Ho hum. Another day in Atlantis. Of course, this was a day in Atlantis on Earth, so rather than fighting soul-sucking space vampires, they were playing tour guides for soul-sucking bureaucrats. Both John and Rodney had quietly agreed, shortly after the city landed off the shore of San Francisco, that being within a jumper hop of a Big Mac didn't make up for no longer being allowed to shoot soul-sucking creatures on sight.
Today it was the British representative to the IOA, his entourage, and—John prayed Rodney didn't hear this part of Woolsey's briefing—the Prime Minister's science adviser. So, of course, they needed both the head of science and chief of the military to make nice and show them around.
It was just like the last fifty tours they'd given up, until a weedy guy wearing a diamond-patterned cardigan asked about Janus' secret lab.
Weedy Guy looked expectant. The IOA rep looked expectant and entitled. The rest of the entourage closed their mouths and surreptitiously wiped away the drool, then looked eager and expectant. About the only one who didn't look expectant was the pregnant woman trailing the science adviser and carrying his junk. She just looked like she wanted to sit down.
Rodney protested, flailed his hands, and finally gave in.
"Remember," he insisted as they walked through the wall—that would never stop being cool—into Janus' lab, "don't touch anything!"
"Why not?" Weedy Guy asked, like he'd slept through the pre-tour "Safe and Secure in Atlantis" orientation Woolsey gave everyone on arrival. He'd probably been busy composing his next tweet for when they got their cell phones back.
It was kind of fun to watch Rodney's eyes bulge out and the little vein at his temple throb while his mouth flapped open and closed.
"We haven't got everything in here catalogued," Rodney managed to articulate.
"Some of this stuff is dangerous," John added, oh so helpfully.
Rodney rolled his eyes at him behind the IOA rep's back.
"Even the chairs?" the pregnant woman wanted to know.
"Ah, no," Rodney admitted.
John showed her to one of the funny Ancient lounges with the too low backs and steadied her as she sat. She had her free hand on the rise of her stomach and he was feeling very nervous, because he thought he'd just seen it ripple.
Possibly he'd been in the Stargate Program too long. John's first thought wasn't: baby kicking. No, his first thought was: alien parasite preparing to burst forth. Or maybe it was just watching the entire Alien oeuvre on Rodney-pirated satellite the night before. He never should have had that last beer; Rodney and Ronon were never going to let him live down his slip of the tongue when he said he wanted to be like Ripley.
His inbox had been filled with gender reassignment websites when he logged in. John knew that would only be the beginning until something happened to redirect Rodney's attention.
Consequently, he was a little distracted when the pregnant woman screwed up her face and gasped very loudly the most horrific words he'd ever heard:
"Oh, no, but I'm not due for a week."
John jumped away from her and yelped, "Rodney!" Rodney had experience. Rodney had been there when Teyla had her baby. Rodney should be the one who did…whatever.
Rodney, however, was yelling at Weedy Guy, "Hey, what did I tell you! Don't touch anything! Put that down right now!"
The IOA rep turned on Weedy Guy, who had frozen next to one of the counters, a candy bar-sized Ancient doohickey in one sticky-fingered hand.
"I'm sorry, sir," Weedy Guy aka Billings muttered. His expression was set, and sweat gleamed on his upper lip. "I tried—"
"You were supposed to wait until they weren't looking," the rep snapped. He caught John watching him and drew himself up straight, but it was too late. All the pieces were falling into place. John had wondered why they'd bring a so obviously end-of-term pregnant woman on this tour. It had been a deliberate misdirection.
"I should have assigned Wilkins to obtain the device," the rep said.
"I think this tour is over," John told him. He glared at Billings and rested his hand on the butt of his service pistol to add authority to his demand. "Put the device down."
"Do you know what you were trying to steal, or did you just grab the first shiny thing you saw?" Rodney yelled.
The pregnant woman groaned loudly, then panted out, "Oh, God, this can't be happening now. I'm really not due for another week."
"Drop the act," Rodney told her dismissively.
She moaned and John saw the way her muscles clenched. A white line surrounded her mouth. She wasn't faking now, if she had been before.
"I think she's really in labor," John said. He tapped his radio. "Code orange. Security and a medical team to Janus' lab on the double. Sheppard out."
The duty officer's voice replied tinnily through his headset. "Code orange confirmed. Lockdown initiated. Teams dispatched to your location."
John might look like a slacker, but he and Lorne had gone over plans for every possibility inherent in Atlantis' sojourn on Earth, including attempts by enemies or allies to take over or steal its technology.
"Labor?" Billings squeaked. He twisted around, and his mouth, then his fingers, fell open as the pregnant woman let out a whooping yowl. "Claire!" he cried.
"No!" Rodney yelled as Janus' thingamajig dropped toward the floor. "Sheppard!"
It was a hard decision. Oh, who was he kidding? Dive to catch the unknown Ancient device cooked up by the master mad scientist of all Ancients or stick with the woman having a baby? It was a no-brainer. Code orange could handle the woman and the thief, but no plan could predict the result of an unknown Ancient invention possibly destructing when it hit the floor.
John dived between Billings and the floor. He twisted to land on his back and grabbed for the doohickey. He skidded over the floor, whacked his head against one of the counter's legs, and grabbed the device before it hit.
At the same time, Rodney shouted, "Don't activate it," and the pregnant woman gulped and said, "My water just broke."
John moaned, "Ow, my head," under his breath because he knew the goose-egg wasn't going to get any attention under the circumstances.
He juggled the damned thing, trying to get a safe grip on its slick surface, and felt something like a button, maybe, possibly, depress under his thumb. Rodney wasn't going to be happy. John hoped he hadn't just blown up a planet somewhere.
"Oh, God, that's disgusting," Rodney blurted.
"Oh, I'm," gasp, "sorry," gasp , "my having," gasp, "a baby," gasp, "disgusts," gasp, moan, "you," Claire snarled. Her face screwed up again. "Crap. Billings, this is all your fault!"
"Mine?" Billings whimpered.
"Next time this is Lorne's job," John muttered as he levered himself up onto his feet again.
"Is it okay?" Rodney demanded of him. He grabbed at John's hand, trying to see the device. "It's not broken?"
"How would I know?"
John wished he could go back and start this day over. Where the hell was the emergency medical response team? Hell, he'd settle for the security team, so he could leave the rest of the idiots and carry her to the infirmary himself.
"I don't think there's time to get to a hospital," Claire whimpered. "I'm having the baby now."
"Has anyone here ever delivered a baby?" the IOA representative demanded.
All the men shook their heads.
John pointed at Rodney. "He helped Teyla have hers."
"Traitor," Rodney whispered at him in an undertone full of outrage.
"Well, get over there and help her," the IOA rep ordered.
"Fine," Rodney said sulkily. "But Sheppard's assisting." He grabbed John's arm and tugged.
Oh, no. John thoughtlessly tightened his hand on the thingamabob he still held and wished to go back, all the way back, back before he was even born, if it would get him out of this.
Obligingly, Janus' invention lit up in his hand. Electri-city tingled up and down his arm and over onto Rodney, who was looking at John in horror.
"Oh, crap," Rodney had time to say.
The little snakes of electricity became big pythons of bright green energy that wrapped around John and Rodney, started squeezing, and then ZAP!
Everything went green for an instant. John felt sure he was inverted, shaken, and then turned right side up again.
He hit the water with a cannonball splash.
Somewhere close, Rodney screeched and gurgled.
Cold saltwater went up John's nose as he sank under the surface. He snorted it out and thrashed upward to the light and air. Of course, a wave smacked him on the back of the head once he reached it.
The water was freezing.
John thrashed a little, trying to see anything beyond the surface of the ocean. Which ocean? he wondered. He spotted Rodney, hair plastered dark to his head, dog-paddling a little way from him. John swam over in time for Rodney to spit more saltwater on him.
"Hey!" he exclaimed.
"I almost drowned!" Rodney replied. "My God, what did you do this time?"
"Well, it certainly wasn't me. Where are we, anyway? What happened?"
John made a three-hundred-sixty degree circle and spotted land. "I don't know, Rodney, but I think we should head for shore."
"But…but, what about Atlantis?"
"I'm not seeing it and this water is already cold enough—it'll be worse by nightfall."
"Yes, yes, I suppose you're right," Rodney muttered, then spat and cursed as another wave hit him in the face. "I hope there aren't rocks…."
John kicked off his boots—he hadn't bothered lacing them tight that morning—and tried to remember the most energy-saving stroke from his surfing days. As he got into it, a wave pushed him higher and he glimpsed the shore again. There was a city there, with a semi-familiar outline. There was something odd about it, but one landmark was obvious.
"I see the Golden Gate," he yelled back at Rodney.
"Fantastic," Rodney grumbled. "So where's Atlantis?"
Good question, because the city appeared to be gone.
They stumbled their way up from the shore to a road and John stuck his thumb out for the first vehicle that rolled up. He'd taken his thigh holster and Beretta off and bundled them in his uniform shirt. Rodney was still coughing and heaving for breath, clutching at John's shoulder to keep himself upright, and complaining he was sure to contract pneumonia. When a van pulled to a stop next to them, John automatically asked, "Can you give us a lift to San Francisco? My friend and I had a …small boating accident."
It was the best cover story John could come up with on the spur of the moment for their fully-dressed selves being soaked to the gills.
"Sure, man," the driver said. "Hop on in. I'm heading for the Haight."
"Thanks, you're a life-saver."
Haight-Ashbury would do. There had to be a phone somewhere they could use, since the saltwater had fried both their radios and the SGC-issued cell phones they'd been carrying while on Earth.
John opened the side door of the van, levered Rodney in, then followed, noticing the interior only after they were inside.
"What the hell?" John said as he looked around. Their driver was a guy with long hair, wearing a pink and yellow tie-dyed tunic and purple granny glasses. He had a daisy tucked behind his ear and a headband.
"Peace out, my brother," Tie-Dye Guy said. "You gotta wash it all away and feel the Earth." He nodded to John's bare feet.
"Oh, God, California: land of nuts and fruits," Rodney muttered.
Despite Rodney's reaction, Tie-Dye Guy graciously didn't throw them out of his retro-psychedelic classic VW bus. The back was lined in avocado green shag carpet, and reeked of patchouli and weed. John thought that was going a little far in the pursuit of verisimilitude, until he caught a whiff of Tie-Dye's just-lit spliff up front. Tie-Dye was living the dream.
"Think there's some Sixties Love-In anniversary thing going on?" he asked Rodney.
Rodney plucked at his salt-encrusted clothes and scowled. "Wasn't that 1967? Of course, as fried as this guy's brain must be, he probably thinks it is."
John flopped back against some cushions and grinned. "Yeah, that was the Summer of Love according to my mom. The same year I was born."
Rodney stared at him with a mixture of horror and contempt.
"Your mother was a hippie. This explains so much. You've been stoned since before your birth."
"Hey, don't diss my mother," John said, but without heat. The secondhand smoke from Tie-Dye Guy was definitely smoothing away all his rough edges.
Rodney pointed at him. "You're getting high right now!"
"Kind of hard not to," John mentioned. He waved his hand slowly through the thin haze of smoke filtering into the back of the van. Maybe they could wait a while to call the SGC and find out what the hell happened to Atlantis. Rodney could even chill out a little. That'd be nice. "Aren't you?"
"Oh, God, there's no calculating how many brain cells I'm losing right now," Rodney exclaimed. He giggled and slapped his hand over his mouth, looking even more horrified. "See? It's already happening. I've lost my ability to perform complex mathematical calculations."
"Right," John drawled. He closed his eyes. The swim to shore had been hellish for both of them and every muscle in his body felt wrung out. A shudder still hit him once in a while and the salt everywhere itched. He was going to enjoy this time out for as long as he could. He wished Rodney would, too.
That plan had to be scrapped when they got out of the van.
The streets were filled with people dressed like Tie-Dye Guy. Love beads, bell-bottoms, and long hair had never gone out of style in the Haight neighborhood.
Rodney stared and muttered, "What the hell? Is this some kind of re-enactment or something?"
"It's always like this," John told him despite the funny feeling he had himself. It was probably the weed. Something just seemed…off. He frowned at the street and tried to pin it down.
People were pouring into the street. Too many of them to be a re-enactment. More and more were arriving, carrying placards and wearing peace signs.
"Somehow, I don't think we're in Kansas anymore, Toto," Rodney said.
"You know, I'd be insulted you're calling me a dog if that didn't make you Dorothy," John replied, despite being nearly overwhelmed at their surroundings. This was not the San Francisco he knew. It did, however, resemble the San Fran-cisco of history books and documentaries.
The cars , John realized, the cars were all wrong. There were no cars manufactured later than the 1960s on the street. John couldn't spot a Prius or a Lexus anywhere. He couldn't even find a late-model Ford.
"Yeah, yeah, too bad I don't have any ruby shoes," Rodney snapped back. "Though you're the one going barefoot in the park, here." He turned back to the idling van and asked Tie-Dye Guy, "Excuse me, but what's the date?"
"April fifteen, man. We're showing the Man we ain't going to war no more."
John almost laughed at that but didn't, because the guy just didn't know what was to come. This had to be what they meant when they called the past a more innocent time. Abruptly he felt sad for all the hope and good intentions that would barely shift the world they wanted to change. One thing for sure, right now, right here, John wasn't going to be popular if anyone found out he was a soldier. He'd done his share of raging against the Man, but by Tie-Dye Guy's reckoning, a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force—even one from the future— was the Man.
"No, I meant what's the year?"
"Whoa, whatever you been smoking, maybe you need to lay off for a while."
"Just tell me what year it is," Rodney snapped.
"Say please, Rodney," John told him.
"Please, for the sake of my sanity and your continuing existence on this planet," Rodney hissed.
John wasn't sure if Rodney was threatening Tie-Dye Guy's life or his.
"It's 1967, man," Tie-Dye Guy said. He looked past Rodney to John. "Your friend needs to calm down." He dug around in the glove box and handed them two pre-rolled joints. "Here."
Rodney looked at the joint he'd just accepted like it was a turd come to life.
"Thanks for everything," John told their new buddy. He plucked away Rodney's joint before someone saw it, and tucked it along with his own into one of the pockets of his BDUs.
A good slap to the back stopped Rodney from hyper-ventilating as Tie-Dye Guy and the van pulled away in a burst of black exhaust, weaving off Haight Street into a narrow alley threaded between an old Victorian house and a storefront.
"We've gone back in time," Rodney whispered to John. He looked around them at the various people, all dressed in sixties era clothing, his blue eyes very wide. The crowd was growing thicker. They'd arrived just in time to see the beginning of an anti-war demonstration.
John nodded slowly.
They turned and met each others' eyes and pronounced their shared estimation of the situation: "Oh, crap."
Getting off Haight Street seemed the first and best option.
They dodged through the crowd and eventually found themselves on Cole Street, strolling with their hands in their pockets—in John's case he had his bundled shirt and hidden gun tucked under one arm—and staring at everything. John could hardly believe it. They really were in San Francisco in the Summer of Love.
"So what we do now?" John asked. He eyed Rodney sidelong when Rodney didn't answer.
Soul-sucking vampires, snake parasites with delusions of godhood, human-form nanorobots, wormholes, intergalactic travel, glowy Ancient women with the hots for his genes, even time travel—he'd seen it all and none of it could disturb John much anymore. But Rodney saying nothing, no suggestions or panicking, that rocked John's world.
"Rodney?" he repeated. "You know how to fix this, right?"
Rodney stopped in the middle of the sidewalk and looked at John.
"Actually, I've got nothing."
"What do you mean you've got nothing?" John demanded. "You always have something. You—"
"Sheppard." Rodney grabbed John's wrist and tugged him over to the edge of the sidewalk, then pushed him down to sit on the curb. "John. We're stuck."
"This is—" John set his shirt bundle down and dropped his head into his hands. "This is just like the time dilation field." He spent six months thinking his team had abandoned him. This wasn't the same, but if Rodney couldn't come up with a way to get them back to Atlantis and their own time, then John certainly couldn't. The feeling of helplessness made his head spin. "Son of a bitch."
He didn't bother looking up when Rodney started talking, but he listened.
"I want to say it isn't, because obviously there is a tremendous difference between an isolated area experiencing accelerated time and shifting people backward along the timeline," Rodney said, "but from the point of view of what you or I can do to about it…yes, we're screwed." From the corner of his eye, John saw Rodney's hands move as he added, "I've got nothing. I mean that literally. No PDA, no scanner or laptop, and…."
He was starting to get it. Rodney's hands were empty. He had no tools, and without them, even his tremendous brain was stymied. After all, if time travel was easy, everyone would already be doing it.
"You don't have the device, do you?"
"No," John said.
He'd been holding it when everything went green and fizzy, but he didn't know if he'd still had it when they hit the water. Maybe it was still in Atlantis. Would still be in Atlantis when Atlantis was here.
They must have fallen to the present ocean's surface from the level of Janus' lab within Atlantis. They were lucky it was down near the waterline of Atlantis or the fall would have killed them. Luckily they hadn't been knocked out by the effect either or they would have drowned. It had been iffy a couple of times on the swim to shore anyway. If the weather hadn't been good, Rodney might not have made it.
Neither of them would have made it in that case.
John was never leaving Rodney behind.
Rodney sighed and his hands dropped. The trace of hope in his voice dissolved away. "I didn't think so."
"So," John said. He watched a blue 1967 Mustang drive up the street. At first he thought it was cherry, then John realized the car really was new. "Unless someone back in Atlantis figures out what happened to us, we're—"
"Stuck," Rodney finished.
"Wonderful." He frowned. "What about SG-1? Didn't they end up in 1969 once? Could we get back the way they did? I read that mission report—"
"They used the stargate and a solar flare," Rodney told him in a glum tone. "We'd end up back at the SGC, but still in our past. They'd debrief us and change the future, our future, probably even call off the Atlantis expedition entirely." He waved a hand. "Everything after that would change. Providing we managed to find them and convince them to take us with them back to the future."
John choked and then laughed, prompting Rodney to glare and hit his arm.
"Back to the Future ?"
"Shut up, Marty McFlyboy," Rodney snapped.
Across the street, a pretty girl wearing a long gypsy skirt and sandals stepped out of the storefront declaring itself to be the Trip Without a Ticket. She had long, straight, blonde hair and blue eyes. Her face was too broad for Hollywood and so were her bones, but she was certainly pretty. She was carrying two tall glasses of something brown and smiling at them as she crossed the street.
"You look unhappy," she told them. "And thirsty."
She held out the glasses of what John thought must be iced tea. He accepted his. Rodney inspected his suspiciously.
"This doesn't have lemon in it, does it? I'm deathly allergic to lemon."
The girl smiled widely. "No lemon. I'm allergic, too."
John sipped his and confirmed it. "No citrus," he told Rodney.
Rodney gulped down his tea.
"He says thank you," John told her with a smile. Rodney kicked at his shin. John had known it was coming so he managed to move out of the way. "I'm John."
"I'm Meredith," she said.
"Really?" John exclaimed in delight. "What are the odds. He's M—"
"Rodney," Rodney interrupted. He held his hand to Meredith, but he was still holding the glass. He fumbled it into his other hand, then shook hers. "You're probably the first person except my mother who has ever understood how horrible being allergic to citrus is. Manufacturers put it in everything. It's like a giant, world-wide conspiracy to kill me." He stopped and finally let go of her hand. "Oh, and you, too, I guess. Anyway, yes, thank you, that was very generous of you."
John grinned. Rodney looked like he was nearly in love already.
"You're not from here, are you?" she asked.
"No, I'm Canadian actually," Rodney answered. "You're very observant."
"My boyfriend's in Canada."
John blinked and realized that in 1967, college age young men went to Canada to dodge the draft. This was the era when Air Force pilots flew Phantoms over the Vietnamese jungles, while young men and women fought and died without a clue about what was out there in the rest of the universe.
"Come inside," Meredith told them.
Rodney trotted after her and John followed. The Trip Without a Ticket looked a bit like a thrift store inside.
"It's all free," Meredith told them.
It was all used, too, and Rodney almost visibly shuddered at the thought, but amazingly held his tongue.
John wandered around and debated trading his black T-shirt for one of the tie-dyed ones. Instead, he picked out a fringed buckskin jacket and a pair of sandals—his feet weren't tough enough to like even sidewalks without shoes and socks.
Rodney and Meredith were bent over a textbook, of all things, while he did that. The familiar and comforting sound of Rodney declaring something, "Wrong, wrong, a thousand times wrong," filtered through the store. Meredith protested and Rodney pulled a pen out of his jacket and began writing on the margins of the textbook. "See, here, Laurentz—"
It occurred to John that Rodney could revolutionize science in 1967.
Which would change the future.
The future they wanted to get back to somehow, the one where they had friends who would be trying to get them home, as long as they didn't screw up the timeline and keep them from ever existing. John had read enough science fiction to be conversant with the grandfather paradox and the concepts of time's elasticity. Lectures by Rodney after his six months com-pressed into a couple of hours in the sanctuary had left John nearly as au courant on time travel as anyone who wasn't an Ancient could be. They had to be careful. Just stepping on a bug might have unimaginable consequences.
He hustled over and clapped Rodney on the shoulder.
"Stop scaring Meredith," he declared. He aimed a wide smile at Meredith. "He gets a little crazy sometimes—that's how we ended up swimming in the Pacific and all salty."
"I—what? I do not— What are you talking about?" Rodney spluttered. "I'm not crazy!"
"He just looks that way," John told her. He snagged Rodney's arm and dragged him to the other side of the store.
"What is the matter with you?" Rodney demanded. "She likes me. Do you have to ruin every relationship I ever have?"
"If you introduce wormhole theory now, nothing will happen the same way it did," John hissed at him. "You'll change the timeline and we'll never get home. Remember? And I don't know what you're talking about."
"Norina," Rodney snapped.
John manfully refrained from mentioning that Norina might have been interested in Rodney's mind, but she'd definitely had eyes for John's body.
Rodney's mouth drooped and his shoulders slumped for a second before jolting into motion again, eyes comically wide, as he exclaimed, "You're right. You're absolutely right. This is a nightmare." His hands came up and squeezed his temples.
"Why, thank you, Rodney," John said. "I know I'm not Zelenka or Carter, but it's not completely terrible that I figured something out first."
"I didn't mean that, you oversensitive gorilla," Rodney moaned. "I meant I can never publish. I'll never win my Nobel."
"Yes, that's what I'm all broken up about, too."
"Be that way." Rodney glared at him.
John just met his gaze.
Rodney gave in with a theatrical sigh and they headed for the door. "I suppose we do need to formulate some kind of plan, some way to survive until our rescue, without disturbing the timeline." He glanced wistfully at Meredith. "She's really quite intelligent."
"I know, buddy," John said.
They were almost out the door when Meredith caught up with them, shoving a straw bag stuffed with sandwiches and the textbook into Rodney's arms. She gave him a shy kiss on the cheek that had Rodney turning red, and dropped a string of love beads over his head before rounding on John and telling him, "You shouldn't make fun of Rodney, John. He has a beautiful mind."
"Like I said, crazy," John murmured in an undertone meant only for Rodney. He nimbly dodged the sharp elbow Rodney tried to stick through his ribs.
"He said the universe is ours to understand if we only try," Meredith added.
The hippie coming in through the front door nodded at that and said, "Wow, man, that's deep."
"Laurentz said that?" John asked in an aside.
"I did, you heathen," Rodney muttered.
"Well, I say the universe has a real sense of humor," John told Meredith before opening the door and waiting for Rodney to walk out first.
"I hope I see you again, Rodney!" Meredith called out.
"Don't you have a boyfriend?" John snapped at her before following Rodney out.
Rodney was waiting, arms crossed, foot tapping, with a sulky scowl. "Now what?" he demanded.
John flailed until his training kicked in. They were essentially in foreign if not hostile territory. They were dressed to blend a little now. The maple leaf patch on Rodney's jacket didn't look exactly military by the standards of the day. They needed to obtain food and shelter and intelligence on their circumstances next.
"The nearest library," he said. A library would be a good place to check that they'd really gone back in their own timeline and not ended up in a parallel universe. John's head spun a little, but with the life they led, they had to take these possibilities into account.
Rodney brightened. Libraries were the geek squad's homeland after all and Rodney was still King Geek, no matter what decade they found themselves in.
"Shh," John snapped. "Don't call me that here."
They were in a city where history reported that anything from fifty to a hundred thousand protesters had marched against Vietnam. Claiming any connection with the military looked like a good way to get their asses kicked, unless they claimed to be deserters, in which case they could look forward to being arrested and turned over to some variety of pissed off MPs.
At least this San Francisco still had telephone booths—real booths, too, not phones hanging on walls. It took three tries, but they found one with a phone book and looked up the address and route to the closest library before setting off again.
John worked on figuring out how they were going to get some money while they walked. Rodney muttered to himself.
A cop on horseback clattered by, giving them a sharp look as he passed. But their hair was shorter than average and they were moving along away from the streets where the demonstrators were marching, so he kept going and so did they.
The library, when they reached it, offered some reassurance. A quick cruise through a few history books confirmed they were in their own universe. This was a relief, in that they now knew what to expect. John skimmed through a week's worth of San Francisco Chronicles while Rodney zipped through several Popular Science magazines, muttering in disgust in an undertone only John heard.
"Look on the upside, Rodney," John told him.
"There's an upside?"
"We didn't end up in a dimension ruled by intelligent dinosaurs or replicators."
"Hmph. In either of those cases, I could have used their technology to find us a way back," Rodney replied. He folded his hands over the table. "To do anything here, I'd have to invent the science to invent the technology to create the technology to make the equipment to reach the level of science as I know it, and then try to figure out what Janus did."
"So," John drawled, "not happening?"
Rodney pointed at him."Stone knives and bearskins, Sheppard."
John leaned back in his chair and sighed. "All right, Spock, got any other ideas?"
"One," Rodney answered reluctantly, "but we'll need some money."
John tapped the bundle hiding his Beretta. "I've been thinking about that. We'll have to pawn this."
"Not half as likely to disturb the timeline as pawning our watches. No one's going to reverse engineer it and come up with something that hasn't been seen before at this point, even if the design and materials are little more advanced," John explained.
"You're right," Rodney said. "Again."
"I'd say I was having a good day if it weren't for the whole," John waved his hand loosely, "lost in the past thing."
Rodney made a noise that combined a grunt with laughter and complete agreement.
John raised an eyebrow at him. "So?"
"We send a message."
"Through the mail."
They sold the Beretta for a ridiculous sum to a gun collector, after a pawn shop proprietor directed them to a gun shop and the owner took one look at it and called his favorite customer. John lied and claimed he got it in Italy, and it was a prototype that wouldn't be manufactured for sale for years yet. The latter was even, sort of, true.
The collector paid more than John had hoped, but it still seemed like a paltry sum. He kept forgetting prices were so much cheaper compared to Earth in the twenty-oughts.
It bought them a cheap typewriter, paper, and an envelope.
"You got this idea from Back to the Future , didn't you?" John teased Rodney. "I told you it was a great movie."
"They stole it from older and better stories!"
"Whatever you say, Doc."
John and Rodney took turns writing a report on what had happened to them, and where—and when—they were. They addressed it to Samantha Carter, c/o the US Air Force, Peterson Air Force Base, CO since neither of them knew where Carter's home address was in 2009. The last John knew she was taking over command of the Hammond. That envelope went into another, sealed and labeled to be opened in forty-two years.
Pretty much all of the rest of the money went to finding a law firm that looked like it would still be around in forty or more years, hiring the youngest lawyer there, and paying to have the envelope held until the date they agreed on—a week before the unfortunate tour of Janus' lab—and then sent to Sam.
"So, this is like a time capsule?" the lawyer asked in bemusement.
Rodney frowned and opened his mouth to explain no, no, no, so John stepped on his foot and pre-empted him. "Sort of. It's something Carter, er, little Samantha, will need to know once she's grown up. But it won't do her any good until then and, hey, who knows what could happen to us in the meantime."
"I might die of gangrene from you cutting off the circulation to my foot for one thing," Rodney muttered.
The lawyer grinned at them. "It's cool. I'm going to wonder what's in here for years."
"Just don't forget to send it when it's 2009," Rodney insisted.
After they'd left the office, Rodney stopped John and said, "He thinks one of us is her father!"
"He thinks one of us is Samantha Carter's father and that the envelope has a letter telling her that, and probably the key to a secret fortune," John told him. Of course, the lawyer thought that because John had let a couple of hints "slip." He figured it was fractionally more believable than the "sending an SOS through time" scenario, even if he had lifted the entire idea from the back of a romance novel lying on the receptionist's desk.
Selling the Beretta, writing the reports, and finding the lawyer had taken up the entire day. The sun had dropped below the horizon and the temperature was taking a corresponding dive. Rodney had begun shivering and John had pulled his uniform shirt back on under the buckskin coat now that he didn't need it to hide the Beretta.
"We need to find some place to sleep," he said.
"I need to eat something before I fall down," Rodney said. He snapped his fingers. "Meredith!"
Rodney dug into his pockets and pulled out a paper. "She said we could crash at her friend's pad. Here. She gave me the address."
"Crash," John repeated.
"There might even be food," Rodney added.
He shuffled over to where the light from inside a store would let him read. "The address is— No! No, no, no, no," he blurted out.
"What is it?" John demanded.
Rodney waved the paper at him wordlessly.
John snatched it and read.
It was just an address. Meredith had written her name underneath it.
"Meredith Ingram," John read.
Rodney gave him a sick look.
"Like Meredith Rodney Ingram McKay?" John asked slowly.
Rodney looked green.
"I think I hit on my mother." Rodney twitched and added, "She must have named me for me."
John shoved the paper back at Rodney.
"That's just wrong, McKay," John said, wishing mightily that they could undo this day and go back before McKay could have met his mother.
Then everything went bright and fizzy green again.
John felt sure he turned inside out again.
He hit the water with a cannonball splash. Something slipped from his hand.
Somewhere close, Rodney screeched and gurgled.
Saltwater went up John's nose as he sank. He snorted it out with a trail of bubbles and kicked himself up toward the surface. Of course, a wave smacked him on the back of the head once he reached it.
This time he had a good idea of which ocean he was in. The good old Pacific, out where Atlantis should have been, and some day would be, parked.
The water was just as cold as the first time.
"This sucks," Rodney gasped from behind him.
John paddled around and caught sight of the Golden Gate again.
"If that's Sam's rescue, I have serious problems with her methodology," Rodney went on.
John rode up with a wave and blinked at the city silhouette. It looked…different. Something was missing.
He went down, swallowed water, spluttered, and stared when the next swell took him up.
The Transamerica Pyramid wasn't there. In fact, it hadn't been there last time either, but this time John was looking for it. Instead, several more distinctive buildings were missing.
They'd gone back in time again.
The Chronicle 's headline blared "Lapham Gets Bitter About Cable Cars," but John was more interested in the date.
April 4, 1947.
Well, at least they'd missed the war. Two weirdos washing up on shore during WWII, with the paranoia about German or Russian saboteurs, might have ended in a lock-up somewhere.
Of course, they still might. They were broke again, with no place to go, and their clothes made them stick out like sore thumbs.
"You know, if I could afford a marker and a piece of cardboard, I think I'd make up a sign saying 'Will Work for Food,'" Rodney said in a glum voice.
"You think there might be some kind of homeless shelter we could use until we figure out our next move?" John speculated.
"I think that Sam's going to be trying to retrieve us from 1967 and she'll be twenty years off target."
"At least we're still alive and on Earth," John offered, while privately agreeing with Rodney's assessment.
They were so screwed.
Plus, Rodney was going to be seriously annoying if they ended up sleeping in Golden Gate Park. Five years of gate missions had not endeared camping with tents or even sleeping in a jumper to the man. Roughing it sans supplies rated at the bottom of Rodney's list of "want to do before I die," probably just beating out torture and actually dying.
John wished he'd paid more attention in history class, but then again, he'd gone to school mostly in Virginia, and the teachers hadn't been too focused on preparing him to navigate post-WWII San Francisco. He'd bet Rodney's schooling had been light on that subject as well.
He wracked his brain for some idea where they could go.
Rodney snapped his fingers under John's nose.
"The Friends. Quakers," Rodney told. "The American Friends Service, uh, Committee, they won a Nobel for helping people in need in 1947. There's probably a soup kitchen or a church where we can at least get something to eat. Plus there's the Salvation Army. What do you bet they have a mission here? And, no matter what you think of their religious dogma, the Catholic Church."
"Why do you know this?" John asked.
"I know about every Nobel Prize ever awarded," Rodney told him smugly. "Even the non-science prizes."
John shook his head, amazed by the ego that ate the planet, and not at all amazed that once more Rodney was saving their asses with what he knew.
They ended up in a mission where dinner and a cot were on offer for one night. They were even provided a change of clothes. When Rodney slipped and called John "Colonel," it only confirmed the volunteers' conviction that he and Rodney were down-on-their-luck ex-soldiers.
Brooms in hand, they were sweeping out the kitchen when Rodney said, "It's a good thing this place is run by Major Dennis."
John glanced over to where the Salvation Army officer who had given them their task was bent over an account book and a scratch pad.
"This is all entirely too City on the Edge of Forever as it is," Rodney went on. He waggled the broom over a small pile of dirt. "The last thing we need is for you to run into your Edith Keeler."
"I don't think I have an Edith Keeler," John told him.
"Promise me you won't fall for some woman here."
John stopped again and stared at Rodney. "You really watched too much Star Trek as a kid."
"Can I help it that our lives have turned into a series of episodes from bad sci-fi shows?" Rodney demanded. He waved the dustpan in his hand at John. "Besides, at least we didn't have to claim you had a childhood accident with a rice thresher."
John touched his ear before he could stop himself.
Rodney laughed at him.
With a sigh, John went back to sweeping.
"You don't think there's a reason we've ended here and now, do you?" he asked as they were taking the garbage out back.
"What? You mean some kind of predestined fate?" Rodney clapped a metal garbage can lid down over the noisome refuse of the day. He glared his scorn first at it and then at John. "So how does the universe benefit from forcing me to play janitor? Hmm. Try to exercise your brain a little, Sheppard. This is random. There is no fate; and if it isn't random, then it's some sadistic Ascended being screwing with us."
"Well, I was just thinking about how…coincidental it is that we ran into your mother," John said.
"Don't remind me of that," Rodney told him with a shudder. "I'm rethinking my attraction to smart blondes as it is."
Rodney pointed at him. "Exactly!"
John rubbed the back of his neck. "I suppose. I mean, the only thing I can remember about 1947 is that's the year O.J. Simpson was born."
He let a sheepish smile cross his face at Rodney's eye-rolling in response.
"Because that was so important historically. You make me despair for the human race, Col—Sheppard," Rodney said as they walked back inside.
"I thought you gave up on the human race in Siberia," John kidded him.
"That's when I gave up on the US military," Rodney re-plied with a snort.
Major Dennis heard them and looked up. "Really, Mr. McKay?"
"What? No," Rodney said. "I mean, yes, I gave up on the idea of the military as a whole having the collective intelligence of a newt years ago. Most of them can't even perform a simple algebraic calculation and the officers are even stupider." He turned a glare on John. "Or they've wasted their brains memorizing useless football trivia. And the Russians are just as bad."
Dennis frowned at the mention of the Russians. John clapped his hand on Rodney's shoulder. "C'mon, McKay, let's get some rest. Tomorrow may be a long day."
"Oh. Yes. I suppose. My back is never going to recover from sleeping on this cot, though."
"Get some sleep, boys," Dennis told them. "I think I may know where you could pick up some work tomorrow."
"That'd be great," John answered.
Rodney demanded, "Where?"
Rodney began snapping his fingers excitedly. "Bardeen, Shockley, and Brattain!"
Major Dennis and John both stared at him. Rodney's expression fell. He shoved his hands in his pockets as if stilling their motion could lock up his tongue, too. "Sorry."
"You know someone who works there?" Dennis asked.
"Oh, no, no," Rodney replied. He shook his head. "I just know of them. Science…."
"Rodney studied it before," John added. Dennis would think he meant before the war, but it wasn't an out and out lie. Most likely, Rodney had connected Bell Labs with something that happened in 1947, but they could hardly explain that.
"I try to stay current with developments," Rodney muttered.
Hard not to when you were the one making most of them , John thought, but he knew being unacknowledged in their own time on Earth bothered Rodney almost as much as being unable to correct scientists who were working on theories Rodney knew were wrong. The SGC's and IOA's strict classifications and non-disclosure stance made a joke out of the idea they were using the stargate to pursue new discoveries and science.
Apparently, John felt bitter, too.
They left it at that and Dennis wished them both good night.
The darkened dorm reminded John of a barracks, filled with the nighttime noises of men sleeping and dreaming, the rustle of blankets, and the occasional fart. He dozed, but couldn't really sleep. He only slept well in Atlantis or in the back of a jumper. This was too much like a mission gone bad for him to really rest.
He could hear Rodney's breathing from the cot next to his. Rodney was awake, too.
Softly, John whispered, "Bardeen, Shockley, and Brattain?"
"In December they'll demonstrate their newest invention," Rodney whispered back. "The transistor."
"I keep wondering, are we supposed to go in there as janitors or something and—"
"Do a Good Will Hunting on someone's whiteboard?"
"Yes, something like that, minus the pop culture reference."
John suppressed a chuckle. Rodney got all his media allusions, so what did that say? That Rodney had had as much time on his hands in Siberia as John had in Antarctica? Or that both of them needed to get a social life.
"I guess we'll see," John said.
Morning, though, brought two FBI agents. Major Dennis had decided that John and Rodney were communists and probably Soviet spies.
"Like we wouldn't be better at it if we were spies!" Rodney shouted as one of J. Edgar's goons shoved him into a dark sedan. "I'm Canadian!"
Unfortunately, neither of them had any ID since they still forgot to carry wallets half the time, even when they went in to San Francisco. In some ways, this was good. John didn't like thinking about what the FBI would make of the laminated, holographic ID cards, driver's licenses, and magnetic-stripped credit cards that usually occupied his wallet while on Earth. Even their money would have been wrong. The lack of anything excited suspicion though.
"So who are you?" demanded the FBI agent with the blond buzz cut once they had John in an interrogation room. The bare bulb hanging from the ceiling on a wire, the straight chair, and plain table were all classic, but clichés started somewhere. They even had his hands handcuffed behind the back of the chair.
No use offering an alias, because Rodney wouldn't know it. Sticking to the truth would at least keep their stories straight.
"Right," drawled FBI agent number two, the one with the thinning comb-over.
"And your ID?"
"Lost it," John replied with a smirk.
Blondie slammed his hand down on the table so that it jumped. "Don't get smart with us!"
John slouched in his chair. "Can we move on? My name's John Sheppard, I was born in Virginia, my mother and father were Marion and Patrick Sheppard. They're both dead. I lost my ID, along with everything else, in a boating accident."
"That's a pretty convenient story, comrade."
John blinked at him before bursting out in laughter.
"Comrade?" he choked out.
Blondie and Comb-over looked nonplussed by John's reaction. John tried to school his expression, but little chuckles kept sneaking out. "I am not now, nor have I ever been," he recited, trying to remember the words from some McCarthy-era movie about Hollywood blacklists, "a member of the Communist Party."
"That's a little glib, Mr. Sheppard," Comb-over said. "If Sheppard is your real name. Don't you think that was a little glib, Agent Barnes?"
"I wonder what his 'Canadian' friend will say," Blondie Barnes speculated.
"McKay'll talk your ear off," John said as casually as he could. "Hell, he'll talk until you want to cut your ears off. He'll probably give you an entire diatribe about how communism is doomed to fail under the weight of its own corruption."
Comb-over arched an eyebrow.
"How would you know communism is corrupt? Made a study of it, have you? Visited Russia? Personal experience? I mean, that's a very interesting little tidbit, I think."
"C'mon, that's what usually follows an idealist revolu-tion," John said. "The idealists don't have any idea how to govern and in come the predators." He sang lightly, "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss."
"Now that sounds like a union slogan," Barnes said.
"It's a song," John muttered. Nothing he said was going to get through to these two. They had Reds on the brain.
"Why don't you go ahead and tell us why you and your friend are so interested in Bell Telephone Laboratories?" Comb-over suggested.
"Yet your friend knows the name of three scientists working there."
"I think these two are here to steal technology," Barnes said.
The thought of what Rodney could do for the state of 1947 technology made John shake his head. "Wow, have you got that wrong."
"You know what we do to spies and traitors, Sheppard?"
John went cold, thinking of all the things they could do to Rodney, to get him to talk, to confess, to give up what he knew. John was the only one who would care. In this time, Rodney didn't even exist. The FBI would only be the beginning.
"Anything we want," Barnes said. He got his face right up in John's, so close spittle spritzed John's chin. "You may be tough, but your partner doesn't look like he'd hold up."
Goddamn it, John thought. Rodney was tougher than these jackasses knew, but no one could hold out forever. J. Edgar Hoover's G-men had no more respect for due process than the Genii. They could and would do anything.
He wasn't really looking forward to being interrogated any time soon himself.
"We will find out who you really are and why you're here," Comb-over told him. "Why not make this easier on yourself?"
"What, and miss all the fun?" John said before he thought.
Barnes slugged him in the gut before John could tighten his muscles against the blow. He doubled over, gasping for breath, and took the next blow on the cheekbone. His head snapped back and he bit the inside of his cheek.
"Having fun yet?" Comb-over asked.
John sucked in a lung full of oxygen and hawked bloody spittle into Barnes' face.
"More than a barrel full of monkeys."
Barnes wiped the spit away and then cracked his knuckles while smiling at John.
"I really love the smart alecks," Barnes remarked.
Comb-over chuckled and nodded. "Oh, I know, I know."
So, the spitting hadn't been the smartest thing he'd ever done. John had always been reckless. If he took the hits, it might take the edge off their violence when they went after Rodney. Maybe they'd even believe him once they were through beating the crap out of him. Doubtful.
He got in a couple of kicks for the hell of it, but couldn't fight back too well without his hands, and then Barnes really went to town on John.
He still thought he'd done the right thing, until the chair went over and Barnes started kicking him. John couldn't curl up to protect his ribs or his head, and wished wildly that he was some place and some when in which he could have shot the son of a bitch.
Barnes' penny loafer was heading straight for John's head when everything went bright and fizzy green.
He hit the water on his side and panicked, thinking he was still handcuffed to the chair. The little device slipped from his hand and John kicked toward the surface. The chair was gone, but the cuffs weren't. His ribs ached, and he whined in his throat as he dragged in air.
Rodney got an arm under John's arms and lifted his head higher out the water. John let him do the swimming for a minute, just breathing and gathering his wits.
"John?" Rodney yelled into his ear.
John winced. "Let me go; I'm okay," he croaked.
"I've never been so glad to get snapped back in time," Rodney told him. He let John go. "I think those goons were going to 'disappear' me, I swear."
"Yeah," John choked out, "you might be right."
"You sure you're okay?"
He was keeping his head above water as long as he kept kicking, but only just. "Could you, uh, take a look toward shore?"
Rodney splashed him in the face kicking himself higher out of the water. His eyes were wide as he sloshed back down.
"What?" John coughed.
"You're getting a black eye, first of all," Rodney told him.
"And the Golden Gate Bridge is gone."
John's abused muscles started locking up and cramping before they made it to shore. Rodney towed him the rest of the way.
The swim was starting to become a routine. Pretty soon they'd both be ready to enter the Iron Man Triathlon, John thought half-hysterically. Rodney let go of him and they both sprawled on the wet sand of the beach with the surf tugging at their legs.
John rolled onto his back. His shoulders hurt.
Rodney stayed face down and groaned, "This is getting old."
John clenched his hand into a fist, then opened his fingers.
"I'm really sick of being a temporal pinball," Rodney went on.
He'd had the device in his hand, John realized, when he hit the water. "I had it."
"You had what, a concussion?" Rodney asked.
Rodney lifted his head far enough to glare at John with one eye. Sand coated his cheek and jaw.
"You had the Ancient device?" Rodney asked.
"And you let it go!?" Rodney's voice made the gulls screech in sympathy. It made John's head ache—not in sympathy. The extent of Rodney's irritation could be judged by how he levered himself up on his elbows and flopped forward toward John in a disturbingly seal-like motion with the probable intention of strangling him.
"I was trying not to drown," John told him.
The surf sloshed around his knees while the Delta breeze chilled him through his wet clothes. He'd lost the buckskin coat and his shirt when the feds searched him, but on the upside, still had the boots Major Dennis of the Salvation Army—and federal stooge—had found for him.
Rodney dragged himself a little closer to John and stared at him. "What happened to you?"
"Tweedledum and Tweedledee decided to tune me up," John told him. Sitting up hurt, but he thought his ribs were still sound. A few more minutes under the feds' tender care and he likely wouldn't have made it to shore even with Rodney's help.
"And by 'tune up' you mean beat the everlovin' crap out of you, I take it?"
Rodney sighed loudly, then began blowing his nose and finished with a heartfelt, "Ugh."
The long silence that followed was the equivalent of Rodney telling John he forgave him for losing the device. John got that.
"I wonder when we are this time?" Rodney finally said.
"No Golden Gate," John said. "So before 1937."
Rodney pulled his knees up and propped his arms over them, hands dangling. His hair had begun to dry in wild, salt-crusted tufts. If they kept getting dumped in the Pacific, John thought in brief amusement, it was going to bleach out.
"Have you noticed that each relocation has placed us further into the past?" Rodney said.
"Really?" John squinted at the overcast sky and realized they were lucky there hadn't been a storm blowing on any of the occasions they hit the ocean. "Think it means something?"
"Fifty-two years, then twenty years, and now at least ten, probably more," Rodney said.
"I can't figure out any pattern," Rodney admitted in frustration.
"Maybe there isn't one."
Wearily, Rodney nodded, then pushed himself to his feet.
"Help me up?" John asked as pitifully as he could.
"Aren't you supposed to be the big tough military guy?"
"Only when Ronon's not around," John said. Which he wasn't, so it was time to man up, but John didn't have to act stoic around Rodney. He winced as he rolled onto his side and then got his knees under him. Before he got any further, Rodney's hands closed on his shoulders and helped him the rest of the way to his feet. "Thanks."
"I expect you to start the fire once I get you out of these cuffs."
"How do you intend to—?"
Rodney pulled a ballpoint pen out of his pockets, twisted off the cap and then the little metal clip from the cap with a flourish.
"Didn't know you knew how to pick locks," John said.
"Please," Rodney replied as he inserted his makeshift pick, "it's all engineering. I could do this in my sleep."
"Well, you might try— ow —doing it awake. That's my wrist not the lock."
"Hold still and stop being such a big baby."
John made a production of looking over the punctures in his wrist after the handcuffs clicked open. Rodney rolled his eyes.
They were faced with sand dunes and wind-shaped chaparral. Driftwood, seaweed, and sea life were visible, along with white-winged gulls squawking and diving at the waves. No sign of man impinged on the beach.
John peered up, but the clouds coming in obscured any glimpse of a contrail.
No car noises carried on the wind.
They walked inland.
Where there had been blacktop each previous iteration, there was not only no traffic, there was no road. No train tracks. Not even a goat track.
No power lines. No telephone poles.
John felt twitchy until he realized he was reacting like they were on an alien planet, because it felt like most of the alien worlds they traveled to through the stargate. The stillness of the atmosphere, the sound of the birds and the wind, all belonged somewhere undeveloped. He'd never really pinned it down before, but technological worlds had a feel, a hum he only became aware of when it disappeared—not the same as the ATA technology, which was more of an active tingle.
It almost felt like they were on a world with no humans, but the wild cow that spooked out of the chaparral carried a brand on its flank.
Rodney watched its hind end disappear back into the brush and said wistfully, "I really could use something to eat."
"I don't exactly have anything to kill a cow with," John pointed out reasonably. Besides, the cow belonged to somebody who wouldn't be happy if they butchered it.
"Ronon could do it."
John smacked the back of Rodney's head and then had to hide a wince from the pain in his ribs and stomach muscles.
He might not be able to tackle a wild cow and wrestle it to the ground for dinner, but John did find them a pleasant camp spot protected from the wind, and lit a fire to warm and dry them. Of course, Ronon was the one who taught him to glue a flint to the back of his belt buckle. He didn't mention that to Rodney, though.
Rodney went on whining over his impending collapse due to his hypoglycemia as they took turns feeding whatever dry wood and brush they could find into the small fire. Some of the wood wasn't as dry as John would have liked, and the wind from the ocean whipped the heavy smoke eastward once it crested the dune sheltering them.
They split watches, though John knew Rodney was a lousy sentry. The truth was he felt too exhausted to stay alert either.
He fell asleep to the constant refrain of Rodney's complaints: his clothes were salty, he was going to die of pneumonia, he was about to slip into a coma, and something about Sam Carter's hair that didn't make much sense as John dozed off.
The cock of a rifle snapped him awake to stare straight into the black hollow of its barrel. Rodney didn't wake until their captors shook him, then he came up with a yell and smacked his forehead into the muzzle of the gun aimed at his head.
John hadn't even taken high school Spanish—French had been the expected choice—so the only words he'd ever picked up were from horizontal dictionaries. He could recognize it, however, and picked up "dirty yanquis ," something he thought might be "cattle thieves," and the always encouraging " muerte."
There were three of them. One aiming a gun at Rodney and grinning, showing where he'd lost two front teeth, one aiming his rifle at John and scowling—maybe over the way that big dark mole on his cheek dominated his face—and the third kicking the sand around their mostly dead fire, obviously looking for the belongings they currently lacked.
A noise in the darkness beyond the tiny circle of light from the fire resolved into a familiar snort and sound of hooves. The three vaqueros had left their mounts out there. Mole Man—as John dubbed him in his head—rapped out an order, gestured toward the horses. The muzzle of the rifle wavered a little, but not enough for John to try taking it away from him.
"So, yanquis ," Mole Man said in thick English. "I think you are lost, sí? This is the land of Don Luis Ortiz y Martinez."
"Going to be worth a fortune some day," John told him.
Mole Man bared his teeth.
"Uh, Sheppard, that might not have been the right thing to sa-aa-ay," Rodney blurted, his voice rising into panic as Gap Tooth shoved the sight of his Colt up Rodney's nostril. Rodney crab-walked backward, then froze. Gap Tooth waved the pistol at him and yelled something in Spanish. "I don't—I don't speak Spanish. Sheppard?"
"Where's a linguist when you actually need one?" Rodney muttered.
"Shut up!" Mole Man yelled at them both.
The third guy brought in the horses. He just dropped the reins, ground-tying them. A thin line of gray light marked the eastern horizon.
"We could take you to Yerba Buena," Mole Man said thoughtfully.
The way he said it, John knew that wasn't in the plan.
"Yerba Buena?" Rodney squeaked. "Where's—"
Gap Tooth waved his Colt again. He'd relaxed a lot—Rodney didn't look exactly threatening at the moment. Rodney could be dangerous and intimidating, John knew, in the right circumstances, but these weren't it. Which was fine with John, because he wanted these guys to loosen up, get careless, and underestimate them.
If John remembered his history right, Yerba Buena got the name change to San Francisco in 1847, right after the Bear Flag War, when the US appropriated California from Mexico.
"But why should we disturb the new alcalde , eh?" Mole Man went on. "We caught a couple of cattle thieves."
"Do you see a cow here?" Rodney demanded. "My boots aren't even made of leather! Are you crazy?" He snapped his fingers and pointed. "Uh, loco? Are you loco? "
Jesus, and Rodney thought John's diplomatic skills were primitive?
"I think maybe this one is loco ," Gap Tooth said.
"Why does everyone accuse me of being crazy?" Rodney questioned plaintively.
John stifled a chuckle.
"We're not cattle thieves," he said as persuasively as he knew how. "We're just lost. We didn't know this was Señor Martinez's land. How about you take us to the local law and we'll explain everything." He spread his hands to look as unthreatening as possible. Not hard, considering they were both lying on the ground and shivering. "I mean, look, we're not armed. I don't even have a pocket knife."
Thanks to the sticky-fingered damn G-men back in 1947 who had confiscated it. Holy crap, they'd jumped back a hundred years!
He shared a glance with Rodney. Rodney had scuttled back again. His left hand rested within an inch of a long, narrow piece of driftwood that had been meant for the fire.
John closed his hand around a fistful of dry sand. Since they didn't have sleeping bags or blankets, his legs were free.
"If I say you are thieves, then who is to say I lied?" Mole Man asked.
"Us?" Rodney snapped.
"I do not think you will be saying anything, except to the devil, once you are hung, eh?"
Yeah, John didn't like the sound of that any better than Rodney did.
"Oh, no, no, no, this is not how I die, this is too stupid, my brain is too important," Rodney babbled. He sounded typically panicked, but John saw he had his hand on the stick. "You have no idea what a loss to humanity—"
Mole Man laughed at Rodney. All three of their captors were as distracted as they were going to be.
John threw the sand into the third vaquero's face and kicked the rifle out of Mole Man's hands. He heard the driftwood impact Gap Tooth as he tackled Mole Man's legs and brought him down. Close proximity might keep the third vaquero from shooting once he could see again.
Mole Man went down backwards and something in one of his knees snapped audibly, making him scream. John scrambled up, but Mole Man caught him in the ribs with a lucky blow as he grabbed at his own leg. John grunted in sudden agony as black spots danced through his vision. He doubled over, tripped, and his elbow drove into Mole Man's gut.
Both of them were gasping for breath, but Mole Man hadn't been trained in hand-to-hand or spent the last five years sparring with Teyla and Ronon. John pushed through the pain, caught Mole Man's right arm and snapped his wrist.
As the vaquero writhed between the pain in his knee and his arm, John drew the man's pistol out of the holster—beautiful thing that, leather work boasting silver conchos and cactus-fiber embroidery. Thumbing the hammer back, John staggered to his feet and shot at the third vaquero.
The Colt wasn't as accurate or as well-balanced as John's pawned Beretta. The bullet hit the vaquero in the arm instead of the shoulder. He screamed and clutched at the wound.
"Get away from them!" John yelled.
The third vaquero obeyed, and John could finally see that Rodney and Gap Tooth were beating the crap out of each other.
"Goddamn it!" John yelled. He fired another bullet into the sand. "Stop! Both of you!"
Gap Tooth froze, but Rodney kept fighting. He flipped Gap Tooth under him, grabbed his ears and slammed his head back into a rock.
"I am sick of this!" Rodney yelled. "I am sick of being threatened, beaten up, tortured, and called crazy by people too stupid to breathe the same atmosphere as me!"
"Rodney," John said.
Rodney slammed Gap Tooth's head back on the rock again. Gap Tooth's eyes rolled white as he passed out. Rodney pulled him up and started to slam him down again.
"Rodney!" John yelled. "Stop! You can't kill him!"
Rodney stopped and glared at him. "Why not?"
"Timeline," John told him economically.
"Oh," Rodney said. He dropped Gap Tooth. "Right."
Vaquero Three had scrambled over to the horses and was trying to mount. John thought of stopping him, but the same argument applied to him as to Rodney's opponent.
He started to turn, flinched at the pain from his ribs and hunched over, moving his whole body around rather than twisting, to check on Mole Man. Crack. The bullet tore through the flesh over his belt buckle at the same time he heard the rifle fire. Mole Man had recovered it and shot him. The sound echoed through the dawn air.
Mole Man had propped himself up. His sweat-slick face was locked in a grimace of pain, his gritted teeth shiny white.
The son of a bitch had tried to gut shoot John, and the only reason he hadn't succeeded was that he only had one good arm to hold the rifle and John's own lurching, awkward movement.
John raised the pistol in his hand.
Rodney yelled, "No! Sheppard!"
Mole Man racked another shell into the chamber and aimed the rifle at Rodney. Rodney froze. There was no place to dive, no cover, and he had no chance.
The gouge torn through John's flesh burned. He could see Mole Man's finger tightening on the rifle trigger.
To hell with the timeline, John thought. History would just have to fix itself. He wouldn't stand by and watch as Mole Man shot Rodney.
"Don't," he told Mole Man. His voice rasped, ugly as the warning clatter of a rattlesnake. He cocked the pistol and aimed between Mole Man's eyes. "I will shoot you."
"Great, I'll just go get some coffee while you two have your Mexican stand-off, shall I?" Rodney grumbled. He took a step to the side.
Mole Man grinned at John, fierce and too furious to back down. He shifted the rifle to follow Rodney's movement.
"Sí, but I will have still shot your amigo ," he taunted.
John wished to hell that if that stupid device of Janus' was going to throw them back in time, it would have at least sent them to a time when there weren't any people around.
The familiar charge of green energy surrounded Rodney and himself, causing Mole Man to cry out in fear. John felt himself turned inside out once more, and then the all too well-known water of the Pacific closed cold over his head.
He'd been clutching Mole Man's Colt. Now his hand tightened automatically on the ancient device. He held his breath and began kicking his way to the surface once the momentum of his fall had dispersed away into the water.
"Damn it! Sheppard!" Rodney was almost screaming, splashing the water, ducking under it, then coming up in a wild thrash. "John!"
"Here," John gasped. "I'm here."
Rodney spotted him.
"Oh, thank God. Just, just stay there," Rodney blurted out.
John began treading water as Rodney swam to him.
"Are you—you can't be okay," Rodney said once they were close enough to talk without shouting. "You were shot."
And the saltwater felt like hell in the raw wound, too. John grimaced.
"Thanks for reminding me," he drawled. He held up his hand with the device. "I got it this time."
"Thank God," Rodney exclaimed. "I've been thinking, that is…John, what were you thinking each time we jumped?"
"Try to remember," Rodney urged.
"I really wanted to get away from that woman in labor," John admitted, "and your mother, because that just seemed too skeevy." He frowned, reliving the next two jumps. Oh crap. Rodney was never going to let him live this down.
"What?" Rodney demanded.
"Ah, just before we left 1947, I wanted to get away from the feds," John said.
"And just now," Rodney concluded, "because we were—"
"You were about to get shot."
"Yes, well, thank you for that. The device is activated by your mind, Sheppard, so maybe you could try—"
His eyes widened.
John twisted and gasped at the huge fin headed toward them.
Rodney grabbed his arm.
"Sheppard! Get us out of here! Think about Atlantis!"
John thought of the one place he always wanted to be. Home. Even without any ruby shoes to click together, Janus' invention activated.
Energy wreathed around them, brilliant green and sizzling through the salt waves. He had a glimpse of the shark veering away and then his stomach lurched in response to the sensation of displacing through time too soon after the last trip.
They slapped down onto the familiar gate room floor with a squelch to the not-unusual sound of cocking P-90s.
John rolled onto his back and stared up at the ceiling, still holding onto Janus' device. He tasted bile, but fought down the need to puke. That had been the worst displacement yet.
Rodney spit up a mouthful of seawater, groaned, and then laughed. "Atlantis! Thank you, Colonel, for finally getting it right."
John decided he'd never tell Rodney where and when he'd really told the device he wanted to be rather than just Atlantis itself. After all, they were really the same.
Mr. Woolsey was on the stairs, upside down from John's current position, and frowning, flanked by Sam Carter and Zelenka.
"Colonel Sheppard, Dr. McKay," he said. "How good to see you've returned."
Carter grinned at them. "I guess you don't need me after all."
"You got the letter?" Rodney exclaimed.
"I'm going to find that weasel lawyer and get my money back," Rodney grumbled at John.
"It's probably in the mail," John told him.
"That's what's wrong with your country! You can't even get the mail delivered on time," Rodney snapped. "Our lives depended on Sam knowing what happened to us and our only hope is probably in Outer Mongolia being used as toilet paper!"
Carter looked bemused.
"Rodney, we're back," John pointed out.
"That—that is not the point!"
"So much for quiet in the labs," Zelenka muttered. He smiled, too. "On reflection, I believe I am relieved."
John started to sit up, then slumped back, clutching at his ribs and the still bleeding bullet wound. Crap, that hurt.
Rodney saw and his eyes widened. "Get a medic in here!" he demanded. "Sheppard's been shot. Again."
"It's just a flesh wound," John said.
"You," Rodney growled, "you, just, shut up."
Seawater pouring onto the gate room floor from his soaked clothes, Rodney raised himself onto his hands and knees and snatched the time travel remote control from John's lax grip, then staggered to his feet.
"I'm never, ever letting you touch anything Ancient ever again. You are barred from Janus' lab, do you hear me?"
John let his head thump back onto the floor. "Sure, Rodney."
Rodney whipped around and snapped his fingers at Sam and Zelenka. Seawater splatted onto them both. "Tools. I'm disabling this thing before Colonel Toucha-Toucha-Touch-Me over there slings us into the Pleistocene next time he wants to duck some paperwork!"
Sam held up her empty hands. Zelenka scurried away, muttering something evil about Rodney and flying monkeys.
"Oh, for God's sake, never mind," Rodney snapped. He threw Janus' device onto the floor, then crushed it under one wet, squelching boot.
Woolsey stopped next to John and looked down.
"I'm surprised, Colonel Sheppard," he said. "I'd have thought Dr. McKay would have been the one to get himself shot by someone."
"I heard that!" Rodney snapped. "I'll have you know I was almost shot, too. And eaten by a giant shark! You can't believe the trauma I've been subjected to in the last three days…I need something to eat and coffee; someone get me some coffee and dry clothes…." He snapped his fingers and pointed at the nearest Marine. "What are you waiting for?"
"It wasn't me, sir," John told Woolsey.
Woolsey smiled at him.
"It wouldn't be."
"Hey, what happened to the pregnant lady?" John asked.
"Mother and son are fine," Woolsey said. "Britain has withdrawn their representative from the IOA for the moment, however."
Keller's quick-response team bustled into the gate room and headed for Sheppard.
Rodney's voice rose as he shouted at the medics.
"What are you idiots waiting for? Colonel Sheppard could have bled out while you were doing your nails—"
"Hey, Dorothy," John called to Rodney.
"What!? What did you just call me?" Rodney exploded. "Are you hallucinating or just brain damaged? The concussions have finally caught up to you, haven't they?"
John grinned. Rodney was so predictable.
"There's no place like home."
There really was no place like home.