Title
The Magical Number Seven (Plus or Minus Two)
Prompt
Big Bang 2009.   Forks in the Road: Tabula Rasa - They don't get all of their memories back. / Forks in the Road: This Mortal Coil - The copies of Weir and the team aren't killed.
Summary
This is a treatise on the nature of identity, and the interrelation of legitimacy and memory. Which is to say, it's mostly about John Sheppard, and how he found his way home. Also, there's a high body count, and Kraft Dinner is an exotic delicacy.
Pairing
Gen
Rating
PG
Word Count
61155 words
Companion Artwork
  • Home by Sal
  • Say What? by Sal

He knows he's in deep shit the minute he wakes up. He feels like he's been hit by a truck, and the aches all over his body are nothing to the pounding in his head.

And he's tied up. Great.

He keeps his eyes shut, his breathing steady, because he may not know what the hell is going on, but he knows that he needs to find out more before he acts. He tenses one leg, then the other. Both arms at the same time, figuring he can get away with one movement easier than two. He doesn't hear anything, just the sound of his own quiet breathing. His hands are bound together at the wrist, his legs at the ankle. There's a lot of rope, but his hands and feet are still warm, nothing tight enough to hurt him. So. They're saving that for later, then. Whoever they are.

He lets his eyes slit open. Wherever he is, it's dim enough to risk opening them all the way. There's a window far off to the right, sunlight streaming in, but not far enough back in the room to reach him. He's alone. Small mercies.

He gives a good hard twist against the bonds, and they hold, but there's enough give that he has a little play.

Okay. What now? Knots. Can't reach them, and it would take too long anyway. No way to tell how long he's been here, when they'll be back. Whoever they are. He twists a wrist against the rope, but that isn't going to get him anywhere. Maybe if he can free his legs, he can worry about the rest later. At least he'd be mobile.

He kicks his heels against the floor experimentally. There's some sort of mat, so it's quiet enough to keep going. His boots aren't tied up all of the way, and that's going to make this easier, too. He drags both heels across the mat until he feels his foot start to lift up as one of them loosens. He sets the sole of one boot against the edge of the other, pushes and pulls as much as he can, and it hurts, the laces are tighter than they look, but his foot starts to pull free. If he can get it out of the boot, he can maybe get his leg out of the loop of rope around his ankles.

He drums his heels against the floor again, and the boot's off.

It would have been nice to pretend that he had expected to see the short, wide knife in the sheath at his ankle, but he's willing to call it a pleasant surprise. He makes short work of the rope after that, and finds the door release for the room he's in almost automatically — it's a strange piece of luck, but the first place he sets his hand once he's ready drops the ramp and sets him free. He takes a minute to toss the place, finding a small crate full of pistols and plenty of ammo.

He loads and checks a sidearm quickly, ducking into the trees, circling around the thing he just came out of. It's like a really ugly mobile home. Or a sort of armored boxcar, rounded off and missing wheels. Or some other part of a train, maybe. Doesn't matter. He has no clue where the hell he is and how he got there — but whoever the assholes are who jumped him, they'll be back eventually.

The light in the underbrush is a dizzying mix of glaring sun and dark shadow. None of it will stay still, and his head is still pounding. Okay. What does he know? Not much. He's in the woods. He's been kidnapped. Or — jumped. Or — overpowered somehow. Why? By who? For what? And where the hell is this place, anyway?

Crap.

It gets dark fast, but he doesn't have to wait very long. There's someone crashing through the trees, coming toward him fast and careless. It's a big guy, carrying a couple of bags, and he stops short when he sees the lowered ramp. Then the guy drops the bags and charges inside, which is about the best development possible — it gives him the chance to trap the guy as he comes back out.

And it's just one guy. So far.

There's a strange sound, like something charging up, and the guy comes back out of the shack and holy crap, is that a ray gun? Time to act fast.

Right up behind the guy, close enough but just out of arms reach when he cocks the gun. "Don't move." He steps up onto the ramp behind the guy, evening out their heights. "Drop it." The ray gun hits the ground and this is easier than it ought to be.

He moves the guy past the gun at the base of the ramp, so he can grab it, and it's weirdly balanced, too light, but that doesn't matter. He needs answers. Who is this guy? Who else is out there?

The guy starts talking, trying hard to sell something, trust that they're friends, something. But his head is pounding, he's hot, then cold, and it's hard to focus on the words. Then the guy steps forward, trying to grab for the gun, and his focus comes back fast. His aim had dropped, and he brings it back up, but not fast enough. The guy dodges and knocks the barrel away, and he brings up the other hand, the one with the ray gun, and he squeezes the trigger without real intent. But there's a flash of light and the guy drops like his strings have been cut.

Okay. Run? No. No way to know where to go, or if there are others. He still doesn't know what's going on, and the only defensible place he's got is this shed, or blind, or whatever it is. Maybe it's a storehouse? A weapons cache? He needs whatever he can find that can be carried, anyway, anything to give him an edge.

He rolls the guy's body, and he's weirdly relieved that he only seems to be unconscious, not dead. That gets him a couple of knives and a small radio set. He drops them in a pile inside the shed, and starts pulling down cargo nets that turn out to be full of supplies, pulling open all of the bins and spilling them across the floor — some of this stuff is useful. There are more guns, different guns, all projectile rather than energy, and the rest of the ammunition for them is…there.

The guy's still down, hasn't moved, but it's time to go; he has to move quickly. Where — what is this place? The guy, right. The guy had him tied up, the guy could wake up anytime, he has to get the weapons together fast, other supplies are secondary, but damn, they'd be nice. It's dim inside the shed, the light all from a window opposite the door he came in, and there are — oh. Seats. And controls. Not a shed, a control room? No: sitting down, it becomes obvious. Obvious where his hands go, and the door behind him, the hatch, closes, and damn, that's a relief, because the guy is on the other side, and having the guy back there, even knocked out, was making the back of his neck itch.

Okay. What else? And there it is, the whole room is lifting, he can't feel it, but he can see it. This fucker flies. It's a ship, a — plane? The word doesn't fit, it isn't right, but ship seems close enough. And holy shit did he just kill that guy? Is there exhaust? No. The ship's swung around, he can see the guy, he's okay, starting to move on the ground, waking up. So he was just in time, getting away. And he's moving again, skimming over the treetops, and what's all that crap thrown around on the floor behind him? Why isn't it stowed? And something's poking him in the back, between his spine and the seat, and when he twists and pulls it out of his belt it's a ray gun or something.

He's sweaty and he has a ray gun and he's flying something, but not in any normal way. He knows he's flying it because he can feel it flying in his head and the view out the windshield in front of him backs that up. And the minute he starts wondering how that's even possible, holographic readouts start to appear, superimposed and weirdly easy to read despite the bright moonlight he's flying through. Graphs and fuel cell displays and course plots, all right there. No destination, though, so where was he going? He's pretty well armed, there are guns and ammunition all over the floor, bullets rolling underfoot, and he's holding a gun, too, a different model, and when he looks up again there's an inventory of armaments for the ship he's flying, and what is he, a one-man army?

If he is, if he is fighting somebody, maybe it's time to retreat. He's not feeling so hot, and he doesn't know — he doesn't remember — anything about this place. This world, because this thing he's flying, he knows it now, it's a spaceship, and this isn't — this isn't — well, it isn't whatever planet he's from. So it's hostile territory, potentially hostile, and he can't think straight, his head is pounding, and did whoever is on this planet do that to him? The windshield — viewport? — darkens and then he's looking at stars, and they're beautiful and glittering and his head is swimming and he thinks he'll just put his head down for a minute.


"Rodney. Rodney, wake up." The voice is soft and rough-edged, and he wouldn't know it was directed at him if it weren't coming from so close. He shifts, and the ache in his head ratchets up, and gets even worse when he opens his eyes. The room is dim, but there's still too much glare. So much that the woman talking to him is outlined in smeared, wavering light. He squeezes his eyes closed again and groans.

"Rodney." She shakes his shoulder, and he can tell she's trying to be gentle, but it's like there's glass in his joints and what the hell? Why is he sleeping on the floor, and what is this place, a closet? And who is this woman, and is that a body he just kicked? Not a dead body, at least, since he can hear a gasp and a quick scuffle as whoever it is twitches away from him, toward the opposite corner of the tiny room. Another woman. And now he's awake enough to see a fourth person, a man, limbs twitching, face shining with sweat. The woman, not the one who woke him, pushes tangled blonde hair away from her face and straightens, bracing herself against the wall, looking at each of them in turn, eyes flicking around the small room. She takes a deep breath and winces.

The woman closest to him, the one who called him — called him something, some name — she sets her hand against his arm, gently, calming, and extends the other, empty, toward the blonde woman. "Sam. It is all right. You are among friends. You are safe."

The other woman huffs a quiet laugh at that, one that ends in a gasp that sounds more like a sob, and says, "Friends? Who are you people? Where am I? Who — ?" She trails off, and he looks down at the small hand still pressed against his sleeve and thinks: good question. Good questions.

"Sit. Sit here. Rodney."

Huh. This is — what is this place? He's holding something, a light source, and he lifts it into view and hey! It's a computer tablet and there's a picture of a woman, and he remembers this, it's important, and he raises his forearm into the light, steps forward toward the window to see, and yes. Teyla. He needs to find Teyla.

"Rodney!"

Oh. And there she is. "Teyla? You're Teyla, right?"

The woman — Teyla, it's definitely her — shuts her eyes for a moment. She looks tired.

"Yes. I am Teyla. You are Doctor Rodney McKay. And you are ill, but you must help me to help everyone, and I need you to sit down, here, now." She accompanies the end of her statement with a surprisingly strong tug to his wrist. It knocks him off-balance, and she gives him a quick shove so that when he falls, it's right into one of the seats in front of the window.

"Hey!" It didn't hurt, except maybe his dignity, but he's woozy already; she doesn't need to make it worse by pushing him around. He wipes at his eyes to try to clear them: everything seems too bright and too dark at the same time.

"I am sorry, Rodney." She tugs the tablet out of his hand and twists to set it on the other seat. "It has been a very long day, and yesterday was very long also, and I have explained this to you many times, and I am tired." She presses a hand firm between his shoulder blades, encouraging him to lean forward. "This is a matter of some urgency. Everyone is very ill, and we must try to cure them, and I am very tired."

He blinks up at her as she arranges his hands on the counter in front of the seat. "You said that."

"What?" The woman is leaning against his back, her arms over his shoulders so that her palms rest against the backs of his hands where they sit on top of a control panel. Her breath is ticklish against the clammy skin of his neck.

"That you're tired. You said that already. Who — listen, don't be offended, but, um — who are you?"

Her forehead drops against his neck and he hears her laugh, a high, frantic sound. Not a good question to ask, then.

"Rodney." Her voice is muffled against his shirt. Okay: Rodney. Pretty name. She has pretty hands, too. She raises her head, and straightens a little, taking some of the weight back off of his shoulders. What is this thing they're in, anyway? He's in a bucket seat, like this is a bus, but the dashboard, it must be a dashboard –

"Rodney. You must focus." Oh. Okay, got that one wrong. He's Rodney. She tucks her thumbs into his palms, and now she's moving his hands over the dashboard like he's a puppet. "We must fly to the mainland." She presses both of his hands hard against a screen and says, "Now. Think very hard about the autopilot."

He gags. What is this stuff, some kind of tea? Before he can spit it out, a hand slides over his mouth, another over his fingers where they're looped around the handle of the mug.

"Medicine. It's medicine, Rodney, and you must drink it, so that you can help me to help the others." He rolls his eyes at the woman and swallows. Fine. His head hurts.

She takes her hand away from his mouth and presses the mug toward him, already turning away. He drinks the rest.

He frowns, coming to a stop, a ladle in one hand, a mug in the other. What was he doing, just now? He was doing something, something important…he sets the mug back on the cart, lets the ladle slip back into the pot. Whatever's in there, it smells foul.

"Rodney!" Teyla grabs his wrist, presses the mug back into his hand. "We are nearly done here, but I still need your help. You must not lose focus."

Oh. Right. Fill the mugs, make people drink this swill. Oh. "Teyla!"

"Yes. What?" Her voice is sharp, impatient. She sounds like she's near the end of her rope.

"Just. Just: you're Teyla. Everyone's sick. This is medicine. There's something wrong with my memory? But I remember that."

She's fast, then, moving toward him so suddenly he wonders for an instant if he hasn't got it all very, very wrong, before she tugs him into a tight, brief hug.

"Hey — hey, you're making me spill the stuff, watch it!" And she is, but he hugs her back anyway, and when she steps away her eyes are shining, relieved and happy.

They have a helper by the time they get halfway through the room with the most people in it: Sam, a woman who seems vaguely familiar. He remembers rivalry, maybe? But rivalry over what, he isn't sure.

She's friendly enough, seems to remember him no better than he remembers her. She's been competent since she started tracking enough to help, calm and businesslike, directing the people whom they've just dosed to help move and cover the bodies of the ones they're too late for. There aren't that many of those, but Teyla sags a little more every time they discover one. A few of the ill are still breathing, but won't rouse enough to drink, and Rodney thinks they won't make it through the night, but he helps Sam deputize small groups of the coherent to prop them up and carefully dribble medication into their mouths. It keeps them busy, at least, while they regain their bearings.

The last room they take the medicine to is the 'gateroom. There shouldn't be many people there, but Teyla says it's a command center of sorts, and that sounds right.

The doors are all jammed. They wind up going the long way around, up and over, into a huge room full of something that he thinks are shuttles. They're like something out of Star Trek, if the Borg had shuttlecraft — they're seriously cool, and Rodney's about to ask Teyla about them when he realizes he's been here before. This room is familiar, really familiar, and those are 'jumpers, and he knows how to fly them, he knows it.

The return of that knowledge, and of the sharp, recent memory of flying to the mainland with Teyla, shocks him into stillness.

"Rodney?" Sam has stopped, looking back at him. She looks almost as worn out as Teyla. He probably looks pretty bad, too. Not as bad as Radek: that's a memory that hits sudden and hard, hits so hard it feels physical. Taking the newly brewed decoction to him and Sam first, and finding her curled on the floor, shaking with fever, and his body still warm.

Right. The importance of haste. He starts moving again.

The stairs leading down to the 'gateroom are barricaded, but not very effectively, with part of a wall panel and a big case. They're precariously balanced, so probably the barrier was meant to warn of intruders rather than keep them out. Rodney braces the case while Sam sets her back against the wall panel, leaving Teyla to slip past and push from the other side, clearing the way.

The gateroom is a wreck. The group of marines inside is in worse shape than the general population, and part of that was probably up to the way Teyla had said they pushed through the fever, riding amphetamines and paranoia. None of them are conscious, but only two are already dead.


He's hungry. He's sitting on the floor in a sort of big closet, and there are piles of goods around him, a jumble of open cases in the corner. Some of the piles make sense — emergency blankets, first aid supplies — and some don't — wires with strange connectors on each end, shiny crystalline rectangles. He staggers to his feet, dizzy, but he has to find out what's going on, find food, water, someone who can tell him what's happening.

There's a window in front of him, now. All he can see out there is stars. This is a…space shuttle? Escape pod? Something. He turns in the other direction and falls to his knees and just barely manages to not wind up flat on his face.

Dizzy. And it's hard to see past the glare from the lights into the dark corners. He's in a room, some sort of small room, and he's alone, and he's weak as water, and wow, water sounds like a really good idea right now, but he doesn't see a sink. There are benches along the walls, though, and they look more comfortable than the floor, so he makes them a goal. The padding isn't much, but he curls onto his side, and now he can see a window. It's dark out there, he can see the stars. Time enough to investigate after the sun comes up.

He blinks his eyes open on an unfamiliar room. He's stretched out on a bench; his clothes are wet with sweat and it's making him shiver. There's stuff scattered all over the floor, across the bench lining the wall across from him. He's sick, there's something really wrong. He can hear a quiet mechanical hum, all around, feel it vibrating through the bench, through the wall. The lights are too bright, the sound is too loud, the air hurts his skin. He shuts his eyes again.

Banging. So loud. Metal hitting metal, a couple of times, then quiet. Then it starts happening again. It matches the pounding in his head, except for the way that it makes it worse. It needs to stop, he needs to find out where it's coming from. He slides off the thing he's laying on, a shallow, padded bench. Where is he? He drags himself to his feet, but he barely gets a look around before he loses his balance, slips on something small and hard and round, down on the floor. He gets a look toward one end of the room, though, and there's a window looking out on a much larger room. There are people there. He needs help. Needs to get to the people.

The banging starts again. Are they trying to break in? There's a gun, there, on the floor by his left hand, and it's weird looking, futuristic. He's wearing a holster, but it doesn't fit there. There's a gun there already, a smaller gun. He's pretty heavily armed for a sick guy locked in a closet. Maybe he's trying to keep the other people out. Probably.

A loud noise makes him shudder awake. Metal on metal. He's on a floor. A really uncomfortable floor. And there's a gun in his hand. Okay. This is — probably not good. He rolls toward the corner of the room, looking for a defensive position, and his head feels like it's about to crack open. He's shaking so hard he can barely keep his grip on the gun. He needs help. He's closer to the noise now, the wall he's half-leaning on carrying the vibrations. The wall slopes out as it rises, and he manages to half-lean his way into standing. Okay. Knocking. Someone's knocking, that's what it is. Knocking hard, but beggars can't be choosers, so they say, so someone says.

Right there, next to his shoulder, there's a handle. "Pull me," he says to himself, and it comes out sounding scratchy, the sound of his own voice unfamiliar and strange. He pulls, and the wall he's leaning against starts to move, and it's kind of nice to be lowered back down, to be prone, but it's making him dizzier, and he closes his eyes.

There are people speaking around him, but he can't track what they're saying, it doesn't make any sense. There's a tug at his hand, though, and he tightens his grip on whatever he's holding, and he figures it out, it's a gun, and he tightens his grip more, and opens his eyes. He's stretched out on a pad in a dim room, and there are other pads with other people on them, and there's a guy on one side of him, holding a needle, and he thinks: doctor. Okay, that makes sense, he's sick, and the guy is talking to him in a quiet, calm tone, and it's reassuring, even if he's too dizzy to figure out what he's saying. There's a pinch, and that's the needle going in, and he can feel something cool, he can feel it going into his vein, and he watches the guy hang a foil bag high on the wall, and there's a tube linking the bag to his arm, and that's weird. Another tug to whatever's in his hand on the opposite side, and he tugs back, but he's too weak to pull away; he's just strong enough to hang on to the thing. And he looks, and the thing is a gun, and this doesn't seem like the appropriate place to have a gun, but he doesn't want to let go of it either. There's another tug, and he looks up into the face of an annoyed looking woman, face framed with gray hair, and she's saying something to him, and she's trying to pull his fingers away from whatever is in his hand, and oh, it's a gun. Huh. Better hang on to that.

The woman changes her grip on his hand, takes him by the wrist, and she gives a strange, backwards tug to the gun with her other hand, and comes away with some kind of cartridge. She smiles, then, and sets his arm gently back onto the pad, the mattress, next to his body, and that's okay, then. He starts to shiver, and someone standing on his other side draws a blanket up over him, and he tries to help, but there's something in his right hand, and his left hand has some sort of tube attached, and that's really weird. He closes his eyes.

"Sheppard. Didn't expect to see you again so soon." It's a hard voice, close to where he's been sleeping, loud enough to resonate ache through his head. He blinks his eyes open, and he's lying in a room with a bunch of other people, and there's a dark-haired woman standing over him, smirking. He frowns and shifts; there's something attached to his hand, a tube leading up. He starts to reach over with his other hand, to pull it out, but then he notices that there's something in his other hand, under the blanket, and it feels like a grip on a gun, and if he's armed, and that fact's hidden, maybe he should keep it that way. He doesn't know what's going on. Then he notices a dark-haired woman looking down at him, and he twitches in surprise, just a little. She really got the drop on him; he never even heard her approach.

Her expression changes, softens into a frown. "Sheppard?"

Huh.

The woman turns away, then, and he relaxes a little bit, tries to figure out where he is, what's going on. A hospital? He doesn't feel so hot. There's something in his hand, under the covers, hard and cool, and he pulls it out from under the blanket to see what it is. A gun. That's a weird thing to have in a hospital bed.

"He's armed?" There's a voice, approaching. It's a woman, and she's dark and slender, all in black. She looks angry. She's looking at him.

"We pulled the charge. He wouldn't let go of it. Easier to leave him be." The other person is a man, younger than the woman. The man sets a bottle on a ledge next to his head, and reaches up to pull a foil bag down from a hook. There's a tube. Weird. The tube leads into the back of his hand. Right. Hospital. Medicine.

"What are you giving him?" A woman's voice. There's a woman standing next to the bed.

"He's got Kearsan's. It's advanced, but we can still treat it." The man picks up a bottle.

"He's going to survive?" The woman again.

"He's almost made it through the fever already. He was badly dehydrated — that was more likely to kill him than the Kearsan's, by the time we found him."

The woman moves quickly, pulling something out of the man's hand. A bottle?

"What are you doing?" The guy makes a grab at something the woman is holding.

It's confusing. He doesn't know these people; doesn't know why they need to argue right next to him. He closes his eyes. It helps a little with the ache in his head.

An abrupt ripping sound wakes him up. He's groggy, muzzy-headed. The room spins for a moment and settles out just in time for it to happen again, this time on his other side. There's a woman leaning over him, straightening up with two scraps of fabric in her hands. He catches a glimpse of red and blue before she closes her fist and smiles at him.

"Hey, Sheppard. Still feverish?"

He frowns at her. Her smile widens, and she steps away, twitching a blanket away from his feet. He has boots on.

She tucks something from her hand into her jacket, and starts to tug at the bootlaces. Yeah, that's probably a good idea. He tries to sit up, thinking he should help, but he's hit with a wave of vertigo, and closes his eyes instead.

There's a tug at his belt. There's a woman messing with his belt and what the hell? Oh. Holster. Why is he in bed wearing a holster? There's a gun in his hand. He's shaky, but he raises it, rests the muzzle in the dip of the woman's collarbone. She stills.

"Sheppard?"

"Who are you?" His own voice is a surprise; creaky and unfamiliar. He swallows, tries again. "What are you doing to me?"

"Sheppard, listen. It's me: Larrin. I know you don't remember me. You're sick, you're in the infirmary. But you're safe now. You got away from them."

That's — okay. Infirmary. Okay. "Who? Got away from who?"

She tries to smile at him. She looks worried. She looks worried about him? "We don't know who had you. But you're safe now, Sheppard." Her smile gets a little more real. "You're home."

He lets the gun fall back to the bed.

There's a cold knife blade against his wrist, a woman holding it. There's a gun in his hand, and he reacts fast. He pulls his arm straight up, sets the muzzle against her forehead, pushing aside her dark hair, and she stills, her eyes coming up to meet his, her knife still caught between his wrist and a band of fabric, the rest of her frozen.

"An explanation. Would be good, right now."

She sighs. She seems a little blasé for someone with a gun to her head.

"This is getting old fast." She gives the knife a sharp twist, and the band of dark fabric around his wrist falls away. "You're Sheppard; I'm Larrin. You have a fever, and you're going to keep forgetting." She moves the knife up to his rolled sleeve, slips her fingers into the cuff to hold it taut.

He doesn't want to shoot her, not yet, not when she seems like his best chance of finding out what's going on. He twists away and brings the butt of the gun down on her wrist, instead. The wrist of her knife hand, and she hisses at the impact, and steps back. He takes aim again.

"Sheppard. Focus, alright? You're in the infirmary, you're going to be here for a while, they want those clothes gone so you can be treated, so will you just cooperate already?"

"And you need to cut them off?" It sounds kind of extreme.

"You're all hooked up." She gestures at the tube leading to a bandage on the back of his right hand.

He frowns, considering.

"Stay there." He gestures at her with the gun, a warning, then uses the fingertips of his other hand to pull back the bandage. There's a needle underneath. Doesn't look too complicated. He pulls it out.

"Hey!" She starts to step forward, and he adjusts his aim.

"Stay there. I told you to stay there, right?"

She sighs and rolls her eyes, but shifts her weight back again.

The shirt buttons down the front, and it's awkward with his left hand, but not impossible. There's another shirt underneath, softer, also black. He shifts the gun from one hand to the other once he's got an arm free, and then the top shirt is off.

"Let me take that."

He doesn't know what's happening; it seems like a bad idea to let anything else go that might provide a clue. He glares at her and stuffs it under the blanket. "No. And I'm keeping the rest on."

"Sheppard — " She sighs, exasperated. "You are a pain in my ass. Fine. Keep it. Keep the rest." She turns to a table and picks up what looks like other clothes, a pair of boots. What she'd already managed to get off him, probably. He doesn't have pants on, and his feet are bare under the blanket.

He's shaking. He can't sit up any longer.

When he wakes up, he has a feeling that something is missing. He's in a large, dim room, on one of many pallets. Everything looks clear, sharply defined. He's exhausted, too weak to sit up, too weak to do much other than blink at his surroundings.

Oh. Pain. That's what's missing. His head: he remembers his head aching like it was going to crack open. It's the only thing he can remember. Not good. But it looks like he's in an infirmary, and he isn't in pain, so he can't work up the energy to be that worried about it.

It'll come back. He'll figure out.

He's exhausted, but it feels like he's been asleep for years. Decades. And he's hungry. It must be the middle of the night, though — the few people occupying other pallets are asleep. He can hear, distantly, the sound of movement outside the room, though. He's just about decided to try calling out when someone finally walks in.

It's a youngish guy, carrying a small crate, with a small machine tucked under one arm. The guy looks preoccupied, setting the stuff down on a counter near the end of the room.

"Hey." His voice is raspy, and he clears his throat, but he's got the guy's attention.

The guy walks over, sets a palm against his neck, and smiles. "Your fever's gone."

"I've been sick?"

"Yeah. Kearsan's fever. Hit you pretty hard."

"Huh." He feels weird about admitting this, but he's not going to be able to hide it. "I don't know where I am. Or, well: who I am. Who you are?"

The guy smiles again, but it has a funny twist. "Yeah. That's normal. Normal for Kearsan's, when you get it as an adult." He looks down at something on the counter next to the pallet, adjusts something there. "If we don't manage to medicate in time."

"Oh."

The guy looks up at his face again. "I'm going to get Larrin. She's going to explain everything for you."

The guy turns around and leaves then, right away, before he can ask anything else. Not before he notices that he hasn't got answers to anything he's asked already.

Larrin turns out to be a pretty, dark-haired woman. She smiles when she sees him awake, and presses a foil pouch into his hand.

"Sheppard. Finally. Hungry?"

The pouch is full of something soft and bland. She helps him sit up, a strong hand supporting his back until he manages to push himself up the pad to lean against the wall. One knee presses up against something hard under the blanket, and when he reaches down to find out what it is, it turns out to be a gun. She laughs when she sees it.

"You got kind of paranoid, so we let you keep it. Pulled the charge, though — I'll give it back when you get out of here." She gives him a little shove, and tugs a balled-up black shirt out from under him, twisting to toss it toward a bin halfway across the room. "Alright. Can you remember anything?"

He thinks about it for a minute, closing his eyes in the hope that it will help.

"No. Nothing."

She nods, like that was what she expected, and sighs before she starts to speak.

"My name is Larrin. Your name is Sheppard. We were kids together; same ship, same kin group. You were supposed to meet me, join my crew, almost two circuits ago. You were grabbed groundside, at one of the supply caches. We don't know who had you. We think you escaped. This is ship seven, the ship we're on now. They found you."

He blinks. It's a lot. And not a lot of context. He nods: Sheppard nods. Okay.

"They told you about the Kearsan's?"

"Yeah. A fever?" He sucks the last of the mush out of the pouch. It seems like he should be hungrier, but maybe this is what it's like, eating while recovering from illness.

"It's a childhood illness. Some ships, no one gets it for years, and that's when it gets dangerous. We try to expose kids in a controlled way — I got it when my cohort transferred, before puberty. I guess you weren't that lucky. It's hard for adults. It can kill."

"So I guess I'm still lucky." He could be dead.

She brightens a little at that, then folds her arms in front of her body, defensively. "You'll never get your memory back. You're never going to remember anything before now. They didn't find you in time for treatment."

It's not good. "But I'm alive." He tries on a grin, just to see how it feels.

After a moment, she grins back.


"We need to find them, I know, I'm working as fast as I can." Rodney twists a fitting into place, grimacing when the broken edge of the housing scrapes the side of his hand.

"We need to find out what happened to them. If we can. Rodney, you know we must be prepared for disappointment." Teyla crouches next to him, repositioning the light before he asks. "It has been three weeks. John and Ronon should have returned within three hours."

"So — engine trouble. Radio trouble. I'm sure Sheppard was in the scouts at some point, and Ronon has the equivalent of a PhD in living off the land; they're fine." He checks the new connection. No response. Great. He's sure he would have known how to fix this, once, but his memory of the past couple of years is filled with fuzzy gaps. "Damn it."

He uncurls his body carefully, getting out from under the console, but manages to hit his head anyway.

"Rodney –"

"Yes, yes, I know. This is…" He raises his hands, hopelessly. "I can't fix this. Or I can, but it isn't going to happen today, or tomorrow. This technology, well, it's ridiculously advanced, and I don't know how it fit together before it was used as battlements by a bunch of hopped-up marines, and there have to be schematics somewhere, and are you sure none of the actual pilots are well enough to fly yet?" It isn't that he's really reluctant to fly. It's just — three weeks. He doesn't want to be the one to find any more bodies. Especially not Sheppard's. Especially not Ronon's.

Sam takes over the work on what they are ninety percent sure used to be the scanner array: intra-city, planetary, and deep space combined in a single console feeding five projection screens. Two of the screens are shattered beyond repair, a third probably still usable but covered in milky-looking cracks, spidering out from a bullet hole low in the left corner. She's good at figuring out systems, as good at it as he is, though she can't remember the principles behind them either.

Teyla has drawn org charts for them, explaining the functions of the surviving personnel, what she knows of the projects in the labs. Most of the survivors are no worse off than Rodney, than Sam: patchy memories of the past year, fewer gaps farther back. The ones who were sickest, the ones they thought would die — they're worse off. There's one woman who woke up with no memories past her senior year of high school.

Rodney's pretty sure his memory is completely intact once he gets past the five-year mark. Teyla tells him he made peace with Jeannie, that she's visited the city, that Rodney has met his sister's husband and daughter. He doesn't remember that at all.

It isn't that they don't have all of the information they need — mission reports, personnel lists, inventories — it's that they can't access it. Some of the computers were damaged, including all of the machines in the 'gateroom and attached offices, and salvaging the drives is low on the priorities list right now. The main server is either down or disconnected somewhere, so the computers aren't networked. Individual machines are yielding some information, but many of those are password-protected.

Rodney can't help but think that they don't have time for this. For any of it. All of the memories he still has of the Pegasus galaxy are colored with urgency. He remembers the Wraith very, very well, and right now, the city would fall without a fight. They can't even run. They couldn't if they wanted to. The dialing crystal is gone from the 'gate; Teyla says that Radek had been ordered to hide it, to help enforce quarantine. There are a couple dozen gene carriers who could potentially fly 'jumpers, but only three of the professionally trained pilots are still alive. Lorne is making a particularly slow recovery — his memory hasn't suffered any more than Rodney's, but his heart, liver, and kidneys were hit hard by the combination of amphetamines and the raw, over-strong fever cure.

The infirmary has systems for creating aerosolized drugs; Teyla says Rodney had created a city-wide delivery method. If only Sheppard and Ronon had come back when they were supposed to. If only they'd come back at all.

It's strange being the best qualified pilot in the city. A little intimidating, though he supposes it's still his area of expertise: Ancient technology. The displays take him through what passes for a pre-flight checklist, and they rise through the tower and into the air before he turns the 'jumper toward the mainland.

"Did you know there's actually more land than water on this planet? In terms of surface area, I mean."

"Yes. I am aware of that." Teyla sounds preoccupied. Possibly even a little short-tempered, and Rodney supposes he would be too, in her place. Of course she knew that already. He probably told her after they first landed. Or she saw it for herself.

It takes moments to design a grid search pattern to cover the land masses, but it will take hours to fly it. They know already that there's no other (intact, functional) 'jumper outside of the city, not unless it's sunk deep in an ocean trench. In which case it's probably neither intact nor functional. Possibly Rodney should try to come up with more interesting topics for conversation. They stay silent, and watch as the landscape scrolls out beneath them.

The life-sign scans they can run from the 'jumper are useless. There are snakes on the larger continent that mass roughly the same size as a man, and the 'jumper can't distinguish between mammal and reptile. Sheppard has a transmitter somewhere under his skin, but those resonate for barely a month, reset before every mission. It will have stopped broadcasting by now. Ronon never had one to begin with; too ugly a history of being tagged and tracked to consider it. They scan for transmitters anyway, for expedition radios, for man-made sounds, for artificial shelters. They don't find anything.

They finally land at the original 'jumper's destination point — the flight plan had been logged in the flight bay terminal. It's where they found the sacks of the herb used for the cure, harvested and abandoned in the clearing. That find saved them hours, weeks ago. Those hours meant lives saved, and Rodney can't regret that they hadn't taken the time to look for anything else, then.

They don't find anything at all there, now.

Teyla runs a hand down the side of a sapling with half its bark torn away, then turns back to Rodney, frowning. "How could they leave no trace beyond what they had gathered?"

He doesn't have an answer. He didn't have an answer when she had asked before, either. There's a big, flattish rock halfway between the 'jumper and the edge or the clearing, and he drops heavily down onto it. It doesn't make as comfortable a seat as he had hoped.

She starts again. "If they had left the planet, in the 'jumper-"

"Then they'd be starving to death near the edge of this solar system by now." He's thought about it already. If they're alive, they're on the planet. They just haven't found them yet,

She leans against the tree, looking uncomfortable. The seats in the 'jumper don't usually seem to bother her, but that was a long time to sit. She doesn't look well-rested either, which probably has something to do with being penned up in the city for so long.

"Do you want to, um, take a walk? A hike? With me?" He feels ridiculous saying it, suggesting that Teyla could use some exercise, more fresh air. But maybe that would help, and, if he's remembering at all correctly, it's the sort of thing she enjoys. But she doesn't seem to have heard him. "There is no other 'gate nearby? No other planet they could have flown to?"

"Teyla…" She knows the answer to that. "We'll keep looking. I'll finish fixing the scanners, the deep space scanners, and we'll know for sure-" Know what for sure? That their corpses are floating in orbit? Damn. "The city scanners are more powerful than what the 'jumper can do. They're here, someplace. They're fine. We'll find them."

She nudges the toe of one boot against a pile of wet leaves, unearthing broken scraps of bark, and sighs. "I am not the tracker Ronon is. If there is a trail here, on the ground, it is too old for me to see. If I were lost, rather than him, perhaps things would be different."

Rodney snorts at that. He can't help it; he doesn't remember as much about Ronon, just bits and pieces, but he's pretty sure about this: "If you had got lost and Ronon had stayed in the city, we'd all be dead."

She gives him a dark look.

"No, no, I don't mean to speak ill of the, well, the missing. It's just — I don't think Ronon could have convinced me to fly the jumper here. I think it's more likely I would have," he waves a hand in the air between them, trying to convey it with a gesture to save himself spelling it out. "You know. Run away. Hidden from him. He's, he's intimidating if you don't know him. Very…large." Teyla stares at him a moment, then turns and walks away. Just leaves the clearing, and what the hell? "Teyla?"

"Leave me be." It's almost a shout, and since when does Teyla lose her temper? Rodney's impulse is to yell back at her, but this isn't sniping at each other — this is real pushed-to-the-limit frustrated anger, and he's reminded, unexpectedly, of his parents, the way they fed each other's dissatisfactions, answered anger in kind.

He takes a deep breath, lets it out. "Okay." Rodney can see her shoulders loosen at that, tension he hadn't even realized had been building in Teyla's frame dropping away as she walks into the woods and out of sight.

She doesn't come back until well after the sun has set.

He'd built a campfire, for lack of anything else to do. Well, after reviewing the puddlejumper schematics for a couple of hours. He isn't quite foolhardy enough to start taking panels apart to see if he can remember how they go back together again, but it's a near thing.

She sits down next to him, easy and relaxed, and he pushes the bag holding their dinner into her reach.

They stay quiet until she has folded away the last of the empty packaging. "I owe you an explanation."

That surprises him, and he looks away from the fire. Her face flickers in and out of view, half in shadow. She doesn't turn toward him.

"I have been helping Jennifer to relearn the medical equipment. The scanners and diagnostic tools."

"Jennifer?" Someone in medical, obviously. He frowns, trying to place her.

"Doctor Keller. She took over when Carson was killed."

"Oh." Of course. Keller. Christ, Carson. Rodney keeps forgetting he's dead. He hasn't asked about the specifics; Teyla has said it was an accident.

Teyla looks down at her hands, flat against the tops of her thighs. "I am pregnant."

"Is it mine?" And that came out of his mouth so fast he had no hope of stopping it. "Sorry. I mean. Um. Congratulations?"

It's a long minute before she looks up and turns to face him.

"Rodney." Her voice is low and serious, unexpectedly warm. "Rodney. I value you a great deal, and you must believe me when I say that I enjoy your company." Her eyes are glittering, and he worries for a moment that she's about to start crying. But no, she's fighting a smile. "But we have never — well. I have never enjoyed your company."

He thinks about being offended, but she's leaning against his shoulder, laughing, and it's been a long day.

They fall asleep in front of the fire, and when Rodney wakes up he's stiff and cold and miserable. There's a misty rain, and the inside of the 'jumper isn't warm enough to chase away the chill. Teyla was up before him, stowed the few supplies they'd used, buried the remains of the fire. Flying back to the city seems as though it's easier than flying away — like the 'jumper might return to its berth without help if he would just let go. That doesn't make the flight any shorter, though.

Teyla clears her throat delicately from the seat next to him. Funny, such a strange way to signal the end of a silence; such an anachronistic mannerism to cross over intergalactic culture lines.

"The city has no defenses, currently." Perhaps this is a topic that does require a signal, after all. Kind of anxiety-producing for the first real conversation of the day.

"That's not precisely true." Teyla arches a brow, and Rodney sighs. "Okay, fine. No effective defenses, not really, no. Nothing we could really fight off an attack with. And we're not doing that well as far as combat trained personnel go, either. I mean, really combat-trained. I could fight, most of the civilian staff, I'm pretty sure they could all fight, given enough weapons, but, yes, you're right, no defenses."

"And no scanners or other ability to detect potential threats."

"I was working on those! They're — oh, fine. We have all of the parts. But no scanners."

"No radio or other communication beyond the bounds of the city."

Rodney tightens his hands on the controls. Just because the 'jumper could fly itself home doesn't mean it should.

"No stargate."

Radek had hidden the dialing crystal. No one has managed to find it yet.

"Rodney. You do agree that we must prepare for the worst?"

She's right.

When they arrive back to the city, Rodney delays. Goes back to working on the damaged consoles, examining the progress that's been made during the trip to the mainland. Eleventh-hour saves are his specially, after all. Hiding is probably necessary, but it still seems like a really bad idea. They'll be even more cut off, from allies as well as enemies.

He can't put it off very long, though.

The chain of command in the city now is a little hazy — it doesn't follow anything like the pattern Rodney remembers, with a civilian administrator, Elizabeth, and three division heads under her: military, science, medical. Varying authority according to the situation, but generally equal. Sam seems to be in the administrator role now, from what Teyla tells them, but she's science and military both, and no one can figure out exactly how that was working.

Teyla's told them what happened to Elizabeth. That's not a mystery.

However it was working before they all got sick, it's a fair guess that it was nothing like the way they're running things now. Teyla is the de facto head of the expedition. They don't talk about it, really; putting it in words would make her look like an usurper. The fact is, in this situation they have no choice. She's the most politically capable of all of them, the best able to keep a balanced view. Even if she weren't, she's still the one who knows the situation they're in best, the only one who doesn't need to search through a pile of mission reports and databursts every time she needs to make a decision.

Rodney trusts her. He knows her. He remembers her better than anyone else in the city, remembers her laughing in the commissary, guarding him on missions, grieving at the loss of her world. If it came to a struggle for control, he'd back her. It doesn't, which is a relief — he likes Sam, remembers well enough all the times they've clashed and fought, and he thinks if she wanted control, the fight would get ugly fast. Teyla would win, of course, with Rodney on her side — the city systems aren't all functional, but he could do a lot of damage with what's working.

Instead of a struggle, though, Sam has stepped in as head of the military division. Stepped into Sheppard's role. He's grateful for that, and resentful at the same time. Sheppard should be here. Or the expedition should be looking for him and for Ronon, expending every resource to find them.

It's choices like that, Rodney thinks, that are the reason he doesn't try to take control. He knows what he'd do in Teyla's place; he knows it would be the wrong decision.

They gather in the conference room, around the awkward triangle of tables: Sam and Jennifer, Teyla and Rodney. The meeting is mercifully short.

The city is a sitting duck. They don't have many alternatives, but they do at least have power to spare for the options still available. Sinking the city would take a strong natural gene carrier, and the best candidate is still in the infirmary. But Rodney can raise the shield — a matryoshka of shields running at complementary frequencies — and he and Sam manage to put together a plan that will get a city-wide cloak into place as well. They have six months worth of rations in stores. Six months to make repairs.

If Sheppard and Ronon are out there, still, well. The 'jumpers want to come home. They'll make their way.


It worries him, how much he seems to have forgotten, how little seems to be coming back. Everyday things, actions that should be habit; even getting in and out of bed is awkward. He sleeps in a honeycomb structure, deep holes set close together, pockets in a bulkhead. With the rest of the unassigned and unattached of the ship.

Sheppard suspects he's older than most of his neighbors. There aren't any reflective surfaces smooth enough to serve as a good mirror, but the ones he encounters tell him that his hair is dark, the skin on his face just as pale as the rest of his body, barring a hard-to-see mark on the skin behind one shoulder. His hands, though — they make him think he isn't exactly a kid.

Age might explain his trouble. The men and women who sleep in his section are young enough that they don't have specialties. Larrin's told him, though: Sheppard is a flight controller, with a secondary specialty in systems engineering. Was. It doesn't mean much, with his memory wiped clean.

Sheppard sighs and tightens his grip on the handle over the entry to his bunk, trying again to tuck his body up and in.

His feet hit the wall with a thump.

"Sheppard?"

A dark hand emerges from the bunk next to his, followed by the top of Medin's head, as far as the bridge of her nose. She's blinking at him, sleepy.

"Yeah, hey. Sorry."

"S'alright." She's smiling, he can hear it in her voice, see it in her eyes. "Having trouble?"

He lets his feet drop back to the ground. It's embarrassing. He isn't weak, isn't still uncoordinated from fever. This is just — just not habit. He shouldn't have lost this. He shrugs, changes his grip on the handle.

She sighs. "You're a stubborn bastard. Just walk up the wall, it'll be quieter."

"No, I can do this. I've been doing this most of my life, right?" Some time groundside shouldn't have screwed him up this badly, even if he can't remember it.

Medin changes her grip on the edge of the entry to her bunk, shoves herself back and in, disappearing from view. "Maybe not. Maybe the ship you're from, they sleep in bags hanging from the ceiling. Maybe it's one of the ships where they sleep on open shelves." Her voice is muffled, sleepy. "Quit beating yourself up about it."

Sheppard waits to see if she'll say anything else. When she doesn't, he tightens his grip again. But this time he sets his feet quietly, one, then the other, walking up the wall as he hauls his body upward, until he can get them into the entry to his bunk and shove and twist his body to follow.

It's a narrow space, the bottom surface covered with a thin pad. He squirms his way out of his jacket, tucks it around his shoulders. He misses the blanket he slept under in the infirmary. Maybe Medin's right — maybe it isn't that this all feels unfamiliar because he's damaged — maybe it feels unfamiliar because it's unfamiliar.

If he sets his feet against the back wall and stretches his arms out over his head, his fingers just hook over the edge of the opening. The entries are all draped in black mesh — it shades the compartment, and secures the sleepers in case the antigrav fails during their rest shift. He can't stretch his arms out, otherwise — there's enough space for two, side to side, in the compartment, enough space to curl up alone or around another body, but not more than that.

It's claustrophobic.

The pad he's lying on was issued to him as soon as he was released from the infirmary. Every week he takes it back to stores to be cleaned. They expose the bedding to hard vacuum, spread out under netting in what Sheppard's pretty sure used to be a landing bay for some sort of smaller ships. He's had three duty shifts there with the sanitation crews already, unrolling the pads, waiting through the vacuum cycle, shaking the pads out and turning them over and re-securing them, putting them through vacuum again. It seems like a waste of oxygen, but apparently that's something they don't need to conserve.

Sheppard curls, fingers catching at the edges of his jacket, keeping it in place over him, and he twists a little to keep the opening of the bunk in view before letting his eyes close. He's still feeling strange and off-balance, but losing sleep over it isn't going to help.

He lies awake a long time, trying to relax, trying to let memories creep back into the darkness behind his eyes. It doesn't help.

Sheppard half-falls out of his bunk at the end of rest-shift, but it's still easier to get out than in.

"Graceful." It's Larrin, leaning against the opposite wall, smothering a grin.

Sheppard can't help his own smile in return. It's good to see her again, finally. Oldest friend and nearest kin, and even if his memories of her begin with the time his fever broke in the infirmary, well: he's still known her longer than he's known anyone else.

"Would you believe morning's not my best time?" He stretches, trying to pull the kinks out of his shoulders, before crouching to tighten his bootlaces.

She laughs, then. "You can't con me, Sheppard. I know you too well."

He's not ready when she throws the pouch at him, but he manages to catch the rations anyway, cracking the seal and eating the mash as he follows her down the corridor.

"You've been gone a while."

She arches an eyebrow in lieu of an answer. "Settling in?"

He shrugs. She doesn't want to hear about the routine he's fallen into, the days spent on unskilled labor while he waits to see if his memory comes back. "Nothing's changed."

"Yeah, I figured." She looks somber for a moment, but brightens as they turn a corner. "If it isn't coming back on its own, you might as well ask."

She'd refused to answer his questions before she'd gone, but now —

She tells him a story, the story of his life. He's grateful to be found, and by her, a friend who knows him, knows his name, knew him before. Larrin knocks her shoulder against his, an easy, companionable motion. She's obviously just as happy to have found him.

She tells him about the ship where he was born. A different ship than this, and he's kin-grouped to a third, so no, no one else he grew up with is available. No one beside Larrin who remembers him as a kid, or as a young man learning to navigate, or as a teen gaining expertise in ship's systems repair. No one else who put in time alongside him as a child, repairing and re-repairing the parts of every ship that can only be reached by small hands.

"Two circuits ago, word came down you were being transferred. You were coming here, to join my team. We were taking on new salvage. I found a ship; you were going to be part of my core crew." She leads him into a large room, dominated by a work surface, a couple of seats bolted near the long edge. "You were attached to a trading group dropped groundside. They were supposed to be establishing a supply dump before meeting up with us. None of you ever showed up at the rendezvous."

She falls silent then, and he's quiet, too. He doesn't know what happened to the people he was with, and he dreads being asked. He feels guilty for being found, for surviving if the others didn't. He doesn't even know how many others there were. Sheppard stares at his own hands, at the surface of the table. Larrin's voice startles him when she speaks again.

"You were found in a dead ship, sick and half-starved. It was just luck that you were found at all."

He doesn't know what to say to that: it's true. It still isn't much, but he doesn't want to ask any more questions if he doesn't have anything to offer in return.

Except then he thinks maybe he does have something.

He crooks a finger under his collar and draws out the chain lying against his skin, pulling it over his head and letting it fall onto the table. Larrin's eyes go a little wide. "Jewelry? Something you picked up somewhere, Sheppard? Didn't know you were the type." She reaches out and picks up the chain by one of the pendants, frowning at the inscription.

He's not sure if this was the reaction he was hoping for or not, but her puzzlement definitely means the necklace is a clue. "It's, I don't think it's decorative."

Larrin doesn't look up. "What do you think it is, then?" She starts, then, her head coming up fast, eyes narrow, pinning him. "Where did you get this?"

"I was wearing it. When I got out of the infirmary, it was under my shirt. I thought everybody had one, at first."

He can see her making a conscious effort to relax, slouching, letting her gaze drift back down to the pendant in her hand, a thin metal oval bordered in black synthetic. Seeing her so ready to anger, so obviously ready to fight on his behalf, so protective of him, even if it is too late — it's nice.

"We missed it, when you were out of it. I can't believe we missed that you were wearing this." She shakes her head a little, rueful.

"Do you think it might help us find the others?"

"What?" It's like the question surprises her. "No. It's been too long. Anyway, who knows what it means."

"But –"

"What?"

"Well, it's some kind of identification tag, though." He lifts the pendant out of her palm, flips it over, pointing at the top line of inscription. "Right there: 'Sheppard.'"

"What's the rest of it say?"

That stops him. "You can't read it?"

She looks at him like he's being an idiot. It's a look he's been getting used to seeing, but it still hurts to get it from Larrin. "No. I don't know every glyph system. You don't know every glyph system. Far as I know, no one knows every glyph system." She rolls her eyes. He can't blame her; it has to be annoying to constantly explain the obvious.

"Sorry." He slides his finger down to the second line, down to the third: reading out the nonsense words and strings of numbers carefully, watching Larrin to see if any of it makes sense to her. Or at least more sense than it makes to him.

Larrin catches the dangling second pendant between her fingers. "And this one?"

"They're identical."

"Prisoner ID, maybe?" she says. "The Sheppard part is the only line that makes sense. The rest probably meant something to those pricks who took you — think you can live with the mystery?"

"Yeah, I guess." He gathers up the chain to slip it back over his head. She wraps a warm hand around his wrist, stopping the motion.

"Hey, don't let it get to you." She looks earnest, and it occurs to Sheppard again how lucky he is to have her. "Some work camp, and you're probably better off that you don't remember it."

She's probably right, he thinks: or some lab, and he shudders.

She snorts, then. "Groundside. They probably had you grubbing in the dirt with them. I can just picture you, Sheppard. Farming. Hah!" She shakes her head, laughing, and Sheppard can't help but to laugh with her.

She lets go of his wrist then, but he doesn't pull the chain back over his head, just holds it in his palm while they keep talking.

Larrin tells him about her ship, about how she's sure his knack for repairs will come back, about how he can relearn things if he has the chance. She isn't flight-worthy yet, the new ship twenty-three, not really, but Larrin wants him to transfer over anyway.

"You're wasted working sanitation with the unassigned."

Sheppard isn't so sure. But he wants her to be right, so he says yes. Yes, he will join her crew. Yes, he will leave the only ship he remembers for one that's completely new, altogether strange. Yes, he'll follow her. She knows him; he trusts her.

They talk until work-shift begins, and she needs to meet with the ship governors to arrange his transfer. She's halfway down the hall when she stops and turns back. "The necklace."

Sheppard looks down at his own fist, still tight around the chain, then back up the corridor to where Larrin stands. "What about it?"

"Pitch it into metal salvage. Let it go. Move forward, Sheppard, with me and my ship. Get rid of it."

He nods, and she turns, satisfied that he's answered. She's probably right. He should move forward.

He keeps the chain and pendants, keeps wearing them. Even if they mark him as an experiment (because he wonders, really, about the pale, rough patch of skin on the inside of one arm, the place that doesn't look like skin at all), because without memories, he wants to keep any pieces of his past he can find, even the recent ones he's probably better off without, close.

Sixteen interminable work-and-sleep shift cycles later, and Larrin's back again, beckoning to him from across one of the big ship's bays. It's a relief to see her, a weight lifting from his shoulders. Sheppard can't explain to himself why he's so uncomfortable here; just that he feels out of step, like he lacks some internal rhythm that fits everyone else into the life of the ship. Isolated despite the overtures from Medin and the other unattached, the people he works his shifts with, sleeps alongside.

It's just: he feels cold all the time. Claustrophobic, no matter how high the ceilings are. Maybe that has something to do with flight and nav work, maybe he's used to having a viewport in front of him, or to the distraction of calculating re-entry coordinates from hyperspace. Even if he can't remember doing either. Maybe.

Maybe he's been altered somehow. Maybe it really was a lab, where he was, when he was missing. Maybe the half-imagined paranoid itch between his shoulderblades, the feeling that something's wrong — maybe it's him. The sight of Larrin lifts the feeling for a moment, makes it easy to ignore. The sight of her ship, when he stands next to her at the viewport — well. That may very well have cured him.

She's beautiful. Huge and old, a ship of the Ancestors, battle-scarred, but with all the dignity of history. She's out of another age. He thinks perhaps he's in love.

"There it is — ship twenty-three. What do you think?"

It takes him a minute to realize Larrin expects an answer. He doesn't know what to say that won't make him sound like an idiot. Thank you? That seems too small. But wait: "Twenty-three? That's what you're calling her?"

"What else would we call it?" Nonplussed.

"She's…" He trails off, then. He doesn't know. It doesn't seem right. It doesn't matter, though; Larrin's giving him this, a place on her ship, a chance. It feels like she's saving his life, like he was drowning and she'd dragged him up from deep black waters.

It's a strange image, and Sheppard can't imagine where it comes from. It's a groundside idea, drowning. An impossible alien horror, enough water to submerge in, a terrifying surfeit. He's seen the mining machinery in the belly of ship seven, the engineers crawling over the enormous rollers meant to crush the piles of debris scooped from the space at the edges of star systems, the high-pressure tanks that heat the result until the trapped water boils up out of the dust. He could cup a quarter-shift's yield in his two hands, some days; other days, perhaps a quarter-shift would mean enough to fill one of the twenty big kitchen tanks used to hydrate the mash before it's packaged.

Open water, though. He rolls his shoulders once, experimentally, thinking about how it would feel to move through it, cool and buoyant. He thinks for a moment he can imagine the sensation, a rhythmic stretch and kick, and the thought startles him into a laugh.

"Sheppard? What's so funny?" Larrin's smile is indulgent, but a little uncertain. Like she's worried about him, mystified by his silences. She deserves more than that from him, more than an alarming explanation of his latest imagined memory. The result of fever dreams, all of them. He just needs to try harder to fit with what's real. He can do it.

He lets a grin stretch across his face, slow and lazy. "When can we leave?"


"The power drain projections aren't looking good." Simpson stops talking and glares down at her tablet. She's got a crescent of scab curling over one brow. It's distracting; Rodney doesn't know where to look, and he suspects she can tell.

They're meeting to talk through the week's repair priorities; she's a decent administrative second, with a knack for stringing projects together into a timeframe that allows each completed repair to push the next forward, like an unending row of dominos. They've made a lot of progress in the past six weeks, though precious little of it is obvious to the rest of the expedition.

"They look good enough. We can't power enough systems for it to matter." Rodney managed to disconnect a full quadrant of the city from the environmentals just this morning, while trying to reroute the control systems for the tactical scanners again. He's getting philosophical about the way he can't manage to get the whole city back in working order at speed; after all, there are hardly enough people to explore most of the available space, much less live in it. "What's next?"

"'Gateroom." She sighs and scratches gingerly at her forehead before she continues. "The DHD is repaired and all of the crystals are good. I've got Marshall and his team putting together a set of proposals for bypassing the main dialing crystal, and Joensuu thinks she might have some good candidates for testing pulled from other machinery if we want to try that."

"Yeah. Okay." It's a lousy idea, and he wouldn't want to be the guy to go through any wormhole they manage that way. But if they don't find the original crystal, they don't have any better choices. "External comms are still down. There must be a snapped conduit under the floor, from when those morons ripped out the consoles. One we missed." It's bad news, and he watches her working out the implications.

"Oh, Christ. We just got them back into place." Shifting the bank of control consoles back where they were supposed to be had been a nightmare, but there's no way around it. They have to come back out if the repair teams need access under the floor.

"Exterior communications are too important to-" Rodney's just stating the obvious, but he's still obscurely annoyed when the warning klaxon cuts him off. "Damn it."

Simpson is already out of her chair, running for the door. Rodney takes off after her, flat out, heading for the gateroom. The klaxon dies just as he turns the last corner, nearly colliding with Lorne coming from the connecting corridor. The silence doesn't mean anything particularly good; just that Simpson has already made it to the top of the stairs and hit the toggle to reset the alarm. The quiet is still a relief.

When Rodney makes it to the control level, Sam and Teyla are bracketing one of the two live status displays. Lorne bumps past him on the way up the stairs to the 'jumper bay — he's the best of the remaining pilots, even if the sickness left him with a constant tremor and an inability to walk a straight line. In the air, the 'jumpers don't betray any tendency to weave on the ground.

Simpson's muttering a steady stream of curses from where she's bent over a console, pulling cables out of the jacks they're in and shoving them into new slots before turning to look at the display herself. Rodney is going to need to talk to her again about the virtues of a light touch with the more delicate connections, but not right now, because whatever she did worked: the screen flickers as new data flows in, and the reason for the alarm appears.

It's a ship. Two ships. Two big ships entering orbit. Crap.

Rodney doesn't stop to think before he shoulders Simpson out of the way to tear the double handful of cables out of the console and drop them on the floor. He's turning to grab the secondary lines from his right when she body checks him and starts plugging them in herself. She's quick, but he's quicker; admittedly, this is not the time for a competition. He tugs her tablet into place and boots up the diagnostics. The screen flickers again: all green, across the board. Well. Almost across the board: power levels glow a dim amber, but they're at the expected level.

The shield is up. The cloak is up. They're undetectable. Hopefully.

It takes four long days for the ships to finally leave. They orbit for a day, before flying a low 30-hour grid pattern over the surface of the entire planet, criss-crossing each other's paths while the city seems to hold its breath.

The tension makes Rodney want to shout himself hoarse. He can't sleep, just startles awake again and again. By the beginning of the third day, he wants to shut down the cloak just to get it over with.

He sits in one of the jumpers, instead. He doesn't initialize it — there's a chance that any change in the power levels under the cloak might be detectable — there's no way to predict what kind of technologies might be in the ships above.

"Rodney?" Teyla's voice is soft behind him, but he still flinches.

"What? Yes?" He fumbles a little with the laptop he'd set on the 'jumper's dashboard. It's going to be hard to look busy without it powered up, though. "They found us?"

"Rodney." Teyla's smile is strained, but kind. She hasn't been sleeping either. None of them have, really. "They have not found us. Their orbits were unchanged when I left the gateroom."

"Oh." Then why is she here? "So…?"

"I was only looking for a friendly face." She drops heavily into the co-pilot's seat, and Rodney sneaks a look at her waist. Her pregnancy wouldn't be obvious if he didn't know about it already. At least he thinks it wouldn't be. He knows he's not the most observant in these situations — his physics thesis advisor had given birth a week after Rodney's defense, and he'd only found out when he'd managed to get tangled in the congratulatory balloons filling the department lounge. To be fair, the newborn she was holding might have clued him in if he'd seen it first. And it really wasn't his fault that he'd thrown out the memo announcing the party without reading it. And the one announcing the birth. And the one announcing her maternity leave. He was busy collating data for his engineering thesis, after all, and he was only in the department that day to see if she would sign off on his plan to cite the first thesis in the second.

She made him hold the baby while she typed up a waiver; he was pretty sure, in retrospect, that she only did that because she wanted to make him squirm. It's a clear memory. Far enough back that it seems more real than his more recent life, the tatters that make up the tail end of his time at the Antarctic outpost and the early days in the city.

Teyla is arching an eyebrow at him when he finally looks up from her waist. Well. Not a very sneaky look, then. "Sorry."

"I am not offended by your curiosity." She sits back and sighs, letting her shoulders drop. "I am tired, and I am hungry all of the time, and I wish that we had weaponry, and scanners, and communications." She closes her eyes. "I wish that we had John and Ronon. I wish the 'gate would function and I could be with my people."

Her voice is still soft and level, but Rodney can see her eyelashes shining wet.

He leans forward to lift her hand carefully from the armrest, curls his fingers around hers. "It's going to be okay. I'll — I'll fix it. Simpson has some decent ideas, and we're making progress, and I'll, well, I'll fix it. All of it. Soon." They sound like empty promises, but her fingers tighten around his, and her expression lightens, though she keeps her eyes tightly shut.

They sit like that for a while. Teyla's breathing evens out as she falls asleep right there in the seat, her fingers growing lax in Rodney's grip. He doesn't let go.

When the ships finally move off, the tension in the city somehow gets even worse. They can barely detect objects in orbit, and that's only due to an inspired modification of the meteorological prediction programs. It's a fluke that those programs run independent of the other scanners. The ships could still be there, just beyond the moons. There could be a whole fleet out there, toying with them.

They need a better plan. A more secure position. They need to know more and move faster. They need the dialing crystal, and reinforcements from Earth, and to have not lost so much of their recent history. They need time to re-establish the internal computer networks so that they can stop relying on Teyla's incomplete knowledge. They need the dead back.

Most of what they need is impossible, or so far out of reach it might as well be. The city is a maze; surely they must have fully explored it in the past few years, created maps, marked off which parts are safe and which might not be. Where the hidden resources lie. But there's no way to tell where the maps are now, which file on which drive on what server, no way to even deduce who might originally have written the reports.

Rodney can't do much beyond bounds of the interminable list of repairs, but finally someone attached to Joensuu's team of electrical engineers makes a breakthrough. The scanner infrastructure hums back to life in a limited way — not much beyond a flow of power through tiny conduits, but it's enough for a limited look at the city.

It's a very basic structural integrity scan, but it yields some surprises. It's enough to force Rodney to leave the lab, and he re-enables the secondary transporters, offline for the past eight weeks to conserve power, long enough to allow a hike out to the big west tower in under an hour.

As it happens, he doesn't even need to walk that far. He can see the damage from a curve of balcony still a couple of kilometers away. The low, stocky structure has a chunk missing out of it. It's like something huge took a bite, leaving the ancient equivalent of girders twisted and broken in the gap. Some disaster Teyla hasn't told them about; amazing to think of something leaving this much damage, but still unremarkable. It puts things into scale. The dangers they face. Sinking the city, hiding: they don't have a choice.

It's time.


"You're humming again." Larrin's voice isn't a surprise; she's been leaning against the bulkhead that Sheppard's crawled half inside for a while now.

"Yeah, well. Part of my method." He slides the last of the crystals back into the rebuilt serial housing, then sets a hand against the floor to shove himself back and out of the duct. It's been another long shift of systems repairs, but he can't stop smiling up at her as he gingerly stretches and straightens up. Working on twenty-three has been a revelation; he still can't remember anything, can't explain anything, but the repair work: it's like instinct. A constant, gentle impulse telling him where to set his hands, what to do to fix the ship, how to prioritize tasks. It gets him strange looks, sometimes, from the rest of the core crew of the ship, the men and women who'd been starting the work while Sheppard was still missing.

Larrin smiles back, though. She's looking for something in his face, something that's missing. It's the way she always looks at him, now, and it's obvious that whatever she's looking for, she doesn't find. Her expression is shifting into something else when the radio in her jacket clicks for attention.

"Timing." She rolls her eyes and raises one hand in the air between them as the other unclips the radio. "Wait here."

Sheppard shrugs a little, feeling affable. It's annoying sometimes, the way Larrin and the rest of the crew are so careful of what they talk about in front of him. Being kept in the dark will help him remember, he reminds himself. If his memory is ever coming back, then he can't have the shortcut of having that knowledge given freely; he needs to work for it. Everyone agrees on this. None of it's come back yet. It isn't so bad today; he's still feeling certain and capable after the long shift of repair work.

Larrin has moved just far enough down the hall that her voice doesn't carry. Still close enough that he can see her expressions: listening, puzzled, weighing, pleased. She lowers the radio, clips it back on to her jacket before waving a hand, beckoning him toward her. She's grinning, flat out. "Salvage." It's nearly a shout. She's laughing. "Come on, Sheppard. They're towing it in — a ship."

They run most of the way there, careening around corners and half-falling through hatches, racing, because Larrin's excitement is catching. Twenty-three is ship enough for Sheppard. Whatever wreck they've stumbled across, he knows he won't want to leave her. But a new ship means new possibilities for all of them, whatever the condition. Better lives for all of their people, on all of their ships.

Larrin skids to a stop in front of the big viewing window overlooking the main bay. Sheppard would have beat her there, had he known it was where they were headed. It had felt good to run. Natural, easy, for all that the race had been graceless, and he can't remember the last time he ran anywhere. He can't remember ever running before.

He realizes he's moved into a series of stretches, and they feel familiar, as familiar as the running itself.

This is it. This is memory, perhaps. This is how it comes back: unprompted, intuitive. The thought surprises him into thinking about what he's doing: and it's gone, he's off-balance, all the sureness disappearing like smoke. He can feel his own expression fall, the smile slipping into a frustrated grimace.

Sheppard takes a deep breath, and steps up to the window next to Larrin. What he sees there is distraction enough from his thoughts.

"That doesn't look like salvage." The ship they've picked up nearly fills the bay, and it looks new.

Larrin's eyes narrow, but she doesn't turn toward him. She doesn't look away from the ship below. "Oh, it's salvage. Minimal power, no propulsion." She sets her hands on her hips, lets one palm slide lower to rest on the butt of her energy pistol. "If they didn't want it to be salvage, they could have taken better care of their engines."

"They?" It comes out almost a whisper. People on the ship: strangers. Like whoever had grabbed him off that planet. Not part of any of their ships, any of their kin-lines. His own hand drops past his hip, but his pistol, the one he'd woken up with isn't there. He doesn't carry it, hasn't been carrying it. Hasn't replaced the charge yet.

He will, now.

"Come on." Larrin's already moving toward the ladder that leads down into the bay, but she pauses at the top until he follows.

The rest of the crew is spread in a long arc in front of the ship when they get down to the deck. Larrin strides past them all, stopping far enough away from the ship that she must still have a good view of it.

Sheppard stopped earlier, still on the outside of the curving line created by the rest of the crew. Far enough away to see the lines of the thing — long and straight, no curves, but plenty of angles. She looks fast and sleek, and there's an echo of twenty-three in her, like the two ships are related somehow. She looks more refined, though. Newer; more advanced. Faster.

Salvage isn't the word that fits her, but oh, how he wishes it did.

Larrin is still standing in front of the ship, waiting. It doesn't take long. There's a hum, and a loud hiss, and part of the hull slides aside to reveal two people, a woman and a man. They step forward into the bay, and the hull closes up again before anyone can react.

Not stupid, then, these people.

The woman's confident, smiling easily and walking toward Larrin, her hands loose and held away from her sides. It doesn't look like she's armed. The man looks jittery, nervous and uncomfortable, but he doesn't look like a threat either. They're dressed similarly, in heavy, rumpled grey cloth trousers and jackets, the same low laced shoes on both. Contrasting panels on their jackets and what Sheppard can see of their undershirts are different colors on each of them. Denoting rank, maybe. Class, possibly occupation. Or gender. No way to tell unless they explain, not with only two of them. Doesn't matter.

Larrin and the woman are talking. Negotiating. The man is fidgeting by the woman's side, interjecting a burst of words, falling silent again. Sheppard isn't close enough to hear, but he can tell from Larrin's stance she isn't pleased.

They stand talking past the end of shift. Strategy: Larrin hasn't taken them anywhere to sit. She hasn't moved yet from where she was standing when they came out of their ship, though she'd tapped orders into the radio dismissing most of the rest of the crew. The ones who remained have drawn in close around the strangers.

The mindgames don't look like they're working on the woman. She looks like she's perfectly happy to stand talking in the middle of the bay for as long as is necessary, posture open and relaxed, face grave and friendly.

The man is a different story. His interruptions get louder, sharper. His tension is obvious and frustrated. Larrin probably thinks she's making progress because of it, but Sheppard wouldn't agree. It's just noise. It might even be their own strategy: an illusion and distraction, a discomfort to counter what Larrin's bringing to bear.

It's interesting for a while, but the ship is fascinating. Sheppard does a slow walk around the perimeter of the hull, running fingertips over the parts he can reach. The more he looks, the more he sees that reminds him of twenty-three — but twenty-three refined and perfected. She's beautiful.

By the time he makes it all the way around her hull, arriving behind the strangers, between them and their ship, Larrin is finally making motions like they may be done talking. The woman looks calm; the man looks disgruntled.

Larrin catches his eye, signals him closer. "Sheppard."

When she calls out, the man and woman both startle, though the woman covers it better. They hadn't known he was behind them.

"Meet our new guests. Refugees — "

The strangers have both turned, and the woman extends a hand to him as she starts to speak. "Elizabeth Weir."

He takes her hand without thinking. Her grasp is firm, certain. He returns the pressure, releases as she does. It feels natural enough.

The woman isn't looking away from his eyes. Like she's trying to communicate something beyond her words as she continues to speak. "And this is Rodney McKay. We're — we're from Olesia. Our planet was destroyed by the Wraith."

The man is staring at him, so Sheppard takes the excuse that gives him to break eye contact with the woman, and looks back at him. It's not an improvement. The man's eyes are imploring, like he's trying to get a message across as well.

Sheppard shrugs a little, trying to shake off the weight of their gaze. "Sheppard. Part of the crew."

Something in both of them relaxes at that. The woman continues to speak, half turning back toward Larrin. "We're grateful for your hospitality while we undertake repairs."

Damn. Not salvage at all. And just when he was starting to like the idea of the new ship.

They walk the woman ("Call me Elizabeth, please.") and man up two decks and into one of the empty rooms near what they've been using as crew quarters. Ferdan brings in trays of food for them, and the woman eats hers graciously. The man eats as well, but with a litany of complaints and boasting that makes it hard to understand the speed with which he cleans the tray. The deal seems to be that he'll work repairing twenty-three — a full load of shifts — in exchange for their berths. He's free to use his rest shifts to repair the smaller ship. Elizabeth has intel, but that's something outside the main agreement.

Sheppard's pretty sure Larrin's still working on a way to keep the ship. The current plan looks like assimilation. They're refugees, survivors of a full culling. Where else could they possibly go?

It's a while before Sheppard sees the new people again. Not that he's unaware of the impact their presence has on twenty-three; he almost feels like he can hear the repairs on the other side of the ship as the new guy makes them, humming through the ship's systems, harmonizing with whatever repair Sheppard's grappling with at the moment, bringing it closer to true. They just never seem to be in the same place at the same time. That's not out of the ordinary, though — the ships all run on three-shift cycles: work, maintenance/sanitation, and rest. It's just that his cycles have been in sync with Larrin's since he woke up in the infirmary, and now his have changed. Larrin and the new people are on Sheppard's old schedule, and the change leaves him feeling even more out of step. He isn't lonely, really — but he had grown used to Larrin's company.

Tactically it was a sound decision to sync her schedule with theirs. His displacement was just a side effect.

When he does finally see the man again, it's by chance. He's just started a work-shift, so they should be in the maintenance/sanitation cycle. Which they don't take part in, according to the agreement. Instead, they are both living and eating inside their own ship, and spend two-thirds of their time there, hidden away.

He hears the man before he sees him. There's a running commentary that includes the state of the ship, the repairs, a tangent explaining some sort of groundside society called magpies, and something about cargo cults that never gets explained but sounds derisive. Sheppard's got his upper body twisted half-way into one of the service ducts again, so he listens to the guy's voice get louder, then stop, right next to where he's working.

"Okay, yes, here's the problem," the guy says. "I should be charging overtime for this." There's a knock against the bulkhead just on the other side of Sheppard's head. "You. Come out of there."

He ignores the demand. He's almost done with this fix, after all. And it's a pain to wriggle out of the duct, then back in again.

The guy looks apoplectic when Sheppard finally does come out.

No. He looks like he's pretending to be apoplectic, but actually trying not to laugh. And he looks nervous, too. It's a lot to see on one person's face at one time.

"About time," the guy says. "You realize I only came over here to track down your incompetent mistakes out of the goodness of my heart, right? Well, and to make sure we don't all blow up when you cut the red wire, or whatever it is you're doing in there."

The guy is a real blowhard, and Sheppard takes a moment to be relieved, after all, that his shift cycles were changed. If he'd had to listen to this since they arrived, he probably would have recommended to Larrin that the two strangers be abandoned on the nearest dirt with breathable atmo. Maybe the nearest dirt whether it had atmo or not.

Sheppard slouches against the bulkhead and fakes a yawn. "Sorry, I was taking a nap. Who are you, again?"

Ferdan snorts from where he's working down the corridor. Chellis, who must be the guy's escort, sighs dramatically and pulls a pack of playing cards out of his jacket, settling on the floor within listening distance. Great. He must not be getting rid of this guy anytime soon.

When he looks away from Chellis, he's surprised to see that the guy is grinning. His back is to the others, so there can't be some shared joke Sheppard doesn't remember the context for. It startles him out of pretending to look half asleep.

"Laying it on a little thick, don't you think?" The guy whispers. Then, loud enough to carry, "Doctor Rodney McKay. You can call me Doctor McKay. Or Doctor. Or sir. Or, hmmm: Professor, that would do as well."

Huh. He lets the silence stretch out a little before answering. "Okay, Rodney."

That gets him another weird look, a crooked half-smile. Then Rodney's face changes, and he huffs out an exasperated breath. "Yes, yes, I'm sure I'm deeply wounded by your juvenile behavior." He narrows his eyes. "Now. Show me what you were doing in there."

"In — ?" It's going to be a tight fit if they are both going to be able to see inside the duct. Possible. Just not comfortable.

"Yes, in. In. There. Should I be using smaller words?"

Sheppard shrugs, and squirms back into the opening. Rodney follows a moment later, after making a another loud proclamation about overtime and adding something about claustrophobia.

It takes a lot of wriggling for Rodney to get all the way in, and Sheppard gets an elbow in the kidney, but he's pretty sure it's accidental.

"Okay," Rodney whispers, once he's finally in as far as he's going to get. "I guess I could have picked a time you were working on something a little roomier. Do they ever leave you on your own? I mean, ever? I'm not surprised I have an escort, but why are they still suspicious of you? And what are you doing here?"

Sheppard doesn't know what to say to any of that. He waits to make sure Rodney's finished, and decides there must be something wrong with the guy. It would explain the erratic behavior and non sequiturs. Sheppard can follow the parts that make sense and ignore the rest as static. "I've been repairing the nav sub-systems. Here." He points to the newly fused connections, but Rodney doesn't look.

"I'm sure your parents are so proud that you finally made it into the trades, congratulations." Rodney's voice drops again. "They aren't monitoring. They can't hear. Don't worry about it."

Sheppard frowns, and tries prompting him again. "Nav sub-systems. You said there's something wrong with my repairs?"

"Yeah, no. I mean, there's something wrong with a lot of the repairs on this bucket, but it looks like you're doing most of them, and who knew, right? Turns out you wouldn't be a half-bad electrical engineer. When we get home, I'll give you Zelenka's job, he can work full-time on the 'jumpers."

Sheppard doesn't bother trying to answer, this time.

Rodney squeezes his eyes shut. He looks like he's losing patience, or maybe he really is claustrophobic. "Colonel. Please. Just tell me: how did you manage to get on this crew? And why?"

That one sounds sort-of answerable. "I'm a pilot. I mean, I was a flight controller, and a systems engineering specialist. Larrin requested my transfer in, but, well, some stuff happened. Haven't remembered enough to pilot, yet, but she took me on anyway, as part of her crew. My name's Sheppard. Not that other thing."

Rodney is staring at him now. "Oh. Okay, wow, you're serious." He looks down at the light leaking in through the entrance to the duct. "This makes things more complicated." He looks up again. "You're never alone, though, right? There's always somebody with you, like that guy down the hall? Had you noticed that?"

It's true. He hadn't thought about it before, but he can't really claim he hadn't noticed. Sheppard nods.

"You don't think you know me, right? That's what I'm getting here, so correct me if I'm wrong?" Rodney pauses. Sheppard doesn't correct him. "So. You don't have a reason to trust me, except for the fact that I'm right. I'm demonstrably right, about this, and about most other things. No one else on the crew is under surveillance. Just you, and me, and Elizabeth. And, well, Elizabeth and I aren't really part of the crew. So it's just you. You know this ship and the technology behind it better than the rest of them put together, and they aren't admitting that to you. They can run it well enough, sure, but you're the one making that possible. And they're all pretending that you're the one doing the scutwork, right?"

Sheppard feels sick, suddenly.

"Too much at once?" Rodney looks uncertain, and maybe a little sick himself. "Sorry. Um, Elizabeth is better at this kind of thing, I mean, she'd have to be. Sorry. Anyway. Just watch. See if I'm right. And if I am? Trust me. Follow my lead, for now, and, and, we'll figure it out. Okay?"

Sheppard's voice sounds creaky when he can finally manage to speak. "Yeah, okay."

Rodney breaks into a smile. "Good. Thank you." He turns to look at the new connections, saying, "Might as well improve efficiency while we're here." He wriggles again until he can get a hand up between them. "There. That wire? Bypass this hub and connect that to this bundle, here. It'll be better. You'll be able to tell as soon as you do it." He looks at Sheppard again. "Trust me."

After that, Rodney slides back down and out of the duct, leaving Sheppard with what now seems like more than enough room to collect himself. His gut's still twisting. Rodney wants him to doubt everything, on his say so, for no reason. And the bizarre, vertigo-inducing part is that Sheppard wants to trust him. Over his own people, over Larrin, who's the closest kin he has. He takes a deep breath and decides to shrug it off. So the guy is weirdly charismatic, or something. Doesn't mean anything.

He's about to slide out of the duct himself when he figures he might as well make the changes to the wiring that Rodney suggested. He'll know if it's wrong, after all; he always does.

But it isn't. The change doesn't just feel right in his head, like repairs usually do. It feels warm. Balancing. Satisfying. It feels good.

He slides out of the duct in a panic, fast enough to overbalance and sit down, hard on the floor.

Rodney is still standing across the hall, with his arms folded across his chest and his chin raised, challenging.

"What did I tell you? I was right, wasn't I?" Rodney's face is a strange mixture of arrogance and uncertainty. Sheppard just nods. He's not sure enough of his voice right now.

Rodney turns to Chellis. "Up! Let's go. Take me to Larrin. Your repairman, here, needs some remedial training before he blows us all up, and I'm going to give her the chance to ask me to carry that out in the interests of saving all of your sad, sorry little lives."

Chellis takes his time collecting his cards from the floor before leading Rodney away. Once they've gone, Sheppard closes the hatch leading to the duct, and picks up his tools before checking the schematic for the location of the next repair.

He's just about to round the corner when he hears Ferdan getting up to follow.

Rodney's talk with Larrin must go the way he wants, because he's waiting, with Chellis, when Sheppard climbs out of his berth at the end of the next rest shift. He starts talking as soon as he's in view.

"I didn't really believe them when they told me you slept in those things. My question is: why? You know that's not what they're for, right? There are real, unoccupied crew quarters on this thing."

Rodney seems like he's genuinely curious, and genuinely appalled.

"When twenty-three gets a population and kin-lines are assigned to her, the rooms will all be converted for housing. No use in crew living anywhere other than crew berths. We'd just have to move."

Rodney blinks, once, slowly. "Twenty-three. That's what you're calling the ship?"

"That's her designation." Sheppard's starting to think Rodney mostly makes noise for the sake of it. There's a strange, easy sort of rhythm to the things he says. Sheppard isn't sure he listens to the answers he gets to the questions he asks, but he definitely wants a response. It feels like a game.

"Poetic." Rodney smirks. "Ready to start work?"

Sheppard finishes adjusting the straps on his jacket and shrugs. "Sure, professor."

Rodney laughs out loud.

For the first few shift cycles, they have extra company. Chellis is a given, and Ferdan is usually nearby, but the repairs on Sheppard's docket are also closer to the center of the ship than usual. Three cycles in a row, they spend the whole shift on panels right outside the meeting room where Larrin does ship's administration tasks. Rodney spends those shifts alternately explaining the aesthetics behind the circuit patterns and criticizing Sheppard's soldering skills. He's pretty sure the subject is meant to bore Larrin and whomever else might be within earshot, but it's actually pretty interesting.

Not that he lets on about that. Everything Rodney said is turning out to be right. Now that they don't spend time together, it's getting harder to remember why Larrin, and Larrin's approval, were so important to him before. So he plays it cool, acts annoyed, talks to Ferdan about how happy he'll be to see Rodney go, when he runs into him at the end of work shift. Mentions how annoying Rodney is to Devka, when he runs into her during his sanitation shifts. As he does. Every shift, seemingly by chance. A coincidence.

Following the three shifts outside the meeting room, assignments go back to normal. Five shifts after that, they get Chellis or Ferdan, but not both at the same time, anymore. And four shifts after that, Rodney starts shouting about Sheppard's hopeless incompetence just as he completes another perfect repair, grabs his jacket collar, and drags him all the way to the bay and right on board his ship.

Ferdan is left standing next to the hull, looking stunned.

Sheppard feels a little stunned himself.

He follows Rodney up a ramp and into a large room dominated by a low table.

Rodney gestures toward the curve of bench that's nearly flush with the floor. "Have a seat. It's more comfortable than it looks." He opens a hatch in the wall and starts to rummage behind it. "Hungry? Want a cup of coffee? It's not really coffee, strictly speaking. Actually, it's closer to chicory, but not really, and I don't know why I'm even bothering to tell you that, you don't know what I'm talking about, do you?"

Sheppard lifts a shoulder, non-committal. "I could eat." It's nearly the end of work shift, close enough to mealtime.

A few minutes later, Rodney sets three curved blue platters on the table, followed by a steaming pitcher and three cups. He taps a button on the wall before sitting down across from Sheppard.

A moment later, the woman walks in. Elizabeth. He hasn't seen her since she arrived, but she smiles at him and sits down next to Rodney.

"Hello, John. I'm so happy you were able to join us."

The food — he's pretty sure that's what the platters hold — smells strange. It's in big pieces, groundside style.

He waits a beat before he looks back up at her, just to give her the chance to correct herself. "Sheppard. My name's Sheppard." He has little enough he's sure of to let these people take his name away, along with everything else they seem so determined to throw into uncertainty.

She doesn't bat an eye. Her smile gets a little warmer, if anything. "Of course. My apologies. Thank you for joining us, Sheppard."

It isn't like talking to Larrin at all, even though Elizabeth is another woman in charge of a ship. Even though he's got a sneaking suspicion that all of this is leading up to a recruitment offer.

"Thank you. Ma'am." The honorific, if that's what it is, is out of his mouth before he thinks about it.

"You should call me Elizabeth." She stops, corrects herself. "That is, I'd be honored if you would call me Elizabeth. It's what my friends call me."

"It's what everyone calls you," Rodney grumbles.

Elizabeth's expression is tolerant and a little wry. "Pour the coffee, Rodney." She turns back to Sheppard. "I just happen to be better at making friends than some people I could mention."

Rodney sets a full cup in front of Sheppard. It's too hot to try drinking right away, but it smells strong and a little bit smoky. Elizabeth has started eating, using a curved blue spoon to cut smaller pieces out of the food in front of her. Rodney drains his own cup first and refills it, then starts eating, not bothering to make any of the chunks smaller first.

The food is just as strange as Sheppard expected. Not bad, and definitely interesting, but it takes a surprising amount of chewing before he can swallow a mouthful.

As soon as he takes a second bite, Elizabeth starts to speak. She must have timed it; Rodney has his mouth full, too.

"Rodney's told me that you've been on twenty-three for a few months, and before that you were on ship seven?"

He swallows and sips at the contents of the cup before he answers. He's not sure how they calculate months, but that's probably right, if it's how Rodney had translated the time. "Yes."

"For how long?"

He shrugs at that, and tries to figure out if taking another bite right away is too obvious a delaying tactic. It is. "Not as long as I've been on twenty-three. About half as long, maybe?"

"And before that?" Her voice is gentle. He knows she already knows he can't remember. Rodney must have told her.

"I was kidnapped from one of our groundside drops, me and everyone else assigned there. Over two circuits ago. I don't remember that part. I got away from whoever it was, though. One of our ships found me drifting in a shuttle, out of my mind with Kearsan's."

Elizabeth looks concerned and sympathetic. "Kearsan's?"

"What's a circuit? What kind of measurement is that?" Rodney nearly manages to talk right over her, not bothering to swallow his food first.

Rodney's curiosity is a little easier to take than Elizabeth's sympathy.

"It's both time and distance over a standard ice-harvest route. I could show you if you have a star chart handy."

Rodney nods and spoons up another large bite. So much for that delaying tactic.

Sheppard turns back to Elizabeth. "Kearsan's Fever. Olesia has a 'gate, right? Everyone gets it as kids. Maybe you just called it something different."

Elizabeth nods. "Perhaps. Can you tell me more about it?"

Sheppard takes another bite first, thinking about what he can tell her. He finishes what's in his cup, and Rodney fills it quickly enough that he thinks maybe he ought to be suspicious, but no. Looks like the move was really just an excuse for Rodney to refill his own cup, again.

"Childhood disease. It's contagious, and usually whole cohorts come down with it at a time. It lasts a day or two, and it's really only fatal for kids who would die anyway. It's just a fever." He curves his palm against the warm surface of his cup, and pushes his mostly-empty platter out of the way so he can lean his forearms on the table's surface and look down at his own reflection in the liquid. "I somehow managed to avoid getting enough exposure as a kid to build an immunity, so I got it again. It affects memory in adults, different amounts depending on how early it's treated. Eventually, it can kill. I was found soon enough to save, but not soon enough to remember anything."

Rodney has gone completely still, and Elizabeth's voice is quiet. "Not anything? You don't remember anything at all?"

That's what he said. He isn't going to repeat it. "So. Kearsan's. Sound familiar?"

"No." Elizabeth's voice is firmer, now. "Sheppard. Look at me." He does. Her expression is serious, grave. "We aren't from Olesia. We aren't from this galaxy. Neither are you."

That's when he throws up on the table.

For the next few minutes, the events around him are little hazy.

"I can't believe I thought you'd be better at explaining it than me." Rodney's voice is quiet, but it carries. "What the hell do they teach you in diplomat school, anyway?"

"Rodney, I don't think that's why he's sick."

Sheppard is curled up on the bench. He feels miserable, and pretty uncertain about whether he's going to throw up again or not.

"Oh, come on. Take the blame, and clean up the mess. Be a grown-up about your mistakes, Elizabeth."

"Rodney. Stop." There's a pause, then gentle hands are pushing him upright. "Come on, Sheppard. You can lie down in one of the crew quarters while I clean up here." Elizabeth's voice is quiet, but pitched to carry.

Rodney materializes along his other side, helping him along. They turn a corner, and another, and then he's lowered onto a padded surface.

The room is dim when he opens his eyes, and Rodney and Elizabeth are both standing above him. It's not a good position to be in, but as soon as he thinks it, she drops to a kneel, bringing herself to his level.

"I'm very sorry. We should have thought. When we first arrived, Rodney tried to eat your ship's food, and it made him sick, too. We should have offered you a meal that wasn't quite so…" Her mouth twists a little, self-mocking, before she finishes the sentence. "Alien."

Elizabeth leaves the room, then, and Rodney hovers by the door for a while before leaving and returning with a warm cloth and awkwardly wiping Sheppard's face clear of sweat, then offering him a cup filled with lukewarm water.

By the time Elizabeth comes back, Sheppard is sitting up, and Rodney has apologized no fewer than seven times.

She cuts him off before he manages to start in on the eighth. "Feeling better?"

He nods. It still seems like a good idea to keep his mouth shut, if possible.

"I know it's a lot to take in. Right now you only remember the life you're living now. We don't know why Larrin is lying to you, but we suspect it's because of your facility with ships like ours, and like twenty-three. You have a knack for them, a connection to the technology. You've always had that. You're a pilot, too. She told you the truth about that, and that makes me think she may have met you before you became ill." She looks down at her own hands. "You need to decide if you want to stay in the life they're offering you. It might be a good life."

"Elizabeth!" Rodney looks furious. "You can't be serious! They're lying to him, and, and-"

"We could be lying, too. Rodney. I know you trust my judgment, and I know you respect John. Let him draw his own conclusions."

Sheppard doesn't know what to think. Except that it must be nearly the end of shift again, and that Ferdan is probably still standing on the other side of the little ship's hull. Unless Devka showed up to relieve him.

He stands up shakily, but gets steadier fast. "I should go."

They walk him out, and he exchanges pleasantries with Elizabeth on the ramp. As soon as the hull cycles open, Rodney starts talking, like he's been caught in the middle of a sentence. Something about reversing polarity and oscillation overthrusters and they step out into the bay to find Larrin waiting for them.

"What are you people playing at, McKay?"

"What? What are you talking about?" Rodney honestly looks baffled. Unfortunately, he also looks guilty.

"Diverting my crew from their assignments."

"Oh, right. His very important laundry job, or whatever. Listen, Larrin — you have someone here who might, just might be capable of carrying on your repairs and generalizing improvements he makes here to your other ships. But only if you let me train him. I'm already giving up more of my time than our agreement covers." Rodney pauses, considering. "Here's the deal. I'm losing time — time I need to carry out my repairs — training your guy here to do your repairs. Instead, starting now, he and I work together. One shift on your ship, then one shift on mine. And he can clean extra toilets or whatever after we're gone, I don't care."

Larrin stares at Rodney. Rodney stares back.

She cracks first. "I'll give you an answer at the beginning of the next shift."

"That's. Well, that's acceptable. Good night." The hull opens and shuts around Rodney so fast it looks like the ship swallowed him. The thought makes Sheppard's nausea start to come back.

Larrin looks furious, and thwarted. Until she looks at Sheppard. "Wow. You look terrible."

He sighs. "Just tired." He's not going to admit he was stupid enough to make himself sick eating strange food.

"Working with that guy isn't exactly fun, is it?"

This isn't the line of questioning he had expected. "I'm learning a lot." He makes it sound grudging. Like it's hard to find the bright side of talking to Rodney.

Larrin's expression clears. "It's for the good of the ship. You're good crew, Sheppard."

He tries on a smile. "I know I'm not what you wanted when you requested my transfer. Once Rodney leaves, maybe I should try out the flight control systems, see if anything comes back."

She smiles back, but it looks brittle, false. Like a lie. Perhaps that's the way it's always looked. "Maybe."

Rodney's shift cycle changes to match Sheppard's immediately. He's pretty sure that means Rodney skipped a rest cycle entirely, but he's bright eyed and a little manic, so Sheppard doesn't say anything about it. The first few double work cycles, they really do work on the systems in Elizabeth's ship. It helps with the regular repairs, because the comparison makes the improvements Rodney has been suggesting all along suddenly obvious to Sheppard as well. The systems are almost alike, but they are a little more graceful, a little more refined on the smaller ship.

Larrin is around near the beginning and end of his rest shifts for a few cycles, asking leading questions. He's able to tell her the truth, and the things he tries to explain to her get so technical so fast that she's happy with his answers. She tells him that if Rodney and Elizabeth ever do leave, he can spend a circuit training crew. It actually wouldn't be a bad prospect, except that he's starting to suspect that he relies too heavily on the feeling of rightness when he does repairs for much of what he does to be a transferable skill.

Rodney's status seems to have gone up on the ship, as well. It doesn't take much observation to figure out that he is now considered useful as one of the people preventing Sheppard from ever being alone. On twenty-three, at least. In the little ship, he spends more and more of the shift learning the flight and nav systems, unsupervised while Rodney works on the engines.

The day he finds himself taking apart the weapons targeting system to figure out how it works, he panics halfway through and reassembles it.

Rodney walks in just as he's resealing the outer housing, and his eyes go huge. Sheppard is desperately trying to think of a good, innocent reason for taking apart someone else's weaponry, but Rodney starts talking before he gets a chance. "Did you already put it back together? I've always wanted to look at the guts of that one — do you mind if we do it again?"

He misses half of his rest shift that cycle. It's worth it.

The next several cycles are spent taking apart working systems to see what makes them tick. It turns out the little ship isn't tech from Rodney and Elizabeth's world, but something they took as a prize after a battle. Though there's some disagreement about that, sometimes. Elizabeth has occasional bleak moods when she questions — something. It seems kind of existential, whatever it is. But those are the cycles when she argues with Rodney, saying the ship is their birthright.

Rodney says Elizabeth has been through a lot.

It's one of her good days, today, though, and she's left the ship to confer with Larrin about some information she has on ship movements. He and Rodney are finishing up the latest of the engine repairs, getting ready to test the day's work, when Rodney starts to speak.

"Okay, so. I think this is one of those subjects that maybe should be handled with some delicacy, and maybe I shouldn't say anything, or I should leave it to Elizabeth, but I'm going to say it anyway." But Rodney stops there, looking down at his own hands, fitting tools back into the pack he uses to store them. Sheppard wants to let the silence drag out, but he has no idea what this could be related to, so he breaks first.

"What?"

"What?" Rodney looks up, startled for a moment. "Oh. Yes. Well." He raises his hands between the two of them, sketching vagueness into the air. "It's just — well. Can you, can you — well, can you actually smell yourself? Because you reek, and it makes my eyes sting, and I need to be able to see to work, and I was just — " He trails off, then, eyes wide, and folds his arms tight around his body, suddenly defensive. It's oddly disarming.

"I smell bad."

"Well. Yes." Rodney's chin goes up a little, challenging.

"I smell like everyone smells." But hang on — Rodney doesn't. Elizabeth doesn't. "But you don't."

"No…"

"Huh. Okay."

"It's just, well, do you, if you had a choice, and, you know, access to a shower — oh, never mind. Forget I brought it up."

Sheppard shrugs and lets it go.

Rodney doesn't, though. Not really. Next shift, he leads him back to the crew quarters Sheppard used the first time he was on the ship.

"Okay. Elizabeth tells me hygiene is culturally determined, and I'm sure I'm somehow being culturally insensitive as a result, but it's only been your culture for a couple of months, at most, so I really can't bring myself to care." He shoves Sheppard through a second doorway, into a smaller room with a highly decorated, closed cupboard in one corner. "No showers, sorry. And the baths aren't exactly standard. Well, that's not right. They are standard, for crew quarters on Asuran ships modeled on crew quarters on Alteran ships."

Rodney moves toward the cupboard and presses a latch. The side of the thing swings open, revealing wavery light inside. Rodney sticks his fingers into the light and pulls them back out, flicking them in Sheppard's direction. He looks down at the front of his jacket at the waterdrops. Water. Not light. It's a cupboard of water.

Rodney's still speaking. "Don't ask me how it works, some sort of weak forcefield or tension barrier or something. I haven't had time to take one apart yet. Also, if I did, the water would go everywhere. Obviously. The door is so you can relax once you're in, since the forcefield only holds in the water. Not bodies."

Sheppard hasn't moved. Enough water to immerse himself in. On board a ship. And he's supposed to. It's mindbending.

Rodney opens a second, smaller cupboard. Sheppard steels himself, but there's no water in the new one. Rodney pulls out a long, thin piece of fabric and tosses it at him. "There's your weird towel. Enjoy it." He starts for the door. "Oh, yes, and also: no soap. There's something in the water, makes your skin clear and your hair shiny, or something, so you don't need it. The Ancients were weirdly vain for a bunch of people who spent all of their time trying to get rid of their bodies. I'm sure you'll love it."

With that, he leaves the room, closing the door behind him.

Sheppard stands next to the cupboard for a while, poking his fingertips into the vertical surface of the water and pulling them out again. The water's warm, higher than body temperature, and it smells good. He thinks about tasting it, but that seems too ridiculous. The cupboard doesn't quite come up as high as his shoulders, and now that he's close to it, he can see that the top is uncovered. The surface of the water is strangely smooth there, too, and he tries to splash it without success. Another forcefield. Weird.

He winds up going with it. Rodney wants him immersed and clean; it doesn't seem like too much to ask.

It feels odd, but not bad. He ducks his head under without thinking it through, holds his breath and scrubs his fingers along the surface of his scalp before coming back up and blinking away the water. Then he realizes what he's done, the strangeness of it, and can't breathe until he presses his forehead against the bulkhead and closes his eyes.

After that, he gets out.

The towel is weird. Clingy and slick, but he's dry fast, and pulling his clothes back on.

When he comes out, Rodney is sitting in the kitchen, drinking more of his coffee and frowning into the distance. Elizabeth isn't back from today's talk with Larrin yet.

"Clean?"

Sheppard drops down next to him on the bench. "Yes. Happy now?"

"If that was all it took to make me happy, I would be." Rodney gets up. "Come on, let's take a look at the environmentals again."

That night, once rest-shift starts, Sheppard pulls the necklace out from under the berth's padding. It's been a while since he last looked at it, and he squirms toward the berth's entrance to take advantage of the better light. He runs a fingertip along the top line, careful not to take the glyphs there for granted, trying to be sure of them, be sure of what they spell out. His name. Sheppard. Clearly inscribed. And the second line, just as clear: John. The name Elizabeth had called him, that first day on her ship.

So. Either they've been telling the truth, or they were the people who kidnapped him in the first place. The possibility feels like paranoia, but he's trusting them, maybe too much. He got into that thing today on Rodney's say-so, hesitating because it was strange, not because he didn't trust Rodney. It's too fast, and if Rodney's a liar, Larrin is telling the truth. And if Larrin's a liar, Rodney is telling the truth.

It can't be that simple.

Sheppard waits through the next shift of work on twenty-three, mostly keeping his mouth shut, but getting more and more angry.

Rodney talks more to compensate.

As soon as they walk through the hatch into Elizabeth's ship, he grabs Rodney by the shoulder, pushing him roughly up the ramp.

"What the hell, Sheppard? What is your problem, today?"

They've made it into the kitchen. Rodney turned around to face him as soon as he had the space to maneuver.

Sheppard doesn't answer him. Instead, he twists, tugging the jacket he's wearing, his standard-design ship's jacket, up and over his head, a quick, angry movement.

Rodney's stepping back, his hands coming up in the air between the two of them, eyes wide with alarm.

"Sheppard? What-"

He turns his back on Rodney and takes a deep breath, closing his eyes against the too-close view of the bulkhead before answering. "You want me to trust you. Start telling me things. Start explaining. Start with the mark on my back."

"What?"

"That mark. If you really know me — "

"Then I'll have seen you with your shirt off? I mean, okay, I have, but I haven't looked, and I don't know what, well, it's a tattoo, okay? Hang on."

He can hear Rodney step closer, and then the warmth of a hand, not quite touching the skin over his shoulderblade. Rodney huffs a little, and the breath against his skin makes him twitch.

"Names. It's names and a place and a date. It's…I don't know, exactly, but it's something military. Men you served with and, and a posting. I think. Do you want to know the names? Because I don't know who they are, the date's ten years ago."

"No." It all seems stupid, now. He gives the jacket a shake, pulls it back on, twisting the straps back into place. Even if Rodney knew all the answers, even if Sheppard chose to believe everything he said, it still wouldn't make a difference. He trusts him already. Already trusts him more than he ever trusted Larrin, and she's a good liar, and Rodney, well, maybe Rodney and Elizabeth are lying to him, but Sheppard's got a feeling they aren't. Not a good feeling, exactly. But a feeling he wants to trust. It's enough, for now.


The city's buoyancy controls aren't functioning well enough to keep them on the ocean floor, not without the anchoring system that held it in place when they first arrived on Lantea. They don't have the time to build one on this planet, or the resources. Anyway, they aren't going to keep her sunk forever, so what they have is good enough. Or it would be, if the systems meant to regulate their depth would work the way they're supposed to.

There's a clatter from under the console where Rodney's recalibrating the servos, followed by a quiet string of curses. Simpson is on her side under the housing, curled around the coils of cable rising out of the floor. When the cursing stops, Rodney crouches to peer at her.

"Problem?"

"Just hand me the fucking calipers, McKay."

They've bounced half-under a piece of ductwork, and Rodney has to stretch to reach them, and twist his shoulder in a way that doesn't feel exactly natural in order to slip them back into her hands without disturbing her grip on the nest of wires she's been reconnecting.

She looks tired, Rodney thinks absently. He straightens back up, and finishes entering the last of the new numbers on the datapad. She doesn't look any more tired than he did, last time he was stupid enough to look when he passed a mirror. She can take it.

"Heading for the secondary controls," he says, as he presses the last key, locking the new code into place. She grunts an acknowledgment as he leaves the room.

The plan to sink the city had worked well, for the most part. Or: not well. But the main objectives were achieved. The city is under the surface, even if how far under the surface is more changeable than any of them would prefer. The shields are up, running on cyclic power that means they're more permeable than anyone is really comfortable with — they wouldn't stop high-energy weapons fire — but they hold the water out, and the air in, and they are allowing enough exchange of gases that maintaining a breathable atmosphere isn't any trouble. It's an unexpected silver lining, that they don't need to power up the CO2 scrubbers.

They only need to stay deep enough to keep from having a visible effect on the surface of the water. The sheer physical bulk of the city has stemmed and redirected the path of the deeper currents, and it might still be possible to find them by running detailed scans from orbit as a result — but only if whomever is looking has an old scan of the planet for comparison. Geologic and oceanic surveys have never seemed like quite the Wraith's style, and, according to Teyla and the undamaged segments of the expedition's database they've managed to review so far, the Replicators are too focused on their long-standing grudge against the Ancients to have paid that much attention to the rest of the galaxy.

It's working, anyway. Almost two months submerged, at least one low-orbit fly-by from a ship unidentifiable without functioning atmospheric scanners, and no one's found them.

Rodney is walking through the doorway of the room housing what they've been referring to as the secondary controls — in actuality, a previously independent system originally meant to handle the city's flight stabilizers, now working to push the city back down every time the buoyancy systems lose calibration and start to push up — when his radio buzzes, and Sam's voice is urgent in his ear.

"McKay. Control room, now."

The signal cuts back out again immediately. There are so many potential disasters, it's impossible to pick the most likely candidate as he turns and runs for the nearest hub-enabled transporter.

Simpson didn't have as far to go, but he still beats her to the control room, barely. He's at the top of the stairs as she rounds the corner into the gateroom. Teyla and Lorne are already there, bracketing Sam where she stands in front of one of the big display screens, the one with the less egregious damage spiderwebbing its surface. It's filled with pale blue-tinged static, the kind that they get when they receive a transmission and the video signal is blocked at the sender's end.

Shit. They're being contacted. They've been found.

"What's — " He's out of breath, but that's the only important word in the question, after all.

Sam's eyes flick away from the screen, then back, focusing like she thinks if she stares hard enough the static will resolve into something meaningful. "Channel opened eight minutes ago. Audio and video signals, but…" She gestures at the screen.

"Yes, yes, I see it. Blocked. Wait." It's a twist of a puzzle, coming together in his head. "The audio's active? They're just not speaking." And then, "The signal is coming from inside the city."

Lorne's hand twitches toward his sidearm at that, then up to his ear, getting ready to mobilize what troops they have. Sam nods, confirming. Simpson is still staring at the screen, visibly changing mental gears from repairs to crisis-mode. It's out of character for her; maybe she's more exhausted than Rodney had thought. Her second wind will hit soon enough, if they need it. Not that there's much chance they won't.

Teyla has turned toward him, waiting to hear if he has more to say. Huh. Maybe he's more tired than he'd thought as well. He doesn't have anything else to offer. Not yet. He shoves the tech away from the nearest console. Sam takes the next closest, and together they start analyzing the signal.

It takes Rodney just over a minute to determine that the signal is being produced by Ancient equipment. And Sam confirms twenty seconds later that while the signal has a handshake connection with the city systems, it isn't actually coming from a city transmitter. Simpson is still lagging a little, but she's the one to pinpoint it: the signal is originating in a jumper, in the main bay, the one right over their heads.

Lorne is already ordering troops into place, and Rodney keys his admin override into the console, locking the bay down, securing both the bulkheads that would allow a jumper up and out of the tower, or down into the gateroom.

"We're sure it's not — " Rodney's looking at Lorne, who's right in step with his thought.

"All the gene carriers are accounted for. It's not us." Lorne's tremor is barely there. Overridden by adrenaline, probably. Good to know he'll probably be able to shoot straight, if it comes to that.

Rodney feels a sudden pang of regret that he doesn't usually wear his own sidearm around the city. He's going to need to go up there with them, and it would have been nice to go armed.

"Okay." He stands up, scrubs his hands together. "Okay, here's the plan."

"Wait." Teyla's voice is firm; she hasn't spoken since the whole analysis started, which isn't like her.

"What? Why? We're being invaded, or possibly robbed. Or, or, carjacked. Burgled?"

"Rodney. No, I don't believe we are. Whomever is up there, they have not tried to enter the rest of the city. They have made a first gesture toward communication. A strange one, yes, but it is not threatening." She turns to look at Sam, Lorne, Simpson; then back to Rodney. "We must meet that gesture with one of our own."

"We can't — it could be anyone. Anything." He can't get around the way that they've spent months trying to repair the city and keep her hidden. Months trying to stay safe and now someone or something has walked right in like they'd set out a welcome mat instead.

Teyla takes a step toward him, then stops. "I know. We will keep the bay secure. But we will meet an open hand with an open hand, until we have reason to do otherwise."

Sam nods, slowly, and Lorne looks non-committal. Simpson has her head in her hands, massaging her temples. He's outnumbered.

"Okay." He sighs. "Okay. So what's the plan?"

Teyla smiles. "We say hello." She steps up to the communications panel and presses the key to open the channel, not bothering to block video. Rodney might have blocked it out of spite, but he sees what she's doing, upping the diplomatic stakes, challenging whomever is up in the jumper bay to show their faces in return. There's not much in the gateroom that isn't evident already from a jumper's scanners, anyway.

She turns her face toward the video pickup, unruffled mask in place, and speaks.

"Hello. If you have peaceful intent, then welcome to our city. I am Teyla Emmagan, of Atlantis, late of Athos."

Sam tugs Rodney's sleeve and cuts her eyes at Lorne. The three of them fall into a line behind Teyla, just in time for her to finish her introductions. "I am in the company of Colonel Samantha Carter, leader of our military, and Doctor Rodney McKay, also of Atlantis, with whom I share direction of the city. Also with us is Major Evan Lorne, Colonel Carter's second."

There's a long pause. At least it feels long.

The screen flickers as the video feed comes to life, and the image resolves a beat after they hear the voice.

"Hey, Teyla." John Sheppard is grinning at them from the seat of a jumper, looking tired and rumpled and pretty much just like Rodney remembers him. Lorne and Sam still look confused, but they'll catch up later.

Rodney pushes forward, toward the screen, to stand next to Teyla. "Where the hell have you been?" He wants to hug Teyla, suddenly, but settles for setting a hand on her shoulder for a moment. She catches his hand as it drops and squeezes it between her own. "I was right. You're fine, and you had the jumper, and that's why we never found it, and you're fine, and-" But. "Where's Ronon?"

John's face goes blank, like he's surprised by the question. "Ronon. He's not with you guys?"

Rodney snaps his fingers and points at the screen. "Oh, okay, yes, right. That's what we need to know first: how much do you remember? You're in a 'jumper, so presumably you remember those, so — or did you just teach yourself to fly them again? No, no, you remembered Teyla. So. You remember the first year, here?"

John nods, slow and deliberate.

"And you know who Ronon is. Obviously. Um. Elizabeth?"

John doesn't react, except to look puzzled. It's as good as an answer.

Rodney winces a little. Maybe Teyla can be the one to tell him about Elizabeth.

"So you remember about as much as I do, then, probably. What did you do with the plants, the, what do you call it, the cure?"

"The enchuri." Teyla's voice is soft.

"Yeah, the enchuri. What, did you eat it?"

John's eyebrows go up at that, and he shrugs. "Look, McKay. I love to spend my afternoons talking on the phone as much as the next guy, but…"

"Oh. Why are you still up there, instead of down here?"

John sighs. "Well, I'm locked in, to start with."

"Ah. Of course." He turns to Lorne, who still looks confused. "It's Sheppard. Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard. He's your boss. He's back. I'm pretty sure you like him. Liked him. Will like him. The guy in the polaroid, remember?"

The polaroid has been tacked up on the commissary wall since they found it in Lorne's pocket after the crisis was mostly over. Along with the photos they'd found in unoccupied quarters of people they hadn't been able to put names to, and all the pictures they had of the people dead from the fever. Not quite a memorial, in the grieving sense, but meant to serve in lieu of memory.

Lorne nods. His shakes are back. "We'll escort him down. If you'll disable the lockout, Doctor?"

"Yes, of course, but I'm coming with you."

"And I." Teyla looks shaken, only turning from the screen showing John for long enough to speak, then turning back.

"Oh, come on." Lorne's formality slips away like it was never there. "We still have no idea who's up there." He raises a quelling hand before Rodney can interject. "Yeah, doc, I know. 'Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard, he is your CO. Trust him.' I know. But there could be fifty guys up there with guns pointed at his head. Unless the internal sensors are online again?"

Rodney slumps a little at that. They can get them to work, have got them to work, but the city systems are all interconnected, in a ridiculous, all-or-nothing approach to technology that he's starting to hate the Ancients for. They almost made up for it with an equal devotion to redundancy, but not quite. Or at least not when it comes to the kind of strange, hard-to-find human-created damage they've been dealing with for the past couple of months.

Teyla turns and starts walking toward the stairs leading up to the bay. "So we will stand behind you when you open the door, Major," she calls back over her shoulder.

"Crap." Lorne rolls his eyes, just barely, in that sneaky Air Force way that he thinks no one can see. "Yes, ma'am."

When the door does open, the bay looks normal, except one of the recharging berths that had been standing empty now holds a 'jumper with dark scarring etched down the near side.

The marines fan out into the room in overlapping stages, staying away from the 'jumper, but covering the open areas.

"How do you guys want to handle this?" Sheppard's voice is raised, not quite a yell, just loud enough to be heard all the way over at the doorway, where Rodney and Teyla are standing. "You want me to walk out of the 'jumper, or do you want to keep me contained while you check for threats, or what?"

It's the right thing to say, apparently. Rodney can see the tension slide away from Lorne.

"You can come on out, sir." Lorne lowers his gun. The marines not carrying stunners lower theirs as well. The guys with the stunners keep them trained on the open 'jumper hatch.

"Okay. Leaving my sidearm on the seat, got my hands over my head, and now I'm walking out." He moves into view on the last word, and it really is him. Two of the marines slip behind him and into the 'jumper. They come right out again, and signal to Lorne.

John's still standing in the middle of the bay, looking generally affable toward everyone, when Lorne turns toward the door and calls out that it's clear. Teyla takes off like a shot, halfway to John before he manages to get his hands down from the top of his head. Rodney's a little slower, but not so far behind her that he can't hear John's hissed "Holy shit, pregnant?" and Teyla's laughter in return, like she's just played the best team practical joke in the long history of team practical jokes. And Rodney can remember enough to know hers were always the most successful anyway.

They manage an hour of talking in the conference room, Lorne, Teyla, Rodney, and Sam, getting John caught up with what had happened in the city while he'd been missing, before Jennifer shows up at the door to remind them all of the med protocols for expedition members returning from extended missions.

John looks tense at the prospect. Or maybe at the unfamiliar doctor.

"Carson — " This is harder than Rodney had expected. "Do you remember what happened to Carson?" Rodney doesn't, of course. It's not one of his handful of relatively recent memories.

John's face is expressionless. "What happened to Carson." It's flat — neither a question nor an answer.

"He died. He's dead. Not from the fever, from something else, before. Six months before?" He looks to Teyla for confirmation, and she nods. "Jennifer, who was just here? Doctor Keller? She's been CMO since then. Apparently. She's okay. Oh, hey — she keeps dum-dums on her desk. So, you know, you'll get a sucker out of the bloodletting and embarrassing examination deal."

John grimaces at that. "You really know how to find the silver lining, you know that, McKay?"

Sam and Lorne make their excuses, but Rodney and Teyla have sat next to John through more post-mission medical exams than, well, more than Rodney can remember, but extrapolating the number he can remember and generalizing it over the years that he can't results in a fairly impressive count. Enough that they know when to turn away, and when to turn back, and when to distract whomever is going through one of the less comfortable procedures. Not that any of those are on the docket today. Jennifer takes blood, and does all of the normal stuff: checks blood pressure with an actual cuff, takes John's temperature, looks at his reflexes, peers into his eyes and ears. Asks him embarrassing questions after glaring at Rodney and Teyla in an unsubtle attempt to make them leave the room. They don't go, since John mostly pretends he can't hear the embarrassing questions, just like always.

When the Ancient scanner Jennifer uses to analyze blood samples chirps to signal the end of the cycle, John jumps down from the exam table and beats Jennifer to it. He's leaning against the edge of the console, looking impatient as she walks over.

"Why so eager, Colonel?" Jennifer doesn't remember him at all, apparently. But then, she says she doesn't remember much after her residency. It could be worse.

"Well, Doctor, it seems I cured myself of a deadly fever. I'd kind of like to know it's out of my system." John turns and leans to watch her pull up the results. He sets one hand flat against the surface of the console and looks down over her shoulder.

He really does look nervous about it. Tense.

The screen flickers a little as the results come up. Probably all of the medical equipment could use a diagnostic. Some day, when the rest of the city isn't falling down around their ears.

"You're clear. Healthy blood, as expected, no disease, nothing that wasn't there before your trip." Jennifer smiles at John, and he smiles back at her while she pulls the sample vial out of the reader and puts it into a vacant slot in the infirmary samples freezer.

"That's a relief." He straightens, only dropping his hand away from the console when Jennifer finishes porting the results to her files and powers it down. "I can get dressed now, then?"

Jennifer smirks a little at that. "Yes, you can get dressed."

"McKay said I get a lollipop."

Jennifer stops short at that and stares. "Suddenly the notes in your file start to make sense," she says. "Hang on, I'll get the jar. Yes, Rodney, you can have one too."

They walk John to his quarters, which are, presumably, just as he left them, the day they all fell ill. He looks around the whole time, like he's forgotten what the city looked like. John steps through the door with a little back-handed wave and a yawn, and when the door closes, the last view they have is John turning in place, looking the whole room over. Like he's searching for what changed, in the months he's been gone.

Wherever he was.

Rodney frowns. Where was he, anyway?

"Rodney?" Teyla is halfway down the corridor, heading for her own quarters, but she turns back when she sees that he's stopped. "What is it?"

"Where was he? Where's he been all this time?" There just aren't that many possibilities.

"He will tell us in the morning." Teyla's smiling at him, gentle, like she's humoring him.

"You don't get it. There aren't — we checked the mainland. If he had the 'jumper, and it wasn't destroyed after all, and he was on this planet, we would have found him. We would have."

"Rodney. It has been a long day. They have all been long days, but this one has been more exhausting than most." She catches one of his wrists in her hand and tugs, gently. "It's time you rested. John will tell us in the morning, and it will be obvious, and you will feel very foolish for not hiding that you couldn't determine the answer on your own. And I will remind you that no one thinks clearly without sleep. Again. As I have many more times than I can count when I am as tired as I am right now." She tugs on his wrist again, to the side this time, and he realizes she's led him all the way to his door.

Teyla drops his wrist to pass a hand over the sensor, and the door opens. He really is tired. Everything is starting to seem a little hazy and disconnected, and that's never a good sign. She tugs at one of his elbows to turn him, and he lets her do it. It's easiest, really. She shoves gently at the center of his back and he walks into his rooms. Huh.

He turns back, then, just in time to see her reach for the sensor again. The door closes, but he can still hear her. "Sleep well, Rodney. John will tell us in the morning."

Rodney does sleep pretty well, actually. He usually does when he's let himself get as exhausted as this. But John doesn't tell them anything.

He's in the commissary by the time Rodney stumbles in, searching for coffee. John's standing in front of the wall of pictures, sipping from his own mug and examining the faces on display, one after another. Rodney stands next to him for a minute without speaking. The polaroid is still up, and he almost reaches out to pull it down, before thinking better of it. They should wait until everyone's used to having him back again. It's going to be weird for the people who don't remember him, having a strange face in the city.

He is your CO. Trust him.

"Colonel. Where — "

John cuts him off. "We need to find Ronon."

"Oh. Well, yes. Or. Find out what happened to him." Rodney isn't so sure they're going to find him. Not sure enough to get his hopes up, at least.

"Finish your coffee. I'll get Teyla and meet you in the 'jumper bay."

Rodney doesn't remember John being quite this terse, before.

John's all ready to herd him and Teyla into the 'jumper he arrived in the day before. But no. He's been gone for months, and Rodney and Teyla, and, well, okay, Sam, and Jennifer, and at this point Lorne, too, and Simpson, and Darnel, and Escovido, and Naeem: they've all been running the city just fine without him. Fine might not be exactly the right word, but under the circumstances, considering no one else has died since they got the fever under control, it fit well enough. The point is, somewhere along the line, the administrative hierarchy lost cohesion, and John can't just step in at the top. There isn't really a top anymore. Teyla's the closest thing they have to a leader, and she seems to do that from someplace in the center, not from above.

And anyway, Rodney's as happy to have John back as everyone else is. And they know he's the genuine article, and he seems like he came through the fever as well as any of them. But no one's ruled out brainwashing, yet.

It occurs to Rodney distantly that he must still be tired if he's being this paranoid. But what the hell, right? So he marks John's 'jumper officially out of commission until they get a chance to check her for damage, and leads Teyla to the 'jumper they used on the last couple of trips. John doesn't have a choice other than to follow them.

"Oh, come on, McKay. You are not piloting."

He could have predicted that response. "Take a seat, Colonel. You'll run a better scan if you don't have to think about flying at the same time."

John sighs, but he drops into the co-pilot's seat. It's strange to look over and see someone other than Teyla there, but then, she can't do the scanning, and the last few times they'd done this, it was all about hovering, running a scan, flying 500 km, and starting the process again.

Rodney turns to look at her, sitting behind John. She smiles when she notices, but she looks nervous. Rodney's nervous, too. With John along, it's far more certain they'll find Ronon, if he's someplace on the planet. But it doesn't make it any less likely that they'll be finding him in corpse form.

"Come on, McKay. Sooner we leave, sooner we find him, sooner we get back. Maybe in time for lunch."

Rodney pulls the jumper into a vertical ascent, and activates the hatch at the top of the tower. "You think? Really, by lunchtime?"

John smirks at him as they pass through the thin membrane of shield and rise up through the water. "Never know until we try."

The flight to the landmass is brief, which turns out to be sort of annoying, since John uses the time to start trying to tease the identity of Teyla's boyfriend out of her. Pretty unsuccessfully, but he's managing to make her laugh harder than she has since they sank the city. It's nice to hear.

As soon as they're over land, though, John starts pulling up displays, one after another. It's dizzying, one scan laid over another, filtered through a third, a fourth. Rodney has to look at the HUD in glances once he gets course and altitude set. He's pretty sure he could cope with the sheer amount of data just fine, but not with the view of land rushing by under them at the same time.

But he forgets that worry once he starts to pay attention to what John's actually scanning for.

"The 'jumper does that? How did I not know it does that?"

John's smile is distracted and brief. He doesn't look away from the screen, where he's building a map that filters the presence of trace elements by temperature, and then filters those results by lifesigns, filtered by size, filtered by presence of a detectable heartbeat within a narrow range of tempos. The data coming in is collated, dispersed, recategorized; sliced into narrower segments, compared in three dimensional displays. It's far beyond anything Rodney's ever managed to coax from the displays, and whatever his motivation for making Sheppard take shotgun, it was the right thing to do, if this is the result.

It takes one hour and two minutes to find Ronon, near the south-eastern edge of the land mass. According to the 'jumper, he's alive, and moving, and healthy, and hasn't lost any weight, though a funny amber cube starts to spin in the bottom corner of the screen that Rodney's pretty sure means Ronon could use more B vitamins.

They do a slow fly-by, in the hope that he'll notice, and not think they're sneaking up on his position. The odds that he's been alone, living off the land for months, and still left his pistol on the stun setting just aren't good enough to risk. They don't see him, but it's really all they can do.

In the end, they land about half kilometer from his position, and walk. They don't try to be quiet, and they don't split up. Rodney carries the life-signs detector, and he watches as the dot tagged as Ronon moves away from them, then loops back in their direction, fast. If it weren't a sunny day, and they weren't standing in the middle of what can only be described as a glade, he'd be having Aliens flashbacks.

"Okay, stop." Rodney keeps his eyes on the display, and raises one hand.

"What?" John and Teyla both turn to look at him.

"He's straight ahead of us. Just past the tree line."

John turns and yells. "Ronon? Buddy, we're here to pick you up."

There's no answer.

"Oh, very nice, Colonel. He didn't spend the afternoon at the mall. Presumably he's been out here doing, doing whatever he does, whatever people do when they're the only human being on a land mass for months, since whenever you went wherever you went."

John ignores him and yells again. "Hey, Ronon? Sorry about whatever. I mean, if I have something to apologize about. I was sick. For a while, I guess."

More silence from the trees.

John takes a step forward and stops before trying again. "Teyla's here! If you're pissed off at me, I mean."

"Hey, me too." Rodney hisses. He thinks about calling out, but he can't think of anything to say to Ronon. Not after failing to find him for so long, when he was on the planet the whole time. The whole situation reminds him, vaguely and uncomfortably, of trying to reconnect with Ford.

"Crap." John looks frustrated, like he thought this was going to be easy. Rodney's not exactly what you'd call a student of human nature, but stranding the guy who was only starting to get over being alone for seven years probably wasn't a great move. Stranding someone with Ronon's history on a continent with no access to a stargate or any other transport, even worse.

Teyla steps past John. "Ronon? We searched for you, many times. We did not have John to help us until today. We worried that you were dead, or hurt. We missed you. I missed you." She turns to look back at John and Rodney. "Go back to the 'jumper, and bring it to the clearing."

John looks at Rodney. "Were you paying enough attention to find your way back to it?"

Rodney looks back, nonplussed. "Not really, not that it matters. You're the one who left him, you should go."

"Both of you." Teyla's voice is low, but Rodney can hear the snap in it that shows up when her temper is fraying.

"Okay. Let's go, Sheppard."

"But — " Sheppard either doesn't hear the impatience in Teyla's voice or doesn't know what it means. Rodney's been working with her closely for months, though, with Teyla in charge of the overarching decisions, and that gives him a different perspective than he had as her teammate or as her friend. Now is the time to listen. Later might be the time to argue, but right now it won't do any good.

"No, come on, Teyla has a plan, and part of her plan is that we need to go." He looks at her for verification. "Right? Right."

John looks mutinous, but gives way. He turns and starts walking back the way they came.

By the time they get back with the 'jumper, Ronon and Teyla are sitting together on a little rise to one side of the glade.

"See?" He hisses the word at John, but John's already out of the pilot's seat and striding through the door. "Hey! Wait!"

John stops as soon as he rounds the corner of the 'jumper, and just stands there. Rodney isn't quite sure what to do now; stay there next to him or go over to Teyla or sit in the 'jumper. Ronon looks angry and a little uncertain, but Teyla has one of his hands in both of hers, and she's speaking to him, but not at a volume that carries.

Eventually she releases his hand and he rises to his feet, then turns back toward the trees. John actually flinches at that, but he stands still while Teyla makes her way to the shuttle.

She's already walking past them when she starts to speak. "He is collecting his possessions. We will wait here." She comes back out of the jumper holding a bottle of water and one of the folding camp chairs. She snaps the chair open and sits down in the shade of the jumper with a sigh, then gets right back up and hands the water bottle to Rodney.

"I will be a moment."

Sheppard just stares until Teyla's halfway to the trees, heading in the opposite direction from the one Ronon took. "Where's she going?"

The camp chair is there already, so Rodney sits down while waving his free hand through the air in a vague, explanatory fashion. "You know. With the thing, and she, you know." It's weird for Rodney to have a better read on Teyla's behavior than John does, but John looks possibly more confused now than before. It's stupid to have to say it, but it's also stupid to feel like it's some sort of indelicate topic. Still, he checks to make sure she isn't on her way back before he actually speaks; sometimes she's improbably fast. "Peeing. Pregnancy. She, um, you know."

John looks a little green, and goes to sit inside the 'jumper.

Ronon doesn't really speak to any of them during the 'jumper flight back to the city, at least not until they start their descent through the water. John's flying, so there's nothing to stop Rodney turning around when he hears the bitten-off exclamation.

"Under water?" For the moment, Ronon's lost the measuring look that Rodney sort of remembers from back when he first arrived in the city. The look that said he might move on at any moment, that he was grateful for the surgery and the hospitality, but there was nothing tying him to them. Right now, he looks a little shocked. His voice is rough. "Thought you couldn't do that."

"Not really?" Rodney's happy the silence has finally broken, but this isn't the most flattering subject. Not to him, or to the city. Ronon stares at him.

"We, a lot of things were damaged. During the fever. It takes some doing, but keeping the city underwater is helping to keep us safe. We don't have scanners, and the shields aren't really one hundred percent, and we can run the cloak, but the diagnostics aren't as dependable as they should be, so, so this helps." The light inside the 'jumper brightens as they enter the bay. The measuring look is back.

Introducing Ronon to Sam and Jennifer is strange; he obviously knows them both, but stares a challenge at each. Sam sets her jaw and stares right back, but it makes Jennifer stammer and drop pieces of equipment during Ronon's medical check. She'll live; Rodney can vaguely remember Ronon pulling the same crap with the science staff when he first arrived in the city.

The stare is aimed at everyone indiscriminately later in the mess, where Ronon piles a tray impressively high. Disturbingly so, as they've actually been, well, rationing the rations. Rodney thinks about saying something, but Teyla can throw herself on that grenade, if she thinks it's necessary. She's just smiling, though — calm and serene, walking between the expedition's two prodigals.

It turns out that saying anything is unnecessary.

"You're short of food." Ronon's eyes are bright, moving from Teyla's tray to Rodney's, then up at both their faces. John's sitting at the end of the table; his posture stiffens a moment with surprise, then relaxes again. So he hadn't caught on to that yet, in the time he'd been back.

"No, Ronon." Teyla's voice is kind, reassuring. "We are unable to use the 'gate, and are relying upon our stores. But we have enough, for now."

Reassuring isn't a tactic that works for Ronon anymore, apparently. He stands abruptly enough to upend his chair and walks out of the mess.

They catch up with him again in the 'gateroom, pacing the floor just beyond the line marking the splashback zone, frowning at the lone tech in the gallery above. Teyla takes a seat on the staircase, and John walks toward Ronon, stopping halfway there when the frown drops to target him. There's no obvious course, but it seems weird to leave Teyla alone on the stairs, so Rodney sits next to her, and tries to look as at ease as she does.

He keeps pacing long enough that John finally gives up on standing in the middle of the room and sits down with them, next to Rodney and a step above.

An hour later, Ronon is standing in the middle of the 'gateroom, arms folded, staring at the 'gate, when he speaks. "Doctor Zelenka."

Rodney raises his head, waiting for Ronon to say something else. John drags his boot heel across the edge of a step and looks expectant. Teyla speaks first.

"Yes. He was charged with hiding the main dialing crystal. We have been unable to locate it."

"He can't find it?" It sounds like a challenge. An accusation.

Rodney drops his head back into his hands and listens for Teyla's answer.

"Radek did not survive the fever, Ronon."

It's long minutes before Ronon turns to look up at the gallery again. He makes a stabbing gesture in the direction of Joensuu, who had the misfortune of turning up to work on the consoles during Ronon's contemplation of the 'gate. "You. You're the right size. Follow me." He turns away without waiting for her answer, and walks out of the room.

Rodney stands up a little unsteadily — the steps aren't an uncomfortable place to sit, until you stop sitting and realize you've lost feeling in your ass — and offers Teyla a hand up as soon as he's confident she won't just pull him over. Joensuu is still standing above them, looking uncertain. He has a feeling he knows where this is going, and she's actually a pretty good choice for it. "Come on, you heard the man. We're all going."

Joensuu comes down the staircase then. John stands up when she passes, and trails them out.

They start at Radek's quarters. They've been pretty thoroughly searched already, and there was never any real chance he would have kept the crystal there anyway. Doesn't hurt to look again, though: Ronon's impressively thorough. Then the labs, upending tables and shifting desks before Ronon pops a panel away from the wall and boosts Joensuu into it. She backs out of the fourth duct they try with a triumphant smile and cobwebs in her hair, pulling her collar askew to reveal the dialing crystal tucked into her jacket.

"Give me that." Rodney makes a grab for the crystal, but Teyla knocks his hand aside before he's managed to get a grip on it. Her "Rodney!" is almost drowned out by John's "McKay!" — they're both using their stop-offending-the locals voices, which is enough to make him realize that sticking his hands down a subordinate's shirt probably isn't something he can get away with.

"Fine. Your priorities are hopelessly skewed, all of you." He folds his arms, tucking his hands ostentatiously out of sight. "I'm sorry I forgot you have breasts. Hand me the damn dialing crystal."

It's the work of a moment to slot the crystal into place beneath the DHD, and Rodney finds himself standing over the console, his hands drifting from one symbol to another, indecisive. They'd checked and re-checked the connections over the past months, and he knows all that's left is to dial. But they're still vulnerable — one of the disused alpha sites, maybe, or one of their early trading partners, a stable world with food to trade. Or —

"Rodney, please." Teyla's voice is low and surprisingly close, and she closes a hand around his wrist. The gateroom is half-filled with personnel, those who caught on that there was something happening when they were searching for the crystal, and those who heard later and dropped their work to see if it was true.

Rodney frowns around at the faces, ranged around the safe zone of the lower level, looking up at him. Teyla gives his wrist a squeeze, then shoves him sideways with a twist of her hips.

"Hey! Unfair use of — " He gestures at her belly as he steps back, but he stops speaking when he sees the look on her face: raw and anxious. More impatient than he ever remembers seeing her.

"My people, Rodney. We must contact New Athos." She presses the symbols quickly, with enough force that the thump of her fingers against the keys is loud in the room. Light splashes from the wormhole, and Rodney sighs at the relief that it's working, and at the thought that they will have help soon. The Athosians are a good choice, too: not so much trading partners as friends. This is where it gets easy.

Rodney opens the audio channel, and nods for Teyla to go ahead.

An hour later, and they're sitting in Elizabeth's office. Sam's office now, he reminds himself, though no one has been using it. With the dialing crystal missing, it hadn't been particularly convenient to anything, and Teyla has been organizing personnel and holding meetings in the big conference room.

"We should go." Ronon hasn't said much beyond that, but it doesn't make his argument any less compelling. The lack of radio contact could have meant anything, but the MALP they sent through after hadn't provoked a response either.

"Yeah, buddy, I know, all I'm saying is that we need to be prepared, and think about this first." Sheppard and Sam have been talking through a list of personnel who remember enough of their training to go off-world and can handle themselves if a diplomatic situation develops. There are twenty-odd names so far, and they've moved on to talking numbers.

"No, I mean: we should go. Now."

Sheppard looks up again, exasperated, but Teyla stands before he has a chance to speak.

"Yes." She turns and walks out of the room, and Ronon gives Sheppard a flat, distrustful look before he follows her out.

Sheppard and Sam both turn toward Rodney, but he's already standing himself. "He's right. And you can talk about which soldiers to send all day, it isn't going to matter. Teyla's going, and you know Ronon's going, and I'm going, too. One of you should stay here, and one of you should come with us, probably, and four of us was enough before, so briefings and personnel meetings don't look like preparations, they look like delays, and you should know that."

"Rodney, Teyla shouldn't go." Sam raises her hand to stop him speaking before she continues. "I know she has to, and I know we can't stop her, but I think what you're likely to find — " She trails off.

"That's why she needs her friends with her. Her family." He looks at Sheppard, who is frowning down at his boots. "Sheppard, come on. We'll take a 'jumper."

"Yeah, Rodney, I don't think that's such a great idea. Me and Ronon in a small space right now."

"Oh, get over it. Let's go." Rodney walks out of the room, then, to get his gear, and when he gets to the 'jumper bay, Sheppard is already doing pre-flight, Teyla sitting beside him. Ronon is pacing outside the 'jumper, but follows Rodney up the ramp when he boards.

The flight over the settlement is silent. There's no one in sight, even though local time is late afternoon. There's loose trash between the structures, and a few of them are in obvious disrepair, even seen from above. Sheppard lands the jumper near the edge of the cleared space, and turns to Teyla before dropping the ramp.

"Teyla, listen."

She draws her sidearm as she stands, thumbing off the safety and moving toward the back of the 'jumper without acknowledging him.

"Fine. Whatever." Sheppard sighs ostentatiously and palms the door release as he rises.

The sunlight is bright and warm outside the 'jumper, and the birdsong seems loud in the otherwise quiet afternoon. Teyla and Ronon have split off in different directions, circling the small buildings cautiously before entering, leading with their guns. Rodney tugs the life signs detector out of his vest, dials up the scale to show the whole settlement, and watches the four glowing dots for a moment before dialing it up further, to five kilometers, then ten. Still just four. There's no one else here, or no one else alive.

Sheppard leans over his shoulder to look at the screen, then walks off, shaking his head as he starts to explore the buildings that Ronon and Teyla haven't surveyed yet. Rodney shoves the life signs detector back into his pocket, pulls out his flashlight, and looks into the nearest structure. There are toys scattered across the floor, the wooden puzzles the Athosians give to small children. Pieces big enough to gnaw, but complicated enough to hold interest. Farther back, past the hangings that divide the public and private spaces of the home, the sleeping pallets are undisturbed, but the storage space is broken open, and grain is spilled across the floor. There are footprints, but all from small animals. Something like raccoons, probably. The tracks lead to a gnawed opening at the back wall of the kitchen space, which explains why the rest of the home is relatively pristine.

No bodies. That's good.

Rodney sneezes in the sunlight when he gets back out of the building. The air inside had been stale and musty. Long empty. Sheppard is poking in and out of doors just long enough to glance inside, and Teyla is doing the same, but faster and more desperately. Ronon is walking the perimeter of the village, head down, crouching from time to time to examine the ground before rising again.

Rodney sits down on the bench outside one of the doors, and tries to think.

Twenty minutes later, Sheppard is sitting next to him, and Teyla has started re-checking homes she's already looked into once. It's time to move on.

"Ronon?" Rodney's closer to Teyla, so he doesn't want to get up. Better to leave her be, but to get Ronon to tell them if he's found anything where she can hear it. "Are there, I don't know, clues? A trail?"

Sheppard snorts quietly next to him, but he ignores it. If Sheppard isn't willing to take the lead on this, and Teyla is too upset, and Ronon is too whatever, angry, maybe, then they're just going to have to deal with Rodney running things.

"No struggle. We're not the first here since they left."

Teyla stops at that, and turns. "Who?"

Ronon shrugs. "Large group of scavengers, then a small group, later. Followed the path that way." He nods toward the trees.

Teyla strides past Rodney and Sheppard, moving toward the path, and Rodney stands to follow her. Sheppard trails after.

The walk through the woods is quiet. Teyla seems to know where she's going, but she drops back from time to time to let Ronon take point. He's following some markers none of the rest of them can see, and he grumbles occasionally as the trails diverge, but they always seem to reunite again with the landmarks Teyla is following.

There's a dizzying bridge crossing, and then Teyla stops in front of a low stone outcrop. Ronon walks a little further before doubling back.

"This is the end of the trail."

"Yes." Teyla's voice is quiet, and she raises a hand to the exposed stone, leaning heavily against it.

Sheppard shifts and turns, looking around them, non-plussed. "So, why here?"

Rodney's been watching Teyla, though, and he steps forward to set his hand next to hers, and pushes hard against the same spot. The stone shifts back, swinging heavily on a hidden counterbalance to reveal an opening in the face of the outcrop. She smiles at him, then, though her eyes are reddened and her jaw looks tight with tension. Teyla ducks to look inside, and her shoulders drop, disappointed.

"Empty."

"What is it? What's supposed to be here?" Rodney cranes his neck to look past her. There's a surprising amount of dark space inside, divided for storage of something.

"It is a weapons cache. We have several, but this is the most secure of them. Scavengers should not have been able to find it, not without help."

Rodney gives the stone door an extra push to open it further and let more light in.

"Hey, what's that say?" Sheppard is too far off to the side to see into the cache, but he's pointing at the back of the stone door. Teyla's eyes grow wide with surprise when she looks, and Rodney grapples at the edge of the door to expose the charcoal graffiti on the inside to the sunlight.

"It says, 'People of Athos, I search for you and dream of your safety.'" Teyla's voice cracks on the last word.

"Huh." Ronon is getting restless again. "Nothing else here. We should go back."

"Yeah, I don't want to cross that bridge again in the dark." Rodney gestures Sheppard over, though, and gets him to hold the door open while Rodney shrugs out of his pack and digs out the DVR to film the message in case they need it later. It isn't until he's putting it away again that he notices the way Teyla isn't looking at anyone. She's silent, distracted and obviously upset, the whole way back to the jumper.

She seems better the next morning, at breakfast. Rodney finds her standing in front of the wall of photos, a mug of hot tea steaming in her hands.

"We'll find them, you know."

"Yes, Rodney. I know." She pats his arm, and turns toward the tables.

"So who do you think left that message?" It's been puzzling Rodney all night. An Athosian ally? A trading partner? Since the early reveal that the Genii had been keeping secrets from them, the Athosians had become more cautious, cagier. It didn't make sense that an outsider would have known enough to leave a message at their most secure hiding place, the one that Teyla would have checked whether or not the trail led there.

"I do not know." She sits at her usual table, next to the window, and looked out at the murky water outside the shield.

"Well, that was Athosian writing, right? And it had to have been someone who knew how to find that place, so, maybe, someone who wasn't in the settlement when whatever happened happened? An Athosian? One of your friends, maybe?"

"I do not know, Rodney. Please. I do not wish to speak of it right now."

"Um, okay." He pulls a pad and pencil out of his pocket, and pushes it across the table. "Can you write what it said down for me, though? Avery says he can't be sure of the lettering without more contrast, and it would save a lot of time if I don't have to add video post-production to my day."

Teyla raises an eyebrow at him, but takes the pencil, and writes out the message with firm, graceful lines before pushing the paper back across the table and rising.

"I must see to some things prior to today's meeting, Rodney."

"Yes, sure, of course." He waves absently at her, and gets up as well. There's still time to eat before they all meet to decide what happens next. He folds the pad closed, then frowns and lets it fall open again. There's something bothering him about the writing, but he's not sure what, exactly.

Rodney swallows the last bite of dry roll as he enters the linguistics lab and nods to Avery. "Got it."

Avery's sitting in front of a screen with a still frame of the message projected onto it, large and clear. He grins. "Thanks, but I managed to up the contrast."

Rodney rolls his eyes. "You couldn't have tried that, I don't know, before you wasted my time and made me bother Teyla about it?" He huffs and tosses the pad down onto the counter anyway.

"Yeah, sorry." Avery doesn't look particularly apologetic, but he's opening the pad up and comparing it with the drawing he's been making of the message. "Oh, hey, this is useful, though. Thank you."

Avery's copy is good, but there's something clumsy and off about the Athosian letters, and seeing his work next to Teyla's writing makes it obvious. Rodney looks up at the screen and down at the copies, and there it is again. Something odd.

He shrugs it off. "Have you accomplished anything other than drawing pictures? Anything, say, useful?"

Avery looks defensive for a moment, but his annoying enthusiasm bubbles over it. "Well, yes. I had to read over all the notes I could find on written Athosian, and it's a really fascinating language, there's a lot of subtle cultural information in the writing style as well as the vocabulary choice."

Rodney raises a wrist to look ostentatiously at his watch. If he wanted to gossip about language, then maybe he'd have time for this. When he looks back at Avery, the man is glaring at him. "Well?"

Avery keeps it up for a moment longer than Rodney would have given him credit for, before breaking. "The calligraphic style indicates that it was written by an Athosian woman, one with significant social authority. The word choices imply that she hasn't been living in the settlement, but also that she doesn't have family elsewhere. There's a conflict that makes the phrasing awkward there — Athosian traders or mercenaries don't have that kind of authority, and those are the only commonly sanctioned options for living outside the group other than marrying into another culture, and if that were the case, there would have been a loop, here, at the beginning of this word," he points at the screen, then at the paper, "to show that she has taken membership in another kin group. But here?" Avery points at another group of letters. "That indicates she isn't searching alone, but with her people. But not Athosian people." He stops and stares at the screen. "It's really weird."

Rodney stares at the screen as well, then down at Teyla's writing. He swallows hard as the oddness comes together in his head. The message Teyla wrote out could be a photograph of the graffiti, and she'd written it a day later and without a reference. "Weird. Yes. Okay, well, let me know if you figure it out."

He takes one more look, thinking of a million impossibilities, and leaves Avery to it.

The next few days don't make anything simpler.

"I still think we should prioritize opening a wormhole to Earth." Sam's voice is still even, but it's fraying a little at the edges.

"And I still think you're going to get us all killed." Simpson's voice, on the other hand, is far from even, though at least she isn't yelling any more.

The meeting is well into the fourth hour, and they still haven't managed to establish a short-term plan, much less long-term priorities, aside from the one obvious aim that no one is willing to disagree with: they need to find out what happened to the Athosians.

"Ma'am?" Lorne looks between them, then focuses on Sam. "Respectfully, I have to agree with Doctor Simpson. We don't know how long it will take help to get here. Security needs to be the priority."

Sam looks a little betrayed, but it's hardly a surprise. Rodney's pretty sure that even if Lorne didn't think dropping their guard was a bad idea, he'd still be more than a little wary of calling in the cavalry, and that's the one thing that Sam doesn't seem to get.

"Okay, listen, people." Rodney raps his knuckles against the table until even Sheppard looks up from his doodling. "Come on, we have some very basic needs here, as I think we all agree: food and security." He looks at Teyla. "We need both to find the Athosians. Security includes power and information, and we can look for those while we trade for supplies." He looks at Sam, next. "We can't open a wormhole to Earth and power the shield at the same time, not at the current levels. And we can't drop the shield without raising the city," he turns to Sheppard. "And we aren't doing that until we have a better idea of what's going on up there, because if we raise it, we won't have the power to submerge it again."

"Short safe trading missions." Sheppard looks resigned, at least.

Rodney snaps his fingers and points. "Yes, finally, thank you. I'm going to the mess to get some coffee. Start a list of likely planets."

Sheppard leans back in his chair and starts to glare, but Rodney cuts him off. "To get us all some coffee. Sam? Um, can you, I need you to help carry."

Like they're balancing each other across the table, Sheppard straightens up, looking satisfied, and it's Sam's turn to settle further into her seat and glare. He ignores it, and stands expectantly until she sighs, and follows him out of the room.

They snag a full carafe of weak coffee and one of the larger jugs of strong tea, along with a tray of mugs, from the cafeteria, and they're halfway back to the conference room before Sam finally speaks.

"It was getting a little tense in there." It sounds almost like an apology, but not quite.

Rodney stops walking, and turns to her. "Listen, Sam. You're missing something here, and you're smart enough to see it, and honestly, I cannot believe I am the one pointing this out, but you're being kind of oblivious."

"What the hell, Rodney?" She looks pretty pissed off, and Rodney can remember very clearly, the very first time he met her. That makes the whole situation even weirder.

"Think about it. Can you think of any reason that a bunch of scientists who are missing half their memories, and an entire contingent of soldiers with, say, neurological tremors and balance problems might, just maybe, be hesitant about contacting Earth for help?"

"But we need help! These are high stakes, Rodney!"

"Yeah, they are. And the best case? They show up right away, and we are all whisked safely back to Earth. You and me? We'll probably keep our jobs. Maybe Simpson, too, she's worked hard at rebuilding knowledge specific to Ancient tech. After we go through therapy, and tests, and probably a whole new set of security protocols. But we'll be the luckiest, and we'll all lose our home, at least until whoever's in charge now decides we can work without supervision. And more than that, we'll be abandoning Teyla. And Ronon, again. And who knows if the expedition would even get new staff, or when?" He drags a hand down his face, suddenly tired. "It's just, people have reason to hesitate."

Sam is staring at him. "You'd rather stay here with no help than risk going home." She frowns. "McKay, I don't — this isn't my home. I'm sorry, but it isn't. You're right, I didn't see it that way, and yes, it explains a lot about why people are arguing so hard, so: thanks, I guess."

"You're, well, you're welcome." He turns to continue, but she steps in front of him.

"It isn't that simple, though. We will contact Earth. Maybe not right now, and maybe we'll get our feet under us first. But we need them, Rodney, and I am not willing to to give up my home."

Rodney can feel the mulish set of his own jaw as he answers her. "I'm not, either."


"Sheppard!" Larrin is talking with Devka outside one of the bays as he's making his way back to his berth. She looks like she's nearly vibrating with energy, and it takes him a minute to remember that she's just about to start her day. As little as he sees her now, it still seems odd that they're on opposite shifts. He turns back to join her, smiling at Devka. She's at the end of her shift as well, and it's a relief to see his own exhaustion mirrored in her eyes before he moves to face Larrin. She's grinning at him, and it's hard to resist smiling back, as Devka moves off toward the sleeping berths.

"Walk with me." She loops her arm through his, and steers him back in the direction he just came from. He's missed her, a lot, despite the suspicions McKay and Elizabeth have planted, and her conspiratorial lean warms him before he really registers what she's talking about. " — and the repairs to twenty-three have come far enough that we're coming out ahead either way."

"Sorry, what?" He's more exhausted than he thought, if he just heard her say —

"I said, I'm making the offer to Elizabeth today. She agrees and they become crew, or she doesn't, and we drop them groundside. We come out ahead either way." Her smile is brilliant. It makes him feel a little sick.

He smiles back anyway.

McKay is waiting outside his berth at the end of rest shift, just like usual. This is one of the rotations when they work on twenty-three, so that's normal, but he looks jittery, which isn't. Sheppard drops to the floor, then thinks again, and heaves himself halfway back in, headfirst and backwards, stretching until his fingers brush the necklace under the sleeping pad. He loops the chain over his head and shoves the pendants under his jacket, and pulls the spare sidearm charge from the other edge of the pad. He tucks that into the bundle of tools he's been customizing, and pulls that out as well. There's nothing else he wants to keep, and he slides out again.

"Ready to work?"

He smirks at McKay, wishing he could say more. But not here. "Lead on, professor."

They've ranged far from the usual areas of the ship before McKay starts to speak, but he still whispers.

"Elizabeth thinks Larrin's about to make her move to steal our ship."

"Yeah. Well, your friend Elizabeth would be right."

That stops McKay in his tracks, and he turns to face Sheppard. "That isn't going to happen. We're leaving. Will you come with us? Or, or: do you want to stay? You have a life here, of a sort, I know, and — "

"I'm with you."

McKay's face goes slack with surprise, then he smiles, wider and more honest than Larrin has ever managed. "Okay, in that case, we need to find something that I believe belongs to you."

They make their way to a tiny, darkened bay with a sealed door. He remembers passing it before — the outer hull of the bay is cracked, a low-priority repair, but enough to leak atmo. But McKay is keying the seal before he can intervene, and when the door sweeps open, there's no pressure differential. Another lie. The lights don't come up when Sheppard palms the sensor, though, and McKay pulls the door closed, leaving them in murky darkness.

"It's okay. The 'jumper is straight ahead," McKay hisses at him.

'Jumper?' He wonders, and a gentle glow starts to spill from the inside of one of the looming shapes. He walks toward it, cautious, but McKay overtakes him and walks fearlessly up a ramp and into what turns out to be a small ship. Amazing.

"Damn it." McKay is glaring around at the nets that line the ceiling of the interior. "They stripped all your supplies. Check the diagnostics and make sure they didn't disable anything?"

He slides into one of the seats at the front of the craft without thinking about it much. The diagnostics work the same way as they do on McKay and Elizabeth's ship, just a little less smoothly, a little less refined. More like twenty-three, really. He scans the readouts, and most reflect the pale blue of systems-go. "Looks like the secondary nav control crystal might be unhoused, but everything else looks good."

"Secondary nav, secondary — oh, here we go, yes. That must have just come loose while they moved her over." Sheppard turns in time to watch McKay snap an overhead panel back into place, before he comes forward to drop heavily into the other seat. McKay taps at a control on the wall next to him, and the ramp behind them rises and seal verification pops up on the screen, fading from view almost as soon as Sheppard reads it.

"Elizabeth?" McKay is tapping at the controls in front of his seat, and a communication screen hovers in the air before them, resolving into Elizabeth's face, worried-looking, but then smiling straight at him.

"Sheppard! I take it you've decided to join us?"

Too late now to change his mind, unless he really does want to strand them both groundside someplace. He nods.

"Is there anyone in the bay with you and the ship, Elizabeth?"

She looks down at something out of range of the display, and frowns. "Yes, I think Chellis is watching the ship right now. They've been trying harder to get in, lately. I had an interesting talk with Larrin a few minutes ago, by the way." She looks up again, smiling.

Rodney laughs. "Yes, yes, I know: you told me so." He sets a portable terminal across his knees and starts tapping at the screen. "Chellis will get out when the claxon starts, if he's smart. Overriding bulkhead controls now."

After that, things are fast, and so easy that it doesn't seem real that he's piloting — flying — the little ship in a smooth arc around twenty-three, to join the ship Elizabeth is maneuvering out of the main bay.

"Okay." McKay is leaning half into his space, pointing toward the ship. "There, that's where you dock."

He hesitates, though. It isn't that he means to, but the little ship makes it obvious, and McKay looks over at him, and smiles again. "Come on, land already. You can fly the bigger one."

Landing the little shuttle is so effortless that he suspects he could have closed his eyes through the whole process, and it would have gone just as smoothly. The interior of Rodney and Elizabeth's ship feels completely different than it had when it was docked inside twenty-three. There's a hum in the air, or, not a hum. But something. Something good.

They're in hyperspace, and no one's at the helm, but McKay seems to think that's okay, so Sheppard's willing to go with it. There really isn't anything to do. They've shown him into the same large room where he stayed during his first visit to the ship, with a broad, soft sleeping surface, and an attached hygiene room, with one of the water cabinets inside. There's a reflective surface on one wall, and he spends a few minutes looking at his face, curiously. He's older than most of the people had been on twenty-three; he'd been right. Not much older than Larrin, though. About the same age as Rodney and Elizabeth. His eyes are a muddy color, his hair dark, with the occasional silver strand. He looks like he could be kin to Larrin, though. Or not. Hard to tell. He scratches at his beard. McKay keeps his face smooth, like a ground-sider. He's barely thought it through before a shelf slides out of the wall, revealing a small, flat oval. It glows when he picks it up, and pale amber and blue diagrams float across the surface of his reflection.

When he wanders back through the common areas, he finds Rodney tinkering with the crystals inside one of the wall panels.

"You shaved." McKay looks surprised.

Sheppard ducks his head, weirdly self-conscious. It seemed like a good idea at the time, to look less like one of Larrin's people, and more like McKay's. It feels strange and impractical now.

"It's, um. You look more like you."

He looks up, but McKay's looking down at one of the consoles.

"Just in time." He taps at a screen, then sets his hand over a pad to activate the ship-wide comm. "Elizabeth? We're there."

The light outside the ports shimmers and twists, then fades away to reveal a field of stars, and a ship shining in the distance.

McKay straightens to stand next to him at the viewport, and they both watch as Sheppard guides them closer, taking a long approach to view her from both sides. She's gorgeous, and huge. Her lines are a little like twenty-three, but if twenty-three had been from the future instead of the past. She's amazing. Sleek, perfect, gleaming, and undamaged.

McKay points. "There. That big bay, high and toward the back." Then he nudges at Sheppard's shoulder with his own. "Go on, ask."

He starts laughing. He doesn't bother making it a question. "I'm her new pilot."

The big ship, once they disembark, feels familiar inside; comfortable and right. He can feel that she's fully powered, running at peak, no repairs necessary. It's different than the little ship, or the 'jumper: the 'jumper had felt more like twenty-three, old, with a limited amount of power to draw against, and McKay and Elizabeth's ship was new, but the repaired sections had a different feel, not as seamless. He has a momentary worry that with no repairs to do, piloting might not be enough to earn his berth, but he decides to trust McKay's insistence that he belongs with them, and lets it go.

The bay he's landed in holds two other small ships, identical to the one he was flying. One has visible hull damage — nothing severe, but enough to catch his eye. The other looks pristine, at least from a distance. McKay exclaims and starts striding toward the damaged ship, but Elizabeth calls out, "Rodney. Look it over later; they're fine, and waiting to see our new arrival."

McKay looks torn for a moment. He's nearly reached the damaged ship, and he's almost vibrating with the obvious desire to look it over, but he pauses and turns back. "Yes. Of course, right. It can wait."

The light in the corridors seems to warm as they pass through them. It's welcoming, like the ship wants them there, he thinks. They step into a small room, and McKay taps a sensor that prompts the doors to sweep shut, then open again onto a new corridor, and he can feel that they are in a completely different part of the ship: far forward, on an deck near the midpoint of the ship. His eyes widen, and he looks at Elizabeth, who looks penitent.

"My apologies — we should have warned you about that. It's a — "

McKay cuts her off. "Transporter! Cool, isn't it?"

He blinks before nodding. Sure. He's finding it difficult to be too thrown by anything on this ship, since even the surprises come with a sense of systems working as they should be.

Down another corridor, and around a corner, and they're in a large, curving room, the entire forward wall transparent and looking out onto the field of stars. The effect is startling in a way that the transporter hadn't been, and he steps toward it before he even registers the two other people in the room.

"John!" It's an exclamation, and he turns toward the sound more out of surprise at the new voice than anything else. It's a small, beautiful woman in dark clothes, and she's smiling and coming toward him. He takes a step back, defensively, but without really thinking about it, and her reaction is immediate: her expression goes blank, and she stops moving.

Elizabeth moves almost as quickly, stepping to Sheppard's side and addressing the woman, and the man he sees now slouched on one of the curving couches lining the walls. "Teyla, Ronon — we found Sheppard on a Traveler's ship, where we stopped to make repairs." She turns to him. "You used to know them, the same way you used to know Rodney and me. They knew you, before, and I know they would like to know you again."

He takes a deep breath, tries to let the tension slide out of his clenched jaw. Nods at them both. He knew there would be other people on crew, but he's been used to only seeing faces he recognized on twenty-three, and to knowing who was on-shift or off. This isn't anything like as bad as the time on seven, surrounded by crowds of strangers, but it's still strange.

He clears his throat, ventures a greeting. "Hi. Um, both of you."

The man grins, though his eyes are narrowed. "Sheppard."

The woman — Teyla — smiles as well, looking kind, and a little sad.

Elizabeth outlines Sheppard's recent history for the new people, after he shrugs when she asks him if he'd like to tell it. He's still feeling off, despite the comfort of the ship around him — or perhaps because of the ship around him. He stands close to viewport and looks out over the stars rather than joining them all near the back of the room, and only half-listens as they share intelligence. Elizabeth has a surprising amount of information about Wraith movements through the galaxy, and Teyla talks about a group of groundsiders — her kin-group, he thinks — gone missing, but not, it seems, culled.

McKay argues with Elizabeth over her interpretations of Wraith migration, and probes Teyla's story for details about the planetsiders, but they've all been quiet for long minutes before the man speaks again.

"There's more." He pauses long enough that Sheppard shifts position until he can see them reflected in the surface of the port. "There are stories going around, about worlds blasted from space, bombed down to bare stone. We checked a few of them out, and it's true."

Teyla speaks in the silence that follows. "They say that the attacks are not carried out by the Wraith, but by a people using great ships of the Ancestors. Ships like this one." She looks at each of them in turn. "I believe the stakes have risen."


The missions they wind up planning are conservative, carried out with small groups, cautiously asking only as many questions as they think won't excite comment, while trading geophysical scans to farmers, and an assortment of analgesics and antivirals made from the plants native to the mainland in markets, for as much food as they can get. It's been months since anyone saw an Athosian trader come through, and the choice of mission targets doesn't yield any technology, much less the promise of stumbling across a ZPM.

More troubling, some of the addresses they have for established trade partners won't connect at all. Rodney isn't along on most of the missions — he's more than willing to admit that haggling isn't part of his skillset — so he manages to match the dead addresses to one of the updated astronomical maps. They're all physically close to each other, in galactic terms, so he follows an impulse and tries the other gates in the same area. Of the twelve he tests, seven don't connect, and three are uninhabited. He sends MALPs through to the other two, and they turn out to be thickly populated, and thriving. It's strange, but not a priority yet, so he files it away for more investigation later, and goes to look for Simpson to find out how work on the internal scanners is progressing.

Sam's going along with the plan for now, following Teyla's leadership. There's no more talk of trying to contact Earth right away, but he knows that won't mean anything if they do catch a break and manage to up city power.

Teyla looks exhausted and worried. She went on most of the early trade missions, until it was obvious even to her that her questions about the Athosians weren't coming across as disinterested, and were as likely to make informants shut down as open up. Ronon, on the other hand, goes on all of the missions, displaying a sort of grandly-scaled claustrophobia that Rodney would mock him for if he didn't suspect that might be enough to stop him coming back to the city entirely. Ronon shadows Teyla when he's home, tolerates Rodney, and avoids most of the rest of the expedition.

Except for John. Ronon still watches John with a distrust bordering on open anger.

And even Rodney can tell that John isn't dealing with that well. But that isn't all: there's something else off about him, and that's on his mind as he lingers over more of the scanner repairs in one of the bigger labs, John keeping him company and watching him work. He tends to have downtime when Rodney's working on those systems; it's weirdly coincidental.

John looks — there's something around the eyes, something Rodney is having a hard time defining. Closed off. Careful.

The look he had started wearing on first contact missions near the end of the expedition's first year. Like he's trying not to give anything away, and like he's waiting for the situation to turn ugly. Like he expects it to turn ugly.

"What?"

Crap. He's been staring at John. And now the expression is even more closed off, but with that jocular, faked affable half-smirking look that Rodney recognizes from all of the missions that actually had turned ugly.

"What what?"

"What do you mean, what what? You're staring at me, McKay." John leans back in his seat, shoulders going loose in a way Rodney recognizes as well. Readiness. Hands loose, one close to his sidearm, feet planted firm under the chair. Looking relaxed, but ready to run, or to fight. It surprises him, that he can read John this easily. But then, there are presumably years of seeing John in action that Rodney doesn't consciously remember, conditioning him. Rodney isn't good at people, sure — but he's very good at code, at reading patterns and extrapolating the underlying causes. Unraveling the mysteries of the universe. And John Sheppard, the look of him now, all pretended relaxation — it's a puzzle.

"You're, you look older. That's all." He blurts it out, thinking fast, half-panicking and unsure exactly why. "Naturally, of course you do, it's just, I just. You look older."

John's posture shifts fractionally, like the immediate danger has passed. Now the slouch is more than half real, the smirk easy and teasing.

"Aw, McKay, that's not what you said before. Thought you said that thing with Todd made me look younger. You're going to hurt my feelings, if you're not careful."

Rodney huffs and mutters about vanity until John rolls his eyes and goes back to his sudoku and his carefully posed laziness.

Rodney goes back to staring at the scanner diagnostics, and wonders who Todd is. And how John can remember him if Rodney can't.

He's half-through his (thankfully no-longer-rationed) breakfast, deep in a three-cornered argument with Simpson and Marshall about whether the city shields, run on a cycle that would make them momentarily more permeable, then less, could be used to harvest salts and other minerals for use as trade goods, when Lorne sits down heavily next to him.

Rodney's losing the argument, so the distraction is welcome. "Didn't you have a mission scheduled?"

Lorne's fork skates over the edge of his plate, and he gives up trying to control it in favor of rolling his pancakes and the latest bacon-cognate into a sandwich. He takes a bite, shaking his head. Once he swallows, he elaborates. "Couldn't connect with the 'gate."

"But wasn't PX3-724 scheduled for today?"

Lorne nods, and takes another bite.

This is more than a distraction; PX3-724 was one of the successful dials he made three days ago. This could be the key to figuring out what's been blocking the gates. It's a far better use of his time than the argument over who is going to have to bag salt that he can see hovering just over the horizon between Marshall and Simpson.

An hour later, he has verification that the gate really won't connect, but he's no wiser. The other uninhabited gates are still functioning, and the last of the inhabited worlds in the rough corridor he's sketched out in the charts is still fine, too. The 'gates work on something very like a network, and the bad ones won't return the equivalent of a ping, either.

Four more interminable hours spent looking for 'gate systems diagnostic methods in the Ancient database, when John walks into the lab and tosses something that looks suspiciously like a large beanbag at him.

Rodney doesn't duck, exactly, but he doesn't manage to catch it, either, and it drops to the floor. "What the hell, Colonel? A little warning?"

John grimaces and stoops to pick it up, then drops it on the table. "Heads up, Rodney. Now tell me what I need to tell my guys about this."

"About?" He picks up the bag. Salt. "Oh, come on. Did they even wait for my approval? Did they do this today? Do you know?"

"Rodney."

"Fine, yes, what did Simpson tell you?"

"Marshall."

"Hah! I knew she'd win and he'd get stuck doing the boring part, she gets this look, like she's thinking — "

John talks right over him. "Marshall said this is the sample for trade, and we can fill any size order within a couple of days, and could your people maybe come up with heavier trade goods, because I'm worried we don't carry enough already."

Rodney hefts the bag experimentally. "It's not so bad. Anyway, it's high-value, you'd be surprised. Talk to, um, Anderssen in anthro, he can tell you what the exchange rates will probably look like." He pulls up the chart he's been working on and projects it onto the big screen. "Do that later, though. We should figure this out now."

John looks at the chart. "Dead 'gates? They're really all that close together?"

Rodney points. "This one went dead in the last couple of days. I think this one," he taps the screen, "is next."

"Why?"

"It's close? It's in heavy use? I don't know, but I want to figure it out. If there's a problem with the network, we need to find out before it affects our own 'gate, and we're all trapped and starve to death."

"Okay, that's kind of a good point, there."

"Good, that's settled, then." He stacks two tablets at the end of the table and starts winding up the connectors he'll need to check the DHD onsite.

"Right now?"

"No, Colonel. I was thinking it would be better if we waited until that one doesn't connect either." Oh, that's a thought. "Actually, we should take a 'jumper, in case it goes out while we're there. It'll be a two-day flight to the closest working 'gate, so get supplies."

John's still standing there, so he snaps his fingers a couple of times for emphasis, which provokes an obviously fake long-suffering sigh. "I'll go tell Teyla."

In the end, the mission is just the two of them. Ronon's already out with a team, and even if he weren't, the slim chance that the three of them could be confined to a 'jumper for days makes everyone agree that he wouldn't be the best addition anyway. They take the 'jumper through the 'gate cloaked, and land it well outside of the city, then hike back. It's nice to see the sun again, any sun, though Rodney is sure he can feel the back of his neck burning. They're back in the marketplace and finally within sight of the 'gate again when clouds come up from someplace and the light dims.

Except that the sky had been a deep, stark blue, and cloudless, and the crowds around them have gone quiet, everyone looking up.

It's a ship. Huge, and an Ancient design, casting a shadow over much of the city.

Someone screams, then, and the bombing starts.

The next twenty minutes are chaos. There's fire, and the crowd shoves them in one direction, then another, but always in the general direction of the 'gate. He loses John in the mass of people, but a moment later there's a steel grip around his ribs, and John's fingers twisted into his jacket, and he grabs a handful of John's vest, and they start pushing toward the 'gate like it's a three-legged race.

It's not much better on the other side of the 'gate. People pressing in on all sides, though there seems to be an attempt at organization, calmer hands directing them out into an open space, making way for the people still coming through. It's quieter, though people are sobbing, and the stream of people is more bloodied and ash-covered by the minute. The 'gate flickers, goes out, then is reestablished twice. Timing out, Rodney thinks, and looks at his watch. Wherever they are, it's early morning, local time, a cool early spring day, by the feel. The 'gate goes out again, but doesn't re-establish this time, and a woman's voice rises in a grief-stricken wail.

The crowd is still being herded forward into a wide clearing. There are tall, silent figures in hooded cloaks moving through, dividing the badly injured from the rest. There aren't many who are badly off — people who couldn't walk mostly didn't make it out, but there are a few. There's space to breathe, now, and no one's shoving any more, and Rodney squirms until John lets go of him.

John's lost his sunglasses in the melee, and he squints up at the sky. "So, Doctor McKay. Any theories on what's happening to those 'gates?"

"Oh, shut up. 'Destroyed' didn't make my list, clearly I should be fired. I'm so very sorry for not being pessimistic enough, just this once."

"Greetings, refugees from the scourge." The voice is loud, carried by a speaker system. "We welcome you to safety under our protection. You are not the first to join us; we hope that you will not be the last. We offer shelter, and food, and our care."

Rodney finally spots what he thinks must be one of the loudspeakers, a gnarled, organic-looking thing at the top of a tall pole. There's something familiar about the look of it, but he can't quite put his finger on it, the memories too hard to pin down.

Sheppard is looking up as well. "Okay, this is creepy."

"Thank you, Colonel. Nice to know I can still rely on you to state the obvious." Rodney has been trying not to be too conspicuous about looking around, but he has a feeling he's failing. It seemed to be expected behavior, though, for new refugees, at least the ones who aren't still too traumatized by wherever they were coming from. There are tall, attractive men and women standing at regular intervals around the plain, guiding them further along, toward an assemblage of neatly kept shelters; each of them wears a long straight coat. They all look like they could have been runway models on Earth, and they're smiling benevolently at the people as they pass. There's something strange and off about it all, but it isn't obvious until Rodney gets closer, and one of the women lets her smile grow wide as she begins to speak to a crying child. It's a beautiful smile, open, welcoming, and genuinely happy. And it reveals her teeth: very white, filed to very sharp points. Wraith worshippers.

Crap.

They're massively outnumbered, and thankfully John isn't suggesting they try anything life-jeopardizing yet. The crowd is divided into smaller groups, and divided again, and guided past cookfires where they are offered soup, and down narrow paths where they are handed blankets. They decline the food, but the blankets are good for hiding their uniforms and guns. Also, thinks Rodney, it's cold once they're not packed together in a crowd.

They finally get to a long, low building with more than a little in common with a quonset hut, and file inside with everyone else to sit on the long benches arrayed in front of what appears to be a low stage.

They don't have long to wait. A woman steps up to the stage. She's just as beautiful as the other Wraith worshippers, but she doesn't look quite as young, with laugh-lines around her eyes, and a faint earthmother vibe. She reminds Rodney strangely of a minister, and that impression gets stronger when she starts to speak.

"We welcome you to safety, and to peace.

"Our Mothers wish us to be safe, and fruitful. They give surcease to the ill, the old, the injured. They care for us and protect us from the Abominations and their Scourge of our worlds. They bestow their favor on all who seek shelter.

"We regret that we were not able to save more, and we bring you here also to beg that you help us to spread the word; to bring all that wish to enjoy the protection of our Mothers and their children here, to this refuge, and to others."

She goes on like that for a while, half-sermon, half-practicalities. The Abominations are apparently whomever the group was bombing the planet, and John jabs him in the ribs more than once when the speaker starts dropping stronger hints about who exactly their saviors are, and what they expect in return.

They aren't kept listening for too long, though, and everyone is ushered back out into the open with directions that cover places to rest, and where to find materials to set up permanent shelter. They follow the crowd for a while, until its dispersed too much to provide cover, and it's getting obvious that they don't need the cover, anyway. They're free to roam wherever they like. A couple of kilometers farther from the 'gate, and the settlement is more established; still new, but more stable. There are a lot of small children, looked after by groups of healthy looking young men and women.

It doesn't take long to notice that there aren't any elderly people around, at all.

They make their way back toward the 'gate, just inside the perimeters of the settlement. It's sprawling, and by the time Rodney starts to recognize the area from earlier in the day, it's nearly dusk. There's another shelter here, this one with a broad, flat door built at the halfway point of the curving side that faces away from the 'gate. John taps his arm and signals silence, and they walk a wide circle around it before finding a vantage point and sitting under the shelter of some trees. There are human-scaled doors at either end, and after they watch for a while, Rodney decides it must be a hospital. People are helped into one of the doors, and here are the elderly, the injured people who had been divided out of the crowd before. Occasionally the door at the other end opens, and people walk out unsteadily, assisted by one of the more obvious Wraith worshippers. It's all really strange.

John leans close to whisper. "Notice anything?"

The night's become too gloomy to be sure, but Rodney hopes his expression is visible enough to convey what a ridiculous question that is. It must be, because John starts whispering again.

"Old people go in. Injured and sick people go in." He points at the door at one end, then at the other. "Young, healthy people come out."

Huh. "We should get closer," Rodney hisses.

"Uh, yeah, not yet. Look."

The flat door is opening, silently, and something is rising out of it. A Wraith dart. It rises, and then another comes after it, eleven all told. They hover, moving too slowly to create their usual whine, and move off. Eleven more descend, just as quietly, and slip into the building. The door closes behind them.

Rodney has a theory, and he kind of wishes he didn't. "I have a really bad feeling about this."

"Yeah, buddy, I know. Think I've got the same feeling."

They move closer anyway, and watch through the remainder of the night.

In the morning, they decide to take their hosts at their word. It turns out to be good, surprisingly, and they go through the gate after explaining that they want to carry the good word home, to their families. The man watching the DHD notes the address they dial, so they key in one of the larger trading hubs, then take the long way back to Atlantis, via four other 'gates and one of the old alpha sites.

"Domesticated animals." Teyla shudders as she says it.

"Yeah, well, I hate to play devil's advocate in this situation, but I can see why people are going along with it." Rodney looks down at the table rather than at Teyla. She looks appalled.

"So who's doing the bombing?" Lorne, thankfully, is redirecting attention.

"Doesn't matter." John sounds certain, like that's the last word on the matter. "They're fighting the Wraith, but they're doing it by destroying Wraith supply lines. Food reserves. Whoever they are, they need to be stopped. We need to figure out where they'll be next. Rodney?"

"Yes, of course, I already have a list of planets they're likely to strike next." He taps at his tablet, then looks up. "Thankfully, we have some breathing room. They're weeks away from any of them."

"It's time to contact Earth." Sam sounds determined, and Rodney might actually agree with her this time, except.

He switches to output to the big display. "Yeah, not so much. Take a look." He outlines the projected path of the ships, showing a route that passes perilously close. "We raise the city now, while they're on our doorstep, and we're toast."

Sam looks over the chart, then drops her head into her hands. Someone else starts to curse, a long, creatively whispered litany. Rodney doesn't look to see who it is; he's pretty sure they're speaking for everyone.

Rodney turns over and tugs at the covers again with a sigh. He can't stop thinking about everything: the bombed-out planets, the Wraith worshippers, the missing Athosians. His mind is going in circles, and he keeps coming back to the question of where John was, those months he was missing. It's been weeks, he should let it go, they have other things to worry about. And it isn't important, he knows this, and he knows John may honestly not know, or may have a reason he doesn't want to talk about it. John keeps slipping away from questions. Or not just questions — most conversations that threaten to get personal. It's guilt, probably. Over leaving Ronon behind, in the face of Ronon's continuing anger and suspicion. Over not coming back to the city sooner. Over not coming back right away with the medicine he'd left the city for in the first place. Shouldering responsibility for the deaths, probably, in classic Sheppard fashion. Rodney snorts a little at the thought — he can remember enough to know that it's typical, after all.

He rolls over again before giving up. No sleep tonight, apparently. If he's going to spend hours puzzling over where John's been, he might as well be productive at the same time. 'Jumper maintenance is far behind schedule — now that the ships are in regular use again, they need checking regularly. Radek's job, since the time they arrived in the city, years before, and Rodney hasn't had the heart to reassign it yet. He scrubs a hand through his hair and stands, reaching blindly for his pants, stumbling over his shoes. Coffee. He needs coffee. Shoes on, pants on, grab tablet and toolbox, then to the mess to get the coffee. It's a plan.

Rodney's awake enough by the time he gets to the 'jumper bay to know that if he'd stayed in bed, he'd have fallen asleep by now. He's cold in the false, unshakable way that late nights bring, and the coffee isn't helping as much as he wishes it would. But he came all the way here; might as well keep going.

He's powered up the first three jumpers, checked their power levels, and completed self-diagnostics on one of them when his curiosity finally gets the best of him. Rodney walks to the one closest to the back of the bay, the one with the scarring all along one side. Weapons fire. Failed shield? He runs a hand curiously along the hull, wondering at what could have left the markings, roughened the surface of an alloy as hard as the one used in Ancient ship construction. The result of some firefight, somewhere. Just another mystery John isn't explaining. Maybe John can't. Maybe even he doesn't know.

There are some answers that should be well within Rodney's grasp. He powers the 'jumper up; checks all systems, then the logs. They're clean. Wiped. It could have happened in whatever the battle was — power surge can clear the logs, sometimes, if it's strong enough.

Maybe it's the lack of sleep, but Rodney doesn't buy that. It doesn't fit, somehow. Something about it, some dissonance teasing at the edge of his mind. The feeling is enough to get him a little spooked, alone in the silent, dim 'jumper bay. He hooks his laptop into the jumper's equivalent of a black box, and builds a quick and dirty data reconstruction program. Once he's got that running, Rodney rifles through the next 'jumper over to get a compatible data crystal to serve as scratch space for whatever the program manages to render.

The 'jumper bay is still silent and dim. He hesitates a moment in the 'jumper's cargo space, feeling off-balance and nervous, listening. He's just tired and worried; there's nothing there.

It's silly to feel so jumpy, safe in the city, but he pulls a handgun out of one of the boxes anyway, and slides a full clip from another box into place, checking the safety, turning it absently in his hand. Ridiculous. Armed for what? To run more diagnostics, in the safest place he knows? But. There's no harm in it, and some good, if the weight of the gun lets him concentrate rather than wasting his time jumping every time he sees a shadow.

He's not wearing a holster, and he isn't reckless enough to stick a loaded gun in a pocket, so when he walks back up the ramp into the 'jumper, he's got the gun in one hand while he tries to sort though a handful of crystals in the other. Rodney's pretty sure that's why he manages to act as fast as he does when a figure rises up from the shadows; he drops the crystals in favor of raising the gun, flipping the safety off, and pulling the trigger.

Which, as it happens, isn't really such a good thing. The sound of the gun going off is shockingly loud in the enclosed space.

"Damn it, McKay." John's breath is loud when the silence resumes, hissing between his teeth. The shot had been wild, luckily, but the impact of the bullet had knocked him away and down, and he's half-on, half-off one of the benches at the back of the 'jumper.

"Oops."

"Yeah, oops. You shot me. Why the hell did you shoot me?" John's right hand is clamped tight over his own left bicep, and even in the low light Rodney can see the blood soaking through John's shirtsleeve.

"You surprised me, okay? I'm sorry." Rodney pulls the field med kit out of its harness and drops it next to John on the floor. It isn't until he tries to pop the lid that he realizes that he's still holding the gun, and he sets it carefully down before rummaging for pressure bandages.

"So you shoot people who surprise you, now? Jeez, McKay." John grabs for the bandages, and Rodney jerks them back out of reach.

"I said I was sorry. It was your fault for sneaking up on me, anyway."

"Give me the damn bandages, Rodney."

Rodney sighs, exasperated and guilty. He's completely lost any chance at the moral high ground in this situation, but he isn't a complete jerk. "Let me help, okay? And I'll walk you to the infirmary, I guess you probably don't need them to come get you with a gurney or whatever, right?"

"Yeah, not so much." John tips his hand away from the wound, just enough to let himself look underneath, then looks back up at Rodney. "Luckily, your aim is for shit. It's just a graze. Little cleanup, a band-aid, I'm good as new." He makes another grab at the bandages and this time Rodney lets them go.

It's a lot of blood for a graze. Rodney frowns. "Let me see."

"What?" John's fumbling a bandage into place, half-twisted away. Stubborn bastard.

"Let me help, okay?" He moves close enough to keep John from squirming out of reach again and grabs the trailing ends of the bandage, shoving John's hand out of the way.

"McKay. Quit it, you've done enough. I've got it!"

Too late. He's pulled the bandage away, and he can see it now, past the torn sleeve of John's shirt. A small, neat puncture mark, looking nothing like a bullet wound. Getting smaller. Closing up, fast.

"Oh, shit."

Rodney scuttles back, crab-fashion, one hand falling on the gun, the other still full of bloodied bandage. He keeps moving until he collides with the edge of the forward bulkhead, uses his momentum to push upward, standing and raising the gun and twisting to pull the lever that will close the doors, buy him time, protect him from whatever that is, wearing John Sheppard's face.

The bulkhead starts to slide closed between them, Rodney keeping the gun up, keeping Sheppard — the thing, not-Sheppard — in his sights, keeping the gun on target, trying to ignore the wild tremors running through him, twitching his aim all to hell. He'll be safe, and he can figure this out, and. But the bulkhead slows and doesn't close, not all the way. There's a whine of gears, grinding, and it starts sliding slowly open again.

Shit. Not good.

Rodney backs up farther, shoving back between the pilot's seat and the control panels, hunching behind the back of the chair, steadying the gun as best he can, keeping it pointed at where John had fallen in the cargo space, minutes ago, when he'd still been John, as far as Rodney had known. He's still there. Hasn't got up, hasn't advanced — sitting still and narrow-eyed, watching Rodney. But his right hand, the one still covered in blood, is pressed flat against the wall of the 'jumper, over the panel that covers the internal systems interface. Rodney can see the pressure exerted in the whitened tips of the other man's fingers in the sudden glare of the bright, fully powered lights of the 'jumper's interior. The flash of recent memory, John pressing his hands against the diagnostic equipment in the infirmary while Jennifer tested his blood, shocks a thin, hysteria-tinged laugh out of him. Over-riding the technology. Fooling them from the start. Of course. They were idiots; they were all idiots. A cuckoo in the nest.

The ramp rises smoothly into place behind John's back, sealing them in.

"Rodney."

"Not listening."

"Rodney, come on. You can't keep this up forever."

The strange thing is, it almost doesn't sound like a threat. The guy, the not-Sheppard guy — he sounds tired. Exasperated, annoyed, frustrated, wheedling. He sounds disturbingly like Sheppard, sitting there on the bench, leaning back, one hand still pressed against the panel behind him.

It's terrifying.

Also, Rodney's getting a cramp in his hand from keeping his gun aimed at the guy's head. Or the vicinity of the guy's head, since it seems like every time he lets his attention drop momentarily to the screen of his tablet (left, luckily, connected to the 'jumper's console, and within easy reach from where he kneels on the pilot's seat, butt of the gun steadied against the seatback) his aim wavers about a foot to one side or the other.

"Rodney."

"I'm not going to need to keep this up forever, so stop talking." He taps another try at a systems bypass into the tablet. If he can get a signal to register in the 'gate room, he can call for help. He's been blocked at every try so far; maybe a power fluctuation?

"Hey, come on, McKay, that one's a bad idea." They both flinch when one of the overhead panels pops open, showering sparks and filling the cabin with the scent of scorched circuitry. "See?"

"Well, I'm not going to stop trying. And I'm not going to take advice from the thing that's holding me hostage, so stop talking. Or let me go. You could let me go?"

"Rodney." He sounds even more like Sheppard, now. Like Sheppard trying to sell him on another really poorly thought out scheme. Rodney shudders.

The guy sighs and shuts his eyes before starting to talk again. "You're not a hostage. If you were a hostage, I'd be making demands or something. I just want you to stop and listen to me for a minute. Please."

"How is that not a demand?"

The guy opens his eyes again, apparently just so he can roll them. Rodney has to admit: it's a pretty good act.

"Fine. Whatever. You're a hostage. Happy?"

"Ecstatic. Now let me go."

"As soon as you listen. Rodney, come on."

"Okay, you want me to listen? Answer some questions. What are you? Are you a…um…" He stops. Humaniform replicator. They have those in this universe. Crap.

"I'm John Sheppard. I'm me, Rodney. I'm just, I don't know. A little different?"

"You're a replicator." It comes out in a whisper, but it's still hangs in the air of the 'jumper.

"No." The guy looks angry, furious, like he's barely keeping still. "I'm not. Look: blood. Replicators don't bleed."

"Oh, right, nice evidence. Why should I believe that?"

"Because it's true!" That comes out in a yell, and the guy scrubs his free hand over his face. "Listen: replicators are machines. When you shoot them, it's like — hey, actually, it's just like the T-1000."

"Really? That's — well, I was going to say weird, but from what I've read, it makes sense."

"So you believe me?"

"No. Well, maybe. I believe you might be some other kind of thing. Or maybe you're lying, and replicators bleed."

The guy grins. It's weird. "Yeah, I could be lying. But I'm not. I'm John Sheppard."

Rodney blinks. "So…" He isn't sure what to ask. If you're John Sheppard, what are you hiding? If you're John Sheppard, where have you been? "If you're John Sheppard, then what — how — your arm?"

The guy looks pained. "It's complicated."

"Excuse me, but weren't you the one who wanted to me to listen? You do realize that means you have to talk, right?" Maybe he is John Sheppard, after all.

"Okay, yeah, fine. But hear me out, okay? First: I'm not a replicator." He stops again.

"You said that already."

"Yeah, well, it's still true. But I'm kind of, well. Nanites."

"What?"

"I'm human. But I have nanites."

"You make it sound like you have fleas. What the hell are you talking about? And stop repeating yourself, I'm not a moron, I heard you the first time."

Sheppard looks uncomfortable. "I'm not the John Sheppard who left Ronon on the mainland."

Rodney mulls that over for a moment. "So just to be clear: which John Sheppard does that make you? If you aren't that one? And where is that one?"

"I don't know where he is. And before you ask, no, there weren't any other ships in the system when I got here. I'm — do you remember the mission to Asura?"

Rodney shakes his head.

"Asura is the replicator planet. We visited it the first time, I don't know, a year ago? You, me, Teyla, Ronon. Elizabeth. Then again, after Elizabeth was hurt."

He knows this part. "She died."

"We figured, yes. Probably. She bought us time to get away, and to save the city. We left her." Sheppard goes silent, looking down at the floor.

The silence stretches until Rodney starts to fidget. "So. Um, your point? Because seriously, this is all very depressing, but it doesn't explain anything."

"Yeah, okay, my point. They cloned us. A splinter group cloned us to use in ascension experiments. They were wiped out, but we got away. Me and McKay and Teyla and Ronon. And Elizabeth, a clone of Elizabeth. We were told the original is dead, but I don't know. Probably. She's probably dead. But the clone is Elizabeth, she didn't know she wasn't the original. We didn't know we weren't the real thing, until we figured it out."

"Why — " Too many things to ask, again.

Sheppard just looks at him, before letting his hand drop away from the wall. The ramp lowers slowly.

"Why are you here?"

John laughs. It sounds like he's choking on it. "Where else would I go?"

Rodney keeps the gun pointed at John all the way to Teyla's quarters. The hallways are deserted. It's still pre-dawn, and since they sunk the city, they mostly don't bother with security patrols. When Rodney taps on Teyla's door, though, she answers right away, already up, though she looks like she hasn't slept well, either.

"Hey, Teyla." John looks resigned, and Teyla looks between them, and then at the gun.

"We need to talk to you. Can we come in?" Rodney is uncomfortably conscious of the fact that she's wearing the equivalent of a nightgown, though that's probably the least strange thing about the situation.

"Is John a danger to us, Rodney?" She sounds blandly curious, but something about the way Teyla's standing makes Rodney suspect she's ready to break his arm to take the gun away if she decides she needs to.

"No." John's doing that beseeching, fake-sincere voice, and Teyla gives him a hard look before she turns back to Rodney.

He shrugs. "Maybe. I think you need to decide."

She nods, and steps back from the doorway to let them in.

Teyla hears them out with a surprising amount of equanimity. "So there is another me, as well." She tugs at the pillow behind her in the chair, squirming a little to resettle it. "I suspected."

Rodney snaps his fingers and points at her. "The message on New Athos."

"Yes."

Teyla seems weirdly unbothered by John, though she does sigh a bit when Rodney points out that their John Sheppard, the real John Sheppard, is still missing.

John just looks a little more annoyed every time Rodney refers to him as not-real, but Rodney ignores that.

"I knew your story didn't hold up." He turns to Teyla. "I told you, didn't I? There was no way the thing with the 'jumper made any sense."

She smiles a little at that, obviously feeling the affects of some sort of benevolent pregnant woman hormones, and pats his hand indulgently. "Yes, Rodney, I should have listened to you."

She sort of tips herself forward out of her seat, and rises, standing in front of John. He looks up at her. "You are the only John Sheppard we have, and I believe your story. I suspect we are better off with you than without, and, other than hiding your origins, you have given us no reason to mistrust you." Her eyes narrow. "I suspect, however, that you have been obstructing some of our repairs."

John looks guilty, and mumbles, "Little bit, yeah."

"Oh, for crying out loud. Is that why we can't get the scanners online? I'm tempted to shoot you again." The scanner repairs have been driving him around the bend, and honestly, Simpson's time can be better used as well.

Teyla looks like she's trying not to laugh at his outburst. She puts on a stern face, and turns back to John. "You will, in the future," she pauses, and her eyes are mischievous. "Use your powers for good, I trust?" She sounds like she's quoting something; something Rodney doesn't remember, but John looks like he might.

John nods, the ghost of a smirk in place. "Yes, ma'am."

She nods as well. "I will dress, and then I will be eating breakfast. If either of you wish to wait, I would enjoy company." She presses a hand against the small of her back, and sighs. "I believe we should keep this matter between us, for now. Agreed?"

Rodney shrugs; he'll follow her lead. John looks relieved.

The silence once Teyla retreats to her bedroom feels strained.

Rodney clears his throat, and waves a hand. "You, um, you should probably change your shirt."

John looks down at his sleeve. The black cloth does a lot to hide the blood, but it's obviously covered with something. "Yeah, guess I should. Listen, Rodney — "

"Once the scanners are up, we can start looking for the 'jumper again. The one our Sheppard took. We can work on it this afternoon." He's trying to re-prioritize assignments in his head; the scanning array has taken precedence over so many other problems for so long that it's hard to figure out what will need the most attention. Long-range communications, maybe; John can probably help diagnose the problem they're having with that system, too.

"Yeah, Rodney, I don't know if that's the most important thing on our plate, here."

"Yes, well, that doesn't mean we can't get the search underway."

John doesn't answer, just looks down at his hands, folded in his lap.

Rodney looks at him, waiting for more. But John still doesn't speak. "You don't think we should look." It comes out flat. Angry. "Why?"

John stands up, paces across the room, and turns back. Rodney stands, too, unwilling to back down.

He shakes his head, clenches his jaw, and finally speaks. "Because it doesn't matter, Rodney." John's voice sounds harsh, like he has to force out every word. "Because he's dead. You know that. We just haven't found the body yet."

"I don't know that, and you can't know that. We have no proof, which I know — I know from experience — means that you're alive. He's alive." Rodney steps forward, raises his voice, like he can intimidate reality into a new form, make the future cough up the real John Sheppard, hand him over gift-wrapped with a perfectly reasonable explanation for his absence. Rodney would even be prepared to accept a less-than reasonable explanation: some string of unlikely coincidence and blind luck would be typical, after all.

John doesn't react well to intimidation, and Rodney thinks for a moment that it was probably a bad idea to try to back him into a corner, physically or otherwise. He looks exasperated and angry, ready to fight, and like he's hanging on to the last of his patience, but it all breaks, for no apparent reason — the tension goes out of him, his shoulders drop, and he slides into a lean against the wall. "Rodney." He's quiet, drawling out the words like they're taking the last of his reserves. "You can't have it both ways. If my story bothered you so much, if it really seemed that impossible, then how can he be alive?"

Rodney closes his eyes. He isn't wrong. He can't be.

Rodney hears John whisper, "Sorry, buddy," and listens to his footsteps as he leaves Teyla's room.


Sheppard wakes up at the end of his first rest shift on the big ship to an arrhythmic thumping sound. He blinks up at the ceiling for a moment, confused — it's so far away, nothing like where he's been used to sleeping until just a few shift cycles ago. And the thumps start again. It's coming from the door to his quarters, and it stops and starts again twice more before he triggers the door to open, stepping back and trying to be ready for anything. Turns out it's one of the new crew, the man, Ronon, pounding on the door with a closed fist.

"Awake?"

Sheppard nods, wondering if every work shift is going to start like this. Somehow, he doubts it's how Rodney starts his shifts.

Ronon looks him over, tosses a bundle of cloth at the center of Sheppard's chest, and says, "Get dressed."

He lets the bundle fall without trying to catch it, and stands his ground. If this guy thinks Sheppard's going to take orders without explanation outside an emergency, he needs to think again. He folds his arms, annoyed that he opened the door without pulling his jacket and boots on, and glares.

Ronon gives it right back to him, barely blinking.

They stay that way for a stretch of long, tense moments, and just as Sheppard decides he's going to need to take a swing to break the deadlock while he still has a chance at the upper hand, Ronon blinks, and grins. "Come on, Sheppard. Brought you some clothes. Come running with me." He slouches and steps out of the doorway. "I'll be out here when you're ready."

The door slides shut between them. Well. He's awake now, humming with aborted tension. Running. Not shift work, from the way Ronon had said it, but a diversion. He kicks at the clump of fabric, and it falls apart into what looks like several garments. He picks them up and shakes them out over the sleeping pallet: a couple of soft black shirts, the type Rodney wears; several pair of loosely cut fabric pants, some made of a light woven fabric, and some of the heavier kind he's seen on McKay. He looks over his own clothes for a moment, the heavy leathers. Running. Okay, then.

He dresses in the lighter versions of each garment, figuring that since it isn't work yet, he doesn't need protection, and pulls his boots on. True to his word, Ronon is leaning against a wall in the corridor, looking bored, when he opens the door again.

"Ready?"

Sheppard nods, and steps out.

He regrets it later. Ronon won't stop laughing at him. The guy is fast, and while he doesn't seem to expect Sheppard to keep up, he does seem to expect Sheppard to try. He's wet with sweat by the end of it, and there's a stitch in his side he can't seem to breathe past, and he's laughing too, by the time they get back to his door.

Ronon isn't even breathing hard. "Can you find your way to the room where we talked last night?"

Sheppard nods. "Yeah." He takes a deep breath, trying not to gasp, and lets it out. "Sure, okay. When?"

"Whenever. There's food."

Ronon walks off without saying more, and Sheppard goes inside.

The food turns out to be more weird groundsider stuff — some of it's completely unprocessed, and he tastes it, but he's been careful about too much, too soon, since the first time. He mostly sticks to the warm grain mash that Rodney's already introduced him to. It's different than the mash the Travelers ate: rougher and, he suspects, meant to be one of several foods, rather than a sole nutritive source.

Teyla and Elizabeth are sitting together, talking quietly, but Elizabeth leaves before he's half-way through his meal. It seems like she's probably the best person to ask about how he's expected to spend his shifts. Though Rodney has to be either on the bridge or down in the bay working on the damage to the smaller ships, and finding him would yield answers that might be a little more specific. Elizabeth likes to answer questions with questions, sometimes.

Teyla moves to sit next to Ronon, and reaches for the most colorful of the trays of food to select a piece of something pale green, and something else streaked red and gold. He catches himself staring, wondering how exactly to go about eating the things, and looks down at the bowl in front of him instead.

"I'm told that Ronon took you running today." Her voice is soft and somehow conspiratorial. When he looks up, he sees that she's broken the green thing open, and is extracting pale pink ovals from the inside. She sets one on a small plate, and leans across the table to set it next to his bowl, then begins to eat the others.

He spoons up another mouthful of mash, and nods.

She smiles. "Tomorrow morning, you must spar with me instead." She arches an eyebrow. "I will go easier on you than Ronon did."

That comment is clearly more a jab at Ronon than anything else, judging by his reaction, which is to try to steal the last two pink ovals from her plate. She's too fast for him, though, and somehow winds up gaining several of the protein strips from Ronon's plate without losing anything from her own.

Sheppard smiles down at his own food, and picks up the oval she gave him curiously.

"It is called ranat. It is a fruit grown in the hottest climates of several planets."

He smells it, then bites it neatly in half, the way he watched her do earlier. It's creamy, and a little bit sweet, with a bright freshness to it. He eats the other half as well, and thinks that perhaps tomorrow he'll break one open himself. "It's good. Thank you."

She looks pleased. "You have always loved ranat, for as long as I have known you. It is my pleasure to introduce it to you again."

He can feel his own smile go false. It's twenty-three all over again; people telling him what he likes and who he is, with no way to tell which statements are lies.

Teyla's expression goes wary. "I've misspoken somehow. Please accept my apologies." She shreds the ranat shell carefully into strips with her fingertips, and it crystallizes: he's making her nervous. He has been since last night.

"It's okay. It's — " He scrapes the last of the mash out of the bowl. "New ship, it's just strange."

Ronon gets up, nodding to him and squeezing Teyla's shoulder as he rises. "Later."

He leaves them alone in the room, and they sit in silence for a while. Teyla eats the red-gold thing, biting straight into it, and Sheppard looks out at the stars. He doesn't think he can just walk out past her, not without saying anything else, and he isn't sure what else he's supposed to talk about. He's nearly ready to ask about repair protocols when she sets down the remains of the red-gold thing and starts to speak.

"John Sheppard was a good friend of mine. You are very like him, but you are yourself, and not ruled by anyone else's memories. Perhaps you and I will be friends; perhaps not. But I am here if you wish to try." She stands, then, obviously ready to leave the room, and he suddenly, desperately doesn't want her to.

"Okay." He nods at her, feeling vaguely ridiculous. "Let's try."

She looks shocked that he's taking her up on it, but sits back down.

He spends the rest of the day wandering the ship, moving in and out of transporters nearly at random, getting lost, but finding the engines, long corridors filled with troop barracks, an armory filled with hand-weapons, a bay where the walls are stacked with small ships identical to the one he and Rodney had taken from twenty-three when they left. There's an empty slot close to the far end; a home for his ship — his 'jumper. Proof he came from here. He should probably put it back, sometime.

Hunger drives him back to the viewing room, eventually, but there's no one there. He makes his way up through the decks until he finally hears voices, coming from a smaller room, one with a long, low table lined with benches, just like the room Rodney and Elizabeth used for meals on their ship while they were inside twenty-three. It's comfortingly familiar, and all four of the others are there, Rodney expounding on something, hands cutting through the air above the table, occasionally sweeping through the star chart made of light projected there. They all see him come in: Ronon lifts an eyebrow and improbably manages to slouch more; Teyla smiles for a moment before turning her attention back to Rodney and the map; Rodney keeps talking; and Elizabeth nods to him, tilting her chin toward an alcove that turns out to hold a counter filled with covered dishes. There's more of the bland grain mash, in deference to him, he thinks, but also an assortment of different colorful foods, smelling spicy, or sour, or strangely familiar in ways he can't quite place. He winds up filling a dish with some mash, but also with small mounds of some things that look interesting. There's a warm orange food made of tubes in a rich sauce, and he's glad he only took a little when he tries it, because it's nothing like ship's rations; but it's good, and it makes him look forward to a time when he's accustomed to this kind of exotica. Re-accustomed, he reminds himself.

The conversation had continued while he chose his food, and sat, and ate, but he doesn't really start listening until he has nothing but mash left on his plate, and can start examining the star chart. It's beautiful, the way it hovers in the air. Some of Rodney's gestures have left arcing lines through the chart, nav-paths, Sheppard thinks. Teyla reaches out, then, and curves her hand through a quadrant carefully, leaving shadowy bubbles around groups of star systems.

"Those are the worlds affected, so far."

Rodney frowns at her. "You're sure? Because we still think the city is — " He reaches a careful finger toward Teyla's marks and taps the air near a star, which sprouts a tiny line of text in the language of the Ancestors in response.

"It's there." Ronon's statement sounds certain, and final. "He'd have come back if it wasn't there."

Rodney, unaccountably, looks at Sheppard in response to that. His expression is odd: uncertain and embarrassed. It only lasts a moment before he turns to Ronon. "Yes, well, probably. We should — "

Elizabeth's voice cuts across Rodney's, silencing him. "We should find Teyla's people. That's our first priority. And while we do that, Rodney, you and Ronon can both work on ideas for stopping this. We have a little breathing room before the Asurans make it to the next vulnerable world, and we can use that. There aren't enough of us to wade into this with no plan, and you know that. We're only one ship." She turns to Ronon. "We need strategies. We know the Wraith are attacking them already, but they're acting in small groups. We need to know where the rest of the hives are, and find a way to get them into the fight."

Ronon straightens, leaning forward to start the star chart spinning slowly in the air, nodding as he studies it.

"Rodney." She turns back to Rodney. "We need a weapon, or a distraction. Some way to keep them from the next target. Look at what we have, and what we can get, and tell me what you need."

Rodney is already getting up, grumbling half-heartedly about labs and hopeless tasks, when Elizabeth turns to Sheppard. "We need you to take the lead as pilot. Are you willing?"

It's — he hadn't expected, somehow, to be part of this so quickly, but he nods. "Yes. Sure, of course."

Elizabeth's smile is brilliant. "Teyla. Sheppard is with you on designing the search."

Teyla stands too, at that, and Sheppard gets to his feet a moment later, and follows her to the bridge.

Teyla hadn't been able to give him too much information. Her people might be captive on one of the well-populated worlds, or on one of those that has fallen into ruin; they might be held on a hive ship, or hidden in one of the Ancestors' derelicts; they might be dead. She shows him the position of the world they disappeared from, and the transmission profiles of the more unique pieces of technology they might still be carrying with them. The pilot's seat is surrounded with consoles that nearly plot courses for him, after Teyla demonstrates the interfaces.

The next two shift cycles are exhausting. He's adjusting to this ship's schedule — one long, unbroken work shift spent in nearly silent concentration with Teyla on the bridge, followed by a common meal that grows quieter with Ronon and Rodney both spending all available time studying their portable terminals, barely looking away to eat. The sleep shifts are longer than they were on twenty-three as well, and Ronon continues to appear at his door to wake him for running.

Midway through the third cycle, one of Teyla's search screens glows amber. They've found something.

Everyone assembles in the bridge so quickly, Sheppard suspects they have been finding excuses to stay nearby.

"But that's Midway." Elizabeth is looking curiously at the display. "Isn't that where it was being built?"

"No, no, look; not quite." Rodney taps at the console, and a small grid overlays the large one. "Here. This is where Midway is. Was. There's just debris. This is close to there, yes, astronomically speaking, but it's bigger. And it's drifting."

"I believe it is a ship." Teyla reaches past Rodney to set a hand on the console herself, and a faint path appears on-screen, fading as it stretches between whatever it is they've found and whatever they're saying it isn't.

"It's not giving off enough — oh, crap. How long will it take to get there?" Rodney's hands are already moving again, and he's leaning over Sheppard to reach the controls, but Sheppard bats him away and starts laying in a course, throwing them into hyperspace before he bothers turning around to glare.

"Little less than half a shift. And don't do that."

Rodney rolls his eyes, but steps back to address everyone. "I think it's one of ours. One of Earth's. And if there's anyone still alive on board, they won't be for much longer."

No one leaves the bridge after that. Ronon paces, and Elizabeth sits staring at her hands. Teyla's scans are all offline while they're in hyperspace, but she's using the time to sort through and reset them to run in overlapping cycles. Rodney has pulled up the project he's been working on during meals and is trailing a fingertip down a long display of symbols and numbers, commenting to himself quietly, breaking the silence every time it gets too thick.

Sheppard pulls up the engine readouts, changes some settings, tweaks a few ratios. They aren't sustainable changes; he'll need to revert them later, but the ship gets faster. It feels like doing something, at least.

There's a barely audible tone, then, but it makes them all look up, and the ship drops out of hyperspace.

He blinks into the sudden darkness through the port rather than looking at the displays, and there. "There it is."

"Oh my god," Elizabeth whispers.

"Okay, yes, it's the Daedalus. How close can you get?" Rodney is leaning over his shoulder again, but this time it's to reach the defense array crystals, and he plucks one free, turns it, and slots it back into place before moving off to another console.

"Not much left of it." Ronon's right: what's drifting out there is half the hulk of a blocky ship with lines that would have looked awkward even when she was whole. It looks like it's been torn raggedly in half, missing all the likeliest places an engine could go. The whole thing is dark against the surrounding stars, but Sheppard can see ragged holes in what's left of the hull, surrounded by black scorch marks.

"There are people still alive." Teyla is looking over her scans, frowning. "Not many. Perhaps…thirty?" She looks over at Rodney. "The far corner, where the galley — "

"Yes, I see it. Sheppard, get us as close as possible. I can, I think I can extend — yes. Okay, our shields are now reinforcing what's left of that thing, but we need to keep steady, because. Well, pressure. And when we stop shielding, it's going to come apart like wet kleenex. So." He claps his hands once, sharply. "Go! Chop chop!"

Teyla, Elizabeth, and Ronon take off at a run.

It seems like the next hours stretch on forever. Three of the 'jumpers emerge from under their ship, move silently into one of the gaping holes in the side of the derelict, and pass out of sight. Rodney moves into Teyla's seat and stares at the life-signs scan, looking up occasionally to exhort Sheppard to "Hold her steady!" Unnecessarily; Sheppard can see with no little satisfaction that he's managing to keep their relative positions so stable they might be the same ship, despite the slow spin of the wreck.

Eventually, the 'jumpers reappear, and Rodney sighs in relief, scrubbing a hand down his own face before speaking. "Okay. I'm dropping the shield. We should get down there, see if they need help."

The shield goes down, and the wreckage bursts in a series of small explosions, and dissolves. They watch the last of the atmosphere vent out in pale, freezing streaks before either of them look away.

They stay on the bridge just long enough to be sure the 'jumpers will have time to dock, then head down.

The big 'jumper bay is in a state of quiet chaos. There are almost forty people, by Sheppard's count, all of them filthy and most of them injured, though none badly. They look half-starved. Elizabeth is trying to look into the eyes of a man with long-dry blood darkening his clothing, but he can't or won't open one of them, and is weakly ducking away from her. Ronon is organizing a half-handful of those who look the most fit, and leads them out, probably to fetch provisions and get an infirmary ready. Teyla is talking to a shaking woman whose arm is strapped against her chest. What he can see of her hand looks mangled.

Rodney pauses, looking lost and a little overwhelmed, and it comes to Sheppard suddenly that Rodney is staring at their uniforms, that Rodney might know these people. Sheppard is half-turned, ready to do something, nudge him into motion, reassure him, something, when he starts moving again and shoves through the crowd at the back of one of the 'jumpers, emerging a moment later with a pair of hand-held scanners. He presses one into Sheppard's hand, and says, "We're looking for internal injuries. Bleeding, pressure, anything like that." He gives Sheppard a shove in Teyla's general direction. "Just think about what you're looking for and make sure you only have one person in range at a time. I'll — " He waves a hand in the other direction. "I'll start from this side."

The scanner, sure enough, is showing exactly what he's looking for when he pokes at the screen. Nothing serious in the guy nearest to him — it's picking up bruises as internal injuries, but the moment he realizes it's being too sensitive, the scale changes, and they stop showing up. He moves closer to Teyla, thinking to scan the woman with the crushed hand, when the woman looks up and blinks unsteadily at him.

"Colonel. Sir." Her voice is raspy, and now that he's closer he can see that her lips are cracked and the side of her face is yellowed with old bruises. "My report…"

She trails off, and Teyla hushes her. "Later. You may report later. You and your crew are safe, now."

Teyla looks up at Sheppard, and he follows her lead. "Later's fine. Get some rest."

He moves off to scan the others. He's careful not to get close enough to talk to any of them again.

Ronon comes back with his helpers, and they each gather together a few survivors at a time, handing out steaming cups of something to each, then leading them off in threes and fours toward the barracks if they can make it out of the bay unassisted, and Rodney and Elizabeth help the few that can't onto pallets that Teyla spreads out along one wall.

"Her name is Huang." Teyla says to him in a low voice as they carry blankets back to the bay. "That is a family name. I am not certain of her personal name, but she may not expect you to know it. Her title is Captain, and I believe you would address her formally as such, or less formally by her name."

He stops walking. "You want me to pretend I remember her."

Teyla stops as well, and closes her eyes for a moment before she answers. "I believe it would be simplest, yes. After we know what has happened to them, and whether we are in the same danger, we can decide how to proceed."

It makes sense, but they aren't going to get anything if Huang realizes they're lying to her.

Teyla looks at him, considering. "I believe you have only met, not spoken at length."

Still. "But what if — "

"Please. They may know something that will help us." She leaves the last part of the sentence, the to find my people, unspoken.

He takes a deep breath, and starts walking again. "Yeah. Let's talk to her."

It's easier than he expects. By the time they get back to the storage room across the corridor from the bay that they've converted into an infirmary, Rodney is adjusting a blocky machine sitting on a low rolling cart, and Ronon is cutting away the cloth that's binding Huang's arm to her chest. She loses consciousness for a little while, and Ronon and Teyla move quickly to fasten a cuff-like device above her elbow. Teyla ushers him over to stand at the side of the table Huang is laying on, and sets his hand against the warm curve of the cuff.

"Ordinarily, we would use this within the ship's infirmary, where we could set the controls and monitoring, but there are too few of us and too many people who need care to split between decks." While she's speaking, he gets the idea of what the cuff is meant to do — a sureness, just like doing ship repair.

"Yeah, I've got it. Pain and bloodflow, right?"

She half-smiles, already moving to where Ronon is rinsing blood and grime off Huang's hand. It looks worse, now that it's uncovered — smashed and a little chewed, like she had caught it in moving machinery. The edges of the flesh are dark with the beginnings of rot ringed with paler skin. He can smell it, now, as well. Fetid. He mutes the nerves of her arm further as she starts to twitch awake, and turns his body to block her view.

She blinks her eyes open and takes a moment to focus on him, then another to remember where she is, before she speaks. "Sir?"

She's still hoarse, and he lifts a cup from the table beside her high enough that she can see it, then lowers it and guides the segment of tubing that's hanging out of it into her mouth so that she can sip.

Rodney pushes the machine closer to the table behind him, and Sheppard clears his throat to try to cover the whispered conversation. There's tugging at Huang's arm, but he holds the cuff tight, and doesn't let her feel much disturbance.

She stops drinking and lets the tube fall. "Sir."

"Captain. Did you. Is this a good time?"

She looks perplexed, but then there's a hard tug on her arm that takes him by surprise, and he almost loses his grip on the cuff. Huang gasps before he gets the suppression level stable again, and Rodney calls out a "Sorry, sorry!"

Sheppard looks over his shoulder to glare at the three of them, but they are all looking at her hand. Ronon has a small sharp blade in one hand, wet with blood, and Teyla is pushing small bones into alignment with tiny metal tongs. Rodney is pushing the hood of the machine over the hand as Teyla steps out of the way.

"What's happening?" He snaps back around at the sound of her voice, less rough now, and tries to look reassuring.

"Taking care of you. Don't worry." She actually looks more worried after he says it, not less, so he tries again. "Captain. Can you tell me what happened to you out there?"

She tries one more time to look around him, then lets her head drop back onto the table. "Yes, sir. The Daedalus and the Apollo came to Pegasus to move against the Replicator problem. We were supposed to rendezvous at Atlantis, brief you and your command on the mission, and then carry out an attack on their homeworld. I, we, we weren't able to locate you, sir. The outpost."

She stops, looking for him to provide an explanation, he thinks. "Go on, Captain."

"Colonels Ellis and Caldwell discussed the mission, and decided to go forward with it. We moved against the planet, and we lost the Apollo almost immediately. We took damage, too, but she covered us while we went to hyperspace. We lost all but a few of our 302s — we left them behind when we ran." She swallows convulsively before starting again. The humming of the machine behind him gets louder, and he can see Ronon out of the corner of his eye, wiping his hands clean of blood. "Colonel Caldwell planned to go back for them, sir. But when we dropped out of hyperspace we were putting out fires, and we lost one of the engines. We were close enough to a system with a habitable planet to try for it, but as soon as we entered orbit, well." She looks up at the ceiling, then back at his face. "You know those little Wraith ships? Not the fighters. The little cruisers. One came out of nowhere, we think it was actually on the planet. Didn't know they could land."

She frowns, eyes going unfocused for a moment. "My arm's cold?"

Sheppard looks down at the cuff in his hand until the pressure levels that he'd pushed too far down come back up to the correct range. Distracted. The machine abruptly goes silent behind him, and Rodney bustles around him, folding it noisily back together and then shoving it over to the wall before walking out.

Teyla steps forward and sets her fingers between Sheppard's on the cuff. He lets her take over, and looks back at Huang, who's looking sharper and more aware, healthier by the moment. "Wraith cruiser, you said?"

"Yes, sir. It got the drop on us, took out our hyperspace engines. We fired on them and did some damage, then ran. We didn't get very far. But."

"But?" Teyla prompts gently.

Huang laughs a little. "He hailed us. The Wraith. Sounded like a Bond villain. He looked almost human, called himself, um, Matthew, or Michael, or something."

Ronon turns on his heel across the room, and stands, listening. Teyla has gone still as well.

"The Colonel kept him talking while we rigged a couple of our warheads with some of the naquadah pulled from the generators we had in the hold, and we drifted it out the 302 bay and pretended to limp away. I didn't see it myself, but he moved into place, just like the Colonel wanted, and the explosion took the cruiser out." She smiles, wan and tired, then sobers. "But the cruiser launched all weapons as it blew. We lost the forward decks, including the bridge. And the Colonel."

Teyla lifts the cup again, and sets the tube against Huang's lips. They all stay quiet as she finishes drinking and lies back again. "There were about sixty crewmen who survived the fight, and a handful of officers. I was the surviving senior officer, so I pulled us together and we diverted the controls to the engine room, sealed up what we could, and assessed the situation." She takes a deep breath and looks directly at Sheppard. "Sir, the ship wasn't going to make it home. It was my belief that, judging by the Replicators' previous behavior, and in the absence of Atlantis as a nearby target for reprisals, the Midway station put Earth in danger."

She takes a breath, looking uncertain and determined. "We had no way to get off the Daedalus ourselves, and none of us ranked high enough for code access to activate the 'gate, anyway. We verified there were no staff on the station, set charges around the the structural members of the ship to break her in half, sealed the shields to the core of the ship, and overloaded the engines."

Huang pauses again, like she expected an interruption. Sheppard nods for her to continue.

"The explosions got us far enough away from the engine and the station when they went up. We, well. We hadn't thought much beyond that. We've just been drifting, dying slowly." She reaches across her body then, with her uninjured hand, and fumbles toward him. Teyla intercepts her hand, and holds it while she finishes speaking. "We're so glad you found us. Really glad." Teyla squeezes Huang's fingers, and sets her hand back gently on her chest before unclasping the cuff device, guiding Sheppard away from the side of the table, and lifting the injured arm back toward Huang's body.

Her hand is whole. It's covered in rows of neat black stitches, but the fingers are straight, and the skin is healthy. Huang laughs, looking at it. "I thought this was real. I'm dreaming."

Ronon moves to lift her off the table, and pinches her hard on the shoulder, making her flinch. "You're not dreaming. But you should get some rest," he says, as he carries her out.

Rodney and Elizabeth bring a tub of the grain mash into the bay, and they spend some time sharing it out to everyone who's still awake, along with carafes of a thin herb drink that fill the air of the smaller rooms with a faint, sweet smell. Ronon takes the first turn staying in the bay to watch the survivors, and Elizabeth, Teyla, Rodney, and Sheppard head back to the bridge.

Teyla sits immediately at her station and triggers the scans to begin. She projects a magnified star chart over the port as Sheppard takes his seat beside her.

"What is it?" It takes Sheppard a moment to realize, when Rodney starts to explain, that Elizabeth hadn't been in the room for Huang's story about the strange Wraith. It isn't until he sees that Teyla is plotting a course toward the most likely planet rather than away from it that he realizes that he's missing information as well, so he listens while he sets the ship in motion.

It turns out that they know this Wraith, or knew him, once. Sheppard can't quite get the story to make sense in his head, and he isn't certain if that's because he's missing some essential part of the story, or if they really had done something as ridiculously, arrogantly dangerous as to capture a Wraith for experimentation. The planet is close, and he's moving the ship into orbit before he can decide which it is.

The planet is a patchwork of brown, grey, and green, swathed in clouds.

"There are humans on the surface." Teyla's voice is quiet, almost a whisper. "Perhaps fifty. No Wraith."

There's an argument to be had after that. Teyla is determined to go to the surface immediately, but Elizabeth counsels caution. Rodney bounces between positions every five minutes.

Elizabeth eventually yields, and volunteers to take over for Ronon in the bay so that he can fly down with Teyla. Rodney grumbles, sitting down and switching the scans that are running over to long-range, set to look for ships and 'gate activations in nearby systems.

Sheppard sits a moment, considering, and watches as a 'jumper appears from beneath the ship and moves toward the atmosphere. Then he makes his way quietly off the bridge, down to the big bay, to where he landed Elizabeth and Rodney's ship.

It's still there, looking small, for all that it was big enough to house the three of them. When he boards her, it's the work of a moment to power her up, slip out into space, and follow the 'jumper's course down to the planet.

Ronon and Teyla had set down in a narrow space between ruined buildings, but the ship Sheppard's flying is too big for that. The surface is crowded with broken structures, greyed stone streaked with rust from exposed beams and the twisted edges of metal-sheet roofs, casting dark shadows. There are broad lanes between the rows of buildings, but they're strewn with rubble and broken machines. He finds a clearing not too far away, though, that he suspects was where the Wraith cruiser had landed, and sets down. The sky is huge and pale, the sunlight is brighter than anything he remembers, and the absence of a ceiling gives Sheppard vertigo when he looks up. He shuts his eyes and breathes for a moment. Even the air feels strange, whistling around him gently.

When he opens his eyes again, it's still too bright, but he's adjusting to it. The moving air feels good, unpredictable in a way that makes him want to explore the places it's been. He didn't expect he'd like ground-side, but this place, as ruined as it is, makes him wonder what the next planet might be like, and the next after that.

Time for that later. He double-checks that the charge cartridge is seated in his blaster, and takes the path that looks best-traveled.

It takes him into a long, low building. It's nearly silent, except for a muted, arrhythmic dripping noise. There are a series of heavy doors with panels set at eye level — both the door handles and the panels show recent use and are in good repair, so he starts sliding the panels cautiously open to see inside. The first few are empty. Then they aren't. Each small cell holds some dead horror. Some look almost like Wraith, but most are somehow more extreme. There's the body of a monster in the largest: dark, with a segmented irridescent exoskeleton that looks like armor. That cell's walls are heavily scarred with claw marks. One cell holds the small body of a child, curled as though asleep, and Sheppard opens the main door to be sure she isn't still alive. She's long cold, her body starting to decay, by the smell. She looks human, except for the feeding maw marking her tiny, limp palm. He doesn't open any of the other doors, even the one to the cell holding the corpse who looks like a man, lying as though he died peacefully in his sleep.

Once he's out of that building, he moves faster. The sun is getting lower, and the light is becoming untrustworthy. He finds himself ducking from the shelter of one building to another, automatic motions of surveillance and reconnaissance. He hears his goal before he sees them: Teyla's voice coming from nearby, rising with emotion, then several other voices, quieter. He stands just out of sight for a moment before he hears the hum of a blaster powering up, and turns, raising his own blaster and coming face to face with Ronon.

They stand frozen for a moment before Ronon huffs a quiet laugh, and shakes his head. "You brought another 'jumper?"

Sheppard feels himself starting to grin. He can't stop it. "Nope. The bigger one. Got room for everyone."

There aren't many people; no greater a number than the survivors they'd pulled out of the wreck. They're in better shape, though, with none injured, though they look like they've been just as hungry. Teyla has an arm around a young woman, and her other hand is twisting tight in the sleeve of a tall man's coat. Her face is grimy and streaked with tears, and when she sees Sheppard she smiles like she expected him to be there.

It doesn't take very long to load everyone into the ship, though Sheppard has to support an older man on the walk there, and Ronon carries two children the whole way. Teyla walks with the two she'd been closest to when he first saw her. Their walking pace isn't much, but at last it means that no one trips over the rubble in the darkening gloom of evening.

Once everyone is aboard, Ronon nods to him. "'Jumper. See you up there," and disappears back into the darkness.

Teyla moves to come with him to the bridge, but he startles himself by blocking her path. She stops short, and he sets a hand on her shoulder. She sees it coming, but for some reason, the contact still seems to surprise her.

"Hey. I've got it." He squeezes the curve of her shoulder a little, uncertain of what he's doing, but wanting to do something: offer congratulations, tell her he's happy for her. It means a lot to her that she's found her kin; that's easy enough to see, and he may not know exactly how that feels, but he knows enough. He lets his hand drop, and turns before she has a chance to say anything.

The flight up to the big ship is fast, and he watches the small form of the 'jumper disappear into one bay, while he guides his ship into the other. Rodney and Elizabeth are waiting at the end of the ramp when he opens the bulkhead and everyone who can walk helps everyone else out into the ship.

The next hours are almost as busy as those that followed the rescue of the Daedalus survivors, except that they have more help. Including a group of people directed by Huang, who carry in food and blankets, then help Teyla guide the new arrivals into the same corridor of barracks they currently inhabit.

They don't see much of Teyla after that; she stays with her people through the rest shift and most of the next few cycles.

It feels like the ship is quieter than before, for all the people now aboard. Teyla doesn't join them for meals, and Elizabeth talks less with every meal that passes without her. Rodney still talks steadily, about the ship, about the engineering, interspersed with comments about people and events that he seems to forget that Sheppard won't recognize. Ronon laughs at him a lot, quietly, but doesn't say much either.

When Teyla does appear in the doorway to attend a meal, it all changes quickly.

"Joining us?" There's something cutting in Elizabeth's tone that makes Sheppard look up from his meal. Teyla seems to hear it too; she pauses a moment before her expression smoothes, and she smiles.

"Yes. It has been a busy few days, but my people are recovering, and it is good to see them safe." She turns and begins to fill a dish. "Melissa has been grateful for Halling's offer of help tending her injured, and they seem to be recovering as well."

Rodney looks up from his plate as Teyla sits, raising a hand and wiggling the fingers, his mouth too full to ask the question. Teyla answers. "She has full mobility. We removed some of the stitches this morning."

"Mmmm." Rodney swallows, nodding. "I want to take the machine we used apart, later, to see how it does that." His look is speculative. "Of course, we'd need to test it again after, to make sure it still works."

"Could break your leg for you." Ronon sounds serious, but there's laughter in his eyes. Rodney takes him seriously, though, and flinches back from the table, his eyes widening.

"No, you will not!" He looks at Elizabeth, then Ronon again, and Sheppard can see the moment when McKay realizes it was a joke, and relaxes again. "Yes, yes, very funny." He glares. "Anyway, it wouldn't work." He jabs a thumb at Sheppard. "Break his leg."

Sheppard's about to tell Ronon he'd like to see him try, even though he's pretty sure that his chances of leaving a serious fight with the other man without injuries would be entirely dependent on the availability of escape routes, when Elizabeth speaks again.

"We are running out of time." Her voice is loud and carrying. "Another planet was wiped out this afternoon. That's a whole population, a thriving society, millions of people: all dead. Knowing the Athosians are safe is not enough."

Teyla pushes her dish out of the way and leans forward, her expression hard. "Are you saying that you believe we do not care? Are you saying that you believe I do not care?"

Everyone goes silent and still. There's a queasy feeling, and Sheppard thinks for a moment that the tableau will shift into violence, but then Elizabeth sighs and drops her head forward into her hands. "No. Of course not. We just — "

"Yes. I know." Teyla reaches out a hand, and Elizabeth takes it.

Rodney's voice is oddly hesitant in the resulting silence. "Um. So. I've still been working on it? I mean, I know Ronon has been, too, but I think I may have an option. Kind of. An idea."

Teyla's smile is reassuring, and Elizabeth looks up hopefully. Ronon moves in a way that makes Sheppard think he's just kicked Rodney under the table; McKay's glare confirms it.

Ronon moves again, this time slowly enough that Rodney can twitch to the side, and he kicks the bench instead, and smiles. "Spit it out, McKay."

Rodney still hesitates, though, and he glances not-very-surreptitiously at Sheppard before he continues. "It's kind of, well, viral reprogramming."

Ronon frowns, this time. "Didn't work last time."

"Yes, thank you, I rely on you to point out my failures. Good work." He gestures, a few short, violent arcs of one hand through the air. "This is — different. Ongoing, with a feedback system. Also, last time we were trying to program them to do something they didn't want to do. This time, we don't fight their nature." His eyes flicker toward Sheppard again, and he stops speaking.

Huh. Knowing Rodney is trying to keep a secret from him is — he doesn't know exactly how he feels about that. It's different than Larrin's deception, perhaps only because McKay is who he is: capable of showy deceits, but not good at the everyday type. It's telling that Elizabeth doesn't press him, that Ronon has started eating again. That Teyla is looking into her cup contemplatively. He takes a last bite of vegetable and stands. "I'm going to go up to the bridge, see if the hyperspace efficiency tweaks are still holding up."

Rodney smiles at him without meeting his eyes, and he leaves the room.

Only a few cycles have passed when they assemble in one of the rooms full of the equipment that Rodney is endlessly fussing over. Sheppard isn't invited, exactly, but he can feel it in the air: they've been tense and quiet since Rodney announced his plan, and when he realizes that something is happening, he follows a feeling down a corridor and through a door to join them. Ronon is the only one to look up when he enters, giving him a hard look that makes Sheppard feel pinned to the perimeter of the room, unable to go closer. Teyla and Rodney are standing together next to a low console, her arms bare except for a broad band he's tying above one elbow. Rodney's movements look almost furtive, for all that he's standing in the open with everyone watching. Teyla's gaze moves between his hands and his face, calm in contrast, watching as Rodney turns away, then back toward her, never meeting her eyes, reaching to lift her arm into the space between them, and bringing a small device toward the crook of her elbow before pausing.

Rodney is looking back at her, frowning. "Make a fist. Don't tell me you don't know the drill, it isn't like you've never — "

"Rodney." Teyla's hand curls into a tight fist, clenches, clenches again. Sheppard can see her knuckles paling. "This is the right thing to do."

"It's the best option. That doesn't make it right." Rodney is grumbling, but he presses a gleaming, barely visible needle into her arm and tugs the band away from her bicep, letting it drop. A moment later he pulls the device away again.

Teyla rubs at the inside of her elbow as Rodney turns away, twisting the device so that it slides into two pieces. The open device reveals a chamber that holds a finger-sized cartridge filled with Teyla's blood. He up-ends it to drop the cartridge into one palm, and pauses before turning to the console, setting the blood gently into a shallow indentation. Sheppard watches him pause again, deliberately drawing breath and releasing it, the tension obvious in the line of his shoulders, before Rodney taps decisively at the console, and a faint, gleaming globe of blue light rises around the blood, shimmering almost out of visibility as soon as it's complete.

"Fine. It's started." Rodney's voice is somehow a shock, breaking the tense silence of the room and setting everyone into motion, where he hadn't realized movement had been arrested. Elizabeth smiles, wry and sardonic, and the humor dancing around her expression completely fails to reach her eyes. Ronon's posture goes liquid and bored, a contrast to the hard tension he's been broadcasting. Teyla — Teyla is the only one who looks like her body is in sync with her mind, relaxed and decisive, ready and satisfied with whatever has happened here. She turns to Sheppard, and he realizes then that they have all known that he was standing there, watching them, allowing him to witness whatever this is.

"Sheppard." Her voice is warm, a reminder that she knows him well, even if he only remembers weeks. "Let us talk."

They wind up in the room where they gather for meals; the one that's nearly identical to the room where he first heard Rodney and Elizabeth explain who he is, who he used to be. Teyla gestures that he should sit and ducks into one of the storage alcoves, emerging a moment later with a large cup in each hand, both of them steaming and sweetly fragrant. She rounds the table and sits gracefully, setting one cup before herself and sliding the other across the surface, toward him. He wraps a hand curiously around his cup, pulling it closer to inspect the creamy dark liquid inside. Not what Rodney's been calling coffee, not anything he recognizes or can remember, and he raises an eyebrow at Teyla.

She smiles, suddenly bright and mischievous. "A children's drink, from your home." She sobers abruptly. "We have much we should speak of. I had thought perhaps — " She leans forward to set a warm palm over his hand where it's still curled around the warm ceramic of the cup. "They are difficult things. I thought perhaps it would be a comfort."

He pulls his hand from beneath hers, then pats her wrist awkwardly. The drink is sickly sweet, but she's right, it's comforting. He closes his eyes, chasing a memory that's barely formed: the flicker of a fire, a hot room full of loud, laughing voices; himself, a small child in the arms of a laughing woman, leaning his head against her shoulder, her throat pale and smooth and smelling of flowers and safety, the mug in his memory too large for him to hold without help, cool fingers soothing against his scalp, petting absently. He lets the memory go, and opens his eyes.

"Tell me."

She's silent for a while, then, sipping from her cup, clearly deliberating where to begin. Finally, she twists to reach under the table, and sets a folding knife between them with a gentle tap.

"My name is Teyla Emmagan. I am of Athos, and, the last time Athos faced culling, you and your companions helped the survivors to find refuge and to build a new home. You asked me to join you and your people, to help you to find your way and to seek allies and weapons against the Wraith." She's looking him in the eye, pausing expectantly. He nods; he knows this already. She begins again.

"We visited a planet, once, you, and I, and Rodney, and Elizabeth, and Ronon. The people there looked like formidable allies against the Wraith; we thought at first they were the ancestors themselves. We were wrong. They were, instead, a new enemy." She looks down and away before continuing. "We escaped, and, eventually, they chased us to our city and laid siege. In the attack, Elizabeth was badly injured, she — " Teyla stops speaking, and her hands are shaking as she folds them together before her. Sheppard is the one to lean in this time, and he does it almost without thinking, reaching across the table to take her hands in his own. She looks up, startled at the contact, but she doesn't pull away.

She continues. "We made what I have heard you call a devil's bargain. Several, perhaps. They pursued us, and we stole the means of our escape from them. We paid dearly." She stops again, and he watches her jaw tense and relax and tense again. He changes his grip on her hands, uncertain if he should let go or hold tighter. She laughs, suddenly.

"We got away. And we didn't." She pulls one hand free of his, and picks up the knife, unfolding it with a deft motion. She twists the other hand palm up in his grasp, and slashes the blade across her own palm.

"Hey!" He grabs at her, shoving her knife hand down hard against the table; her fingers spring open when her wrist impacts against the surface. He's still holding her other hand — he's pulled her half across the table, and he's standing, one leg twisted under him, one foot behind, entirely off-balance. Sheppard tightens his grip on both her hands, knocks at the knife with his elbow to send it spinning toward his side of the table, and considers his next step: heave her the rest of the way over the table, then carry her to the infirmary, or climb over the surface toward her, and try to talk her through whatever this is?

She speaks before he's made up his mind. She sounds sad and resigned, but she's smiling. "John. Sheppard. Look at my hand."

That's — not an unreasonable request. He brings her wrists together, thinking about bandages, sewing together the wound, how quickly he can get her to the infirmary, whether she's likely to resist. Her hand is cupped slightly, the palm cradling a glossy pool of her own blood, but when he focuses on her hand, she spreads her fingers and flattens her palm. The blood drips onto the table. Her palm is wet with red, sticky, but whole. He drops her other hand, prodding at her palm, dragging his fingertips across it. There's no wound.

"Do you see? We are not the people who escaped our captors."

He flinches away from her. That means what? Why? Her hand stays outstretched in the space between them, though, and she doesn't move. He can't stop staring at her palm, the place the cut should be, the proof of something strange.

"Why?" His voice sounds uneven, and rough.

Teyla straightens slowly, lowering her arm to her side, her fingertips resting on the table's edge as she moves back far enough to sit. She doesn't speak until she's composed herself again.

She gestures with her clean hand. "Please. Sit.

"We are copies, but we are also ourselves." She rubs the cloth over her hand, then picks up the knife and wipes the blade before folding it and bending to put it back in place at her ankle. "We are more, though. We are also, in part, Asuran. Our bodies include their machines as well as flesh."

She talks for a long time. He finds he has nothing to say in return.

Rodney spends most of his time over the intervening days hunched over the console in front of the shielded blood sample. The space between his brows is creased and pinched, and his mouth is a flat, hard line. Sheppard tries not to sit and watch him, but there isn't a whole lot else to do right now. The refugees are mostly taking care of themselves now, a self-contained aggregate kin-group in the belly of the ship. He hadn't realized until Rodney went quiet that no one else really speaks to him, most days. Teyla watches him, now, with a smile that's reassuring except for the sadness around her eyes. He catches her drawing breath to speak to him again, sometimes, but she always looks like she thinks better of it.

He finds Ronon sitting in the big observation room in the middle of one shift, staring out at the stars, and decides to join him. They sit together for a while before Ronon shifts in his seat and draws his blaster. He spins it showily, then flips it, holding it by the barrel, extending the grip to Sheppard.

He's nonplussed for a moment, looking at the gun and wondering what's coming next. But then he notices. He's never stopped wearing his own blaster around the ship, not even when it was just the five of them aboard. He takes Ronon's blaster in his left hand, and draws his own with his right.

They're identical. Not just the same type, but the same gun. There's the same scrape along the side of the barrel, the same scarring on the metal. The same knotted hair twisted over the grip, showing the same fraying in the same places. The only thing that's different is the charge cartridge, and Sheppard remembers it was missing when he first woke to Larrin standing over him in the infirmary. He laughs a little, and hands the blaster back. "I guess there's another Ronon someplace who's missing his gun." Or maybe. "Or another Sheppard? Shouldn't you guys — what happened to him?"

Ronon looks away, all his attention for the moment on re-holstering the blaster. "He left. We tried to contact Atlantis, but we couldn't. 'Gate connected, but no response, outposts abandoned." He sits back and stares out at the stars again. "Sheppard figured they were still there, wanted to take a chance that they'd let him in. The rest of us figured it was too big a gamble. He chose them over us." He shrugs. "His decision."

Sheppard blinks out at the stars for a moment, thinking about that. About what that means, the implications and the reasons his counterpart might have had. It doesn't make much sense to him, abandoning these people and this ship for that. He isn't really a part of it, entirely, not yet, but he can still see that they function closer than a kin-group; more like a miniature cohort. Huh. "He took my place, you think?"

Ronon laughs. "Probably. That might have got him in and kept him alive, lying to them."

He thinks about it, trying to find something resembling anger at being displaced; there's nothing. He doesn't remember it, can't miss it. "But why? I mean, why put himself in a position where he'd have to?"

It's a long while before Ronon answers. "The thing you need to understand about John Sheppard is, he's a leader. He's not the best commander I've ever had, not by a long shot, but he takes it seriously. Responsibility for his people. Fixing his own mistakes. Fixing their mistakes, too." He looks at Sheppard then, and his eyes are kind. "You don't need to know about the things he feels responsible for. One person paying for them is enough."

"Things I've done."

Ronon shakes his head. "Explaining this wrong. Everyone has regrets. He won't let his go, and they pulled him back there."

"Isn't he going to regret leaving you guys?"

Ronon grins. "Yeah. Expect he'll survive it." He claps his hands sharply, and sits up. "You need to know more about what's going on. No reason for you to stay in the dark, now you know. And things are going to start happening soon: we need you, and you need to be ready."

"I should talk to Elizabeth." He doesn't make it a question, but Ronon answers anyway.

"Yeah. She's — it'll do her good to talk it through. She's better at convincing others what's right than she is at convincing herself."

Elizabeth is easy enough to find. She spends most of her work shifts in a room that Sheppard suspects is meant for strategizing ship movements, and perhaps battles. There's a high, narrow work table at one end, with tall chairs around it, and the vaulted ceiling curves over a glowing, holographic projection of the galaxy. Sections of the larger map hover magnified at eye level on demand, and at large enough magnification, a tiny model of their ship is visible, moving slowly between the stars. He stands in the doorway until she looks up.

"I need to know the plan."

She gives him an arch look, like she's thinking she disagrees. He steps into the room, sits down across from her. She sets her stylus down and her mouth twists a little, into a smile. "If you're asking, then yes: you do." She clasps her hands together beneath her chin and narrows her eyes. "You'll be part of it whether we include you or not. Like when we found the Athosians?"

Her gaze makes him want to squirm. She hadn't said anything at the time about the way he had gone down to the planet without saying anything to her or to Rodney, but now he thinks she was just saving it.

"You should know that you look very guilty right now," she whispers. "Might want to work on that." She's laughing at him. He rolls his eyes at her experimentally, and she rolls hers right back. "Fine. Teyla told you about us?"

"Some. Yeah."

She nods. "All right. Rodney's plan is to infect the Asurans, the Replicators? To infect them with nanites that have new programming. The nanites are the tiny machines the Asurans are made of, and we — Ronon, Teyla, Rodney, and I — carry a version of those. Ours are inactive in a lot of ways, because they were intended as a control, and a maintenance measure. A way to reset their experiments, and salvage the materials if things went too far wrong. Unlike normal Replicator nanites, they cannot replicate themselves, just build and reshape the biological elements of our bodies. They record information but do not transmit it, and they only sometimes can receive. Are you following so far?"

"I will. Keep going."

"Okay. Because we have those nanites, we can use them as a tool. Rodney is reprogramming them to work on each other as well as on flesh, and to transmit adjustments to that programming as necessary. He's using Teyla's nanites, and when he's done working on them, she'll take them back. She'll control them, in a limited way, but more importantly, Rodney is adjusting them to transmit. Teyla will have a connection to every Asuran we infect, and they will each infect more. They won't have to listen to her, of course, but she'll be able to communicate with them the way they communicate with each other — as part of an aggregate consciousness, a community mind."

"But you think they'll listen."

She taps a finger on the table. "Yes. Teyla — Teyla isn't just Athosian. She has what her people call the gift: the ability to sense Wraith, and to listen to the mind of a hive. She's been able to reverse that in the past to influence the actions of Wraith. Compared to Wraith, the Asurans want to listen. They're angry, and they want redress for the injustices of their creation. If we offer that redress, they may reject it, but they will definitely consider it first. They're programmed with a basic drive, one that brings them no benefit and runs counter to their desire for justice and recognition from their creators: fighting the Wraith, in order to protect the Alterans, the Ancients."

"The Ancestors."

She nods, and continues. "Given the choice, I think they'd choose to fight the Ancients over fighting the Wraith. Actually, they have chosen to do so, several times, both directly and by attacking those of us who they see as supplanting them. So: Rodney believes Teyla can use the nanites under her guidance, along with her persuasive skills, to create a memetic change shifting their basic drive away from the annihilation of the Wraith, which they resist, and toward the achievement of ascension, which is a drive that originated within them, from their own desires as sentient beings. With the grain, not against it. We — well, their complaint of unjust treatment isn't without merit. They should be able to choose to fight the Wraith. Not allowing them that choice has led us to where we are now: they're fighting, and they'll probably win. But the strategy they've chosen means none of the rest of us will survive to enjoy a Wraith-free galaxy."

"Why ascension? I mean, isn't that — isn't that a religion? Teyla's going to become, what, their priestess?" It's a weird idea, though he can kind of imagine her in the role. He can't imagine her choosing to take it on long-term, though; not like this, in a calculated, dishonest way.

She starts to speak, then looks at him closely before starting again. "You think we're trying to trick them, and it's doomed to fall apart." Elizabeth spreads her hands flat against the table, and looks down at them.

"I've made a study of ascension. The Ancients' writings on the subject, their histories. I even met an ascended Ancient, once, though I didn't know it at the time. But I'm not going to tell you my theories of ascension, because I think I was wrong. I did think it was a religion, and a philosophy, and I gathered evidence to support that idea, and I wrote hundreds of thousands of words about it. Briefings, reports, analyses, papers." She laughs, and it sounds a little bitter.

"Eventually there was too much obvious evidence against me. Ascension is a different state of being, yes, with different perceptions and different accesses to the universe. But there isn't anything mystical about it, for all that some of the trappings are ritualistic or meditative."

She pauses again, obviously considering her words before she continues.

"The Ancients set aside the concept of community because they were in extremis — destroyed by a plague and harried by the Wraith — embracing individual ascension was how they escaped. They cut all ties, rejected community as a means to reject pain and fear, and committed suicide as a society in order to preserve what they perceived to be the most important part of the individual. It's —" she waves a hand in a way that's strikingly similar to one of Rodney's gestures — "They rejected each other, and anything else that might hurt them, anything they might emotionally connect to."

She smiles a little, and looks him in the eye. "In order to understand the rest of it, you need to understand that's what ascension was, for the Ancients. There are some who have tried to straddle the divide and care about the living, but not many, and none very successfully. Ascendents who have managed to cut all ties are virulent in their rejection of those who haven't. The Replicators don't see that, and they don't understand it. They cannot truly ascend because their nature is communal and, by extension, social. They lack the very individuality that the Ancients prized, and that isn't a fault — it's just what they are. We think it's possible to take parts of the idea of ascension and look at the essentials of Replicator nature and marry them to find a better way. The Asurans already have what they want: a simultaneous knowledge of the universe on the molecular level and the galactic, a shared consciousness, the potential to grow and change and form themselves into anything. They just don't realize.

"They look like the Ancients, you know. Wear the clothes the Alterans wore 10,000 years ago, live in cities based on Alteran design. Fly ships," she gestures at the walls around them, "that barely depart from those that Alterans flew." She sighs. "We're just going to point that out. They can leave the nest; it's getting cramped."

It's a lot to take in, but the next few days give him the luxury of near-unbroken time to think it through; more watching Rodney work, then wandering away himself, exploring the unused rooms of the ship, trying to tally the near-endless racks of drone weapons, scrolling through star charts and ship's schematics aimlessly.

Meals are quiet again, since Rodney hasn't been joining them, and this one has been no different.

"It's done." Rodney stands in the doorway, and despite the fact that he hasn't been thinking about much else, it takes Sheppard a moment to realize what he's talking about. The nanites. Teyla rises and circles the table to put her arms around Elizabeth, whose eyes shine with tears, though she's smiling. Teyla reaches for Ronon next, and he lifts her off her feet, holding her close and speaking quietly into her hair. When Ronon sets her down, she turns to Sheppard. "When we first met," she says, "I had to guide you through this."

She sets her hands on his shoulders, but doesn't draw him forward. He mirrors her, unsure, but she smiles encouragement and dips her head. He follows her again, and they stay like that: breathing each other's air, silent. It's intimate, and he feels like he should tell her something in exchange, but he can't think of anything she doesn't already know.

She releases him several breaths later, and turns to Rodney. He looks uncomfortable, shoulders rounded in, mouth a flat, crooked line, but she just takes his hand in hers, and leads them all out of the room.

The bubble of shielding at the top of the console is glowing a hard, bright blue, and there's a shining ball of liquid silver as big as Sheppard's fist suspended inside. Teyla leads Rodney to it, then drops his hand and stretches quickly to kiss him on the cheek. "This is the right thing to do, Rodney. And it will work. Step back, now."

Rodney pulls her into a brief, tight embrace without warning, then just as suddenly lets her go and walks back to the door, ushering Ronon and Elizabeth back as well. Teyla looks over her shoulder a last time, then sets her hand against the console. The little shield flickers out.

She cradles the silver globe in both hands, and it shines between her fingers at first, but her hands are closing around it, squeezing, and it's growing ever smaller. After a moment, her hands are flat together, and she pulls them apart again, examines her palms.

"We should go." Her voice is faint, but it gets stronger. "We should do this now."

"Um, okay, do we have a plan for this part? Anyone?" Rodney is staring at her, like he isn't quite sure it isn't all about to go horribly wrong.

Well, why not. "Yeah, I've got a plan." He nods to Teyla. "I'm flying. We're taking a 'jumper, since we can cloak that, and — do you need to come too? In case the nanites need more work?" Rodney looks dejected, which is as good as a yes. "Ronon and Elizabeth will stay out of it, so they can rescue us if we need it." He looks around the room for objections, but honestly, it isn't like he isn't going to see this out.

Ronon nods. "Sounds good."

Elizabeth looks less sure. "I should go as well. That way we can keep the 'jumper secure while —"

"Elizabeth." Teyla doesn't move from where she's still standing by the console. "Please remain here. I need to ask you to take my people home."

Elizabeth raises her chin, then nods. "Of course."

It's a short hop through hyperspace to the Asuran system, and they barely let the ship drop into normal space before taking the cloaked 'jumper out of the bay and getting enough distance for her to jump away again. They're entering the atmosphere a few hours later. Teyla's been sitting on the low bench in the rear compartment, keeping her distance from Rodney.

"There. Land there, that tower. Do you see the platform?" Rodney's just fidgety, so Sheppard doesn't respond, just concentrates on landing the 'jumper as gently as he can manage. If the Asurans are as tuned in as Elizabeth seems to think, it isn't going to take much to alert them.

The silent landing doesn't give them much time before they're discovered, anyway. Two stern-faced guards in the very first main corridor, wielding serious-looking weapons. Teyla smiles when she sees them, though, and addresses them like she was hoping for their presence. "We have come to treat with your council, or any other ruling body. Please," she keeps smiling even as one nudges her along with his gun barrel. "Lead the way."

They're taken into some sort of assembly hall, full of people — Replicators — with calm faces and solemn eyes, dressed in cream and tan. The lines of their clothing mimic the architecture around them. Teyla's the most alive thing in the room, and she seems somehow taller than any of them, like she's taking up more space, but she's not — his eyes are tricking him, because it's still just Teyla, and he hasn't known her long, or he's known her for years, and anyway, she knows him. But something is definitely happening.

She's standing at the center of the room now, and the guards look tense, the whole room has gone tense, wary. Then, in eerie unison, they relax. Hundreds of them, sitting on the rows of benches, rising in a wave to lean toward her, like they need a better look. She hasn't spoken, and they've gone silent.

The ones near her start to move closer.

Teyla's hands are open, loose at her sides, and she raises them, palm up, welcoming the Replicators as they move toward her. The first one to step close enough to touch is a woman. Looks like a woman. Looks like an old woman, steel-grey hair in tiny, looping plaits, face lined, eyes bright and stern. She reaches out toward Teyla's shoulder, like she means to shake her awake, like she means to upbraid her for interrupting whatever was happening here.

Teyla makes contact first; her hand comes up between them, fingertips brushing gently over the woman's forehead. Teyla is smiling, gentle, unthreatening. The woman gasps.

When she turns away from Teyla, she's smiling; her face is wet with tears. Teyla is already touching others as they approach her: fingertips grazing along their throats, the backs of their hands. She sets her palm along the long planes of an angry-looking man's face. When she moves away, his expression is transformed, rapt.

The silence is eerie. The only noise is bodies, moving through the room. Some of them are eager, struggling through the crowd, moving toward the center where Teyla still stands. Each of the people, each of the Replicators she's touched, converted — each of them is moving through the crowd, touching others in turn.

"It's working." Rodney's whisper is startling, harsh in the quiet that's fallen over the room.

Rodney fumbles for Sheppard's hand, and sets the datapad into Sheppard's palm, his own hand over the top, and it's like having another set of eyes with a whole different sort of vision, the interface layering over everything in the room. It isn't visual, not really, but he can still see everything, see the component parts, the swarming nanites making up the bodies of the Asurans, and the twining organic and machine cells making up Rodney.

Teyla is glowing; she lights the whole room, and it's obvious, now, why the Asurans can't look away, why they are drawn to her. The air flickers where it comes into contact with her skin, an incandescent nimbus. The code is twisting under her skin, a tiny, delicate tracery of numbers and glyphs. He can pick out three different strands — binary, base eight, base ten — interweaving and complex, moving through her flesh, dancing like firelight. It makes her shine.

There's a man moving toward them, quickly; his steps are light, his posture mirrors Teyla's: open hands half-raised, a gesture of welcome. Rodney flinches when he notices, and Sheppard can't help himself — he takes a half-step forward, puts himself between Rodney and the Asuran. He's young, eager, his face joyful, half-distracted. He reaches out, curves a gentle palm around Sheppard's left elbow, his hand sliding down to the wrist before he lets it drop away. He looks toward Rodney, raises his hand again.

"No. He can't — don't let him touch me." Rodney's voice is tense, not quite frightened, but worried. He ducks further behind Sheppard's body.

"Hey." Sheppard raises his hand, sets it at the center of the Asuran man's chest, gives a gentle, firm shove. "Go on. Not him." The Asuran stumbles back, looking perplexed for a moment, then smiles, turning to walk through the door, out of the assembly hall.

Sheppard's arm is streaked with soft, silvery ash where the man's hand was. Dead nanites. He twitches, and the ash drifts to the floor.

There's steady traffic through all of the doors; people going out, people coming back in. They crowd toward Teyla and away again. None of them look solemn anymore. They all look softened, easier, somehow more relaxed as a group. They've lost their stiff postures, and now they lean into each other, crowded onto the benches where they had been sitting in mathematically precise ranks. "So." He says the word quietly, but it still sounds loud in the presence of so many unspeaking Asurans. He swallows.

"Yes. It's working, it worked, and it's time for us to go."

Sheppard gets between Rodney and the room so he can move toward the door with no danger of contact from any of the Asurans, and pauses, trying to catch Teyla's eye.

"Come on, why are you stopping?" Rodney's already in the hallway, glaring and fidgeting like he expects someone to sneak up on him at any moment.

Sheppard can feel the sickening drop in his stomach as he figures it out, but he says it anyway. "Teyla."

Rodney frowns, and his expression changes, too many thoughts moving across his face to track before he settles on a sort of tired, tolerant sympathy. "You knew. That she has to stay. There's no way you didn't." Rodney looks over Sheppard's shoulder; he can't look him in the eye anymore. "You, we'll, we'll be fine. She'll be fine. Come on."

He can't argue it. Maybe he hadn't known, but only because he hadn't wanted to. He looks back at her once more, then follows Rodney into the hall and out of the Asuran city.

Elizabeth and all of the refugees, the ones from Earth as well as the Athosians, are gone when they get back.


The last of the crystals necessary to bring city-wide communications back on-line has a tiny crack, too small to see before he slots it into place and it shorts out the system in a flash of misrouted power. Of course. Rodney's hand is burned, and he can still see the flare of light on the insides of his eyelids. There's no mark, thankfully, so it probably isn't that bad, but it hurts, and he needs his hands, will need that specific hand as soon as he finds a replacement crystal, so better safe than sorry. And maybe he should get his eyes checked, too? He squeezes them shut again as he walks into the infirmary, and yes, the afterimage is still there.

There's no one in the outer room. He could just help himself to one of the topical salves, but he can hear voices coming from the back lab Keller likes to work from. She's nice, for a doctor; kind of perennially distracted and a little panicky, but close enough to a prodigy that she didn't lose the memories of any of her training, just a few years of the work that followed. Her voice gets loud enough as he walks through the door to understand what she's saying, but he's halfway into the room before the words sink in.

"…loosening of the mucus plug. Your cervix is effacing, then, and — Rodney? Can we help you?"

Keller and Teyla are sitting at the largest of the lab tables. He waves his hand in a half-hearted way, but really, it doesn't hurt enough to risk getting pulled into whatever this conversation is.

"No? Just, you know, carry on."

Teyla arches an eyebrow. "Were you looking for me? Or for Jennifer? We can continue this later, if necessary."

"No, really, carry on with your —" He gestures again, trying to signify pregnancy, and private conversation, and next time, please, lock the door before you talk about mucus. "Thing. Cervix. I'm going to go now."

"Rodney." Keller looks like she's going to start laughing at him, so he narrows his eyes at her. "You wanted something."

He shuts his eyes experimentally. No more afterimage. "No, no, everything's fine. Where's the — you know — for burns?"

"Salve? Is it bad?" She gets up and he offers her his hand when she looks like she might just make a grab for it.

"Just a short, I got zapped a little."

"Okay." She smiles at him. "You can help yourself, you know. Just make a note on the inventory sheet when you take anything."

"Thank you, yes." He tugs his hand out of hers, gives a little wave toward Teyla, who is definitely laughing at him now, and retreats as quickly as possible.

Rodney rolls his shoulders and shifts in his seat. The chairs in the conference room they've been using have proportions that are just enough off from comfort to discourage lingering, but he suspects the suggestion of a coffee break wouldn't be well-received. They're in the middle of another interminable meeting over what to do about the Wraith worshippers, the planets full of people willingly taking refuge with them, the impossibilities of stopping the planetary bombings. John's arguing for sending a strike team to Asura, but even he doesn't seem to know what they'd do once they got there. Ask "Pretty please, stop wiping out humanity", perhaps. Die valiantly and hopelessly, more likely.

The blare of the klaxon is almost a relief, considering John's absolute inability to listen to reason. It's a ship, entering orbit.

The conference room isn't far from the 'gate room, all things being equal, and they all make good time. Lorne goes straight to the big readout at the back of the room, the one that's less interesting, because it's more a list of what the city has ready to use as defenses than anything else. Simpson is already shutting down the alarm, standing over the terminal that acts as distribution node for the data the scanners can detect from the vantage point they currently enjoy: under innumerable tons of water, as well as a shield, wrapped in a cloak. The picture resolves on one screen after another, all around the room, and John stops still in front of the largest display, Sam behind him.

Rodney elbows them both aside; just because they can run faster doesn't mean either of them is better equipped to evaluate the threat.

Equally equipped, maybe, but they gave way, so he taps the controls with a certain amount of justification. "There." He stabs a finger toward the screen. "Okay, we've got readings. It's —"

"Not Wraith, and not from Earth." Sam leans into him, pointing at the corner of the screen. "The bombers?"

"Maybe." Rodney pulls up the altitude readings — whoever they are, they're keeping a high orbit, near the planetary equator. Not quite over the city's position, though not far enough away to miss them if they dropped the cloak. "Can't tell. Except —" He double-checks the scan to confirm. "It's just one ship, and it isn't even very big."

"We should take a 'jumper up, run some better scans." John shoulders Rodney a little, enough to knock him a little off-balance. "Let's go."

Rodney turns to blink at him. He's not alone; even Teyla, standing near the top of the stairs, looks a little shocked. Sam's eyes have gone wide, and she's taking a breath, but Rodney is faster.

"Are you suicidal? I mean, suicidal on my behalf? Homicidal?"

John's rolling his eyes, though, still moving toward the stairs that lead to the 'jumper bay. "Cloaked. Come on, I guarantee I can get a 'jumper in the air undetected, and once we're out there, I know we can get the information we need, if you're there to take over the flying."

This is just the kind of stupid plan that Rodney would like to not be involved in, but Teyla is looking approving, and Sam shrugs when he looks at her for backup.

"Oh, fine." He throws his hands into the air, and addresses the room at large. "It was nice knowing you all."

They take the same 'jumper that they took when they found Ronon, since they know it's flight-ready, and John really does manage to take it through the shield and up through the surface of the water without as much as an extra ripple.

Rodney shifts, ready to switch seats, but they keep rising. He clears his throat and stands, figuring John might just be waiting for him to get out of the way. But no.

"Um, the scans? Didn't you want me to take over?"

They've nearly reached orbit as well. John doesn't look at him, but he sighs, and Rodney's stomach sinks. "I knew it!" His voice comes out shrill with panic; he is so screwed. "You are evil, and you are here to kill us all, and I should have told everyone, not just Teyla, and I knew it!"

"Rodney. Sit down."

He thinks he should probably resist, but John has set the auto-pilot and is looking at him, and there's no way he can get to a gun before John gets to him. So he sits.

"Thank you." John looks sincere, which is weird. And that wasn't what Rodney expected him to say, either. He continues. "We don't need to run scans. I'm sorry I couldn't tell you before we got up here, but I couldn't. I know this ship, and I'm not sure who's on it, but if I'm right, they're friendly. If I'm wrong, we're not helpless; we can draw them off. But we need to find out who it is."

John's hand is in the air over the comm system controls, but he's waiting for Rodney's assent.

It's hard not to trust him. Rodney nods, slowly. "Who?"

John grins, and drops his hand onto the comm pad. Elizabeth's face appears on the screen, and breaks immediately into a smile.

The discussion that follows is brief, probably partially because Rodney gets up and walks to the back of the 'jumper shortly after she says hello. He stares down at the floor and tries not to listen to the conversation going on behind him. Elizabeth.

"Hey, McKay, you all right?" John is right behind him, voice low and worried. Rodney presses the heels of his hands against his eyes, then wipes his hands surreptitiously on his jacket as he turns. His face is still wet, though.

"What —" His voice comes out rough, so he clears his throat and starts again. "What does she want?"

John frowns at him for a moment, then shrugs. "To land. I think she wants to stay, live in the city."

There's a missing piece, here. "She doesn't want to land on the mainland."

"No. We need to raise the city, so she can land on the pier."

Oh, that's a bad idea. "Yeah, no. No way."

"Rodney, come on. If she lands on the mainland, it's obvious something's going on. We need her under the cloak."

Rodney turns to try to pace this out, but there isn't enough space. "You don't know she can be trusted." He raised a hand when John tries to speak. "You don't."

John chews at his lower lip for a moment. "We have her land on the farthest pier. We can be careful."

Rodney thinks too much can go wrong. He shakes his head. "We can't take the risk."

"Trust me. Come on, Rodney."

Despite the fact that the jury is still out on whether John is an evil robot come to kill them, Rodney has a hard time not giving in. Well; John isn't evil, or a robot, really, and if he wanted to kill them, he could have done it a while ago.

John takes a step closer to him. "If she's hostile, if something has happened and she isn't the person I know, then she can just as easily hang there in space until we use the 'gate again. Think about it, McKay. We can't hide that; we'd need to disconnect the 'gate, because the minute it activates while she's watching, she'll know where we are, cloak or no cloak. If we disconnect it, how long until we starve?" He leans back against the bulkhead, and folds his arms across his chest, settling into the argument. "And hey — what happens to the people out on missions right now? Ronon's out there."

Rodney's been prioritizing arguments, but he doesn't have anything to counter that. John's right.

John doesn't try to contact the ship again, just guides the 'jumper back down through the water and into the city.

Rodney doesn't pay a lot of attention to the meetings that follow. John talks with Teyla privately, and with Lorne. He's pretty sure they bring Sam in last, but by that time, he's checking through tolerances with Simpson; it's John's burden to win people over. Rodney is just working out the details.

In the end, raising the city isn't difficult; they've been putting a lot of work into keeping her submerged. The ship sets down on the farthest pier from the central tower almost as soon as the shield and cloak are dropped.

They all go out to meet Elizabeth on the pier, cold ocean wind whipping around them; she's a solitary figure in the open space, a small case at her feet, her ship a large, graceful shape behind her. She looks nervous as they approach, and that sets Rodney at ease more than anything else. And her face lights up when she sees Teyla's pregnancy. Teyla, in turn, looks shaken by Elizabeth's arrival despite herself.

When they get close enough to speak, Elizabeth does. "Thank you for allowing me to land." She doesn't seem quite sure whom she should be addressing, but she focuses on Teyla when Teyla steps closer. She smiles. "I've brought refugees."

Rodney steps forward himself, at that. "We can't, we don't, I'm not sure we have the resources to keep people safe here — they're welcome for now, of course," Rodney's trying to surreptitiously estimate how many people could be aboard the ship behind her — could be hundreds, depends on how uncomfortable they are. "But long-term, our resources are already stretched thin…"

She bends to lift the small case from the ground beside her, and steps forward to hand it to him. When she's that close, it's hard not to believe in her, to do what she wants. She's so real. He's thinking about that, about how strange it is to know she's dead, even if he doesn't remember it, but to stand speaking with her. It distracts him enough as he opens the case that he doesn't register what he's looking at until Simpson jostles him, trying to get a better view. A ZPM.

He looks at her, then back at the case. It's real. "Um, yeah, okay. We'll open up one of the residential towers, a couple of them, no problem."

"They are your people, in any case." She's talking to Teyla, now, her voice too low to carry to the rest of the group. "I'm not sure how we're going to do this. I don't think she meant to leave you with a problem to solve, but I don't think she thought, well," her hand curves low in the air between them. "She didn't know that it would be so obvious that you are a different person."

Teyla wobbles a little when Elizabeth stops speaking, and Lorne steps close, steadying her. "My people?" She looks toward the ship.

In the end, they just bring the Athosians off the ship without much fuss. There's some confusion, and Rodney catches more than one of them looking twice at Teyla, but they've been through a lot, it seems — get captured by renegade Wraith and used for science experiments, and apparently not much fazes you.

They guide them all into the shelter of the nearest tower. A contingent of Earth survivors are loaded off the ship next — Elizabeth is explaining something to Teyla and John, ships destroyed in some battle. The Daedalus is gone, apparently. Rodney isn't really paying attention, but he can see that they're more confused and in far worse shape, though they seem to be pretty well organized.

Lorne is giving directions to the Daedalus officer who seems to be in charge of the rest of them, but she's distracted. She keeps looking over toward John, where he's walking with Teyla and Elizabeth.

It's only chance that he's close enough to overhear her when she speaks.

"How did Colonel Sheppard get here so fast?"

It comes together so quickly in his head, he feels like he's falling. But no. Still holding the ZPM, still making his way back toward the center of the city, still trailed by Simpson, gathering a small trail of other scientists who've heard already and are coming to confirm the news.

Wherever Elizabeth has brought these people from, John is there. Another John Sheppard. Their John Sheppard, who must be alive. He wants to shout that he knew it, he did, knew he couldn't be dead, but he doesn't.

They haven't told everyone in the city, much less what passes for command staff, about John, so this is weird. Elizabeth's arrival is strange enough, though, so he sets it aside, and goes to install the ZPM.

He's alone in the power room an hour later, watching the steady rise of the power levels, when Sam shows up.

"How's it look?" She steps up next to him, and looks down at the console.

"Beautiful."

Sam smiles at him, then looks back down at the readout. "We can contact Earth, now."

"Wait, what?"

"McKay, come on. You aren't still going to argue, are you? We can keep the shield up while we dial them, now. They'll help."

"They'll help by evacuating us and kicking Teyla and Ronon and the Athosians out of the City, you know they will, not that they could stay here anyway, not without someone with the gene. So, what, we leave Elizabeth and John here and go?"

"Rodney, come on. This is Earth we're talking about. They're on our side. And what do you mean leave Elizabeth and John here?"

He tilts his head at her, considering for a moment. "I really thought you were smarter than this, Sam. Elizabeth is dead, the real one, the original or whatever. There's no way that she's going to want to go back to Earth to be dissected. And John, well, I just. I don't think he's going to leave, that's all."

"I think you need to consider letting them make that choice."

He ignores her. "Anyway, I'm not leaving. This is where I want to stay, this is my home, too, now." The truth is, he can't really imagine leaving the people he knows will stay, given the choice; not just Elizabeth, and John, who can't go, but Simpson, and Joensuu, and Lorne. Teyla, whom he can't imagine never seeing again. Ronon. And they made this problem, after all. He's read the reports, now that they've finally managed to network everything back together. He made mistakes that contributed to the situation this galaxy is in now, and he knows he can fix them, given the opportunity.

Sam stares at him for a long time. He holds her gaze as long as he can manage.

The 'gate activates less than an hour later: Ronon returning from the mission he'd gone out on. By the time he walks in to the conference room, their argument is in full swing, and Ronon walks right out again. When Rodney finally escapes the conference room, he finds him looming over Chuck, holding a large pack. Chuck's holding his ground, but it's a strange enough scene that Rodney figures it's worth investigating.

"What's going on?"

Ronon doesn't look away from Chuck when he answers. "Leaving."

"Another mission? Is there something else scheduled?" He looks at Chuck, who shakes his head.

"No. Leaving the City." Ronon turns away from Chuck, who slumps a little in relief. "The Athosians are back. I'm not getting trapped here if you people decide to leave."

"But we're not —"

"Let me dial, McKay."

"But, don't you want to say goodbye?"

Ronon just folds his arms across his chest.

Rodney sighs. "Let him dial."

Chuck moves back, and Ronon punches in an address fast — one of the alpha sites they've been using. The 'gate comes to life, and Rodney follows Ronon down the stairs.

"We're not leaving, though. You can come back. You have your IDC, right? Ronon?"

Ronon walks through the 'gate without looking back.

Rodney's fairly sure he doesn't want to be the guy to tell Teyla that Ronon's gone. The only other option is to make Chuck do it, though, and Chuck can get stubborn about things like that. Never mind; Ronon will be back.

By the time Rodney gets back to the conference room, Elizabeth is there. She has news: the fate of the Daedalus, the Apollo, and the destruction of the gate bridge. She seems to think the bombings will stop, that the Replicator threat is neutralized.

She's halfway through making an offer to Sam. "I'm offering you my ship, but you have to understand that I'm putting myself in a bad position if you choose to contact Earth from here, rather than waiting until you've left Pegasus."

Elizabeth looks around the table, then back at Sam. "It's not just me. The IOA is not going to want to let either of us stay in Pegasus, or stay free — we'll be distrusted as alien infiltrators or classed as machines to be deactivated. We'll be pulled back to Earth for study, at best."

Sam frowns. "Either —?"

Elizabeth keeps going. "You'll lose the city. You'll all lose the city; every one of the people here is compromised. What I'm offering you is an alternative. Everyone who wants to go home, to Earth, should. Take the ship: it's fast, it's hyperspace capable, the value of the technology alone will make you heroes. But I need your word in exchange, because in order for those of us who stay here in Pegasus to be safe, Earth needs to think no one else is left." She smiles a little, hard and implacable. "There is a precedent, after all."

That surprises a smile in return from Sam, but then her frown returns. She blinks at Elizabeth across the table, then looks at John, then Teyla, then back at Elizabeth again. "Either of you."

Which is when Rodney remembers that Sam doesn't know about John yet, and puts his head in his hands, and waits for the shouting to stop.

It doesn't last very long; Sam's a reasonable person, at heart, and while she doesn't like that John's nature had been kept secret, it helps that no one other than Rodney and Teyla had known.

"So the real John Sheppard probably did die, then." Sam looks apologetic when she says it; either because she isn't making it a question, or because of the awkwardness of questioning the legitimacy of someone else's identity when they're sitting across the table from you. John's face is blank, though, so either he doesn't care, or he's pissed off enough that he's decided to pretend he doesn't care. Hard to tell.

"Oh." Elizabeth sounds surprised, and Rodney leans forward — he hasn't had a chance to ask her, not since overhearing the Daedalus crew when they first arrived. "No. He's alive, he's fine, or he was. I left before they got back, but he's alive, yes." She looks chagrined, and a little flustered, for the first time since she arrived. "We found him on one of the Traveler's ships. We aren't sure how he got there; he said he'd been ill, and they had one of your 'jumpers, so they probably found him, somewhere. He didn't remember who he was. He thought he was one of them. We think they took him in to take advantage of his ATA gene."

"Why didn't you bring him back here?" Rodney's relieved, sure — but he'd feel better if he knew first-hand that John, the original one, was okay. "Wait, doesn't remember? It's that bad?"

She shrugs. "He said it was a common illness —"

"Yes, Kearsan's, right, we've all had it." He snaps his fingers. "So why's he with you, if he doesn't remember anything?"

"Rodney didn't want to leave him there. They were lying to him, and," she spreads her hands. "I didn't want to leave him there, either. He can do whatever he wishes to, now. He's been piloting our ship."

Teyla's been silent since almost the beginning of the negotiations between Sam and Elizabeth, but she stands then and sets her palms down hard on the surface of the table, managing to loom over Elizabeth despite being the smallest person in the room. Her voice is low and furious. "Please. Doctor Weir. Explain to me how, exactly, you are not taking advantage of him as well."

Elizabeth's eyes are wide and startled. "How would we —? I'm sorry?"

"You are using him to pilot your ship. Taking advantage of his gene."

"Oh. No. I can assure you, we aren't." Elizabeth stands as well, and steps back from the table to stand next to the wall, setting a hand flat against the panel. The room brightens, and the quality of the light changes as well, warmer, more like sunlight, then shifts to a cool blue before returning to normal as she lets her hand drop away. "We have the gene. Or close enough. He just wanted to fly the ship. There was no reason to say no."

In the end, Sam accepts the deal. He isn't sure exactly how it's resolved — the arguments go on for days. But if there's one thing Elizabeth is good at, it's negotiation, and Teyla is easily her equal. Not many people actually leave: Sam, a couple of the marines, a few of the Daedalus people.

"So. Um." He jams his hands into his pockets.

Sam closes the panel with a soft click. "Aw, Rodney, don't get all sentimental." It's only taken a few hours to bypass the ship's controls so that Sam can fly it without the gene. The ship is kind of amazing inside, and he's itching to take more of it apart to see how it works, but Sam is ready to leave, wants to leave. She wipes off her hands. "Are we done?"

"This just —" He gestures around them. "It's final, you know?"

"Yes. I know." She fidgets a little, then reaches out to tug at his shoulder. "Come here."

They do an embarrassing sort of awkward half-dance before he figures out what she's trying to do, and starts to hug her back. It feels good; not the sort of good he thought it might be, years ago, but different. "We aren't friends," he finds himself saying.

"What?" Her voice is sharp, and her arms go slack around him as she starts to pull away, but he shuts his eyes and keeps going.

"I mean. Colleagues. We're good colleagues? We could have been, though, I think, and I'll miss you. That's all I wanted to say." He lets her go, and she steps back.

"Oh." Sam smiles at the floor. "Okay. You're not so bad yourself, Rodney."

"Yeah, well." He picks up his tool kit and does his best to glower. "Don't crash it."

He's sad to see her go. It's worse than Ronon leaving, in a way, because he's sure Ronon will be back. Sam hugs him again before she boards, and the sense of loss when the ship rises away from the pier surprises him with its intensity.

They start hearing about Ronon only weeks later. There are new centers for trade springing up to replace the planets that served as markets lost in the bombings, and Rodney joins John on missions that might yield useful salvage. The planet they are on now was uninhabited a year ago, culled empty a few hundred years before, but it's peppered with small settlements now, the people remnants of societies, coming together for safety. Their market is as much a place to find the missing and pass on news of the dead as it is a place of trade. Rodney is sorting through a bin of broken technology, the tendrils of Wraith power cells tangled with blocky Ancient components and other, less familiar, more intriguing things, while John is talking with the vendor, doing that smarmy flirtatious thing he seems to think puts people at ease.

He's tugging a particularly interesting fragment out of the bottom of the bin — all curves, part dark metal and part something that looks a little like plastic — half-listening to the conversations around them when he hears it.

"..Satedan's recruiting. My daughter left us, fired up after she spoke to him. Wants to find the fight, won't listen to our worries."

Rodney turns to find the speaker in the crowd, almost forgetting the artifact he's hooked his fingertips into until it snags on something else. Probably jewelry, anyway. He pinpoints her when she starts to speak again: one of the other vendors, a woman with a solemn face and long black hair.

"Thinks she can find our eldest, too."

"Taken?" The other speaker is a young man whom even Rodney can tell isn't really interested in the answer. He's eying the grains set out on the table between them; probably getting ready to haggle and hoping for a friendly deal.

"When he was small, yes."

That makes the man take notice. "But then he's dead, or one of their pets. Useless to try."

It's the wrong thing to say. The woman's spine straightens as she answers. "That's not what the Satedan and his gang say. Long as we try, there's hope. Those that lie down to be slaughtered at leisure have none, and no pride, neither." She straightens one of the sacks on the table. "Make an offer or move on."

Rodney turns back to the bin of artifacts, wondering how they can find out more, but John's already on it.

"Who's this Satedan we keep hearing about?" John's conversation with the vendor has been far ranging, both of them killing time while Rodney looked through what was on offer. Rodney pulls the piece of tech he'd been looking at out of the tangle in the bin and sets it on the table to encourage him.

"There's more like that, here." The man pulls a crate off the pile on the cart behind him, and drops it heavily onto the table in front of Rodney before turning back to John. "What have you heard?"

John grins and leans on the edge of the table. "Satedan; recruiting; making trouble for the Wraith, I'm guessing."

"Yeah, that's it, close enough. Building an army of the disposessed, I think, though not everyone would agree. Trouble-making for those that mind the herds, and the planets they protect."

"A Satedan, though; we thought they were all gone?"

"Gone or at the bottom of a bottle or turned pet by the Wraith, yeah. But not this one. A tall man, looks like an army all on his own. They say he only lives to fight them; he's like a fireside tale already."

It has to be Ronon. Rodney picks another promising fragment out of the crate when it's obvious the vendor doesn't have any other information, and they move on to the food sellers, where people are looking for strangers to gossip with while they eat.

Ronon's army, if you can call it that, have been making their way onto the planets the Wraith have started to protect — the Wraith equivalents of corrals and stockyards. They're sowing discontent carefully, making sure that the protected understand the bargain they are striking: their safety, at the cost of the lives of their elderly and injured. That their safety will only last as long as their fecundity, and that they will not be able to protect their children, or their children's children.

There are reports of sabotage to the Wraith technology on the protected planets as well, and at least one raid that led to Wraith storage devices going missing, the people trapped inside set free. That last is verifiable a few weeks later: a dial-in from the alpha site, yields an assemblage of women past childbearing age, men and women both with festering injuries, all expecting refuge in the city. Ronon won't stay, maybe won't come back, but it's clear he trusts them enough for that.

Ronon's tiny army is mobile, guerilla-like in their tactics, nearly invisible to the Wraith. They strike fast and disappear too quickly to stamp out. They get away with it, but there are still consequences.

Atlantis, of course, is the most convenient target for blame. Aside from the way they might not survive this, Rodney can't really find it in himself to resent that too much. Even though it means coming under an attack he isn't entirely sure they're going to survive.

The klaxon blares out again; another ship entering sensor range. Probably he should have ripped the damn thing out after the third time they had to shut it off in the first hour, but other matters seemed more urgent.

"Okay: now. Full power." He opens the connections they've rigged to the housing meant to hold the third of the city's ZPMs, and Simpson kicks the daisy-chained reactors to full. The lights flicker for a moment, then steady. It isn't the same kind of power that another ZPM would provide, and they're forced to run the result through filter after filter to make it compatible, but if it doesn't actually blow up in their faces, it might just give them options beyond huddling behind the shield while they figure out what escape routes look likeliest.

They can run city defenses now, or at least some of them; the Wraith are hardly back to full strength yet, even though the Replicator ships have all disappeared. There's a chance they could survive. Rodney keeps telling himself there's a chance.

The sound of the klaxon dies away, and Simpson's shoulders have just started to drop in relief when it blares to life again. She grabs the biggest of the screwdrivers from the discarded tools scattered across the floor and makes for the door. "'Gateroom?" Rodney shouts, and she nods, so he leaves her to it. He should get to the chair, now that it might do them some good.

She must run the whole way there. Rodney's willing to bet that however the alarm goes silent this time, it's lacking finesse. There are frightened people filling the corridors, and it takes a while to shove past them. He passes Halling and a few other Athosians industriously grabbing the unoccupied non-expedition residents and setting them to calming each other, sequestering groups into rooms simply to get them out of the way.

By the time he makes it to his destination, John's in the chair already. The room has gone dim, and the only illumination is coming from the chair itself. It grows brighter, harsh, and Rodney has to blink against the glare. It almost looks like John's blurring into the light, flesh chased with twisting silvery inlay, his skin tinged blue and smooth. Like he's made of ancient tech, and Rodney realizes suddenly that it isn't an illusion at all; he's melding with the chair, nearly sinking into it, fusing with the city. Rodney wants to investigate; it's amazing, and he suspects that the nanites have all risen to the surface of John's skin to create a better network — but this is seriously not the time.

There are ten, twelve, twenty, twenty-eight Wraith ships right outside the atmosphere, a mixture of hives and battlecruisers and something smaller that might be a troop transport or the core of a hive, not yet quite built. They take their time moving into formation, mesmerizing, almost graceful. Another blinks into existence just at the edge of the chair's display range. The klaxon doesn't start up again, and Rodney thinks to himself that Simpson probably deserves a raise. Maybe a department of her own.

That's when the darts begin to spill out of the ships and to knife their way down into the troposphere, and the hives start their bombardment.

The shield holds, solid around the city, and John spends hours waiting for chances to open gaps to send up a flight of drones, or to fire one of the ground-to-orbit capable energy bursts that the rigged generators are making possible. He closes them again fast, so fast that it's not until he's obviously exhausted that the first opportunistic dart manages to get to the window before it closes. Rodney's shouting for the 'jumper pilots to scramble, hoping one of them can get off a lucky shot when he watches John snap the shield closed so quickly, thickening the whole surrounding section so dramatically, that the dart is sheared clean in half.

"Wow." They watch for a moment as the parts of the dart outside the shield explode against it, while the nose spins through the long drop down to the water at the edge of one of the piers.

John turns his head, blinks silver-filigree eyes until the green shows through again, and says, conversationally, "Hey, Rodney. Tell me about that thing Marshall and Simpson did to the shield." He's grinning so wide it looks like it might be painful, and Rodney can tell his own grin is just as ridiculous.

"I was just thinking earlier they could use a raise. Salt-harvesting, I ask you."

John has turned his head back up to the display. "You pay them?"

"Well, you know. Metaphorical raises. Certificates of appreciation." He waves a hand at the display, at the image of the shield that John is sliding apart into huge curving discs of high density barrier. "Day off, long weekend on the mainland, something."

John snorts. "Mainland's full of snakes. I'm gonna give 'em medals." The weak spots in the shield that John opened had drawn down scores of darts, and the display lights up with the explosions as he swats at them like so many flies.

An hour later Rodney thinks perhaps he should take the chair, or get Lorne to take over, or something. John's still skating segments of the shield around and around dizzyingly, but when Rodney offers, he turns his head and raises an eyebrow. His irises are an even mix of brown, green, and silver in the strange light; his throat, temples, and bared arms are latticed with silver as well. His hands are barely visible, swallowed by the sensor pads.

John grins, though. "Not yet. But I could use a sandwich."

Rodney grumbles his way down to the mess and back. At least the halls are clear, now. He runs into Keller, going from room to room checking on the refugees, and detours past the 'gate room thinking he might say something to Simpson, but he thinks better of it when he sees the way she's working on the city-wide alarms. Her focus has something manic about it, and she's visited the armory since he'd seen her last, and anyway: he only grabbed two sandwiches.

It's a quick walk back to the chair room from there, and he's just crossing the threshold as it happens.

There's a moment of deep, vibrating sound, and the whole room shudders and rocks, dust falling through the air, dislodged from every high surface. The noise is terrifying for the half-second it takes Rodney to take in the sight of a new shape moving through the shimmering, half-transparent hologram that turns above the chair, showing the airspace above the city. It's another ship; not another Wraith cruiser, not a Hive — something else. Something fast that came in low, shooting over the city without firing on her, a big, sleek ship trailing a sonic boom in her wake.

The new ship is turning on a dime, no pause between one direction and the other, looping back toward them.

Rodney watches John frown from where he sits in the control chair, eyes unfocused as he thickens the shield under the projected path of the new ship. It's almost on top of them again already, and then it is, right there, right overhead, and there's another boom, and this time it knocks Rodney off his feet, and he cracks one knee hard against the floor, drops the sandwiches, and catches himself on his hands before he goes completely sprawling. This time the waves of sound don't stop, and Rodney shoves hard against the now yawing surface of the floor, pushing away and twisting to fall onto his back so he can see the display overhead without worrying about keeping his balance.

No wonder the noise hasn't stopped. The ship is still centered above them, still shooting straight up from the city, toward the Wraith ships. Firing on them, already taking out the cruisers in the dead center of the armada, the core of the Wraith formation a temporary muddle of fire at the heart of the display; too chaotic for the the sensors to keep up with as they make sense of which ships are still operational, which still pose a viable threat.

The sound falls away into a dim, variable rumble as the ship darts back and forth, high above them. It's like the sort of dogfighting or barnstorming or whatever you call it that tiny, agile fighter planes can do; totally unexpected from a ship clearly meant for deep space.

"The hell?" John's eyes are open, now, watching the movements overhead. The readouts show that he's still shifting the shield, doubling it between the few darts left in the air and the towers of the city, letting it go thin where they aren't under direct attack — but he must be leaving most of the work to the chair, now, because he looks like he isn't paying attention to much other than the flight of the mystery ship. The floor heaves and drops, dust fills the air, and Rodney can hear the distant sound of screaming. It's just people in a panic, though; they're being knocked around, but as long as they stay put, the worst that will happen is a few broken bones. Probably. The next wave sends a spidering crack up the nearest wall, and more dust shakes into the air. Rodney sneezes twice, his eyes gone too watery to focus on the display overhead, and John starts laughing, really laughing, that ridiculous guffaw they hear all too rarely.

Rodney wipes the back of his hand across his eyes and flips over to squirm as best he can over the still slowly lurching floor to the base of the chair. "What? What is it?"

John's still grinning up at the ceiling, watching the Wraith ships spin out from the center of what's left of their formation, casually sending the occasional energy burst up to finish them off before they start to fall through the atmosphere. "Just, never thought we'd surf the city. Jesus, McKay, look at him fly."


Sheppard's been half-dozing in the late afternoon light for the past hour, lying on the roof of the 'jumper, listening to the distant shouts and clatter from the practice ground. Ronon — the other Ronon, the grim one — had built a tight-knit strike force on his own long before Sheppard, Rodney, and Ronon — their Ronon, who laughs with his eyes even when things are tense — had decided to touch down on an uninhabited planet so Sheppard could relearn to swim. Just their luck they picked the planet Ronon was using as a home base. One minute he and Rodney were alone on a long, tree-lined beach, and the next they were surrounded by well-armed, hard-eyed people, Ronon among them. He was so clearly not the man Sheppard knew that he found himself standing frozen, staring them down while Rodney let loose a stream of protests, defenses, and apologies. And then the man Sheppard did know sidled silently up behind his doppelganger, raised his blaster, and cleared his throat, grinning all the while.

An uneasy truce had settled into a real truce, had settled into a partnership, and the strike force had turned into an army. Sheppard and Rodney are still free agents, though. Occasional air support, intelligence-gathering. The fun stuff. They avoid the Travelers, but maybe someday they'll go back and meet with them again. The Wraith are, well. They're still at war. But maybe the ships and the kin-lines they hold will join the fight. He's not quite to where he's ready to ask, though. He misses Larrin, sometimes, despite the way she'd lied to him. Misses the way she was his family for a time. But Rodney's his family, too, and Ronon; Teyla, who has begun sending delegations to worlds, offering aid open-handedly; Elizabeth, who he knows they'll see again, once he's ready to visit the city and meet the man who took his place. Not that he was using it. Not that he wants it back.

He stretches, listening to the sound of someone climbing up the side of the 'jumper, and waits until the shadow he's expecting blocks out the sun.

"Skin cancer. Have I not told you about skin cancer?"

Sheppard swings his legs over the edge of the hull, drums his heels against the side of the ship, and grins. "No, Rodney." He squints up at him, then out over the lake, the woods, the beginnings of a sunset, the sky where their ship is in orbit. "You haven't. Not today."

The End
Notes
Huge thanks to aphelant, were_duck, juniperphoenix, and fish_echo for their beta help above and beyond what I reasonably could have hoped for, and to mirabile_dictu, raz0rgirl, and choc_bunnyhead for their encouragement and audiencing.