There was no time to second-guess myself. Any split second now the Outsider would be upon me, and that would be the End, capital E. Whatever mysterious power I was supposed to have over Outsiders, and no one had taken any particular care to enlighten me on the specifics of that so I could know how to use it to my advantage, it didn't seem to be working now, not in the Nevernever in any case.
I sprinted, using the last of my breath, to gain the split second it takes me to focus on piercing the thin veil between realities; with even less of my legendary finesse I ripped an opening out of the Nevernever and out I jumped.
Out of the frying pan and right into the fire.
It wasn't actual fire, the flames and ashes kind, it was the "Fire at will" kind, except they all seemed to be firing at Harry.
Good thing I made it a habit to turn on my shield whenever crossing between the realms, courtesy of one hostile welcome party too many, or I'd have been turned into a sieve, charmed leather duster or not. The fire exchange was vicious, angry bee stings of bullets from one side and bouts of a creepy kind of energy from the other. Luckily the shield is made to stop all sorts of stuff from going through and (thanks to a few tricks Ramirez taught me, bless his virgin heart) dissipate loads of other into harmless sparks. It was very taxing though, and unless at least one of the parties was going to stop, I wasn't going to last long. I'm quick at thinking on my feet, so I crouched as low as I could in what looked like a bare corridor and shouted at the top of my lungs.
"Would you all stop shooting for a second!" I yelled. Hey, it works in cartoons.
"Hold your fire!" I heard a voice.
"Who's that moron and how'd he get there?" said another, more muffled voice. I disliked its owner instantly.
The hail of bullets stopped, though. The energy assault from the other side didn't.
I chanced two quick looks in both directions. From where the bullets had come I could see the top of the heads of a few people, and the muzzle of as many guns. From the other side...
I had to wonder for a moment if I was still in the Nevernever, or maybe I'd slipped further into some uncharted regions of a nightmare. I was looking straight at the bastard offspring of a Black Court vampire and an armor suit, faceless, or rather featureless faces like volcanic crust on top of stolid bodies of soldiers; and if that wasn't enough, as soon as I'd absorbed that, I noticed the row of leather-clad Black Court Marylin Mansons with sharp-toothed sneers and incongruent long white hair.
Gathering my will and focusing it with the staff and the words of the spell were quasi-instantaneous. I didn't pause to wonder at how the magic I gathered from the world around me felt all... weird, and unleashed the power of a mini-tornado with a bellow of "Ventas servitas!" in the general direction of the horrors in front of me.
The creatures rolled into each other and tumbled towards the wall. They'd probably come from a lateral corridor, but the column of air I'd sent after them gave them no choice and smashed them right into the backing wall. I heard a few satisfying cracks, and even more satisfying, the blasted energy attacks ceased.
Silence reigned for all of one second, during which I heard a distinctly impressed "Wow!" from the people behind me. I identified the speaker as the one who'd ordered the cease fire before and was therefore all the more inclined to like him, whoever he was.
I turned to grin at him and found myself looking at a lean, tall, thirty something guy with spiky hair and full military garb.
"You should see me on a good day," I said modestly.
"Don't brag yet," said the annoying voice, now revealed as belonging to a stout, frowny-faced guy, "there are more where those came from."
"How many?" asked Spiky Hair.
"At least six to the right and three to the left."
"You," said Spiky Hair, turning to me, "can you extend that energy shield of yours to cover all of us?"
"Uh," I said, surprised at the speed of my integration in the team, "yeah, but not from all sides."
"Good enough. Teyla, you keep covering our backs."
Teyla turned out to be a startling, copper-haired woman, face too angular to be conventionally beautiful, but striking enough that in other circumstances I'd have wished to stare and stare at her and conventions be damned. She looked strong and determined, and while I'd have gladly had Murph covering my back, I was not worried with her watching us.
Spiky Hair kept firing instructions in that precise, no-nonsense military way.
"McKay, Lorne, you're with me, let's try to recover the main corridor. Shield guy..."
"Name's Harry, by the way."
"Harry, you're the shield guy."
"I have to tell you, I'm, uh, gonna run out of batteries if those guys keep firing at me like they did."
I figured I could keep using the technological lingo since it worked so well with these guys, rather than embark on the awkward enterprise of explaining the wizard stuff. It didn't look like it would go well right now, and the perspective of more of those nightmarish creatures did nothing to make me feel chatty either.
"That's okay, you just need to keep it up while we shoot'em and get to the control chamber. We'll take it from there."
"And by we, he means me," said Frowny Face in a peevish tone.
All personal feeling aside, he probably had some reason to complain. He was the one carrying the most stuff; a laptop (which I fervently hoped would stay far enough from me in case it proved vital to our survival) and some kind of smaller device were added to the weight of the requisite weapon that they all seemed to carry. I couldn't say I was feeling very comfy around them, but in comparison with Crusty Faces and the Mansons, there could hardly be any doubt which side I'd pick.
"Incoming!" shouted Frowny Face, glancing at the small device, in the same time that the already familiar zing of the energy weapons started in from both sides of the corridor, and more ugly faces began pouring in towards us.
"Thanks for the advance notice, McKay!" shouted Spiky Hair, and I barely had the time to register that Frowny Face = McKay, and thus Silent Guy = Lorne, before my shield began receiving the pounding of its life.
Whether the device wasn't too accurate to begin with, or my presence was interfering with it, the enemy headcount had been wrong, and it surprised me none that it wasn't in our favor. The first six bad guys had already fallen under the team's sustained fire when more kept pouring in, and they all looked as resilient and as evil as the first. Probably because they all looked alike anyway.
I focused part of my dwindling energy on maintaining the shield, while slowly beginning to divert parts of it toward preparing an offensive of my own. I wasn't going to rely on automatic weapons when the enemy had obviously some kind of magic at their disposal.
One of the uglies made its way past my extended shield and was readying to strike Frowny McKay, which was my cue to extend my blasting rod with my left hand and snarl "Fuego!" Fire magic is one of my favorite. I always call upon it when under duress, and this qualified like nothing else as duress, dire straits or what have you.
The column of fire struck the creature in the middle of its chest and scorched a nice patch there, but didn't stop it until it took three more steps.
I had no time to prepare any more elaborate spells than that, so fire or wind would have to do.
"Sheppard!" yelled McKay, and I turned to see Spiky Hair about to be caught in crossfire by two of the Mansons. He'd left the protective range of the shield and favored a more pro-active approach, cutting a path with his P-90 through the uglies, but leaving himself vulnerable in the process.
I forced my will to reach deeper around me for more magic, and poured into the spell all my frustration and anger at having found myself in this kind of situation, and focused it along my blasting rod.
"Fuego!" I screamed again, and despite not having enough time to prepare it, a scorching line of fire cut through the creatures like a blunt knife through butter - messily but efficient.
Someone was looking at me with wide eyes, but I had no time for that. I could feel I was going to pay dearly, and soon, for all the raw energy I'd spent left and right, not to mention the constant drain of the shield.
The onslaught of uglies seemed to have dwindled though, and not a moment too soon.
The last of the Mansons threw a nasty spurt of energy at me, and I stopped and dissipated it with the shield in the nick of time. Then the ugly fell to fire from behind it, and it was a damn good thing there were no more of them, because there was no more of me I could spend right then either.
My feet were doing that embarrassing thing when they stop obeying me in a timely manner, and the sounds around me took on the muffled quality sounds get after a cannon shot.
"Hey!" I heard Spiky - what was his name again? Shepherd? something like that, "are you okay?"
"Yes," said a sarcastic voice, "he just decided to take a nap here," and I was wondering at who dared to take the words right out of my mouth.
"You handle the ship's computer, Rodney, I'll handle the sarcasm," said Spiky Hair, except he couldn't have. Ship? Had I been imagining the whole thing while sleeping in front of Thomas's TV with Star Trek on or something?
I tried to ask as much, and was not too surprised when only mumbles came through.
"Who's he?" I heard a suspicious, low voice, that I hadn't heard before. I tried to look at the speaker, but my eyes didn't make it past a strong neck framed by rasta dreadlocks, about where my head would have been if I'd been standing. Hey, what was with that, I wondered, abandoning the effort of looking up, hadn't I been standing just a minute ago?
"Ronon, good to see you. He's been helping us against the Wraith," Spiky said.
"I'll carry him," said Rasta, a decisive tone about it, and I felt myself gaining altitude, though not by my own means, and then I knew nothing at all.
I must have passed the next hours in blissful unconsciousness, and McKay must have done his thing with the computer all the better for it, because the next thing I knew I was lying in the unmistakable white coarse sheets of a hospital bed, though the room itself looked nothing like the hospitals I'd ever seen. Spiky Hair sat by my bed, an attitude of guarded concern in his stance, and a gun in a thigh holster.
"Since that's obviously a weapon, I take it you're not happy to see me?" I drawled slowly, because my mouth was still feeling all weird.
His mouth quirked in a half-smile.
"Don't get me wrong, we're very grateful for your help with the Wraith yesterday. It's just a measure of caution. Call it educated paranoia," he said levelly.
His attitude was much more relaxed than yesterday. He was sitting on a narrow chair and somehow managed to look like he was sprawling negligently. He reminded me a bit of my brother Thomas. Same casual and unconcerned look, while deeper under the surface you could sense awareness and tension.
Sheppard, that was the guy's name. It suddenly came back to me in the form of a blurry flashback, along with something about a fight we'd been in, not very different from some fights I'd had alongside my half-brother.
"Don't tell me about paranoia," I muttered. I could understand paranoia. I was steeped knee deep in paranoia half of the time I spent awake. "I hate to ask such a cliche question, but... where am I?"
Sheppard's expression closed up a little at that, almost as if an invisible shutter slid into place and left only a little shadow.
"In the infirmary."
So it was a hospital of sorts, I realized, the same moment that I realized the implications. A hospital meant complicated machinery, sensitive machinery that could be destroyed by my proximity. Almost as soon as I realized that, several things happened at once.
A machine next to my head began beeping alarmingly. A young doctor followed like a comet by a trail of nurses swooped in and moved Sheppard aside with professional courtesy. And another machine began hissing.
"What? What's happening?"
"You need to take me out of here!" I tried to make myself heard through the cacophony around.
The doctor had begun working frantically, but now the general pace slowed and she eyed me closely.
"Colonel," she said, "did anyone do anything to the machines?"
"No!" Sheppard said defensively, "we were just having a friendly chat. I didn't touch anything!" which was, in my opinion, rather strange that he, and not me, should feel the target of suspicion.
"Good. Because according to this machine," she was looking at me now, "you're dead."
"He doesn't look very dead to me," piped Sheppard, poking his head closer to the screen, now that he wasn't being pushed aside by concerned nurses.
"D-doctor?" said another nurse bemusedly. "According to this machine, he's pregnant."
Sheppard snorted openly at that.
I groaned and tried to keep my worry level under control. There are many ways magic can interfere with delicate medical machinery. At least it wasn't something tragic like shutting down emergency systems and respirators. No, what with my being me, it had to be embarrassment instead.
"I'm neither dead nor pregnant," I said, "but I need to get away from any kind of electronic devices before anything worse happens."
"Worse than being dead?" asked Sheppard levelly. Wiseass.
"Not to me, to them. I never work well with machines."
"Well, I'm not done with you, Mr Dresden," the doctor said firmly. "You're not going anywhere until I've given you a clean bill of health."
I could see the professional stubbornness settling in, in the way the doctor's arms crossed in front of her. She might have been young, red-blond hair framing her pretty face, but there was an air of silent authority about her.
I sighed, but before I could reply something witty Sheppard stole my line.
"No offense, doc, but how are you gonna do that with a machine that declares him dead?"
I knew he was a smartass. Takes one to know one.
"How did we ever cope in the dark ages before there were machines to help us?" retorted the doctor and set about poking and prodding me the good ol' fashioned way, despite my protestations that I was fine. At last when Doctor Keller, as I found out her name was, declared herself "reluctantly satisfied" with the state of my health ("If you were one of my people, I'd order you to eat and sleep for the next three days") I was allowed to be led to a less electronics-cluttered area.
I was not surprised to see Sheppard following me closely with his gun at the ready, but I felt a little sting when he discreetly summoned a couple of soldiers, marines by the look of them, to tag along as escort.
"Would you mind waiting here for a minute?" he said, as if I had any choice.
I could have easily dispensed of my escort, even as barely recovered as I was, but so far I saw no reason to confront my gracious hosts. Also, I still had no idea where I was, but by the look of it this was no ordinary hospital, and the corridors could stretch for miles on end with no way out except past many more of those strapping marines. The words "secret military base" sprang to mind unbidden and I shuffled uncomfortably. I was certainly not going to attempt a merry crossing through the Nevernever. A few nightmarish images came to mind in flashes. Yesterday, the man had said. He'd also said something else, something I should have noticed at the moment... It would come to me in time. In the mean time, it wouldn't hurt to know a bit more about the people around me, especially since I had the strong feeling Sheppard had gone back to the doctor to question her some more about me.
With an apologetic thought for their privacy, I concentrated my attention and Listened.
"Are you sure about that?"
"Colonel, I assure you I know a Replicator when I scan one, and this man is no Replicator. There are some oddities in his scans, but not the nanite-infested kind. I need to take a deeper look at them."
"Yeah, if only machines wouldn't go nuts around him. Don't you find that just a bit suspiciously convenient?"
"Before they went crazy, they were working just fine."
"When he was unconscious, you mean?"
"Well, yeah." A pause. "So you think he might be consciously projecting some kind of interference?"
"I'm not suggesting anything, I'm just noticing some things. You're the doctor. If you say he's not a danger for my base, I'm going to get with the presumption of innocence and ask him directly about it."
Thumbs up for Sheppard. I liked to be presumed innocent. It made a nice change from all those times when I just had to be in the general vicinity of a crime scene and fingers would be pointed at me. I just wished I had a better answer for Sheppard than what I did, because I could tell how well that would go over. "Hi, I'm a wizard." I sighed and rubbed at my temples, unconsciously leaning against one of the metallic walls. Metallic? Definitely a military base. Who the hell makes their corridors out of steel?
"You okay?" came Sheppard's voice from very close and I startled. I'd stopped Listening when I sensed that the conversation was over and somehow missed his steps coming back.
"I'm fine. I wouldn't say no to the Doc's suggestion for a meal, though."
"What were those things yesterday?"
They all turned to stare at me.
"You mean this is the first time you've encountered the Wraith?"
Wraith, that's what Sheppard had said! "Grateful for your help against the wraith." But if those things were wraiths, they were no kind of wraiths I'd ever met. Ghostly apparitions don't generally use weapons.
"Uh, I'm not sure we're talking about the same thing here," I said cautiously.
"Oh, come on, big ugly things, bad hair, bad teeth, suck the life out of you through their hands?" McKay said impatiently.
"You killed about three of them yesterday," said Teyla.
"So you call them Wraith," I tried to stall, while summoning my fractured memories of yesterday.
If I'd taken a Look at them with my Sight, I'd have no problem recalling their images now. On the other hand, I was kind of glad I hadn't, because what I could recall was pretty hideous in itself. And there was another important detail that came back to me - their bodies hadn't dissolved into ectoplasm. They were very much of this world. Hell's bells.
"Where do you come from?" exploded McKay.
There was an easy question, and I was surprised I hadn't been asked about this before. It couldn't hurt, I thought, to admit who I was and where I was from.
If I'd said I was coming from the Disneyland on Mars, I wouldn't have caused this kind of sensation. They had all turned expectantly to Teyla, and when they heard what I had to say they all sort of froze in motion, and Teyla looked at them instead, and they looked from each other in stupor. I had the feeling that whatever they expected, it was not this. I also had a vague feeling of unease and foreboding generally known as "dread", but now the thing was out, all I could do was roll with it. Especially since I had no idea why Chicago would be such a bad word to them.
Sheppard was, unsurprisingly, the first to recover.
"Uh, do you mean like Chicago, Illinois? USA?"
"Is there another Chicago that I should know about?"
Well, I thought, there was Little Chicago, and there was underground Chicago, both of which I knew intimately, but I didn't think this was the kind of alternative they were expecting.
"You know, Chicago, the Windy City, the O'Hare airport, Lake Michigan?"
They were still exchanging uneasy looks. This was beginning to grate on my well-known short patience.
"Look, if you'd rather be all mysterious to the guy who saved your collective behinds yesterday, I don't mind, but I was promised lunch and I intend to honor it."
I dove into the food with a fake eagerness that, like a fake smile, didn't reach my spirit. Unlike a fake smile, my stomach was all into it though, and I managed to shovel a few spoons of whatever gooey thing passed for their side dish today.
Sheppard spoke again.
"I'm sorry, we didn't mean to be rude," he said, sounding about as sorry as I was cheerful. "It's just, if you're from Chicago, there's a tiny problem. How did you get here?"
"And how many laws did you break doing it?" added McKay.
I shifted in my seat and poked at the cold steak.
"You know, speaking about that, you haven't answered my question about where exactly I am. Because I honestly don't know."
All friendliness was almost gone from Sheppard's eyes, and for some reason it made me more sore than it should have.
"You are in a place you couldn't possibly have gotten to directly from Chicago," he drawled.
Damn but he was good at the confounding game. I'm no amateur myself, but I was sore and tired and lost and I'd had enough.
"I never said I got here directly, wherever here is. But to understand what I'm going to tell you, there's another tiny detail I should get out of the way first."
By that moment, I figured I had two options. Say nothing, and make them more and more suspicious, or say the truth. With any luck they'd decide I was the meek kind of madman, still fit for society, and let me go. Worst case scenario, they'd believe me. Big military base, the last thing I wanted was to be believed. The one thing I was pretty sure about military and magic was that if they ever got over the denial stage, they'd blunder right into the practical mindset and would decide to use me - with or without my consent - and probably poke and prod at me to find out what makes me tick. I was firmly decided to refrain from any further proof of real magic.
So I told them.
With many apologies and pitying looks, I was back in the infirmary, being looked all over for the effects of a concussion or perhaps chronic madness by a concerned Keller.
"Rodney, something is definitely wrong with my scanner," she said with frustration, and I sympathized.
Now that I decided to put my cards on the table, I'd told them repeatedly that their machinery would probably fail embarrassingly and possibly explode, and of course they wouldn't have any of it.
"Should I call Doctor Zelenka to investigate?" asked Jennifer, and the effect on McKay was instantaneous.
"Oh, please," he scoffed. "Zelenka wouldn't know where to begin."
Fifteen minutes later, McKay put his laptop down in exasperation and said something entirely opposite.
"You know what? Why don't you bug Zelenka with this crap, these half-assed voodoo machines are giving me a headache."
He stormed out, ignoring Jennifer's "I told you so" smirk and throwing me a dark look, as if I was the source of all his frustrations and troubles, which in a way I guess was correct. I replied with an innocent smile.
I was already pitying this Zelenka, whoever he was. There was nothing he could discover or do to help the poor machines, which were growing more and more uncooperative as I was growing more annoyed and weary.
He entered with McKay in tow, both followed after a short while by a blond woman.
"Doctor Carter is here too," he announced happily. "By all means, have at it."
She was introduced as Doctor, but I would have bet my beer money that she had a military background as well. There wasn't much resemblance to Murphy apart from the hair color - Carter was taller, built solidly though elegantly - but in one very important respect: they exuded authority. Carter was obviously the superior here, though not in an in-your-face kind of way. Her hair was braided in a medium-length braid, which was in turn pinned to her head. The effect was of softening that military air with a calm femininity, and accented the intelligence shining through her blue eyes. I noticed all this because I'm a good observer of the human nature. I have to, because of my job. It's one of the many hardships of it. I mean, look where the job took me this time.
Zelenka ignored McKay and stepped right to my bed. He took one look at the scanner, muttered something in a foreign language, but instead of starting to muck about with the machine he shut it down.
"They told me you claim to be a wizard."
"I am a wizard," I sighed. "Do we have to go over this again?"
"Since when are you practicing?"
The others looked at him as if he were crazier than I was, and I knew what they thought about that.
"Since adolescence, pretty much."
"Mhm. And how advanced are you?"
"Oh, come on, if you're trying to indulge a madman that's just cruel, Zelenka," said McKay, the epitome of niceness. "Wizard. What's next, flying pigs, fluffy basketball playing werewolves? The question is, is he crazy or is he lying, in which case is he a Replicator or plain vanilla human who got his hands on technology we could study?"
"Hey, I'm right here," I protested. "You can ask me."
McKay turned briefly to me.
"Yes, but you're not saying anything that makes sense, so why would I talk to you, hm?" and resumed the poking of devices.
"The ancient machines are fine," Dr Keller said, "it's just ours that fluke out."
"Hmm," repeated McKay.
"How ancient are they? I tried to tell you, if it's recent enough to have electrical current, I'm disturbing it."
They looked at me curiously and exchanged a look, that patented "we know more than you do, but we're not gonna share" look. It drives me crazy when I get that. The lights started flickering and I tried to calm myself.
"I have a theory," McKay said, eying me with even more suspicion than before. "Everybody wait here, don't do anything."
They seemed sure enough that McKay's ideas were worth investigating, since they more or less obeyed.
Zelenka looked at me with a long-suffering smile.
"You're surrounded by scientists. How did you think being wizard was going to go?"
I mirrored his sigh.
"Someone in your family?"
"Aunt," he nodded.
I couldn't very well mention the White Council with all the civilians around, so I tried to wink while asking him how advanced his aunt was.
"Enough," he said, raising both eyebrows.
The door whooshed and Rodney swooped in again, brandishing some kind of contraption.
"Zelenka," he said shoving the device in front of the friendly Czech, "touch the screen."
Zelenka sighed and complied. Nothing happened.
Then McKay himself passed his hand over the screen. It lit blue and pinged delicately.
He held it in front of Sheppard, who recoiled slightly from having it poked into his nose and glared comically at Rodney. These two, I had decided from the brief interactions, were either mortal enemies or friends for life.
Sheppard touched the screen without being told and it lit bright green, making a loud noise.
Then McKay shoved the device in my direction.
"Let me guess, you want me to touch the screen?" I tried to gain some time before I would inevitably burn the hapless gadget and possibly McKay's hand with it. Not that he hadn't earned it, by this point.
"No, I want you to stand up and sing 'Hallelujah'! Of course I want you to touch this, and I made them do it first to prove that we're not trying to kill you, and also to demonstrate the scale of responses you're likely to get from it."
He'd definitely earned it.
I scowled and poked a finger inside the touchscreen. I was so certain it would go off in sparks that I pulled my finger as fast as I could and averted my face, so I didn't see whatever reaction it produced until after I'd hear the loud musical beep. It was loud, but not unpleasant. Definitely not the sound of machinery breaking, and I cautiously peered at it through the fingers of my other hand.
"Do that again!" McKay squeaked.
I did, too amazed to protest, and the screen lit brightly white while emitting the loud music again.
"Aha! This proves it! It hasn't done this since she was here!" McKay pointed an accusing finger at me. "You're an ancient!"
"Hey! I'm younger than you!" I said by reflex, despite not being certain what he was ranting about, because that was completely unfair. I knew I probably looked like hell warmed over - two days of running and battle will do that to a guy - but still, that was a bit harsh.
"Stop playing the innocent! Ancient, Alterran, whatever you called yourselves. If he didn't interfere with our scanners, you know what you'd find, Jennifer? Nothing! Just nothing. He'd be in perfect health, and since we won't be fooled by that again," he looked pointedly at Sheppard for whatever reason, "you've decided to fool us by fooling with our machinery. Well, it won't work, mister, so whatever your hidden agenda is this time, why don't you just tell us what you want?"
"Rodney..." Sheppard warned.
"Look," McKay blundered on, "you don't have to mumbo-jumbo us with this crap. We understand technology. For Heaven's sake, we live, breathe and eat technology here!"
"Rodney..." Sheppard began again.
"Oh no! You stay away from him, I know you and Ascended women!"
"Hey! It only happened once! And he's so obviously not a woman."
"So what? Do I know how this works for the Ancients? We don't want a repeat of Chaya again," he almost hissed the name.
"I can't believe he's still bitching about that," Zelenka said.
"Gentlemen!" Carter said, and confirmed my deductions about her authority. Everybody fell silent, and looked as guilty as schoolboys caught throwing paper airplanes. If this was a military base, I wasn't sure I wanted them watching over me or my city.
"What Rodney's device proves is that he has the ATA gene, and in greater measure than Colonel Sheppard. This is nothing new for humans, though nobody we tested has ever shown that much compatibility."
"Yes, because we've never tested an Ancient before," Rodney piped in, and I didn't hide my grin when Sheppard swatted him on the arm like a cat.
"Doctor Zelenka," she said, more calm than I'd have been in her position, "please share whatever information you have with us. We're going with the assumption that anything's possible as long as it happens."
"Everything is so easy to explain if he's an Ancient," Rodney muttered sotto-voce.
"And why would Ancients be more real than wizards?" Zelenka asked. "Look, my aunt is a witch, and I think Mr Dresden is telling the truth. It would certainly explain the erratic behavior of the medical equipment, and would satisfactorily account for your defeat of the Wraith yesterday. You told me he extended some kind of shield and struck them with a column of fire and kinetic energy, respectively. All of these are things I've witnessed before."
"So you've been having hallucinations before you came here? Oh my God, we left a madman in charge of the city! That must have been some kind of energy weapon!"
The city? A whole military city? What had I gotten myself into?
"Of course it was a weapon. A magic weapon."
"I know I'm surrounded by idiots, but I thought you at least were a scientist idiot!"
"Yes, Rodney, I am a scientist, and my Aunt Radka is still a witch, despite all my attempts to unmask the physics behind it."
I couldn't understand how Zelenka hadn't smacked McKay senseless yet. Maybe that was exclusively Sheppard's job. I tried to change the subject.
"You became a physicist so you could explain your aunt's powers?" I asked, ignoring McKay's going red-faced and angry behind Zelenka. The lengths to which people go in order to explain the unexplainable never ceases to impress me.
"No," he turned his level look on me, "I became physicist because I love physics. Magic is just another challenge, a puzzle."
McKay snorted audibly.
"Oh please, now you'll tell me you think magic will one day give you the grand unified theory of everything. Let me get my tuxedo ready for your Nobel prize acceptance speech. Not!"
"No need to hurry, Rodney, I'm still working out the details," Zelenka said in perfect deadpan tone.
I was hoping for another burst of authority from Carter, perhaps in the shape of physical punishment, but when I glanced at her I saw she was absorbed in though, mulling over something wile focusing on the device that apparently indicated me as an Ancient. At least someone was thinking in the middle of this schoolyard cacophony.
Sheppard had been rolling his eyes so hard I was expecting they were already at 360 degrees, and McKay's indignant scoff gave him the opportunity to step in.
"You knew about this? Why didn't you tell us? And why have I never heard of wizards before?"
Both Zelenka and I turned to look at him incredulously, but it was the Czech guy who spoke.
"Tell you what? That my aunt's a witch? I have. You all have assumed she is Wiccan. That magic is real? Would you have believed me? Besides, most of them prefer to stay a little more under the radar," he added, looking intently at me.
In all that pell-mell of botanists, xenobiologists, marines, cranky astrophysicists and quirky military people, there just had to be a guy who'd ordered the full digitized collection of American Yellow Pages. One database search later they'd been gleefully pointing out, on the Chicago volume, the incriminating chapter "Wizards", under which only one name was listed - one Harry Dresden, currently claiming to be sitting, or rather lying in front of them.
Doctor Carter had apparently reached a temporary conclusion, for she suddenly spoke with determination.
"Gentlemen, during our...travels and research we've seen many things that seemed to defy science. We haven't managed to explain many of the things we're using through empiric proof. A lot of the science is still too advanced for us to explain accurately. What you call 'magic'," she managed to make the word sound neutral, not crazy-talk like McKay, "could very well be another form of energy. Maybe the Ancients would all have been wizards, if they hadn't chosen a different path. Maybe the ATA gene is one and the same with 'magic', or maybe it only has the same effect on Rodney's device. I think we can go with the presumption of innocence with regard to Mr Dresden."
I knew why I liked her at first sight, and it had nothing to do with her pleasant physical appearance.
The others seemed to bow under the weight of her experience. I wondered what kind of "travels" and "research" could have been involved that would make one acceptant of technology so advanced that would be hardly distinguishable from magic. It was still a far cry from being accepting of magic itself, but it was a start. It also made a welcome change from the interminable "You're insane" - "No, you're insane" matches and from all the suspicion.
Speaking of which...
"You know, you still haven't answered my question."
All eyes turned to me.
"Where am I?"
Hours of "It's classified!" "Strictly classified!" and one "I could tell you, but then I'd have to kill you, and that'd really be a shame" (Sheppard, of course) later, and after signing a non-disclosure agreement more threatening and stern than the Unseelie Accords, I was finally allowed, under escort, on a balcony out in the sunlight. They were all clustering around me, looking more like proud children than stern guardians, peering expectantly at my face, and as soon as I tuned out the blinding sunlight I understood why.
My lower jaw went on a gaping spree of its own will.
Some time later, when there were only Zelenka and a few other guys around, the Czech physicist asked softly.
"Would you look at it? I mean, look like a wizard, tell me what you see?"
After all I'd seen these past days, my head was full of indelible images of a whole new horde of things, some of which I really wished I could unsee. I wasn't sure I was ready to add yet another eternal stamp of something potentially extremely powerful, but what the heck. It couldn't be worse than the creatures they called Wraith. Besides, the little guy had been of inestimable help in making me look less like a lunatic and my only ally in a world of skeptics. I couldn't refuse his request and feel all right with myself, so I took a deep breath, let my Sight take over and for the first time I looked upon the not-lost city of Atlantis with my wizard senses.
It turned out I needed that deep breath, because what I saw was exactly what I anticipated - and so much more. I saw the majestic strength of a citadel, surrounded by the almost living energy lines built by thousands of years of power, followed by thousands of years of legend; I heard the hushed noise of a thousand waves and as many voices intertwined with its history; I felt the silent power of a submerged ship, lying in wait for those who would restore it to its grandeur; I saw a home and a weapon.
"Beautiful, isn't she?" said a voice next to me, and I recognized it as Sheppard's. He'd somehow made his way onto the balcony unheard, and was now leaning in that faux-negligent way of his against the railing.
I switched out of wizard vision and turned my head to look at his eyes. I could, without starting a soulgaze, because he wasn't focusing on me. He too was looking up at the spiky towers of the city, and I saw enough in his eyes to understand that he was seeing it just as I did, except he didn't have the Sight. That was knowledge acquired in flesh and bone, through living and bleeding for the citadel and the people within.
I did my best to explain Zelenka in mundane terms what I'd Seen, while Sheppard stood on, gazing over the ocean and half-smiling in that way of his when you didn't know whether he was smiling at the nonsense I was spouting or he was lost in his own inner world.
"I wish Aunt Radka could see this as we do," sighed Zelenka.
We sat in silence for a while more.
"Something's been bothering me," said Sheppard after a while. "Why are there no wizards in the Pegasus galaxy? We'd surely had heard something of it from Teyla, and she says she's never heard of anything like it either except in the oldest legends and fairytales. No people with the ATA gene so far, either, whether they're the same or not."
"They'd have come in damn handy against those Wraith," I said.
"So perhaps the Wraith culled them in the early days," Zelenka said darkly, and we all shivered at the implication.
An actual witchhunt, mercilessly eliminating all those who could have borne practitioners of the art. It brought me vivid memories of all too recent events, and I pulled my coat tighter around me.
Sheppard noticed and drew closer, pointing out some things of interest, talking lightly about the weather and the ocean. We stood on the balcony until the sun drew long shadows from the spiky towers, sprinkling everything with my first sunset on an alien planet.
"So, what do you think, like to stick around some more, give us a hand here?"
"I wish I could," I said, and I did. "But I have my own city, and there's trouble there I have to take care of that no one else can."
He nodded understandingly.
"Too bad, I'd have liked to see McKay throwing a hissy fit any time the word 'magic' was used," he said lightly.
"Nah, it would have never worked between us anyway. I'd have destroyed half the computers in the city before I was of any use," I said, mirroring his tone.
"Well, let's hope you don't destroy anything on your way back. We've had enough trouble persuading the SGC to accept this as it is, we wouldn't want to lose our friendship points with them. McKay proposed we anesthetize you for your return trip."
"Gee, that's so thoughtful of him."
I had decided that they were friends after all, so out of courtesy for his feelings I refrained from making my opinions about McKay known any further than that.
"He's a bit offended about the whole magic thing," Sheppard said, quirking a smile, and was that an understatement of the finest kind.
"Was that before or after it was decided I'd go by magic ring and not three weeks by spaceship?" I grumbled, but with no real heat behind it.
Deep in my secret geeky core it gave me a happy jolt every time I said "spaceship" and knew it was real. It was probably how Sheppard felt about "magic".
Doctor Carter was still looking at me cautiously, as for McKay... well. He'd been the most helpful in arranging my transfer back to Earth. But Sheppard, Zelenka and in smaller measure Teyla and Ronon seemed genuinely sorry to see me go.
I'd have loved to stick around some more, but I'd disappeared in the middle of a battle, and my friends must have gone crazy searching for me. I was going itchy not knowing what was going on without me in old Chicago too.
I shook Sheppard's hand warmly, nodded to everybody else, and stepped through a portal as shiny and weird as anything magic had ever produced.