going to stand right at the hatch and when I dive in, take off immediately. But I want to have a little chat with my good buddy Kanaan over there."

"Sheppard," Larrin said, her voice dangerous.

"I know what I'm doing. Get onboard." John stepped just outside the hatch where he knew he would be visible. "Got your ass kicked, huh, Kanaan?" he yelled.

Kanaan and all his men immediately turned and headed for the shuttle at a run. Kanaan screamed, "Sheppard! I am going to kill you!"

"That's far enough," John said, bringing his P-90 up. "I've got my ship cloaked behind me, Kanaan. One wrong move and you're joining the rest of your people here." Kanaan stopped where he was, a dozen yards or so away, within yelling distance. "That's better. So, they figured out how to eat you now?" Kanaan's men stopped behind him, uncertain, waiting for orders. John kept an eye on them, and knew Tarn and Larrin were also minding them — he could hear their breathing behind him.

Kanaan wasn't so far away that John couldn't tell how livid he was. "This was your fault, Sheppard. Yours. You gave the Wraith Lannis, I know you did, he was one of our best."

John searched his memory for the name then heard Tarn growl "Brama" behind him. "Oh, yeah. That guy. The one who murdered one of my people." The urge to kill was really strong. "Yeah, I remember him. I also remember you beating the shit out of me, threatening to use me as a breeding stud, and oh, yeah, taking Teyla's baby away from her." He checked his P-90 to make sure it was on automatic. "I have absolutely no sympathy for you, Kanaan. I hope the Wraith eat every last one of you."

"Once we finish with them, we will come for you, Sheppard," Kanaan snarled.

"Good luck with that," John said. "I seriously doubt it'll happen. But it's not our problem any more, we've got what we came for and we're leaving. Enjoy the rest of your life, Kanaan. I wish I could be here to watch it burn."

John started to back up but just as he'd expected, a flash of panic burst across Kanaan's face. It was almost instantly suppressed, but John had been looking for it. "What do you mean, you're leaving?"

"Just what I said. We have no intentions of sticking around here and watching you and the Asurans duke it out with the Wraith. Even with their help, I doubt you can win."

John heard a sharp intake of breath behind him and bet it was Larrin's, she was always quick on the uptake. Kanaan, on the other hand, was just confused. "Asurans? We are not…"

"The Machine-Men, I think you call them. They're Replicators, Kanaan. All they hate are Wraith, not humans, that's their programming, they can't hurt humans. Since you're mostly human…" John trailed off and frowned artfully.

"They hate us as much as they hate Wraith! They think we are Wraith!" Kanaan yelled.

"Huh. You never told them, then. I just assumed you were in league with them against the Wraith since I know you don't have the balls to get rid of the Wraith by yourself. I doubt they could hurt you, you're still mostly human. Whatever. We really don't care—"

"Sheppard, this is McKay," John heard in his radio. "A hive ship just popped out of hyperspace, get up here now!"

John touched his radio. "Copy that." He turned back to Kanaan. "Better get moving, Kanaan old pal, a Wraith hive just popped out of hyperspace. Probably batting cleanup." John touched his forehead with two fingers. "I'd say it's been a pleasure but it hasn't. Don't come looking for us either, you won't like the reception you'd get." He took two backwards steps and was on the shuttle, watching Kanaan and his cronies dash back to the stargate.

"You mean to get them to ally themselves with the Machine-Men." Tarn closed the hatch as Larrin confronted John and Darche lifted them off the planet.

"Yep," John replied. "You think it'll work?"

"To what end?" Larrin demanded.

"I'm not exactly sure yet," John said, unclipping his P-90 from his vest. "But when I figure it out, you'll be the second to know."


"You did what?"

"Okay, look." John boosted himself up on the table in Rodney's lab and met Rodney's mild glare. "If we can get the Blessed allied with the Replicators against the Wraith, then maybe get the Wraith to take on them both somehow—"

"Somehow?"

"Just wait, I'm still thinking," John said defensively. "What I want is to get everybody — well, as close to everybody as I can — in one spot, then trigger a supernova that would trigger a black hole that would just suck everybody down and take care of the whole thing at one go."

Rodney just stood there, blinking slowly at him.

"I mean, as a plan, it's still got some work…"

Blink. Blink.

"Rodney…"

After another long moment, Rodney finally said, "I'd like that pony, now."

"Rodney! Just—"

"John, you can't just wave a magic wand and—"

"I know! But listen, I've had some thoughts about developing a black hole using—"

Rodney sighed. "John…"

"No, just listen, okay? Just listen."

Rodney smiled and shook his head. "Okay, I'm listening."

John took a deep breath; he wasn't sure about his theory but he knew he had to test it out. "Okay. So novas are caused when the star runs out of hydrogen and starts burning through helium, and that's how the Replicators are making ordinary stars go nova. And I understand the supernova effect too, and I remember from reading A Brief History of Time how a supernova can sometimes have the effect of creating a black hole."

"The Chandrasekhar limit."

"Yeah. That. Because that entails not just helium, but heavier matter as well, carbon and, and… the star burning heavier and heavier—"

"Not burning, consuming, think nuclear fusion," Rodney interjected, but he was frowning, clearly following what John was saying so John took heart and continued.

"Okay, yes, whatever, but it's heavier elements. So I thought, what if we lobbed some really heavy elements into a star teetering on the edge of supernova? What would happen if we just transported something really heavy into that mass that's already just about ready to run amok?"

"Hmm." Rodney crossed his arms. "What are you talking about? Uranium?"

"No. Naquadah."

That got his attention. "What? Where would you find—"

"The 'gate bridge."

Rodney froze and his mouth fell open but nothing came out. John patted himself on the back; he'd managed to get motor-mouth without words. Usually only sex did that, and only for a brief period of time.

"It's still there, I mean, most of it — them are, and you know where they are, we could just go out and grab 'em. Put them on the cruiser, set it for a hyperspace hop right into the heart of whatever star we get going, and bam." John looked at Rodney, who was still standing there with his mouth open, and said, "Right? I mean, it's not too off the wall?"

Abruptly Rodney turned and almost ran to the blackboard which was a permanent fixture in the corner of his lab. He hastily wiped everything off of it and began scribbling equations at a ferocious rate, pausing only to go back and make slight corrections. John slid off the table and walked over to where he was standing and started following the equations, using one finger to trace them as he worked them out in his head.

After a moment, he reached out and wrestled the chalk from Rodney. "No, no, like this," he said, changing one of the variables, and they were off.


Darche brought them food and drink at one point. He had a strange expression on his face, something halfway between a hysterical grin and a smirk. John didn't call him on it because he was too busy shoving a sandwich in his mouth and arguing with Rodney.

When Darche left, he closed the door firmly behind him. John kind of noticed it, but didn't really think about it.


The chalk was just a nubbin that could barely write so John tossed it in the direction of the opposite wall and slid down the nearest vertical surface, landing on his ass. His feet hurt, his throat was raw, his head ached and he really had to take a piss, but he thought they were done. "Are we done?" he croaked.

Rodney, standing next to him, slowly turned his head — John thought he could hear the creaking — and regarded him muzzily. "Tell me again who you are?"

John just waved his hand and closed his eyes. "I think I sleep with you sometimes," he murmured. After a moment, he felt Rodney slide down the wall next to him.

They sat together in silence for a while then John opened his eyes and saw the equations — written across every surface, the blackboard, the walls, the tables, even some on the stools, he knew. Most of them were his, or started as his. Wow. "It's like… like I'm Mathman or something," he said, marveling.

"You're what?"

"And you're my sidekick. Boy Genius or something."

"I am not your sidekick."

"Yeah. Mathman and Boy Genius. Yeah. Perfect."

"You are delusional. I am not your sidekick."

"I'll have Arel make you some tights."

"I'll have Jarl find you the Pegasus equivalent of Thorazine."

"Can we really do this?"

Rodney waved his hand. "Sure. Need a minimum of fourteen 'gates and the cruiser. And need the Blessed, Wraith and Asurans to cooperate."

"Well. That too." John frowned. "I guess that's going to be the hard part, actually."

"Hmm. Maybe not."

John rolled his head over so that he could see Rodney. "Maybe not?" Rodney's eyelids were at half-mast, his hair was sticking up in little tufts and he was streaked in chalk dust. In other words, he looked almost unbearable sexy and John couldn't help himself, he leaned over and swallowed whatever Rodney was going to say with his mouth, giving him the dirtiest, sloppiest kiss ever.

After a surprised second, Rodney started kissing John back, just as enthusiastically. "God you're hot when you're doing math," Rodney gasped as John bit at his neck.

That really should have been funny, and it was, and part of John was laughing hysterically but most of him was chanting 'off off off off' and trying to get both his pants and Rodney's off or at least open as quickly as possible. It seemed Rodney was feeling the same way because he was trying to do the same thing in reverse; they kept getting in each others' way and ended up rolling around in the chalk dust on the too-hard floor, kissing and gasping and fumbling at each other, finally managing to get access to each others' dicks by nearly ripping the fabric apart.

John dove down and got his mouth around Rodney's cock and Rodney rasped, "Oh God, you're a genius, here, here, let me, oh God, do that, do that again…" as he twisted and flailed until they were in a sixty-nine position, until Rodney got his mouth around John.

And Jesus, it was good, except John still had to pee, but he had to come more, and Rodney's dick smelled like concentrated Rodney and tasted so fucking good John thought he would never, ever lose the taste and scent, and he didn't want to. He hollowed out his cheeks and sucked, using his tongue to tease the slit, tasting pre-come and slurping all the way down as far as he could go then all the way back up again, knowing how good it felt by how Rodney's hips jerked slightly with every movement of John's tongue.

The only problem was Rodney's mouth around him was even better. Rodney was really, really good at giving blowjobs, the scientific method and all that. He'd studied exactly what made John go absolutely insane with pleasure and refined it so that he could make John go off like a fucking firecracker. He even enjoyed doing that, the rat bastard, driving John crazed with the need to come and holding it back, ratcheting up the bliss-o-meter until John's head nearly exploded from it.

But this time, this time no, the suction was so damn good and Rodney was just pulling out all the stops and it was drawing John right to the edge, to the edge and over it, hard and fast. He felt like a goddamn teenager he came so hard, so hard he saw stars, whining around Rodney's dick which started pumping it's own load down John's throat, staccato pulses of bitter pleasure shooting every which way.

For a long minute John floated on an orgasmic high, feeling nothing but the warm, slick, wet goodness of Rodney's mouth and the heavy, slowly shrinking length of Rodney's dick against his tongue. Nothing else mattered — not the hard floor, not the chalk dust over everything, nothing but Rodney's mouth and Rodney's taste.

But they were both well over forty and their bodies made no bones about letting them know that. With a groan, Rodney rolled to his back, his head hitting the deck with a solid clunk. John thought about doing the same but wasn't sure he would be able to. "Gotta stop doing that, especially when we have a perfectly good bed fifty feet away," Rodney grumbled.

John could only manage a grunt in reply. Carefully, he propped himself up on one hand. From there, he managed to sit, then to kneel (oh, his knees!), then with the help of the wall, to stand. Unsteadily. He looked down at himself to find his dick hanging out and his pants… "I think you ripped my pants."

Rodney snorted. "Everybody's a critic. Help me up."

Raising an eyebrow while tucking himself back inside his pants as best he could, John said, "Jesus, you're a pushy boyfriend."

"Yes, but I give great head." He lifted his hand and snapped his fingers.

John rolled his eyes but helped Rodney to his feet. "Remind me again why I sleep with you?"

"I just told you." Rodney looked down at himself and sighed. With a tug and a pull, he hiked his pants up and pulled his shirt down. "Let's go eat in our quarters and hit the sack, I'm exhausted."

John opened the door. "Sounds good. What time is it?"

Jumy walked past, heading to the bridge. "Good morning, John, Rodney," she said, smiling impishly.


There was something he was forgetting.

It took just over a week to gather up fourteen 'gates from the now-defunct 'gate bridge. It was simple in execution — go to the coordinates, orient the Heart properly, sneak up on the 'gate and touch it gently with her nose.

"I hope you've learned better kissing!" Rodney said with some asperity as John maneuvered for the first pick-up. It earned him a few looks of incredulous hilarity and a glare from John but nobody asked for clarification.

In between pickups, they discussed how to get the Wraith, Blessed and Asuran Replicators all together in the same place — namely, close to the young, open globular cluster near P99-020, which was close enough to the middle of Pegasus to call it so. Pegasus was a small, irregular galaxy, because Andromeda was in the process of tearing it apart, Rodney alleged. But it was big enough for what they wanted to do.

"Assuming Kanaan and his band of merry mutants can get in to it with the Asurans," Rodney said as they sat down for dinner with everybody, "which I think he'll be able to do, he's not completely stupid, all we need to do is get the Wraith to attack the Asurans."

John was slathering pima berry jam on a heel of bread as Rodney spoke, letting everybody else question the genius on his theories.

"So just how are we going to do that?" Larrin demanded. John won the bet he had with himself that she'd be the first.

"Well, let's think that through." Rodney sat back in his chair with his monstrous coffee cup easily at hand. "The Asuran's programming is to kill Wraith at first sight, which means the Wraith won't want to be around them too much — in a pitched battle, even with good odds, the Wraith are going to come out badly against the Asurans."

Preaching to the choir, McKay, John thought, letting his bread and jam hide his grin.

"Tell us something we don't know, Neysa," Darche said.

"Just making sure we're all on the same page," Rodney said. "While the Asurans will go after the Wraith singly, we don't necessarily want that. We want them to be en masse, and we want them to be concentrated on a place of our choosing." Ever the master of suspense, at least in his own mind, Rodney paused to take a deep swig of his coffee. "So, the idea is to get them to all want the same thing, to all congregate in the same area, fighting or kissing or whatever, as long as they're within the event horizon of the super-massive black hole we're going to create, thanks to our MENSA-worthy Captain."

"Lieutenant Colonel."

Rodney waved his hand. "You are the owner-pilot of our ship therefore captain. I'm your chief engineer and second in command; therefore commander."

"Cool! Can we give titles to everybody?" John wiped his face with his fingers, trying to keep the grin from busting out.

"You are changing the subject." Rodney glowered at him.

"Johnha can be captain's aide," John said, lifting the little girl into his lap. She had toddled over to him and made her wishes known with her normal "Up! Up!" as they had talked.

"Be that as it may," Rodney said loudly as everyone tried to hide their giggles and whispers, "let's try getting back to the topic of discussion, which is getting rid of our three enemies all at once." He gave everyone a stern look. "As I was saying, we need them all gathered in the same place, a place of our choosing. The way to do that is to give them something they all want, something they all need. Conversely, something one of them wants desperately and the others want desperately to keep away from the others."

Everybody started a little at that. "Oh." Chand blinked. "Like… like a weapon that would kill all the Wraith. The Wraith would certainly want to keep that out of the Blessed's hands."

"And the Machine Men's too," Darche said, nodding.

"Exactly," Rodney said, pointing at Chand and smirking. "You get ten points. If we had a weapon that could kill the Wraith, the Wraith would want it destroyed and the Asurans would want to use it. And we do have something like that, only it's not useable."

John sat straighter in his chair, oblivious to Johnha yanking on his dogtags through his shirt, her favorite toy. "Wait a minute…" he said, but Rodney kept right on.

"But we do have something that all three of our enemies want." Rodney's grin was insufferable, the crew's curiosity was high and John's panic grew with every word.

"What?" Darche demanded as John said, "McKay," in a dangerous voice.

"Me."

"Out of the question," John said immediately, in a loud, stern voice that made Johnha's eyes grow wide and her lower lip tremble.

"Wait, wait," Rodney said over the babble of voices in the room, most of them negative. "Just listen." He turned to John who was still giving him Glower Number Four. "Do you remember when Jackson came out, looking for Janus' lab?"

"All too well," John said. Johnha was still looking up at John nervously.

"We found the lab, we found that damn device—"

"That didn't work," John interjected.

"That didn't work," Rodney agreed. "But Jackson and I knew we could get it to work, as long as we didn't mind blowing up all the stargates in Pegasus."

"What?!" Larrin practically shouted.

"Look, it's a long story," Rodney said quickly, "it blows up Wraith ships when they try to access hyperspace but it has the side-effect of blowing up 'gates as they're activated. The point is, we didn't use it and that's why. But there's someone who wouldn't give a shit if it blows up 'gates and kills innocents in the wake—"

"The Machine-Men," Wenser said before Rodney could. "They wouldn't care at all."

Rodney snapped his fingers and pointed them at Wenser. "Exactly! Not to mention all the other goodies they could get out of Janus' lab and how much they want me — and how much the Wraith want me for my knowledge of Todd and Earth."

"I am not letting you do this," John said flatly.

Rodney rolled his eyes. "It's not a question of letting me do anything. I wouldn't even be there. It's a dummy, Janus's lab isn't anywhere near that open cluster and we mined it for everything useful anyway."

"Todd knows where it is!" John said, still frowning.

"No, he doesn't, because we gave him false coordinates! Besides that, after we stripped it, we booby trapped the damn place. If he had actually known where it was, we would have known about it, and he's probably dead anyway." Rodney glowered at John. "I'm not the only paranoid one here, you know. Jackson learned from O'Neill who's the only man in the universe worse than you are. If Todd knew about the lab, if he had actually gone there, we would have known, trust me."

"If I can interrupt this match?" Darche said, bringing John back to where he was. He looked around to find everyone in the room grinning at him — at them. He gave the room in general a glower but not even Johnha believed him by then. Darche continued. "I think we need to discuss this and see what Neysa has planned, so we can figure out exactly what we need. And to determine whether Kanaan has been able to throw in his fortune with the Machine-Men."

"He's been afraid of them for a long time," Jarl said and Larrin nodded.

"Just because you pointed him in their direction doesn't mean he went," she added.

John let the rest of the discussion wash over him for a while, partially because he had nothing to add. Larrin was right, they had no way of knowing whether Kanaan joined up with the Asurans. It was a spur-of-the-moment idea he'd had anyway, plus he knew the Asurans didn't want or need allies. They went on their own, and if you wanted to help, they just tolerated and ignored you.

If he were Kanaan, John reflected (absently rocking Johnha who had calmed back down), how would he do it? How would he introduce himself to the Asurans? Once they accepted the Blessed as human, the best strategy would be to hide behind them, let them fight the Wraith, maybe point them in the right direction at times, but pretty much stay out of the way. Big dog and little dog, John mused. He was reasonably certain that the Asurans would treat Kanaan's bunch as human and dismiss them, step around them to get to their target. But how would he get the Asurans to accept the Blessed as human?

There was still something missing. He was forgetting something and he didn't know what it was and it was driving him insane.

The Blessed didn't have the feeding mark. That alone should be enough to get the Asurans to accept them as human… wouldn't it? But they traveled in Wraith ships. But then… "Kanaan has tipped off the Asurans on us before," John said, surprising himself by saying it out loud. Johnha was a warm, sleepy weight in his arms.

Rodney turned towards him, frowning. "Yeah, that's true."

"Are the Asurans still on their homeworld? What's the designation?" John asked, his brain finally, finally popping up with a DING!

"M7R-227, and I think so, why— oh." Rodney's face cleared. "Oh. A test case. We need to get them… Oh."

John wanted to sit up straighter but he couldn't, Johnha was melted into his lap, fast asleep. "That's it, though. That's got to be it, what I was forgetting. We need them—"

"We can't let them retreat," Rodney said, bouncing his ideas off of John's, like they were conjoined twins, and man, it was awesome sometimes how in sync their brains were. "They have to be unmoored, no safe place to go, all of them concentrated in one spot. So we test the—"

"Blow up their sun!" Darche said, getting it before anyone else, his grin a mile wide. "Blow up their world's sun!"

"Well, no, it'd take too long, but we can get the process started, maybe make them evacuate—"

"That's brilliant," Larrin interrupted Rodney. "Can we make them think the Wraith did it?"

"Can we push it up, make the star go faster?" Chand asked, bouncing on his toes.

"How many rings are there?" Wenser asked. "Could we get more and try to—"

"Hold on! Hold on!" Rodney said, raising his hands. "We've got to think this one through." He frowned at John again. "Where did we park the cruiser?"

"It's at Volcano World." John's left arm was growing numb. "Can somebody find Arel or take Johnha and put her to bed? I need this arm."


So their complex plan became an even more complex plan, but it made sense. The Asuran's home-world was the sticking point, it was the place that was keeping them from ensuring they got all the damn Replicators in one fell swoop. In fact, if they could hurry the sun up a bit…

"You sure there's no way to hurry…?" John asked for the fifteenth time. Rodney was scrawling equations across his blackboard.

Rodney sighed. "Would you shut up? What we're doing is already against the laws of conventional physics, give me a minute to wrap my head around it and I'll answer you."

While Rodney thought, John headed back to the volcano planet. He dropped off the 'gates they had gathered and made sure the cruiser was still there, still functioning and still cloaked. Reassured, he set course for M7R-227, with the intent to scan the shit out of it, hoping to find something, anything, that would give them an ah-HAH moment. A plan was only that until he had a way to initialize it.

So, phase one — get rid of the Asuran's home-world, so they had no place left to retreat to. Phase two — draw them and the Wraith (and hopefully the Blessed too) to a place of their choosing. Phase three — create a black hole so that all three groups could fall (or be pushed, John was all for pushing them) into it. As they headed for M7R-227, John actually began to come up with a few ideas linking phase one with two; ideas which were devious to the point of being almost McKay-ish.

It didn't take them long to arrive. The planet was as busy as a hive, the shipyards were churning out new ships and repairing old ones, 'jumpers flitting all over the place. According to the core drive, there were thirty-seven Aurora-class ships in Pegasus operable, and from what they had seen, there were rarely more than forty off-planet. The Replicators were creatures of habit, then.

Rodney wandered into the command room while John, Darche, Larrin and Wenser were scanning the planet. "What the hell?"

"Asuran home world," John replied shortly. "Wanted to scan it."

"Oh. Well." Rodney blinked then studied the central column, which they had interfaced with their scanning console so they could read it. "Good idea. Is that neutronium?"

"What is that?" Darche asked, also studying the column, bringing forward other statistics.

"It's the base metal for all Replicator cells." Rodney frowned at the display. "Makes sense the Ancients would plop them here, a world rich in it. How can we use that?" he mused, the same question John was asking himself.

"Is neutronium unstable?" Wenser asked, but it was Larrin who answered. "Wish it was, but no."

"But it's heavy," Rodney said. "Not as heavy as naquadah, but close."

"Too bad we don't have that planet-wide ARG," John said.

"Wouldn't work anyway, because it would still leave their planet behind and… oh. Wait."

John turned towards Rodney and found him wearing that 'I'm so close to a breakthrough it's not funny' face. "What?"

Without answering, Rodney turned and headed back out of the command room. John followed him right to his lab, where Rodney began rooting around in the mess he called his desk. He pulled out one laptop, checked the index, grunted and set it aside. The next one appeared to be the one he was looking for, because he sat and called up some files.

"Another brainstorm?" Larrin asked from right behind John.

He turned and shook his head. "Looks like. What'cha got there, Rodney?"

After a moment, Rodney grunted and his laptop beeped. "Before I got the 'three laws' patch in the base—"

"Before you and Sam got the three laws patch in," John corrected him gently. Rodney needed the reminder sometimes that he wasn't alone in his genius.

Gracing John with a sour look, Rodney amended his statement. "Yes, yes, before Sam and Radek and I got the three laws patch in the Replicator basecode, I was working on something else, a way to neutralize them. You remember, we were grasping at straws by then, because we couldn't find a way to shut down the directive to fight the Wraith."

John frowned. "I remember. The 'three laws' was a patch, a fix, because you—"

"Couldn't find the stop bit, yes. They had done something, masked it, altered it, something." Rodney waved one hand, moving forward on the topic. "What I thought might work was a reverse of the ARG — instead of breaking the normal cohesion between the nanites, I wanted to wildly increase it, draw them together in one, big mass. Make their attraction far, far stronger, on a molecular level."

Appalled, John said, "So, what, we'd end up with a super-Godzilla-Replicator on our hands? Rodney, that sucks!"

"No, no, you're not thinking it through." Rodney turned his tablet around so John could see the diagrams. "Like I said, it's on a molecular level, an atomic level. The binding would become stronger the more nanites jammed together until individual protons fused together, rendering them essentially inert. Think neutron star level." He turned it back so he could continue working.

It took a minute for that to sink in. "Uh…" It made John's brain hurt.

"Wouldn't that make them dangerously…" Darche began, his face screwed up, looking like John felt.

"Dense, yes, it would. " Rodney was typing as he spoke, calling up subroutines and, from what John could tell, modifying code or maybe even writing it, who could tell? "If we could do that, not only would it be faster than making their sun go boom, it would be much—- ah. There you are." He turned his laptop around again, so the small group could see. "Replicator basecode, the parts we could translate. This," he pointed to one string, "is where I grafted on the 'three laws.' It's also how to get to their basecode via their subspace link. A back door they can't close without eliminating their subspace link." He frowned. "I'm not sure they're aware of it, actually. It might be a critical string. Anyway. This is the dynamic spot, if I'm going to do anything to them."

"And you think melting them all together at once…" Larrin said, her voice suspicious.

"That's just it, I'm not positive of it." Rodney blew out a sigh.

"What did Radek and Sam say about it?" John narrowed his eyes at Rodney, who had the grace to acknowledge the question with only a mild eyeroll.

"Yes, I know, we had long debates about it which is why we went with the 'three laws' patch instead. In the end, we couldn't be sure the Replicators wouldn't adapt to the mass before they reached critical overload. So in other words, we were—"

"Afraid of massive Godzilla, yeah, I got that," John interrupted. "So what's changed? The presence of neutronium?"

"Partially. I'm going to have to work on it, but I think if I can upload a local string that tells them to hyper-attract, not only between themselves but to the raw neutronium in the planet, and set off a series of naquadah-enhanced nuclear explosions at the right spots, we'd have a handy-dandy planet imploder. The fusion process would be so complete that all you'd be able to see would be chunks of raw neutronium floating around."

"But we don't have—" John started but Rodney interrupted him. "Yes, we do. We have naquadah power generators. As many as we can replicate. That's close enough."

John blinked and looked around at the other people in the room, who looked pretty much as calculated and speculative as he felt.

"Not bad, McKay," Larrin finally said.

Darche and Wenser were nodding. "It will take some work," Darche said. "John?"

John took a deep breath and exhaled. "We'd better get going on it, then."


THE NINTH YEAR:

John got almost everybody on board in on the plan, setting up the steps necessary to carry the whole thing off. It was going to be a huge task and he didn't want to forget anything, like, oh, a planet that wasn't accounted for. So he held a meeting on the porch with all the blackboards lined up.

"Step one is going to be setting off the planet buster bomb that Rodney is cooking up, which is why he's not here," he said to get the ball rolling. Wenser scrawled that on the board specifically at Larrin's request, since she claimed John's handwriting was all but illegible. "We have to remember that the Asuran's have a subspace link, so what one of them sees, all of them will. When we destroy their planet, all of them will know about it."

Several of them were nodding. "That will make it easy for us to set up step two," Larrin said. "Which will be getting them to the place of our choosing."

"Exactly." Wenser added point two at John's confirmation. "Let's get some ideas rolling on how we should handle that. We've already picked a couple of places where we think we can carry off the big bang. What kind of lure do we need?"

Wenser went to another board and started writing down ideas as they were called out. Most of them centered on the Asuran's recognizing them as Lanteans or mistaking them for Wraith. Rodney's assertion that the Asurans and Wraith would want him or Janus' lab was definitely taken into account.

They brainstormed for what seemed like hours. Even the kids got into it, acting out some of the more outlandish ideas, pretending to be John and/or Rodney, laying traps for Blessed or Asuran or Wraith, using stuffed toys as bombs and ambushing each other with far too much enthusiasm. By dinner, they had four or five fairly workable ideas, none of which John really liked since they all put at least one of them (usually Rodney) in danger.

John went to Rodney's lair to pull him out for dinner and get him up-to-date on the status of planning. As he'd expected, Rodney was knee deep in simulations and his workroom looked like a tornado had gone through it. "Food time, Rodney."

Rodney sighed. "Already?"

"Yeah. We've been brainstorming and you should give yourself a break to see what we've come up with too. How's the patch coming?"

Even as John spoke, a simulation beeped on one of the laptops, signaling a failure. Rodney growled an expletive and threw a balled up piece of paper at it.

"That good, huh?"

"Fucking Ancient fucking spaghetti code." Rodney ran his fingers through his hair. "I'm getting closer, but it's going to take time."

"We've got time." John turned Rodney around on his chair and dug his fingers into his back.

Rodney hung his head and moaned. "I'm giving you just three days to stop that."

"Ha. You're so easy." John's voice was light but his concern was real; Rodney's back was rock-hard. He resolved to get his resident genius away from the lab a little more often. It wasn't like they didn't have the time to spare, they'd been at this for years, a few more weeks wouldn't hurt.

After a week, Rodney had all but moved into his lab. His frustration level was climbing and the kids started steering clear of him at all times. John kept close but unobtrusive tabs on him and those who could cook began making his favorite meals, hoping to tempt him to eat better and more frequently. He did work better under pressure, and John knew it, but that didn't mean that John would let Rodney sacrifice his health in order to achieve their ends.

While Rodney worked, the others kept scanning Asuras and the busy, crowded center of Pegasus, trying to pick a good star or star cluster to blow up. After three weeks of debate, they narrowed it down to several good choices but had to wait for Rodney's final approval. Rodney, however, was still holed up in the lab, and John was becoming increasingly worried.

John tried to keep an eye on him at all times, tried to make sure he didn't get a McKay meltdown, but as the weeks turned into a month, then threatened to turn into months, plural, John got antsy as well as worried. At the moment, the Asurans were winning the war, which wasn't good. The Wraith could decide to skip out of Pegasus out of sheer hunger and desperation, and he didn't want that. He wanted them all here and all dead.

One evening at dinner, John found himself sitting with Darche, Larrin and Wenser, as usual discussing the project and Rodney.

"We thought to help on the coding part," Darche said. "But we cannot. John, he's tried to teach me, but it's too far over my head."

"Mine as well. It would take me months and months to learn this language." Wenser sighed and rubbed his fingers through his close-cropped hair. "It does not go well?"

John shook his head. "Last time I checked, no."

It was Larrin, predictably, who voiced John's worst fears. "The Wraith are losing, Sheppard. If we don't act soon, they're going to do something drastic, like head for another galaxy. Maybe yours."

"I know." John shook his head and took a deep breath in, held it for a moment before blowing it back out. "If Rodney can't come up with a better plan, we—"

"Perhaps we should consult your people, John," Wenser said quietly, his eyes sympathetic.

Rodney was not going to like that idea. Hell, John didn't either.

John finished eating and ordered a couple of muffins and some juice from the replimat before going to Rodney's lab. He had a feeling Rodney wouldn't have eaten, even though there was a replimat in the room with him. He wasn't in hypoglycemic shock, but he wasn't doing very well, either. "Rodney?"

Rodney had his head propped up on one fist and he was staring at two laptops, both of which had displays of big red letters — SIMULATION FAILED. Against one wall, there was a large stain that looked like coffee and at the bottom there was the shattered remnants of a large ceramic mug. Wow.

"I brought you some food and I'm not leaving until you eat. Then you're leaving with me." John put the muffins and juice down in front of Rodney. "You okay?"

Rodney shook his head. "I can't get it to work." He picked up the first muffin and began to eat, but didn't appear to have any enthusiasm in doing so. "John, I've tried everything."

This was a side of Rodney John hated to see. Luckily, it wasn't one he saw very often. "Take a break. You've been working non-stop for—"

"I can't get it to work. It won't matter if I take a break, I can't get it to work." Rodney finished the first muffin and washed it down with half a mug of juice.

"You'll get it. It'll just take time."

Rodney closed his eyes. "No, it won't, I'm telling you, it won't. I just…" He sighed and rubbed his eyes. "Maybe… Maybe we should just go. Go home. Get Jeannie, Sam, get Radek, see what…"

Okay, this was freaking John out. "C'mon. Rodney, c'mon. Let's get you in a bath then bed then we'll look at it tomorrow. Just try to forget about it now, okay?"

Rodney looked up at him and opened his mouth but nothing came out. Instead, he just shook his head and rose, slowly, acting as if it hurt him to do so. John grabbed the second muffin and the juice and led Rodney back to their quarters where he insisted Rodney eat the second muffin — staving off the hypoglycemic reaction he was so afraid of — while John drew him a bath. In short order, John had Rodney clean, dry and under the covers of their bed and through it all, Rodney barely said a word. It was downright frightening.

It took John a while to fall asleep. What if Rodney (and Wenser) were right? What if he couldn't figure out a method to attract the Replicators? What if they found out that the Blessed weren't allied with the Asurans? Maybe Rodney was right, maybe they should go back to the Milky Way and get help.

But dammit, they'd been out in Pegasus alone for… for… years, for nine or ten or however many years and more, they'd done all right for themselves, they could do this. They could do this. They'd find a way. John was at least as stubborn as Rodney, he wanted to finish what they'd started. He wanted to finish the fucking Replicators, the Wraith, but especially Kanaan's brigade. He really wanted them.

He spent a restless night next to Rodney and got up early, wanting to let Rodney sleep in. He wondered if anyone else knew about Rodney's mini-meltdown the evening before until he caught Darche and Wenser coming out of Rodney's lab.

They didn't look happy. "Hey."

"Where is he?" Darche asked, frowning. "Is he all right?"

"Yeah." John shook his head. "Well, no. He's still in bed, asleep. I was just going to check the sensor logs before getting something to eat."

"I have loaded the latest data on my flash drive. We can look together over breakfast if you'd like," Darche said, pulling the small device out of his pocket. "I left my laptop in the common room."

"Sounds good."

The logs carried nothing new, but John went over them carefully anyway, hoping for a miracle. As they ate, the rest of the crew trickled in; the kids bouncing around, giving hugs indiscriminately; Johnha bestowing sticky kisses to her favorite people before settling down to eat. John was the only gloomy one in the room, still caught up in the problem of whether to just give up and go back to Earth or stay and try to resolve the Asuran problem.

When Rodney wandered in, it was almost anticlimactic. John didn't even notice at first until he heard Rodney order his customary huge coffee at the replimat. He turned then, and watched as Rodney made his way through the room to John's table. Everyone in the room spoke and touched him gently, just saying hello, smiling, letting Rodney know he was cared for, was loved. Even the kids managed to be soft spoken around him, which was close to a miracle.

By the time he made it to John's table, Rodney was actually smiling, that soft, almost shy smile, the one John liked best but saw the least. John smiled back, just to see it. "Hey. You doing okay?"

Rodney sat with a sigh. "I guess." He took a long pull on his coffee. "I just don't—"

"Up, up!" Johnha was at Rodney's side, her arms outstretched as she commanded his obedience.

Rodney chuckled weakly. "Yes, your highness."

She wouldn't settle on his lap, though. Instead, she threw her chubby (and sticky) arms around Rodney's neck and squeezed, quietly chanting, "Oddy, oddy, oddy."

Clearly startled, Rodney looked over at John. "Is she saying my name?"

John grinned. "Sounds like it, 'Oddy.'"

Chand and Jumy came over, Jumy dragging a chair, upon which she sat. "I'm sorry about the problems you're having over the Replicator magnet, Rodney," Jumy said, giving Rodney one of his favorite muffins. "I mean, that is what you were doing, right?"

Rodney shifted Johnha around so he could eat the muffin — and share it with her, whether he wanted to or not. "Thanks, Jumy." He swallowed a bite with some coffee. "And… Well, no, not exactly," he said, taking another bite and spraying muffin crumbs all over. "What I'm trying to do is modify the basecode of the Replicators to make them hyper-attract each other. They're made out of neutronium, which is not a ferromagnetic substance, such as iron or iron alloys which are always attracted to magnetic fields. If you put an ordinary magnet next to a chunk of neutronium, you're going to get the same kind of response as if you put it next to a chunk of, say, titanium or aluminum, which is to say a very weak or nonexistent one. Neutronium is a weak ferrimagnetic, or, in practical terms, a paramagnetic substance, basically barely attracted to magnetic fields. It would take…"

John had been so happy to see Rodney back to his old, pedantic self he'd almost tuned out the lecture, so it took him a second to realize Rodney had stopped speaking. John blinked and looked up. "Rodney?"

Rodney was frozen, his eyes big and his mouth open. It was a classic McKay 'Oh My God' moment and John's heart skipped a beat. "Rodney?!"

"Jumy! You're a genius!" Rodney gasped. He stood, automatically shifting Johnha on to his shoulder and all but ran out of the common room, John hot on his heels.

In Rodney's lab, Rodney handed Johnha over to John without looking as he pulled up one of his laptops and began scrolling through files. John felt a bump behind him and realized several people had followed him into the room, including Larrin, Darche and Arel, looking for her daughter. John grinned as he dumped Johnha into her mother's arms.

"Rodney," John said, looking over his shoulder, "care to share your breakthrough?"

"Magnets," Rodney muttered. "Magnets. Magnets! I was going after a code patch but that was— magnets. Electromagnets, simulated flesh made from neutronium alloy, why didn't I think, I don't need a fucking code patch, I don't need—"

"Language, Rodney," John said, grinning ear to ear. Rodney had figured something out and that made him happier than he had felt in months.

Blinking, Rodney looked up at him and gave John the biggest grin John had seen in months. "Magnets! Why didn't I think of that? Neutronium is sufficiently ferrimagnetic that a strong enough electrical current, creating an energy exchange between the interacting dipoles, means I can create a magnetic domain of sufficient strength to create ferromagnetism! I don't need the code patch! I can create the attraction between the Replicators and the neutronium using a simple electromagnet!"

It didn't sound simple to John, but if Rodney said it was, then damn, it must be.

And no, it wasn't simple, but it was doable. Rodney described it in fits and starts as he worked out the kinks — the application of a magnetic field of sufficient energy between dipoles, changing ferrimagnetic substances to ferromagnetic, paramagnetic behavior at Curie temperatures — until John was dizzy. Wenser was fiercely concentrated on Rodney's explanations, asking questions that made Rodney pause, back up and sometimes snap his fingers and change a variable.

Darche looked like John felt: mostly bewildered. "I understand an electromagnet," he said to John. "But this seems different."

"Yeah, I think it is," John replied, still trying to parse Rodney's explanation that Wenser seemed to be getting. "McKay. Can you stop with the geeking out for a minute and give those of us who aren't on your plane of existence an easier explanation?"

Rodney rolled his eyes. "Would you stop with the 'good ol' boy' thing already? It's just a simple electromagnet, well, okay, a super-powered one, I think we'll need two ZedPMs—"

"Three, I think," Wenser interjected, tilting Rodney's laptop so he could look at the calculations. "We need to make sure the net magnetic moment—"

"You sure?" Rodney interjected, putting his head together with Wenser's, forgetting John's question.

"It would be better to over-shoot than to under," Wenser said, nodding.

"Okay, point." Rodney made a notation on the laptop.

"McKay?" John sighed.

"Yes. Right. Neutronium isn't ferromagnetic. It's like… like titanium. Put a magnet near titanium and pretty much nothing happens, right?" Rodney looked between Darche and John and waved his hand irritably. "Whatever. Neutronium, like many ferrimagnetic metals—"

John interrupted him. "Wait, you said it wasn't—"

"I said it wasn't ferromagnetic. Like iron." Rodney glowered at him. "Pay attention. It's ferrimagnetic." He paused, and the glower turned into a brief frown. "Or, really, paramagnetic. Whatever. It has a very weak magnetic field. Which can be enhanced with an electromagnet. A very, very powerful electromagnetic. Of which we're going to make several and plant them all over the planet, turn them on, then detonate them before the Asurans can turn into the super-Godzilla-thing, imploding their planet. Now do you understand?"

Well, no. But over the next couple of weeks, John and Darche did come to comprehend what Rodney had in mind, and also the fact that it was completely theoretical.

"No, there's no guarantee that it'll work," Rodney sighed to John as they were hip deep in replicating ZPMs. "I think it'll work. I'm about ninety-seven percent certain it'll work. But it's the best plan I've got."

They'd already hashed out the proper star — a massive one in an open cluster but not the one they had originally chosen. "Light years, morons!" Rodney berated them, running through the specs of their various candidates. "You can't pick a star near an unstable one, it has to be an unstable star!"

"But we need planets, Neysa," Darche began in a reasonable voice, "and unstable means they don't have planets and—"

"I know that, you have to find one that does have— ah, here we go." Rodney zeroed in on one of their less than perfect candidates. "Three big gas giants with moons. Figure out the designation for one of the moons on the most distant gas giant." He turned and scowled at them. "Look. Push a star into supernova, fine. Push it into a black hole, hopefully, fine. If it's even one light year away from your target, it's going to take the bang a year to get there!"

John knew he wasn't alone in feeling stupid about that, it was something they just hadn't thought about. According to Rodney, the star was still unstable enough that five or six stargates lobbed into it would trigger a massive supernova. So fourteen or fifteen of them would blast it so far past the Chandrasekhar limit it would not only fail to pass go and not collect two hundred dollars, the Heart would have to be careful to be several hundred light hours away when it went.

They built the cradles and the magnets and the ZPMs and assembled all twelve magnet-bombs, very carefully, very precisely. Rodney chose the eleven places on the planet for the beam-downs, places which were deep and as empty as they could find. Then they all sat down and hashed out the plan in painstaking detail, because, as John was startled to discover, it was the fourth quarter, third down, two minutes on the clock, and time for a quarterback sneak.

Time to win.

Jumy wrote on the boards, this time, and even the kids were quiet, understanding the importance of the hour. Rodney started, standing in front of their family in the porch, ground central.

"Okay, I'm going to take this from the back end first. Assuming this works, it's going to be noticed. The Asurans are going to be pissed." There was a nasty chuckle at Rodney's words which John shared. "Immediately following the implosion, there will be a carrier wave, broadcasting from our designated moon, in my voice, acknowledging the 'plan' working. Once we have their attention, we'll trigger the second broadcast, which will be a distress call, cut short. We're going to let everyone assume that we were working from Janus's lab on our decoy moon and that something went wrong after we destroyed Asuras. This should cause everyone to drop whatever they're doing and converge on our net."

"And if it doesn't?" Larrin (predictably) asked, grinning in response to Rodney's exasperated glower in her direction.

"I'm getting to that," he said, flapping his hands. "Our snare is closer to the Wraith ships than to the Asuran fleet, which is good, since the Wraith ships aren't as fast as the Asurans. But more to the point, we're going to tip them off early, as in this afternoon, with Todd's old signal. It's going to start pinging intermittently, getting them interested in the area as we set our trap."

Everyone was nodding, even Larrin, who knew as well (probably better) how chancy the whole plan was. One small misstep and the whole thing could fall apart. They might get most of their enemies but miss a few ships, or manage to catch three or four but not the rest. It had to work, but it was the craziest scheme since they broke back into a Replicator-controlled Atlantis and rescued O'Neill and Woolsey.

"To that end," Rodney was saying when John wrenched his attention back, "we need to get the cruiser and the 'gates and move the whole mess to that system. We'll need to put one of the 'gates in the basement hold, because I'm going to be using it to deliver the main electromagnet to make sure they all work. Once I'm—"

"Whoa whoa!" John said, sitting up straight. "Wait one minute! We never discussed this part!"

Rodney looked endearingly confused, but John was on to that expression. "We didn't?"

"No, we didn't! We're going to beam down the magnets and—"

"No, no, wait a minute, let me explain why we're going to—"

"McKay," John said, in a dangerous voice.

"Just listen!" Rodney said, almost shouted, and John settled back with a glower. "We can beam eleven of the magnets down, yes, and set them off remotely, yes. But one of them has to be set off where I can see it, so I can know if it works. No, wait, just listen!" He glared at John who had opened his mouth to object. "Just, just shut up for a minute. I'm never going to be in any danger, you idiot, like I'd put myself in danger. We dial in, send the magnet through to make sure they don't have a shield up, I follow, covered by our shield, jeeze, you'd think I'd go in there without it? I'll set off the magnet, and if it works, I'll trigger the other magnets, come back, and we're on." He shook his head. "See? Easy."

"Easy my ass! McKay, they're not going to just let you dial back and waltz out of there!" John yelled. "Not to mention you'll be in the middle of a growing blob of neutronium!"

"Huh?" Rodney looked honestly puzzled. "What are you talking about? I'll just turn around and come home through the 'gate." He looked over the crowd who must have been looking at least as confused and pissed as John was. "The 'gate, you know, the one we'll keep open?" He rolled his eyes. "Oh, did I forget to tell you I figured out how to make the 'gates bi-directional with our new power supplies?"


They plopped a transmitter, blasting at odd intervals, on MX9-989, one of the moons around the third gas giant orbiting their targeted star (which was fucking huge, blue-white and really scary looking). They ended up naming the moon 'Queen Sacrifice' — Larrin demanded the privilege and wouldn't allow John to change it. For added special effects, they planted half a dozen ZPMs on the moon, rigged them in tandem and let them create an unshielded force field over a huge meteor crater, about seven miles in diameter. That protected the transmitter from the star's radiation and created a huge power signature. They also parked the cruiser nearby and made sure to shield it from stellar radiation as well. Darche and Wenser installed the remote-control on the cruiser to get it to do a sub-space hop into the star, carrying all but one of the stargates they'd harvested from the 'gate bridge. John and Larrin maneuvered the Heart around to pick up one of the 'gates, allowing it to slide into the basement hold where they secured it and covered it carefully with a tarp and padding.

Hooking a DHD and the 'gate into the Heart's power supply was easy, and Rodney spent a spare half-hour calculating the address to another planet in M7R-227 — Asuras' — system, where they could safely watch the planet implode. Assuming, of course, the magnets worked.

The evening before the fireworks, everyone was on edge, excited and nervous. John and Rike got a basketball game going, which devolved into a Calvinball game with the kids, and from there into an almost zero-gee game of Johnha-ball, where the little girl was the very willing 'ball' being gently tossed about, laughing and grabbing onto everyone she could reach. Larrin showed she had a sense of fun by showing up with an enormous water balloon, taller than Rike and bigger than Darche, daring anyone to try and throw it. It was lucky for her it finally broke in nearly zero-gee, because the mess would have been ridiculous. Though it did save time in bathing the kids.

At dinner, Chand and Jumy pulled John aside and dropped a bomb of a different sort. "Jumy and I want to… I mean…" Chand rubbed the back of his neck and turned red. "We need to ask you, I mean…"

Jumy blushed too and bumped her shoulder into Chand's. "We need to be married," she said, all in a rush, almost squeaking on the last word. "I'm, you see, I'm…"

John wasn't that dense. "You're pregnant?" he asked, a slow grin lighting his face. "You're going to have a baby!"

Now they were both so red they must have radiated in the ultra-violet. Jumy nodded rapidly, grinning from ear to ear but Chand just looked like he needed to throw up.

"That's wonderful! I'm so… of course… but… why would you… me?"

"Well.. you're the captain, and, and, you should, you know," Jumy looked very serious and John had a sinking feeling.

"Oh. Right." Crap. "Well, yes. Of course. We should, right. Um. Let me just. I'll talk to Rodney, and, we can maybe do it soon? Or do you need, a dress and champagne and flowers and… well, let me talk to Rodney."

As quickly as he could, John escaped and grabbed Rodney, pulling him aside. "What?"

"Listen, Jumy and Chand, they just ambushed me, Jumy's pregnant," John said quietly.

"What? Oh great, another kid, just what we needed. Okay, fine, so what? You need me to build another kid finder? Get Honol to fabricate another cradle?"

"No, they want me to marry them!" John scratched at his scalp. "What do I do?"

Rodney blinked rapidly at him. "Uh, tell them you're taken?"

Now it was John's turn to blink. "What? No! You moron, they want me to marry them! Them! Together! I'm the ship's captain, and they want me to—"

"Oh." Rodney looked embarrassed. "Well, just marry them, then. What?"

John gave Rodney a blank look. "But I don't know how?"

"Oh, for God's sake." Rodney pulled away from him and clapped his hands, getting everyone's attention. They were all still in the common room, most of them still finishing dinner. "Everybody! Chand and Jumy are pregnant and want to get married! Isn't that great?! Now John will marry them, unless Jumy turns into a Bridezilla and freaks out about a dress and flowers and the size of the reception hall and the flavor of her cake. Then they can have a one night honeymoon before we all return to Earth and we can send them to the Poconos."

There was a mixture of reactions, ranging from John's embarrassment to Arel and Larrin's delight to Tarn's obvious amused bewilderment. He caught John's eye and laughed out loud at John's expression.

Arel had some fabric that could pass as a beautiful dress; Jumy had flowers she had grown in the greenhouse which Honol replicated into a huge bouquet for her; Suud took John aside and gave him the basics on what he should say to marry two people; the kids found a beautiful landscape out the windows that would serve as a 'wedding chapel,' since it was all they had. And suddenly, John was at one end of the common room with Jumy and Chand standing in front of him, Jumy looking kind of radiant and Chand looking pale and about as sick as John felt.

"Okay then!" John started, resolutely not looking at Darche or Tarn, both of whom had asked him what a 'bridezilla' was and were still on the brink of hilarity over it. "We're here, all of us, to celebrate the marriage of Chand Agran and Jumy Nelles, who are in love and wish to spend the rest of their lives together. Now, marriage is a big step, and you don't go into it lightly. It means you pledge yourselves to each other, and you, uh, try to work out your differences." John tried to keep his wince internal — he'd been married once, and it hadn't worked out so well. "You're going to get mad at each other, you're going to have arguments, there are going to be tough times. Don't think there won't be, either, because there will. Just remember, uh…"

Suddenly at a loss, John looked up across the room, across the assembled people, his friends, his family, and saw Rodney's face. Saw his gentle, crooked smile, his broad shoulders, his receding hairline, his familiar, loved face. John smiled back and found the words he needed to say.

"Just remember you love each other, even when the times are really bad, even when you think you've had enough. Just remember you love each other." John smiled at Rodney for a moment before turning back to the couple in front of him. "Chand Agran, do you promise to love and cherish Jumy Nelles, to honor her, to stay with her in sickness and in health, in good times and bad, until death do you part?"

Chand had to swallow a couple of times before he could speak, but he finally managed to say, "I do promise," in a voice just loud enough to be heard.

John turned to Jumy. "Jumy Nelles, do you promise to love and cherish Chand Agran, to honor him, to stay with him in sickness and in health, in good times and bad, until death do you part?"

Jumy's voice trembled only slightly, but it was loud enough to carry. "I promise."

"I don't think we've got anything to use as rings and I don't know if you guys even use—"

"I do, though," Chand said, almost hyperventilating. "I — I made this. It's not really good, and I promise, Jumy, I'll get you a real one, soon, but… but…"

John felt a grin spread across his face as he saw the little circle of metal come out of Chand's pocket. It looked like strands of the silver alloy the Heart used for circuitry, they'd been finding it all over the place. Chand — or someone — had twisted it around, practically braided it, into a beautifully intricate ring. Jumy breathed in sharply when she saw it.

"I think it'll fit," Chand whispered. "I swear I'll get you a real one, some day, I really will."

Jumy's chin was quivering dangerously and John hurriedly said, "I'm sure it'll fit, just put it on her, Chand. And there you go. I pronounce you married by whatever power I have." Chand slipped the ring on Jumy's middle finger of her left hand, which must have been the right finger, because she started crying and threw her arms around him, planting a kiss on him that looked pretty damn good from where John was standing.

The crew broke out in applause and cheers and the kids started throwing flower petals everywhere. Jumy was passed around by everyone who kissed her and was kissed by her, and Chand made the rounds as well, getting kisses and thumps on the back in equal measure. Rike pulled out his home brew (he swore it was better when not replicated) and the party grew legs. John settled back into a corner with Rodney, keeping an eye on everyone — he knew he would have to pull the plug before anyone got too shit-faced, because tomorrow was too important to be hung-over.

"That was good," Rodney said, taking a big gulp out of the mug John brought him.

John sighed. "Nah, it was awful. But I got through it." The kids were clapping rhythmically as Jumy and Chand were sort of dancing around each other. "I miss my guitar. All these years out here and we didn't even find a harmonica? You'd think we'd at least have an eight-track."

"I miss more than the guitar you sucked at playing," Rodney said, after another pull at his mug. "I'd kill for a bag of Double-Stuf Oreos."

The party didn't last long, John had worn them out with games and the ale made everyone sleepy too. That night, Rodney softening inside him and his come drying on his belly, John whispered, "Whatever happens tomorrow, whether we do it or not, we're going home."

Rodney's face was mashed into John's neck and he was still breathing hard, but he managed to nod. After another moment, he lifted his head and looked down at John. "Yeah," he whispered back. He kissed John lightly. "It's time."


End game.

Robert Heinlein once wrote, "Put not thy faith in Ace Kickers" and John believed everything Heinlein said, ever since he was twelve and read Have Spacesuit, Will Travel. He was obsessive about checking and double and triple checking everything. Rodney didn't seem to mind, because he was generally just behind John, performing triple checks of his own.

Everything was in place and seemed to be functioning. Todd's beacon was spastically transmitting, and several hive ships were tentatively heading towards it, according to their long-range sensors. They had the cruiser in place and ready to bounce into the star and had already beamed the magnet-bombs into the planet, and they remained shielded and undetected. The Heart was parked in orbit around the farthest planet of the system and they had uncovered the stargate in the basement hold, adding consoles around it so they wouldn't have to go back up to the control room to watch the fun. The main magnet-bomb was placed on a mini-MALP, a remotely-controlled, wheeled cart, complete with camera and limited sensor array.

Rodney was ready, wearing their customary black leather and carrying their portable shielding. He had to convince John several times that yes, the 'gate was indeed bi-directional and would not close until he told it to, then had to endure John's frustrated glower over not being told these things.

Finally, they were ready to go. John dialed M7R-227 for hopefully the very last time and punched it. Rodney tapped his tablet and sent the little cart through, watching the sensors attached to it carefully. After a moment, he announced, "It's through. They're all there, just watching it." He took a deep breath and turned to look at John. "I'll be right back."

John swallowed. "See that you are. Don't make me come after you."

Rodney just grinned and walked through the 'gate.

The laptop and cart were hooked to their monitoring system too, so they saw everything from two perspectives, saw the cart come to a stop with a gentle thump at the foot of the stairs leading to the control tower, heard the voices, saw the Replicators draw their weapons on it and on Rodney.

"Dr. McKay!"

The voice was very familiar. "Hello, Oberoth. You're looking alive." Rodney's voice was steady and clear.

"What are you doing here? What is the nature of this device?"

"I'm here to destroy you, and the device is the method by which I'm going to do it. Janus had a lot of secrets, you know, it just took us a while to find all of them." Rodney hit a button on his laptop and it beeped. "Goodbye, Oberoth. You've been a massive pain in my ass and I will not miss you in the least."

John found himself holding his breath, waiting, praying for the device to work. It took a long two or three seconds but then he noticed the Replicators looking down at themselves in puzzlement. They were flying apart, pulling apart into little pieces.

"Look!" Rike shouted, pointing to another monitor, showing telemetry on the planet itself. The magnet-bombs were working, pulling neutronium to themselves and accreting massive globs of the stuff. It was happening fast, faster than they had anticipated, if the data they were getting were correct.

"Rodney! Get back here now! It's working!" John practically shouted, and suddenly Rodney was there, back through the 'gate which then collapsed. He was grinning from ear to ear and John grabbed him, pulled the laptop out of his hands and kissed him and kissed him and kissed him.

"I know, I get it, now let go of me you lunatic!" Rodney was laughing even as he kissed John back. "I've got to keep track of the accretion… Christ! Darche! What's the— are the shields holding?"

But Darche was ahead of Rodney and said so. "They're holding, the magnets are working!" Darche was also grinning — hell, everyone was. "The shielding is protecting the power canisters from the— Oh! The raw neutronium is being gathered faster than the—!"

They were sixty or seventy light-hours out from the planet but not for long; Wenser was on the bridge and shot them back to fifteen minutes out as soon as Rodney made it back to the hold. Everyone gasped as the big plasma screen in the hold lit with the visual from the planet. It was grotesque, the mass of neutronium was almost bulging away from the planet itself, looking a lot like cancerous growths. It seethed and bubbled as it grew.

"They're trying to gain control of it," Rodney muttered, staring at the telemetry. "How long?"

Darche and Larrin were working separate consoles and as Wenser clattered, breathless, into the hold. Both of them said — almost simultaneously — "Eight seconds." Larrin added, "No more than that."

Rodney nodded, agreeing, and John counted down in his head. Rodney grinned as John hit a silent zero and mashed enter on his laptop.

At first, there was nothing, then fissures seemed to grow, like a super-volcano. The cracks widened and grew, spreading across the whole planet, almost in slow motion, before everything seemed to collapse into itself.

"Wait for it," Rodney murmured. "Thirty-six ZedPMs…"

Suddenly the planet exploded, a cataclysmic, titanic thing that made the Death Star look like… well, like special effects. There was no fire, no noise, but the planet was abruptly gone, like it had never been there. The shock wave hit them about fifteen minutes later, causing the camera to bounce but the Heart absorbed it all with her inertial dampers.

"Wow."

Tarn's soft word finally broke the silence. Larrin took a deep breath and gently punched Rodney on the shoulder. "You don't mess around, McKay, do you?"

Rodney snorted, his face indescribable. "Well, one down. Two to go?"


The first signal, in Rodney's voice, saying the 'plan' had succeeded and asking for pickup, was set to go with a remote trigger. They activated it almost immediately after the planet blew. It was strong and completely unshielded, as if Rodney didn't give a damn who picked it up.

When they arrived at Queen Sacrifice, they checked the cruiser and got it ready to go into the giant star. Then they parked and waited.

The Asuran Replicators were clearly pissed. Several ships raced back to M7R-227 and just as quickly returned to rendezvous at P24-334, one of the planetary nebulas they had been farming for gasses. Within a few hours, all the replicator ships in Pegasus were at the same location.

Meanwhile, the Wraith were heading for the source of the signal in Todd's frequency, which Rodney  had since cut off, before the success broadcast. They were being very cautious, however, which was not what they wanted. It was time to go to the next phase.

Rodney's 'distress call' was loud, backed by (fake) explosions, blamed the Wraith, cut off with a squeal about three-quarters through it, and would have made Steven Spielberg proud.

"Bingo," Rodney said, staring at the long-range sensor.

The Wraith fleet was heading their way, every last ship. "Excellent," John said, rubbing his hands together. Rodney smacked him.

"I'm picking up the Machine-Men's fleet on the sensors," Larrin said, changing the focus on the central column. "They're coming. And look, isn't that a Wraith cruiser?"

They looked carefully at the massed fleet and John suddenly lost all of his elation. "Yeah. Looks like it."

"Wouldn't have shown up on the core drive clone, would it." Rodney's eyes were bleak and John knew exactly what he was thinking.

"Blessed!" Darche crowed, sounding fiercely glad. "They did get picked up by the Machine-Men, John, your trick worked!"

"Yeah," John said, feeling a little sick, "I guess it did."

There was really nothing to do but wait, it would be hours before the ships could jump close enough to Queen Sacrifice and they didn't want to trigger the trap too early. John stepped back and sank into a chair, watched the display and listened to the crew rejoice over the plan working, over the incredible long-shot actually came home to roost. It shouldn't have worked — and it still might not — but it looked as if it were going to after all.

Rodney walked back and stood next to him, bumping into him with his hip. "Jayarre's on that ship."

"No, he's not," John said in a dull voice. "Jayarre died eight or nine years ago."

Rodney didn't reply, but John heard him sigh.

"There's no way we can—"

"I know, Rodney," John said, keeping his voice down with effort. He looked up and saw the same pain in Rodney's eyes he felt in his own. "We have to do this. Kanaan is a rotten son of a bitch who fucked over our friends, who killed for the hell of it, who stole and destroyed the kid who should have been… should have been ours, damn it." John looked away again, ashamed of his outburst. "He should have been ours."

Rodney put his hand on John's shoulder and it felt good, felt warm and reassuring and it shook too, because Rodney hurt as much as John did. No, they wouldn't be telling Teyla about what happened with Jayarre. She had mourned already, she wouldn't need to mourn again.

"This looks fantastic," Larrin said, laughing. "Everybody's coming to our party. Everybody! Sheppard, I will never, ever doubt you again."

John snorted. "Somebody write that down and notarize it. What's our ETAs?

"Wraith will be here in… about two hours. Machine-Men in…" Darche paused. "A little less? Yes. I think so."

"They'll probably start bombarding the planet," Rodney said, "trying to get past the shield. Good luck with that. Then when the Wraith get here —"

"That's going to be fun to watch," John said, shoving the sadness, the hurt, back down where it belonged and sealed the lid over it. "So, how long does it take to create a supernova-black hole?"

Rodney turned and just looked at John. "What, you expect me to know that?"

"Well… yeah?"

"No One Has Ever Done This Before," Rodney said, clearly and loudly enunciating each word. "How the fuck should I know?"

Larrin started laughing.


This was what they wanted to happen: the Replicators would arrive and start bombarding the moon, trying to get past the shielding. The Wraith would then arrive and start bombarding the Replicator's reduced fleet, willing to risk all to get what they thought was under the shield. At that point, the crew of the Heart would be watching from a safe distance as their cruiser jumped into the star, making it go supernova, then turn into a black hole which would and obliterate everybody. Game over; cue applause.

Unfortunately…

"The remote control isn't working," Darche reported, as he frantically ran diagnostics. "I need to beam over."

"I'll go with you," John said, grabbing a tool kit.

"Me too, I set it up," Wenser added.

"Take one of the generators!" Rodney yelled as they headed down the corridor.

They took two generators over and still couldn't get the damn thing going. It had worked, they had tested it, extensively, it had worked, but now it didn't. The console powering the hyperdrive was in working order — barely, the cruiser's systems were always teetering on the edge of failure — but the sublight engines were being stubborn and the remote control console simply wouldn't talk to either of them. Larrin beamed over and tried her unique brand of jury-rigging but there were still issues and the damn thing simply wouldn't run.

Finally Rodney beamed over and worked with Darche and Wenser while John and Larrin went back to the Heart and watched the epic space battle that was getting ever closer to forming. "The Wraith are still outnumbered," Larrin said, watching as the forces continued to approached each other. "They could turn around and—"

"Yeah. I know." John was getting antsy, his spidey sense was pinging loudly. They needed to set off the big bangs and they needed to do it now. The only thing keeping him from radioing Rodney was the knowledge that Rodney would blast his eardrums out.

"The Machine-Men are splitting up," Rike said, pointing. "They've started bombarding the planet and have set up a defensive perimeter with half their forces."

"Look at the Wraith," Larrin said. "I've seen this before, the attack plan, how they split up before coming out of hyperspace. They're being cautious."

"We need the damn cruiser operational now," John said, nearly vibrating from the tension. "I'm beaming over again. Keep me posted every five minutes."

John beamed over and ran to the control room of the cruiser, hearing the expletives long before he hit the room. Most of the curses were directed at the cruiser and were from everybody in the room.

"What's going on? We need to get moving!"

"You think I don't know that?" Rodney's voice was dripping acid and frustration. "This fucking piece of shit—"

"We've finally gotten sublight engines back online but neither it nor the hyperdrive is not responding to the remote control," Darche said, sounding just as frustrated.

Wenser was under the hyperdrive console and John just heard a steady stream of cursing from him.

"Can we get hyperdrive working at all?" John asked, pulling up the laptop on the drive's console.

"Yes, but fat lot of good it does us!" Rodney growled. He was pulling crystal after crystal on the remote control panel, checking each one before putting them back in. Darche was next to him, running diagnostics on the power board.

"It's like it doesn't even see the remote console and I don't know why," Wenser said. "It worked fine when we tested it! Rodney. Do you have another multi-meter?"

"Here." Rodney said. John caught the device Rodney tossed over and handed it down to Wenser.

"All right, fine, then can we just point it at the sun and beam off? Skip hyperdrive?" John was getting progressively nervous the longer they waited.

"No! Everything would melt before we even got close to the core!" Rodney kicked the console, drawing a protesting beep from it. "It has to be a hyperdrive jump."

"Then—" John was interrupted by a radio call from the Heart.

"Sheppard," Larrin said, "the Wraith just dropped out of hyperspace. They're beginning to square off."

"Copy. Shit!" John scrubbed his scalp with his fingernails, trying to come up with something. "Then I'll stay aboard, plot the jump, punch it and you beam me out."

Rodney's face drained of all color and he looked simultaneously furious and terrified. "You know that's not possible, you bastard, you know you can't beam out of a ship in subspace—"

"Rodney, it's—"

"And so help me God, I'll kill you myself if you try to sacrifice yourself again!" Rodney ended in a roar, startling everyone in the room. He advanced on John and looked like he was ready to punch John in the face — either that, or stroke out.

"McKay, Rodney, stop." John grabbed Rodney's fists and held them tightly. "I wouldn't. You know I wouldn't."

"No! I don't know!" Rodney tried to twist out of John's grip but John wouldn't let him. "You promise and promise and in the end, it's always 'so long, Rodney'!" His face was purple with rage or pain or something somewhere between the two.

John gritted his teeth and tried for calm, but failed miserably. "Fuck you, McKay, I promised and I'm going to keep that promise! I'm not going to sacrifice myself! There has to be a way to punch the fucking hyperdrive and get off the cruiser!"

"There isn't." Darche's soft words were the last thing John heard for a while.


"Sheppard. Sheppard? C'mon, wake up." Larrin's voice and her hand smacking his cheeks brought John to wakefulness through the familiar tingling sensation of a Wraith stunner's effects.

"Larrin? What the…?" His brain still wasn't quite awake.

"He's awake. How's McKay?" Larrin was talking to someone else and John pressed his brain to get past the fuzziness. Something was wrong.

"He's coming out now." That was Chand's voice. Coming out. Stunned. From… from…

"Christ. Darche. Where's the cruiser? Where's Darche?!"

Larrin turned back to John and helped him sit up, steadying him. "He's dead." Her voice was flat and she wouldn't meet his gaze. "He stunned you two, made Wenser beam back with you, then jumped into the star with the cruiser."

John reeled, almost fell off the bed, and it wasn't because of the stunner aftereffects. "He did what?" he whispered. "Why?"

"What?" John turned his head and saw Rodney sitting up, looking as shocked and horrified as John felt.

They were in the med bay and Wenser was sitting on a chair nearby. He looked like he'd been crying and wasn't quite done. "He said to tell you that it was his choice to make and there really weren't any other options." Larrin continued in a thick voice.

"There are always options!" John roared, shoving the heel of one hand into his eye socket, wishing he had something, someone, to hit. "Goddammit!"

"Why… why did he…?" Rodney sounded and looked a lot like Wenser did.

John didn't answer, didn't need to. He knew exactly why and how Darche did what he did, because it was something John had done in the past. It was something John would have done — okay, might have done, if he hadn't promised Rodney. And clearly, after their shouting match, they needed a little more work on their relationship — like that was ever going to happen — and dammit, why did Darche do that?!

"Bastard," John muttered, focusing on the floor and trying really hard to keep from crying. "Self-sacrificing, overly-noble, brainless bastard."

Jarl came in, helped Chand do a quick check of both John and Rodney, gave them water, made sure they were okay. Nobody said another word, unwilling to discuss what had happened, already missing Darche.

Finally, Rodney sniffed and asked in a watery voice, "Where are we anyway?"

"Same place," Larrin replied. "Tarn and Honol have the watch. They'll call if anything happens."

"We need to get up to the bridge," John said, keeping his voice to a low monotone, so it wouldn't betray him.

"Yeah," Larrin said. She took a deep, shaky breath, and John remembered how close she'd been to Darche. "We can grieve later. Right now we've got enemies to kill."

John nodded curtly and slid off the bed, holding a hand out to Rodney to steady him when he wobbled. They looked at each other and all John could think of was that awful moment when they had taken Carson's casket through the wormhole to Earth, seeing the pain in Rodney's eyes and knowing it was mirrored in his own.

"How long have we been out?" he asked as they headed forward.

"Less than two hours," Larrin replied. "They were going at it pretty hard when… when I left the control room."

John took a quick look at the scanners and saw that the Wraith and Replicators were heavily engaged, pretty much full-bore. Good. They could eat each other alive for all he cared.

"Telemetry on the star?" Rodney barked and John knew what he was doing, because John was doing it too — focusing on the job at hand.

"It's being sent to your laptop on the long-range sensor console," Honol replied. He looked up and met John's eyes briefly before looking down again. "He… he sent a message over. I recorded it."

John nodded shortly. "We'll look at it later. What's the status of the fight?"

Larrin was pulling data up on the other scanners. "Looks like they're both getting pretty chewed up, but the Wraith are losing badly. If they retreat, we need to stop them. Do we have any way to do that? We've got drones—"

"But no way to deliver them," Wenser said dully. "We couldn't get the chair to interface with the Heart's systems."

"It doesn't matter." Rodney said flatly. "Sheppard. Drop one of our subspace relays and pull us back now. The star's gone so far unstable I can't guarantee we're not in the line of fire."

Plotting a course and punching hyperdrive gave John something to do, which was good. He bounced them out to the sun's Oort cloud, then walked over to Rodney's station, looking over his shoulder. "What's it doing?"

"Take a look at the numbers," Rodney said, after pulling up the probe. "I give it between five and thirty minutes."

"What?" John looked down and Rodney pulled up the sun, a filtered, real eyeball look at the sun and if it was scary before, it was downright terrifying now. It had swollen, and there were tendrils… "Are those plasma bursts?"

"Yeah. Mass has increased three-fold. It's hit the Chandrasekhar limit and passed it and I think we're going to get our own little Seyfert galaxy in miniature any minute now."

John looked at the numbers, realized they were exactly what he had predicted and was surprised he wasn't surprised. Darche did good… it was going to work. "How long— fuck."

The screen whited out.

"Did it just—"

"There it goes!" Larrin gasped, watching the sensors. "Do we need to move back?"

"Not for another hour," Rodney said, sounding tired instead of elated. "I made a special probe, one that's got the strongest shield I could make. I want to launch it now, get it as close in as I can before it's destroyed. We can stick around the area for a while, see what happens, make sure… make sure everyone got caught."

"Yeah, okay." After all the build up, all the pressure, the work, the concentration… it was over. He looked down at the laptop, then up into Rodney's face to see the pain etched on it, pain when it should have been elation.

Yeah, it was over, over but the shouting. Thing was, the cost was a little bit more than John wanted to pay.


"I'm not going to say don't be mad, because I'm fairly certain you're about as pissed off at me as is possible. I just want you to know I didn't do it without forethought. Really. There's nothing left for me here, and really nothing for me in your galaxy. I'm the last of my world, and while I won't say this is penance, there is some poetic justice in it. In large part, we started the Blessed, I guess I would say it is an honor to end them."

Darche looked at them through the pickup and smiled crookedly, warmly. "Tell Jumy and Chand to name one of their kids after me. My love to all of you, and thank you, John and Rodney, for taking a chance on me. Goodbye."

They were watching in the common room, and Jumy left, sobbing, by the time Darche said her name. Arel, Wenser and Chand were openly crying, and John felt like it too, though most of him was still angry. The kids weren't watching; they'd been especially close to Darche and Arel said she'd let them watch in private, later, once everything had calmed down.

The Heart was a subdued ship when she should have been partying, when they all should have been dancing on the tables in glee. The most ridiculous and farfetched plan in the history of the universe had actually worked and Darche's Star (as they were all calling it) had turned into a rather large black hole. As far as they could determine, none of their enemies had made it out — Rodney was pretty sure it was going to turn into a super-massive singularity that might even devour the whole galaxy in five or six hundred million years.

The drive core clone came up empty, so no Replicator ships were in evidence. They scanned in ever widening patterns but came up empty for Wraith, too. Nothing was moving, not even a Blessed mouse. Larrin had them head over to the Wraith building ground but it was deserted, though Rodney sent a few ZPM overload bombs down just in case.

They left another probe monitoring Darche's star and pulled out, to the edge of Pegasus in the direction of the Milky Way, and stopped. Everybody was rested and the pain of losing Darche was less sharp, more like a dull, throbbing ache. At breakfast, four mornings after they knew the plan had worked, he got everyone together for a meeting.

"Okay, then," John said, sitting on one of the tables where everyone could see him. "We did it." He looked around the room at his crew, his family, saw the pain of loss and wanted to replace it with the happiness of what they had accomplished. "Darche said he…" John stopped and looked down. "You know, I'm still mad at him. He wanted this moment more than any of us, I think. And now, he's not here to appreciate it and that just…"

Jumy, who hadn't begun to show yet, was still pretty hormonal and John hated to set her off but sometimes just eating made her cry. At his words, she turned and buried her face in Chand's shoulder and sobbed; Larrin patted her shoulder awkwardly.

John swallowed hard. Rodney handed him a mug of tea, then sat near him, resting his head on John's calf. John took a swig of the hot tea and it helped. "Thanks," he murmured to Rodney. "Anyway. We did what we set out to do, and now we've got a decision to make. I promised the people we've got in storage that we'd take them to safety, and the thing is, that's here, I guess, since the galaxy is pretty well empty, therefore safe."

"For two or three hundred million years," Rodney muttered, and that made John snort and Wenser smack Rodney's shoulder.

"The plan's always been to go back to Earth, which is where Rodney and I were born. There are a lot of empty planets in our galaxy, or mostly empty planets, and Earth is just jammed full of doctors and people who could help those we have in the buffers. So the question I have for you guys is… Where do we go from here?"

Everyone, even the kids, was quiet at John's words. Finally Tarn, a man of few words due to his ruined voice, stood up. He walked to John and put his hand on John's shoulder. "We follow where you go, Onsa," he said, and his use of Darche's nickname convention nearly undid John. Tarn squeezed John's shoulder and drew him into a one-armed hug before returning to his seat.

"I'd like to see Earth," Arel said, and her husband Cerd nodded thoughtfully.

"Johnha and Jumy's baby deserve a chance to grow up on a world of grass and trees," Larrin said, smiling at John.

The kids, Molla and Korr, had really been hit hard with Darche's death. It was hard enough to be an orphan but having one of your adopted family die too just made it worse. They had been very quiet  during the meeting, but now Korr nudged his sister with his shoulder, apparently encouraging her to speak. "John?"

John smiled at her. "Yeah?"

"Is there lots of chocolate on Earth?"

John held out his arms and she came to him, let him boost her up on the table until she was sitting in his lap. "Yep, lots of it, and more, stuff you won't even believe."

"Wait until you get a look at television," Rodney said quietly, but he was smiling, like everyone was.

"Okay, then, I think that settles it. Let's blow this pop stand and head… home."


By late afternoon they managed to get a good bout of Calvinball going, and Tarn and Chand showed up with water balloons towards the end which got everybody soaked and laughing. By dinner time, they were able to hold a wake for Darche and managed to distribute his meager belongings, and it turned out that Jarl had been sleeping with him, occasionally. The adults got mildly plastered and John felt better — well, at least a little less angry.

That evening, John and Rodney plotted a course for Earth and punched it before retiring for the night. They took showers and went to bed and John thought they'd just go to sleep, like they had for the last few nights, too worn out for anything but — well, he supposed cuddling wasn't a very manly word, but that's what it felt like, but Rodney surprised him.

"How long until we get there?" John asked as they settled in under the covers.

"Couple of weeks, more or less, we're not hurrying," Rodney replied. He rolled over so he was partially on top of John. "I suggest we do a little snooping first, make sure nothing bad has happened before we hail them. It's been a while, after all."

"True." John looked up into Rodney's face and ran his thumb along the new lines around Rodney's eyes. Most were laugh lines but there were a few worry ones as well. And his hairline was receding a little more every day.

"What?"

John smiled. "Nothing. Just thinking."

"You can stop that now. You saved the universe and now you get to reap your reward."

"Oh, yeah?"

"Yeah."

"So, what is it?"

Rodney smiled. It was an interesting smile, because even in the dim light of their cabin, John could see so much in it. There was sadness, and contentment, and happiness, and a bunch of other emotions John wasn't sure he could put a name to. "You get a balding old genius curmudgeon who's addicted to coffee and a skinny flyboy."

"Gee, I was hoping for a new toaster."

"Smartass." Rodney let his head droop until his lips were just brushing John's, the softest caress ever. John had to swallow hard to keep from being overcome at the sweetness of it. Rodney simply kissed him, and John grew drunk on those kisses, which progressed from dry to wet, from closed mouth to open, but always gentle. He shifted again so that they were pressed together, Rodney on top, just kissing John, over and over. He was utterly silent, intent, even concentrated, and when John opened his mouth to ask if he was all right, Rodney stopped, shook his head, whispered, "No," so John let him do as he wished.

Apparently what he wanted was to kiss as much of John as he could. Kiss and caress and make love to John, as gently and carefully as if John were made of the fragile parts Dr. McKay, genius, dealt with every day. By the time Rodney pushed inside John, John was shaking from the intensity of Rodney's care, gasping in need. Rodney bent John nearly double but it was all right, because there wasn't any way John could have tensed, even if his life depended on it.

When he came, it was with a rush of feeling that felt different, felt almost new, more intense than 'normal,' whatever that was, and it made his whole body writhe with the pleasure of it. Rodney was coming, spasming, mewling, his head buried in John's neck and his arms trembling from holding himself up. John finally just let go, let everything go, finally decided no, there was no more threat and yes, he was home, he was safe, he was here.

The last of his barriers fell with a painful, liberating crash and suddenly that's all he was, John Sheppard, lover to Rodney McKay, Captain to the Heart of Gold. He didn't realize he was crying until he heard Rodney whispering urgently to him, calling his name.

"John? John?" Rodney was still hyperventilating, so he hadn't spaced out too long, then. "You okay?" Rodney gently wiped the tears from John's face, looking concerned.

"Yeah, m'okay" John choked out. "Never better." And that was the truth.


EPILOGUE:

Earth was so different. There were naquadah generators everywhere, the U.S. had a female president, and Madison was seventeen, driving a car and on her way to college at Cal Tech. She also had an eight year old brother named Robbie, which completely freaked Rodney out and amused John to hell.

Jeannie spent the first few hours with them alternately hanging on Rodney's neck and crying or smacking his head and crying. When she saw John, she did the same with him. But it didn't take long for things to settle down, or for things to get busy.

General Carter finally couldn't stand it any longer and joined John on the Heart for the run to Earth. She stayed awake for the entire eleven-hour trip and was almost vibrating in place the whole time. Radek also came along for the ride and was so ecstatic he almost forgot how speak English. John had asked Ronon to come as well, in order to introduce him to the rest of the crew and show him the basement hold — and talk about Darche.

Ronon watched Darche's last video, frowning and nodding slightly. John had already explained what had happened. A few moments after the end of the recording, Ronon said, "I would have liked him."

John had to clear his throat before he could speak. "Yeah. You would have."

"We'll drink to his memory."

John just nodded.

Once back at Earth, things moved from busy to slightly insane. Jumy and Chand were all but adopted by Jeannie and Kaleb and John had the feeling that Chand would be going to medical school inside a year. Arel and Cerd decided to settle on New Athos with the kids, which delighted Teyla and made Johnha cry, as soon as she realized her favorite uncles weren't coming with her. John and Rodney had to promise to visit frequently, a promise they fully intended to keep.

Ronon took Rike and Tarn under his wing and introduced them to Teal'c, so John just made a note of that — it looked like Ronon had it covered. Wenser and Radek bonded on board the Heart over singularities and once they were back at the SGC, the two of them disappeared. Sam laughed when he asked her about it.

"Don't worry, I've got it covered. Anybody coming from your ship is going to have diplomatic immunity." She grinned at his obvious surprise. "Hey, as far as I'm concerned, you're our ambassadors from Pegasus. You're a whole new world for us, just when we were getting stale." She leaned in. "Just don't let them take her apart, okay?"

John resolved to be a little more observant after that. But he did allow the SGC to take control of the pattern buffers and ZPMs that kept them going. Sam told him the plan was to 'decant' the residents a few dozen at a time in a controlled environment. "You can do whatever you want with them," he told Sam. "I promised them I'd bring them to a safe place without Wraith or Asurans, after that, it's up to you."

"Thanks a lot," Sam replied dryly.

John just grinned, unrepentant. "Get Jarl to help you, the shorter guy, green eyes, dark skin? He's our best healer and knows a lot about what went on in Pegasus. With some training he'd be one hell of a good base doctor."

"Thanks," Sam said, making a note. "You did good, John… hell, you did spectacular. And I'm not going to lie to you, I want the Heart, she's gorgeous. If you ever figure out how to clone her, I'm first in line. I'll bet you ten bucks that you're going to have Daniel busting down your door to get a crack at the alien language on her too." Sam shook her head, still smiling. "You'd better get out of here, though, it's getting late and I know Jeannie isn't going to forgive me if you show up late for dinner."

John borrowed Jeannie's car for the trip, which was about forty-five minutes from Vancouver. He was spoiled — beaming technology meant you never had to actually 'move' laterally; they were even sleeping in the Heart in their bedroom at night because it was easier. But for this surprise, he needed a car. He'd already told Rodney to quit asking about it so they were talking about other things, finally.

"So Jumy's turned into a mall-rat and all my sister does is laugh." Rodney snorted in derision. "Some role-model she is. But now that she's beginning to show, she needs new clothes," Rodney added in a falsetto.

"Oh leave the poor kid alone, she's had it tough," John said mildly. "Hey, did you know that Sam offered Larrin a job with the SGC?"

"Oh, yeah?" Rodney turned to look at him. "I thought she was going to join up with her people?"

"Well, the Travelers here aren't really her 'family' you know, and I guess she didn't feel… comfortable." John sighed. Larrin had been the one remaining worry for him. "She's thinking about it."

"I hope she takes it." Rodney made a soft, frustrated sound. "She needs something to do. This enforced idleness is going to drive her nuts. Speaking of which…"

"We're almost there, McKay, you can hold on for another few minutes."

John glanced at Rodney to find him grinning. "I wasn't exactly referring to that, but since you brought it up—"

"Then what were you talking about?" John asked before Rodney could get started.

"I was going to talk about the Heart and us. About what we're going to—"

Suddenly the GPS announced the turn-off and John said, "Hold that thought," and turned. Rodney frowned and looked around at the heavily-wooded area. It was fall in Canada, cold and crisp and overcast that afternoon, making the spectacular colors of the leaves stand out in sharp relief. John drove up the long, gravel driveway to the paddock and stopped just outside what looked like the main barn area.

Rodney looked around and buried his face in his hands. "You have got to be kidding me!" he said, laughing.

"C'mon, McKay, time to face the music," John said, keeping from laughing by the skin of his teeth.

It took just a minute to meet with the manager, Karen Leath, who was as nice in person as she was on the phone. She pulled the surprise out and handed the reins to John, who brought the pony to Rodney.

"Here you go, Meredith Rodney McKay, one pony, as promised." Rodney was leaning on the car, his face red from laughter. "Her name is Red Sunrise, but you can call her Sunny." John fished out one of the carrot pieces he'd stashed in his pocket and gave it to the pony, who was most appreciative. "C'mere and meet your present already."

Rodney walked slowly over. "Is it going to bite me?"

John rolled his eyes in exasperation. "Of course she's not going to bite you! She's a pony! Here, here's a piece of carrot. Hold your hand flat and give it to her."

It took Rodney a few minutes, but he finally managed to lose his tentativeness around the pony. It helped that Sunny was an older mare and extremely friendly. She whickered and gently nudged Rodney for more treats and rubs as he grew bolder.

After a few minutes, John led her back into the barn and showed Rodney how to curry her. "I can't believe you got me a pony," Rodney said, carefully brushing Sunny's mane.

"Hey, I keep my promises." John checked her hooves but they were well-kept. "Called Dave to let him know I was back, asked him to find me a little mare like her." He rested his arms on Sunny's ample back and looked across at Rodney. "You don't have to keep her if you don't want to. Madison could have her, or Robbie, or we could even take her over to New Athos."

Rodney was working on a particularly stubborn knot in Sunny's mane and didn't look up. "We could. Which kind of brings me back to what I was going to talk to you about. The Heart."

"What about her?"

"Are we just going to leave her in orbit around Earth? Our crew is kind of gone, scattered. We did what we wanted to do, and…" Rodney sighed and stopped brushing, looking up and across at John. "We've changed, you know. Everybody says so, even Kaleb and I didn't think he was that perceptive."

John thought about it for a minute then nodded. "Yeah, we have. I suppose that goes with the territory."

"This is… nice, but, but, and you know, I don't want to go back to the whole running for our lives thing, with hardly any toilet paper and a chronic lack of coffee…" Rodney's face was very earnest and John felt himself smiling gently.

"No, I don't either. But Earth isn't home either, is it?"

Rodney's face began to look like how John's felt. "No. Though I wouldn't want to give up on it. Jeannie's here and I need to make sure she doesn't get the urge to breed any more."

"You seriously need to stop obsessing about your sister's breeding habits, McKay."

"Shut up. So, we're agreed? We can… What? Take the Heart and, and go? Somewhere?"

John's smile grew wider. "Yeah. Elizabeth called the other day. She and Jackson want to know when they can come aboard and play with the children's language things. Thought maybe we could take them for a cruise somewhere."

"Maybe Teyla and Ronon would like to come too."

"Yeah. We could ask."

"I've always wanted to visit the Magellanic Clouds."

"Sounds good."

Sunny snorted and tossed her head. "Sunny wants to come too," Rodney said.

"Sorry, only cats allowed on the Heart," John said. "But we can take you to New Athos. You'd love it there."

John looked up at Rodney's sudden sharp gasp. "Cats?" he whispered.

John just grinned.

The End
Warnings
Enough technobabble to frighten off even David Hewlett. Seriously. And all of it is based on real, honest-to-gosh science, enough to do Brian Greene proud.
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