Big Bang 2009.   Anything goes.
A run-in with the Wraith results in the Team being separated and stranded on a cold, harsh planet without help or supplies. As they struggle to survive and find each other, the Team discovers a new alien race and secrets that the Ancients left behind. Including a secret about Ascension that neither the Ancients nor the Ori want anyone to know.
Word Count
49121 words
AU sometime after Season 3's Common Ground. Consider spoilers before that. This story has some guest appearances from SG-1.

Deepest thanks to my fabulous betas:
tesserae_, whose wisdom and counsel was vital,
iamrighthere, who imperiled her Soul for my sake,
Sealie (jimandblair), who helped immensely with grammar and punctuation, and who sends the best ransom notes,
and beloved Leah (taste_is_sweet), who saw a very early version of this fic and urged me to write more, and who kindly looked it over again at the end.
I'm more grateful than I can express to them for their infinite benevolence and most valuable guidance.
This story has warnings; they are listed at the end of the story.
Jump to the warnings.
Companion Artwork
  • Pleasure by Berlinghoff79
  • Thousandmother by Berlinghoff79

On the fifth day, John stumbled out of the woods into a snow-dappled clearing surrounding a sizable village. He swayed, dizzy with relief. He'd finally found McKay.

Apparently heedless of the cold, McKay knelt, coatless, next to what looked like a big machine. Although John couldn't tell what the machine was supposed to do, he assumed it was broken. McKay was busy picking through a selection of tools on a cloth in front of him.

John found some cover behind the partial concealment of a stump and its accompanying clump of straggly brown weeds. "McKay!" he called softly. His breath blew a cloud of water vapor into the air, and he covered his mouth with his fist. His admittedly sketchy and superficial survey of the village indicated that the place was deserted, but he wasn't taking unnecessary chances at this point. For all he knew, McKay was a prisoner, doing forced labor.

McKay's head came up like a hunting dog's scenting prey. He scanned the edge of the woods, shading his eyes against the glare from the snow.

John called again, a little bit louder, popping his head up slightly so McKay could see him.

McKay stood up and whooped, "My God, Sheppard! I'd know that hair anywhere!"

"I guess not a prisoner then," John muttered to himself.

No use being sneaky now. He used the stump to lever himself to his feet. McKay quickly donned a garment that John had mistaken for a pile of fallen leaves on the ground. John managed to stand, wobbling a little woozily. He was upright just in time for the bizarrely-dressed McKay to barrel into him, grabbing him by the shoulders.

"You're alive!" McKay shouted, the warm fog of his breath blasting into John's face.

"Yep," John said, with exaggerated patience. "Here I am." For some odd reason, the warmth from McKay's hands was making him sHiver with cold.

"You crazy, lucky—" McKay said, shaking John's shoulders slightly in his grip. "We were afraid— Well, I was afraid— We thought you were dead. But you're not." McKay shook his head, eyes shining, a startled grin stretching his mouth wide. "You're alive!"

John was about to make another fond, sarcastic comment. His body had other ideas, and decided that this would be a good time to pass out.

When he regained consciousness, it was to the sound of McKay's voice saying, "Be careful with him! I don't know if he's hit his head. He could have spinal injuries. Or hypothermia, with just that light jacket. Or— Welcome to the land of the living, Colonel. When is the last time you had anything to eat?"

"Uh. Mnng," John managed to get out, coming to the realization that a Very Large Someone was carrying him….

The next time he regained consciousness, he was lying on a firm, padded surface. McKay was removing John's pants. McKay was naked. McKay was making him naked as well. These realizations caused his brow to furrow.

"Mmng. ah." He coughed to clear his throat. "R'dney?"

"Oh, thank God!" McKay dropped the ankle he'd been holding up. John felt his leg flop down distantly, as if it belonged to someone else.

McKay knelt near John's head, reaching for something behind him. "Here, drink this." McKay supported John's head carefully with one hand and a cup full of warm liquid with the other. John curled his hands around both the cup and McKay's hand. Gratefully, he drank the steaming, fragrant, sweet stuff. It slid down his parched throat like ambrosia.

"Hey, that's enough for now! I don't want you to puke on me." McKay pulled the cup from John's grasping fingers. John made a half-strangled sound of frustration and reached for the cup again.

"I know, I know. You'll have more as soon as we're sure you'll keep that much down." That McKay was able to keep the cup away from him so effortlessly said a lot about how weak John was. McKay waved a trio of fingers in front of John's face. "Now. How many fingers?"

John batted McKay's hand away. "Three. Rodney, why are we naked?"

"Well, I didn't want to get our clothes wet when I got you in the bath," McKay huffed, and went back to tugging John's pants off. John noted that his vest, jacket, shirt and tee shirt were already sitting in a neatly folded stack near his boots and weapons, socks waving cheerfully out of the tops of his boots.

They were in a large building, with dim, indirect lighting, and moisture-laden air. And he was damned cold, he realized, as McKay finally got the pants off, exposing more of his skin to the air. He trembled violently with the cold, curling up into a miserable pitiful ball.

"Hey, come on. This way. Let's get you into the water." McKay tugged and levered him forward.

"Jeez, Rodney! C-c-cold!" John complained as McKay dragged him toward a pool lined with dark-colored ceramic tile. As McKay slid him into the shallow pool, John hissed as the water burned his chilled flesh. McKay got in with him and kept John from crawling back out of the pool.

"It's okay. You'll be okay soon. It's good that you're trembling. I think you were flirting with hypothermia there for awhile," McKay said. Pitilessly, he poured more water onto John's shoulders. "Luckily, you don't seem to have gotten frostbite. You'll get to keep all your fingers and toes!"

"Damnit! Water's h-hot! B-burning me!" John shoved at McKay, trying to get out of the water again.

"No it isn't. The water's just barely warm in this pool, I promise you, Colonel. It just feels like it's burning because you're chilled all the way through. It will feel better soon. Hang on." McKay, both soothing and merciless, continued to pour more water on him.

John drooped. He'd kept going so long on pure will and stubbornness. Maybe, maybe they were safe, now? He allowed himself to lean against McKay as he suddenly realized McKay was warm. He tried not to whimper as he trembled and burrowed in closer to McKay's side.

"Hey! You're like an icicle. Okay, fine, yes, I'll be your personal electric blanket. Can you possibly get any more frozen? What did you do, sit in a snowdrift for hours?" McKay's voice was fond and irritated in habitual and comforting complaint.

They caught her literally with her pants down. Teyla had just finished using the latrine when she heard them coming, crashing through the trees and snowdrifts without a shred of stealth. She just had time enough to pull up her BDU trousers and grab the P-90 she'd brought with her.

They were not Wraith. The shock of that was what stayed her hand and kept her from firing in those crucial moments that it took for them to disarm her. Logically, Teyla knew if they'd been Wraith, she would have sensed them. They would not have been able to surprise her. But Teyla had been expecting the Wraith. People, with sophisticated clothing and weapons, she had not expected.

They did not capture her as easily as their astonished expressions told her they expected to. They knocked the P-90 from her arms, but she twisted away before they could grab her. Teyla scrambled backwards through the trees and brush, trusting her footing to several days' familiarity with the area. They stumbled after her, bringing their weapons up. Snatching up broken branches as impromptu bantos rods, Teyla turned and attacked.

Their shouts of pain and surprise told her that they depended too much on their technology and did not practice weaponless combat. Had there been fewer of them, she might have gotten away—might have even defeated them. But there were too many.

In the end, they used a weapon that released a very fine, almost invisible netting. It turned each of her movements into a trap, binding her more tightly as she struggled. In moments, Teyla couldn't move, netted and trussed like a game animal.

Like an animal, she wished to snarl at them as they surrounded her and looked down upon her. But Teyla realized that the entire battle had been wordless—not voiceless, but with no attempt to communicate anything but unspoken hostility on either side.

"Wait!" she gasped. "Who are you? What do you want? My name is Teyla Emmagen. I come from—"

That was when they stunned her.

This last time he probably hadn't passed out, John mused. He'd just fallen directly into sleep as soon as his body had warmed up enough that he was pretty sure he wouldn't wake up dead. Or something like that.

He woke up in the same dim, humid environment as before. He lay on the same padded surface, probably still naked, only this time he was thoroughly tucked in under a vast pile of blankets. He was probably a little over-warm at this point, to be truthful.

John wriggled his head and shoulders out of the first few layers of blankets. Yes, as far as he could tell, he was still naked. He leaned up on one elbow and scrubbed at his eyes before he looked around. Yep. There were his clothes and weapons, right where he remembered. That lump on the floor under the blankets was very likely McKay. Otherwise, there didn't seem to be any other people in the vicinity.

The building they were in was pretty big to be so relatively well-heated. It had two levels, open-plan, with one very large space on the main floor where he and McKay were. The second floor gallery was too shadowed to see very well.

Narrow windows near the high-beamed ceilings showed some light from the overcast sky outside, but there were no artificial lights. The walls he could see were treated wood planks. Large rectangular tiles checkerboarded the floor in shades of brown, red, and yellow. Rugs dotted the floor in a seemingly haphazard fashion. A bunch of low padded benches, like the one he currently occupied, filled the room. Most, like his own, were wide and long enough to sleep a family of four. Others were even larger. Braziers were scattered throughout the room, most with a complement of glowing coals sitting in them. The major feature of the room, though, was the water. Pools of water where everywhere: large square pools, relatively small round pools, shallow pools, deep pools, all with water vapor steaming gently from their surfaces.

John's gaze finally came around to his immediate vicinity. McKay was curled snoring in a nest of blankets on the thick rug next to John's pallet. Bemused, John eyed him. McKay looked okay, not frozen solid, or injured, or starving, or dead, as John's accusing imagination had painted him. Instead, he looked disgustingly healthy, clean, and well-fed. Maybe a little scruffy. He could probably use a shave.

As if aware of the scrutiny, McKay woke up, blue eyes popping open and locking instantly with his own. A crooked smile stretched itself across McKay's face. "Hey," he said softly. "Feeling all right?"

John swallowed the lump in his throat from the sudden rush of affection. "Pretty good, yeah," he said, his voice rusty from disuse. "Kinda hungry, though." On cue, his stomach growled.

McKay sat up, the blankets pooling around his waist, and knuckled his eyes. "I think we can have that taken care of soon, Colonel." He paused to yawn and stretch, scratching his head and beard. "Wow, I guess I really needed a nap. Must have been all that worrying I was doing about you."

John raised an eyebrow at him. It wasn't like McKay had been the only one worried. "When the transport beams from the satellite didn't send us all to the same place, I thought—"

McKay grimaced. "Yes, I know. I should have realized that they were all set for different Ancient facilities on this planet—which were, unfortunately for us, ruins after ten thousand years of exposure to the elements. We were incredibly lucky to have arrived in one piece. In my defense, there was all that running-for-our-lives business going on at the time. The Wraith seem to do an amazing job at disrupting my concentration."

"Not blaming you, Rodney," John said. "Just concerned about where Ronon and Teyla ended up."

"Oh! Oh, I should have told you right away. Ronon is here. Or was here. He's out with most of the villagers, looking for you and Teyla. They should be back in the next day or two. He told me to wait here, in case you or Teyla found the village on your own."

"Oh. Good. That's…good." Relief made John lie back, limp, onto the pallet. He had every confidence Ronon would be able to find Teyla. Now their only worries were survival and how to get back to Atlantis. Since Ronon and Rodney seemed to have landed in the laps of a village of kindly do-gooders, the question of survival was much less fraught.

He turned his head to look at McKay. "It's only a matter of time before Atlantis finds us, you know. Elizabeth probably sent out a search team once we missed the first check-in."

"Then they would have run straight into the Wraith."

"My men can get out of a jam if need be," John told him. Besides, they'd have gone in expecting trouble. "If the Wraith decide to hang around, our guys might have to wait them out. Worse case scenario, we have to sit tight until the Daedalus is back from Earth. Can you rig up some way to signal them? How about your friends here? Will they let us stay? Will our being here endanger them?"

McKay folded his arms around his bent knees, making a tent in the blanket. He glanced up at John from under his lashes, smiling sweetly. It was an oddly innocent, young look on Rodney, and John had to swallow down another rush of affection.

"The Taum? They'll let us stay as long as we like, I think." McKay looked off into the distance. "Ever since Ronon and I came across the village—and I had to talk him down from coming in guns blazing, by the way. You may have to have that talk about diplomacy with him again—the Taum have been extraordinarily…well, nice. They've gone out of their way to help us. Nearly everyone in the village—literally, I think there are only two or three people left here—dropped everything they were doing to go help Ronon look for you and Teyla."

McKay rubbed his hands together. "I guess I'm just not used to that. Especially here in Pegasus, although, honestly, I doubt we'd find people that pleasant back in the Milky Way." He shook his head, gesturing vaguely. "Anyway, to answer your question, yes, I think I can come up with some sort of signal for our rescuers to home in on. We just have to be sure the Wraith—"

He stopped short as John's stomach complained loudly again. McKay grinned. "At any rate, I'm sure it can wait until after we eat."

A clattering sound at the door got McKay working his way out of the nest of blankets. "We're in luck, Colonel. If I'd hazard a guess, that would be lun—"

"AAAHHH!" John flung himself backwards off the bench. He managed to land in front of Rodney. Crap! His weapons were on the other side of the bench. He improvised, grabbing a blanket and winding it hurriedly into a rope. "Run, Rodney!" he yelled over his shoulder. "I'll try to hold it off."

"With your blankie, Colonel?" The comment was sarcastic, but the tone was kind. Rodney laid a reassuring hand on John's shoulder, urging him to relax his battle-grip on the blanket.

"It's okay," he said, standing close. Belatedly, John realized they were both standing naked in front of a huge alien creature. "There's no danger. Colonel Sheppard, meet Aleek." The hulking alien in the doorway blinked bright orange lemur-like eyes at them and stepped closer.

Rodney addressed the big alien. "Aleek, this is Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard," said Rodney. "Please forgive his mis-timed xenophobia. It's understandable, really. He's met very few non-humanoid aliens who didn't want to kill or eat him."

"But Rodneee," Aleek sang. It thrust what John finally realized was a tray full of steaming food out in front of it, at the end of bear-like arms. "I not kiiill you. I promise there is no ciiitrus heeere."

"Well, shit," John said. His stomach growled again.

Lunch was surprisingly tasty, considering John had never eaten nor seen any of the food items offered before. Despite his appetite, he tried to eat sparingly, in case anything disagreed with him. McKay obviously had no such scruples, because he ate everything with gusto. "Ronon already taste-tested everything and ruled out the things I couldn't eat," he informed John cheerfully.

They ate with their fingers, and out of the same bowls. Aleek's people, the Taum, had apparently never heard of silverware or individual serving containers. They did have little bowls full of water and napkins to wipe their hands. And they wore generous lengths of cloth as bibs—which was fortunate, as the food all consisted of soup-like dishes, mushy stew-like stuff, and variously flavored pastes that McKay scooped up in two fingers like poi. All in all, the meal tended to be somewhat…drippy. The various dishes were fragrant—in mostly pleasant and appetizing ways—and startlingly palatable, but it made John feel like he was two years old again, not quite ready to eat Big People food.

Reluctantly, John followed McKay's lead and ate in his birthday suit, wearing only the giant bib. As McKay wryly explained, "After almost a week running around out there, your clothes were rather…ripe. I thought you'd prefer to get them clean. Aleek has offered to lend us some of his, but, well, I want to put off looking absolutely ridiculous as long as possible."

John glanced at Aleek's current outfit and silently agreed. It was appropriate enough on the big alien, but would be overlarge and floppy on him. And frankly, it had additional openings for limbs John didn't possess. "The wings are completely vestigial," McKay assured him.

Aleek himself continued to make John nervous. Despite McKay's exaggerated eye-rolls whenever he caught him at it, he continued to flinch whenever Aleek moved in his peripheral vision. He couldn't help it, dammit. Getting bitten by, then almost turning into, an Iratus bug—not to mention the ever-lovin' Wraith—would make anyone nervous around a seven-foot alien that looked awfully bug-like, even down to the waving antennae.

At least it was a distraction from looking at a very-naked Rodney McKay. And just when did Rodney get so comfortable being naked in public? Despite years serving in the armed forces, with communal showers and disciplining his gaze around other naked male bodies, it still freaked John out when aliens—like those creepy Asgard—went around without any pants on. And it certainly freaked him out when it was vice-versa, and he had to parade around without any pants on in front of the alien. Too many Roswell-type weird mental scenarios in his brain.

But Rodney seemed perfectly comfortable. Not that he was shaking his booty or anything, but John recalled the red-faced, ultra-modest McKay from their first year in Atlantis. Half the time, the man would avoid the communal post-mission showers and scurry off to shower in his own room. John glanced over at Rodney, and rapidly looked away from the sight of him sucking some runny paste off of two fingers with a look of concentration and pleasure on his face. Well.

John tried not to twitch as Aleek leaned over to pass Rodney another small bowl. Maybe…maybe Rodney had just finally learned to be comfortable around people he trusted….

"—do you, Colonel? Colonel?" Rodney's tone indicated that he'd been trying to get John's attention for several moments.

John jerked his gaze away from where it was unconsciously resting, Rodney's bib-covered lap, and tried to focus on his face. "Sorry, Rodney. I kind of spaced out there a little."

Rodney's expression shifted from irritated to worried. "Oh, hey, sorry. I forgot you're just getting over being hypothermic there. Are you feeling okay? Do you need to lie down? You're not going to vomit, are you, because I have this sympathetic, hair-trigger puking thing and—"

John covered his mouth with one hand and held up another in a "stop" motion to halt the overflow of words. Rodney snapped his mouth shut and looked guilty as John continued to glare at him. Slowly, John got up and backed away from the sight and smell of the tray of alien foodstuffs that all of a sudden looked a little too…pre-digested. He made it back to the bench he'd been lying on earlier and sat down on it, resolutely breathing through his nose.

Maybe that was it. Maybe he was sick. He sank back to lie down on the bench and pulled one of the blankets over himself, tuning out the sound of Rodney murmuring to Aleek in the background. At least the low lighting—it had never gotten much brighter than murky in the large room—would allow him to get a decent nap.

A few minutes later, Rodney's anxious face was hovering over him. "Colonel? John? How are you feeling?"

"I'm fine." John closed his eyes.

"Yes, all right," Rodney agreed, sitting on the bench at John's side. "Can you give me your hand for a minute?" John didn't have time to even ask why, since Rodney reached under the blankets and found his arm, dragging it out to put his fingers on John's wrist and frown. "Your pulse seems to be steady. A little fast, maybe, it's hard to tell. I wish Carson were here. No, that's stupid. I wish we were back on Atlantis with Carson. He could rattle some beads, put you under a scanner, and make sure you're okay. Your hand seems warm enough. How about your feet?" Without further warning, Rodney turned, digging under the blankets for one of John's legs.

John kicked out at him in annoyance. "Get— Get away! Leave it alone, McKay! Dammit, that's enough. I'm fine. I don't need you pawing me."

Rodney turned back to face him, scowling. "Hypothermia is no laughing matter, Sheppard. You were unconscious! You could still die, you know. If I let you die through neglect, not only would I be put out on my own behalf, Ronon and Teyla would rend me limb from limb." He illustrated the expected rending with suitable hand gestures.

John felt the involuntary curl at the corners of his mouth. "I'm really okay, Rodney. No rending, I promise. Just ate too much after too long without anything in my stomach. Then you went and talked about puking…"

Rodney slumped in relief. "Good. You've really got to stop scaring me like that. You may not have noticed, but I've only got a certain amount of hair left to lose over stress-related trauma, and I'm rather partial to—"

"Rodneee, I have brought myyy Thousandmother to heeeal your Sheppard, as you asked." John nearly jumped out of his skin. Despite the spike of adrenaline it had given him, John noticed how eerie Aleek's singsong voice sounded, coming out of what looked like seven-foot-tall beetle-bear-lemur-thing. Aleek himself lumbered out of the anteroom, and then there was a shadow in the large, timbered doorway.

"HOLY CRAP!" In other circumstances, John might have been embarrassed that his voice could go so high-pitched. He sat straight up and clutched at Rodney's shoulder. "You coulda warned me, McKay!"

The creature that followed Aleek was half-again his size, maybe twelve feet and change, and almost twice his width. Jesus! Now John understood the size of the doorways, and of the bed-bench-things. Rodney should have told him that Aleek was—what? a kid or something?

Rodney stood up, tugging on John's arm in a silent command for him to stand as well. John stood between Rodney and the creatures his hindbrain insisted on identifying as potentially dangerous, keeping the blanket wound firmly around himself.

Rodney grabbed his arm and ushered him forward. "Thousandmother, I'd like to present Lt. Colonel John Sheppard. John, this is Aleek's Thousandmother." Rodney sketched an awkward half-bow.

Aleek's disturbing grandma-thing loomed over them both, blinking its big orange eyes at them. Something about it gave the impression of great age, even though there weren't wrinkles, or gray hair, or other things that would have indicated advanced age in a human.

"Uh, hi there, uh, ma'am," John managed, and cleared his throat. Where was the Sheppard charm? Jeez, he'd done better with Wraith! "Nice to meet you. Thanks for the hospitality."

The thing's antennae waved in front of his face, and John tried really hard not to flinch away. "Greeetings, Lt. Colonel John Sheppard," it sang. If Aleek's voice had a definite singsong quality, this creature's voice was more like a musical instrument—as if a harp or a flute had decided to say his name. "Aleeek tells meee you have been iiill. I am a heeealer of sorts. May I examiiine you?"

John couldn't help it, he shrank back against Rodney. He wasn't usually a coward. John swallowed. "Um, just an upset stomach, ma'am. No big deal."

"It would pleeease meee iiif you would allow examiiination," Thousandmother sang firmly, yet the tone was…kind. Suddenly, John was strangely but inescapably reminded of his Nana Johnston.

He felt three years old again, too, shifting his weight from foot to foot, his mother's remembered voice in his ear—Now, Johnny, go give your Nana a hug! She's come all this way just to see you!

"Yes, ma'am," John agreed automatically. He ran a nervous hand over the top of his head, irrationally convinced the alien would pinch his cheeks or tousle his hair like his Nana Johnston used to.

With a lurch, the creature somehow lowered itself onto the low bench John had been lying on before. It didn't quite take up all the room. There was space left for John to lie next to it, if he wanted to get really, um, cozy. Thousandmother waved her antennae at him, orange eyes fixed on his face, obviously waiting for him to lie down with her.

When John turned to look at him, the expression on Rodney's face was apologetic. Maybe Rodney'd had an imperious grandmother as well. What was he thinking? Of course McKay probably had had the grandma from hell (and would no doubt be happy to overshare all about her if John didn't get a move on pretty soon).

John swallowed, and crept onto the bench, the blanket still tucked firmly around him. He lay on his side, facing the alien.

Up close, Thousandmother seemed even larger and more overwhelming. Her eyes alone were half the size of John's face, and they blinked at him slowly and solemnly. She smelled like lavender, which he hadn't noticed before. Again, he was reminded of his Nana, who had also smelled of lavender. It was oddly comforting.

Slowly, Thousandmother placed one huge circular hand on the center of John's chest. Thousandmother's palm was broader than Aleek's. The fingers (all ten of them!) were shorter and slimmer, less hairy, with much smaller, almost delicate, claws. The palm felt warm and dry against John's bare chest, the claws present as mild points of pressure that didn't prick his skin. The contact didn't feel anything like a Wraith feeding, although there were superficial resemblances. There was a kind of thrum to it, although it didn't hurt at all.

"John?" Rodney's voice sounded worried.

"S'okay, Rodney. Doesn't hurt," John murmured dreamily. He found himself staring into Thousandmother's eyes, memories of Nana Johnston coming to him again. She'd been a little overwhelming, but also fiercely supportive and protective of him. Although that was something he'd only realized in hindsight, once he'd gotten older. She'd died when John was eight, but he recalled that she'd been the only person who'd ever been able to intimidate his father. She'd left John the bulk of her estate in a trust fund that had allowed him, when he came of age, to successfully stand up to his father without having to worry about learning to like Ramen noodles.

With a start, he realized that the tips of Thousandmother's antennae were gently caressing his face. John blinked. Why wasn't he creeped out by that?

"You are a chiiild of the Alterans. Diiid you know thiiis?" Thousandmother's song was quiet, soothing.

"The Alterans?" John echoed.

"The Ancients, Sheppard!" Rodney said. "How could you tell, Thousandmother? He's not an actual Alteran, of course, you know. Just, just one of his ancestors must have been. In the past."

"Yes. Chiiild of the Gatebuiiilders. But wiiithout their arrogance, Iii thiiink…"

"The Gatebuilders! Yes! Hey, how do you know about the Stargate? Yours is in orbit."

"Weee are not stupiiid, Rodneee!" Aleek sang sharply. "Weee know about the Stargates!"

"The one for our world was put iiinto orbiiit long, long ago," Thousandmother whisper-sang. "It has beeen long, vereey, vereey long, siiince our peeeople have used iiit."

"Oh, yes. Sorry, Aleek. I know your people aren't as primitive as they appear to be," Rodney apologized. Rodney! Apologizing!

John pulled his attention from Rodney to stare into Thousandmother's orange eyes again, and was instantly, effortlessly captured. He matched her blink for slow blink, calm breaths matching hers, inhaling her lavender scent.

"Why do you taste of Iiiratus, chiiild?" she asked, one antenna trailing over the Iratus feeding scar on his neck, and then over the tiny blue scar on his arm.

"Got bit. Two times…sorta," he offered, forcing himself to stay still and not look away from her gaze. He felt like he needed something…indescribable. Like when Nana had taken him to the county fair for the first time, and had asked if he wanted to ride on the merry-go-round or the Ferris wheel. Wanna go up in the sky, Nana!

"And you surviiived! Strong chiiild!" Approval threaded through Thousandmother's song. "Do you wiiish me to remove iiit? The Iiiratus?"

"Yes!" There was no thought, only the instinctive leap at the opportunity to rid himself of the traces of Iratus in his very cells.

"Wait!" Rodney screeched. "Wait, will it…. Will it hurt him? Change him? Carson did some very elaborate medical hocus-pocus there, Colonel. Who knows what changing your genetic structure again would do?"

"No hurt, no paiiin, no damage," Thousandmother promised. "Onleey you, Lt. Colonel John Sheppard. Iii would take away Iiiratus and leeeave onleey you, Chiiild of Altera."

"I'm not…not an Alteran," John told her.

"We're from a planet called Earth," said Rodney. "It's in another galaxy—the Milky Way."


"What?" said Rodney, off of John's glare. "It's not a security breach! It's not like I gave directions or anything—I promise you the Milky Way galaxy doesn't come with a handy label to identify it. And even if it did, it probably wouldn't be written in English. Or even be called 'Milky Way'. I mean, really—"

John couldn't hold back his snort of laughter any longer.

Rodney stopped mid-rant, huffed, and crossed his arms. "Oh. Right. Go ahead and laugh at the scientist. How did you know I was working on my third PhD in Comedy?" John could just see the corners of Rodney's lips finally curling up before the laughter made him close his eyes and hold his sides.

The next thing he knew, Rodney was sitting behind him, awkwardly patting his back and shoulders, as John came down from a slight case of hysteria. Oh well, at least he wasn't frightened anymore of the giant alien bug creature currently sharing a bed with him. Thousandmother's palm still rested, warm, on the center of his chest. He grabbed one of Rodney's hands, feeling completely stupid and juvenile, and held it in his own.

John closed his eyes.

"Do you trust meee, Lt. Colonel John Sheppard?" Thousandmother's soft voice tinkled gently, like a child's musicbox. He could still smell the lavender. He did trust her. Why did he trust her?

"John. Call me John," he told her. He clutched Rodney's hand tighter. "Do it."

It didn't hurt. It didn't. But suddenly the world was spinning, and John felt himself begin to shake, harder and harder. And, far away, he heard Rodney's panicked voice. "John! John!" And then the blackness swooped in, and everything was gone.

The table was metal and very cold. It leached the warmth from her naked flesh, even as these cold, careless strangers leached the courage from her spirit.

"Interesting" said the tall one. Teyla couldn't see him—her head was clamped in place and all she could see was the bright light trained on her—but she recognized his deep voice and clipped tone. "Did you see this, Palonias? The creature has Wraith DNA in her genetic makeup. I wonder if her tribe has risen to the level of being able to perform genetic experiments? Or perhaps the Wraith are somehow interbreeding with them?"

For the thousandth time, Teyla tensed her arms and legs, testing the strength of the straps that held her down. She had been mildly surprised at the somewhat primitive solution to her immobilization. From overhearing their conversations, she already knew that these haughty men thought of themselves as direct descendants of the Ancestors. In their arrogance, they thought that they were the Ancestors' physical, cultural, and intellectual heirs. Surely they would have used a more technologically advanced form of restraint, a force shield perhaps, if only to demonstrate their superiority.

"You overlook the easiest explanation, Doruk," said the fat one, in his condescending, superior way. "The Wraith must be experimenting with genetics themselves by now."

Teyla wriggled her jaw against the gag. She had tried to explain to them, to answer their questions and satisfy their curiosity as a civilized person. She had tried to warn them about the Wraith in the space station orbiting the planet. But they had ignored her words as she would have the bleatings of a goat. Finally, they had gagged her. She suspected it was so that they didn't have to listen to her screams when they hurt her. And they had hurt her.

The only reason she had not succumbed to despair was that she had not seen John, Ronon, or Rodney anywhere in the laboratories, or in the cells where the victims of these evil men's experiments were kept between sessions. And surely she would have heard Rodney, berating them for their shoddy scientific procedures, if nothing else.

She refused to believe that her teammates might be dead. They had not been fed upon by the Wraith. They had rematerialized safely in a transport chamber other than the one she emerged from, and were not just bits of information stored in a dead machine. They were not lying frozen and still on one of the cold, rocky hillsides outside. They certainly had not been dissected at the whim of these arrogant fools. Therefore, if they were neither dead nor here, her friends were out there somewhere, free. And if they were free, her teammates would come for her. She had only to endure until rescue came.

The tall one came and stood over her. He frowned as he read something on a personal datapad. Thoughtfully, he tapped on the flesh of her bare belly with two fingers, as if unaware that he was touching her. He had touched the skin of her leg, her shoulder, and her breast on prior occasions with the same lack of care. He rarely looked at her face, and at her eyes only to check the dilation of her pupils. He never looked into her eyes.

"I wonder if the creature can pass on the Wraith genetic characteristics to her offspring?" the tall one said. "And if so, which ones?"

The fat one came and peered at the tall one's datapad. "That is an excellent question, Doruk. Perhaps we should extract one of her ovum and examine it." His voice was gloating and too pleased.

"Yes," agreed the tall one. "That should prove illuminating. You! There! Take this creature to the vivisection laboratory and prepare her for surgery." He turned to the fat one. "We should request Milliantonius for the procedure. He has a deft hand and should be able to secure the ovum sample and preserve our specimen alive for further testing."

The fat one clapped his hands together. "Excellent! If you will supervise the preparations, I will contact him and see if he has free time in his schedule today."

Teyla had begun to buck and twist against her restraints as soon as she understood they meant to operate on her. She screamed against her gag, begging, pleading with them not to do this. She was a human being, not a goat.

The fat one and the tall one walked away, still discussing their findings from the last test they had performed on her. A pair of laboratory technicians came and began to wheel the metal table she was secured to out of the room. Teyla twisted her head as much as the clamps allowed, trying to catch their eyes. Through the gag, she tried to plead with them: "Please! Please do not do this. Please, let me go!" The pair of them worked silently in concert, both of them wearing jackets against the cold air of the laboratory. The expression on both their faces was bored. Indifferent. They never even glanced at her face.

Teyla trembled as the air from the movement to the lab doors chilled the perspiration from her struggles. She inhaled great gasps of air, through her nose and as best she could through the gag. She must not weep. She must not. If she choked to death on her own tears, these evil men would not care.

She must be brave. She must endure. Her team would save her. They were coming for her. They would come.

They would.

"There! Iiit iiis over there." Erhoop indicated the way with the sweep of one long antenna. Ronon didn't even twitch about that anymore. Erhoop was a decent tracker. That was all that mattered.

Erhoop nimbly climbed up the rocky slope, making it look easy. Since the Taum was larger, Ronon couldn't use the same hand- and foot-holds that he did. The fact that he had fewer fingers than Erhoop meant that he couldn't necessarily grip as well as the Taum did. Nevertheless, he scrambled up as best he could. Maybe it wasn't as easy for him, but Ronon wasn't going to be the one slowing their party down.

Ronon followed Erhoop up the side of the final ridge, not hesitating to grab an edge of hard vestigial wing that Erhoop extended to help him up and over the tricky rockface at the end of the climb. They both leaned down and offered Tuleek a hand up. Tuleek was old, older than Erhoop anyway. His antennae were paler and vestigial wings were duller looking than Erhoop's dark antennae and shiny wings. Erhoop's wings, in turn, were duller-looking than Aleek's wings. McKay seemed to think Aleek was a kid.

Tuleek accepted their help without comment, and moved carefully toward the outcropping with the Ancestral ruins. The ruins looked more like a jumble of larger boulders on the stony ground than old buidlings. They were festooned with dried stalks of weeds and vines, indicating that they were likely overgrown in the summertime. Nevertheless, it was in ruins similar to these that Ronon had emerged from his own transport chamber when he'd been conveyed from the space station.

"Have care," Tuleek warned. "The ground may beee unstable." The wind whistled a descant above the chime of his words and fluttered the edges of his coat.

Ronon tightened the belt on his own coat, grateful the Taum had a garment that would fit him, although the wing-holes in the back let in an occasional draft. He mourned the lack of his own warm coat. When they'd left Atlantis he hadn't worn one, expecting only a few hours' ride in a climate-controlled jumper, accompanying McKay and Sheppard on their search for space gates. The wonder of that would never get old; the Ancestors' Rings floating in space like jewels among the stars.

He looked up into the cloudy sky, not expecting any sign of the space gate or the space station they'd found orbiting this world. The clouds were too heavy, dark-gray masses in the pale gray sky. He inhaled deeply. Maybe snow tonight. Dhartu's Balls!

Snow would erase tracks, make finding Sheppard and Teyla that much harder. Not to mention how the snow would make his teammates suffer and diminish their chances of survival. Well, Sheppard's anyway. Ronon trusted that Teyla knew how to survive outdoors in winter. Sheppard had always struck him as a city boy and Ronon thought his military's wilderness survival training was probably less comprehensive than Sateda's.

It was too bad that something in the space station had fried their communicators, made them useless. As McKay had moaned about often enough, if the communicators still worked, they would have all found each other by now.

Ronon put those gloomy thoughts aside. Nothing he could do about it but what he was already doing. At the moment, that was carefully following Tuleek, a few steps back. He noticed that Erhoop, in turn, stayed a few paces back from him. If one of them fell, it would be best if they didn't all fall together. If one of them got hurt, it would be a while before the others would be able to get any help. The villagers searching for Sheppard and Teyla had split into two groups to investigate the two locations where transport chambers might be, in the two sets of ruins closest to the village—other than the ones he and McKay had arrived in. The group that had gone with Ronon had stopped to make camp at the base of this foothill while Ronon had gone on a little further with his new friends, keen to take advantage of all of the daylight.

He was a little worried about his new friends. The villagers were clearly anxious about something. After they'd driven off that large, very dangerous-looking predator yesterday, Ronon didn't think it was because they were timid or lacked courage. No, there was something specific spooking them. They hadn't said anything about it yet, though.

Tuleek had reached the ruin and was poking around cautiously. Led by waving antennae, the front half of him disappeared through what had once probably been a doorway. "Heeere!" he called. Ronon and Erhoop picked up the pace a little, and were soon by his side, looking at what Tuleek had found.

Yep. A big room with control panels lining the walls. The roof had partially collapsed, burying a third of the room in dirt, leaves, and dry plant stalks. At the far end of the room, though—transport chamber. Just like the one he'd run into at the space station, trying to escape from the Wraith, and expecting to be transported elsewhere in the station. It had sent him planetside instead, to a chamber a lot like this one, in ruins similar to this, but in the middle of the woods two days' walk on the opposite side of the village.

Ronon nodded. "This looks good." Erhoop began to scan the ground outside the ruins carefully.

The ground was pretty stony, and Teyla or Sheppard would have been trying to avoid pursuit. Ronon didn't hold out much hope for tracks. Finally, Erhoop stopped a few feet upslope and made a clicking sound.

Ronon came to see. Yes, it was barely there, but on the shallow layer of dirt over rock, a faint mark that matched the tread-pattern at the bottom of a Lantean-style boot. Ronon's heart beat faster. That had to be Sheppard or Teyla. He nodded again, and joined Erhoop in looking for more signs as they made their way further upslope.

It'd be dark soon. Erhoop and Tuleek would be urging him to go back to camp any minute. They'd be right to; a tracker could miss vital clues in the dark. But, Dhartu's Nose, he hated to give up just when they'd encountered the first clue!

Ronon lifted his eyes from the ground and scanned the way ahead. The slope was less steep on this side of the ridge and gradually less rocky. As the layer of soil over the bedrock grew deeper, the forest began again. More evergreens and fewer deciduous trees with their pale bark and bare branches grew here than down in the valley where the village was located. Heaps of boulders, some of them maybe even part of the Ancestor ruins, lay in tumbled piles at the edges of the woods.

Where would he…yeah, there was good spot there. "Wait here," he told the other two, and sprinted for the trees.

A few minutes later, after scouting around the likeliest spots, he found it. A tiny campsite, well disguised, among a spill of boulders just within the line of trees. He looked downslope. It offered a good view of the ruins, as well as the surrounding area. If any Wraith had come out of the transporter, a watcher could disappear into the woods and quickly put a lot of ground between himself and pursuit.

Ronon squatted and poked the remains of the campfire with a stick. The fire, covered with dirt and small stones to disguise it, had been cold at least a day, maybe more. He looked around. Why would Sheppard or Teyla have given up the campsite? It was a good spot. Down here next to the big rocks, it was sheltered enough from the wind and a fire would make it warm enough to be almost comfortable. He frowned to himself. Maybe there wasn't enough water nearby. This hillside was windy and got enough sun that it was clear of the snow from the last snowfall, so fresh water could have been an issue.

He stood and climbed up onto one of the boulders. Erhoop and Tuleek saw him there. Ronon made an approximation of the loud clicking sound the Taum seemed to use instead of a whistle and waved his arm to beckon them. In a few minutes he was showing the dead campfire to Erhoop, who tilted his head and waved his antennae around thoughtfully. "Where is the latriiine?" asked Tuleek.

Good thought. Maybe they'd find new clues there. After a few minutes, they found a faint trail to the latrine, several meters away from the main campsite, deeper into the woods. Just beyond the latrine itself, the plants and ground had been obviously and violently disturbed, completely unlike the careful stealth shown at the campsite.

"There was a fiiight heeere," observed Tuleek, touching a broken branch with the edge of one claw.

"Your friend against four, no…siiix others," muttered Erhoop, examining the area.

Ronon spotted a glimmer of light reflecting off of something, and reached into the foliage of one of the broken stems. He tugged out a few strands of hair.

"Teyla," he breathed, winding her hair around his fingers. "Someone took her." Ronon straightened and looked around sharply. "This way!" he called.

The people who'd taken Teyla had made no particular effort to hide their tracks. The trail was plain as day—broken branches, dead leaves kicked aside, saplings bent, undergrowth trampled.

"Ronon, waiiit!" Tuleek called.

Ronon wasn't waiting. Finally, the trail ended in a clearing. He heard the two Taum crashing through the trees behind him as he read the signs. A vehicle had been parked in the clearing, pressing its weight into the soil here, crushing down the dry weeds and grasses. It must have been a flying vehicle, like a puddle jumper, because there was no trail of it leaving the clearing.

He turned when his companions came up behind him. "Someone took my friend Teyla, and put her into some kind of flying machine, here," he explained, pointing out the marks. "Where are there people around here with flying machines?"

Tuleek's antennae drooped. "Sheee iiis dead. Weee sorrow for your loss." His shoulders sagged and he shifted his weight from foot to foot. His eyes looked huge and pitiful with regret.

"If weee leeeave now and reeejoin our group at the base camp," said Erhoop. "Iii know Saleeek would be wiiilling to walk through the niiight, and weee should beee able to meeeet wiiith the rest of the viiillage by morning. Together, Iii am sure weee wiiill find your other friend soon enough."

"What are you talking about? I can't just give up on Teyla! Do you know who took her?" Ronon felt himself getting angry, but tried to hold it down. The Taum hadn't taken Teyla.

Tuleek scuffed his feet in the dried grass of the clearing. His wings flared out slightly beyond his torso. "Iiit was the mountain peeeople."

"Weee cannot know that for sure. Perhaps the Wraiiith—" said Erhoop.

Tuleek made a harsh sound. "You know iiit was not the Wraiiith, Erhoop. The Wraiiith do not come heeere, Ronon. Weee do not nourish them."

Erhoop swayed back and forth in a way that seemed agitated. "Whyyy could you not let him thiiink iiit was the Wraiiith? At leeeast then heee could turn hiiis thoughts to saving hiiis other friend," he addressed Tuleek.

Ronon wanted to hit him.

"You're afraid," he accused. Maybe hitting him would be a bad idea; he was pretty big. Bigger than Ronon. But Ronon could certainly shoot him and he really wanted to. He gripped and released the butt of his pulse pistol.

"Thiiis iiis whyyy weee must not liiie to hiiim, Erhoop!" Tuleek said. "Now heee does not trust us. Yes, Ronon. Weee are afraid. Those whom the mountain peeeople take, never reeeturn. Theyyy have weapons greeeater than anyyy weee dare to use. No one has ever beeen rescued aliiive from the mountain peeeople's fortress."

"I'm not afraid. Just tell me where the fortress is," Ronon said. "You don't have to go. I'll go alone."

"No," said Erhoop. He drew himself up to his full height. Ronon had to look up to see his eyes. He ground his teeth at the forbidding expression on Erhoop's face. "No. You wiiill diiie. We promiiised Rodneee that weee would keeep you safe. Your friend is surelyyy dead. You cannot help her byyy dyyying as well."

"Ronon, pleeease," said Tuleek, putting a hand on Ronon's sleeve. Ronon shook him off. "You must thiiink of Rodneee and your other friend. Once weee have found hiiim, weee can reeeturn to the viiillage and consult wiiith Thousandmother. Sheee may have some wiiisdom."

Ronon glared at him, but his expression was so sorrowful, as if Teyla was already dead, that he couldn't look at him for long. He took a final look around the clearing instead. It was getting dark. The trail ended right here, with the prints from a flying machine that could have gone anywhere.

Well, no. It had probably flown up into the mountains. He tried to make out the shape of the mountains against the sky, but the darkening gloom and the heavy cloud cover prevented him from making out anything other than a heavy, looming darkness. That's right—it was going to snow tonight, too.

"Dhartu's steaming, multicolored, shit!" Ronon snarled, and abruptly stalked back down toward the campsite, two subdued Taum in his wake.

Rodney could tell the moment John woke up; the snoring stopped. He patted John's back to let him know that he was sitting there on the palette next to him. "You okay?"

"Urgh," John replied. "Gonna hurl."

Fortunately, Thousandmother had mentioned that this might result from her treatment. Rodney and Aleek had prepared accordingly. "There's a bucket on the floor right next to the bed. Just lean over and try not to get any on the rug." It didn't look like any bucket he'd ever seen, but it fulfilled bucket-like functions, and therefore he'd call it a bucket.

John, at any rate, didn't have difficulty identifying it from his description, or maybe any container would have been sufficient for his, yuck, purposes. Rodney stroked John's back and tried not to smell or listen to what he was doing. He swallowed hard, and mentally played one of the fugues from Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier. It was soothing.

Finally, John seemed to be done, and Rodney reached over and handed him a ceramic cup of water. "Rinse," he said shortly. John managed that without help, rinsing his mouth out and spitting several times before easing himself back down and handing Rodney the cup.

"I thought it wasn't supposed to hurt," John said at last. He had his forearm over his eyes and was breathing with the careful, steady inhalations of someone who didn't want to vomit again.

"Well, the treatment to get rid of the Iratus shouldn't have bothered you," Rodney told him. "Here, drink this. It'll settle your stomach." He handed John another cup, this time full of fragrant hot kaprim. "Hey, drink it slowly."

John slowed down as he sat up and hunched over the cup. The pleasant-smelling steam washed artistically over his face, and the blanket pooled around his hips.

Rodney fetched his own cup of kaprim, inhaling deeply before taking a sip. The stuff smelled as nice as very good coffee, in its own way. It tasted wonderful, too. Comforting, somehow. Relaxing and soothing as it reached his stomach, but without making him feel the least sleepy, just refreshed. He needed to remember to ask Aleek if Atlantis could trade for this stuff. Elizabeth and Teyla would love it.

Rodney felt a flash of anxiety over Teyla. They should have heard from her by now, if she'd been transported nearby. He hoped Ronon had found her, but, for all they knew, Teyla's transporter could have sent her to another continent!

"Well, if it's not from the Iratus treatment, why is my lunch in the bucket, Rodney?" Glancing over at the bucket, John made a sour face. Rodney hunched his shoulders defensively. He certainly wasn't going to clean it up! He had a very delicate stomach. It would be asking for trouble.

"Apparently, you ate some local plant life in your recent wilderness sojourn that was less than healthy," Rodney said. "Thousandmother noticed it after she got rid of the Iratus—which she said will be processed out through your liver and kidneys over the next few weeks, as your cells replace them. She said you probably wouldn't notice the Iratus, but you would notice the plants leaving your system. Those had to come out fast before they poisoned you. What did you eat, anyway?"

John made his pouty-face. "Just the green stosh bark, and those little white berries from that evergreen bush you see on every third planet."

"Eeww! Why would you eat that?"

"I might have been a little hungry, McKay!" John really didn't need to snarl at him like that. "Besides, the flying squirrel-monkey things were eating the berries too. And Teyla uses stosh bark to make tea sometimes. We've both seen her…..Jeeze, Teyla! We shouldn't be sitting here, we should be out trying to find her. She and Ronon should have been back by now."

"Ronon will find her, if he hasn't already. What do you keep telling me about having faith in my teammates?" Rodney nudged John's shoulder with his own and refilled his cup of kaprim. "Anyway, did you ever think that the stosh may be one of those plants that's okay to eat if it's cooked, but toxic if eaten raw?"

Shrugging, John sipped more of the kaprim and returned to scowling. Rodney thought it would probably be a good idea to deliver all the bad news at once. "Um. Thousandmother said you'd probably get diarrhea too. We have to keep you hydrated."

A great sigh issued, seemingly from deep within John's soul. "Great. Just. Great." He handed over the cup and flopped down on the bed, draped his forearm over his eyes again, and pulled the blanket up to his chin.

Rodney put the cups away and carefully set the tray down on the floor, away from the nasty-smelling bucket. He nudged the container a little further away, hoping John wouldn't have to use it again. Maybe Aleek would come and clean it up.

He poked John, gently. "Hey, it'll be okay."

John raised his forearm to glare, but Rodney didn't feel like indulging him in an argument right now. "Really. It's not that bad. The Wraith didn't get us, we didn't get frozen, nobody is shooting at us, and we made new friends. That's practically a cause for celebration, eh?" He waggled his eyebrows.

John groaned theatrically and covered his eyes with his forearm again, but Rodney saw him fighting a smile, the corners of his lips twitching and trying to curl up. "What's with the sunny optimism, McKay? The apocalypse coming?"

He shrugged. "I can be optimistic."

John snorted. There was probably some eyebrow lifting going on, too, if Rodney knew his Sheppardese.

"I can be!" Rodney insisted. He shrugged again, and rubbed his thumb along his fingertips. "Just. You know. They were nice to me. The Taum."

"Lots of people are nice to you, McKay. I'm nice to you!"

"They were nice to me even after I started talking," Rodney said. He listened to the comprehension in John's resulting silence. There was a reason Rodney and Ronon weren't the diplomatic spearheads of their team, and they all knew it.

He remembered spotting the village, and then having to argue Ronon out of shooting one of the villagers when Ronon had seen what they looked like. Rodney may have been a little frightened himself when the villagers had noticed them; several of the Taum had come out to investigate. He admitted that it had been tense there for a few minutes. Very tense.

Actually, he'd been pretty terrified. Especially when he realized that, between him and Ronon, he was the most articulate one, so it was his job to make friends and keep them all from trying to kill each other. Not fair! he remembered thinking, I'm so not Daniel Jackson! But then, he'd comforted himself, Daniel Jackson didn't have the greatest track record of not getting his team shot at, or at not starting wars. Surely Rodney could do better than that!

And so, self-pep-talk delivered (oddly, in his head it had sounded like it was in Sheppard's voice), he'd started to babble at the nice aliens. He didn't remember what he'd said, just that he'd gotten increasingly nervous as he talked and talked, facing a wall of tall, insectile-looking silence.

He thought he'd said something about how hungry they were—and was that soup he smelled?—before Aleek came up and began to ask impertinent questions about the laptop strapped to Rodney's back and his tac vest, boots, and other gear. The pattern of the questions had been so similar to every nosy child in every backward village they'd visited in Pegasus that Rodney began to answer him the way he'd always answered brats, and patted his vest pockets for chocolate to distract the little hellion. Then he remembered that—oh yeah, starving, they'd eaten the last of the chocolate yesterday—and apologized for not having any, promising Aleek some when they got resupplied if the kid would just settle down and let the adults have a nice conversation, okay?

And then Thousandmother had announced, in a voice like living woodwinds, that since the strangers were hungry, they should come in out of the cold and eat. That had pretty much been that. The villagers apparently set great store in Thousandmother's opinion, and she evidently trusted Aleek. Rodney and Ronon always felt friendlier toward people who fed them.

A friendship was born.

A faint snore brought Rodney out of his reverie. He looked up and saw John's chest rising and falling with his steady breathing, the slackness of his mouth, and relaxed sprawl of his limbs; he concluded that John had fallen asleep again.

He was more than a little worried about John. Several days in freezing temperatures without much to eat except bark and berries that had turned out to be toxic was nothing to shrug off. A couple of cups of kaprim weren't enough. John needed to stay hydrated and he needed some food that he could safely digest and not sick up. Rodney spent another few moments fruitlessly wishing for the miraculous appearance of Carson's magic voodoo infirmary.

He sighed and got up, tucking more blankets around John before leaving him in search of Aleek, and some easily-digestible food.

"Holy shit!" Evan Lorne shouted, banking his puddle jumper abruptly. "All jumpers, do not engage. Repeat, do not engage! Return to rendezvous point Alpha Alpha 2-9. Repeat, return to Alpha Alpha Two-niner. Acknowledge."

"Acknowledged, Major."

"Copy that," the other pilots responded.

Evan piloted his jumper to the emergency rendezvous point. There was no way the Wraith hadn't noticed the Stargate activating, even though the three Lantean jumpers had gone in cloaked. Now they'd be waiting for them to depart via the Gate as well. Evan had no particular desire to be blown sky high, or even worse, boarded and interrogated, or drained dry by the Wraith. So they were gonna lay low for a while, and wait for a good opportunity to sneak back through the Gate.

Well, this rescue mission had all gone to hell in a handbasket, even faster than usual. They'd expected the Wraith cruiser they'd seen the last time they'd sent a probe. The plan to launch a rescue from three cloaked jumpers had taken the cruiser into account.

But it looked like the Wraith had gone crying to mother—why the hideous image of a Wraith Queen wearing a Betty Crocker-like apron entered his head, Evan had no Earthly idea—and gotten backup in the form of one of their giant Hive ships. There was no way three puddle jumpers, cloaked or otherwise, could possibly contend with both a cruiser and a Hive ship.

Evan reached the rendezvous and exchanged the briefest acknowledgements with the other pilots that they'd made it safely as well. He sighed and looked over his shoulder at the Marines crowding the back of the jumper. "Settle in for a wait, men. We're going to be here awhile."

"Aye, sir," Captain Martinez acknowledged. The Marines were all extraordinarily subdued, their expressions gloomy. Other than a few muttered curses, there had been little sound from them since they all first saw the Hive ship. Evan didn't have to do a survey to know they all had the same knot of apprehension and dismay in their stomachs as he did. It didn't look good for the Colonel and his team.

"You reading any lifesigns?" he asked Zelenka.

Radek hunched over his laptop in the shotgun seat and tapped a few buttons. He straightened and pushed up his glasses. His gaze met Evan's, and he shook his head. "I cannot distinguish any human lifesigns that might be Colonel Sheppard's team, on either the Wraith ships or the space station. There are humans aboard both ships, but they are not moving. I'm afraid they are probably the Wraith's…larder. None of them carry a transponder."

Radek grimaced in response to whatever expression must have been on Evan's face. "I know. I'm sorry, Major."

Evan waved it off. "Not your fault, Doc." He peered out of the front viewport of the jumper. His eye caught the glimmer of the planet spinning serenely below the dark shadow of the Hive ship. "Maybe they made it to the planet." He caught Zelenka's incredulous look and shrugged. "It could happen. It's the Colonel's team, remember. Sometimes I think they make a hobby out of doing crazy stuff."

Radek tilted his head and shrugged in agreement. "Perhaps. They have beaten the odds often enough, after all. It cannot hurt to hope for the best."

Evan nodded and sighed. Right now he was busy hoping really hard that the Wraith wouldn't notice them. But in a corner of his mind, he was halfway waiting for the Colonel and his team to surprise them all with a miraculous escape, one more time….

Teyla curled into a ball on the cold floor of her cell and rocked herself slowly, rhythmically. She would not weep. She would not.

She would comfort herself as best she could and she would get some rest. When the opportunity came—when her teammates freed her—then she would need to be ready. She had forced herself to eat the meager rations she'd been given, to drink water, then to find the warmest spot in her cell and settle down.

When the time came, she needed to be strong. Fortunately, she was not in pain. The scientist who had done the operation had insisted that pain relief was necessary in order to preserve the life of the specimen—her. Otherwise, he had told the others, the shock of the pain would kill her. And so he'd administered something that both temporarily paralyzed her and eliminated any pain. She could still see and hear, of course, but they had apparently discounted mental trauma as anything that could affect her in any way that was important to them.

She had watched them cut into her flesh with a kind of panicked detachment, as if it was a particularly gruesome dream. A dream, certainly, that would fuel her nightmares for many, many years to come. But she would not think about that.

Instead, she allowed herself to focus on revenge. In exchange for the pain and misery these people had subjected her to, she would kill them. (Perhaps she would allow Ronon to kill them, if he asked nicely). However, if their fumbling curiosity resulted in making her unable to bear children, she would personally kill them as slowly and painfully as circumstances would allow.

Athosians were not, generally speaking, a vengeful people. Teyla herself was more inclined to forgive most transgressions and move on, focused on the business of survival. However, if these people were not stopped, they would continue to perform their "experiments" on whatever unwilling victims they managed to capture. They must be stopped. They must never be allowed to do this to anyone, ever again.

Teyla would stop them. And if they bleated like goats, begging for their lives? She would not listen.

Ronon trudged into the village in the middle of a snowstorm, letting the Taum surround him and shield him from the driving snow with their taller bodies. Leadenly, his feet dragged through the slush and accumulated snowfall. His stomach was clenched into a tight little knot. For once in his life he wasn't hungry.

Docilely, he followed the Taum into the village bathhouse and stood in the anteroom with the others. Erhoop nudged him, and Ronon dully bent down to take off his boots so they could dry. He wasn't looking forward to seeing McKay and fending off his thousand questions. All he wanted was to lie down on one of the Taums' low, broad beds, cover himself with a mountain of blankets, and sleep for a few years. He hadn't found any sign of Sheppard and the news he had of Teyla was not good. He had failed his teammates. He didn't care if he never woke up again.

"Ronon! Ronon, where are you? Saleek, you great lummox, where are you hiding Ronon? You didn't lose him, did you?" McKay's strident voice was unmistakable as it echoed in the anteroom of the bathhouse.

"Here, McKay," he called wearily, before McKay could alienate their only friends on this world.

A few moments later, McKay had wound his way through the crowd of Taum removing their coats and boots. A smile wreathed his face. "Ronon, wait until I—" McKay frowned and interrupted himself. "You look really tired."

He must be tired, for McKay to notice. Ronon shrugged, and let McKay help him off with his coat.

"Come on, we'll get you a hot drink, and something to eat." McKay tugged on his sleeve, and bustled him into the bathhouse. He grinned over his shoulder at Ronon. "And I've got a surprise for you!"

Ronon closed his eyes, the dread of having to tell McKay his news intensifying. He let McKay tug him into the big open main room of the bathhouse and waited the few steps until they weren't blocking the doorway before setting his heels. It was probably better to get it over with right away. "Wait. McKay, I—"

"RONON! Ronon, hey buddy!" That was Sheppard's voice. Ronon's heartbeat thundered in his chest as he scanned the room. There! Standing on one of the sleeping benches so that he could be seen above the heads of the taller Taum, waving his arms, dressed in a black tee-shirt and BDU trousers, a broad smile on his face, was John Sheppard, miraculously alive and well.

Ronon caught McKay's delighted grin out of the corner of his eye. Vaguely, he heard him start to say, "Hey, I told you I had a sur—"

Ronon he bounded away, weaving between Taum, leaping over some of the smaller pools, on his way to Sheppard.

Sheppard had stopped looking quite so pleased, and was instead looking a bit alarmed when Ronon reached him. Maybe he was spooked by all the Taum filling the bathhouse with movement and the sound of their musical voices. Maybe it was something else.

"Hey, buddy! Good to see you— Umph!" Ronon's hug lifted Sheppard's bare feet right off the bench. Ronon put his face in John's neck and just inhaled the scent of him. He was alive. He was real, and he was alive. Great Lady, he was alive!

John had gone stiff in that awkward way he had of reacting to the slightest sign of affection. Ronon didn't care, just hugged him harder. John patted his shoulder, wheezing softly, "Breathing would be good…."

He loosened his hold, but didn't let go, just rocked John back and forth, comforting himself with listening to John's breathing, his heartbeat. "Couldn't find you," he said. The Earth people needed to have emotions explained to them sometimes. "Thought you were dead." His voice shuddered, which was maybe why John relaxed in his arms, and began to hug him back.

"Hey, big guy, I'm here. I'm okay," John crooned. "Rodney and Aleek have been taking care of me."

Finally, Ronon put him down, keeping his hands on John's shoulders, filling his gaze with John's face. It was unfamiliarly scruffy, like when John had been trapped in that Sanctuary place, only this time the beard wasn't so heavy yet. "It's good to see you, John." His voice was a little hoarse with all the things he didn't have words to say.

"Hey, hey…it's all right." John patted his arms and chest gently, as if he was afraid Ronon would cry.

"Here," McKay interrupted, brandishing cups of kaprim. "Drink this. It'll warm you up." He pushed a cup into John's hand and another into Ronon's. Ronon took his cup and slung his other arm around Rodney's neck, giving him a sideways hug.

"Watch it! You'll spill your drink on me!" Rodney squawked. Ronon smirked at him before letting go.

Ronon took a gulp of his kaprim. It smelled good, and it spread warmth down his throat and into his belly. He hadn't realized how cold he'd gotten.

"Okay, wait here, and I'll be back with something to eat," Rodney said, rubbing his hands together.

"Good idea," John said, drinking from his own cup. "Bring some of that brown stuff. I've had pretty good luck keeping it down." He shrugged off Ronon's look. "Sorry looking for me turned into a wild goose chase, buddy. Did you see any sign of Teyla? Rodney thinks the transporters might not all— Ronon? Ronon!"

There was a loud smashing sound and a wet splash of warmth on his legs. Ronon looked down numbly at the remains of the cup he'd dropped. Teyla. Oh.

Ronon swallowed hard, looking from John's worried gaze to Rodney's. It looked like he still had bad news to deliver.

"Colonel Caldwell, we're picking up a transmission from Atlantis," said Lt. Marchand.

Steven Caldwell nodded. "Put it through."

"Colonel Caldwell? This is Elizabeth Weir in Atlantis." On the viewscreen, Dr. Weir stood tensely, her arms folded.

"Dr. Weir." Steven sat up straighter. "How is Atlantis today?"

"Not so good, Colonel," Dr. Weir replied. She looked tired.

"What trouble has Sheppard gotten into this time?" Steven asked. Only Sheppard's antics put that particular note of stress in Dr. Weir's voice.

She sighed. "The usual trouble around here, Colonel. The Wraith. Sheppard's team was on what was supposed to be an innocuous harvesting mission for the new Gate-bridge Dr. McKay is working on—"

"Ah, yes! The project that's supposed to put me out of business," Steven said dryly.

Weir countered with an unladylike snort. "Believe me, Steven, as long as we keep needing you to get us out of trouble, you'll never be out of business."

Steven felt a grin stretch his mouth. It was nice to be appreciated. He cleared his throat and reapplied his nose to the grindstone. "So what happened?"

"They found the space-gate they were looking for, but they also found an abandoned space station. Dr. McKay thought it was probably Ancient."

"Don't tell me. They went to investigate it, and the Wraith had remade it into their version of Starbucks. Better yet, it was booby-trapped."

"The latter, I'm afraid." Her smile was wry. "We believe that some sort of beacon must have been set off as soon as they entered the space station. When Sheppard's team missed their check-in, the probe we sent through the Gate showed a Wraith cruiser docked there."

"That sounds like Sheppard's luck. Any chance they haven't been captured?"

"Unknown. Major Lorne took a strike force through to effect a rescue. However, by the time they got there, the Wraith had brought in a Hive ship in addition to the cruiser. The Major decided his best strategy for now was to lay low and evade capture. He got a message through to Atlantis initially, but he's missed his latest check-in. We're unsure if he and his team have been captured, or if they're simply limiting transmissions to avoid Wraith attention."

This got worse and worse. Sheppard had a positive talent for attracting trouble wherever he went and then dragging everyone else into it with him. Steven sighed. He hated the thought of pitting the Daedalus against a Hive ship—those things were huge. Nevertheless, he couldn't leave Sheppard and his people hanging out to dry.

That was the real reason the Gate-bridge between the Milky Way and Pegasus would never replace the Daedalus. She wasn't simply some glorified supply transport, she was a battle cruiser. Tactical backup was part of her mission to Pegasus. More often than not, her presence was vital. Steven and his crew could take pride in that, and did.

"Understood, Dr. Weir. Have your people send the coordinates to that system to my navigator. We'll be there at our best speed."

"Thank you, Colonel."

"No thanks necessary. Apparently it's part of my job description to pull Sheppard's fat out of the fire every other month." Steven straightened in his command chair and left off the wise-cracking. "We'll get them back for you, Elizabeth."

"I know you will." Her voice and gaze were clear and steady, full of confidence and trust. The woman made him want to go out and slay dragons for her. Somehow she always did that to him. "God speed, Steven. God speed."

"Look, in case it's escaped your notice, there's a blizzard out there!" Rodney pointed emphatically at the snow swirling against the windows. There must be some way to get through John's thick skull.

"It's just snow. It's not that bad," said Ronon, lifting his head from the plate of food he'd been shoveling into his mouth. Despite Ronon's insane contradiction of Rodney's eminently reasonable assessment of the weather conditions, Rodney was pleased to see he looked a little better than he had when he first came in. More than once Rodney had been told he was insensitive to other people's feelings, but he would have had to be a complete idiot to have missed the way Ronon had looked earlier—like he'd been gutted. Finding out that John was alive had put something essential back into Ronon's eyes. Rodney didn't want take any of that away, but he didn't want them all throwing away their lives without a decent plan, either.

"We'll bundle up. We can make it, McKay!" John said, continuing to yank on his socks and shoes, as if getting dressed and heading out were all that were keeping them from saving Teyla.

"Never mind the horrendous weather conditions, which will probably result in us all freezing to death. Never mind that you were practically at death's door just last night and will probably collapse before we freeze to death—" He slashed his hand through the air to cut off John's indignant reply and addressed Ronon, whose expression had gone surprised and wary. "The Colonel had a little culinary adventure while he was stumbling around by himself out in the woods. He ate some stosh bark and those white berries from the evergreen bushes."

"Sheppard! Those are poison! What were you thinking?" Ronon turned to John, putting down his plate. "We have to make you puke it back up, right now!" He looked like he was about to personally jam a finger down John's throat to make it happen.

John groaned, and slumped backward onto the pallet he'd been sitting on. "Enough with the puking! I've been vomiting and shitting for a day and a half. I'm pretty sure the handful of berries I ate is outta my system by now."

"If you'd just keep a Powerbar or two on hand like sensible people…." Rodney exchanged a satisfied look with Ronon. Thanks to their foresight, they'd been hungry at the end of their sojourn in the woods, but not hungry enough to eat native plants without checking to see if they'd be deadly.

John made a "talk-talk-talk" gesture with his hand while lying on the pallet, not even looking at Rodney. "Whatever. I'm fine now. As soon as Ronon's done eating, we need to go back out and look for Teyla. She's in trouble, McKay!"

"Don't you think I want to get her back as much as you do?" Rodney demanded, folding his arms with a huff. "My objection is to going out and tromping around witlessly in the snow without a destination or a plan. Just where do you think we'll find her, huh?"

John levered himself up on his elbows. "Ronon said she was in some kind of fortress." He looked over at Ronon and raised an eyebrow.

"Tuleek said," muttered Ronon, scraping the last of some brown glop into his mouth. "He never told me where it was."

"Who's Tuleek?" John sat up and swiveled around to look at the Taum.

The Taum had been fairly quiet and subdued, going about their business of eating, relaxing, and soaking in the various pools. They were appearing to ignore the humans, while giving them space to have their own conversation.

"No. Weee wiiill not tell you." A Taum Rodney didn't recognize spoke up from one of the nearby pools. Evidently some of them had been listening to the humans' discussion, even if they hadn't participated.

"Tuleek?" John stood, and faced the Taum.

"No. Tuleek's asleep." Ronon pointed to an older Taum curled on a nearby pallet. "That's Erhoop," Ronon told them. "Erhoop, this is John Sheppard." Belatedly, he introduced John. "Rodney McKay." He pointed to Rodney, as if in afterthought. As if he wasn't worth more than an afterthought!

Rodney ignored the implied insult (for now). "Why won't you tell us, Erhoop?" he asked.

"Weee do not want you to go there," replied Erhoop, settling his head on a little cushion at the edge of the pool.

Rodney raised an eyebrow. "Hmph. While I agree that we shouldn't head out willy-nilly into the storm, once the snow stops coming down we should be able to travel well enough to get to this fortress." A thought made him stop and nervously trace the knuckles of his fist with the pad of his thumb. "Um. How far away is it? Do we have to walk? You do have some other form of transportation, don't you?"

"You wiiill not go there. The mountain peeeople wiiill kiiill you," said Erhoop with quiet finality. He pulled away from the edge of the pool and sank underneath the water.

"Hey! Wait a minute!" Rodney scowled. He hated being dismissed like a child. He'd hated it when he'd been a child, and he hadn't stopped resenting it.

John put his hands on his hips and scowled as well. "Does somebody else know where this fortress is?" He looked around the room at the nearby Taum. Only a few of them seemed to be paying attention to the discussion.

"Weee all know, John Sheppard. Weee do not wiiish to tell you." One of the other Taum sat up on his bench, blankets draped around him. "The mountain peeeople are very dangerous. Iiif your friend has beeen captured byyy them, sheee is most liiikely alreadyyy dead. Weee do not wiiish them to capture you as well."

"Well, thank you for caring about us, uh—" John frowned.

"Saleek," Rodney told him. "Saleek is the leader of the village, John."

John nodded in acknowledgement. "We really thank you, Saleek. For everything. You and your people have been really great. Really. But we don't leave our people behind. And that means we have to go find Teyla, no matter what it takes. We understand if your people don't want to mix it up with these mountain guys. We won't endanger your village or any of your people. You don't have to come along and show us where this fortress is…just tell us where to find it. We'll do the rest."

"No. You wiiill not come to harm through anyyy action of ours," said Saleek, turning his back and lying down, pulling covers over his head.

"Dammit!" John looked like he was about to tear his hair out. "Why won't you give us any answers?" he demanded, to Saleek's unmoving back. "We're gonna go out and look anyway! You can't—"

"John." Rodney tugged on the hem of John's tee-shirt. "Hey. I've got an idea."

"What? What is it?" John whirled on him, his tone sharp.

Rodney sat down on the bench next to Ronon and raised an eyebrow at John. "Come here and I'll tell you."

John sighed and settled crosslegged on the rug in front of them, running a hand over his hair. "Sorry, Rodney. It's frustrating. They keep making me feel like I'm five years old."

Rodney curled forward with his elbows on his knees and chin on his fists. "That's because we are around five years old to them. You know Aleek is the youngest Taum in the village, right? Do you know exactly how old he is in Terran terms?"

"Why don't you tell us, McKay," John drawled, spinning his hand in a "get on with it" gesture.

"He's 120 years old, or thereabouts," Rodney said softly.

"Woah! No shit?" John blinked.

"How does this help us find Teyla?" Ronon complained.

"It doesn't. You're right." Rodney nodded at him. "Although it does explain why I got chosen to be Aleek's little playmate and why they're taking care of us like we'd look after a group of lost kids. Yeah, okay, I'm getting to it, Conan," he said to Ronon's impatient scowl.

"I don't think they'll tell us where this fortress is, but we don't need them to." Rodney held up a finger to halt the interruption he could see forming on John's lips. "All we need to do is hike to the nearest transporter and get back up to the space station. From there, I should be able to jury-rig something to pick up Teyla's transponder. We can search the entire planet for her! And then we can fly the jumper down to this 'fortress' and rescue her. We can even dial the Gate for Atlantis and bring reinforcements. No deathmarches in the snow involved. Simple." He grinned and waved his hands like a magician revealing his trick.

"You forgot one thing, Rodney," John said.

"The Wraith," Ronon said, nodding at him.

"I don't think they're gonna be all that helpful to us finding Teyla, unless it's to eat her," John said. Really, the sarcasm wasn't helpful at all.

"But, surely the Wraith have gone by now, haven't they? I mean, they didn't find us, they probably haven't found the cloaked jumper. Why would they hang around? They should be gone, right? Right?" Rodney looked from John to Ronon and back.

Their answer was glum silence.

Teyla huddled in on herself more tightly, but was no warmer. She was so tired of being cold. It wasn't just uncomfortable; it sapped her strength and increased her misery exponentially. Her belly felt emptier with hunger, her throat more parched with thirst. In addition, the painkillers from the surgery had worn off, and the pain of her incision jabbed at her with every movement.

Her thoughts had been uncomfortable as well. She had been thinking of Michael. How was what Dr. Beckett done to him—what the rest of the Lanteans including herself had allowed to be done to him—so different from what the Alterans were doing to her? Even if he was a Wraith, he was sentient. You killed your enemies; you did not experiment on them.

She knew that it was the Wraiths' experiments on her own ancestors to make them more compatible to Wraith feeding that had inspired Dr. Beckett to see if he could make the Wraith less able to feed on humans. In theory, that was a fine idea. They were at war with an implacable enemy. Whatever could win them an advantage had to be tried.

But, in practice…. Teyla placed a hand over her incision. Just because the Wraith had experimented on humans did not make it right to experiment on the Wraith. If you took on the most merciless aspects of your enemy to defeat him, how were you any different than that enemy?

The squeaking sound alerted her. The technicians who fed and transported her used a cart to deliver her food—and that, she assumed, of the other prisoners here—and the cart had a squeaky wheel. Again, she wondered that people who claimed descent from the very Ancestors would use such inferior technology. Shouldn't the food be beamed directly into her cell? Even the Lanteans had beaming technology that they used for transportation, although, she admitted, not for such lowly uses as feeding prisoners.

Teyla crowded into the furthest corner of her cell away from the doorway. Hopefully, the technicians were coming to feed her. But they might just as well be coming to take her for more experiments. Surely they had "learned" enough from her today?

"…and as soon as those idiotic soldiers released him, Researcher Palonias went right to the Research Chair of the Council to protest," came the voice of the technician that Teyla thought of as "the bearded one."

"But surely the Commander is correct?" That was the voice of the short technician. "We cannot just sit here and wait for the Wraith to come down and feed on us! We must launch the Novus Tempus as soon as possible. Surely even the Wraith cannot defeat an Alteran battleship."

"Well, of course," scoffed the bearded one. "But how could Researcher Palonias be expected to be of any assistance? His specialty is in the biological sciences. The Commander should have asked the Council for some researchers from the physical and engineering houses."

"He is just a soldier, after all," said the short one. "He cannot be expected to understand the workings of the research class. To him, all researchers are alike, and we all know everything."

"It is only to be expected," the bearded one agreed, his tone unpleasant. "His is only a ceremonial position, after all. No Commander has actually seen battle in many generations. Our 'soldiers' never actually defend us from anything. All they are good for is collecting specimens for our Researchers to experiment on from the surrounding hillsides."

The short one laughed meanly. "They should be the ones tasked with feeding and maintaining the specimens in their cages, not us. This has nothing to do with real research."

The door of Teyla's cell opened. She jammed her back more firmly into the shadowed corner of the cell. She peered up through her hair to catch the short one watching her, nonetheless.

The short one gestured to her and sneered, saying to his partner, "See? The specimen recovered from the surgery with no problems. It's even moving around already." He held a shock stick at the ready to beat her back should she dare to approach the door. Teyla had not needed that lesson more than once.

The bearded one poured some thick brown sludgy substance into a bowl and put it down on the floor of the cell. He picked up the empty bowl and started to fill her water container. He looked up at her suddenly, arching an eyebrow. "I wonder if what the Commander says is true? What if this specimen came from the Wraith? After all, we have never encountered a similar specimen on this world before. Researcher Doruk says it has Wraith elements in its genetic structure. What if it is spying for them? What if they want it back?"

Both technicians stared at her with hostility for a few moments. Teyla stared back, her hands knotted into trembling fists. How dare they? How dare they accuse her of working for the Wraith? They were the ones who had caught and hurt her. She had tried to warn them of the Wraith!

Something in her gaze must have made the technicians uncomfortable, because they both backed out of her cell, the short one brandishing his shock stick menacingly. The cell door clanged shut.

Her rage had warmed her slightly, but it was still too cold. Teyla waited to hear the technicians' steps, and the squeaky wheel of their cart, retreat down the corridor before she moved from her corner. She retrieved the food and water and brought them back to the far end of the cell. Then she ate and drank as slowly as she could manage so that she could pretend there was enough to fill her belly, to quench her raging thirst. Both the food and water tasted unpleasant, with a faint chemical aftertaste. She licked the bowls anyway, hunger and thirst denying her any caution or dignity.

She flung the empty containers back to the door of her cell. She wanted to be angry again. The anger had warmed her. But it was too cold. She was too tired, and hurt, and miserable. She curled into a ball and fell into a fitful sleep. Teyla's certainty that her team would come for her was beginning to fray. She held onto it as tightly as she could and built her dreams around it.




"Prime again. Listen, Doc, how is this fun again?" Evan arched an eyebrow at Radek. "Honestly, even if I just answer randomly, statistically I'm gonna be right— Woah!" He sent the puddle jumper in a steep vertical descent as one of the searching Wraith Darts came just a little too close. Thank goodness for the inertial dampeners, or they'd all be pancaked up on the ceiling like cartoon characters trapped in a falling elevator.

He didn't like this at all. The Wraith knew someone was out there, somewhere, and they weren't going to give up looking for them, even if they couldn't see them or spot them on their sensors. Weapons fire making a lucky hit or just plain bumping into them would do it, although the area of space in this solar system was vast enough that Evan thought they could play hide and seek for quite some time. The limiting factor was him, actually. He'd just plain get tired sometime and then the Wraith might get lucky.

They had additional ATA-personnel aboard, of course—Chen and Donaldson were both ATAs. And, per Colonel Sheppard's orders, all ATA-positive individuals on Atlantis were at least minimally trained on the puddle jumpers so that they could at least fly a jumper in an emergency. But being trained to operate the jumper controls in an emergency and being an actual pilot were completely different. If things were otherwise calm, he could leave one of the other ATAs in charge with the jumper on autopilot while he caught a catnap.

Things were not that calm.

He swore and zig-zagged to avoid weapons fire. The Darts were shooting in seemingly random directions every once in a while. He took the jumper out in a long arc a little further from the spacegate. He heard the Marines grumbling softly in the back, even though there hadn't been any jostling…yet. As soon as they took weapons fire, the power demands from the shields would reduce the effectiveness of the inertial dampeners and the men might be tossed around like laundry in a clothes dryer. For the millionth time, he wondered why the jumpers didn't have safety restraints. Again for the millionth time, he poked at his jumper with that thought, hoping the vehicle would respond by magically fulfilling his wishes. But Ancient machinery rarely produced pleasant surprises anymore.

Evan exchanged a glance with Radek. "Doc, we need a plan."

"Rodneee." The Taum child, Aleek, hovered over McKay, calling for his attention. McKay and Sheppard were busy trying to out-shout each other, so McKay ignored him. "Rodnee!"

Aleek met Ronon's eyes, and then clapped a large hand over McKay's mouth. Ronon held Sheppard back, as the sight of those large claws on McKay's face turned his former ire toward McKay into instant fear. Sheppard's instinctive move to defend McKay would have been seen as a move to hurt Aleek by the other Taum. Ronon didn't think that would have gone down well at all.

"Rodneee," Aleek sang, much more quietly. "It is time for rest now. Everyone must be quiet."

And in the lack of McKay's response—because Aleek kept his hand right where it was—all three men heard the relative silence of the bathhouse. Now that night had fallen, without even the feeble illumination through the windows from the overcast sky outside, the great room was dark and murky, lit only by the glowing braziers. The air was humid, warm, and still. Most of the Taum had settled onto their palettes to sleep. Some were dozing while lounging in the hot waters of their pools, their heads resting on pillows propped at the edge.

"Iiif you wiiish to contiiinue your diiiscussion, come wiiith meee to Thousandmother's house," Aleek said softly.

McKay nodded slowly under Aleek's arm.

"Sorry," Sheppard whispered.

Aleek released McKay, who turned and patted him on the chest. "Yes, right, sorry." He winced, and lowered his voice some more. "We'll go get our coats, eh?"

Aleek lowered his antennae to stroke McKay's face. "Yes. Come."

They followed Aleek in a line, like a Shrena with her kits, to the anteroom. They all donned boots and coats, and—at McKay's pantomimed insistence—scarves, in silence. They trudged out the door of the bathhouse into the snow.

The snowfall was lighter than it had been earlier, but the wind was still cutting, and swirled the snow that had already fallen on the frozen ground. There were no lights on around the bathhouse, and the stormy sky meant no illumination from moons or stars. Still following Aleek, they trudged around the outside of the bathhouse to the end, and set off on a path that was obvious only once they were on it. It seemed to circle the village. The dwellings and most of the other buildings were dark, since most of the village folk were staying in the bathhouse. It was hard to see the buildings in the dark and the swirling snow, until they temporarily blocked the snowfall with their bulk.

To get separated and lost in the dark and freezing storm meant death, so they hung on to each other and followed Aleek, who seemed to know the way without light. McKay clung onto Aleek's wing casing, and Sheppard hung on to the back of McKay's coat. Ronon gripped the coat at Sheppard's shoulder and followed at the end of the line. He'd wrapped the scarf around his head as well as his face, but the snow still whipped into his eyes and made him keep his head down. He almost ran into Sheppard's back when they stopped.

They'd reached the far side of the village, where path led into the hills beyond. Ronon had come the opposite way on the same path toward the bathhouse earlier in the day. The main path wove around the swell of the first hill. Aleek led them off of it onto a smaller path that went downslope a little way, then up, and up again. Without buildings or trees to block the wind, it whipped against them viciously, sending stinging icy snow into their faces. Ronon crowded closer to Sheppard to try to shelter him a little with his body.

Eventually, the path led to a rough wooden wall that seemed to be built into the side of the hill itself. Aleek pulled on a broad strap attached to the wall. The wall slid sideways on tracks. It was a sliding door, Ronon realized. He blinked his eyes to clear the snowflakes from his lashes. What he'd thought was part of the hill was actually a sod house built into the side of the hill.

He followed Sheppard inside. Sheltered from the wind, it was abruptly warmer. Aleek slid the door closed again and it was warmer still. And much quieter. Though the wind still shrieked outside, the door seemed to be fitted with material that stopped the wind sneaking in to howl around its edges.

"It's really dark in here," McKay said, his voice high and nervous. "Even darker than outside, and I wasn't sure that was possible, except for the utter black of outer space! Aleek, have I told you about claustrophobia yet?"

"Easy, Rodney." Sheppard's voice was quiet, soothing. "We're fine."

An inner door slid open. In the light that streamed from inside the dwelling, Ronon momentarily saw Sheppard and McKay standing close together—no closer than they had often stood—but this was…different, somehow. Then they were walking into the house from the anteroom and it was as if it had never happened.

So that's the way it is, Ronon thought. Good. John was too alone.

"Hello, chiiildren," sang Thousandmother, rising from a broad bench next to a low table. She put down a wooden box she'd been holding. "Come. Make yourselves comfortable. The wiiind iiis cold outsiiide."

The interior was warm enough that they stopped and shed their coats, scarves, and boots. Ronon didn't know what he'd expected from a private home, since the Taum seemed to live so much of their lives communally. There weren't the austere bare furnishings of an ascetic, nor the extravagant excess of a libertine, nor even an insectile nest or burrow.

Thousandmother's house was just one large room, big enough for perhaps half a dozen of the large Taum to gather comfortably. There were multiple layers of rugs on the floor, and cream-colored glazed tile on the walls and around the hearth. A small pot-bellied stove sat on the hearth, almost glowing with warmth. There were a few pieces of low, broad furniture, and some storage units against the walls. There were no windows, or doors other than the one they'd entered through.

The high ceiling a translucent material that glowed with warm—and apparently artificial—light. Ronon wondered if the Taum had electricity. He hadn't seen much evidence of it, but he hadn't spent much time in the village and most of that had been at the bathhouse. The light from the ceiling wasn't all that bright, even though it seemed to be, in comparison to the darkness outside and the utter darkness of the anteroom. Ronon noticed Aleek and Thousandmother's large orange eyes again, and suddenly the dim lighting—here and in the bathhouse—made sense. He wondered if the Taum's ancestors had been nocturnal.

"Siiit, pleeease. Iii wiiill make kaprim for you," Thousandmother said. All three of them sprawled on one bench, while Aleek lowered himself to another. Thousandmother pulled a tray from one of the storage units against the wall, and assembled cups on it. She pulled kaprim-makings from another unit—including a pot that she filled with hot water from a spigot that came out of the wall near the hearth. She poured some granules from a jar into the pot and set it on the stove.

"What's this, Thousandmother?" McKay asked, picking up the box Thousandmother had been holding when they came in. Ronon had wondered how long it would take him to start talking.

"An amusement," sang Thousandmother, taking it from his hands. While McKay had needed both hands to hold the box, the old Taum held it easily in one palm. The box was wooden, decorated with carving and reliefwork in abstract patterns—or maybe writing. Ronon wasn't sure what the Taum's writing looked like or even if they had writing.

Thousandmother pressed one claw into an indentation in the side of the box—what had looked like part of the pattern. She waved it under McKay's nose.

"Hmm! Flowers. Perfume?" McKay tilted his head and rubbed the side of his nose experimentally. "I, uh, may be allergic to some—"

Thousandmother pressed a claw into another indentation and waved it under McKay's nose again. He sat up straighter. "Hey! Now it's…wet wool? Or maybe fur…" Another trigger depressed, and another pass of the box. "Oooh! Smells like candy. Sniff this, Sheppard!"

Sheppard obligingly sniffed. Ronon leaned over and sniffed as well. It did smell like something sweet and fruity, something the Lanteans would use as candy. He looked up at Thousandmother. "Makes different smells. What's it for?"

She tilted the box back and forth in her palm, and then deposited it back onto the table. "An amusement onlyyy."

"Iiit iiis a game," offered Aleek. "Iiif weee played, Iii would giiive you the box and press the keeey. Then you would smell the scent and tryyy to duplicate iiit."

"You mean, try to make a smell like the smell I'd just…smelled?" Sheppard grimaced as he got that out.

"How?" said McKay. "Show us. Or, uh, scent us."

"Iii can not playyy." Aleek's antennae drooped. "Iii am not old eeenough. Iii cannot produce the scents."

"You produce them?" Ronon looked up at Thousandmother for confirmation. "With your bodies?"

"Yyyes. Weee have—" Thousandmother began to lift the front panel of her garment.

"Hey! No! We believe you. No nakedness required!" Sheppard gestured emphatically at her.

Thousandmother blinked at him. "As yyyou wiiish. Iiit iiis onlyyy an amusement." She indicated the box. "Weee use scent sometiiimes to communiiicate. And Iii use iiit in heeealing, on occasion."

"You did that with me." Sheppard face looked abruptly stony.

"Yyyes. Some scents calm patients. Yyyou were nervous," Thousandmother said. Ignoring Sheppard's narrowed eyes, she turned to Aleek. "Iii am pleeeased yyyou have come to viiisit meee, but whyyy are you heeere?"

"Um," McKay said. "We were, um, debating." He grimaced. Sheppard winced, and rubbed the back of his neck. Both of them looked a little embarrassed about the volume their debate had reached.

"We need to find our friend, Teyla," Ronon said. "Nobody wants to tell us where the mountain people took her."

Silence answered him. Ronon bit down on his impatience, glaring at McKay when it looked like he might speak again. The Taum needed to answer.

Thousandmother's eyes slid half-closed as she poured the steaming contents of the pot through a strainer into a squat earthenware pitcher. She added the liquid from two other jars to the pitcher, and then stirred the mixture with a thin wooden paddle. She clicked softly, and Aleek stood and held the tray as she poured the hot kaprim into the cups.

Aleek stood in front of their bench and lowered the tray so that they could help themselves. Ronon took a cup, as did Sheppard, followed by McKay. Then Aleek served his Thousandmother before taking the last cup and putting away the tray. Ronon held the earthenware cup of kaprim in his hands, letting the warmth leach the chill from his fingertips. He noticed that the same sturdy cups that filled his hand looked small and delicate held between two of Aleek's fingers. He swallowed down some kaprim, watching Aleek take tiny sips from his own cup.

"Look," Sheppard said, apparently unable to stand the silence any longer. "We don't want to endanger your people. But we need to get our friend back. We're gonna go looking for her anyway, so if you could tell us where to look—"

"Iii wiiill take you," Aleek said.

"No. Hey. It's dangerous. We get that," Sheppard said. "We just want directions."

"You wiiish to take them, chiiild?" Thousandmother tilted her head at Aleek, her antennae waving. "You mayyy beee kiiilled."

"Rodneee is myyy friend," sang Aleek. "Heee iiintends to go. Iii wiiill protect hiiim."

"No, no, no. You don't have to do that! All we need is a map or something, really." McKay stood and downed the last of his kaprim.

"You do not thiiink Iii can protect you, Rodnee?"

"Ah. Of course you can." McKay patted Aleek's brawny arm. "It's just that our people don't believe in putting children in dangerous situations."

"What he said," Sheppard nodded and pointed at McKay.

"Liiife iiis dangerous. Weee are all iiin danger, always," said Thousandmother.

"I can't believe you're arguing in favor of this!" McKay had lost his volume control again, waving his arms and gesturing. "We just think it would be poor thanks to repay all the hospitality your people have shown us to drag your youngest child into possible danger. We can't do that!"

Thousandmother's eyes seemed to get brighter and she clicked to herself. "Your care for myyy chiiild pleeeases meee. You wiiish to protect hiiim, but belieeeve you cannot."

"If something's bad enough to be a problem for Aleek, I don't think we could be much protection, no," Sheppard agreed, leaning forward and setting his empty cup on the floor by his feet.

"Then Iii wiiill come as well. Aleeek wiiill protect you and Iii wiiill protect myyy chiiild." Thousandmother sounded satisfied with herself.

"Oh, great! Just great!" McKay threw up his hands. "I feel so much better! Not only am I dragging an alien toddler into unknown danger, but I'm bringing along his elderly granny as well. Just. Great."

"Sakra hovno!" Radek wanted to pull his hair out. He was afraid of the action to come, and at the same time couldn't stand the wait.

"Easy, Doc," Captain Martinez leaned forward from the seat just behind Radek and patted his shoulder. It was oddly comforting—odd because Radek didn't know Martinez all that well. "Everything will go off without a hitch, you'll see."

"You are glass half full," Radek accused him. "I am glass half empty. I foresee explosive decompression killing us all."

"There, see! Then the Wraith won't get us!" Martinez said cheerfully. Behind him in the rear compartment, the other marines snickered.

In the pilot's seat, Major Lorne for once didn't join in the banter. He was silent and focused. Waiting for the signal that meant the other jumpers were in position.

The sensors by Radek's station beeped. "Major—"

"I'm on it, Doc," the Major said. "Jumper Five, acknowledge."

"Ready, sir."

Lorne nodded, even though the pilot of jumper Five obviously couldn't see him. "Good. Hold your position. Jumper Eight, where are you?"

"In position, sir."

"Okay. Everybody ready, boys and girls? Hang on! Three, two, one…GO!" Lorne spun the jumper into a maneuver that would have been stomach-wrenching without the inertial dampeners. As it was, the view from the forward viewports was dizzying. At the same time, he must have removed the jumper's cloak, if the behavior of the nearby Wraith darts shooting at and maneuvering toward them was any indication.

Jumper Five dialed the Stargate—to one of the beta sites they'd agreed on. Radek nodded to himself as his sensor readings confirmed their suspicions about what the Wraith would do. "As you predicted, Major. A group of Wraith is fanning out to cover the Stargate. They believe we are decoy." They'd been dialing the Gate at irregular intervals all along. The Wraith knew they were around already, no reason not to make them nervous about the possibility of reinforcements arriving.

Lorne chuckled dryly. "Now it's time to convince them that we're a decoy for something else. Jumper Eight, you have a go!"

"Aye, sir." And suddenly a line of explosions appeared along the Wraith cruiser docked at the spacestation, as Jumper Eight strafed them with drones. When they'd cooked up this plan, Lorne had remarked that it was pretty stupid of the Wraith to leave the cruiser docked and vulnerable like that and it would be criminal not to take the Wraith up on their stupidity.

Radek noted when Lorne cloaked their jumper again, continuing their evasive maneuvers so that the Wraith wouldn't be able to extrapolate their position. The Major finally lined them up and began strafing the cruiser himself. He had to break off fairly quickly, since the Wraith were already alerted to the situation and their Darts jumped to intercept the jumper's position. A Wraith beam narrowly missed hitting them.

Lorne sent them hurtling away toward the Hive and decloaked briefly, teasing. "Jumper Eight, now!"

"Aye, sir!" Jumper Eight sent several more drones toward the cruiser before pulling away to avoid a pack of Darts flying close together.

"The Darts guarding the Stargate are leaving position to defend the cruiser instead," Radek said. He was so tense, his hair was vibrating. He pushed his glasses further up his nose.

"Jumper Five, go!" Lorne ordered. He positioned the jumper to make another run at the cruiser.

"Acknowledged, sir."

A few moments later, Radek was able to tell them, "Jumper Five has gone through the Gate." Around him, he heard everyone else breathe out with relief.

"Ready, Eight?" Lorne asked. "Your turn to flash the Wraith."

"Flashing, sir," Jumper Eight's pilot acknowledged. He dropped his cloak briefly, "flashing" the Wraith. He was closer to the Stargate, so it was a calculated risk, but by now the Wraith were trained to ignore the puddle jumper they could see, and expect fire from one they couldn't.

The crowd of Darts around the seriously damaged cruiser was so thick that Lorne was able to get off only one shot before breaking off for severe evasive maneuvers. A lucky shot from the Hive ship grazed them and they were briefly visible.

Radek swore, but the cloak came back online immediately and he didn't even have to switch any crystals. He monitored the power levels closely. Reading the damage reports, he swore again. "Major, there was damage to the drive pods. We will not be able to go through the Stargate. I must manually retract them."

Radek struggled with the manual pod retraction mechanism.

"Doc? We're on the clock," Lorne said.

"Seru na to! It's not working!" Radek cried, perspiration sliding down his nose and taking his glasses along. He shoved them back with the back of his wrist. He cursed again. "Major, we can't go through the Gate like this!"

Lorne pursed his lips and shook his head. "It's too late to change the plan, Doc. Jumper Eight, you have a go!"

"Good luck, sir," said Jumper Eight's pilot, and then they were through the Stargate as well.

Lorne skimmed their jumper over the Hive, launched a desultory drone, and then set a course for a broad elliptical that would take them around the Stargate and the planet at different points. Radek noted Lorne's actions with a feeling of dullness that he knew was shock. He swallowed. They were trapped alone on this side of the Stargate, along with about a million Wraith. He told Rodney's voice in his mind to shut up when it demanded he be more accurate in his estimates.

"Well, at least Jumpers Five and Eight got away," offered Martinez, relentlessly, determinedly cheerful.

"Right," Lorne nodded. "It went pretty well, actually."

Radek gaped at him.

Lorne just raised an eyebrow. "You can't expect every plan to go perfectly, Doc. It just doesn't happen."

"No battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy," Martinez quoted. Radek might be forced to kill him in his sleep.

"Look, Doc. Worse comes to worst, we'll go down to the planet, land in some grassy field, stay cloaked, and wait for the Daedalus to arrive and beam us up," Lorne said, in an entirely too reasonable tone of voice.

"Yeah. And in the meantime, we'll be in place to help out the Colonel and his team if they make it off the space station. That's why we're here in the first place," said Martinez.

"That's right, Captain. We all know that," said Lorne, his tone apparently clipped enough to make Martinez shut up. Thankfully.

Lorne rubbed at his right eye with the heel of his hand. "Somebody want to hand me one of those uppers from the med kit?"

Nobody was foolish enough to offer to fly the jumper in the Major's stead. Radek passed over one of the little pills and the bottle of water Sgt. Monroe brought to the front compartment.

Lorne looked at him and shrugged. Back to waiting.

Teyla heard them before they opened the cell door. She huddled back into the furthest corner of her cell to wait. She had decided that she would not go along docilely. She had done so before hoping that her cooperation would induce them to speak to her, to treat her as a human being, if only as a prisoner. No, this time they would have to stun her again to take her where they wished, or perhaps attempt to physically force her out of her cell. She looked forward to the idea of the latter. She would be able to fight back, and she knew she would be able to hurt several of them before they stunned or immobilized her.

To Teyla's surprise, the fat one and the tall one came into her cell, followed by two of their assistants. Usually, they just had their minions fetch her and bring her into their laboratories. She suspected they felt themselves too important to do such menial tasks. Why would they come this time?

She was shocked when the tall one looked directly at her and spoke. "You've brought the Wraith upon us, girl! Did you escape from their ship or were you sent here to spy on us? Well? Speak up!"

Oh, now they wished to converse with her, did they? If they had bothered to speak with her from the beginning, she would have warned them of the Wraith's presence in the first place. Now…now, well she still wouldn't quite call the Wraith down on them. She had always thought she wouldn't do that to her worst enemy. Now she knew that was true, because these people had made themselves her enemies indeed. Still, she would not wish the Wraith upon them.

But neither would she help them. She met the tall one's eye, looking up through the matted tangle of her filthy hair—they had barely provided enough water for her to drink, much less to wash. Instead of advice or warning, she snarled at him. If he thought her an animal, she would play the animal.

"See! I told you it would be useless!" The fat one tugged on the tall one's sleeve. "Let us send her back up to the Wraith as we agreed. Perhaps once they have her, they will leave us alone."

"But she has seen our facilities! She can describe our work. She knows our faces!" protested the tall one. "Even if she is not intelligent enough to tell these things to her Wraith masters directly, the Records say that they are capable of extracting the knowledge from her mind!"

"Not if she is dead," the fat one said carelessly. "Surely even the Wraith cannot resurrect the dead. And once they have her, they will stop looking for her and leave."

Teyla had not believed she could become angrier or despise these people more. Apparently, this was her day for surprises. So they would kill her, or give her to the Wraith, would they? Then there was no reason at all to hold back, even in the hope of preserving her life.

She launched herself directly at the fat one. Despite the fact that their assistants were there specifically to handle her, the action took them all by surprise. Perhaps they expected her not to understand their words, or understanding, to just sit quietly and allow them to kill her. Despite the discrepancies in their sizes, the violence and suddenness of her action knocked the fat one to the ground. He screamed and flailed, like the noisome thing he was. It was surprisingly easy to snap his neck. The abrupt cessation of his noise was extremely satisfying.

Teyla tackled the tall one's legs, intent on performing the same service for him. He screamed and flailed as ineffectually as his partner. Unfortunately, his assistants had emerged from their shocked stupor and reacted, beating her with their shock sticks and dragging the tall one away.

She shoved, kicked, punched, and even bit, too enraged to be as effective as she knew herself capable of being. She broke the arm of one of the assistants and managed to capture his shock stick. The other man shot her with the net gun, and she found herself entangled in the fine strands. Immediately, she ceased struggling, knowing it would only make the bonds tighter, instead focused on angling the shock stick. She would only get one chance, only get one blow.

The tall one kicked her in the head. Teyla's ears rang and she was blinded for a crucial moment. It was enough for the assistant to take away the shock stick and kick her in the belly. The breath rushed out of her as pain engulfed her. She coughed and gasped, and didn't get another breath before she was kicked in the belly again. And then one them kicked her in the back, the legs, her head.

The three men surrounded her and kicked, and kicked, and kicked, shouting their rage, screaming insults. Teyla couldn't defend herself, couldn't curl into a protective ball because the netting immobilized her, left her exposed and defenseless to their fury. She couldn't even draw breath to scream or cry as she felt her ribs break, her fingers, her nose.

The pain and violence swept her underneath a roaring tide of blackness. At least she wouldn't feed the Wraith.

They left Thousandmother's house the next morning, despite John and Ronon's impatience. Rodney was incredibly grateful—no matter how anxious he was to get Teyla back, he didn't see how it would help her for them to get lost at night in a raging blizzard.

By the time they were trudging out of the village the next morning, they were fortified with breakfast and hot kaprim in their stomachs and thickly bundled in extra coats and scarves. The snow was coming down in slow, fat, lazy flakes from the leaden gray sky—hardly snowing at all, by Canadian standards.

It still meant hours hiking through fresh snow about a meter deep on the ground, thicker in places where the wind had blown it into drifts. They traveled single-file, as they had the night before. Aleek, thankfully, went first, breaking the crust of the snow and tamping it down some before Rodney had to flounder through in his wake. John followed him, taciturn as Ronon usually was. Not that Rodney had much breath for banter anyway.

Ronon and Thousandmother came last. Rodney could hear the occasional snatch of soft conversation between them and had to strangle his curiosity to keep from going back to listen.

After a few hours, he was calling it the "Taum Death March" in his mind; although, for once, he was careful not to voice his thoughts aloud. The Taum were only doing this to help Rodney and his team, after all. But it was hard not to complain. The exercise of slogging through endless snow kept him from getting too cold, but the wind stung his face and eyes and his hands and feet were numb. And he was so, so tired.

Every time he opened his mouth and complained, however, the Taum would stop and make everyone rest. Aleek and Thousandmother hunched around the humans, making windbreaks with their broad bodies. They would all suck down some tubes of pasty food and drink from a pouch of kaprim that Thousandmother kept stored in some inner pockets of her clothing, kept warm close to her body. Rodney would look up into the faces of his Taum friends and see a little boy and his granny, making a long, cold, dangerous trek for his sake. And he'd feel desperately guilty.

They had no other way of finding Teyla without the Taum, so Rodney swallowed down his guilt, and promised himself he'd find some way to pay them back. Then another wave of tiredness would swallow him, and he'd let himself lean against Sheppard a little, who would lean back, so that was okay.

Every other stop, Aleek and Thousandmother would trade places, taking turns breaking a path through the new snow. Ronon tried to take a turn, only to be gently reminded that he didn't know the way, so he couldn't take the lead.

The day was thus eaten up with trudging through a harsh landscape of snowcovered hills toward the snowcapped bulk of the mountains. They wound their way ever upwards, over increasingly stony and difficult terrain, around snow-covered vegetation and past ice-filled streams. The sky continued to be stubbornly gray, even when the snow stopped coming down, so they had very little clue that night was falling except for the gradually darkening gloom.

They'd just finished scrambling up the side of a steep ridgeline. Rodney's breath was coming in huge moisture-filled gusts, when he realized it was starting to get dark. The cloth he'd wrapped around his hands in lieu of actual gloves had a pattern of red and brown stripes, but he couldn't distinguish the colors anymore, only the darkness of the fabric. He was just about to suggest they find a campsite for the night when the sky above them got abruptly darker, as if the light had been blotted out completely. Rodney looked up. He felt his mouth drop open. "Oh, no!"

They'd found the mountain people.

He didn't need Sheppard's "Move, move, MOVE!" to start scrambling for the nearest stand of trees as fast as he could, tugging on Aleek's arm to urge him to run as well. Thousandmother was spraying waves of snow in her wake as she scurried after them, but Rodney could tell that they weren't going to make it.

He could hear John and Ronon firing at the oversized, mammoth puddle jumper to cover their retreat, and turned to join them, fumbling his nine mil out from beneath the many layers of clothing. "Go!" he told Aleek and Thousandmother, shooing them toward the trees. "I'll be right there. Go!"

He turned back just in time to see an energy beam of some kind launch from the mega-jumper. The beam enveloped John in a bright magenta glow—the violent light of it searing Rodney's eyes—and then John crumpled. Down, and over the side of the ridgeline he'd been standing too close to.

"JOHN!" Rodney felt it like a punch to the chest, like a gaping wound had been torn open right through the center of his body. He saw a flash of movement out of his peripheral vision. The splash of his own blood on the snow at his feet wouldn't have surprised him. But he wasn't injured. Instead, he caught sight of Thousandmother heaving a small tree like a javelin at the mega-jumper. There was a bright flash of light as the sapling connected with the jumper's shields, and then dropped away.

He suddenly remembered the weapon in his hands, braced himself, and started firing it at the mega-jumper.

He screamed harshly, inarticulate with rage, as the bullets bounced harmlessly off the jumper's shields. Of course they did. "You useless PIECE OF CRAP!" he yelled at the gun as it clicked on an empty chamber.

"MCKAY! TAKE COVER!" Ronon snarled at him, still firing his pulse gun at the mega-jumper from behind a boulder.

"Rodneee!" was all the warning Rodney got before Aleek's huge paw of a hand snagged the back of his collar and pulled. Yanked backward, Rodney let his arm drop and stopped firing the empty gun. It was still a few steps before he started to scramble along with Aleek, rather than just allow himself to be dragged.

There was a rhythmic booming sound and a savage gust of wind that nearly knocked Rodney down before the air became as bright as the corona of a star—Rodney'd flown by one of those now, he could judge these things accurately. Then the brightness filled his brain and that was it. That was all. There was nothing else.

The Wraith cruiser Commander sat bolt upright in his command chair as the damage reports came in. He scanned the reports logged into the computer and listened to reports from his officers. Only half of his attention was on the litany of unvoiced curses from his Chief Engineer as the latter mentally showed him the damage to their engines. Yes, yes, it will take many cycles to properly repair. I understand.

He shoved the Engineer's mental images aside for the moment. There was a growing pressure in the back of his mind, and he was concerned that it heralded—

"Commander, three-quarters of our food stores have been destroyed in the recent battle," said his Provisions Master impatiently. "You must permit us to forage on the planet below for replacements."

His hunger spiked uncomfortably at the reminder and he grimaced at his Provisions Master. "Our records indicate that the only life forms present on the planet are not capable of providing us with adequate nutrition." He mentally added an image of the relevant portion of the Records.

"But the data is many thousands of this planet's rotations old," the Provisions Master argued. "The humans migrate through the Stargates all the time." The Commander received a mental image of the humans they'd found on the space station before they'd escaped—a reminder from the Provisions Master that the fact that the Stargate was in space was no guarantee. Some humans still attained space travel, no matter how meticulously the Wraith policed their technological development.

"Agreed," the Commander said reluctantly. "However, a foraging mission would be too dangerous at this time. We are still under attack," he reminded the Provisions Master. "Everyone is to go on quarter rations until this situation is resolved. Then you may put together a foraging party."

The Provisions Master seemed unable to prevent an involuntary, silent snarl at the decision, as well as a mental flash of the extent of his own hunger. But he nodded his understanding and bowed his assent.

Even as the Provisions Master backed away from the command chair, the encroaching mental pressure increased. Suddenly it resolved itself as a delegation from the Hive ship entered the bridge. A full fist of soldiers and twice that many powerful drones stopped before him. The Commander stood.

His crew's mental voices ebbed away, even as they physically tried to blend with the background and become unnoticed. No one had warned him the delegation was coming. Of course they hadn't.

The Leader of the delegation stepped forward, but said nothing. He didn't need to. In the mental silence from his crew, the Commander could read the Leader's intentions easily. The Commander must come with the delegation to their transport and back to the Hive. She demanded his presence…and an accounting.

The Commander mentally tapped his Second, who acknowledged the order silently. He would assume command in the Commander's absence and would take over permanently if She was displeased enough not to permit the Commander's continued existence.

Not knowing if he would ever see it again or not, nevertheless the Commander obediently walked out of his bridge. He was instantly surrounded by the delegation, in a silent, mentally blank bubble of custody, and would remain so, until he reported to Her and met his fate.

"John. John, wake up. Colonel Sheppard!" John fought the all-over pins-and-needles to struggle back to consciousness. He didn't like consciousness when he got there. It was cold, dark, and damp. He was lying on a hard floor and he was naked. Again. He really hated that, none-the-least because it meant his weapons had been taken.

"John? Please be okay. Aleek? Aleek, are you okay? Can you tell if John's awake?" Rodney's voice sounded on the verge of panic.

"'M okay," John said. He cleared his throat and tried again, louder. "I'm okay, Rodney. Where are you?"

"Oh, thank goodness!" Rodney gasped. "I think I'm a few cells down, John. I can't see Ronon at all. I don't think he got captured—at least I hope not. I can see Thousandmother in a cell across from me and Aleek a few cells down from her. I think he's across from you. Can you see him? Is he okay?"

"Hang on." John flexed his fingers, hissing at the sharp tingling sensations, then flexed his toes, working his way up his limbs, slowly moving and bending the aching muscles and joints. OW! Oh, yeah, he didn't have to look to know he'd gotten some really spectacular bruises. He blinked and licked his dry lips. Slowly, he dragged himself on hands and knees to the bars that formed the fourth wall of his small cell. The only source of light came from the passageway outside. He blinked again to clear his vision.

A row of cells stood across the way, and one cell on each side of his, but John couldn't tell who or what, if anything, was in them. He peered at the cells across the hall again. Not directly across, but across and to one side, he saw some movement. "Aleek? Hey, buddy, is that you?" John's voice croaked annoyingly. He cleared his throat.

"John…." That was Aleek's voice, but something was wrong.

"Hey, Aleek. What's wrong, buddy? Are you okay?" John used the wall next to him to lever himself to his feet.

"Hurts. Myyy arm hurts, John…." Aleek's tone was sad and confused.

"Theyyy have broken hiiis arm. Theyyy have diiilibertatelyyy hurt myyy chiiild!" Thousandmother's voice was unmistakable, but it's music was in a register John had never heard her use before. It reminded him that music could sound dark, dangerous, and ominous. The little hairs on his neck stood up.

"Okay," John said. "We'll figure out how to get out of here and get Aleek taken care of."

"And how do you suggest we do that, Sheppard? Our jailers made sure I don't have so much as a boot to fling at them!" Rodney was starting to panic. He was already at Defcon Three, pissiness and defensiveness. John sighed.

He didn't answer Rodney, but instead studied the inside of his cell. The walls looked eerily similar to those in Atlantis. At least the colors did—that swirling pattern of blue, green, and gray. The amber, sienna, and bronze on the floor and ceiling exactly matched Lantean decor. The horizontal bars on this prison were identical to the ones they'd used to cage the Wraith on Atlantis, not the vertical bars found almost everywhere else.

John reached out gingerly with a fingertip toward the bars and encountered the snap of a forcefield, just as he would have in Atlantis. "Ouch!" Good thing he hadn't tried to lean on the bars to stand up.

"John? You okay?" Rodney's voice had swung from irritated back to anxious.

"Yeah, fine. I just tried to touch the bars."

"Ooh! Sorry, sorry, I forgot to tell you about the force field."

John ignored that. It didn't matter. "Does this place look familiar to you, Rodney?"

"Oh, yes. Yes, in fact, it does! I'm familiar with prison design across the galaxy!" Rodney had swung back into "irritated" with a vengeance. "And the really annoying part of that statement is that it isn't even sarcasm! Ever since I began associating with you, Colonel, my familiarity with the insides of jails and prisons has increased exponentially! You could even say that—"

"The technology, McKay!" John interrupted him. "Focus, Rodney! Isn't the technology familiar?"

"Huh." Abruptly, McKay fell silent, presumably studying the technology and design as best he could. "Come to think of it…. It feels like an Ancient facility, doesn't it?"

"So are you thinking what I'm thinking?"

"If you happen to be thinking that this facility is manned by descendants of the Ancients—that it's an Ancient outpost that wasn't evacuated, like the space station—then yes, I'm thinking what you're thinking."

John grinned to himself. Finally, McKay had stopped reacting and started thinking again.

"Or maybe just people who moved in later, and figured out how to use the equipment. Hmmm," McKay hummed thoughtfully.

"What do you think? Is there a way to bust outta here?"

"I don't have access to any tools, Colonel." Rodney said. "Even if I did, I can't reach through the bars to work on the access panels. Force field, remember? I almost wish Ronon was here with us. He'd at least have a knife on him somewhere."

"What if…" John bit his lip. It couldn't be that easy, could it? He extended his hand again, just short of the force field, and made the effort to mentally connect with Ancient technology—that familiar-by-now half-twist to his thoughts that— "Ah!"

"What? What!" Rodney demanded.

John ignored him for now and mentally told the force field to turn "off." Obligingly, it did. He extended his hand confidently, feeling a thrill a triumph when the field stayed off and allowed him to touch the bars of the cell. Now, if the cell door had a mechanical lock they were screwed, but if the lock was crystal-controlled and keyed in to the ATA-gene…. John grinned as the door swung open at his mental command. He sauntered out into the hall.

"Wait! What? How did you do that?" cried Rodney.

John looked over his shoulder down the hall at a naked McKay hovering by his own cell door. He frowned over the bruises decorating Rodney's pale skin, visible even in the dim lighting. "It's ATA controlled, Rodney. Give it a shot."

Looking up and down the hall revealed no sign of guards, or even surveillance cameras. John shrugged and went over to Aleek's cell, quickly turned off the force field and opened the cell door. Aleek was a dim shape huddled in the back of his cell. "Aleek? Come on, buddy. Let's get out of here and take care of your arm."

Aleek shuffled forward. John parading around naked in front of the Taum had become old hat at this point, but this was the first time that Aleek had not worn clothes in front of him. John made sure to keep his attention on Aleek's face as much as possible. He didn't know if the kid would be self-conscious or not. He was obviously hurting, though, clutching his arm to his chest. Even in the low light, it looked wrong—bent at an angle that it wasn't supposed to go. John scowled and went to Aleek's other side, guiding him with a light touch to the edge of one wing-case. "It'll be okay, buddy. Let's get you outta here."

As he steered Aleek out of the cell, Thousandmother loomed up. Good. Rodney had been able to free her as well as himself. "I'm sorry," John told her.

Her eyes fixed on his for a moment, the bright orange darkened almost to brown. "Thiiis iiis not your fault, John. You diiid not do thiiis." But there was no doubt about what she wanted to do to the people who had been responsible. Then she bent over Aleek, crooning softly.

John inched past them to Rodney. "Hey."

"John." Rodney engulfed him in a hug. A naked hug. John froze for a moment in surprise. Oh! He never did see these things coming. Then, gingerly, he put his arms around Rodney as well. The skin of Rodney's back was chilled from their cold environment, but it was broad and smooth and it felt good. Rodney's chest and belly against his and Rodney's arms around him felt good too. John sighed. He allowed himself to tuck his face into the side of Rodney's neck and breathe for a minute. "Rodney."

"I thought you were dead. I saw you fall and I thought they'd killed you. John—" John tightened his arms, holding Rodney more closely, swaying them both for another moment, like they were teenagers at a cheesy high school dance.

"Hey, it's okay. We're both okay. We'll find Teyla. Ronon will break us out of here. Everything will be all right," he crooned against Rodney's temple.

Rodney huffed a muffled laugh against the side of John's jaw. "Pollyanna strikes again. Let's get out of here before we're recaptured and subjected to unimaginable tortures, what do you say?"

John leaned back and grinned at him. "Let's."

Elizabeth had remembered just before the dial-in to the SGC and the weekly data transmission.

She had updated her report to include the status of Sheppard's team, but at the last minute, she'd also remembered an e-mail that she'd been copied on. Colonel Carter had written to Rodney with some last-minute technical data for the Gate-bridge and a few suggestions for the upcoming testing protocol. The Gate-bridge testing was supposed to begin once the Daedalus arrived at Atlantis. Now, obviously, that would not be happening.

Elizabeth pulled Rodney's latest data and reports from the server—the reports weren't polished, but Rodney could do that when (not if) he returned—and attached them to a reply e-mail to Colonel Carter. She added an explanation about Rodney's current status. Carter deserved to know why the Gate-bridge testing would be delayed.

Two days later, the last thing she expected when Sgt. Campbell announced an unscheduled Gate activation was for him to look at her and say, "Dr. Weir, it's SG-1's IDC!"

Elizabeth blinked. "Lower the iris, Sergeant."

A puddle jumper came through the Stargate and hovered in her gateroom. Through the front viewscreen, Elizabeth could see that it was, indeed, SG-1, with Colonel Mitchell in the pilot's seat. He wore what could only be described as a "shit-eating grin" on his face.

"Requesting permission to land this puppy, Dr. Weir!" Mitchell's voice over her comm sounded about as delighted as he looked.

"Permission to dock granted, Colonel. And I hope you all have an explanation for this," she replied. The last thing she needed right now was to be entertaining personnel from the SGC and dealing with whatever problem they had brought along to solve.

Sgt. Campbell silently pointed up toward the puddle jumper docking bay. The smirk on his face undiminished, Mitchell piloted the jumper through the portal in the ceiling.

"Sergeant, have a security detail meet SG-1 and escort them to the conference room," Elizabeth told Campbell.

"Yes, ma'am."

Elizabeth made a conscious effort not to scowl as she headed to her office to pick up her computer tablet on the way to the conference room, the sound of her heels unnaturally loud in the silent gateroom. Her people all looked like they'd rather be hiding under their consoles. If Colonel Mitchell had half the smarts Hank Landry gave him credit for, he'd be doing the same thing in the jumper.

She snatched up her tablet, wishing, not for the first time, for a door she could slam, and turned toward the conference room.

SG-1 had a lot of explaining to do.

"JOHN! John, it's Teyla!" The pure distress in Rodney's voice added wings to John's feet. He ran for the cell at the end of the row so quickly that he ended up sliding into the bars.

Lacking building schematics or any idea of the fortress' layout, they'd been wandering around the facility's extensive detention area. It had the irritating, vaguely creeping feeling of wandering around inside of an Escher print—endlessly repeating variations of the same thing. The faint smell of damp and mold, an occasional dripping sound, sections that were inexplicably colder were the only irregularities. Knowing he'd just get hopelessly lost and keep visiting the same four identical corridors, John let Rodney lead instead.

They'd peered into doorways, accessed control panels, opened cages and freed prisoners (both for the prisoners' sakes and to increase random chaos for their captors).

Not that there'd many prisoners to speak of, and most of those had been animals. One pathetic Taum had begged Thousandmother to kill him and put him out of his misery. With a soft croon, she'd caressed the battered face of the Taum prisoner with her antennae. She put her hand on the center of his chest. His breath stuttered out a moment later and he slumped to the cold floor. Thousandmother had straightened up from the corpse and hissed.

John had exchanged a look with Rodney. The little hairs all over his body had all been standing up and he could see the gooseflesh on Rodney's arms and chest as well. They could both almost feel the thundercloud building around Thousandmother. Neither of them wanted to be in the way when the lightning struck.

The lack of clothing made the chilly environment of the facility even more uncomfortable. The icy floor meant that he couldn't really feel his toes anymore, but John probably wouldn't have called it outright cold—at least if he'd still had pants on and his balls weren't trying to find refuge in his body cavity. Rodney went around with his arms folded around himself and his hands tucked into his armpits.

The one bright spot had been Thousandmother's ability to heal Aleek's arm. The kid had confessed to Rodney that it still ached "a liiitle," but it was functional again.

Now, it was the only thing he could think of as he knelt next to Teyla. He wasn't a doctor, but he could see that the only hope in hell they had of getting her out of here alive was if Thousandmother could heal at least some of her injuries. He exchanged another look with Rodney.

Rodney was crouched at Teyla's side, hands hovering over her, fingers opening and closing, afraid to touch, afraid to hurt. The side of Rodney's mouth pulled down more than usual. The knot in John's stomach twisted even tighter.

"Teyla," John whispered. She didn't answer, lying unconscious and bound in some clinging netting, curled into a too-small heap on the cold floor. John could hear her breath rasping wetly past the blood that encrusted her nose and mouth, but her bruised and swollen eyes stayed closed. He reached down and brushed some of the matted, filthy hair off her face. He wasn't sure how Rodney had been able to tell it was even Teyla, except—no, he had recognized her too, at the first glance.

He would always know Teyla, no matter what she looked like, until the day he died.

John bent to pick her up and take her away from this nasty place. "No, wait," said Rodney, with a restraining touch to John's forearm. "Don't move her. She could have spinal injuries." Rodney leaned back toward the door of the cell. "Thousandmother!" he called.

John bit his lip and nodded, staring at Teyla as if she'd stop breathing if he looked away. He willed Thousandmother to hurry.

"I told you we'd get in trouble, Sam," said Vala. "I have a sense for these things." She leaned back in the conference room chair, crossed her booted feet at the ankles, and rested them on the edge of the conference room table. Daniel pressed his lips together but visibly refrained from telling her to take her feet off the table. Delicious. Vala smiled to herself.

"You do, huh?" Sam grinned at her. "Who would have thought it?"

"Well, a woman of my vast and varied experience does pick up a few useful skills here and there." Soldiers meeting you at your vehicle and escorting you anywhere was a universally bad sign, in Vala's experience. She ostentatiously buffed her nails on her uniform jacket and inspected them. "What was that you said, Daniel?"

"Nothing. Nothing at all." Daniel appeared engrossed in something he was jotting down in one of his ever-present notebooks.

"I had expected Dr. Weir to be grateful for our offer of assistance," said Teal'c, raising an eyebrow. He turned to Colonel Mitchell. "You did inquire if our assistance would be welcome before we departed, did you not, ColonelMitchell?"

Vala hid another smile as Mitchell shared a guilty look with Sam. "Well… not exactly, but I'm sure it won't be a problem," he said, obviously trying for nonchalant.

Teal'c frowned, but stood instead of answering, since that Dr. Weir woman picked that moment to walk in. Mitchell and Sam jumped up as well. Vala swung her feet off the table and got to her feet when Daniel finally looked up from his notebook and stood.

Weir stopped just inside the doorway, tablet computer resting in the crook of her elbow. She looked them all over with a regal tilt to her head that reminded Vala of some planetary rulers she'd met. This woman was obviously the ultimate power here on Atlantis. She would have the final word on whether they would stay or be sent ignominiously back to the Milky Way.

"SG-1. Welcome to Atlantis," Weir finally said. "I'm afraid you've caught us at a bad time."

"That's just it, Dr. Weir. We're here to help," Sam said. Vala thought she'd turned the "perky" setting up a bit too high, but Sam knew this woman better than she did.

"Oh really?" Weir's ironic-eyebrow-lift was almost as impressive as Teal'c's. "I remember countless occasions when we've had a crisis, and don't recall SG-1 arriving to offer their assistance before. In fact," she glanced down at her tablet. "I'm quite positive that in the last set of e-mails we exchanged with the SGC and the IOA, they both indicated that several important pieces of equipment and supplies that we requested would have to be delayed or put on the back burner, because—and I quote—'the SGC's priority for resource distribution must lie in the protection of the Milky Way, and Earth, from the Ori.'"

Sam and Mitchell winced, and even Daniel grimaced. Teal'c just looked inscrutable, as usual.

"The SGC also considers the Gate-bridge a priority, Dr. Weir," Sam said, rallying.

"And I just got the gene therapy so that I could operate any Ancient technology we came across," Mitchell said, holding up and wiggling the fingers of his hands like the Las Vegas magician in a television program that Vala had watched with Teal'c last week. She thought Las Vegas would be a terribly interesting place to visit, and incredibly important to her acculturation at the SCG. Daniel was still stubbornly refusing to admit these basic truths, however.

"So, you thought you'd take the opportunity to take the SGC's puddle jumper out for a spin and visit Atlantis, did you?" Weir glanced politely between Mitchell and Daniel. Impressed, Vala tried to memorize the look in her eyes.

"Yes." Daniel straightened and adjusted his glasses, looking at Weir with his trademark earnestness. "Of course we have to serve several masters here. Colonel Mitchell has to test his command of the Ancient technology. I can use the opportunity to do some additional research on the Ancient database to see if I can find out more about the Ori's possible weaknesses. Colonel Carter had to test the functionality of the existing sections of the Gate-bridge. You know this." Daniel folded his arms. "But those were all excuses. You know this, too."

"I read the report about what happened to McKay's team while they were working on the Gate-bridge," Sam said quietly. "It's our joint project, Dr. Weir. I feel responsible to McKay."

"When GeneralO'Neill led us, he taught SG-1 to never leave our personnel behind," Teal'c added gravely.

"We really want to help, ma'am." Mitchell was pouring on the blue-eyed charm a little thickly, Vala thought.

Weir looked at her. "What?" Vala felt startled. She didn't realize that she would be expected to contribute to this heartfelt plea. "I don't have an agenda." She frowned at the expression on Weir's face. "Truly, I don't. I'm just along for the ride." She jerked a thumb in the direction of the rest of her team. "Where they go, I go."

Strangely, that little declaration produced a warm look of approval from Daniel. Huh.

Ronon slid halfway down the steep icy hillside before he could regain control and his footing. Dhartu's balls! Focus! If you break a leg here you'll die and do nobody any good at all.

He gasped unevenly, releasing clouds of moisture into the air as his lungs bellowed. He looked around at the wooded hillside, the trees groaning under the heavy weight of new snowfall, birds and animals just starting to emerge to forage, the path to the village still barely visible under the coating of snow. Ronon forced himself to slow down, wincing from the cuts and abrasions that sliding down half a hillside had cost him. It would take him another half day to get to the village if he could maintain this pace.

Now that he'd engaged in a skirmish with them, he knew he couldn't take on the mountain people alone. Sneaking up on them and trying to find a way in had been a lousy plan, trusting entirely too much to luck. Ronon knew his team often trusted too much to luck, but they really didn't have much else going for them this time except Sheppard's crazy luck.

Ronon didn't waste time wishing for backup from Atlantis that wouldn't come. If Atlantis could have sent help, they would have done so already. That meant that the Wraith were still causing trouble up in orbit by the Ring in space.

He put that worry in its place as well. Something to think about once he had gotten Sheppard, McKay, Teyla, and their Taum friends out of that damned fortress. Getting past or defeating the Wraith was a more commonplace battle, one that he was accustomed to facing, although no less dangerous for its familiarity.

If he couldn't help his team on his own, and couldn't count on Lantean reinforcements, Ronon had to recruit the only other force available to him—the Taum. If it had only been McKay and Sheppard, even if he'd brought word that Aleek had been captured as well, Ronon thought the Taum would continue to be stubborn in their refusal to have anything to do with the mountain people.

But the mountain people also had Thousandmother now. It was something that Ronon had noticed right away, and he bet Teyla would have noticed it immediately as well. He didn't think McKay or Sheppard had paid attention—they could be stupid that way sometimes. Thousandmother wasn't just the Taum village's oldest member. She was the only female. A people couldn't tolerate the loss of their only female and survive. He didn't know how the Taum reproduced, but Ronon bet they needed Thousandmother to do it. He figured they'd do whatever they had to in order to get her back.

Ronon hoped that included rescuing his team.

"Iii cannot heeeal her," sang Thousandmother, her grave tones like funeral bells. With her claws, she had gently torn Teyla free of the netting that bound her and then examined her carefully. Her antennae trailed lightly over Teyla's face and huge palm covered nearly the whole of Teyla's chest.

John swallowed, biting back fear and frustration. "Why can't you heal her? You healed Aleek. You healed me." He stared a hole in the side of Thousandmother's face.

Thousandmother tilted an antenna at him and blinked. "Sheee is more iiinjured than sheee apeeears. Sheee has no reeeserves of strength. Sheee bleeeds insiiide. Your friend iiis too neeear death," she sang.

"No! Teyla can't die," John said, past the lump in his throat. He watched his own hand as if it were someone else's as it hovered over Teyla's hair. Gently, carefully, as if the wrong move would shatter her into tiny shards, he finally stroked it away from her battered face. Teyla couldn't die. Not Teyla.

"Myyy abiliteee to heeeal comes from myyy neeearness to Ascension," said Thousandmother. "Heeealing takes power. The abiliteee allows meee to take power from the Universe to heeeal manyyy iiinjuriiies, but death Iii cannot heeeal."

"Ascension? Like the Ancients—the Gatebuilders? They taught you to Ascend?" Rodney stopped wringing his hands to look up sharply at Thousandmother.

"Theyyy diiid not!" Thousandmother hunched her wings like a hawk, with the same semblance of irritation. The smell of ozone was momentarily strong. "Iiit was myyy peeeople who taught theee Alterans to Ascend, to our sorrow and shame. Theee Alterans were afraid of death, and miiisused Ascension to escape iiit." Thousandmother's tone darkened. "Thiiis is wrong. All who liiive must diiie. I cannot heeeal your friend of mortaliiiteee."

"But can't you heal her a little bit?" Rodney begged. "Maybe if you can heal her a little, she can hang on until we get her to our doctors. Please, Thousandmother. Please!"

"Iii cannot chiiild!" Thousandmother answered. She swayed from side to side, evidently distressed. "Iiit takes too much power! Onleee a liiife can buyyy a liiife."

Abruptly, John looked up, hope blooming in his chest. "So you can save her, if you can use some else's lifeforce to do it?"

Rodney started to shake his head even before John finished the sentence. "Nonononono. No, John. You can't. You can't do that!"

John ignored him, focused on Thousandmother. "Take mine. Take my life, if it will save Teyla. What do you need me to do?"

Thousandmother's gaze swung from him to Rodney as Rodney grabbed him.

"What part of NO, did you not understand, John?" Rodney shook his arm. "In case it's escaped your attention, you need your 'lifeforce.'"

John yanked his arm away. Why didn't Rodney understand? "IT'S TEYLA!" he snarled. "I can't let her die! I won't!"

The animation drained from Rodney's face, like smoothing out a drawing made in sand. Rodney hooked a hand around the back of John's neck and pulled him close, so they were forehead to forehead. John was almost crosseyed from staring into Rodney's eyes, so all he could see was their blue. "You're right. We can't let her die. But I can't let you die, either. And Teyla wouldn't want you to die for her, John. You know that." Rodney pulled away to address Thousandmother, but his hand stayed, heavy and sweaty and warm, on the back of John's neck. "How about two people? Can you take some of the life from each of us, and give it to Teyla? That wouldn't actually kill us, would it?"

Thousandmother started to sway from side to side again, but before she could answer, Aleek interrupted.

"There iiis another wayyy." He crouched at Thousandmother's side and smoothed the tips of his antennae down Teyla's broken arms. "Thousandmother, iiif Iii lay heeere neeear death, you would ask one of myyy future brothers iiif heee would sacrifiiice hiiis liiife."

"Aleeek. Iiit iiis not the same," sang Thousandmother firmly. John bit his lip so that he wouldn't say anything and stroked Teyla's hair again, counting her uneven breaths.

Aleek's antennae sHivered along Teyla's skin, brushing John's fingers. "Sheee iiis Rodneee's friend. Heee came heeere to search for her, eeeven after weee warned hiiim heee miiight dieeee. Iiif Iii were heeere, Rodneee would have come for meeee. You would have come for meee, Rodneeee?"

Rodney rubbed at his eyes with the back of one wrist. When he looked up, his eyes were still shining and wet, and the lashes were clumped together. "Yes, Aleek. If it were you, I would have come. I'll always come for you, Aleek. We don't leave people behind, do we Colonel?"

"Nope," John whispered, shaking his head. His voice sounded broken, harsh. He swallowed, hard, and pressed his lips together. "We never leave people behind."

Thousandmother swayed back and forth in evident distress. The smell of ozone was sharp in the air.

"Iii cannot promise," she said finally. "Iiit mayyy not come to pass. Iii can onlyyy ask."

"Ask for myyy sake," said Aleek, tilting his head to look up at her. He shuffled backward, then stood up. "Come, Rodneee. Come, Colonel John. Thousandmother must have room to work."

"Sir, don't you think you should get some rest instead?" Martinez asked.

Evan pursed his lips and held out his hand for the amphetamines. "Can't, Captain. You haven't been on 'go pills' before, I take it?"

Martinez shook his head as he handed over the pills, reluctance in his movements. "Once I stop taking them, I'm gonna crash," Evan explained, swallowing the pills dry. "Then I'm not going to be of any use to you when you really need me." He felt the seductive undertow of exhaustion even now under the bright clarity of the speed.

"This is true," Radek said.

Evan exchanged a sour look with Radek. "I've done this before. We've all done this before. Believe me, Captain, if you're stationed in Atlantis long enough, they'll be an inevitable emergency where you'll need to stay awake longer than humanly possible."

"Fortunately, Atlantis' pharmacy is well-stocked for emergencies," Radek said knowingly.

"But, sir, the detox—"

"Is all part of the routine, unfortunately. As are the shits," he muttered. Evan initiated the auto-pilot. "Sgt. Chen, come up and babysit the auto-pilot while I visit the head, will you?"

"Aye, sir." Chen came up from the rear compartment, and they did the little dance of getting out of and into the pilot's seat almost gracefully.

Evan waved at the remaining men in the rear compartment as he ducked into the tiny, tiny head. With six people sharing the same head for an extended period of time, it would have gotten pretty ripe if it had been Earth-based plumbing. But the Ancients had made a toilet that seemed to vaporize waste, maybe even used it as fuel.

Or at least, that was the meaning of Radek's joke when Evan returned to take over the pilot's seat again. "Good work, Major! Energy levels have increased .0024 percent."

Evan made a face at the old joke, and Radek smirked in return. "Oh, and Atlantis contacted us through the wormhole," Radek told him.

Evan sighed. Of course they'd pick a moment when he was indisposed to call. "What's the news, then, Doc?"

"They say the Daedalus should be here very soon. And SG-1 has arrived in Atlantis with a jumper piloted by Colonel Mitchell." Radek raised his eyebrows above the line of his glasses. "And they have volunteered to come and help us— I believe there was some mention of asses, but that was much too vulgar for me to attend to."

Evan snorted. "Sergeant? Any other details the Doc here was too delicate to remember?"

Chen ducked his head, but couldn't quite hide a smile. "Just that Dr. Weir says it's your decision about whether SG-1 gets to come through or not, Major. She says she trusts your judgment about this operation."

Evan nodded. "Thanks, Sergeant. Dismissed." That was nice of Dr. Weir, to express her confidence in his abilities just before Caldwell's arrival would put the senior officer in command of the battlefield. And she'd essentially given him veto power over SG-1's involvement.

"Doc, the next time we open the wormhole, shoot a message to Atlantis that we'd prefer SG-1 stand down. If they come through right now, they won't be much help and they'll only stir up the Wraith again. Tell them we'll holler when something happens. We might end up needing their help."

Radek nodded as his fingers flew over his keyboard. Evan stretched his arms out over his head and settled in for another period of waiting.

"So, Doc…. 499,452,769?"

"Prime," said Radek confidently, and grinned at him.

"Sir! We're about to leave hyperspace," Lt. Marchand announced. They'd made good time, and, despite Hermiod's grumbling, the engines had held up well.

"Thank you, Lieutenant." Steven leaned back in his command chair to look over to the tactical station. "Captain Kadlec, I want all missile tubes loaded with Mark Three tactical warheads, just in case."

"Yes, sir!"

"Captain Kleinman, as soon as we leave hyperspace, I want you to bring all rail guns to bear on the Hive's hyperdrive. Hold fire until I give the order."

"Yes, sir," he acknowledged.

Major Jeong confirmed that he had the 302 squadron waiting in their bays, ready to be deployed at Steven's command.

"Get ready, people! I want to catch these Wraith with their pants down!" Steven didn't mention that catching the Wraith by surprise might be the only way they were going to get out of the coming battle in one piece. His people weren't stupid. They knew.

John couldn't take it any longer. Teyla's breath had stopped. He'd been listening to its rasping as he huddled with Rodney outside the cell. Listening when he couldn't bear to look anymore. He'd finally heard Teyla gasp—but then the sound of her breathing had stopped. He had to look again. He had to see.

He scrambled into the cell, and around the unmoving bulk of Thousandmother, lying with disturbing stillness on the floor. And there was Teyla, lying next to her.

Teyla was moving! Tiny, twitching movements, but movement. She was alive!

"Teyla!" John found himself on his knees next to her, his hand on her throat to check her pulse. It was beating strongly. Her skin was warm and smooth. Her limbs were straight again. He pushed the tangled mass of her hair away from her face and saw that the swelling and bruising were magically receding, as if they had been makeup that only needed to be washed away. She was still covered in blood, but she wasn't bleeding anymore. Her breathing was steady and quiet.

John leaned into the warmth at his back—Rodney. He looked over his shoulder and shared a relieved smile with him. "Is she really okay?" Rodney asked.

"Yeah," John breathed. "Yeah, looks like." He smoothed away a wrinkle on Teyla's forehead with his fingertips, traced the arch of her eyebrow.

"Is Thousandmother okay?" John heard Rodney ask. He looked up. Aleek was crouched over Thousandmother. She was lying unmoving on the ground with her eyes closed.

"Sheee grieeeves," Aleek sang softly. He swayed, cuddling closer to her, his antennae drooping. "Myyy brother iiis dead."

John swallowed. "I'm so sorry. Sorry for your loss."

Rodney whispered. "Thank you, Thousandmother, Aleek. Thank you for giving us our friend back."

Aleek made a soft burbling sound in acknowledgement and curled close to Thousandmother, rocking them both.

Under his hand, Teyla moved. John stroked her face. "Teyla? You awake?"

Her eyes opened. He couldn't describe the expression in them, just that she was expecting pain. John could tell the moment she recognized him. "John?"

He gave her a smile. "Hey there." Over his shoulder, Rodney waved a little. "Teyla, hi!"

Teyla's eyes filled with tears. "Oh! You came!" She surged into his arms and buried her face in the side of his neck. She was shaking, and John felt the warmth and wetness of tears against his skin, but she didn't make a sound. His throat closed and his own eyes filled with tears. He held her tight and rocked her. Rodney stroked her hair and made little shushing noises, his other hand pinned against John's back as Teyla grasped it, hard, and still kept her arm wrapped around John.

"We came, Teyla," Rodney's voice was shaking. "We came as soon as we could. As soon as we knew where to look for you."

"Always, Teyla," John promised, his own voice thick with tears. "Always."

The skyboat dipped, tilted, and swayed with the buffeting air currents. It either didn't have inertial dampeners, or currently lacked the power to engage them. It looked sleek and fast, more like the ships in the space dramas of Ronon's youth than the puddle jumpers did, but it didn't perform nearly as well. Erhoop's piloting left a lot to be desired, too. McKay would have been screeching and complaining by now.

Ronon hung onto the sides of his seat and kept his mouth shut. The skyboat was at least a couple of thousand years old, and Erhoop had only flown it once before, so the poor performance was understandable.

Ronon had gotten what he'd asked for, so he had no complaints. The Taum had mobilized to rescue Thousandmother, and, incidentally, Ronon's friends. They'd allowed Ronon to come along for the ride. Which hadn't been a given, from what he understood.

And the weapon they carried. Well. Now Ronon understood Tuleek's comment about not having any weapons they "dared" to use. Ronon didn't know if he would dare use such a weapon, even if it would help defeat the Wraith. Like the Lantean's experiments on Michael, Ronon figured that there were just some things you didn't do. It made you into something too close to the very things you fought.

The skyboat swooped and wobbled again as Erhoop piloted it up and over a stand of trees. Ronon swallowed and fought to keep his stomach under control. By Dhartu's knotted entrails, he hoped they got there in time. He hoped his team was still alive.

"Quiet, Rodney!" Teyla shushed her teammate as they approached the hallway that led to the labs. Many more people worked here than in the lower levels of the facility, and Teyla had no wish to be caught and at the mercy of the Alterans again.

"All I said was," insisted Rodney in a harsh whisper, "that we need to find a networked computer system I can hack."

"Yes. I believe you mentioned that already. Several times," Teyla reproved him. But she understood. Rodney felt afraid and helpless, and—without even the minimal protection of clothing and weapons—especially vulnerable. He wanted to be able to use his skills so that he might have some power to influence their fate. Teyla held his hand to reassure him and continued to hold it as they advanced.

Even Rodney didn't have to be warned to stay silent when they heard Alterans approaching. She squeezed his hand anyway, for comfort, as their party flattened against the wall of the corridor. They crouched down to be less noticeable; the Taum, at the rear of their line, followed suit, although Teyla doubted anything of their bulk could remain unnoticed. Still, perhaps it would gain them all a crucial second or two.

It seemed they needn't have bothered. The two Alterans they surprised were extremely unwary. She and John had no trouble rendering them unconscious with a couple of well-timed blows. If Teyla struck especially hard, if perhaps she felt a bit more than relief when the man dropped unconscious at her feet, no one said anything. Perhaps the Alterans were so easily subdued because they were not expecting to be attacked in their own fortress, but to Teyla they had seemed particularly distracted.

Whatever distracted you, I hope your last thoughts were unpleasant ones, she thought, and kicked the unconscious lab technician one more time.

John and Rodney stripped the other technician of his clothing and shoes, and bound and gagged him with strips of his own shirt. John handed her the man's jacket, but said nothing about what she had done. Good. She had no desire to explain herself.

She took the jacket gratefully, though, and wrapped it around herself. She carefully didn't think of who it had come from, and focused on the warmth it provided. She had not been warm in so long that she had forgotten what it felt like.

Teyla helped Rodney strip the other technician while John donned the first man's trousers. They fit his narrow hips well enough, but were comically short in the leg. Teyla felt a smile curl her mouth at the sight—the first time she'd felt the urge to smile in a long time. John grinned at her in turn and Teyla's heart lifted again. Her team had come for her, as she had known they would. John Sheppard, she knew, would never leave her behind. She had been right to trust to that, although she had begun to despair.

Her smile grew broader as Rodney flailed his way into the other technician's trousers. The waist and seat were a bit overlarge on him, and the legs were certainly too long—it was as if he was a child, playing at wearing his father's clothing. John snickered, but knelt down to help roll up Rodney's pants leg. The men exchanged a look as he knelt there and they both froze into stillness for a moment. Rodney finally looked away, blushing, and John cleared his throat and stood up.

She finished tying up the other technician with his torn shirt. "I am sure we can find something for you to use as clothing soon," she promised the Taum. Thousandmother's orange eyes filled her vision momentarily. She had dreamed about those eyes as she'd lain dying, only to wake and find that they hadn't been a dream. These creatures that John and Rodney had found and convinced to help them had saved her life.

And they had sacrificed one of their own to do it. When Rodney had introduced Teyla to his Taum friends, Thousandmother had gently taken her hand. "Myyy chiiild, Entaak, gave the liiife that would have beeen hiiis to you. Carryyy iiit well."

Teyla had snatched her hand back as if it had burned. That sounded too much like what the Wraith did; taking life from one and giving it to another. But Thousandmother had said that Entaak had given his life. It was too confusing, and Teyla hadn't had time to ponder the mystery.

Just like they didn't have time for her to waste daydreaming now. John, Rodney, and both Taum were looking at her. "This way," she said, taking Rodney's hand again, and leading the way to the labs.

The Wraith Queen dropped the lifeless husk of the cruiser's Commander at her feet. She stretched, gloriously full, hunger appeased for the moment with the Commander's millennia-old lifeforce. Her rage at his incompetence was momentarily soothed as well.

The mental energies of her Hive were still subdued, though, as her people sought to escape her notice—and the focus of her temper.

The Queen gestured impatiently for drones to remove the corpse. As they did so, she mentally summoned her Chief Councilor.

He was at her side almost instantly. "Yes, my Queen?"

She tossed her head, enjoying his subliminal flinch. "I grow weary of all this waiting. The Lanteans have been acting. We have been merely reacting. I wish to do something. Let the Lanteans react—to usssss."

"Yes, my Queen," her Councilor responded obsequiously.

"Well? Do you have a suggestion?"

He jumped again, though he hid it well. "Ah. Patrols, my Queen. We must send patrols to the planet surface. The Lantean ships in orbit that have been plaguing us are waiting for their compatriots that the cruiser detected earlier. We believe those compatriots must be on the surface."

A Technician mentally showed her that the ship's sensors detected no human life signs on the planet. She rewarded him with a mental caress and felt him preen beneath it.

The Councilor had noted the information as well. "We think shielding on the planet may be blocking our sensors, my Queen. After all, the Lantean ships can shield themselves so that our sensors do not detect them." The Councilor's scorn dripped over the Technician, melting his former happiness.

"Very well," the Queen acknowledged. "Send patrols. Find me humans to interrogate and feast upon. Something is going on here, and we require more information."

"Immediately, my Queen!" The Councilor sped off to do her bidding.

The Queen paced her command area. She wished to do something. If she'd wanted inactivity, she'd still be hibernating. The satisfaction from feeding on the Commander was beginning to ebb.

Her crew strove to disappear into the background, but she caught sight of one of the drones. Large, muscular, recently fed, he gleamed with health. Yessss. Come here, she commanded silently.

He approached her docilely, unaware he should be afraid. The drones were purposely bred not to have much in the way of imagination—it made them more obedient and relentless in battle, if not especially good at tactics or strategy. She caressed a muscular bicep. Yesss. This one would do.

"I am not to be disturbed unless there is news," she informed her crew. Their acquiescence and compliance were a given, their mental acknowledgement redundant. The Queen beckoned the drone into her private quarters for a brief time of private enjoyment.

Ronon hung on to the sides of his seat as the skyboat rocked again. It rocked every time Saleek fired the big weapon mounted on the roof. He had shot down three of the extra-large puddle jumpers the mountain people had sent against the skyboat. Saleek fired an invisible, almost soundless beam, and the big jumpers fell out of the sky like rocks, as if their power had been cut. Ronon snorted to himself. He'd definitely been hanging around McKay too long when he tried to figure out how weapons worked instead of how to use 'em.

There was no chance he'd ever be allowed to use this weapon, though. Saleek was accepting the burden of the responsibility for the weapon's use. And Ronon was glad that he wouldn't have to. The beam hadn't cut the power out of the jumpers' systems, it had torn the lifeforce out of the people in the jumpers. Ronon shuddered. It was too much like what the Wraith did.

But the Taum didn't feed off the lifeforce they harvested. Instead, the lifeforce was used to power the weapon for another round, in an endless circle of death. No wonder the Taum were terrified to use this thing. It was evil. Ronon didn't want to think what the Wraith—or even the Lanteans—would do with such a weapon.

"How does he know where to fire?" he asked Tuleek. Ronon motioned to where Saleek was firing at the mountain peoples' fortress. The skyboat rocked with every round.

Tuleek gazed at him, inscrutable. "Saleek fires at the liiiving quarters, where the weapon wiiill kiiill the most peeeople. Weee hope thiiis wiiill friiighten the mountain peeeople eeenough to freee our friends quiiicklyyy."

Ronon peered at the section of mountain that Saleek was hitting with the weapon. It looked just like the other sections of the mountain. No clue revealed the structures that lurked within. "But how does he know where the living quarters are?"

Tuleek turned to look out at the mountain as well. "Who do you thiiink helped the mountain peeeople buiiild their fortress? Weee diiid. Manyyy thousands of yeeears ago."

Ronon blinked at him. "Wow. So, how can he be sure he won't get Thousandmother or my friends?"

"Priiisoners are kept iiin a holding faciiilityyy beeelow. Iiin theee underground sections of the fortress," said Tuleek, flicking a negligent antenna.

"But what if they escaped?" asked Ronon. "What if they aren't in the holding facility anymore?"

The skyboat rocked again.

"The transporter should be at the end of the third right corridor, and then we need to travel four—no seven levels up," Rodney told Sheppard, silently cursing the sloppy handwriting on the skin of his inner forearm. It was written in Sheppard's blood. In the absence of other writing implements, Sheppard had pricked a fingertip on one of Aleek's claws and used the bleeding digit to write down what Rodney dictated from the computer console he'd hacked in the Alteran lab.

Why John had chosen to write on Rodney's forearm and not his own was a mystery. But he didn't complain; the sense-memory of John's finger pressing warmly on his arm and leaving moisture behind it confused and overwhelmed him and left him inarticulate. Maybe that was why John had done it.

Not that skin was a good writing surface for blood. Rodney's perspiration was already making the dried blood runny and even more difficult to read. At least the written directions had lasted long enough for Rodney, Teyla, and probably even both the Taum to memorize. Rodney hoped their memories were accurate. John had almost taken two wrong turns, and he had written the damned directions—and it bore repeating—in his own blood.

Ahead of him, John froze and gave one of his military hand signals that Rodney had yet to master. "DOWN!" John whispered harshly. Rodney was already crouching down, following Teyla's lead, but it was too late.

"There they are!" cried an Alteran soldier—soldiers were identifiable everywhere, no matter what uniforms they wore. They'd already come across several lab technicians and a few scientists, all of whom John, Teyla, and one time, Thousandmother, had efficiently subdued and rendered unconscious before they could summon help. Their luck had to run out sometime.

The soldiers poured down the corridor, pulling out their weapons. John shouted something that Rodney didn't make out. Aleek yanked Rodney by the arm through a doorway that hadn't been open before. The rest of their group spilled through the door and into a big room, and Rodney felt John telling the Ancient technology in the door to "lock." That wouldn't necessarily hold for long, so Rodney dove for the door's control panel and swiftly disabled the mechanism, pocketing a crucial couple of crystals. Now the soldiers would need to break down the door itself or go in through one of the walls to reach them.

He was turning to crow about his general fabulousness, with perhaps a side discourse on how multiple perilous missions had honed his abilities to hack Ancient technology on a dime, when he heard Sheppard ask, in a very strained voice, "Teyla? Teyla, you okay? Where are we?"

Rodney looked over at Teyla. Her face was— She looked very ill. Without thinking, he moved to put his hand under her elbow to lend her some support.

She screamed and jumped away from him. Rodney threw his hands out in front of his face defensively. "I'm sorry! Sorry! What did I do?"

Teyla closed her eyes and wrapped her arms around herself, shaking so hard that Rodney heard her teeth chattering. Rodney wanted to do something, but he didn't dare approach her, even though it looked like she was going to pass out.

Gradually, even as the pounding at the door behind them increased, Teyla's breathing evened out. Rodney realized he could smell lavender, and joined Sheppard in glancing sharply at Thousandmother. For such a large creature, she moved remarkably quietly. She had placed herself just behind and to the side of Teyla. She didn't move to touch her—didn't seem to be doing much of anything, actually. But Rodney smelled the lavender. Despite himself, he started to relax, too.

Teyla opened her eyes. She still looked extremely unhappy, but not like she was going to faint at any moment. "This is a surgical suite," she said, belatedly answering Sheppard's second question and ignoring the first.

Rodney looked around. Yes, now that he had that information, he recognized some similarities to medical facilities on Atlantis.

Teyla scanned the room and pointed at the northwest corner. "There is another exit there. Hurry, we must go before the soldiers remember it as well."

Wordlessly, they began to follow her until she stopped short by a cabinet against the wall. "Wait. We may find weapons to defend ourselves here." She jerked open the cabinet doors. Then she backed abruptly away. "Rodney, if you do not mind—"

"Yes, fine." Rodney moved in and peered at the contents of the cabinet. He noticed a variety of Ancient surgical tools like Carson had at home. There was a laser cutting thingy, which he passed over to John, who'd have both the gene to operate it and the fine motor control to use it effectively as a weapon.

There were cruder tools as well. Rodney passed the big hammer-looking tool to Aleek, and what he could only hope was a bone saw to Thousandmother. He was going to offer Teyla her choice of scalpels, but she pressed her lips together, shook her head, backing away. "No thank you, Rodney," she said.

Teyla turned and deliberately smashed a small table, breaking off the legs and hefting them like bantos rods. "I have weapons."

"Uh. Okay?" He quickly grabbed a couple of scalpels and stuck their sharp ends in a roll of gauze-like material for safety before shoving them in the same pocket as the crystals from the door mechanism. He grabbed up an ATA-activated Ancient wound sealer that he'd known Carson to use instead of stitches. How he'd use it in an offensive capacity was beyond him, but John was already leading the way out of the surgical suite and Rodney ran to catch up.

She was being interrupted! She hated being interrupted.

"But my Queen…." her Chief Councilor pled.

The Wraith Queen snarled at him, but found only momentary pleasure in his instant fear and resulting silence. She could read the mental landscape of her crew as well as her Councilor could. Even if she were mind-blind, she could physically feel the ship tremble under the barrage of the attack. They were being fired upon.

Reluctantly, she released the drone, or what was left of him, and got to her feet. "Very well," she said, curling her lip. "Tell me my new cruiser Commander is not as incompetent as the old one."

"He has undocked the cruiser from the space station and assumed a position between the Hive and the human space vessel, my Queen," the Councilor told her.

"And yet they still fire upon us," she observed. There were no permissible excuses for this offense, even the ones she could feel him thinking—about how the Hive was much larger than the cruiser, so the latter could not physically block all volleys.

The Councilor nodded and hurried to the command center to order many fists of darts to be deployed in defense of the Hive—and their Queen.

The Queen followed more slowly, relishing the victory to come.

They ran down another long corridor—hopefully still in the right direction—and Rodney was still mentally reliving their latest run in with Alteran guards. "Oh no. Oh no, oh no, oh no…. Did you see that? I stapled that man's eyes shut," Rodney wailed.

"You saved meee, Rodneee," Aleek told him, tugging him along.


"That's enough, Rodney," John barked. Maybe he didn't understand the gravity of the situation.

"He had eyes before he met me and now he doesn't anymore! It was like something out of Hellraiser! I'm going to have nightmares for MONTHS!" He'd dropped the surgical wound sealer two corridors back, so at least he wouldn't be doing it again.

"I said, THAT'S ENOUGH, MCKAY!" Sheppard slammed him into the wall of the corridor and yelled into his face. All Rodney could do was squeeze his eyes shut, turn his head, and shrink away as far as he could—which wasn't very far. "Not. Helping," he protested, in a tight little voice.

"Aw, shit, Rodney. I'm sorry." Rodney felt the touch of John's lips at his temple as John spoke in a hoarse whisper. "I'm sorry, okay? But this is not the time to fall apart. Escape now, panic later. You know this drill."

"I know. I know. I'm trying. Really."

"You did what must be done, Rodney," Teyla said, her tone grave. "They are not worthy of your pity. If they had captured any one of us, they would have killed or conducted experiments on us. And I will not be captured alive by them again."

"You saved myyy chiiild." The song of Thousandmother's voice was startlingly close, and Rodney opened his eyes in surprise. She was standing over both him and John, exuding her calming lavender scent. "Theyyy would have hurt myyy chiiild and you protected hiiim." She caressed Rodney's face with her antennae, and he blinked rapidly.

"Come on, breathe, McKay," John ordered, and took a deep breath in illustration. Rodney breathed, inhaling the smell of lavender—and whatever calming pheromone Thousandmother produced—deep into his lungs.

"Okay. Okay, I'm fine now. Let's go," he said. John took him at his word, grabbing his hand and towing him down the corridor at a fast clip. The others jogged behind them, like the wake of Sheppard's speedboat.

Instead of sensibly going into the rear compartment and stretching out on one of the benches, like the rest of the men were taking turns doing, Radek tried to stay awake with Major Lorne, only without the benefit of stimulants. Some ridiculous notion of keeping him company or something. The Major probably would have preferred one of his fellow officers for company to a bespectacled scientist who fell asleep in his chair.

Radek felt chagrinned as he yawned himself awake and stretched his stiff neck, taking off his glasses to rub the sleep out of his eyes. "Sorry, Major. Was I asleep long?"

There was no answer. Radek looked over and the Major looked like he was concentrating fiercely on his flying. Radek peered out of the forward viewport and nearly fell out of his seat. As it was, he gripped the arms of the seat as hard as if they were on a rollercoaster, because that was what it looked like.

"Sorry, Doc," Captain Martinez said as he emerged from the rear compartment. "I was just going to wake you up. This just started two minutes ago. The Wraith got a bit jumpy."

"Kurva dr t!" Radek muttered. Without the inertial dampeners, they all would have been smashed into the consistency of the mashed root vegetables they served in the mess hall. Such evasive maneuvers were a little extreme in response to the Wraith getting "a bit" jumpy.

When he finally noticed what the sensors were saying, he cursed himself for seven kinds of idiot. Radek was profoundly glad McKay wasn't around right now to notice his stupidity.

"Forgive me, I am always slow when I first wake up," he said to both Major and Captain. "But how long has the Daedalus been here?" And engaging the Wraith in battle he didn't add.

"Just a few minutes, Doc," Lorne said tightly, still grimly focused on his piloting. "I didn't want to hail 'em until we got out of this swarm of Darts. Didn't want to give away our position."

Ah, they were still cloaked, yes. But that meant—

"Zkurvysyn!" That railgun fire from the Daedalus had come far too close for Radek's liking.

"Hang on, Doc. We'll be home free soon," Lorne said.

Radek closed his eyes and mumbled his childhood prayers.

"Hurry up, McKay! What's the matter with that door?" John urged him.

"The extraordinary you get every day; however, miracles are reserved for every second Tuesday of the month," Rodney babbled as he worked. "I told you it would take a few minutes."

"It's been a few minutes!" John insisted. He hated their exposed position.

"Then it'll be a few minutes more!" McKay snapped. John grimaced at him. He got so cranky sometimes. Maybe he needed to be fed. Unfortunately, John hadn't had a Powerbar on him for over a week now.

John looked up and down the corridor, and signaled for Teyla and the Taum to stay put in the cul-de-sac they'd found a few yards away. He'd been able to pick up some stunner weapons from soldiers they'd found lying dead in the corridor. But the fact that they'd found a troop of soldiers lying dead in a corridor completely unnerved him.

Well, not the fact that they were dead, as such, but that he'd had nothing to do with it. That meant that something else was running around here killing people. He hoped that meant Ronon. Since there was no way to communicate with Ronon right now, John also hoped Ronon didn't get himself killed causing havoc in the fortress.

"Done!" Rodney announced, stepping back as the doors suddenly opened.

John swept the entrance and stunned the lone sentry before he could summon an alarm. "Get the others," he told Rodney, and stepped warily into the jumper bay.

It looked a little like the jumper bay at home, only the jumpers were bigger and several were missing. John hoped this place functioned like the jumper bay at home as well, and that the roof would iris open to let them out. The bay seemed to be at or near the top of the fortress, so he was guessing that was the case.

The bay seemed empty of threats, so John signaled to Rodney and the others to enter. Three of the jumpers had their rear hatches open. He slipped into the nearest one of the three.

The jumper welcomed him just like the jumpers in Atlantis did. John smiled, the closest to relaxed he'd gotten since he'd woken up naked in a cell. "Think I'll call you 'Bessie,'" he told the jumper, patting the bulkhead.

"What, like the cow?" Of course McKay chose that exact moment to come in. John ignored him and went to the pilot's seat. Although he couldn't stop his ears from turning red—at least they felt hot, but he wasn't going to check.

"Get the others secured, Rodney," John told him. "We're getting outta here as soon as we can." He busied himself initializing the big jumper's systems. Some of Bessie's subroutines were a little unfamiliar, but mostly she was just as friendly as her namesake, John's pony when he was a kid.

"All secured," Rodney announced, as he plopped into the shotgun seat. That was usually Teyla's seat, but it seemed that she'd chosen to ride in the back with the Taum. John glanced behind him and was glad that this jumper was the super-sized kind, because Thousandmother and Aleek took up most of the room in the back. There was no way they would have both fit into a regular jumper. As it was, Thousandmother was sitting on the floor. She had her head and shoulders hunched and her antennae flattened so that she wouldn't scrape the ceiling.

He was also glad that they'd been able to locate something for the Taum to wear, although the fabric they had wrapped around themselves was stretching the definition of garments. John looked over and caught Rodney's gaze, grinning at him. None of them looked less than ridiculous either. All three of them wore trousers, shoes, and jackets, scavenged off of Alterans that they'd encountered on the way here, but they were of necessity mismatched and ill-fitting.

It didn't matter. They were going home! If they could escape these guys and get past the Wraith, that is. John wished he could figure out where Ronon was. He hated the thought of taking off in the jumper without him. But he'd had that argument and Rodney was right. They had a better chance of spotting him from an airborne jumper. If worse came to worst, Rodney could rig something in the jumper or maybe at the space station to detect Ronon's sub-cu transmitter, and then they'd go back for him. No way were they going through the Gate without him, though. Not after all they'd been through this trip.

"Ready?" John smiled again as Rodney gave him a thumbs up. "Hang on, everybody. Here we go!"

He nudged Bessie gently, and she rose responsively from the jumper bay floor. The roof irised open at his command, and she lifted through, smooth and easy. Bessie's communicator squawked with demands from the fortress' Jumper Control: Who was this? And why were they taking the transport? Didn't they know there was a ban on transport flight until the Novus Tempus— John cut them off.

"All clear, Colonel. Looks like we're near the top of the mountain," Rodney told him, looking up from the sensor readout.

"Cool!" John took them up and out. Easy and responsive, just like riding his childhood pony. He wished he had a dozen like Bessie in Atlantis. He wasn't sure she'd fit through the Stargate, but she'd be great for trips to the mainland. He realized suddenly that he was thinking of Bessie the same way a family man would consider a mini-van. He shuddered at the thought.

They climbed steadily until they'd cleared the mountain, and then circled around to scan the area. "There!" Rodney indicated a spot on the sensor map. "We've got lifesigns right there."

Bessie obligingly took them over to another vessel. A big one, like those spaceships depicted on 1950s sci-fi dime novels: all sleek lines and bulging thrusters.

"JOHN! TURN AROUND! RUN!" Thousandmother's voice wasn't as musical as it normally was, unless a blaring trumpet was music. John reacted instantly to the command, and Bessie was speeding away almost before he fully identified what he'd seen on the other craft's gleaming hull.

"Was that a weapon?" John asked Thousandmother.

"What?" squeaked Rodney. "Oh no! They shot at us! Can this thing go faster?"

Bessie obeyed his urge for speed and took them straight up, faster and faster, until they escaped the atmosphere.

"Was that the Taum shooting at us?" John turned around to look at Thousandmother.

"Iii am afraid so, yyyes," she said. "Weee are iiin a vessel of theee Altera. Iiit appeeears myyy peeeople have come to rescue meeee."

"Thousandmother, was that the Claw of Death?" sang Aleek.

"Claw of Death? What—" said Rodney.

"Iiit kiiills iiindescriiiminately, Rodneee," Aleek told him. "Weee have sworn never to use iiit. But theyyy were using iiit! Whyyy?"

"Yyyes, chiiild. Theyyy should not have used iiit. But perhaps theyyy were afraiiid for meee," Thousandmother said.

"All those dead people in the hallways," Rodney said softly.

"Iiit was wrong to use iiit," Aleek said.

"I am glad they did," Teyla said sharply. "The Alterans in that mountain fortress are evil people. If I had your Claw of Death now, I would turn it upon them."

"That's where Ronon is," John said, comprehension dawning. "With the weapon, attacking the Alterans. I bet he talked Saleek into it."

"Ronon can be very…persuasive," Teyla agreed.

"There's no way we can go back for him in this thing, then," said Rodney. "We have to go back to the space station and get our own jumper, John. It looks different enough from this one; Ronon should recognize it and get Saleek to not shoot at us."

"That's a plan, then." John nodded and set a course for the space station.


Radek's shout wasn't necessary, Evan had seen it. The strange-looking puddle jumper was making a twisting run for the space station.

"That's Sheppard!" he said at the same time as he heard Radek say, "That is Colonel Sheppard's team!"

That got his attention. He looked over at Radek. "I recognized Sheppard's flying. How do you know it's them?" It was true; he recognized the flying style of every pilot on Atlantis by now. He'd flown with most of them and watched them all fly jumpers countless times. Sheppard's flying style in particular was very distinctive, maybe because he'd trained to fly helicopters.

Radek raised an eyebrow at him over the frame of his glasses. "Their lifesigns are not Wraith, and also…because of their transponders."

"Oh," Evan hunched his shoulders and grinned a little, sheepish. "Don't mind me. Just a little sleep deprived."

Radek chuckled, and then frowned as he looked out of the viewport again. "It looks like the Colonel may be in trouble."

It did. Some of the Wraith Darts were on his tail. So far he was staying out of their reach, but he was obviously making for the space station and that gave them a lot of chances. Why didn't he cloak?

"Why do they not cloak the jumper?" Again, Radek mirrored his thoughts.

"Dunno, Doc. Maybe they can't?" Evan shrugged with one shoulder. "We've got their backs, though. Hang on."

"I hate when you say that," Radek mumbled, but nevertheless turned his attention to the sensors.

A bit of maneuvering later and he was on the tail of the Darts that were on Sheppard's tail. He picked them off neatly with a couple of drones.

"Unknown Jumper, this is Jumper Two. Do you read? Please identify yourself."

"Lorne is that you? This is Sheppard. Where are you?"

Evan dropped his cloak momentarily. "Hey, sir!"

"Sight for sore eyes, Major. Good to see you!"

Evan grinned. "Good to be seen, sir. Can you cloak that thing? There's one or two Wraith in the area, and it might be a good idea."

"Wish I could, Major. Bessie here seems to be an older model; no cloak on board. McKay thinks he can retrofit one once we're in a repair bay, but it doesn't do us much good right now. She flies sweet, though."

"I can see that, sir."

"If you two gentlemen are done with the touching reunion, I could use a little help here."

"Colonel Caldwell!" Evan didn't know why he was surprised. The Daedalus had been in the middle of a battle with the Wraith, right next door.

"Colonel!" Sheppard said. "Nice of you to come to the party."

"Wouldn't have missed it, Sheppard. Now if you and Major Lorne will just fly into our 302 bays, we can hit hyperspace and get out of here. I'm sure the Wraith aren't enjoying our company that much."

"Can't do that yet, sir. One of my team is still down on the planet."

"Don't worry about it, Sheppard. We'll lock onto his sub-cu and beam him up."

"You kinda like saying that, don't you, sir." Evan grinned.

"One of the perks of the job, Major," Caldwell answered him. "Now, get your asses over here, gentlemen. We need to time this right to drop our shields and let you in, but keep the Wraith out."

"Sure thing, Colonel."

"Caldwell out."

"Colonel Sheppard, how do you want to do this?" Evan asked.

"I'm fresh out of ideas, Major. Any suggestions?"

Evan pursed his lips. "Over and under, sir?"

He could hear Sheppard's groan over the comm. "Okay, sure. But since you can cloak, you get to do over and cover my butt."

"I always do, sir," Evan assured him.

Next to him, Radek was murmuring to Martinez, "I think this means we are going to be flying like crazy thing again."

"Let's do this thing!" Sheppard said brightly.

"Hang on, guys," Evan told his passengers.

Later on, it would be something that he and Sheppard would illustrate with salt shakers and biscuits and swooping noises in the mess. Zelenka would shake his head and say something disparaging-sounding in Czech and McKay would mutter darkly about them watching too many video games. But right now, it was magic, like he and Sheppard had practiced the maneuvers a thousand times, like they were Thunderbirds, but in space. It was kind of like a really cool video game.

This one was a blend of flight simulator and first-person shooter. Evan had the distinct advantage of being invisible as he flew above the plane of the largest mass of Darts between the space station and the Daedalus. He stayed well away from both the Hive and the cruiser, arching up, over, and sharply down when he got over the Daedalus.

The big ship was still trading weapons fire with the cruiser and fending off Darts like mosquitoes. It hadn't deployed the 302s yet, probably because Caldwell was still hoping to do a smash-n-grab and not get into an entrenched battle. The Hive ship was being strangely accommodating—just sitting there, letting the cruiser and Darts do all the fighting.

Evan bet Sheppard scored really high on video games, too. Sheppard didn't have invisibility on his side, but he had the advantage of a whole lot of crazy—the dose of crazy they seemed to shoot up all helicopter pilots with. Sheppard pulled awesome maneuvers, but Evan couldn't attend to them too closely. He was keeping an eye on any Wraith that got too close to Sheppard's tail. Sheppard kept most of the Darts at bay with his own drones. But there were a lot of Darts and Evan picked off the few that seemed about to get through.

As they neared the Daedalus, Sheppard announced, "Daedalus, this is Sheppard. We're ready to come in. Just let us know when the barn door is open."

"This is Lorne. I'm in position too," Evan said, putting them into a steep dive.

"Sirs, this is Daedalus. We've turned our starboard side to the Wraith." Evan thought that might be Captain Kleinman speaking. "Come on in our port flight deck on my mark."

"Roger that," Evan responded. "You first, Colonel Sheppard. I'll guard the door."

"Roger. I'll owe you one, Major. On your mark, Captain."

Despite Sheppard's usual luck, which had Evan tensed, anticipating the last-minute arrival of another Hive ship or something else equally disastrous, the Daedalus executed the maneuver flawlessly. Both puddle jumpers were able to slip into the port flight deck in the few seconds the big ship lowered its shields.

Evan even remembered to turn off the cloak before he landed, so that the flight crew was able to stay out of his way. Once the jumper was on flight deck, he finally released the controls and leaned back in his seat. He let himself go limp for a moment, rolling the back of his head against the seatback, trying to stretch out his neck and fend off the headache creeping up the top of his spine.

He looked up at a touch on his forearm. It was Zelenka, giving him a sympathetic look from behind his glasses. "Thank you, Major. You did good job, keeping us all alive." He grinned. "And now I get to hold it over McKay that I helped save him from the Wraith! He will never live it down!"

Evan couldn't help an exhausted chuckle. "Good for you, Doc."

A job well done.

Since he'd been warned by most of his 302 wing, Steven didn't do more than blink when Sheppard and his motley crew—including two oversized aliens—trooped onto his bridge.

"Welcome aboard, Colonel Sheppard." Steven nodded at the rest of Sheppard's team, wordlessly extending the welcome to McKay and Teyla as well.

"Thanks for the rescue, sir," Sheppard said, looking completely ridiculous in a bizarre, mismatched outfit that was clearly not his own. In fact, none of them wore any regulation uniforms. Steven was going to enjoy reading over this particular mission report.

"Colonel Caldwell, this Thousandmother and Aleek, of the Taum. They saved our lives, sir. Without their help, we'd all be dead down there." Sheppard turned to the biggest alien. Steven was going to guess that it wasn't wearing its native garb either. It rather looked like it had sheets, or maybe curtains, wound haphazardly around its body. "Thousandmother, this is Colonel Caldwell. He commands this space vessel. He's here to get us home."

Steven nodded. "Ma'am."

The creature raised one antenna, rather like Steven would raise an eyebrow. "Home? Your Earth, iiin your Miiilky Wayyy?" She didn't so much speak as play her voice like a musical instrument.

"No, Thousandmother, here in this galaxy, we're living in Atlantis," McKay explained to her, rather earnestly.

Steven raised his own eyebrow at this casual dispensing of information to an unknown alien.

But she tilted her antennae in a way that reminded Steven of a knowing nod. "Yyyes, the Ciiity of the Gatebuilders. Weee have storieees of iiit. Iii would enjoyyy theee opportunityyy to seee iiit."

She patted McKay's head, rather as if he was a bright child. He beamed up at her in return, as if she was his favorite granny.

Steven blinked. Okaaay….

"Sir, I'd like to recover Ronon. He's still on the surface of the planet." Sheppard's tone was deferential, but impassioned where his people were concerned, as Steven had come to expect.

"That might have to wait, Sheppard," Steven told him, waving at the forward viewscreen. "Right now we're out of transporter range, and the Wraith are between us and the planet. We're holding our own against the cruiser, but that Hive hasn't moved yet. Frankly, that makes me nervous. I don't know why they haven't engaged."

"The Queeen is relativelyyy young." Surprisingly, the big alien, Thousandmother, spoke up. "Arrogant, of course. But iiinexpeeerieeenced wiiith battling your peeeople. Don't yyyou thiiink so, Teyyyla?"

Teyla nodded, her eyes hooded. "Yes. I believe you are correct. From what I can sense, this Queen has recently taken over the Hive from another. She has not encountered Lanteans before, but believes we should be easy to defeat." Teyla smiled, a smile that bore nothing of mirth in it. "After all, we are only food."

"You can sense all that?" Steven asked, looking from one female alien to the other. "Both of you? From here?" From my ship?

"Iii am not skiiilled at sensing Wraith. But sheee iiis rather loud," Thousandmother sang, shrugging her—Great Scott, were those wings?

"I can certainly sense the Wraith's presence." Teyla raised an eyebrow in his direction. "There are many of them here. It is like hearing a great crowd in an amphitheatre. Usually, individual voices are difficult to distinguish." She shrugged. "As Thousandmother says, however, this Queen is loud. Perhaps she feels her hold on her new Hive is tenuous, and she must dominate them."

"But if you can sense them, can't they sense us?" McKay asked the question that was on the tip of Steven's tongue.

"Iiif iiit occurred to her, there iiis a possiiibiiilityyy that sheee miiight sense our thoughts," Thousandmother said, seemingly unperturbed at the thought.

"It is unlikely." Teyla put a hand on McKay's arm before he could go off on one of his rants. "Would it occur to you to attend to what your food is saying? Would a goat's bleating move you to mercy, and keep you from your dinner?" Teyla had a twist to her mouth like she was thinking of something else, something unpleasant.

"So we can go get Ronon and the Hive won't do anything?" Sheppard was as tenacious as a terrier with a bone.

"Iii doubt the Queeen wiiill command iiit," Thousandmother said. "But her crew mayyy beee more expeeeriiienced and adviiise her to attack thiiis shiiip."

"We could go back for him in a jumper, sir," Major Lorne spoke up, backing his CO. "One of the regular jumpers, that is, with a cloak." He raised an eyebrow at Sheppard.

Sheppard bounced on his toes. "Colonel, permission to—"

"Colonel Caldwell, we're reading another ship on the sensors," Captain Kleinman announced. "From the planet, sir!"

Kleinman put an image of the ship up on the big viewscreen. It looked a lot like an Ancient ship, like the Orion, only bigger and with more visible weapons. Its deadly-looking bronze bulk was almost as big as the Hive, and certainly bigger than the Daedalus.

"The Alterans," Teyla said, almost with a growl to her voice.

"Theee Mountain Peeeople!" the smaller alien, Aleek, spoke up. His voice was more like a voice and less like a musical instrument.

"The people who were holding us prisoner, sir," Sheppard said.

Dammit. Not another player in this fiasco! "Do you believe they'll fire on this vessel?"

Sheppard shook his head. "Unlikely, sir."

"I don't think they ever knew who or what we were," McKay added.

"They assumed we came from the Wraith," Teyla said. "They will likely attack the Wraith first and only fire upon us if we are in their way."

Steven frowned at her. "They thought you worked for the Wraith? What did you say that made them think that?"

"They came to this conclusion on their own," Teyla looked angry. Steven had seen her upset before, but not quite this upset. "They never asked me anything or listened to anything I had to say."

"They're firing on the Hive!" Kleinman said. "The Hive is engaging them. The Darts are pulling back to defend the Hive, sir."

The big screen showed the new space battle commencing, the Hive finally bestirring itself to return fire on the new Ancient vessel.

"If you'll excuse me, while I've been entertaining guests, my crew has been engaged in a battle with a Wraith cruiser." Stephen nodded ironically at Sheppard and his people. "How has the battle been going, Captain? We're all alive and still breathing, so I assume we haven't taken major damage."

"Uh. We're in good shape, sir. Actually, we're winning pretty easily," Kleinman shrugged. "They're not, uh. They're not very good. They've just been sitting there and letting us shoot them up."

"They probably have some major damage from my team of jumpers attacking them earlier," Major Lorne offered. "The cruiser was docked at the space station and acting like a sitting duck. We, uh, couldn't resist." He flashed an "aw shucks" grin.

"So, we could probably sneak away while the Hive is distracted and pick up Ronon," Sheppard suggested.

Steven frowned at him, but he couldn't fault an officer for caring about his men. In Steven's opinion, Sheppard cared a little too much and let his attachment to his people get in the way of mission objectives. He glanced at Lorne. All right, yes, maybe Sheppard's devotion was one of the reasons his men were so fanatically loyal to him. But his inability to see the bigger picture was one of the reasons it was surprising he'd been promoted to Lieutenant Colonel. It was one of the reasons it was highly unlikely he'd be promoted any higher.

"Okay, Sheppard. We'll do a flyby of the planet and pick up your man," Steven told him, and got a grateful smile in return. "Captain, as soon as we can break it off with the cruiser, do so. Then take us on a trajectory close enough to the planet for transport and as far away as possible from that Hive ship. Lieutenant, tell Hermiod to lock onto Ronon's subcutaneous transmitter as soon as we get close enough and beam him up."

"Colonel Caldwell. Mayyy Iii make a reeequest?" Thousandmother asked.

Steven tossed a hand up in the air. "Sure! Why not?"

Thousandmother apparently didn't recognize sarcasm. "Pleeease transport one of myyy peeeople aboard your shiiip as well, so that theyyy mayyy seee Iii am well."

"The Taum saved our lives, sir," Sheppard said urgently. "It's not a lot to ask."

"Why don't we beam you down to your people instead," Steven addressed Thousandmother, with an admonitory glance at Sheppard. This was an easy way to get rid of his extra guests and send them home again none the worse for wear.

"Iii wiiish to seee the ciiity of the Gatebuilders," Thousandmother sang. "Iiit would beee educational for myyy chiiild as well."

"Rodnee! You can show meee your lab!" Aleek tugged on McKay's sleeve, certainly behaving like a child even if he wasn't sized like one.

"You're not allowed to touch anything unless I say it's okay," McKay hold the alien, patting one of its massive arms. "Colonel Caldwell, did I mention that the Taum are quite advanced, and older than the Ancients?"

Steven blinked. "No, I believe you neglected to mention that."

Sheppard wore an unnaturally earnest expression. "They've got a pretty effective weapon they attacked the Alteran base with, sir."

"No." Thousandmother sang sharply. "Weee wiiill not share the weapon technologyyy with you. Weee mayyy share other thiiings, but the Claw of Death is eeevil. Weee should not have used iiit, eeeven in desperation."

"No Claw of Death, gotcha." Sheppard nodded at her.

But Steven didn't miss his and McKay's hints that these Taum could have advanced technology to share. Even if they didn't want to share this "evil" weapon, they might be convinced to share some others. It wasn't like the Asgard shared all their technology either, but the SGC had gotten pretty far on what knowledge and technology they had deigned to impart.

"All right," Steven said. "The sooner we get Ronon and get Thousandmother's, uh, person, the sooner we get out of here. Kleinman, go ahead and make it happen."

"Yes, sir."

The last Alteran puddle jumper that had buzzed them had escaped, flown away before Saleek could aim the weapon in their direction. Likewise, the spaceship bursting out of the mountaintop surprised them. It spewed rocks, dirt, and plant life in all directions. The skyboat had been pelted with debris, shivering and bobbing with every impact. Most importantly, Saleek had been knocked from the weapon platform and off the skyboat entirely.

Ronon had quickly volunteered to go with the party descending to the ground to look for Saleek—or Saleek's corpse; it was unknown if he'd survived the fall.

Erhoop had grimly mounted the weapon platform. Taking responsibility for directly taking lives was a heavy burden for the Taum, it seemed. They all acknowledged that they shared ultimate responsibility for the Alteran deaths, but being the one actually wielding the weapon seemed to weigh on them more. Ronon knew he didn't want to do it.

Tuleek took Ronon's hand in his much larger one before they got into the descent pod. "Iiit iiis a veryyy old mechaniiism," he confessed. "Iiif somethiiing happens, hold on to meeee."

Just as they stepped into the pod, something did happen. Before Ronon could blink, he was on the bridge of the Daedalus. Next to him, Tuleek cried out and clutched at Ronon's hand.

Ronon turned to the old Taum and soothed him. "It's okay. We're safe. Look, there's Thousandmother."

As Tuleek lumbered over to Thousandmother, Ronon caught sight of his team. All of his team. "TEYLA!"

Two steps and she was in his arms. He lifted her off her feet with his embrace, and she just looped her arms around his neck and hung on.

"Sorry to break up the reunion, but we've got to beam your friend back down and get out of here." That was Caldwell.

Ronon set Teyla down, but held onto her hand. He looked her over. She looked dirty and disheveled, but pretty much okay. She met his eyes and nodded. They'd talk later. Ronon looked over at the rest of his team, caught Sheppard's eye and slight nod, then McKay's silly thumbs-up, and found himself grinning helplessly. His team!

Ronon thumped Tuleek on his wing casing. "Gotta go, huh?"

"Yyyes. Thousandmother diiirects us to shut down the Claw of Death, and reeeturn home. Sheee iiis diiispleeeased that weee used the weapon, eeeven iiif iiit was to save her." Tuleek looked subdued.

"She not going back with you?" Ronon glanced back at Thousandmother and Aleek, both looking pretty disheveled themselves.

"Weee are going to Atlantiiis, Ronon!" announced Aleek, in cheerful tones. Ronon smiled at him.

He turned to Tuleek again and squeezed the old Taum's arm. "Hope you find Saleek, and that he's okay. We'll be back to visit."

"Beee well, Ronon," Tuleek sang. "Iii am pleeeased you have found your friends." Then he stepped back and was swallowed by the light of the transport beam.

"Let's get out of here," Caldwell said. "Captain, get us clear of the planet and engage the hyperdrive."

Ronon stood between Teyla and Sheppard and watched out of the viewport as the planet got smaller and smaller. In the blackness of space nearby, a big Wraith Hive ship was fighting with the Alteran ship he'd last seen bursting out of the mountain's peak, but neither ship seemed to pay attention to the Daedalus. Just as well.

The hyperspace window opened up in front of the Earth cruiser like a shining blue tear in the skin of space itself. Then they went in it, and the Taum's world was gone.

"Dr. Weir, we have a ship on the sensors, ma'am."

Elizabeth hurried over. Sgt. Campbell's face was tense as he peered at his monitor.

"Put it on the big screen for me," said Elizabeth. Although that wouldn't help, except to make her even more stressed. With her chief science officer, chief military officer and their backups offworld, she lacked the people she usually asked for advice about things like—oh, when it would be best to put up the shields.

She eyed the display worriedly as she raised her hand to her comm to call Dr. Simpson and that handsome Canadian Major Bouchard. Carole Simpson was steady and calm in a crisis, but Elizabeth didn't know the Major too well yet.

"Do you need help, Dr. Weir?"

Elizabeth looked up as Sam Carter and the rest of SG-1 approached. Of course, why did she need to call in her third string when the SGC's best were available? "A ship on the long-range sensors," she said, stepping back and waving at Carter to have a look at the sensor information.

Colonel Carter bent over the console, reading intently, and sat down absently when Sgt. Campbell got a chair for her. Colonel Mitchell stood poised at Elizabeth's elbow, with Jackson, Mal Doran, and Teal'c hovering in the background. Elizabeth wondered vaguely how SG-1 got their reputations. Was it because they were just that good, or because they were really good but also incurable busybodies?

After a few moments, Carter announced, "I don't believe this is a Wraith vessel. Sergeant, try to raise them on the comm."

Sgt. Campbell looked up for Elizabeth's nod of consent before engaging Atlantis' hailing system. "Unknown vessel, this is Atlantis base. Please identify yourself."

"Atlantis base, this is the Daedalus. We've brought your lost lambs back."

Elizabeth's smile was so wide, her cheeks hurt. "Stephen! It's wonderful to hear your voice!"

Caldwell chuckled. "Here's someone you'd like to hear even more."

"Elizabeth, this is Sheppard. We're all coming home. And could you spruce up the VIP quarters? We've brought some guests."

Elizabeth's smile turned indulgent, as it often did around John Sheppard. "Of course, John. Welcome home!"

Daniel Jackson started bouncing on his toes the minute Atlantis Gate Team One was beamed down—with their alien guests. Non-human aliens! The SGC just didn't run into non-human-looking aliens all that often. Not friendly ones, at least.

But it did happen sometimes. He smiled to himself, thinking of Chaka the Unas and his people, the crystal "Unity" creatures, the Serrakin of Hebridan, Nem the Oannes, the plant-people of PJ2-445, the Reole—not to mention the Asgard. He and the rest of SG-1 were probably the closest thing around to experts on non-humanoid aliens. He and Jack had probably the most experience with non-humanoid alien first-contacts.

So, while Dr. Weir was occupied with greeting her wayward gate-team, he stepped forward to speak to the nearest alien. "Hello. I'm Daniel Jackson. May I ask your name?"

And, woah! First impressions counted for something, didn't they? Because the alien was very…BIG. It loomed over him impressively, antennae moving in a way that seemed to signal agitation. Daniel smelled ozone very strongly in the air.

"You have Ascended," the alien pronounced, in a sound that was more like cymbals clashing together than what humans would consider speech.

Daniel adjusted his glasses nervously. Oh, well, honesty was always the best policy, even if it got you into trouble. "Um, y-yes?"

The alien seemed to grow even taller. The smell of ozone sharpened.

Sam came to his rescue, putting an arm around his shoulders. "Daniel was forced to leave us for a while, but he De-Ascended and came back to us in the end. Didn't he, McKay?"

Rodney McKay looked up from the muttered exchange he was having with a guy with glasses—one of his engineers or technicans, probably. "Yes, yes, they tossed him out of the glowy Ascended club for not playing nice with the others." McKay waved a casual arm and went back to his conversation.

But that seemed to have done the trick. The alien wasn't looming quite so menacingly any more, and the scent of ozone was fading away. "You chose to reeeturn from Ascension?" It tilted its head to the side, big orange eyes locked on Daniel's face.

Daniel grimaced, and patted Sam's arm in a signal that he didn't need backup anymore. She retreated gracefully. "I, um, I didn't really get along with the other Ascended too well. I was a great trial to the one who helped me Ascend in the first place, Oma Desala." He rubbed the back of his neck. "It was too hard to sit back and do nothing while my friends were in trouble."

The creature extended a large, round, ten-fingered hand at him, at the end of a huge, bear-like arm. Daniel touched it gingerly, careful of the claws, unsure if these creatures shook hands or just what the significance of the gesture was. One of the creature's antennae reached down and touched his shoulder.

"Iii am called Thousandmother. Myyy peeeople are the Taum. Tell meee the storyyy of your Ascension, Daniiiel Jackson," she sang.

John had just finished shaving and getting out of the shower when his door chime rang. He told his quick-beating heart to slow down. He'd already been through the rigmarole of an extensive debrief and overly thorough post-mission exam. Teyla had been pronounced in good health, if a bit dehydrated, as they'd all been. Elizabeth had told him to take the rest of the day off to let him get his feet under him before turning in his written report. Caldwell was on hand to take care of any routine problems, and if there had been any emergency…John glanced at his comm, currently sitting innocently on his nightstand, and hustled to answer his door.

It was Rodney. John should have known. Rodney looked good. He was dressed in clean clothes, his hair was still wet from a recent shower, and he had a little nick on his chin from scraping off that scraggly almost-beard he'd been working on. Rodney wasn't wearing his comm either. His hands were tucked behind his back, lips pressed together, and he gave off the aura of almost vibrating in place. John figured he'd better let him in right away. Whatever Rodney had to say was probably not for the ears of passersby in a public hallway.

He stood back and motioned Rodney in, taking a moment to give a final drying scrub to the dampness around his right ear before he tossed the towel back through the door of the bathroom. "Hey."

"Um, yes, hi." Rodney shifted his weight from foot to foot. He opened his mouth.

"So! Where's Aleek? And Thousandmother?" John interrupted whatever Rodney was going to say.

Rodney blinked. "Oh, yes." He grinned. "Ronon's giving them a tour of Atlantis! With Elizabeth and Daniel Jackson in tow, of course. I have every confidence that Ronon will shoot Jackson when—not if, you know, but WHEN—he gets on Thousandmother's nerves." Rodney frowned worriedly. "Although I'm not sure what he's supposed to do if Elizabeth gets on Thousandmother's nerves. She was asking almost as many questions about Ascension as Jackson."

"I'm sure he'll just stun her," John said confidently. He grinned at Rodney's alarmed look. "Or, hey, Elizabeth can probably avoid getting on her nerves in the first place. She is supposed to have training as a negotiator, diplomat sort of person, isn't she?"

"You know, that's not always easy to tell sometimes," Rodney said, with a twist to his mouth. "Not that I'm qualified to judge, but I'm pretty sure Elizabeth could have been more diplomatic on a couple of occasions."

John shrugged. It wasn't like he was all that qualified to judge, either. "So, after the tour, are we supposed to attend a diplomatic banquet or something?"

Rodney waved that off. "No, not tonight. Probably in the next few days, though. After the tour, Teyla wants to bring Aleek and Thousandmother to the mainland to meet the Athosians. She's spending a few days over there with her people and plans to meditate a lot, I gather. Caldwell's going to just beam them all over when they're ready."

"We can go over in Bessie and get them when they want to come back," John assured him. "So we can spend some alone-time with Teyla. And, hey, you'll get to spend some time with Aleek before he has to go home."

"I'm, ah, pretty sure we'll be visiting back and forth. For a little kid, Aleek has an astounding grasp of higher mathematics, John. Better than some of my staff! If Thousandmother would let me, I'd—"

"I wondered what you had in common," John murmured.

"Yes, well," Rodney jerked his chin up. "He's a bright child. I'm fond of him."

"Rodney, you hate kids."

"Only when they're irritating!" Rodney scowled and waved a hand out as if to point to irritating. "Aleek is definitely not irritating. And the Taum…John, the Taum are older than the Ancients. They have some guilt thing going on because they taught the Ancients how to Ascend, and that's apparently wrong for some reason—I'm sure Elizabeth or Jackson will figure out why that is—but they're actually very advanced. They choose to live simply, like the Nox, but it's not because they're primitive."

"The Taum were keeping an eye on those guys in the outpost. The Alterans, the ones who were experimenting on Teyla," John said, nodding. "Teyla said those guys believed they were descended directly from the Ancients. So something weird was going on."

"I'm sure Elizabeth will find out what it was. Or Jackson will torture it out of them, via Powerpoint presentation or endless lecturing."

John found himself sharing a grin with Rodney. They were standing pretty close together, and John couldn't miss it when the expression on Rodney's face abruptly changed, and Rodney put his hands deliberately behind his back again, straightening his spine.

"Ah, speaking of…well, something. I was wondering— I think— I mean, we should probably…uh…weshouldtalk." By the expression on Rodney's face, and the braced way he held himself, John could tell that Rodney didn't expect the "talk" to go very well at all. He was expecting to be rejected.

There were times when Rodney was braver than he was. John ended up doing a lot more physically risky stuff than Rodney, but a lot of the time it didn't scare him to do it. He figured "brave" only counted if you were scared out of your skin but did whatever needed doing anyway.

And John was tired of being chickenshit. He took a deep breath, then took one step forward and wrapped Rodney in his arms. He pressed his face into the side of Rodney's neck and sighed out his tension, then took another deep breath—this one filled with Rodney's warm scent. Rodney was still as stiff as a plank of wood.

"One day, I'm not going to be the coward in this relationship," John muttered, and lifted his face away only far enough to gaze into Rodney's startled eyes. He cradled the side of Rodney's face in one hand and got to see Rodney's eyes widen and then flutter closed as John leaned in and kissed him on the lips.

Rodney's body relaxed all at once, and he returned the kiss. Then he turned his head slightly and deepened it. Joyfully, John dove in, licking and tasting Rodney's mouth, and finally, reluctantly, pulling away. "Do we still have to talk?" John whined, when Rodney's eyes opened again.

Rodney blinked, in evident confusion. John felt a wash of affection as he saw Rodney valiantly trying to bring his brain back online to process what John had said. "Um, yes? Eventually? But, uh, can we—? Uh, I mean, bed?"

"That's my guy!" John approved. He tugged, and Rodney followed him to the bed, tumbling down onto it, barely avoiding injury with clumsy knees and elbows as they shifted around so that they could both fit. And then they were kissing again.

Rodney's kisses were lush, greedy, and lavish. Rodney's arms curved around him, holding him closer, cradling, possessing. The weight of him pushed John deeper into the mattress. Rodney angled his head and deepened the kiss. There was a bare moment when John could have taken control—Rodney wouldn't have fought him, Rodney would have let him have it, Rodney would always let him—and he groaned and opened to it instead. Rodney's mouth was wet and hot and perfect, perfect, perfect, and John was starving for it, and—

And Rodney pulled away. Why was Rodney pulling away? John grunted in disapproval and blinked his eyes open.

"Um, this isn't because of the mission and adrenaline and being glad we made it in one piece, because, yes, that's wonderful, that's great, but— I mean, this is more than just a one-time thing, right?" Rodney was blushing, and not meeting John's eye. "Because I'm not good with casual flings. I get clingy and attached. I don't want to ruin our friendship when you get all annoyed with me. I know I don't have a reputation for handling interpersonal relationships all that well—"

"Hey!" John got Rodney's attention and curved his hand around the side of Rodney's neck, thumb stroking along his jawline. "This is not a fling for me."

Rodney glanced at him then looked away, one side of his mouth twisting down. He sighed, and nodded minutely. "Okay, sure. I know I'm being a big baby. It's just that—"

John tightened his hold slightly. "Rodney. You're stuck with me, okay?" He tried a grin. "There's no escape now. Just accept it."

"Yeah?" Rodney's eyes bored into his own.

John looked back steadily. "Yeah." He saw the moment when Rodney accepted it, when he knew it was for real, and tugged him back into another kiss.

He'd cooled off enough to multitask, though, and he started tugging on Rodney's shirt, pulling it up his torso to stroke warm skin underneath. After a few beats, Rodney caught on and started to help, breaking their kiss long enough to finish wriggling out of his shirt and helping John out of his own tee-shirt and boxers.

Eventually, all their clothes were off and they were lying next to each other, skin to skin. If John had expected anything in particular, he might have thought that Rodney would be oral—and having that big mouth on him, busy with something else other than bitching and trash talking, was certainly something close to what John would admit to as a fantasy.

But, as usual, Rodney McKay exceeded expectations. He wasn't just oral, he was tactile, too. His hands explored reverently, stroked intricate patterns onto John's skin. Rodney's nose followed the path of his hands, scenting John, breathing him in. John's excitement inexplicably ratcheted up from that alone, his skin suddenly hot and prickling with sweat, his throat dry, his limbs restless.

"You smell so good! So good, John," Rodney told him sincerely, head lifted from the region of John's navel, hair standing up in little tufts from where John had been running his fingers through it. Rodney's thumbs were rubbing light, delicate circles around John's nipples, and John couldn't articulate much more than a moan, arching up into the touch.

It must have made his neck look tempting, because Rodney was right there, sniffing, running his nose up the tendon from the base of John's throat up to his ear. And then Rodney's tongue came out to play, tasting, licking. And his teeth, delivering precise, tiny nips to the hot spots along John's neck.

It was intoxicating, dizzying. Rodney was making a veritable meal out of him. John panted, unable to do more than stroke Rodney restlessly as Rodney licked his way down to John's right nipple and sniffed and tasted it too. It got hard under Rodney's tongue, and John shook and cried out when Rodney ran his teeth over it.

John could feel his penis drooling, smearing precum onto his belly. As if it had delivered an engraved invitation, Rodney's attention was captured, and he moved downward, stroking his fingers through the precum then sniffing them, tasting with the tip of his tongue.

"Oh, fuck, Rodney." John gasped.

Rodney looked up at him, smugness and uncertainty fighting to dominate the expression on his face. "I, uh, I'm not all that experienced with guys," he confessed. "But, you know, I'm a pretty quick study. I, uh, gather that my performance has so far been satisfactory?"

Smugness was winning out, but he looked so happy and horny too, that John couldn't find it in him to put Rodney's ego down, even for his own good. "Not bad," John panted as best he could. "Yeah. AH! Okay, okay, carry on!"

With that encouragement, Rodney lavished attention on John's cock, and John got to experience what an ice cream cone felt like. Verbal skills became severely downgraded in priority.

Visual skills were good, though. The look on Rodney's face, somehow awed and concentrating and dreamy at the same time, tightened something in John's chest.

And then Rodney's hands got into the game again, holding and caressing John's balls, fingers stroking and lightly scratching up the inside of John's thighs. Visual skills went offline, too, as John tilted his head back and groaned, offering his throat, spreading his legs. Anything you want, Rodney. Come and get it, buddy.

Apparently, what Rodney wanted was to crawl up John's body again, still jacking his spit-slick cock, and settle down to kiss him. Really lushly and thoroughly. Possessing him.

John's arms wound around Rodney's back, and he held on tight, hips flexing as he fucked up into Rodney's fist. He couldn't help the little whine in his throat every time Rodney twisted his wrist just right, every time Rodney rubbed his thumb over the slit in John's cock, every time Rodney's tongue plundered his mouth. He wanted— He wanted Rodney inside him. He wanted to swallow Rodney down. He wanted to possess Rodney too.

He'd been aware of Rodney's cock, beautiful and rosy and hard as a rock, sliding along the side of his hip. He wanted it now, in his mouth, in his ass, in his hand—it didn't matter, he just wanted it.

John tore his mouth away from Rodney's. Rodney continued to lick and nip at his lips even as he spoke. "Rodney. AH! FUCK! Fuck me, Rodney. Dammit, fuck me now."

Rodney's eyes had been half-lidded with lust. Now they opened wide before clamping shut as a look of pained ecstasy overtook his face. "OH! Oh, FUCK, John!" John felt the hot wet streak of Rodney's come painting the skin of his hip and belly. After stilling for a moment, Rodney's hand tightened on John's cock and his strokes became abruptly rougher, faster. John felt his own orgasm yanked out of him, almost punishing in its intensity.

He grabbed Rodney's wrist to make him let go before it got painful. And somehow that turned into holding hands over John's come-smeared belly.

Rodney sank down at John's side, resting his head on John's shoulder, and planting little affectionate kisses on John's throat and collarbone.

John stroked a hand slowly up and down the soft skin of Rodney's back, lingering on the swell of that really pretty good ass. "Sorry, buddy. Next time, okay?"

Rodney turned bleary eyes on him. "Next time? Are you kidding? Next time I might just have a stroke. I can see I'm going to have to take a lot of vitamins."

John grinned. "What a way to go, though!"

Rodney snorted and grinned back. They may have smiled besottedly at each other for a few minutes.

Eventually, though, John squeezed Rodney briefly with the arm he had around him and tugged on their linked hands. "Come on, Tiger. Let's get cleaned up. I don't want to hear it when you don't like being sticky later."

Rodney blinked and yawned. "You want me to go back to my quarters?"

"Maybe a shower first," John suggested.

Rodney's eyes widened. "Um. Shower sex sounds really fantastic. However, uh, Sheppard, you might be the energizer bunny, but right now there's no way I'm getting it up again. Sorry."

"Just to get clean, McKay! Jeeze!" John rolled his eyes and levered Rodney out of bed.

"Um. Okay. I guess, if you want to." Rodney followed him into the bathroom, dawdling. John hooked an arm around his neck and dragged him into the shower, setting the spray to warm.

He kissed Rodney slowly, tenderly. Moving away from his mouth, he kissed along Rodney's jaw, up by his temple, along his eyebrows, and finally delivered a peck to the end of his nose. Rodney had relaxed, and looped an arm around John's waist, his other hand getting some liquid soap and working it into a lather in John's chest hair.

"Mmm," John said languidly, forehead on Rodney's, blinking into his half-lidded eyes. He'd snagged a bath sponge and sloppily dragged it over Rodney's belly and thighs, leaving bubbles and soapy water behind.

"Mmm," Rodney agreed. His mouth quirked up at one corner, and John wriggled his toes in happiness.

"COLONEL SHEPPARD AND DR. MCKAY TO THE CONTROL ROOM," came Sgt. Campbell's voice on the loudspeaker.

John sat straight up, jolted out of his doze. Rodney fell off the bed. "CRAP!" he complained. "Do you have an Ancient toddler bed or something? My back—"

"Sorry, okay? Can it," John poked him in the shoulder and fumbled for his comm on the nightstand. Rodney crawled to his feet and sat next to him on the bed as he fumbled it on. "Sheppard here. What's the emergency, Sergeant?"

"Colonel Sheppard. Dr. Zelenka says there's something suspicious on the long range sensors. He thinks you should be alerted. We've been trying to raise Dr. McKay, but we haven't been able to locate—"

"Because McKay had the day off and isn't wearing his comm. Don't worry, I'll get him. We'll both be there in five."

"Thanks, sir."

"What? What!" Rodney barely waited for him to sign off before demanding answers.

John shoved Rodney's pants at him and pulled on his own tee-shirt. "Something hinky on the long-range scanners. Zelenka wants you to take a look."

"Oh, yes, I see. When Elizabeth said, 'take the day off,' what she really meant was 'we'll give you an hour or so to catch up on your e-mail before showering you with new demands'!" Rodney groused, but shoved his feet into socks and shoes as he did it. "Can't that lazy Czech handle anything by himself?"

John shoved his feet into his own boots and grabbed his jacket. "If he didn't call you to come see, you'd just yell at him for not keeping you in the loop."

"Yes, well…." Rodney grumbled, yanking down his shirt and grabbing his own jacket.

"Hey, wait a minute." John grabbed Rodney before he headed for the door. He made minor adjustments to his clothing, and used his fingers to tidy Rodney's hair a little. "There. Better."

Rodney was staring at him with a besotted look on his face again.

"Do I look okay?" John looked down at himself, hoping he looked presentable, and not like he'd just had sex and a nap in the middle of the afternoon.

"Perfect," Rodney said, before he lunged and grabbed John's lapels, landing a smooch on his lips.

John licked his lips and snorted a little with amusement. "Gotta work on your technique a little, there, McKay. Wasn't that the same kind of kiss you gave Carson when Cadman was riding in your head?"

"Not remotely the same," Rodney insisted, heading out the door. John followed him, heading for the nearest transporter. Rodney looked over his shoulder at him and grinned. "It was completely my idea, this time."

"Well, what is it? What did you disturb me from a well-earned nap to see?" was Rodney's demand as jogged up the stairs to the control room. Colonel Sheppard followed him closely.

Radek gave the sensors a poisonous look. "Is gone now. It was a ship, heading to Atlantis. It may have gone into hyperspace."

"Great. Let me see this magical disappearing spaceship," Rodney said, as he nudged Radek out of the way. He frowned as he studied the sensor logs.

"Can I help?" Colonel Carter came up the stairs to stand at Rodney's elbow. Radek frowned at her. Standing at Rodney's elbow was his place, just as scowling over Rodney's shoulder was Colonel Sheppard's place. He and Sheppard both took a step back as Rodney waved at the console with an "after you" gesture to Carter.

After a few moments, Carter announced, "I think you're right, Doctor…Zelenka?"

Radek nodded and adjusted his glasses.

"What is he right about?" asked Dr. Weir. Radek gave a little start. He hadn't noticed her approach. "Is there a ship?"

"There was," Rodney and Carter answered in tandem, then looked at each other and blinked.

"I was correct about the ship going to hyperspace when they detected our sensors," Radek said, pulling his glasses off to clean them.

"So they're aware of us," Sheppard said, putting his hands on his hips. "And they didn't want us to know they were coming."

"That doesn't sound good." That was Colonel Mitchell, standing behind Dr. Weir. Radek peered at him resentfully. He hadn't noticed him coming up either.

"Of course that's not good! Thank you so much for stating the obvious!" Rodney could always be counted on to not suffer fools. Radek nodded to himself in satisfaction.

"The question is, where did they go?" said Carter, sitting back down at the console and peering at the sensors.

"And who are they?" said Dr. Weir.

"And what do they want?" added Mitchell.

That was three questions. Radek felt like he was in one of those peculiar American science-fiction television shows, where all the stars had to have at least one line.

"Let's find out," said Sheppard. "Elizabeth, why don't you ask Colonel Caldwell to take the Daedalus out for a little recon?"

Dr. Weir raised an eyebrow at him. "Very well. But why don't you ask him yourself, Colonel?"

Sheppard rubbed the back of his neck, looking like a little boy. "You know he always takes suggestions better from you."

Dr. Weir grinned impishly at Sheppard as she agreed. She was so beautiful and glorious that Radek had to look away for a moment to regain his composure. He looked at Rodney—always a good person to focus on when he wanted to keep his mind on work—and saw him looking just as smitten as Radek felt. He flinched. Surely McKay wasn't enamored of Dr. Weir? Radek peeked again, but Rodney didn't seem to be looking at Dr. Weir.

Who could have been the focus of Rodney's enamored gaze? But by the time he'd looked up, the personnel who'd been standing next to Dr. Weir had dispersed, and then Rodney had gone back to hovering over Carter and the sensor console.

Radek frowned again. He was feeling rather superfluous here, and quite ready for SG-1 to return to Earth.

Of course, Elizabeth was able to sweet-talk Caldwell into going scouting for the mysterious ship. John felt very self-congratulatory about that. Until the Daedalus was just out of Lantea's solar system, the mystery ship appeared out of nowhere, and proceeded to fire on them without warning. Then John's stomach sank into his toes.

"Oh my God! It's that Ancient warship that came from Thousandmother's planet," said Rodney, his mouth pulling down on one side as he grimly studied the scanners. "The one the Alterans fought the Wraith Hive with. Look." He pulled up visuals for them on the big screen.

It was the same ship they'd last seen kicking the Wraiths' butts. But it couldn't be here, could it? "Shouldn't it be back in that solar system?" John asked.

"I sent a probe through the Gate earlier," Elizabeth said. "All we could see was debris."

"Space station was presumed destroyed," said Zelenka. He looked at Rodney. "It was missing. No ships in orbit, but much debris and vented atmosphere. We assumed they had all been destroyed."

"So…looks like the Alterans kicked the crap out of the Wraith and then somehow followed us back to Atlantis?" John said incredulously. Shit. Well, good that the Wraith's asses had been kicked. That was never bad. But why weren't the Alterans happy with their victory over the Wraith? Why had they followed the Daedalus back to Atlantis?

As John watched on the big screen, the Alteran ship proceeded to beat the stuffing out of the poor Daedalus. Caldwell's crew fought valiantly, but the Alteran ship was bigger, apparently better armed, and completely ruthless. They didn't seem to have much tactical skill—it was like they'd learned battle tactics out of a book—but they had a lot of brute force, and used it unmercifully.

John met Elizabeth's gaze. Her hand hovered over her gaped-open mouth, eyes huge and guilty in her pale face. She seemed to be silently pleading with him: John, do something!

He clenched his fists. He didn't have a ship. John had nothing that would even begin to make a difference out there. And it was too far for Atlantis' drone weapons to reach. "We need to send an emergency transmission to Earth. Let them know we're under attack, that the Daedalus is in trouble," he told Elizabeth, gritting his teeth. "We need to put up the shield, just in case."

Elizabeth's expression firmed, and grew grim. She nodded. "Rodney, put up the shield," she ordered. "Sergeant, open a wormhole to Earth via the nearest functional portion of the gate-bridge."

Carter sat next to Sgt. Campbell and helped him input the correct address.

"Shield is engaged," announced Rodney after a moment. He looked up at Elizabeth. "We need to make an announcement to shut down all non-essential power use to preserve the ZPM."

Elizabeth nodded again. "Do it."

"Holy crap!" said Mitchell, standing next to John, watching the Daedalus get hammered.

"Coded transmission from the Daedalus," announced Sgt. Campbell.

"Let's hear it," said Elizabeth. Her face was pale and drawn.

A grainy image of Caldwell's face appeared on the big screen. For a minute, John thought it was a welcome relief from having to watch that awful battle, but then he saw the expression in Caldwell's eyes and changed his mind.

"—won't believe we're not work— damned Wraith, no matter how many times we tell— They mean to take Atlantis for themselves. They say they're the rightful in— Advise you don't try to negotiate. These people don't listen to reason. They are hostile and have full control over Ancient technology. —suggests they may be a danger to Earth almost as— Imperative that—eep Atlantis out of their hands at all costs." The transmission was a little patchy, but the main message was clear. As was the look on Caldwell's face as he looked out of the screen. He licked his lips and tilted his chin up. "I'm sorry, Dr. Weir. We'll try to give you all the time—an. —well out."

John exchanged a horrified glance with Mitchell, then looked over at Elizabeth. She'd aged five years in the last five minutes. "I need to get down to the Chair room, Elizabeth."

Elizabeth acknowledged him with a jerky lift of her chin. "And we have to begin evacuating and set the self-destruct. Rodney—"

"Where are Aleek and Thousandmother?" Rodney interrupted her, panic in his voice.

Her expression blanked for a moment and then realization dawned. "With Teyla and Ronon at the Athosian settlement on the mainland. Colonel Caldwell beamed them all over just before—"

"DanielJackson and ValaMalDoran are with them as well." Teal'c came around the end of the big display screen, now showing the Daedalus doggedly blocking the advance of the Alteran ship, wobbling like a punch-drunk prizefighter after too many blows to the head.

John felt that narrowing of focus that came over him in battle, as well as the consequent deadening of his emotions. He'd feel everything, everything, later. Right now, emotions were a distraction. He had to do what was necessary. He had his duty. "We can't do anything for them right now. I'm heading down to the Chair room."

"John! We can't leave Teyla and Ronon. We can't leave the Athosians to fend for themselves. I can't leave Aleek. I promised— I promised him I'd never leave him behind!" The anguish in Rodney's voice was like a knife tearing into John's flesh.

He froze, and turned to Elizabeth. It was her decision. She looked as conflicted and distraught as John thought he might feel, once he had the luxury of feeling again. "We—" she said.

"I can set the self-destruct," Zelenka said softly. "I have done so without Rodney's input before."

"And I can handle anything else you'd need McKay for," Colonel Carter said. "Anything he can do, I can do better. Right, Rodney?" She put a hand on Rodney's shoulder. Rodney seemed stunned.

"If you can fly one jumper out to the mainland, I can fly another, McKay," said Mitchell.

"I will be happy to assist with the evacuation," Teal'c added.

Rodney was recovering from his surprise, straightening with hope and purpose, ready to charge out to the rescue. John hated to destroy that, but he had to.

"It doesn't matter how many jumpers we send out." His own voice sounded especially nasal, like it always did when tension had him wound tight and his throat wanted to close. "There's no way you can make the trip out there and get back in time." He gestured at the screen, that showed the Daedalus, refusing to disengage, taking a beating it probably didn't have to—all to buy them more time. But it wouldn't be enough.

John met Rodney's eyes. He'd done that. He'd killed the hope in them. Another of the sins he'd have to pay for someday—that day looked like it was coming really soon now.

"Rodney, if you bring two of the naquadah generators, you can set up a temporary shield. The caves in the southern mountains—" Zelenka said.

Rodney turned to Zelenka, snapping his fingers in excitement. "Yes! And if I boost the—"

"But you must remember to engage the additional—"

"Of course I'll remember; I'm not an idiot. I need to bring—"

"Gentlemen!" Elizabeth interrupted them. "Rodney, you have a go. You have authorization to take only half the puddle jumpers, and only the volunteers with less flight time. We may need some puddle jumpers and more experienced pilots here."

"Right," Rodney nodded. "I'll take Bessie. She doesn't have a cloak, but she'll carry more people."

"Teal'c and I will use the jumper we brought from the SGC," offered Mitchell.

"Very well," Elizabeth said. "Go."

Rodney, Mitchell, and Teal'c strode off toward the puddle jumper bay. Rodney was already on the comm with his minions, directing the allocation of naquadah generators and other technical supplies, calling for volunteers, coordinating the rescue.

John headed in the opposite direction, toward the Chair room and his duty. If he had the luxury of any emotions right now, he knew he'd feel his heart tearing right into two pieces. Just before he went through the door, he looked back one last time. "So long, Rodney," he whispered.

As though Rodney heard him, he paused just before entering the jumper bay and looked back. Their eyes met for a moment across the distance. Rodney held up a hand in an aborted wave. Then they both turned away, to do what was necessary.

Rodney concentrated on following Mitchell's jumper, keeping the big Alteran jumper steady in the air instead of weaving around the way it wanted to. John had been right, though. It was actually a little easier to fly than the Atlantis jumpers.

The fact that he didn't have to focus as hard just gave him more time to think, though. His mind was a restless whirl of conflicting duty. It had almost killed him, leaving John, leaving his City, while they were both under attack. But Teyla and Ronon, the Athosians, Thousandmother and Aleek—he needed to keep them safe. If Sam Carter had not been around to help Radek, Rodney knew he would have had to stay on Atlantis, would have had to live with abandoning his friends on his conscience. Now he just had to live with abandoning John, Elizabeth, and Atlantis.

Rodney had seen John's eyes. If John Sheppard had been able to instantaneously clone himself through force of will alone, so that he could both go and stay, then they all would have been witness to the miracle of twin Sheppards.

The dark smudge of the mainland was growing in the viewport. They'd radioed ahead to the Athosian settlement alerting them to the situation, and Teyla had been organizing her people's evacuation. Everyone would be ready to board as soon as they landed.

The landing went well, as did the loading. But there weren't enough jumpers.

"What are you talking about?!" Rodney didn't let the fact that he had to look up stop him from yelling at Aleek. "I brought that big jumper specifically because it can carry both you and Thousandmother! Get in there!"

Aleek's antennae went back, and it made him look as stubborn as Rodney's old Manx cat. "Rodneee, there iiis no room. There are mothers and liiittle chiiildren, and myyy Thousandmother, the hope of our viiillage. You must save them."

Rodney waved at Teyla and Jackson. "Explain to him that he needs to get in there! And what about you people? Aren't you coming?"

Teyla shook her head. "Halling and Jinto are in Colonel Mitchell's jumper. Halling will help you organize my people once you reach the caves. I must stay here with the ones that stay behind to lend them hope."

Jackson smiled. "Besides, McKay, you'll come back for us. Won't you?"

Rodney scowled at them both. He tugged on Aleek's arm. "Are you sure you're not coming? Your logic isn't sound, you know. If it's 'parents and children first,' I'm pretty sure you count as a child."

Aleek tossed his head back and spread his wing casings. "Iii am not adult yyyet, but Iii am not a small chiiild, Rodneee. Go! Save myyy Thousandmother. Iii know yyyou wiiill come back for meee."

Rodney held onto Aleek and looked around the clearing. The other jumpers had finished loading and were starting to take off. Ronon and Teal'c waved at him from a knot of Athosians they were escorting back into the shadows of the trees. Rodney sighed, squeezed Aleek's arm, and exchanged a look with Teyla. "I'll be back. As soon as I can."

Teyla nodded to him solemnly and took one of Aleek's hands to lead him away. Rodney caught one last glance of Aleek, already turning to answer another one of Jackson's endless questions, before he launched the jumper into the sky.

There were times John felt he was uniquely suited to the role of Atlantis' military commander. It turned out that John had a talent for commanding an international, multi-service military contingent. He also worked effectively with aliens, and with the civilian contractors that made up the bulk of Atlantis' researchers.

Other times, like now, John felt less like Atlantis' military commander and more like just an especially self-aware, gene-enhanced portion of the city's automated defense systems. Stuck in the Chair, there was little he could do except monitor the situation as the control room sent him information, and wait to fire off drones to protect the city.

He really shouldn't have let Colonel Mitchell go off with Rodney to rescue the Athosians. With Lorne stuck in the infirmary, detoxing from go pills, Caldwell in space commanding the Daedalus, and John stuck in this Chair, Colonel Carter was the only high ranking officer left in charge. And she was taking on Rodney's job as well as part of John's, in an unfamiliar environment, too.

She was doing a pretty good job, as far as he could tell from the reports he was hearing. And she was helping Elizabeth coordinate the evacuation well enough. But it was John's job. His hands curled into fists on the arms of the control Chair. He was chained to the damned thing by his triple-damned gene.

It was almost a relief when the Alteran ship finally attacked.


At first, Elizabeth tried to reason with them, to come to a civilized agreement. The Alteran's just kept repeating their idiotic, wrongheaded message, until Elizabeth's patience finally came to an end.

"Oh really? Well, I'd to see the deed of sale," Elizabeth snarled. "We are ALSO descendants of the people who built this city. And, as far as we can tell, they didn't capture and torture innocent sentients in the name of research, unlike some people in this conversation." John felt a vindictive smile tugging on the corners of his lips. Hoo-boy, those guys were in trouble! Elizabeth was pissed.

Discussion time seemed to be over. The Alteran ship fired, their shots sizzling over Atlantis' shield.

"Fire at will, John," Elizabeth's voice said into his ear. John nodded to himself as he acknowledged Elizabeth's order, and sunk his consciousness into the control Chair's interface. His hands clawed around the arms of the Chair, palms pressed hard into the blue gel interface modules. The Chair reclined and began to glow with power, sweeping John into its embrace. Finally, finally something to do.

The release of the weapons drones was like a song from the depths of his heart. Their explosions against the shield of the Alteran ship merely percussion to John's inner symphony. The tune went something like: Hell No, You Can't Have My City.

"But, Daniel, the team shouldn't split up like this," Vala whined, tugging him toward the jumper Mitchell was piloting.

Daniel set his heels. "It's fine. Listen, I'll just be in the other jumper. We'll be right behind you." He looked over at Teal'c in a plea for assistance. The jumper with the young Taum, Aleek, in it had room for one more passenger, and Daniel intended to be that passenger.

"Come along, ValaMalDoran," Teal'c said, gently disengaging Vala's death grip on Daniel's arm and towing her along implacably. "I have found that when DanielJackson is like this, it is fruitless to argue with him and quite impossible to convince him of another course of action."

Vala sighed. "In other words, he's more stubborn than an Unas."


Daniel rolled his eyes, but his attention was already focused on the other puddle jumper. McKay was closing the rear hatch, fulfilling his ridiculous threat of a few minutes ago.

Daniel pushed his way in just in time to engage the safety mechanism. The hatch stayed open until he'd gotten the rest of the way in before it clanged shut. McKay took off immediately, as soon as it shut, before Daniel had a chance to get settled. It didn't matter, of course. Ancient technology with inertial dampeners wasn't the same thing as a Terran city bus, so the abrupt takeoff felt no different to the passengers than sitting still. It nonetheless would have been more polite to actually say something before taking off, but that was Rodney McKay for you.

Daniel squeezed into one of the bench seats than ran along the sides in the rear section of the jumper, next to McKay's Sateadan teammate, Ronon Dex. He nodded to Dex and then looked at Aleek, sitting on the floor between the benches, since he was too large to sit on the benches themselves.

"So, you were telling me earlier about your people's lifecycle," Daniel prompted. "When would you be considered an adult?"

Aleek ignored him. "Ronon, are weee going to Thousandmother now?"

"Yeah," Ronon rumbled from next to Daniel. "McKay's taking us to some caves. Thousandmother's already there. We'll be okay."

"Iii knew Rodneee would come back for us," Aleek said, antennae waving.

Daniel remembered that Aleek was a child. "Of course he did," he told Aleek gently. "He'd never leave you."

Aleek fingered the necklace that Ronon had given him while they'd all been hiding out in the woods with the Athosians. It was a hand knife in its sheath, on a long leather cord. It looked like a decorative toy around Aleek's thick neck.

Daniel slouched back on the bench and folded his arms over his chest. "He's not going to answer very many of my questions right now, is he?"

Next to him, Ronon raised an eyebrow and snorted in agreement.

The Alteran ship had stopped firing at Atlantis' shield. John felt a moment of victory and satisfaction before he noticed the sensors telling him it had begun to fire again. But this time it was firing at the mainland. At the civilians!

"Get back here and stop shooting at defenseless civilians, you cowardly sons of bitches!" John snarled. They were firing at his friends, at his team, at Rodney!

John slung drone after drone at the ship, drubbing it ceaselessly, hoping to overwhelm its shields.

The ship ignored his efforts, and kept firing at the mainland.

"NO!" Rodney shouted. "Not that crystal, that's the inertial dampener control crystal!" He swerved jerkily to avoid the latest beam from the Alteran ship's weapons. Cries and complaints sounded from the back of the jumper, as the maneuver tossed passengers around like veggies in a salad spinner.

"No shit, McKay!" Jackson barked, from where he was busy swapping crystals to increase power to the right drive pod. Bessie had taken a hit on that pod, and obviously one of the power couplings had been damaged, because she kept pulling to that side.

Rodney kept overcompensating and wrenching her around in the other direction, with the result that Bessie weaved drunkenly from side to side. That, more than anything else, had kept them from getting hit again.

Jackson obviously managed to reconnect the inertial dampener control crystal again, because the seasick-making swaying sensations ceased, even though the jumper itself wasn't managing a straight line.

"Tell me which crystal is the right one, McKay!" Jackson demanded, hand hovering over the crystal array. Rodney almost whined in frustration. What he wouldn't give to have a real scientist with them back there, instead of that science-wannabe archeologist! Honestly, what Rodney really wanted was to go back there and fix it himself, but he had to pilot the damned jumper. Another despairing glance behind him showed that no ATA-enabled pilot had magically appeared amongst the passengers since the last time he'd looked.

"We have a scientist," Rodney muttered to himself. "What we need is a pilot. Who ISN'T ME!" He almost shrieked the last part as he careened the jumper sideways to avoid another weapon beam. Damned Alterans!

"McKay! Which crystal?" Jackson demanded again. Right. Try to be in two places at once. He was a genius; it should be easy.

"Third crystal from the left, second row from the bottom," Rodney said, enunciating clearly.

"I tried that one, McKay. You said that one was for the inertial dampeners," answered Jackson.

Oh, God, what he'd give for a decent engineer! "Do you even know how to count?" Rodney demanded.

"Yes. Of course. It was a requirement for my PhD!" Oh, great. Now Jackson was getting tetchy.

"Teyla, go back there and help him, will you?" Rodney cast Teyla a pleading glance. He'd taught her a few simple repairs with the crystal circuitry. There were times when he needed a skilled assistant out in the field. Teyla was not unintelligent, and she had the advantage that she followed his directions exactly and with no back talk.

Now, she simply nodded and patted him on the shoulder as she went back to help Jackson. Rodney concentrated on following Mitchell's jumper as it engaged in evasive maneuvers. He guessed that they weren't heading directly back to the caves anymore. It wouldn't be a good idea to let the Alterans know where the rest of their people were.

They were flying really close to the side of a cliff. Rodney didn't know why. He hoped there was some useful military reason—like it made it harder for the Alterans to hit them or something. He had to suppress a manful shout of alarm when a beam blew up the side of the cliff right in front of them, and Bessie was pelted with rocks from the explosion. She rocked from the explosion's shock wave, and Rodney veered out further away from the cliffside. His hands were slippery with sweat on the controls, and his heart thundered in his chest.

"Rodney, I'm afraid the crystal circuitry on this model of puddle jumper is not the same as the ones we are familiar with from Atlantis," Teyla announced. "I cannot tell which crystal is required to repair the drive pod failure." Oh, crap. Now he would have to clone himself. Or somehow figure out to go back there and study the crystals at the same time as he piloted the jumper.

Rodney craned his neck to peer back over his shoulder, hoping to catch a glimpse of the array. Damn, couldn't see enough to tell anything useful. He pulled up the HUD on the power consumption readings. Maybe he could figure out which crystal wasn't pulling enough power and—

"McKay, look out!" Ronon's warning came a heartbeat too late. The weapon beam hit their left drive pod this time, and Bessie yawed hard in the direction of the hit. Rodney overcompensated in the other direction, just as the right drive pod stuttered. Suddenly, Bessie began to tumble.

It might not have mattered if the crystal circuit access hatch hadn't been open, and if Jackson hadn't just been pulling and replacing crystals. But the fluctuation in power to the inertial dampeners that always came when a weapon impacted past their shields made the jumper shudder just hard enough, and the inertial dampener crystal popped right out of its holder. Which meant that, when Bessie began to tumble, her passengers tumbled with her, like laundry in a dryer.

If Rodney's hands hadn't been slippery with perspiration, he might have been able to hold on to the controls. If he could have held onto the controls, he might not have slid sideways right out of the pilot's seat. If he'd been able to sit at the pilot's seat and handle the controls, Bessie might not have slammed right into the face of the cliff.

"SHIT!" Mitchell said suddenly, looping the jumper he piloted up and back in the direction they'd been coming from. Through the viewport, Vala saw why he was upset.

The shockwave from the impact struck them just as they looped, but it was the flames that caught Vala's eye as the other jumper crashed into the face of the cliff. A rain of debris followed as the jumper tumbled down the rock face. Down, down, down, snagging vegetation and displacing more dirt and rocks, until it crunched, almost forlornly, to the ground below.

Dirt and small stones rained on it for a while.

"Daniel," Vala whispered, overcome with the scene before her. She'd told him to come with them, but when did he ever listen to her?

Mitchell swore again as another beam weapon barely missed them, scoring an angry line in the cliff wall.

That woke her up. "Can't these things turn invisible?" she asked Mitchell.

"Yeah, but the one McKay was piloting couldn't do that," he explained. "I was staying visible so that he could follow me."

Another beam shot past them, too close.

"That's no longer an issue, is it?" Vala asked pointedly.

"Right," said Mitchell. He sighed.

Apparently, he'd made their ship invisible, because when they flew down to the ground to check on the other jumper, the beam weapon's fire kept dancing around their previous location.

Didn't like that, did you? John thought, as the Alteran ship finally stopped firing at the mainland and turned its attention to Atlantis again. John had targeted one specific section of the ship. From the brief time Atlantis had the Ancient spaceship, Orion, John remembered where the weaknesses in the shields were.

He'd gotten their focus off of the civilians and onto an opponent that could fight back. Now that the enemy ship was concentrating on Atlantis again, though, John had to wonder how long the city would last beneath the onslaught.

"Vala, look, I'm fine. Really," Daniel said. Her concern was flattering, but unwarranted. It was just some cuts and bruising. Some really spectacular bruising, true. And he'd probably end up with a black eye. But that was nothing, considering he'd survived the jumper crash.

Some of the other passengers hadn't survived. Many were hurt. Some of the Athosians were gathered in little weeping clusters. Others were just standing around, shocked, confused, sorrowful, afraid. Teyla should have probably been organizing them into some kind of useful activity that would channel their grief and tension. At least, that was what Daniel usually saw tribal leaders doing when catastrophe struck their little bands.

But Teyla was with the rest of her Lantean team in the shade at the foot of the cliff. Or rather, with her friends. Absently, Daniel wiped sweat from his forehead and licked his lips. God, it was hot here. Daniel took Vala's hand in his and limped over to join them, leaving the task of treating the injured and dealing with the survivors to Mitchell and Teal'c.

Ronon and Teyla knelt near Rodney McKay. Teyla's face and arms were a mass of tiny cuts, and she was painted with dozens of dabs of blood. The crystal array had exploded almost in her face. She was fortunate that she hadn't been blinded. Ronon had a mild burn down one arm. If Daniel hadn't seen the man put his own dislocated shoulder back in by slamming himself against the side of the downed jumper, he would have thought Ronon was in pretty good shape. Like Teyla's, though, the expression on Ronon's face showed that he was far from okay.

Even as his teammate's faces held the weight of their pain and sorrow, Rodney McKay's face was perfectly blank. It was more expressionless than Daniel had ever seen it. The blood that painted his face may have helped achieve that effect. From what Daniel could tell, there was a pretty bad cut just at the edge of McKay's receding hairline. It had bled copiously all over his face and scalp. It was still bleeding. The occasional drop of blood dripped ghoulishly off the end of McKay's nose, or trailed down his throat to join its cousins in the blood-sodden collar of McKay's shirt.

Out of that mask of blood, McKay's blue eyes looked pale and startling. They stared fixedly at his friend, Aleek. Aleek lay on the ground where McKay's team had dragged him, away from the jumper and in the shade of the cliff, out of the heat and harsh sunlight. The young Taum was very badly hurt. When the jumper had crashed, one of the storage bins above the bench seats had popped open, and something heavy—Daniel hadn't gotten a good enough look to know what it was—fell out. Or rather, it had been launched out at high speed from the force of the crash. It had slammed directly into Aleek, knocking him to the floor of the jumper, and bounced, going on to crush the foot of one of the Athosians before getting wedged into a corner.

"Hey, hang on, okay? Atlantis will send help for us. You met Dr. Beckett. He'll fix you right up," McKay told his young friend. His voice was determinedly cheerful. Too cheerful. It didn't match the stillness of his face or the hopeless look in his eyes.

"Iiiiiiiiit hurts, Rodneeeeeeeee," Aleek gasped. His breath whistled on every inhale, rasped on every exhale, spoiling the music of his voice. He blinked one large orange eye up at McKay. The other eye…well, there wasn't much left of the other eye.

McKay held one of Aleek's huge hands between both of his own, stroking the round palm gently with his thumbs, as if that would soothe his friend's hurts. "I know. I know it hurts, Aleek. Just try to rest until help comes, okay? Can you do that for me? We'll get you to Thousandmother and she'll heal you, won't she? Like she healed Teyla. Just wait for her to come, okay? She'll be here soon."

Claws closed around McKay's fingers, but didn't draw blood. McKay stopped stroking.

"Hurts, Rodneeeeeeeee. Cold. Cold," Aleek's breath sighed out, and he didn't inhale again. The claws opened like a flower, fingers becoming lax. His eye dimmed, staring sightlessly at nothing.

Daniel had to look away from the expression that broke over McKay's face, like something vital had shattered into a million pieces.

He turned and wiped his wet face. God, it was hot here.

"Daniel," Vala murmured. "Come away, Daniel." And she led him away and let him hold her tightly, until he could breathe without gasping.

There were many human children in the cave with her. Several were very frightened, and Thousandmother distracted herself by calming them.

But then she felt it. No. NO! Her child! Her youngest!

What she had dreaded had come to pass. Her youngest, her bravest child was gone. And with his death, she was forced to Ascend.

Unlike the foolish Alterans who strove for it, Ascension came upon Thousandmother despite her will. Like sinking into deep water, unable to swim, all she could do was drown in it.

"Thousandmother? Look, Halling! She has become one of the Ancestors!"

"Pere lume tempo e teri. Ancestors preserve us."

The shield over the mouth of the cave could not contain her. She wanted to see the remains of her child.

With that thought, she was there, hovering over his sad corpse. His friend Rodney was there with him, Aleek's head in his lap as if he could still provide comfort to the child.

Rodney seemed to sense her, because he looked up, dirt, tears, and blood streaking his face. "Thousandmother! I'm so, so sorry. Aleek— I came back for him, but—"

"She knows, McKay," the one called Daniel Jackson said. He stood from the little group crouched around Aleek's remains and faced her. "You've Ascended, Thousandmother."

"Yes," she told him. She could see that he understood. "I will avenge my child, and protect you all. Then I will do what I must."

It was easy to go to the Alteran ship in orbit—the one that had fired on unarmed, harmless people on the mainland just because they could. The ones that had killed her child. She burned through the ship like a bolt of living lightning, leaving equipment untouched, yet quenching all that arrogant, ignorant life. When she was done, the ship floated empty, quiet, harmless.

Thousandmother was almost, almost content with merely destroying her child's killers. But she'd been a mother for hundreds of years, and still had some compassion, even in this form. Therefore she cradled the wounded Daedalus in invisible arms, and brought it gently down to the planet below.

The shield around the city of the Gatebuilders was easily breached. Thousandmother set the Earth ship carefully down on a city pier.

She entered the Atlantis control room. It amused her to float there, in front of the star gate the Gatebuilders themselves had put at the head of their city. "It is done," Thousandmother told a startled Elizabeth Weir, who she had met for such a short time and who had seemed so delighted to speak with her. "I have eliminated the danger."

Then she found John Sheppard, encased in the city's heart, sitting in the control Chair, his own heart cold within him. "John. The danger is past. Come with me."

He sat up, disengaging the Chair. "Thousandmother? That you? It doesn't sound like you."

"I no longer have flesh, John. I'm speaking to your mind. Come. I have eliminated those who threatened your city. I wish you to witness what I must do."

"Uh. Okay. Hang on." Thousandmother waited patiently while John engaged the Chair again, and watched his attention turn inward while he used the city's sensors to verify what she had told him. Then he used his communicator to check on the status of his people, and obtain permission for the coming sojourn with Elizabeth Weir.

Finally, he rose from the Chair and stood before her. "Where are we going?" Oh, John, such a brave child.

"Not far, child. I will take you to Rodney."

He startled as she took him in her intangible arms, but then looked around with wonder as she floated them through the city's walls and through the sky to the mainland. "Cool."

Merriment, and a hint of solemn joy filled her. Yes, she was right to bring such a one as this to witness.

Thousandmother deposited John beside Rodney, Teyla, Ronon, and the rest of his people. She watched for a moment as they embraced, and talked like the rush of wind through the trees, all at once.

But she didn't have much time. She could feel herself losing energy. Thousandmother picked up Aleek's corpse. Her brave child.

"Rodney. John. Please go into your vehicle so that I may carry you all." It would be easier that way, since she could feel the energy of Ascension bleeding away.

"Thousandmother, it's broken. That's why—" Rodney started to explain.

"It doesn't matter, Rodney. I will carry it," she explained, as patiently as if to a newborn. He subsided, confused and sorrowing. John led him into the vehicle, the rest of their team following. Daniel Jackson caught her attention, and she waved her permission for him to attend and witness as well.

It was still easy, quite easy, to carry the vehicle and Aleek both, and travel some distance away. To find a deserted beach near a promising site for a new village.

She set the vehicle down gently, and abruptly felt the power of Ascension leaving her. Quickly, with the last of her strength, she excavated a deep pit and placed the remains of Aleek in it. Nourishment for his brothers to come. Aleek would be pleased.

Thousandmother Descended. It was like falling from a great height, suddenly aware of gravity again. "Oh!" she groaned. Being embodied hurt, far more than she remembered.

"Huh. That's what it's like to Descend?" Daniel Jackson stood at the edge of the pit and looked down at her. He shrugged when she raised an inquiring antenna. "I've done it. I've never seen it before."

"Iiit iiis more painful than Iii iiimagined," Thousandmother admitted.

"Life is pain," said Daniel, his face cold and austere, reliving some memory behind his eyes. What he said was true. But it was only one truth.

"Liiife iiis joyyy as well," Thousandmother told him—and John, Teyla, Ronon, and Rodney, all gathered at the edge of the hole she had dug.

"Iii wiiill have myyy new chiiildren now," she told them.

She would lay her thousands of eggs, to hatch here in their time. The first to hatch would be the new Thousandmother. The eggs would birth a new village, on a new world.

"Wiiitness, pleeease," Thousandmother told her friends. "Buryyy us when iiit iiis done. Protect myyy chiiildren."

Ronon nodded firmly. Teyla stared at her a moment, then straightened and nodded as well. Rodney looked at her, uncomprehending, his mouth opening and closing. His gaze drifted guiltily over to Aleek. John put his arm around Rodney. "We promise," he said to her.

And John Sheppard did not leave his obligations behind. Thousandmother was satisfied.

She laid her eggs, and gave herself to death, welcoming the journey into mystery.


Daniel clicked the pointer, and his next slide came up: a photograph of Thousandmother, in her Ascended form, in the Atlantis gateroom.

He glanced over his audience. At the back, his team was arrayed as usual: Sam, Mitchell, and Teal'c were sitting quietly, with the polite appearance of attentiveness. Vala was obviously bored and not-so-subtly baiting Teal'c and Mitchell. Sam had prudently sat out of her reach.

Generally Landry looked stoic, bored, and like he didn't understand one word Daniel was saying. Unlike Jack, who had played The Dumb Soldier at meetings like it was a Broadway role, Landry most likely was bored, and he probably didn't understand, or care about, most of what Daniel was disclosing.

The IOA and Pentagon representatives were slightly more attentive. They gave the appearance of being so, at any rate. Daniel knew Major Paul Davis had some brains between his ears. And IOA representative Richard Woolsey was frowning thoughtfully and taking rapid notes in the leather-bound portfolio on his lap.

So, for Woolsey and Davis at least, Daniel tried to put a little more animation into his voice. "According to Thousandmother, the Taum have always Ascended as part of their natural lifecycle. The Taum live their lives, Ascend for awhile, then die."

"What for, Dr. Jackson?" Paul Davis tilted his head, studying the image on the screen. "What possible benefit would Ascension have, if you just intended to come back and die anyway?"

"Well, Major, we're unsure if all Taum Ascend, or just the females, like Thousandmother. From Atlantis Team One's report, Thousandmother was the only female in the Taum village. It may be part of their reproductive cycle. She may be triggered to Ascend upon the youngest villager's maturity or death. AT-One's report said she claimed to be "near Ascension." She actually Ascended as soon as the youngest villager, the Taum child Aleek, was killed. She then laid her eggs as soon as she Descended." Daniel clicked through to the next slide, an image of the beach on the Lantean mainland.

"Thousandmother herself told me that the purpose of Ascension, for the Taum, was that they 'know infinity and gift it to our offspring.' That certainly sounds like it may be related to reproduction."

"So you're saying that the Ancients got the idea of Ascension from the Taum," nodded the IOA rep, Seung, leaning back in her chair and crossing her legs.

"Yes," Daniel said. "Although I was told that the Taum were sorry that they ever taught the Alterans—the group that both the Ancients and the Ori came from—to Ascend. They felt that the Alterans perverted the whole purpose of Ascension."

"The purpose of Ascension? For reproduction you mean?" asked Woolsey.

Daniel grimaced. "It's more complex than that, Mr. Woolsey. Although we're positing that the original purpose of Ascension somehow involved the Taum's reproduction, like any society, they've accreted socio-religious and philosophical meaning to the act beyond the biological. They feel that Ascension allows them to appreciate life more fully, but they are adamant that 'all who live must die'. They felt that the Ancients and the Ori both used Ascension to escape death—and even to escape life, in a way."

"Besides, if you Ascend without the intention of De-Ascending and dying, you're stuck on the Ascended plane without the ability to actually do anything in the living world—unless you want to be evil like the Ori," said Vala. Daniel just looked at her and raised an eyebrow. "What?" she protested. "I was listening, too!"

"So if you Ascend with the intention of De-Ascending and dying, then the Ascended's restrictions against materially affecting this plane of existence don't apply?" Daniel was beginning to change his mind about Woolsey. There might be some brains underneath all the bureaucracy after all.

"Correct," Daniel said shortly, and touched the frame of his glasses like a talisman. "The rules against the Ascended interfering with our plane of existence are not, in fact, to protect us—as we all assumed." As I assumed. And you never corrected me, Oma. "They are, rather, to protect the Ascended themselves. If they act on our plane, they will begin to lose energy. Then they have the choice of descending to die, or to replenish that energy from another source, as the Ori do."

"Bottom-line this for us, Dr. Jackson," said General Landry, leaning forward and frowning. "Does this give us any advantage to defeat the Ori? Will these Taum protect us from the Ori?"

Daniel remembered Jack saying something similar, back in the day—bottom-line it for me, Daniel—but somehow, Jack's gruff words had never been as cold or humorless. Daniel hadn't realized it at the time, but Jack had been going easy on him, had been breaking him in gently.

He clicked over to a new slide—of a burial mound that held two Taum corpses and thousands of unhatched Taum egg cases. "Bottom line: right now, nothing. The Taum blamed themselves for giving the Alterans—including the Ori—the key to Ascension. So they renounced high technology as a penance, and curtailed their reproduction. They've allowed their entire civilization to dwindle to one little village on an out-of-the-way world, monitoring the last technologically advanced descendants of the Alterans in Pegasus. Now that those descendants are no longer an issue—and also because some of the Taum used a weapon that they considered an abomination—Thousandmother let that village to die out. Once the last villager dies, there will be no more Taum. At least, not on the world where we found them."

Daniel pointed at the slide. "As for the future, who knows? Thousandmother laid thousands of eggs on the mainland of Lantea, and charged the command team of Atlantis to look after them. It could be that once those eggs hatch, the Taum that are born on Lantea will be of great help with our struggle against the Ori, and perhaps even the Wraith. After all, Thousandmother did help protect Atlantis against the Alterans."

Daniel didn't mention what he really thought: that Thousandmother founded the next Taum village in a perfect location for her children to keep an eye on Atlantis—and on the heirs of the Ancients, the humans of Earth.

Teyla spread her blanket out while Ronon built the fire. The day had been warm, but as darkness began to fall, the air grew cooler. Soon they would all be grateful for the fire's warmth.

She settled cross-legged onto the blanket. The two weeks spent with her people had been good for her. She was still plagued with nightmares, but she could go back to sleep when she woke from them, knowing that they were only nightmares, not reality. With meditation, she could find her peaceful center again. The fear and rage that leapt out of nothingness to consume her did so much less frequently now.

Teyla didn't believe herself ready to go out on missions as of yet. She was unsure of her ability to fight—or even spar—without trying to kill her opponent. She still didn't know if she could face an examination from Dr. Beckett with equanimity.

She smelled meat roasting and looked over at Ronon by the fire, tending their supper. Teyla found herself looking forward to the meat after two weeks of fasting and simple fare.

Next she looked for Rodney, on the far side of the fire. He was sharing a blanket with John. Rodney sat with his back to the fire, hunched over, arms resting on bent knees, staring out at the ocean waves crashing in to the shore of the Lantean mainland. No, more likely he was staring at Thousandmother and Aleek's burial mound, located well above the high-tide mark, but between their camp and the ocean. They had come here in the puddle jumper to visit the site, since it was located several weeks' walk from her people's village.

Rodney had been unusually quiet, and his eyes had been red-rimmed when the team had come to pick her up at her people's settlement this afternoon. With a start, Teyla realized that she hadn't spoken to Rodney, not even to ask how he was faring. It was obvious, now that she really looked at him, that he was still deep in grief. She herself grieved for the Taum, but distantly, as brief comrades, as benefactors. They had saved her life, after all. But she had not known them well, had not been close to them.

The fire popping swung her gaze back to Ronon. He was tossing tuber peelings into the flames. As she watched, he impaled the tubers on sticks, for roasting. It was harder to tell if Ronon was subdued, as he was naturally less voluble than Rodney. Although, Teyla thought suddenly, they had all known Ronon only in the wake of the destruction of his entire world. Perhaps he had been talkative in his youth. She studied him. His movements were steady, careful, efficient. His face was impassive, withdrawn. Teyla suspected he grieved as well, but she was not sure. Once, she would have known.

It irked her, to find that her recent ordeal had taken something else from her—her emotional connection to her team, which Teyla had thought inviolate.

Teyla looked over at John, sitting with Rodney. Despite his pretence to imperturbability, John was usually an open book to her. He sat close to Rodney, an arm looped over the other man's shoulders, speaking quietly to him. Nothing Teyla hadn't seen him do before, a dozen times or more, but somehow this was…different.

Teyla blinked. Really? Her skin prickled with the sense of being watched and she looked up to meet Ronon's eyes. He held her gaze solemnly, and then nodded slowly. She returned his nod and looked over at John and Rodney again. Rodney wrapped in his grief—and in John. John perhaps grieving himself, but focused on Rodney.

Teyla nodded to herself. This was good. The only thing that bothered her was that she hadn't noticed before. Perhaps it is new, she comforted herself. She would ask Ronon later.

She found herself contemplating the burial mound. It was not only a grave, but a nest. That was the reason they had official excuse to be here tonight, taking the place of the sentries that had been detailed to watch over it. Sentries had rotated at this posting ever since the day Thousandmother had laid her eggs, the foundation for a new village of the Taum.

Since Thousandmother had neglected to mention how long the eggs would take to hatch, the Lanteans had posted a guard and waited. Ronon had privately wagered with her over how long it would take the Lanteans to decide to take a trip through the wormhole and simply ask the existing Taum villagers how long it would take. Teyla thought it would eventually occur to someone that even Taum babies would need caregivers.

The light from the fire wavered uncertainly over the innocent mound of sand and earth. The sound of the surf rumbled in the distance. Teyla trembled slightly with the chill as the wind picked up. She always noticed the slightest chill now.

Teyla felt a blanket being draped over her shoulders and looked up into John Sheppard's concerned eyes. She patted his hand and smiled at him, comforted by the presence of her friends. By her team, who would always come for her.

Teyla wondered what fate awaited the children under the mound of earth, waiting to be born. Minus one, whose life had been given for her. If that was the measure of these people, that they would give their lives so selflessly, she longed to meet them.

The future, as always, would be revealed in its own time.

The End
Descriptions of medical experimentation, vivisection, and serious injuries (including eye injuries). Violence. Harsh language. Nudity. Explicit consensual sex. However, nothing much worse than what you'd see on the show. Except, alas Dear Show, for the sex.
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Halling's prayer to the Ancestors is from SGA episode 103: Hide and Seek. (Via the episode transcript at Gateworld.)