"Oh, oh, would you look at that," Rodney said as they exited the space gate over a grim little ice ball of a moon.
John frowned at the dime-sized primary illuminating it as the jumper moved out of the moon's shadow. Either they were a hell of lot farther out than usual or that was a very dim star.
"Doesn't look like much," Ronon commented after peering through the jumper's front port at the dirty orange-brown moon, dreadlocks sliding over his shoulders when he leaned forward.
"Like you know anything." Rodney was intent, fingers dancing over the keys of his laptop, six different displays appearing over the co-pilot's console. "That's an M-class red dwarf."
"Aren't they pretty common?" John asked.
"The most common Main Sequence star in our universe," Rodney agreed. He kept typing and looking and typing some more. Small happy huffs and hums accompanied his work. "Mortenson will be beside himself with some of this data. The day we declassify…."
John pulled up a couple of HUDs himself, checking out what this system had on offer. Okay, they had the moon, about the size of Mercury, beat up as Mimas, and half a dozen others along with a thin ring, all orbiting the blue-green giant planet that filled the view port when he reoriented the jumper. Sensors also registered one planet within the red dwarf's habitable zone, another farther in, a spotty asteroid belt, and two more massive bodies farther out.
"Whoa," he murmured. "Gas giant or ice giant?"
"What?" Rodney muttered then looked up. "Oh. Blue, methane, ice." He stopped and checked a sensor. "Hunh. Maybe not. Looks like a gas giant. The color must be some other trace element. Maybe we can get an atmospheric sample later."
John looked at the deep bands of green, the dark blues and curling, roiling whites. It should have reminded him of Earth's oceans and clouds, but he knew that dark storm high on the curve facing them could hold Earth and Lantea and have room for the seven moons orbiting the planet.
Teyla leaned forward and looked. "It is beautiful."
"Maybe from out here," Rodney said, "but we wouldn't want to get up close. – God, this is such a treasury of information. All the stargates we've used before have been placed near G-types. Try getting the SGC to authorize a scientific mission to study an M-class or check a system with a brown dwarf. They just laugh. No, it's all military missions and G-types. They wouldn't even authorize a day trip to 51 Pegasus B."
"Where's that?" Ronon asked.
"Actually Bellerophon is in the Milky Way. It's interesting because it's a 'hot Jupiter', barely .05 AU from its primary and something that big shouldn't have formed in so close. A scientific expedition aboard one of the 303s or even a ha'tek could have learned whether its orbit had been shifted, how and when." Rodney sighed. "No one in the SGC has time for pure science."
John patted his shoulder. "Sorry, buddy."
Rodney closed several of the displays. "We're here to look for ZPMs," he said, "so we'd better get to it."
"The database didn't say what this system has to do with them?" Teyla asked.
"It didn't even note that it's an M-class star system. Just the mention of a connection in that history text Metzinger has been translating." Rodney brightened. "Maybe there'll be a factory or an R&D installation, something they didn't want to dirty up one of the G systems with."
"Maybe," John said. "So where do we start?"
"Let's try the second planet out," Rodney decided. "It looks like it's tidally locked to the star, but maybe it wasn't when the Ancients were fooling around here."
"If that's the case, we'll need space suits," John commented. He set the jumper on a course for the second planet.
Ronon grunted in displeasure.
Rodney bent over his laptop again. "No, actually, according to sensors, it still has a viable atmosphere. Mmm. Well, it looks like the theories were right for once."
"Sufficient carbon dioxide, at least a bar, and enough heat is trapped within the atmosphere to prevent outgassing on the far side." Rodney hmmed to himself again. "That's how it works with the Land of Light, but it's a freak and orbits a G-type star. No one's ever found a habitable planet in an M-class system." Another sigh. "Of course, no one's been looking, either."
"What's a G-type?" Ronon asked. He added, "Anything like a G-string?"
Rodney's hands stilled on his keyboard. Then he turned toward John. John bit the inside of his cheek and kept his gaze forward.
"What the hell have your marines been telling, or should I say showing and telling, him?" He turned in his seat and addressed Teyla. "Hit him. I mean it. If you knew – "
Teyla punched Ronon's shoulder. "I know what a G-string is."
Ronon rubbed his biceps. "Ow."
"Baby," Rodney dismissed as he turned back to the front. "In case you were actually interested in more than horrifying me with your ignorance, a G-type is a star like Lantea's or Sol aka Earth's primary or pretty much any sun you've seen from a planet with a stargate. They're stable, relatively long-lived, and seem to usually have several planets orbiting them, at least one within the habitable zone, making it easy for the Ancients to pop in and terraform said planet. Thus the many worlds in both Pegasus and the Milky and even the Ori galaxy with human populations."
"Thus endeth the lesson," John said.
"Go ahead and laugh," Rodney said. "I can remember within my lifetime the discovery that yes, other stars did have exoplanets and I bet you can too, if you weren't too busy getting in some cheerleader's pants to pay attention to the scientific discoveries of the time."
John leaned back. "Yeah, I remember wishing I could see one through a telescope." He checked the course he'd programmed into the jumper's autopilot. "ETA four hours."
Rodney hummed and said, "I'm going to take some readings while we're here, feel free to not bother me until then."
Ronon pulled out a whetstone eventually and began refining the already razor sharp edges of his knives. Teyla tipped her seat back and listened to the iPod John had bought and Rodney had loaded for her. She liked Celtic and folk music, but appreciated the classical library Rodney had included. To John's disappointment, neither she nor Ronon cared much for country or rock. He supposed it might be an acquired taste.
John killed time reading reports Lorne had loaded onto his own tablet. Jumper missions often involved longer transit times than this. He tried to remember to bring something to occupy him without leaving the pilot's seat.
Rodney murmured to himself, fingers clacking over the keys, paused to pull a second laptop out of his pack, which had been carelessly dropped on the deck next to the co-pilot's station, then worked on it too, muttering, "Still not enough processing power," to himself.
John checked the autopilot, then threaded his way back from the cockpit to the main cargo area, ducked into the tiny washroom and took a piss, then washed up. He splashed water on his face and stood over the miniature sink, hands braced on the counter top, while droplets caught on his eyelashes, his lips, the stubble on his jaw, before beading and falling into the sink. Nothing but darkness behind his closed eyelids, soothing, while the cool water refreshed him. The jumper hummed pleasantly all around him and his lips quirked up into a smile.
He fished a bottle of water from one of the storage bins for himself, then another for Rodney, and went back to the cockpit. Rodney took his bottle with a grunt that translated as thanks and busy. John contemplated whether it would be smarter to eat before they de-orbited down to the planet or after. Before, he decided. Rodney and Ronon would be less likely to complain or eat anything indigenous. He wondered if there would be natives, if they'd try to kill them and how long before Rodney told them how important he was.
A fond glance to the side revealed Rodney was still intent, even smiling to himself.
He suppressed the impulse to run his finger down Rodney's exposed nape, over the tender skin revealed by the gap of his collar as he bent his neck. Rodney was dating Katie. He wanted a wife, maybe even children, despite his avowels of loathing them. John wanted to hold onto his career. They didn't do that. They were friends. They weren't going to go any farther than that.
He ran another long range scan at one hour out. The jumper's scanners worked best within one AU. Beyond that they were good, but didn't pick up the little things.
Like a Wraith cruiser in orbit.
"Ah, crap," John groaned.
"What? What?" Rodney said. His gaze lifted from his laptop and settled on John's sensor display hovering over the pilot's console. "Sonovabitch."
A swarm of smaller vehicles arrowed toward them from the cruiser. Cruisers had sensors that could scan much finer and at a greater distance than the jumper. The Wraith had already found them and responded.
"John?" Teyla said. "I am sensing – "
"Yeah, Teyla, we got that," he answered her.
Off went the autopilot as John canceled their course, reversed the jumper and applied braking force to negate their inertia. The instant they were dead in space, he pushed the drive pods for everything, plotting a least time course for the stargate, briefly grateful he hadn't been pushing the jumper to maximum before.
"They know we are here," Teyla told him.
The darts had launched well before the jumper was close enough to see the cruiser, so he'd already drawn that conclusion. Confirmation didn't make John feel any better.
Rodney had dumped all his astronomical survey programs. "No kidding," he said.
John began calculating relative speeds and distance as soon as he had enough data, the plots showing on his display.
"That's not good," Ronon said.
"Unless you're the Wraith," Rodney sniped.
They were both right. It would be a long race, hours before the darts caught up to the jumper accelerating away from them, but they had speed on their side. The darts would catch up to their jumper before they could slingshot around the bulk of the ice giant and use the stargate orbiting it's moon, though. The Wraith didn't waste energy providing the kind of shields and inertial dampeners that made the jumpers such comfortable rides. They let their regenerative abilities compensate for pulling Gs that would quickly mush a human's internal organs. It tended to even up in a dogfight, because jumpers were more maneuverable than darts, but this wasn't about maneuvering. They were in a race and the darts were flat out faster on the straight-away. Numbers didn't lie and the story was written on the display before him.
"John?" Teyla asked.
He input a couple of alternative courses, plotted a zigzag through the ice, rock, and dust of the ring. None of them slowed the darts down enough to make a difference.
"We're screwed," Rodney said.
"How close do we need to get to the gate to dial it?" John asked him.
"Closer than we're going to get," Rodney snapped.
"Just answer the question. Can we dial it from the gas giant?"
"Okay, okay," Rodney said as he typed into his laptop. "We can try it, line of sight, and maybe we'll get lucky, but it won't do us any good. We might not even get to the gate before the thirty-eight minute closed."
"No, but we could comm Atlantis, give them our situation, make sure Colonel Carter doesn't send through another jumper right into a Wraith ambush."
"Great," Rodney grumbled. "Any last words, anybody?"
"We're not going to die," John said.
Rodney gave him a look of disbelief. "Oh, really? You've received word from on high, because believe me, I'd love to have even an iota of your confidence."
"We're going to duck down into the atmosphere of Big Blue there, down past where the darts can go, and wait them out."
Rodney screeched. "Are you – you are insane! We'll need shields too and shields take energy. They can wait up there until the jumper goes POP!"
"And then they'll go away."
"Like we'll care at that point!"
John rolled his eyes. "I'm not stupid, Rodney. We're not going to stay down long, we're just going to fool them and go to cloak. You've got two hours to figure out a way to make them think we dove too deep and went, as you so elegantly put it, pop."
"Oh," Rodney said, nonplussed. "Hunh. That's not bad. Yes, I believe, yes, I can do that." He ducked his head and started typing. "Two hours?"
"Piece of cake," John told him.
He wasn't kidding though. Two hours was much more time than Rodney usually had to save the day and he wouldn't even be working with unknown equipment and technology. John had perfect confidence in him.
"Anything we can do?" Ronon asked from behind him.
John shrugged. "Dig out a couple of MREs. I'm sort of hungry."
An hour later Rodney looked up from his laptop, studied the display still showing the darts closing on their own position as they approached the gas giant. Clear beyond the holographic display, the vast blue-green curve filled half the view port, occluding everything else.
"Okay, I've got it. You'll need to let one dart get close enough to take a shot at us and hit. We'll cut power to one drive pod and vent some junk out the back hatch, which means sealing us up in the cockpit. As soon as as the hatch is closed again, you take us down into the atmosphere and I will burn out every sensor emitter we have generating a false explosive compression profile. We'll channel the energy from the shut down drive pod to the cloak and get the hell out."
John gave him a friendly slap to the shoulder. "Knew you'd come up with something."
"It will be crowded in the cockpit," Teyla observed. "Will we be trapped in the forward portion long?"
"It'll take a half hour for the jumper to regenerate pressure in the rear compartment," Rodney said. "And anything back there that isn't pressure sealed is going to explode, but the mess will blow out the hatch."
"I'll get the MREs and water," Ronon declared.
"Oh, good idea," Rodney said, perking up. "We may still have a long wait before the darts head back to the cruiser or the cruiser may decide to investigate."
"Don't jinx us," John told him.
"I will help," Teyla said. "We will need to choose what to vent. Rodney, should I – "
"You know what is expendable and what isn't," Rodney said. He looked honestly puzzled. "Teyla, you don't need to check with me. It's not like you're stupid."
The cabin went silent.
"Thank you, Rodney."
"Just go," Rodney muttered.
Ronon quietly left the cabin, followed by Teyla. Their voices carried, soft and not quite intelligible, from the rear compartment as they began securing the storage bins.
John opened another display showing the gas giant, the ice moon and the stargate along with their project course. He highlighted several points. "If we approach the atmosphere at this angle, we'll have a ten minute window with a direct line between the jumper and the stargate. Can you remote dial from there?"
Rodney's hands moved directly to the co-pilot's console where it meshed with the DHD controls at the center. "It's possible. Thank whatever gods you like for subspace comms. Radio wouldn't get there in time. Oh and talk fast. Actually, it might be better to record our message, encrypt and compress it, then send it. We don't want the Wraith finding out our plan, do we?"
John angled a look at him.
"Our plan?" he teased.
"I'm the one that always has to come up with a way to make your lunatic ideas work, so yes, our plan." Rodney's chin came up.
"Good enough and that's a good idea. Let's put together the message now."
The darts had crept disturbingly close by the time John finished recording their message.
"Teyla? Ronon? Anything to add?"
"No," Ronon said.
"Jennifer is aware of my wishes should I not return," Teyla explained. "I have left a recording."
Rodney loaded every sensor reading they'd taken, added a message for Zelenka and compressed the entire thing using the same protocol he'd once used to send last messages to Earth. John hoped this mission would end as well.
"Okay," he said and shifted course, diving the jumper toward the gas giant. It fills the entire view port. The jumper skimmed just above the atmosphere, where the magnetosphere captured charged particles and the resulting aurorae played over the poles. There was a thrill to it that never went away – spaceships! – no matter how much danger they were in.
Gravitic and proximity alarms started up. The darts were closing behind them. One took a shot though the jumper was still out of range and it had no effect.
Rodney's hands were already on the DHD, each triangular touch pad lighting under them as he pre-dialed Atlantis up to the last symbol.
"On my mark," John said as the jumper crested to the apex of the curve it had been following, approaching the critical window. It shuddered as the closest dart fired on them again, hitting the jumper this time. The shield pulled energy from the inertial dampeners for a picosecond. John watched the display and held their course, correcting it the way he breathed, unconsciously.
Rodney pressed the last symbol.
They were too far to see the stargate with their bare eyes, but the jumper's sensors registered the energy spike as the wormhole opened.
"Got it," Rodney said. "Sending now."
The dart fired again and the jumper jolted.
"Shield dropping ten percent," Rodney said. "Message away."
"Time for phase two," John said. "Teyla, Ronon, check the cockpit cabin seal, please."
He rotated the jumper on its horizontal axis and dived toward the atmosphere, still moving away from the dart as fast as possible. The blue-green color bled into opaque white as they approached the thermosphere and a pressure alarm began ringing along with the others.
"Can you turn that damn thing off?" he demanded as gravity caught the jumper and began pulling it down and they accelerated.
Rodney didn't even look up from the co-pilot's console. "I could but I think my time is better spent modulating the shield to compensate for the increased pressure. Pay attention."
Teyla settled into her usual seat, behind John. She reported, "Everything is secure."
"Strap in then. You better do whatever it is you do to block them sensing you too," John said. He checked the read-out. "Approaching the mesophere in twenty, nineteen, eighteen, seventeen, sixteen…"
"They will not touch my mind," Teyla declared. John risked turning his head and met her determined look. Teyla hated being a weak link just as much as he did, as Ronon would, as even Rodney in his own way. He grinned at her and she settled back in her seat. They were a prideful bunch.
The first dart, the one with the real hot dog pilot, was following them down, trying to line up for the perfect kill shot. John jigged and zigzagged the jumper, all the while dropping deeper and deeper, friction against the shield burning into a white-hot light too strong for the eyes. The view port polarized black to protect them and his blinked away orange-white afterimages. The jumper began pulling energy from the inertial dampeners again to strengthen the shield and Rodney groaned.
"Don't barf," John told him.
"Stop trying to recreate the Cyclone ride."
"We're almost deep enough."
"I see that. My program is loaded."
"Entering the mesosphere," John said. He rolled the jumper sideways to the dart, hesitated the fraction of a second it would take the Wraith Baron Von Richthofen to gain a target lock, and kept rolling away.
The jumper shook, a tremble that communicated itself up through the stick and into John's hands, as the shield absorbed the hit and struggled to compensate for their speed, the increasing pressure, and the hit all at once.
"Now, Rodney!" John yelled. He cut the power to one drive pod.
Rodney's hand hit the hatch release and they vented the rear compartment's atmosphere and all the junk Teyla and Ronon had gathered: containers, bench seats, organics from the recycling system attached to the washroom, spare pieces of equipment, even the arms case. "Let it work, let it work, let it work," Rodney repeated to himself as his hands went to the synched laptop and he initiated the ECM program he'd put together, stabbing at the last button with panicky force. "Done! Cloaking now."
Half of John's sensor data disappeared.
"What the hell!?"
"I told you I'd burn out the emitters!" Rodney snapped. "What did you think that meant? Use the passive data."
John pulled the jumper out its suicidal dive, slowing and channeling the energy they'd built up into a curve that had them skimming along just within the mesosphere at a right angle from their previous course. He monitored the information provided by the passive sensors and grunted as an energy spike bloomed along their previous course. It looked like the Red Baron back there hadn't been able to recover before his dart reached its limits. No other darts had followed them in.
Despite the blaring alarms, the interior of the cockpit filled with the heavy silence of four people waiting, almost holding their breaths, as the seconds ticked away, taking them farther and farther away from the Wraith darts still outside the Jovian planet's atmosphere.
John finally blew out a stale breath and turned to face Rodney. Rodney kept studying his own sensor suite's remaining read-outs for another breath, then looked at John, his eyes wide. "What do you know, it worked."
"Don't sound so surprised," John told him even though he felt much the same.
"You fool them?" Ronon asked.
"Yeah, the rest of the Wraith should think we were shot down."
John rolled his shoulders to loosen some tension and flexed his hand on the stick.
"Shield's holding at eighty-eight percent. The patch route from the drive pod to the cloak is maintaining at ninety-seven point six, which is better than I could have hoped, and we still have absolute structural integrity," Rodney went on. "At this rate and altitude, we can stay here for forty-three point five hours, and still have enough power to achieve escape velocity and return to the stargate. How about that?"
"How about that," John agreed.
It looked like their plan was going to work. The Wraith, despite being long-lived, weren't much for patience. He doubted the darts would hang around more than a few hours. They only had so much life support aboard. Even the Wraith couldn't survive the cold of space or live without air. Besides, they were greedy bastards. The pilots would want to get back to the cruiser and on to the next culling and their share of the feast.
The alarms shut off. The quiet made John's ears ring though he'd become almost oblivious to their blare.
"And stay off!" Rodney muttered, lifting his hands away from his laptop theatrically.
Things were fine for about another minute before John caught a glimpse of their airspeed reading, compared it to the drive output and started calculated what could make that much difference. "Rodney…"
"I see it, I see it," Rodney muttered.
"Christ, is that the wind?" John said as he figured it out. He turned the jumper and let it go with the wind, watching their speed rise as they surfed at over six hundred kilometers per hour.
"Try to stay in the center of the zone," Rodney instructed. "The turbulence at the edges could catch us and we'd end up thrown into a storm bigger than Earth. If we end up in one of the belts, the jumper could get dragged down so far so fast, we might not have enough power to pull out."
"Not as easy as it looks," John muttered, keeping his hand on the stick, correcting and re-correcting as the wind tossed the jumper like a fleck of dust in a cyclone. Come to think of it, that was a pretty good description of what they were comparatively speaking. A speck of flotsam in the big, bad, beautiful universe. Even with inertial dampeners and the incredible technology of the Ancients, this was real flying, and John found himself grinning fiercely.
"Oh, great, you're getting off on this, aren't you?" Rodney commented.
"Six hundred kilometers per hour," John said as he righted the jumper. God, he was windsurfing on a Jovian planet! Sometimes his life won everything. The wind wanted to spin the cylinder shape of the jumper like a bullet, but the constant reorientation stressed the artificial gravity inside. He concentrated on maintaining a consistent attitude.
"Yes, well, some us aren't hardcore adrenaline junkies." Rodney sniffed. He looked out the view port at the roiling, streaming, green, blue, and white streaked clouds of water, methane and ammonia ice. "Blue, blue, why blue? The apparent percentage of methane isn't on par with a Uranian type atmosphere…Hmm."
"Hmm?" John prompted.
Rodney waved one hand. "Working with nothing but passive sensors means I'm having to speculate. I think I'm seeing trace parts per million of copper in some form. Certainly aerosol ammonia hydrosulphide, ethane, methane, hydrogen deuteride, before we get down to the helium and molecular hydrogen. Fascinating as the concept of helium and hydrogen acting like metals is theoretically, I have no desire to try to see it first hand.”
"What's that mean?" Ronon asked.
Rodney grinned. "Well, in a sense, if this planet had been just a little bit bigger, a little denser, it would have gone off like a bomb. A little more mass and this could have been a red dwarf. But I was talking about the weather, so to speak. Science is still undecided about Jupiter's meteorology, even my genius isn't up to deciphering that of an exoplanet in another galaxy in under thirty minutes." He snorted. "Please."
"What's…Uranian?" Ronon insisted. "And Jupiter? Or a red dwarf?"
"Oh." Rodney looked slightly embarrassed and John felt bad too. "A red dwarf is another name for a M-class main sequence star. Uranian refers to Uranus, a planet in our home system. So's Jupiter."
"And it's like this one," Ronon concluded. "So it could have turned into star if it had been a little bigger."
"Well, yes, in a broad sense."
Ronon sat back, apparently satisfied. A soft, melodic hum behind him told John Teyla had resorted to her iPod again.
John's fingers were beginning to ache, locked onto the stick, and the realization that he might have to keep this up for hour on hour, maybe an entire day, didn't seem so thrilling and fun any longer.
"How's the re-pressurization going on the rear compartment?" he asked.
Rodney checked. "Twenty minutes, but it's going to cold a hell of lot longer unless we waste a lot of power to reheat it. It isn't like that out there – " he waved at the storm of ice crystals they were flying through, " – is going to warm anything up. Minus one-forty Celsius when I just checked."
"Well, unless the medical kit was moved upfront, someone's going to need to retrieve it. I'm going to need something to keep me awake."
"We could switch off, do shifts…," Rodney offered. He trailed off as he watched John fly, the jumper constantly feeding data on its state through the pilot's console, and then his gaze drifted to the view port and the cold blue hell surrounding them. "Maybe not."
"No offense, Rodney – "
"I'm nowhere near a good enough pilot to handle this," Rodney stated. He turned. "Ronon?"
Ronon stood and awkwardly shifted several containers that had been piled between the second seats and the cabin hatch. He pulled one with a red cross emblazoned on it forth and set it on his seat. There was no room otherwise. "This it?"
Rodney craned his neck. "I think so. Let's hope no one helped themselves to the uppers that are supposed to be in there."
"Rodney," John growled.
"Come on, Colonel, your marines aren't any more saintly than my scientists."
John bit back an unkind comment about Rodney and uppers, because while he'd seen Rodney strung out on them, it had always been necessary and John had usually been jacked up too. Sometimes speed was all that let them get through a crisis. Hell, he was the one who was going to need them sometime in the next twenty-four hours.
And Rodney had it right: uppers were the favored drug in Atlantis population, military or civilian, anyway, after good old alcohol. He supposed he'd rather have someone stealing it than setting up an unauthorized drug lab somewhere in Atlantis.
"Looks like every thing's here," Ronon said. He tossed a bottle to Rodney. "This what you want?"
Rodney checked the bottle. "Yes. How did you – ?"
"Class?" Rodney echoed. "What class?"
"Cole and Bright gave a series of EMT classes a while back," John said. "I didn't know you'd gone to them."
"Seemed like a good idea." He could hear the shrug in Ronon's voice. "With Beckett gone…"
"Oh," Rodney said and tucked the bottle of uppers in his jacket pocket. He caught John watching. "Say when you need one."
Ronon closed the medical kit and set it atop the rest of the containers, then slumped back into his seat. "We're stuck until the Wraith leave?"
"Pretty much, buddy."
"I'm going to sleep then."
John concentrated on not getting caught in a wind shear. Rodney grumbled and then bent his attention to the read-outs, remarking, "We may as well learn something since we're here."
The chronometer read two hours and fourteen minutes later when the jumper began bleeping another alarm.
"I thought you shut that down."
"I did," Rodney snapped. "This is a different…"
The controls jerked under John's hands, but it wasn't a rogue gust of wind this time. The jumper was changing course on its own. John tried to wrestle it back under control, but gave up about the time his wrist started to creak. "We've got a problem," he said.
"What? Yes. This is…I'm registering a beacon."
"No kidding. Something just took over the jumper," John told him. He held up both hands to emphasize the whole 'not flying, not in control' part. The jumper did respond enough to show show a plot course and highlight a destination deeper within the mesosphere. Much deeper than John wanted to go, though just barely still within the jumper's pressure tolerance.
"Sheppard," Ronon said.
"Don't ask me."
Rodney typed, looked, typed, tried several things on the co-pilot's console, then leaned over and tried them on John's console. Nothing changed.
"Rodney?" Teyla asked as he slumped back into his seat, hands dropping to rest listlessly on his thighs. She'd yanked the earbuds from her ears and leaned forward. "What is it?"
Rodney lifted his hands. "Don't ask me. I mean, it's Ancient and it's locked some kind of automated approach protocol into the jumper, overriding the pilot's controls. It's taking us down to something, but I can't tell what. Maybe some kind of research station."
"You don't know," John said.
"No, I don't," Rodney replied, clearly annoyed. "You take great delight in pointing out that I don't know everything and any time I get anything wrong, so please, go ahead. Snicker. Mock. And when we all die a horrible, horrible death, you can blame it on me, because there's the joke: Rodney McKay isn't perfect or omniscient." The thread of bitterness in his words kept John from laughing.
"Rodney, we do not expect you to be perfect," Teyla said.
"Of course not."
John got it. They didn't expect Rodney to know everything or be perfect, not really, though they depended on him to figure something out when they were in trouble. Rodney was the one who expected himself to be perfect.
No wonder he was so screwed up.
They sat silently through the rest of the trip down to whatever had control of the jumper.
An obviously Ancient but bizarre looking installation finally appeared through the haze of slush and aerosols. Angular, iridescent bronze spikes reached out from a latticed central sphere surrounding seven toruses of graduated size, each turning within the circumference of the previous one. Lightning or something equally energetic flashed constantly within the toroids. Something like sails spread in veils between the points of the spikes, glimmering like the aurorae at the poles. The entire artifact spun, rolled, and bobbed constantly, swimming on the wind currents. It loomed closer and closer, filling the jumper's view port, glowing streaks and swirls of lights sparking off the jumper's shield, then curling around and encompassing it. As they did, the jumper's power usage dropped from near critical to near dormant. The wind howl that they hadn't heard or felt so much as sensed on some mental level disappeared. The spikes resolved into towers the size of the Sears Tower, etched with the patterns the Ancients had loved.
"Teyla, did I happen to load Strauss' 'Thus Spake Zarathustra' on your iPod?" Rodney asked. "Theme from 2001? I feel like I'm in a Arthur C. Clarke novel."
"Or maybe Niven," John said.
"Mmm, yes, though mostly I suspect we're being scripted by some Stephen King wannabe hack. Life-sucking vampires, really, it's so pulp era."
"It looks like a giant virus," John said.
"Oh, way to make me feel so much better!"
The jumper drifted nearer and nearer until a hatch irised open and they were inside the octagonal base of one tower. It settled into a docking bay with a jerk and a metallic clunk that was familiar from Atlantis.
"We're here, where or whatever 'here' is," John stated.
Rodney pointed to the power read-outs. "And the jumper's recharging, so we have some chance of getting away from here."
"Good to know."
"What is this place?" Teyla wondered.
From what John could see through the view port, the bay the jumper had come to rest in had no other openings beyond the hatch to the outside. A intricate mesh of silvery metal like that on Atlantis' control chair covered the entire interior of the bay except the various docking points. It looked like the bay had been equipped to accept more than one type of ship, but it didn't even have a floor, just one continuous interior wall.
"I wonder if this is what Metzinger's citation referred to," Rodney said.
The mesh lining the bay's wall began to flash with lights running along its strands.
"You know, I don't like the look of that," Rodney said.
"I think we should leave," Teyla added.
The lights grew brighter and began moving faster and faster.
"Yeah, me neither," John muttered. "Do you have any clue what – "
The mesh flared to blinding brightness, white filled his vision and then his brain, overwhelming and unbearable.
"Atlantis, this is Jumper One. Do not, repeat, do not, lower the shield. We are under attack by darts launched from a Wraith cruiser in orbit around the second planet and cannot reach the stargate before they intercept."
Sam shut down the message as it began to repeat. She'd already listened to it three times. A few more and she'd be reciting right down to Sheppard's relaxed drawl.
The control room had gone quiet. Everyone looked to her. She forced a smile. "It appears Colonel Sheppard and his team will be a little late. Schedule a dial up for every four hours and forward the data packet to astrometrics."
Mortenson and his people would be delighted with the sensor readings on the red dwarf star and the discovery of a habitable planet in orbit. The Ancients had placed their stargates on or in orbit around planets in G-type systems which led to teams gathering quite a bit of information on stars similar to Sol and very little on the far more populous M-class stars.
That same packet of information told Sam a different story from Sheppard's casual front. The team had sent everything they had. Sheppard made their reckless plan sound as every day as morning cereal, but there was a good chance it would fail. Jumper One and its four person team might already be lost.
Sam walked back to her office. It wasn't time to write Sheppard's team off yet. They would wait and hope to hear from them. No other options offered themselves; she couldn't justify sending a jumper into a possible ambush. More frustrating than that, even if she could send a jumper, she couldn't go herself.
Commanders stayed on base. General Hammond had done it for years. Jack had taken the Washington DC post to get away from it. Landry…Sam scolded herself. She'd never really warmed to Landry, though he was a good Air Force officer, he'd still didn't quite fit the SGC. Better than Bauer wasn't exactly a ringing endorsement.
She had always been the one going out and doing, not the one waiting behind. It made her swallow a knot of frustration each time she had to wait or decide without being out there.
They would dial again in four hours per SOP. She told herself Jumper One would answer. If they didn't, it would only mean the Wraith were still too close.
No one answered at the eight hour mark either. Sam stood on the opposite side of the console from Sgt. Campbell and watched glimmering blue surface of the stargate. "Anything?" she asked. She knew he would have told her or put it on speaker, but asking stretched window of the possibility a little longer.
Answering just closed it.
"Shut down and try again in four hours," she ordered.
Eight hours later and Sam told herself they were still playing possum, cloaked and radio silent on the other side of the wormhole. "This is Colonel Carter," she said and Campbell transmitted via the comm. "We will check in again four hours from now. Atlantis out."
She made herself go to the mess, where she sipped a native tea since supplies were at the low point that always proceeded the arrival of the Daedalus from Earth. She'd developed a fondness for the older ship and Colonel Caldwell the first time the Apollo showed up without critical supplies. Ellis didn't like carrying cargo and had managed to leave parts of it behind twice out of four times, using the excuse that the containers hadn't been ready at departure time.
The Apollo's commander wasn't a popular man in Atlantis.
The tea tasted like stewed sawdust. She fetched herself a tray with a sandwich and salad and nibbled it while watching through the mess hall windows as the sun sank in a glory of color and clouds.
Keller took a seat beside her and picked at her own meal. "No news?"
Sam smiled to herself. Atlantis had a grapevine that beat out even the SGC's. Everyone in the city would know AR-1 had been trapped on the wrong side of the stargate.
"Not so far."
"Well, they always make it back," Keller said encouragingly. She didn't quite manage to sound confident enough to believe.
Sam forced the smile to stay on her face and set her sandwich back onto the yellow tray. Even if they did elude the Wraith, AR-1's plan relied on hiding in the atmosphere of a gas giant. The jumpers were tough and versatile, but they weren't meant for deep submersion; that had been proved. The shield could compensate for a time, but shields ate power like candy. Sheppard's team always made it back, but Sam knew that only meant 'until the day they don't'.
"Well, I think I'll head back to the control room," she said. "I've got some paperwork to finish for the IOA."
She abandoned half the sandwich. It had gone dry and tasteless anyway.
The paperwork – whether electronic or hard copy, it still took a chunk out of each day – the IOA demanded seemed endless and occupied her until the next scheduled dial-up. Twelve hours had passed.
Sam left her office and watched as Campbell entered the symbols on the DHD and opened the comm. Tension ratcheted higher through the control room. Light from the gateroom below flickered over tired faces.
Silence answered their hail.
She kept a calm face in place, not letting the sick feeling inside show. Campbell repeated the hail five more times.
The night shift had arrived by then and were hovering in the background. They quietly switched over after the wormhole closed again. The control room seemed dark after that despite the operating lights. Sam glimpsed Major Lorne arrive down on the gate room floor. He came up the stairs and to a halt next to her.
They stood without words, looking down at the empty ring.
"I'll be in my office," Sam said at last.
"Begging your pardon, ma'am, but you need to get some rest. Someone will comm you if anything happens."
Sam had meant to lie down on the couch in her office. She knew it did no good exhaust herself waiting, but it seemed wrong to just go to her quarters. Lorne was telling her no one would fault her.
"All right. We're dialing in every four hours."
Lorne nodded and left her, stopping next to Campbell, who still hovered next to his station at the DHD console, despite having relinquished it to his shift replacement. She heard Lorne speak to him too. Campbell finally nodded and started away.
Sam forced her own feet to move and headed for her quarters.
She slept five hours because her body demanded it, but snapped awake long before dawn. After a hot shower and in a fresh uniform, she found her way back to the control room. It didn't surprise her to find Campbell back too and Zelenka running an utterly unnecessary diagnostic on the meteorology console. Lorne had taken over a seat at environmental station and had his head bent over a tablet pc.
He looked up as Sam approached and shook his head before she could ask.
Seventeen hours and counting. The sick feeling in Sam's gut kept getting stronger. She headed into her office and reviewed science team proposals. Another thing base commanders didn't have time for: real research. She hadn't been in the labs except to retrieve McKay or Zelenka in months.
She didn't leave the office when the stargate dialed the next time and no one came to get her. Twenty hours and counting with no word.
Dawn through the stained glass lit the gate room in a rainbow of warm color. Keller commed her to report Medical remained ready and a fast response team prepped to go off world. Sam thanked her and stared through the glass at the control room, absently tapping a pen against the top of her desk.
Lorne left and returned with fruit, pastries and coffee. Sam checked her schedule. "Cancel Robbins' mission to Adiana or go forward?" she inquired.
"We can't shut down every time a team is late," Lorne said. "The Sundanese are expecting us."
Sam agreed. "Let him know his team still has a go," she instructed. "I want them to depart on a schedule that will put their check ins between the ones attempting to re-establish contact with AR-1." She didn't want one contact to block out another even if they left the wormhole open the entire thirty-eight minute window.
They went through several items she would have consulted with Sheppard over if he'd been back, watched Robbins lead his team through the gate, and then waited out the next two hours, both pretending more than accomplishing any work.
Twenty-four hours since they'd had contact with AR-1. The stargate dialed again.
"This is Atlantis Control hailing Jumper One. Please respond. This is Atlantis Control hailing Jumper One. Please respond. This is Atlantis Control hailing Jumper One. This is Atlantis Control…"
Please respond, Sam mouthed along with the comm tech. After ten minutes, she couldn't listen any longer and headed for the conference room and the Exobotany Department's briefing.
Zelenka sat in for McKay, acting as his second. He needed a shave and typed into his laptop through the presentation by Dr. Brown, paying her little attention. Katie spoke in a soft voice, appearing washed out and jittery. She trailed off in the middle of a sentence as the stargate activated. Her head turned toward the gate room.
Sam didn't look. Her watch told it was only Robbins reporting in on time.
Dr. Parrish stood up and took over after that.
"Colonel Carter," Zelenka called after they finished.
"I have modified a recoverable MALP with remote controlled thrusters and signal boosters ready to deploy through the stargate."
"We would have to send another jumper through the stargate to recover it," Sam pointed out. "MALPs are expensive items." She had to justify every one of them they lost in her reports to the IOA.
Zelenka waved a hand. "Not so expensive as a jumper or four personnel."
"No," she admitted.
"I have added sensors designed to locate and interrogate jumper systems."
"I hadn't heard about this project," Sam said.
He ducked his head and muttered, "Is prototype assembled by engineers in last," cough, "twelve hours."
"If we do not find a way to rescue them, Rodney will save them instead, come back and make all life in the Science Division unbearable for weeks, even months."
"Of course, that's it," Sam murmured. "Come on, walk with me, give me the specs on the modified MALP."
They launched the boosted MALP at hour thirty-two and immediately began gathering data. Zelenka operated it, while Campbell repeated the now far too familiar litany, please respond, please respond, please respond. The MALP's cameras relayed the stargate turning with slow majesty against a backdrop of glittering stars, one moon and a slice of the blue gas giant. The view rotated as Zelenka reoriented, scanning methodically through the camera's range of motion with each adjustment. Streams of data from a myriad of sensors gathering data invisible to the human eye cascaded in a parallel window. The stargate disappeared from view and the dim red-tinged disk of the red dwarf appeared on the screen.
"No sign of any darts," Lorne pointed out.
"They could be waiting on the far side of the ice moon," Sam said, not to be contrary but because it was what her experience warned her to expect. Jaffa in particular had always been fond of lying in ambush for anyone coming through a stargate. Whether the Wraith thought that way or not, it had to be accounted and factored into any decision.
Lorne grimaced but didn't argue.
"Detecting traces of a hyperspace window opened within the last twelve hours," Zelenka murmured.
Sam walked around the console and studied the information on his screen, frowning. "Darts aren't hyperspace capable."
"No, they are designed to stage from a larger ship or deploy through the stargate," Zelenka confirmed. "Atlantis' hyperspace-capable jumper is the only one in existence." A trace of pride colored his tone. "Even the Ancients did not manage that."
Sam hid a real smile this time. It would never do for McKay to find out how impressed she'd been by his work on that jumper. He might have done most of the work while on the way to ascension, but it had still been his brain that had been enhanced, it had still been him. He and Zelenka had finished the work under tremendous pressure too.
The hyperspace jumper remained in Atlantis, retained as an emergency evacuation vehicle rather than used in the regular mission rotation.
"Do you think the cruiser left the system?" she asked.
"Colonel Sheppard's report contained no data on how long the cruiser had been in-system," Zelenka said. "They might have finished the cull or been called back to whichever hive the cruiser escorts."
"Scan for any indications of debris or wreckage," she told him.
"Yes, I am doing so." The snip in Zelenka's tone reminded Sam that Zelenka had more than enough ego to stand up to McKay's and didn't like having his toes stepped on. That didn't stop her from reading over his shoulder.
"Anything, doc?" Lorne asked. It made Sam jump. He had slipped up beside her silently.
"Nothing so far, Major," Zelenka replied easily.
"That's good news, right?"
"Perhaps, Major. We will hope so." Zelenka relinquished control of the MALP's camera and began transmitting a series of instructions that resulted in a stream of data in Ancient. "I have initiated the program sending out a signal to the jumper's most basic systems. It duplicates the diagnostic protocol that tests life support. If the jumper receives the signal and retains both life support and comms, it should respond."
"How long?" Lorne asked.
Zelenka lifted his hands away from the keyboard and rocked them. "Maybe quick, maybe long, maybe never."
"We'll keep the wormhole active as long as we can and redial if necessary," Sam decided.
"If the Wraith are gone, we could send a jumper through," Lorne said.
Sam shook her head. "We don't know they're all gone, Major."
She turned her head toward Campbell. "Yes?"
"We have a hyperspace signature on the long range sensors. It matches course and profile for the Daedalus."
"A week early."
"Four days," Zelenka said. "You must correct for difference between Atlantis and Earth sidereal periods."
"Let's hope they have our requisitions," she replied.
"Colonel Carter, I still think it would be worth the risk to take a cloaked jumper through," Lorne said.
Sam shook her head. "No, Major. Even if the Wraith are gone, a jumper has no way to retrieve another jumper if they've taken damage that is preventing them from opening or transiting the wormhole. At best, you could only confirm they were alive." She was already thinking ahead. At its usual cruising speed, the Daedalus would travel from the far edge of the long range sensors to Atlantis in a little over thirteen hours. It could off-load in under thirty minutes, beaming packed truck trailer-sized containers of goods from the cargo holds to Atlantis' warehouses nearly instantaneously.
"Jumpers all have emergency spacesuits, they could transfer over, even in vacuum," Lorne insisted.
"It's still an unnecessary risk," Sam told him, hardening her voice, reminding him it was her decision.
"Colonel Carter," Zelenka said.
She and Lorne both turned back to him.
"I have a signal."
"From the jumper?"
"No." He looked puzzled but excited. "The signal is in Ancient. Atlantis is recognizing it and responding automatically via the MALP boosters. It appears to be from an installation the database identifies as Siribe Station."
"Could this have anything to do with the ZPMs mentioned in Dr. Metzinger's research?"
"Possibly." Zelenka's breath caught and his eyes widened. "The station is transmitting life support data from Jumper One."
He smiled as he looked up.
"Four life signs are still registering."
"Can you contact them?" Sam asked.
Zelenka bent to the keyboard. She waited, taking in the faint but real way relief had already spread through the control room. Soon the entire city would have the news. But this was news Sam didn't mind sharing far and wide.
Finally, Zelenka shook his head. "I am sorry, but even with boosters, the MALP is insufficiently powered to maintain contact. The signal is breaking up. The gas giant may be occluding or interfering. It is generating a massive amount of radio noise."
"It still performed well," Sam said. "See if you can find anything out about Siribe Station from the database, please. Get Dr. Metzinger to help. He seems to have better luck than the rest of us."
She switched her attention back to Lorne.
"Unless AR-1 contacts us before then, as soon as the Daedalus is finished resupplying Atlantis, I will request Colonel Caldwell take it to PL4-3E2 to investigate and recover Jumper One and Colonel Sheppard's team. You and Dr. Zelenka may accompany them, unless Colonel Caldwell objects."
"Thank you, ma'am," Lorne said. She couldn't tell if he meant it sarcastically or not.
The Daedalus dropped out of hyperspace just beyond the termination shock and ninety degrees off the ecliptic. She might not be the newest and fastest ship in Earth's proto-fleet any longer, but she'd crossed the space from Atlantis to PL4-3E2 in less than five hours and could have dropped into the system deep within the solar gravity well if Stephen had called for it. He preferred caution though and a chance to escape if the red dwarf's system held an ambush the Daedalus couldn't handle. He wanted a good look at everything before taking his ship any closer.
"Anything?" he asked.
"Nothing, sir," Kleinman replied.
"Take us in, sublights at seventy percent."
Dr. Zelenka and Major Lorne were both lurking at the back of the bridge, where the navigators plotted their course, well out of the way for the moment. Zelenka hadn't ousted any of Stephen's crew from their stations the way McKay generally did.
McKay was good, no doubt about it, but Stephen preferred his own people when on his own ship. His crew knew each other and their equipment. Novak even forgot to hiccup when under enough pressure and the pressure was pretty constant now that Hermiod had gone.
The last surviving Asgard's final clone body had failed months before. Novak had been in tears.
"Picking up traces of a hyperspace window," Kleinman said. "Decay matches the data Atlantis picked up through their MALP." He paused. "At least twelve hours ago. The energy signature matches a Wraith cruiser. Nothing else, sir."
"Thank you," Stephen told him absently. He left his seat and approached the bridge view port. It showed the red dwarf as a dime-sized light amid the greater starscape, emphasizing how far out they were. How little the human eye could pick out as well.
Stephen couldn't find the disk of the second, possibly inhabited, probably culled planet Sheppard's data packet had indicated. It took him time to even find the massive gas giant.
View ports were impractical, design dictated by the psychology of sighted beings. The Daedalus navigated and maneuvered according to her sensor data. The helm would be stronger and safer without the view port, but Stephen admitted he would feel blind without it. Every ship he'd ever been on had one, every human ship he'd heard of and the Asgard. Only the Wraith eschewed them.
He watched the red dwarf grow larger and brighter as the ship slipped deeper into the system.
"Major," he addressed Shirley Monahan, "take us to the second moon of the gas giant. We'll check the stargate before proceeding."
"Yes sir," she replied.
"Sublights eight-five percent."
He felt the change through his boots, a subtle, inaudible harmonic shift in the vibration that always ran through the Daedalus' decks. That hum, of engines and environmentals, fans and thousands of different pieces of equipment operating in sync, meant the ship was sound and functioning and it reassured Stephen Caldwell the way his wife's breathing had when they slept together before she had died.
He closed away any thoughts of Allison as inappropriate.
Dr. Zelenka joined him before the view port as they approached the gas giant. It loomed, filling the frame, though the Daedalus' course didn't lead directly to it.
"Sometimes I forget this is a great privilege, this magnificence," Zelenka said. "To see such things that I did not even dream of as a boy. Sometimes I only think how annoying Rodney is or how I miss walking down to the bakery in the morning to buy kolače and coffee."
"We all do that, Doctor," Stephen told him.
The view port showed them the great, pregnant curve of the planet as the Daedalus skimmed past.
Zelenka cleared his throat. "The Ancient station, Siribe, is on the planet."
Stephen nodded his understanding. "We're going to dial up Atlantis and let them know we got here in one piece before we proceed further." Carter had told him she would keep the scientists busy combing the database for anything else useful on this mysterious installation. They might have found something in the intervening hours. Knowing Sheppard and his insane luck, combined with McKay's ingenuity, the lost jumper might already be home and this just a fool's errand.
He genuinely hoped that would be the case.
Atlantis had nothing new to add.
The Daedalus moved into orbit far above the roiling clouds of the planet. Zelenka finally took over one of the engineer's stations and conducted the scans. Atlantis dialed back and they maintained a real time comm connection.
"What do you think anyone would stick a base down in that for, sir?" Kleinman asked quietly.
Stephen had no idea. It could have been 'pure' research or something that could only be accomplished under the conditions the gas giant provided. It could even have been to hide it.
"I have Jumper One's telemetry," Zelenka announced. "It is registering four life signs. Drive pods fully charged, hull integrity one hundred percent, shield…inactive." He lifted his gaze and blinked rapidly. "I do not understand how this can be."
"Find out," Stephen said. He nodded to Monahan. "Hail Jumper One. Start with the encrypted SGC channels and if they don't answer, cycle through everything else that can punch through. They're down there, I want to hear from them."
Monahan bent to her task and soon her melodious voice formed a background to the bridge's workings: "This is the Daedalus hailing Jumper One. Respond on any channel."
"I can only theorize that Jumper One is actually docked within the Ancient installation and protected by a pressure shell," Zelenka announced.
Stephen checked the ship's chronometer and made the simple calculation. Jumper One had last been in touch with Atlantis fifty-two hours previously.
"I want latitude and longitude for this installation, Doctor," he told Zelenka. "Kleinman, place in geosynchronous orbit when you have the coordinates."
He seated himself.
Monahan paused and turned toward him. "No response so far, sir."
"Open comm to Atlantis."
"Already set up, sir," Monahan said. "Just go ahead."
"Atlantis, this is the Daedalus."
"Daedalus, this is Colonel Carter. What news do you have?"
"This is Stephen Caldwell, Colonel. I'm afraid we have very little. Dr. Zelenka has successfully received telemetry from Jumper One indicating it is functioning and confirming four life signs aboard, but attempts to contact AR-1 have failed."
"Have you been able to form a lock on their subcutaneous transmitters?"
"The Daedalus is moving into orbit over the Ancient station. We should be able to transport them out once we have," Stephen said. "We'll continue trying to contact them in the meantime."
"The lack of any form of contact worries me," Carter said.
"You think they ran into another Pegasus surprise?" Stephen asked. It wasn't that much of a joke.
"The existence of a base hidden on a planet uninhabitable by humans without tremendous technological support is surprising enough."
"We'll beam them directly to infirmary quarantine."
"Good. Thank you for this, Colonel."
Stephen chuckled. "I'm used to playing cavalry at this point."
Kleinman lifted his hand to catch Stephen's attention and nodded. They were in orbit over the Ancient station.
"Colonel Carter, let me get back to you. We will try to contact your team once more, then retrieve them."
"Provided they are not behind shield down there," Zelenka piped up.
Monahan had begun her soft-voiced hail again. She shook her head when Stephen caught her eye.
He opened the ship's intercom to Medical. "This is Colonel Caldwell. Please prepare to receive four people. They will be beamed directly to the infirmary. I want them in quarantine until their status has been evaluated."
"Infirmary D is sealed and has a medical team in biohazard gear waiting, sir."
He commed Engineering next. "Dr. Novak?"
"Here, sir," she replied immediately.
"Please lock onto AR-1's transmitters and transport them to the infirmary on Deck D."
Major Lorne caught his eye from where he'd been waiting and silently watching. "I'll go down to D," he said. "In case they need a familiar face."
Stephen agreed with a nod.
"Dr. Novak, are you ready?" he asked.
"Transporting now, sir." He heard a small hic and almost smiled. "Transport successful."
He resisted the urge to drum his fingers along the arm of his chair. "Dr. Zelenka? Any changes?"
"None," Zelenka said. "Perhaps Rodney will be able to tell us more."
Major Lorne's voice over the ship intercom kept Stephen from answering, though not from wincing at the prospect of another grandiose McKay lecture or possibly a furious rant over being snatched from the midst of some amazing discovery.
"I'm in Infirmary D. Colonel Sheppard and the rest of the team are unconscious," Lorne reported. "The docs are saying comatose with severe dehydration. They're working on them, but…it looks bad."
"There's been no change," Jennifer announced at Atlantis' morning staff briefing three days later. Sam hadn't expected anything else. Someone would have notified her if there had been any news from the infirmary. Jennifer had just made it official for another day.
Stephen Caldwell was sitting in while Lorne and Zelenka filled in as acting head of the military and science divisions.
"I've tried everything I can think of without knowing the cause."
"No change at all?" Zelenka asked.
Jennifer shook her head. "They're in a persistent vegetative state. There's nothing wrong with their bodies or their brains that I can find to explain it and no way to predict whether this is permanent damage or not."
Sam pressed her hands flat on the conference table. "Do you have any idea at all when – ?" She didn't finish the thought, when Atlantis' best gate team would wake up and tell them what the hell had happened to them? She'd stopped in again the night before and feared the answer was never. All four of the team were still gaunt and colorless, despite care aboard the Daedalus and after being transferred to Atlantis. More disturbing than their ravaged bodies was the sense Sam had of utter emptiness. Whatever animated them, even in sleep, seemed completely absent. She thought they had brought back four shells that just hadn't stopped breathing yet.
She couldn't say that though or tell anyone how disturbing she found them.
"If," Jennifer said. She slumped back in her seat. "None. I am so sorry, but they may never recover. We don't even know what happened to them."
Sam bit her lip before asking, "How long can they go on like this?"
"With proper medical support? Indefinitely. But without knowing the underlying reason for their condition, I can't make any predictions. I can't treat them." Frustration and worry raised her voice higher than usual. "Sorry, sorry. I don't know what else to do."
Sam looked down at her hands. She knew this wasn't going to be popular.
"I think we have to look at the possibility that the best thing we can do is send all of them back to Earth," she stated.
"Ma'am, it's been three days," Lorne protested. "Give them a chance. They could wake up tomorrow."
"Is that likely?" Caldwell asked Jennifer.
From the trapped look on her face, it seemed unlikely. "Honestly? I don't think so. To put it brutally, no one's home and only a night light's still burning."
"What can anyone do for them on Earth?" Zelenka asked. "Nothing. I do not like this plan."
"I understand that, Radek," Sam said, "but Atlantis isn't a long term care facility."
"A week, two, even a month, is not long term," he snapped. "We may still discover what has happened to them from the database. How will we help them then, if you have shipped them to Earth, like old shoes?"
"Earth has facilities and doctors – "
"Bah. Earth." Zelenka leaned forward. "Earth is not our home. It is a nice place to visit, with many things, but I do not wish to return there and I do not think Rodney or Colonel Sheppard would want to either. It is not home to Teyla or Ronon. Will you send them to the IOA? Who will care for them on Earth?"
"The SGC would take responsibility for them under their civilian consultant contracts," Sam explained, while she winced inside. She'd expected disagreement, but hadn't predicted it would come from Zelenka.
"Give them, give us some more time," Lorne said. He looked like he wanted to say much more, but stopped after adding, "Give us a chance."
Sam didn't think there was a chance, but she knew better than to alienate the two men who would likely be taking John and Rodney's places on the senior staff. It wasn't that she didn't want AR-1 to wake up.
"Sending them through multiple wormholes could have medical consequences I can't even predict," Jennifer objected.
Sam thought that was bullshit, but she couldn't call the doctor on it without starting a fight she couldn't really win. If she even tried, everyone on base would turn against her. They'd think she was trying to get rid of the team or just McKay with the others as collateral damage. Jennifer might lodge a formal complaint that would eventually reach the IOA. There would be investigations and even if Sam didn't receive a reprimand it would all be a mess.
"All right," she said slowly. "You have one week. But when the Daedalus leaves, if you haven't found something, they will go back to Earth." She looked at Caldwell steadily, daring him to 'offer' to stay and take Sheppard's place until the SGC sent in a replacement, knowing as well as he did that once he did so, they were unlikely to get someone else in to replace him. Caldwell's mouth quirked up, reading her clearly she thought. He nodded, to her relief. She didn't want to fight him as well as Zelenka and Lorne. Most of the time in Atlantis her military rank meant little, but she would have used it to argue they didn't need Caldwell, if he'd made it necessary.
Maybe she underestimated him, though. She didn't think he'd send the Daedalus out without being aboard, anymore than a Navy captain would his command. Caldwell had grown into command of his ship, the way Sheppard had grown into his command, the way she hoped she would become more comfortable and sure in hers.
"Thank you," Lorne said and this time she thought he was sincere.
Sam made herself visit the infirmary again that evening. It surprised her to hear someone singing softly and she hesitated before stepping inside. Katie Brown had taken a seat between the beds holding Teyla and Rodney. Her voice trailed away and she flushed when she saw Sam in the doorway. She needed the color; the infirmary fluorescents made her look almost as pale as the patients, except for her hair.
"I'm sorry," she whispered.
"No, it's all right," Sam assured her. If Jennifer didn't object, she had no grounds certainly. "What was that?"
It had been pretty, light and soothing, in a language Sam hadn't recognized.
"Oh, it's a Tarani lullaby. When their people were evacuated to Atlantis, some of us helped with the children. I learned it then." She plucked at the edge of the pale cotton blanket tucked into the side of the bed nearest her. "I should record it, since they're all gone now."
"Gone?" Sam prompted. She hadn't followed Katie's line of thought.
"Wiped out," Katie clarified.
Sam couldn't find anything to say. Yet another aspect of Pegasus she hadn't absorbed yet: entire populations disappeared over night. The Goa'uld enslaved human worlds, but waged war using the Jaffa. They preferred to keep populations intact because they were useful. Her mind still didn't go the places Lanteans did without being prompted.
Katie patted Rodney's hand gently. "He sings, you know, when there's no one to hear. I thought…well, I thought he and Teyla might like it. I know, a lullaby doesn't seem like the greatest idea when we want them to wake up, but it was all I could think of."
"I think it was very nice," Sam said.
Katie rose from her seat. "I should go."
"Not because of me?"
"No. Someone else will be here soon."
She bent and kissed Rodney's stubbled cheek and then left without explaining what she'd meant. Sam discovered that when Major Lorne came in with a tablet PC and sat down next to Sheppard's bed.
"Just doing the duty roster for next week, ma'am," he said.
She realized he had meant to go over the whole thing out loud for his CO's benefit. "Can't let him get away with sticking you with all the paperwork," she ventured.
"Just layin' around, catching up on his beauty sleep," Lorne agreed. "I figure the torture of listening to this should be enough to bring him around."
"I think that's my cue to retreat."
"Good night, ma'am."
She glimpsed Jennifer in her office, obviously still at work, as she passed. The next night Zelenka was with her, while Eldon Bel murmured the latest gossip out of Engineering. She eventually realized that beyond the nurses monitoring the equipment there was always someone, Sgt. Stackhouse, Dr. Parrish, Lars Opticon, Wilmer, Metzinger, Davos, Campbell from the control room, sitting with the silent foursome, talking or reading to them, or just doing some small task while they kept watch. It bothered her more than she let herself admit that this wasn't just like the SGC.
She'd thought her team had been tight-knit, and they had been, but the SGC itself, while everyone there felt a deep loyalty to it, hadn't shared the sense of community Atlantis did. At the end of the day under the Mountain, you went home and left it behind for normal life. At the end of the day in Atlantis there was no escape to an oblivious world outside it. They only had each other and the city and so each one of them became more precious to them all, known and intrinsically woven in their personal as well as their professional lives. There were no dividing lines in Atlantis.
She wanted to find some way to help the four people in the infirmary. She was head of the expedition now; they were her responsibility and her father had taught her both deliberately and by example what it meant to be a good officer. If he hadn't, she would have still had Hammond and Jack to model herself after.
After leaving the infirmary the fifth night, she tried delving into the database herself, but her Ancient had never progressed beyond a few symbols. She'd relied on Daniel for translations and now felt, again, out of her depth because she was surrounded by people who had immersed themselves in the city and its language, even many of the soldiers. The linguists held regular classes open to everyone, teaching Ancient for Idiots. Sam hadn't wanted to reveal her ignorance by attending any of them, afraid it would underscore again how different she was from Elizabeth Weir. Now she wished she'd swallowed her pride. Everyone in the city cross-trained. Most of the civilian personnel had double doctorates and secondary specialties.
Zelenka lingered in the conference room then followed Sam from there to her office after the staff briefing the sixth morning, after Caldwell had beamed back aboard the Daedalus. Sam knew he'd be alerting his medical people to prepare to transport four comatose patients back to the SGC. Everyone in the city had known that and she'd seldom experienced the sort censure she felt from those around her.
"It is a mistake," he said after the door closed, giving them some privacy, a courtesy to her.
Sam took in his fly-away hair, smudged glasses and gray exhaustion and factored that into her response. "I really don't have much choice. I answer to the IOA and the SGC. They will expect it."
He shook his head. "You answer too fast."
"I know I'm not making any friends," Sam told him, "but it has to be done. There's always a possibility the doctors on Earth will discover something that can help them. We've exhausted our abilities here."
"You are still…" He trailed off in obvious frustration. "You cannot do this job without believing in this place, these people. Stop walking backwards!"
"Ah!" Zelenka tugged at his hair. "This is not Earth or the SGC. You aren't SG-1; you are head of Atlantis. Be that."
"I can only do my best," Sam said.
She couldn't tell if Zelenka accepted that or not. He left without saying any more. Sam told herself he was only upset over the prospect of losing his friends – naturally – but she couldn't help wondering if she did frame everything in terms of what she had already faced. Maybe her experiences were blinding her to options that hadn't been available before.
There was always paperwork, though. She busied herself finishing the last of that in regards to the Daedalus' time in port. No matter what, it always came down to cost. Atlantis had to justify itself in terms of cost return. In this case, the expenditure of fuel used to retrieve AR-1.
She signed the last form well after the mess stopped serving dinner. There were always sandwiches and fruit, though, along with coffee now that their supplies were in. She deliberately chose one of the yellow things that looked like miniature pineapples topped by tufty red foliage instead of an apple. She ate the tart foliage first, the way she'd seen Teyla do.
The mess hall lights were turned down and she'd taken a seat that let her look out the windows, but also provided a certain amount of shadowy privacy. The two corporals who came in and began cleaning and straightening the room weren't aware of her.
"It's all wrong, sending the Colonel and McKay back there."
"What you gonna do?" the second man replied phlegmatically.
"Yeah, but you know, it'll kill 'em."
"McKay's got some kind of family, right?"
"Sure, but you figure his sister's going to look out for Teyla and Dex and the Colonel too? You figure the IOA's going to let her, even if she wants to?"
A chair was scraped across the floor with a jerk.
"No one gives a damn about taking care of them back on Earth. IOA's just going to warehouse them in some hospital 'til they die."
Sam set down the fruit without ever trying the creamy sweet flesh. She could picture it much too easily. After a week or two at the SGC, the team would be transfered to one of the military hospitals tasked with handling patients with classified backgrounds. Maybe one or two doctors would be cleared to know even some of the circumstances, but none of the nurses, orderlies or other personnel would have a clue.
Jennifer had said that with medical care and support the four of them might go on, drifting in their comas, indefinitely.
If it came to that, she didn't know if the best that could be hoped for, or the worst, was that the care be competent. It would be a long, slow dying that might outlast all mourning for them.
They were nowhere.
They were nothing.
They were numbers.
They were not numbers another insisted.
They latched onto that. Latched onto that concept other, because other implied outside and inside and self. Self was separate.
Selves were aware.
Packets of data – memories, one of them thought – began reintegrating. With them came the ideas of senses and physicality, both of which were still missing.
Ronon panicked as much as a mental construct lacking a body and its responses, the hormones and quick firing nerves, chemicals coursing through blood streams, could. John tried to reach for him and his mind rejected the state of no-body they were in almost as forcefully as Ronon's did. He couldn't feel the emotion that should have gone with it, though.
Having identified Ronon and himself, John put together that Rodney and Teyla were probably part of this existence too. Teyla confirmed this, conveying that she was there.
Not there, Rodney contradicted, because there was no there, no here. Their existence did not include a place. Once more he opined that they were numbers, discrete packages of self-aware, self-modifying information patterns.
Software instead of wetware? John asked.
Ears and sound were not necessary to convey or receive exasperation. Rodney accompanied it with a confirmation. Close enough.
Teyla asked what had happened? John seconded that. Ronon finally pulled himself together enough to add what is this?
The knowledge presented itself the same way a memory did, yet John clearly knew that it came from outside his mind.
They were in a buffer designed to let them communicate with the native sentients of the gas giant. Their consciousness had been transferred into it automatically on their arrival. Originally there had been failsafes that gave visitors some warning and choice, but those routines had been modified.
The Ancients had come to this system to study its habitable planet and seed it with life. They hadn't been interested in the gas giant until they realized that among its natural radio emissions were patterns. Too ordered to be anything but deliberate, but too alien to comprehend, beyond the guess that something sentient on the gas giant was querying the wider system, maybe even beyond, looking for others.
Fascinated, the Ancients had developed an installation that would generate its own sails to maintain altitude, then worked out a way to contact the natives. The base's logs held the entire history of the two races' interactions. They had exchanged vast amounts of scientific knowledge, discoveries gleaned from radically different mental approaches, before the Ancients withdrew again.
Rodney's mental crow of glee echoed through all three of them. He'd known those jammy bastards hadn't figured out zero point energy all by themselves!
John delved through the same logs, disappointed because the information wasn't there, just a précis of what had been exchanged during several sessions.
They would have to light up the station's beacon and hope that someone would want to talk to them.
Rodney initiated it and they were left waiting.
Teyla wanted to know if there was anyway to make their environment less nonexistent. Ronon just wanted to get back to his body, which wouldn't happen for a set amount of time. The transfer back and forth worked on a schedule.
John tried concentrating and a cube took form around them. Gray walls, floor and ceiling resolved into place.
Rodney was not impressed.
John tried to add windows and color, but the entire thing shivered and started to dissolve. He had to settle for the gray.
Teyla added a set of bantos sticks in a corner. Ronon grumbled and presented himself as something that reminded John of a sabertooth tiger, only with a mottled green and brown coat.
Rodney manifested himself as a glowy ball of light and wanted to know where John was, but maintaining the 'room' didn't leave John enough energy to 'make' himself in it too.
John had no idea how long they were there before four other presences joined them. Teyla meditated or seemed to. Ronon stalked back and forth, growling with impatience. Time didn't register unless he checked the station logs. Hours, eons, picoseconds, days, any and all could have passed outside. Rodney occupied himself ranging through the accumulated data within the installation, accessing it through the buffer.
Iss: P482Ṃ³ greeted them with a familiarity that rocked John. Iss: P482Ṃ³ had been among those who interacted with the Ancients before.
It had, like most of its kind, chosen to return it said. John didn't understand clearly and wondered if others had ascended or died as Iss: Cu356v¬ and Rodney began exchanging strings of numbers and mathematical concepts. Their conversation quickly reached levels far too esoteric for John to grasp even while augmenting his abilities with the station's information processors.
Many *syncretized* before they could *translate* Iss: Se3908¨ explained unhelpfully.
*Translate?* Teyla and Ronon echoed.
Iss: Xe18s/au° expanded to define: Low-pressure carbon-based oxygen-burning envelopes were provided to support Iss consciousness outside contact buffer.
Communication wasn't the same. There were no emotions and no physical cues to read. Information moved back and forth between their minds, but some instinct warned it would be a painful mistake to try and share thoughts.
John didn't know if he even wanted to share thoughts. No more than they were already with the deliberate exchanges that mimicked vocalization, anyway.
He found a notation in the logs on the subject. Mindas Ans and Liada Ans had suffered pattern corruption and been withdrawn from the project due to persistent pattern degradation. John figured that meant they'd gotten mixed up in each other and then started falling apart when they separated and didn't come out with some critical bits of information that made up who they were.
He opened a private communication line to Rodney and relayed the file in question.
Confirmation came from the four new ones. Iss: Cu356v¬. *Syncretization* between information patterns resulted in inability to return to proper physical envelopes.
Rodney sent an apology for letting the Iss access their private communication tagged with regret that they couldn't touch each other beyond what they already had. There was always something between them to stop them, it seemed.
Teyla found the logs on *translation* and copied them to John, Ronon and Rodney. Clone bodies had been the medium of exchange between the Iss and the Ancients, a solution arrived at after the other Ancients found *syncretization* too disturbing even for them.
More disturbing than aliens in artificial bodies grown just for them. John found that more than a little uncomfortable to contemplate.
Iss: P482Ṃ³ transmitted: The low-pressure carbon-based oxygen-burning lifeforms who created this meeting place discontinued contact.
John wanted to know why.
They were afraid.
Iss: P482Ṃ² returned to *syncretize*. To become Iss: P482Ṃ³.
Iss: Xe18s/au° queried if they wished to *syncretize*.
Iss: Cu356v¬ tagged a final data exchange to Rodney offering to become Iss: Cu356v¬².
Rodney's wordless sense of 'oh crap' didn't need translation as John followed his interrogation of the station's log to the latest entries, including the removal by unidentified means – Asgard beam he realized – of their carbon envelopes and the unanswered hails from the Daedalus. Ronon and Teyla comprehended it with them.
We're stuck here, Ronon stated.
Teyla refrained from anger or fear. They will return. We must only wait.
In the meantime, I can learn so much from the Iss, Rodney added. The rest of you might get bored, but you'll just have to deal.
Indefinite existence without proper support envelopes results in pattern degradation. Once decay begins *translation* or *syncretization* are no longer possible, Iss: P482Ṃ³ informed them.
John checked the logs and confirmed it. If they didn't get back to their own bodies, eventually their consciousness would unravel. The Iss offer might be their only way to survive.
They wouldn't be human anymore, though.
John wasn't sure he was ready to be Iss: P482Ṃ4.
Our people will come back, he thought, and, We'll wait as long as we can.
They did, but eventually alarms started pulsing through the system. Teyla's bantos sticks shivered out of existence first, then John's cube began to dissolve. Ronon's getaya shrank into nothing.
Each of them initiated the transfer as late as they could, leaving the buffer as they began shredding at the edges. They left without discussing their decisions, whether to *syncretize* or finally unravel into true nothingness.
God, you're stubborn, John expressed, already ragged at the edges, hanging together pretty stubbornly himself.
Don't even start.
We could –
You saw the records. It made them crazy.
He synthesized every memory of the two of them together, compressed and purified it, and shoved it at Rodney.
I know, I just –
The energy spike from Rodney meant something, but John couldn't interpret it. He had to go. Iss: P482Ṃ³ was waiting. He held onto one last transmission, though.
Rodney's light flickered out last.
"Thank you for making the effort," Sam told Caldwell. He was already aboard the Daedalus, ready to leave the system. So were the four members of AR-1. She'd stood in the infirmary as they were beamed out in a flash of white light. The silence afterward…She'd seen the same shell shocked looks at the SGC when they lost Janet, when they lost Daniel, before they started expecting him to come back. She'd fled back to her office.
"I'll make sure they're taken care of," he replied. The steady determination in his words eased a little of the guilt she felt. He would honor this promise the way he did his officer's oath out of respect for the team.
She couldn't smile and knew he couldn't see a nod. Instead she cleared her throat and forced out the words, "I know you will, Colonel."
"Take care, Colonel Carter," he told her. "Expect us back in two months."
"We will – "
Zelenka bolted into her office without pausing to knock, followed by Keller, Lorne and Justin Metzinger.
"You have to take them back!" Zelenka exclaimed.
"Dr. Zelenka," Sam said, hoping that if she stayed calm, he would do the same.
"Colonel Caldwell!" Zelenka yelled. "You have to take their bodies back to the transferral station!"
"Dr. Zelenka?" Caldwell asked.
"Explain," Sam said.
Zelenka waved at Metzinger, who stepped forward and began explaining. "The station was established to facilitate contact between the Ancients and the indigenous sentients of the gas giant. They transferred their minds into a buffer. I finally found the citation in a serious of classified and coded documents. Apparently, something happened and several of their people defected back to the Iss."
"They cannot wake up until their consciousnesses are transferred back into their bodies," Zelenka finished.
Sam looked at Jennifer. "Is this possible?"
Jennifer shrugged. "Justin showed me the documentation, Colonel. I think he's right."
"What are we going to lose by trying?" Lorne added.
Sam said, "Colonel Caldwell, are you up to another detour?"
"I think I can justify it on my next expenditure report," he replied, having heard everything along with her.
"And a few extra passengers?" Sam asked.
"We can find the space."
They were in hyperspace half an hour later. Sam watched the swirl of deep blue through the view port in the officers' mess and sipped a cup of coffee. She should have stayed back in Atlantis, should have insisted Zelenka and Lorne stay if she didn't, but instead, they'd all handed off their duties to their seconds. She knew why. They had to come so that they would know, down to their bones, even if they failed, that they had tried everything. They'd come too close to missing this chance to risk anyone else not following it through to the end.
At least Zelenka and Lorne and Keller weren't feeling sick with guilt. Sam kept thinking she'd let herself be spooked into making her decisions too quick. She'd fallen back on procedure, instead of trusting her people's instincts, and hated the reflection she'd become of McKay when they'd first met. When had she become the kind of person who would have let Teal'c die in the DHD buffer? No one had looked her to come up with a fix for this; she'd been the nay-sayer standing in their way.
Command sucked, she decided. She had to do better. Oh, God, and she had to apologize to McKay, because she'd never seen his actions from his side before. He'd been wrong, but he'd been technically right. Somewhere along the way he'd learned what she'd always known about team loyalty and taking risks, but she hadn't learned her lesson from him until now. Now she had to put the two together.
Keller joined her. "Why isn't it the same blue as the wormhole?" she asked, referring to view of hyperspace.
"Because it isn't blue at all," Sam replied absently. "No one sees it the same way. We've just all agreed it's blue, so that's what our brains tell us our eyes are seeing."
"Ow," Jennifer said. "That makes my head hurt."
Sam glanced away from the port to her. "No, that's a hyperspace headache. Don't stare too long."
The silence lingered and Sam figured Jennifer had found her to tell her something. Something bad otherwise she wouldn't be delaying now that Jennifer had found her.
"What is it?"
"I read through the entire entry Justin found. It's…freaky, frankly. The Ancients met these aliens and let some of them actually merge their personalities with them when they came back to their bodies."
Weirder things had happened and Sam had already got the idea that the Ancients were not the all-knowing, all-wise bunch of do-gooders Daniel had first thought they were. She personally found the idea shudder-worthy, but she had her own history with Jolinar coloring her reactions.
"But it was voluntary, right?"
"Oh, yes," Jennifer said. "Anyway, that wasn't what freaked the Ancients out."
"What was?" Sam asked.
"A bunch of them suicided, one went crazy, and the rest went back."
"Went back and joined the Iss, leaving their bodies behind."
"Yeah," Jennifer said. "The Ancients hadn't realized it could go both ways. When two more scientists 'defected', they pulled out entirely."
"I can't imagine Colonel Sheppard or any of his team defecting," Sam told her. She couldn't.
"Well, that's the other thing," Jennifer added. "They might not have a choice. The transfer thingie? If they're in it too long? They'll die."
Sam set down her coffee cup.
Jennifer looked away. The blue hyperspace light bathed her face.
"We may already be too late."
Waking was a gradual recognition of all the discomforts and pains of a body and gravity added together. Weight, an ache in an ankle twisted to the side, the bite of cold metal decking into his shoulder blades and his ass, stiffness in his back, all of it slowly formed a picture of his body again. It felt like almost too much, too strange, too alien. John had to concentrate on the slow in and out of his own breath, ribs moving, lungs inflating, tell himself it was familiar, to stave off a jolt of panic. Part of him found it all new now.
He wrinkled his nose at the smells, recognizing his own odor overlain with antiseptics and a confusing mixture of scents from the jumper and the infirmary.
Someone he thought was Ronon groaned nearby. He flinched at the sound. Too loud, too loud, too strange after the silence of the buffer, to bear. How had they done this before? It seemed impossible.
No, not blind, he realized, only the darkness of closed eyes. He could open them and see again.
John blinked his gummy eyes open, wincing at the glare until the blur above him resolved into the jumper's interior. He stared, overtaken by the bronze-gray color, the shadows and reflections, the pure mathematical curve of the interior hull. The opaque white lights set periodically along it left afterimages burnt into his retinas. He had to close his eyes again, watched the bright smears of orange, red and white bloom against the darkness inside for a while, the way he'd done as a child after staring at the sun.
He listened to himself breathe and explored his own mouth with his tongue, intrigued by the sensitivity, the tickle at the roof, the smooth perfect fit of his teeth. He clacked them together, feeling the flex of his jaw muscles, fascinated by the sound, and then swallowed just to feel his throat work. It hurt, he realized, but did it again.
Eyes opened again and this time he turned his head.
That deep voice, gone hoarse and rough, could only be Ronon.
"Ye– " He had to cough through a painfully dry and sore throat. "Yeah." His mouth tasted like shit, too. God, had he been intubated? What had they – Memory unfolded. He scrabbled at the deck, pushing himself up enough to see Ronon and Teyla. Teyla's eyes were opening, watching him, while Ronon had an arm thrown over his. Ronon's hand opened and closed into a fist. Teyla had begun stroking her own forearm.
"Rodney?" he rasped out. His stomach rebelled at the same time and he tasted bile rising up through his throat. He wondered if he would throw up, what he would throw up, what had been done to his body while he wasn't there.
Teyla's eyes shifted to the side. John rolled over and gasped with relief, relief that instantly turned to worry. Teyla and Ronon were both awake, but Rodney wasn't.
John reached out and set his shaking hand on the curve of Rodney's shoulder. Warmth immediately met his palm through the pale, thin scrub top. John looked at the fabric in blank confusion until he figured out they'd all been dressed in scrubs while their bodies were…away. John rubbed his hand down Rodney's arm and then up, all without thinking. His calluses caught on the smooth cotton and pushed it into small wrinkles. Rodney was so solid and there. He knew he should stop, before he went too far, but John couldn't let go. He couldn't slow his racing heartbeat either, because he needed more. He needed Rodney back and not just this slow breathing body. He needed Rodney to still be with them.
He couldn't do this without Rodney. He'd figured that out long ago. Rodney was his key.
The cold from the deck seemed to spread through him. John wriggled closer to Rodney, closer and closer, but it still felt too far. He tucked his face against Rodney's neck, stubble prickling against his lips, and breathed in his scent. He shoved his hand up under the scrub top and slung one leg across Rodney's thighs.
"Come on, come on," he rasped out through a throat gone almost too tight to form the words.
He clutched at him tighter.
Rodney flailed around and hit the back of John's head, then his fingers were in John's hair, flexing gently against his scalp, better than he could have dreamed.
Rodney twisted until they were wrapped around each other, mapping skin with fingertips and lips, while the whisper slide of fabric and harsh breaths told him Ronon and Teyla were just as intent. Rodney's mouth was hotter than John's, sour and stale. John didn't care. Rodney's tongue traced his lips over and over, harder and harder, until they were pressed tight to his teeth.
John scrabbled at his waist, getting out of his scrub pants, throwing them away blindly when Rodney's hand shoved between his thighs. They rolled over and he glimpsed Ronon tearing off his clothes and Teyla's. His elbow jolted against the decking with a thump and a flare of agony up his arm. His other hand remained trapped under Rodney's top.
"This is, this is, this is," Rodney repeated as they shed everything else, awkward and urgent. John licked at his collarbone and moaned because Rodney's voice hurt and only silence would have been worse. He needed more. Everything jarred, his senses felt wrong despite a lifetime spent this way and he needed to make it his own again.
Licking and then sucking weren't enough. Tongues weren't enough, hands weren't enough, skating over each other's skin, digging in and leaving purple-dark bruises on each other.
Ronon had his face between Teyla's legs and she had scored his back with her nails. The smell of blood tugged at John's senses, pushing him until he bit the soft skin at Rodney's armpit and Rodney keened in protest, but did nothing to stop him.
Sensations blurred together, instants stitched together without sense: his cheek on Rodney's thigh, the rough hairs catching against John's jaw, the taste of gel or glue on Rodney's chest where a monitor must have been placed, Ronon's grunts, wet-slick slap of skin on skin, Teyla's hand, palm pale, fingers spread starfish-wide open and tense, the mole at the back of Rodney's neck that John had wanted to touch for so long, because it wasn't allowed, Rodney's nipples and Rodney's hand closing around his balls.
Too harsh, too perfect, John curled his fingers around Rodney's broad wrist as he squirmed up Rodney's body. His knee hit Rodney's, his other hand slipped on the decking, but he didn't stop. He plastered himself against Rodney, rutting and rubbing, their arms trapped between them, and grinned at him.
It didn't matter any longer what anyone might see or think, they needed this and John wasn't going to deny anything, not when Rodney was offering him everything.
This was real, they were real again, and the relief this time was so strong it had finally become desperation.
They moved together, panting and wild to ground themselves in their bodies again. Teyla and Ronon were doing the same, sometimes reaching out and touching John or Rodney too, because they needed confirmation of them too.
The hails from the Daedalus only penetrated afterward when all four of them were limp and tangled together in a sweaty sprawl. Body heat and their harsh breaths left the air in the jumper humid and redolent with the scents of sweat, spit and come, mingled with a trace of blood and their own bad breath; the air cleaners were overwhelmed.
"Jumper One, this is the Daedalus, please respond."
Rodney tipped his head toward the cockpit. John groaned softly, but levered himself to his feet. His body felt spent. He ached in places he'd never ached before. He fished up a pair of scrub pants tossed on one of the cushionless benches and pulled them on, nearly falling over before Ronon steadied him, then staggered to the pilot's console, politely averting his gaze
from Teyla's bare breasts.
He dropped into the seat and activated the comm.
"Daedalus, this is Jumper One."
"Good to hear your voice, Colonel Sheppard. Is everybody okay?"
That was Colonel Carter on the comm. John blinked stupidly at the console, then coughed and answered.
"We're all…" He glanced back at his team, all uncoordinated limbs and glazed eyes, slowly dressing in whatever came to hand, and couldn't hold back his smile. Everything was new, everything was different, and everything was exactly the same. They needed to clean up, so he'd have to persuade Carter to let them come back in the jumper. "Yeah. Just give us a minute."
Rodney tottered into the cockpit, muttered, "Oh my God," and slumped into the co-pilot's chair with a dead giveaway wince. He looked at John cautiously. John leaned over and placed his hand on the nape of Rodney's neck.
"I'm here," he said, a tentative smile curling the corners of his mouth up that John didn't think was for Carter.
"When you get back…I owe you an apology. Actually, I owe all of you an apology."
John laughed at the way Rodney's mouth fell open and then worked, unable to form any words. He rubbed the back of Rodney's neck affectionately.
"I think you broke him, Colonel," he told Carter.
"She did not!" Rodney snapped. "I'm just…"
"Trying to pick out which instance in particular she owes me for – "
"Maybe we'd better leave this until later," Carter interrupted. "Colonel Sheppard, are you ready to come home?"
"Give us a minute. The jumper's completely charged, we just have to undock and get out of here."
"You're all really okay?"
Ronon clapped Rodney on his shoulder after coming into the cockpit, before seating himself. Teyla followed and drifted her finger along John's temple briefly.
"We're all good."
They would be.
Besides, they had a hell of story to tell.