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Draconian Measures

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Draconian Measures - Book Cover by Berlinghoff79

The master of subtle persuasion.

Rodney almost let himself believe that for a split second but this Samantha Carter was too similar to the one he had once loved, married and then divorced. For someone who had been trained to hold military secrets, she had a terrible poker face, or perhaps it was because he knew her so well, too well maybe, despite not really knowing this Sam at all.

He frowned. Temporal mechanics was always a problematic subject because of all the anomalies dredged up.

Still, he could not quite believe that his Sam was gone, killed in the initial explosion that brought this Sam to his reality. Yet looking through the notes Sam had left behind, he had seen where she had gone wrong instantly.

Pressure of time rather than incompetence had killed his Sam. The Ori had been approaching Earth, and were only days away from completely subjugating or annihilating the planet, so she had been reckless. She had taken chances that no scientist in his or her right mind would contemplate under normal circumstances. She'd removed the safety protocols that could have prevented the accident just like she had disabled half the protocols in the original DHD created for accessing the Stargate.

Their very first argument had been over that very subject as they fought to retrieve Teal'c from the Stargate buffer. An explosion on the other side of the wormhole had destroyed the connected Stargate while Teal'c was in transit, leaving him trapped in between. Of course, Teal'c had lived but if Rodney had not managed to re-engage some of those missing protocols before his signal degraded then they would have lost the Jaffa leader. Yet no one had ever acknowledged his contribution during those critical 48 hours, seeing only his arguments and Sam's resolve to save Teal'c no matter the cost. Unfortunately, he had caused enough enmity with Hammond to end up exiled to Siberia for the better part of a year before they allowed him back to Area 51.

Not that saving Teal'c really mattered any more because Earth had left the Jaffa and the rest of the galaxy to fend for themselves once the threat from the Ori became too great. Teal'c had refused to abandon his own people so he was most likely dead, for Rodney couldn't see the proud, Jaffa leader worshiping more false gods after breaking the shackles of the Goa'uld.

That first argument with Sam had led to many more arguments when he was brought back to the SGC to find a way to prevent the Stargate exploding and destroying half the planet in the process. Once more it had been over disabled protocols within the DHD and Rodney still felt a little shamefaced that he had fixated so much on that problem that he had failed to see the simple solution pointed out by Jonas Quinn. Still, Rodney knew his last minute macro had helped override the protocols on the F302, allowing O'Neill to send the overloading Stargate through a hyperspace window where it had exploded harmlessly. After that, or maybe because of that, he and Sam had found a grudging respect for each other and, dare he say, love? Looking at her now, he could honestly admit to himself that it had been love more than lust, and it was still love, just not the all-encompassing love of Shakespearean plays and romantic poems. They'd married but they hadn't exactly been good for each other, and the marriage had ended when martial law began because of one last argument that neither of them had been willing to lose.

In anger against the declaration of martial law, he'd resigned as a consultant to the US military, refusing to take orders from a government willing to enforce such draconian measures in order to quash civil unrest. Instead, he set about building his own company in the private sector. He'd tried to convince Sam to join him, tried to convince her that Landry was wrong, and that taking away people's civil liberties was not the answer. She had refused to resign her commission, insisting that martial law was only a temporary measure. She was so certain that it would all blow over in a couple of months but three years later the witch hunt for Trust agents continued; suspected terrorism was met with deadly force on the flimsiest of evidence, and people were taken from their homes in the middle of the night and sent to detention centers with no right of appeal, and often with no idea of what they had done wrong.

Despite his best intentions, Rodney couldn't escape the attention of a fanatical US government and he had ended up having to chose between the destruction of his company or accepting contracts from them to investigate the alien technology discovered on distant worlds. He'd chosen the latter in the hope that he would find something the Earth could use to fight back against the Ori, but to no avail. Even the Ancient outpost discovered in Antarctica had offered little hope beyond the Chair and drones, but O'Neill had deployed most of the drones three years earlier, to destroy the Goa'uld fleet commanded by the half-ascended Anubis.

He blinked hard at Sam, seeing her chagrin at being caught in a lie, especially one that placed him into a difficult position both politically and financially.

"Just think about it," she said with a soft smile.

She hadn't needed to persuade him of the injustice of it all because he knew all too well, only he was just one man and, despite his millions, he was as vulnerable to blackmail as the next person. The fact that he was standing in the lower levels of a concrete bunker rather than in his plush, penthouse office was proof of that.

He watched as she turned away to pull off her coat and hang it over the edge of the table. Rodney dredged up a half-smile for when she looked back with her eyes shining, all eager to get started on the inter-universal bridge that would send her home but leave him stranded here trying to pick up the pieces. He turned away from her bright smile.

"Erh...you! Soldier person in the corridor."

A soldier looked through the doorway from where he had been standing guard, probably under orders from General Hammond. "Sir?"

"White boards...and pens. Plenty of them."

"Yes, sir." The soldier snapped a hand to his radio and began relaying Rodney's request.

"What?" he stated at the smile twitching Sam's lips.

"Nothing. It's just really good to have you here, Rodney."

"Hmm."

Personally, he could think of a number of places where he would rather be right now but in truth, he was lucky not to have been dragged in a lot earlier. His ever-expanding company had handled the vast majority of top secret American defense projects over the past few years, making him more useful on the periphery of the Stargate program. Admittedly, although he had told Sam he had not done much theoretical physics in recent years, she must have seen that for the lie it was. He couldn't help himself, unable to resist dabbling in every piece of alien technology that came his way from offworld missions, and a few others pieces that he had gained from other, more dubious sources.

And therein lay the cause of his current problems.

The President had known about his other sources all along but as he'd been sharing the knowledge and any advances that his company made with the SGC and Area 51, no one had made mention of it. It had, however, left him a vulnerable target for an anti-Trust investigation along with his estranged sister. Though why they wanted to drag Jeannie into this mess was anyone's guess as she'd made no contribution to the scientific world in years, not since giving up everything to became a housewife.

Well, if he had to spend his final days in an underground prison then better here with access to all the technology and resources he required than in some modern day equivalent of a chain gang, picking up litter off the highways.

They worked silently for a while, reading through schematics and the dead Sam's research notes while several soldiers set up white boards around the room, quietly and efficiently. He looked up as a marker pen began to squeak across the first board, watching in interest as the equations stretched out across the white surface until...

"No, no, no. What are you trying to do? Kill yourself?"

Grabbing a marker pen, he erased half a line and began writing furiously, barely noticing when politeness turned to name calling and sarcasm on both sides, and loving every second of it.

****

Building the inter-universal bridge took less time than Sam had envisaged but she knew that was because Rodney was working alongside her. While he was living and working in another galaxy, it was easy to forget how brilliant he was, how his mind wrapped around theoretical problems and how the math came so easily to him. She'd met very few people who could match her train of thought, able to understand exactly where she was heading, let alone someone who could overtake her.

Rodney was that good, though she would never tell him that to his face, not wanting to boost an already overly healthy ego.

She watched him from the corner of her eye as he made a few minor adjustments before standing back, taking a moment to admire his handiwork. Yet he seemed more saddened than jubilant as his gaze flicked up to meet hers. It struck her then that she was going home and he would be left behind in this messed up world with just the memory of two Sam Carters - his dead ex-wife and her.

In the week it had taken to complete the work on the bridge, they had talked often and now Sam understood what the other Sam had seen in him that wasn't so readily noticeable to others, because she had seen it too. He was still the jerk and smart ass that she had known in her own reality but beneath it there was a hidden core of strength and passion, and a stubbornness to see something through to the bitter end. She could imagine him spending a lifetime searching for an answer to a single problem, if the life of someone he cared about hung in the balance, and part of her wondered if her own Rodney McKay had that same core.

While they worked, they talked about Merlin's device and other Ancient technologies they had found on distant worlds but while off duty in the cafeteria she talked of her reality. She told him about Atlantis and the Wraith, and about the hunt for ZPMs. She left out as little as possible, aware that his mind was soaking up everything; every word, every code and gate address. He might have a terrible memory for places and people's names but planet designations and scientific data came so easily to him. Instead, she left the memorizing of names to Lorne, encouraging him to join them in the hope that she might provide Rodney with an ally who was willing to convince Hammond and Landry of the benefits of getting back out there and finding Atlantis.

Her thoughts drifted back to one of those early conversations....

****

"Was anyone else I know on Atlantis?" Rodney asked, and this seemed the perfect opportunity to tell him about the men and women who had formed a surrogate family for him.

"The expedition was led by Dr. Elizabeth Weir."

"Hmm. She was President Hayes' chief negotiator when they first revealed the existence of the Stargate to the rest of the world. Currently, she's trying to negotiate a truce with Russia having already brought over most of the European Union. Not the British though, or any of the Commonwealth countries...Australia, Canada," he huffed smugly, "Who still believe in democracy and civil rights."

Sam smiled weakly at Lorne's tight grimace, deciding to change the subject from Weir before it turned into a political debate.

"Originally, the military was led by Colonel Sumner--"

"Dead," Rodney stated blandly. "Killed in the riots."

Lorne nodded. "He was killed at the start of the troubles, and that's what forced Landry to take over the presidency and declare martial law."

"It was a military coup?"

Lorne nodded. "Hayes lost control of the situation, and people were dying out there. Rioting and looting, mass murders, xenophobia, and total paranoia. He mobilized the national guard and recalled all retired military back to active duty. He recalled troops from Afghanistan and Iraq and brought order back to the country."

Rodney snorted rudely and Lorne gave that same tight-lipped smile. "Admittedly, at a price," Lorne conceded.

"Well, Sumner didn't last long in Atlantis either, and command passed to then-Major John Sheppard."

Lorne sat up straight. "If it's the same Sheppard then he's a full bird colonel in command of Petersen air base and the F302 squadrons. Bit of a maverick."

"If you do go to Atlantis, you'll need him. He has the strongest expression of the ATA gene known on the planet, with the possible exception of General O'Neill."

"Do you mean Colonel Jack O'Neill? Former SG-1 team leader?" Sam nodded and then frowned at the saddened look that crossed Lorne's face. "We had to leave him behind in Antarctica when the Russians overran the outpost... still frozen."

"The Asgard?"

"Gone." Lorne stated. "Last we heard from Thor, they'd lost badly to the Replicators and were preparing to commit racial suicide."

"What about the Nox? Or even the Tollan?"

He shook his head. "Never answered when we called for help against the Ori."

"But they might have helped the Ge... Colonel."

Lorne sighed. "Look, Sam, I know you mean well but, let's face it, your reality fared a little better than our own. I'm not sure where the jumping off point was but we took this road, and you took another."

"Maybe those roads could meet again?"

Rodney barked out another derogatory laugh. "At a high level, maybe, but there are already too many key differences between our realities for them to ever converge."

"I know but with all I'm telling you, maybe you'll do better than us when you do get back out there and find Atlantis." She pulled back as both men looked thoughtful yet uneasy. "Of course, you'll also need Carson Beckett if you decide to go. He developed the artificial ATA gene therapy, which you both needed."

"Hmm...Unnecessary." Rodney waggled his fingers. "I've already had the gene therapy. Beckett's research was funded by one of my companies and I needed the gene so I could interact with the Ancient technology."

Sam bit back a grin as Lorne leaned forward on both elbows with eyebrows raised in more than just simple interest. For all of Rodney's hypochondria, complaining even at a hangnail or paper cut, he was strangely willing to offer himself as a guinea pig if it gained him something he desperately wanted. Rodney looked uncomfortable under Lorne's scrutiny.

"Um....Didn't I mention that at some point?"

"No. You didn't."

"Hmm! Must have forgotten....and it only works on 48 percent of test subjects anyway." He gave Sam a smug expression. "Seems you must at least have the genetic receptors in your DNA make-up or the gene therapy fails. Beckett hasn't figured out a way to get around that yet."

"Lorne has them." She almost laughed at the way Rodney's face fell at that news while Lorne grinned widely. "Take Beckett with you anyway. You and he were good friends...and Radek Zelenka."

"Who?"

Lorne frowned and she could see him focusing on the name intently. His eyes widened. "The Czech scientist at the Ancient outpost, working with the Russians." He shrugged. "We barely had time to get the Chair and remaining drones out of there, and needed to leave at least enough technology behind to power O'Neill's stasis chamber."

Rodney interrupted. "Actually, the stasis chamber has an independent power source as a safety precaution. Probably drew in the initial power it required when the ZPM was installed. If I'd been there at the time I could have told them to take the whole stasis unit too."

"What are the chances the Russians have left the stasis chamber intact?" Sam asked, her unrequited love for Jack O'Neill still holding sway over her despite a growing respect for Rodney.

"Pretty good actually. Colonel Chekov is in command. He and O'Neill clashed often at the SGC before it all went public... and to hell, but they had a certain amount of respect for one another...and O'Neill did save the planet."

She pushed aside her thoughts of unrequited love and glanced at Lorne. "I hope you're remembering all these names, Major."

He shook his head and grinned ruefully. "Not that it's gonna matter."

****

Her thoughts returned to the present, and to the man standing beside her.

"Well, that's it," he rubbed his hands together, a sad smile twisting at his lips. "All set to go."

She nodded. "Have I time to say some goodbyes?"

"I'm...Yes." He indicated towards the communication panel on the wall. "I'll let General Hammond know."

Sam was not surprised when President Landry came to see her off. She hadn't spoken with him much since he agreed to let her go home but those few occasions had revealed the man she had known in her own reality, in the SGC; a man who believed in civil rights and democracy but who was unwilling to go back down that path until he could assure the safety of the planet, and of the American people in particular.

She had lain awake last night thinking back on Lorne's words as she wondered when the fork in the road had occurred, and realized it all came back to that moment three years earlier after the attack by Anubis, when this US government had revealed the presence of the Stargate to the rest of the world. It made her wonder if her own reality would take the revelation in the same way; whether having the question answered of is there life out there? would cause the same panic across her world. Perhaps the difference was that this reality had never had the opportunity to form an International Oversight Advisory, a coalition of many governments, before they'd gone public.

She could only hope that when the time came in her reality, the IOA would handle it far better as a coalition than the American government had handled it alone.

She thanked Landry and Hammond, turning her attention to Lorne.

"If you get the chance, try to do something to help Colonel Mitchell. He's a good man and deserves better treatment."

Lorne nodded. "I'll see what I can do."

She turned at last to Rodney, reading the reluctance in the stubborn tilt of his chin, surprising him when she wrapped her arms around him, hugging him tightly until his tense frame relaxed and he hugged her back.

"I couldn't have done it without you, Rodney. Least not so quickly anyway."

"Well that stands to reason. I am, after all, a genius."

She leaned into him one more time. "Don't take Kavanagh," she whispered, and heard his snort of derision, presumably at the name and the very thought of taking Kavanagh anywhere.

Releasing him, she pulled on her coat and stepped back behind the Ancient device that she'd been working on two weeks earlier when the other Sam Carter had tapped into her universe and pulled her into this one. She waited until everyone had moved into the observation room overlooking the laboratory, giving a thumbs up when she was ready. With a last smile towards Rodney, Sam powered up the force shield and turned on Merlin's device, taking herself out of phase. She studied the readouts as Rodney created the inter-universal bridge connecting her back to her own reality and shivered as a wave of energy passed through her, the world whiting out for a moment before reforming around her once more.

"Dr. Lee!"

Lee spun around, dropping the sensor device and causing a feedback loop that had him yelping in pain as he tore off the headphones, but any pain must have been transitory for he beamed at her in stunned delight, welcoming her home.

****

Rodney accepted the pats on the back with good grace as Sam disappeared, knowing from his readings that the bridge had remained stable throughout the transfer, increasing the likelihood that she had returned to her own reality safely. He knew it would hit him later that she was gone forever and that he'd never see her again; the world seemed a far colder place with that loss.

"Well, Dr. McKay, how far had you and Colonel Carter got with the power problems on the device before she left?"

Rodney turned to Landry and grimaced, aware that the equations had come up far too short, and with the ZPM now fully depleted, all the power in the national grid would not be enough to replicate Sam's out of phase disappearing act. If the Ori were to return now then they would have no means of saving the planet. He knew of only two options available to them and if they could not use the Stargate to search for another ZPM then the remaining option was to continue on with his Sam's work on drawing energy from parallel universes. With the safety measures put back in place, there was less chance of the same disaster that killed his Sam occurring but still no guarantees. He had to try though as he was not prepared to give up on the planet just yet.

"Um...The national grid alone won't power up the device. We need another ZPM--"

Landry huffed in frustration. "We haven't the time to organize an expedition to another galaxy even if it was possible to open the Stargate." He held up a hand as Rodney opened his mouth to interrupt. "And before you ask, we can't spare either the Daedalus or the Prometheus either, not while there are Ori warships in this galaxy. Until you find a way to power up that device, doctor, those ships remain our sole line of defense."

Rodney tightened his lips, knowing that left placing himself in danger of ending up as dead as his Sam but aware that he had little choice in the matter. The Ori would be back sooner or later, and they had to be prepared or the whole planet would be lost to Origin - or destruction.

He watched as Landry walked away, trailed by his slimy Chief of Staff, Charlie. The sudden gentle slap on his shoulder brought his attention back to Lorne and, for the first time, he saw a bleakness in the man's eyes that spoke of loss too. He ought to have realized that Lorne would feel the same way about losing Sam - both versions of her. Until this latest threat, she'd been a part of his offworld team along with Daniel and Teal'c. Now Lorne had lost all three.

Lorne took a breath. "For what it's worth, you did the right thing sending her back but we may just lose the planet because of that."

Rodney straightened, bristling in annoyance. "For what it's worth," he repeated stiffly, echoing Lorne's words, "My genius surpasses Sam's so--"

"Two heads are better than one," Lorne stated.

"Only in your gay dreams, Lieutenant Colonel."

Lorne's eyes widened and then crinkled in a smirk. "Least you noticed the new rank."

"Hmm... Sam mentioned it, otherwise..." he waved a hand to indicate the whole of Lorne's slightly smaller but more compact frame because military rank insignia had never been that obvious to Rodney.

"I'll miss her too, you know."

Rodney watched Lorne as the newly promoted Lieutenant Colonel left the observation room, leaving Rodney alone. He slumped down into a chair and let his forehead touch the cool metal of the console, allowing himself a moment to grieve because he doubted there would be a memorial service for Sam, not while Landry wanted to cash in on Sam's hero stasis. Lost heroes didn't inspire the same kind of hope as the triumphant but deceased action hero, not when that hero - or heroine in Sam's case - had been more of a nerdy scientist type responsible for keeping the planet safe from the Ori. In the public eye, most anyone could pick up a gun and shoot at something but only Sam could save the entire planet. Now that job had fallen upon his shoulders and despite his brilliance, he was neither a magician nor superman. He couldn't pull rabbits from hats or spin the Earth on its axis to turn back time to save a loved one.

He pushed himself back upright and adjusted his glasses, pushing them back up his nose with his forefinger.

No matter what happened next, moping about the situation wasn't going to accomplish anything. It was time to go back over Sam's notes, compare them to the notes the alternative universe Sam left behind, and then start drawing in as much power as he could in the hope that it would be sufficient by the time the Ori returned. Preferably without killing himself in the process.

****

John watched as the last of the F302s landed at Petersen. The latest bombing raid had gone extremely well, mostly because the enemy were overwhelmed by superior forces. No one else in the world had the kind of technology the US military was deploying in its attacks on terrorist targets outside of the US, giving them superiority over both air, land and sea.

The latest attack was in Afghanistan, bringing back memories of his last tour of duty before the Stargate project went public, and the world fell into chaos. He recalled the empty stretches of sand and rock, and the heat by day and chill by night. They'd been scheduled for one more mission to destroy a known terrorist cell based outside of Khabour but the mission had been scrapped at the last moment and everyone shipped home to help deal with the civil unrest.

Paranoia had swept through the world upon learning of the existence of aliens. President Hayes had lost control of the situation almost immediately, unable to reach the panicking population and also respond to the enemies who were laying siege to US interests abroad. Embassies had to be evacuated, some not quickly enough, with the death toll rising sharply in those first few weeks.

It had seemed strange at first, flying his Black Hawk over American cities, laying down covering fire against his own people as they rioted against a new sort of fear from above. The street gangs had taken advantage of the situation in the inner cities, and organized crime had flourished. It seemed like the whole world had fallen into hell for a time when Hayes disappeared, leaving the government in chaos, until General Landry stepped into the breach and declared martial law.

John could still recall the chill that swept over him at those first words addressed to the American population but they were fighting wars on too many fronts to deal with insurrection within. They needed stability if they were to survive. Still, the thought of killing American civilians had given John no pleasure even though it had been a necessity at the time. It had taken months to secure their own borders and cities, to break down the crippling hold of the street gangs and Mafia, with terrible losses on both sides. He had lost good friends in those early days, including Mitch and Dex, and Holland and his crew.

John had come out of the mayhem with a battlefield promotion to lieutenant colonel, and two years later he'd stood straight and tall as General Hammond pinned the eagle on his uniform and saluted his promotion to full colonel. The only true surprise was his transfer to Petersen replacing Colonel Mitchell, the hero of the Anubis incident, who had been retired on medical grounds. But John had always sworn that he could fly any aircraft and the F302 was no different despite its mix of alien and earth-based technology. If anything, the F302 was one of the sweetest craft he had ever flown; highly responsive and with incredible handling. No one seemed to care that he'd picked one out for himself, often leading his men on missions.

"Colonel?"

He turned, barely managing to hold back a glare at General Hammond. Reassignment to Area 51 had come out of the blue. His service record before the unrest had not been stellar due to his inability to follow commands blindly, but his record since had been exemplary. He couldn't think of anything he might have done to upset the current government, at least nothing that warranted him losing this prestigious posting for a desk job in the middle of a desert.

"This isn't a punishment, Colonel. President Landry has asked for you explicitly, effective immediately."

"Yes, sir."

"You have one hour to make the necessary hand over arrangements," Hammond held up a hand to curb any interruption. "Which is more than sufficient, Colonel."

"Yes, sir." Silently, John cursed the fact that he had made it his business to ensure that his command could carry on without him with minimal interruption, in case he was shot down on one of the missions. Hammond had to know that or he would not be so adamant that John could simply drop everything and walk away in one hour. One hour gave him barely enough time to pack his belongings.

One hour later he stood before Hammond in what used to be his office, with his essential kit sitting beside him, waiting for Hammond to order a staff car to take them to the transport. Instead, Hammond looked at him approvingly before talking into a radio. The flash of white light surrounding him caught John unawares, and he almost dropped into a crouch position the moment he materialized inside the gray walls of what had to be either the Daedalus or Air Force One, the Prometheus. The deck officer smirked but Hammond gave no sign of having noticed John's reaction to the sudden transportation.

"When you're ready, Major," Hammond stated to the transporter technician, and John felt the same tingly feeling though his body again as the gray walls disappeared and were replaced by the pale walls of an office reception room. A slightly shorter man with a receding hairline, clear blue eyes behind gold-rimmed glasses, and a quirky smile bounced on the balls of his feet before stepping forward excitedly.

"Colonel Sheppard. I'm Dr. Rodney McKay. Welcome to Area 51."

He was ushered through long corridors in a building that would not have looked out of place in one of those fifties science fiction movies until they reached an innocuous looking door. Beyond was the kind of ultra-modern laboratory that belonged to futuristic films and in the center of the room stood the strangest looking chair.

"Take a seat, Colonel," McKay breathed in a matter-of-fact voice but John sensed an underlying tension.

He eyed the Chair warily, noting the ornate lattice work in the headrest and the strange gel-like pads at the end of the arm rests. He walked over and touched the strange alloy surface, expecting it to be cold but it felt warm beneath his fingertips. A strange sensation crawled through him, tingling through his body almost in welcome. Gingerly, he lowered himself into the Chair and tensed as the back reclined and the footrest rose in one smooth movement, a blue halo encompassing his head as that feeling of welcome grew exponentially.

McKay looked at him in awe, soft mouth gaping open in a way that made John recall the last blow job he'd had from another man too many months ago, imagining those lips wrapped around his cock as he slid in and out between those eager lips. He gave himself a mental shake, shocked at how easily his mind had focused on McKay's mouth. McKay had not seemed to notice John's attention though, too focused on the Chair, his eyes shining an electric blue behind his glasses in the reflected light.

"Colonel, imagine where we are in the solar system."

When the holographic image appeared above his head depicting the solar system, with strange notations surrounding earth in a language John had never seen before yet understood implicitly, John was part awed and part relieved. Somehow, this chair was reading his mind and he was thankful that it had either not understood or had chosen to ignore his first private thoughts about that incredible mouth and those amazing eyes.

He still had to ask though, "Did I do that?"

"Sam was right!" McKay grinned, exchanging a glance with first a technician and then Hammond. "So, General?"

Hammond drew in a deep breath and let it out; he nodded. "He's all yours, Dr. McKay."

John sat up as Hammond walked away, the holographic display fading instantly and the Chair moving back into its original upright position but a hand on his chest prevented him from rising.

"You heard the General, Colonel, so if you'll sit back and concentrate--"

"Like hell I will, McKay. I'm not doing anything until you tell me what this is and why I'm here."

When McKay folded his arms over his chest and stuck out his chin in a stubborn, pugnacious manner, John merely stared back, raising one eyebrow, and waited... and waited until...

"Fine! This is an Ancient weapon's chair and you have the strongest expression of the ATA gene since... since Colonel O'Neill."

"Which means exactly nothing to me."

"Oh for..." McKay bowed his head and closed his eyes, hands pressed together as if in prayer. He took in a deep breath before looking up. "How much do you know about the Ancients, Colonel?"

For someone in command of the F302 squadrons, he thought he knew quite a bit, and certainly more than the general public but once McKay started talking, he realized that he barely knew anything at all.

****

Rodney cursed as sparks flew when he connected up the new Mark 5 Naquadah generator. It was far more powerful than its predecessor but the draw on the Chair was far greater than earlier anticipated now that they had Colonel Sheppard sitting in it. He wondered briefly if it would be possible to hook up two generators in parallel, but all tests so far had shown that the power from the Naquadah generator was not as clean as subspace energy from the ZPM. There was a possibility, admittedly small, that too much of the unclean energy could fry the crystals, and they had no way of getting replacements should that happen.

Finally succeeding, Rodney turned to Simpson and waved a hand towards the Chair and then to Lorne, the only other decent ATA gene carrier that they had - other than him and Sheppard.

"Just...get what you can today."

He knew he ought to head back to the other lab to check on the subspace experiment but he could barely keep his eyes open after three days of struggling to power the Chair and guide Colonel Sheppard through the interfaces that Rodney needed to see, snatching sleep at too rare intervals. Fortunately, the Colonel was not as stupid as his gravity-defying hair would imply but it would have been so much easier if Rodney had been born with the gene naturally, and as strong as Sheppard's. Admittedly, he was the second strongest gene carrier in Area 51 despite his mouse-gene as Sheppard called it, stronger than the other known natural carriers, except for Sheppard and O'Neill. Of course Rodney had a theory that it was not so much gene strength as mental agility that made the difference, and maybe confidence in what he was doing. Still, his mouse-gene was not quite good enough for him to do the work and take notes at the same time, and he didn't trust anyone else to record the data the way he wanted. He needed to see more than just the data pulled up into the holographic display. He needed to see how it affected the earth-based technologies linked into it too, for they'd had to replace so many of the connections after pulling the Chair out of Antarctica.

"McKay! Wait up."

Rodney stopped and turned to see Sheppard jogging towards him. On any other day he would have enjoyed being chased down the corridor by a good looking man, especially one as pretty as Sheppard, but not today. Today he was too tired to give a damn, or so he thought. He pulled off his glasses and rubbed at his eyes.

"As you can see, Colonel, I really am tired so if you can say what you want to say really fast, then I'll just be on my way to bed."

Replacing his glasses, he had to blink a couple of times because it looked for a moment as if Sheppard had flushed at his words. Though why the new Lothario of Area 51 would blush at Rodney's words was... He shook his head to shake away the intriguing thoughts before he blurted out something monumentally stupid like accusing Sheppard of being gay for him. He knew that was just wishful thinking on his part and Rodney would need empirical evidence before he expressed a sexual interest in a military man carrying a gun. He had no plans on ending up a bullet-riddled corpse, though part of him wondered if the other alternate universe had rescinded DADT during those three years where their world had not gone to hell in a hand basket. Rodney started to walk on, casually glancing to his side as Sheppard fell in step.

The Colonel glanced back. "I was reading through the alternate Carter's notes and saw mention of them finding one of those ZPMs in Egypt."

"Yes," Rodney stated in an irritated voice, "And Landry sent in a team to dig it up, secretly of course, and found nothing. In our universe there was no O'Neill, Jackson, Carter and Teal'c to go back in time, steal the ZPM from Apophis, and stash it conveniently in a cave for us to find."

"But that just means the DeLorean of gateships is still here in Area 51, and maybe we could--"

Rodney stopped abruptly and swung round to face Sheppard, deciding to ignore his reference to the worst film ever.

"Are you crazy? One simple mistake and the whole time line would be altered, and despite Sam's opinions to the contrary, a lot of us have done very well in this timeline, thank you very much." He poked Sheppard in the chest. "And that includes you, or are you forgetting the black mark and the Wraith, Lieutenant Colonel?" Rodney stated viciously, emphasizing Sheppard's lower rank in that other universe.

"Admittedly, some things turned out better."

Rodney snorted and pointed to himself with both hands. "Multi-millionaire?"

Sheppard plowed on, "But they didn't witness thousands of their own people killed by their own military."

"Yet." Sheppard frowned and Rodney huffed in annoyance because he really was tired. "Let's plug into their universe in a few years time when they have to go public with the news that thousands of life-sucking aliens are about to harvest the planet."

He saw Sheppard wince at the thought before replying. "I'm just saying the ZPM in Egypt is a possibility if push comes to shove."

"If push comes to shove, Colonel, there's an Ancient warship heading towards Earth, just passed the midway point between our two galaxies, and they have ZPMs on board. Maybe we can convince Landry to send the Daedalus out there and offer them a lift back to Earth in return for a ZPM or two, or the means of recharging our own."

"Point taken."

Rodney rubbed at his eyes again, this time carefully without removing his glasses. He stifled a yawn and let his head drop before raising it again to face Sheppard, lips tightening.

"I'm not--" He sighed and tried again. "I'm as desperate as anyone on the planet to get the Merlin device working again. I'm not deliberately--"

Sheppard reached out and squeezed Rodney's shoulder fleetingly, and Rodney had to quickly dampen his tired body's small and pathetic reaction to the touch, grateful that he was too tired for it to be obvious.

"You'll figure it out, McKay."

He watched Sheppard walk away, wishing he could find a willing body just like Sheppard's to hold him in strong arms through the coming night, and to help chase away the nightmares hiding just beneath the top layer of his conscious mind. Instead he resigned himself to another night spent alone with dreams of life-sucking monsters and psychotic Ori priors bent on killing them all, and wished he'd never heard of the Stargate.

****

Earth history was full of legends, with some dating back to the dawn of civilization, and Daniel had discovered that most had been based in fact. Unfortunately, he had met some of the old gods from the past six thousand years, many of them still wearing the same face that was carved in stone or painted upon the walls of their now ruined temples. The Goa'uld had reigned over the Earth for several millennia, dividing it among themselves and enslaving the humans, the Tau'ri. They had taken their slaves to build empires among the stars in the Milky Way, populating whole planets using the network of Stargates left behind by an even older race.

The Bible spoke of older legends, of a war that raged in heaven between the ascended beings - the Angels - and all of it had seemed the stuff of fairy tales before he accidentally crossed into another galaxy and turned the eyes of the fallen angels, the Ori, towards the Milky Way.

Like all good religions, the word of Origin actually contained some incredible insights and a path towards enlightenment, but the message had been corrupted by its masters who did not want mere humans to become their equals. Instead, the Ori fed on human devotion, drinking the life force of every being in their own galaxy and now turning their greed for power towards the Milky Way.

His own ascension, helped by the Ancient Oma Desala, had shown him that he would find little help from among the angels for the ascended Ancients refused to interfere with the lives of mere mortals. Yet the Bible was filled with instances where one or more had broken ranks with their brethren and given aid. However, none would speak with him let alone offer to protect the mortals despite his pleas.

It was inevitable that he would be cast out and returned as a mortal because, unlike those others, he was young enough to still care about the mortal world and about the loved ones he had left behind; Sam, Teal'c, Lorne, and Jack - especially Jack. They sent him back with no memories, or perhaps he should say no accessible memories for much of his human life had come back to him over time, and every once in a while he would recall some small detail from his time as one of the ascended.

It was one of those memories drifting on the edge of his mind that had turned him towards the Arthurian legends and the anomaly that was Merlin, the most powerful of all the wizards. He sought out the oldest parchments depicting that particular legend, written in old English, and threw aside the translation to work upon the original. Eventually, he found a gate address supposedly leading to the Holy Grail, the Sangraal.

When Daniel found Myrddin - Merlin - in stasis in a cave on that distant world, his hopes of finding a way to defeat the Ori rose and then faded within a few short hours of reviving the Ancient. After a thousand years in stasis, Merlin was old and frail, unable to concentrate on the delicate task of constructing the Sangraal, the weapon that would destroy the Ori. With the Sangraal only half-completed, Merlin had stumbled away, his face lined with pain and Daniel could recall the exchange as if they had been spoken only yesterday rather than several weeks earlier....

"You must do this for me," Merlin commanded gently.

"I don't know how."

Merlin smiled softly, allowing Daniel to support him with one strong arm as they moved slowly towards the wall of the cave.

"You will," he stated, and with the last of his strength, Merlin waved a hand to reveal an Ancient repository that was similar to the one that had grabbed Jack all those years ago. When it released Merlin from its hold, he collapsed in Daniel's arms, his breathing becoming shallower until finally he was gone. This time there was no ascension waiting for him for he had given up that right when he chose to become mortal while still retaining all of his Ancient knowledge and powers.

Daniel took a moment to grieve for the Ancient who had given up immortality to save the humans of two galaxies, laying him gently upon his resting place. Afterwards, he stood before the device, just beyond its activation range and stared at the ornate workmanship.

As ever, thoughts of Jack consumed Daniel, seeing his lover's bright smile and warm brown eyes, his heart almost breaking anew as he thought of Jack's last conscious moments, of how they had stared into each other's eyes in regret and sorrow as the stasis chamber activated in Antarctica. The Asgard were gone and the Nox refused to answer Earth's call for help, and it was only as he laid the body of Merlin to rest that Daniel realized he had lost one further hope of bringing his lover back to him.

A device similar to this one had slowly overwritten Jack's mind with the full knowledge of the Ancients, and placing him in stasis had been the only way to slow it down. Now he was facing the same dilemma except, this time, there would be no stasis chamber to save him.

It had to be done though. He had a galaxy to save and this was the only way.

Drawing a deep breath, Daniel stepped forward and allowed the device to reach for him, encasing his head as it downloaded all it contained into his own mind. Within seconds, Daniel discovered how different this repository was to the one that was slowly overwriting Jack's mind even as he slept in the stasis chamber on Earth. This one contained only Merlin's memories but within those warm memories was the answer he needed to save Jack.

He grabbed onto that memory, wrapping his mind around it so tightly for fear it would slip away only to feel Merlin's thoughts move through him like a warm smile.

That memory shall be yours to keep.

Daniel discovered all too quickly that having Merlin's memories and knowledge was not enough. Without the ATA gene, he could not bend the technology to his will or create the parts needed for the Sangraal. The only way for a mere mortal to finish constructing the Sangraal was to gain that power from another source - the Ori - by becoming a Prior.

Even as he allowed himself to be captured by the Ori forces, Daniel wished he could have spoken with Sam and Lorne one last time just to let them in on the plan, but he knew it was probably for the best that they didn't know. Certainly it made it easier to convince Adria, the leader of the Ori forces, that he was a willing convert to Origin, eager to spread the word throughout the galaxy. In some ways it was almost laughable that, for all the knowledge and power given to her by the Ori, Adria was still just a child in a woman's body, unable to see through the subterfuge. She converted his body to that of a Prior unaware that Merlin was protecting his mind, and he let the Ori and their true Priors believe that he had become one of them.

Daniel spent the next few weeks moving from world to world in the pretense of spreading Origin, hoping that he might meet with someone who could pass a message back to Earth. Unfortunately, very few of the Stargate teams still operated offworld, and then only to obtain intelligence on Ori movements. Even the known remaining alpha sites had been abandoned, most likely because of his capture, with the Tau'ri abandoning their alliances with other worlds and falling back to Earth.

Hopefully, he would gain access to an Ori warship soon, and once he had all the materials at hand, then he would create the Sangraal and put an end to a war that had raged for ten thousand years in a distant galaxy; a war that now threatened the whole of the Milky Way too.

****

John was not surprised when he was ordered to the SGC along with McKay and a few of the scientists to discuss the lack of progress in finding an alternative energy source for the Merlin device. He'd seen McKay's growing concern translate itself into angry tirades and harsh words, bringing more than one of his people to tears and, strangely, John could understand because he had never seen so much pressure loaded onto a single pair of shoulders before. Physically, they were firm, broad shoulders and, mentally, McKay was far more intelligent, stronger and definitely more stubborn than anyone John had met before but there had to be a limit to what the man could endure before he snapped.

Every day seemed to bring new problems to McKay's door as if he was the only scientist ever to have worked for the US government and the SGC. They brought him problems with every day equipment, with the intergalactic drive on the Daedalus, with the dialing computer at the SGC, and on one jaw-dropping incident, someone left their laptop for McKay to fix - when he had a moment to spare sometime today - just because it had important Ancient research data stored on its hard drive.

John could tell from the increasing circles of darkness beneath the slowly dulling eyes that McKay was not sleeping well, and it had not taken too many inquiries to figure out that the demands on McKay's time carried on throughout the night. It had to stop if McKay was going to get the rest he needed to tackle the important problems facing the planet. Though John had no control over the scientists, he did have seniority over all the military in Area 51, and that included the base commander, even if that was only by a matter of weeks.

It was interesting how a subtle word here and there halved McKay's work load, especially when John forced all military personnel to pass requests for technical assistance across his desk first so he could decide whether they really needed the President's scientific advisor to actually do the job. John could only wish McKay had a decent deputy with enough intelligence to handle the demands on his time but Kavanagh, though a pretty good engineer, was no good at prioritizing and unable to keep up with McKay's thought processes. Hell, John wasn't sure if there was anyone on the planet who could keep up with McKay.

As he entered the conference room, he nodded politely at Lorne. He'd built an easy rapport with the SG-1 team leader over the past couple of weeks from whenever Lorne was sent to Area 51 to help with the Chair research. Possession of the ATA gene, the US Air force and a love of flying had given them a lot in common. John looked up when the President strode into the room accompanied by General Hammond, two special services agents and his chief of staff, Charlie.

Landry looked almost as harassed as McKay, his face gaunt with worry but that, too, was understandable for the US was fighting a war on all fronts these days. Over the last three years, Dr. Weir had facilitated new alliances with those former allies willing to forgive being kept out of the loop over the Stargate program - so long as they were given a say in it now and offered some of the technology gained offworld - and that had eased some of the burden. However, other countries had seen the withholding of vital information concerning aliens and their technology as an act of aggression, refusing to accept that they had to stand together or the whole planet was damned.

Landry wasted no time getting straight to the point.

"It's time to relax some aspects of martial law. In particular, I plan to lift the curfew on US citizens and allow greater freedom of travel within the United States. Military checkpoints will be withdrawn from areas where deemed no longer necessary."

John noticed a tired smile on McKay's face, silently agreeing that it was at least a first step back towards democracy and civil rights but others in the room were not quite so pleased. Landry's chief of staff looked particularly stone-faced at the announcement, his eyes hardening and lips tightening in what had to be displeasure, leaving John to wonder why the man was against the idea. No doubt there would be a few problems at first, perhaps a resurgence of some of the gangs and organized crime that had gone deep under cover to avoid complete annihilation but, overall, it would bring back hope to the general population.

After the announcement, it was back down to business.

"I've seen no progress on the Merlin device, doctor."

"Not through want of trying."

"Then try harder."

"We haven't got enough power," McKay stated slowly, as if talking to an idiot.

Landry bristled a little at the tone. "Then figure something out, Doctor McKay, because the Ori will be back and we'd better be ready."

Landry stalked away without another word leaving McKay with a pinched look of despair.

"What you do have," General Hammond stated, "Are a few more scientists. Dr. Grodin has come highly recommended from our British allies and, of course, you know Dr. Beckett who has officially joined our medical personnel."

"Carson's here?" McKay seemed to brighten at Hammond's words and John felt a moment of irrational jealousy at the thought of someone other than him putting that spark back into McKay's weary eyes.

"I'll leave you to get acquainted with your new staff, doctor."

"Yes, right." McKay grinned at John and then strode away, no doubt heading towards the infirmary to meet with Beckett.

John noticed that he wasn't the only one who watched McKay leave but something about the way Charlie stared at McKay for an unguarded moment left John feeling decidedly uneasy. There had been avarice in the man's eyes as if he was sizing up a prized possession, though John had a feeling Charlie was lusting after McKay for his brain rather than displaying an interest in the scientist's body. McKay's importance to the planet was undeniable after all but that look was too calculating, singling McKay out for an inexplicable reason. John trusted in his instincts and they were screaming at him that something was wrong. He flicked a glance towards Lorne and noticed the newly promoted Lieutenant Colonel looking a little edgy too, a small frown forming a line between his brows as Charlie left without a backward glance.

"Lorne?" John questioned softly.

"I don't know, sir. Something's off."

John nodded. "I'm gonna go keep an eye on McKay."

Charlie followed McKay almost to the door of the infirmary, pausing at the final corner as if watching to ensure McKay had gone inside, and John's instinct for trouble rose another notch. His Black Ops training had held him in good stead over the years and he watched Charlie from the shadow of a doorway less than fifteen feet away, close enough to overhear the words Charlie spoke into a small radio.

"He's in the infirmary with Beckett. Seal the door."

John frowned when the infirmary door closed silently until the final audible click of a lock falling into place. Charlie gave a contemptuous grin and headed back to the elevator, leaving John free to investigate the locked infirmary door. He could see a security card reader, aware that practically every door in the SGC could be locked down in an emergency. Except, no one had mentioned any problems, and as there had been no offworld missions since they lost Dr. Jackson to the Ori several weeks back, the chance of a contagion was slim. His thoughts returned to his earlier observation that McKay was probably the single most important man on Earth at this moment in time due to his genius, so the only reason John could think of for locking McKay away was for the man's safety, and that meant... His eyes widened with concern.

John tried to contact Hammond but hissed in frustration when he gained no response. He opened the secure channel to the only person who would know how to handle a possible attack on the SGC.

"Lorne, I think we have a situation here. Seal the mountain and blast doors from level 21 up, to open on my authorization only."

John gave a tight smile when, within twenty seconds, he heard the loud click of the deadlocks on the elevator and other access points. If he was wrong - and he felt that unlikely as he'd come to trust his gut instincts over the years - then Hammond and President Landry were going to be pretty annoyed but better that than the alternative of allowing the enemy into the base. That same instinct told him that he needed to get McKay out of the infirmary and down to the more defensible Gate room on sublevel 28 as quickly as possible. He tried the obvious means of freeing McKay first but the security card reader had been deactivated.

Cursing, he thumped on the door, hoping the metal was not so thick that it smothered all noise.

"McKay!" He thumped several more times but stopped when he heard a muffled response from the other side.

"It's locked! I'll try to open it from this side."

John's radio crackled into life, and John's fears rose when he heard the sound of weapons fire in the background. "Colonel! We're under attack. Sir, President Landry is down. I repeat, the President is down."

John cursed anew because Landry was on sublevel 27. "Lorne, I need you to hold sublevel 28. I'm bringing McKay." If I can get through this damn door, he added viciously to himself, raising his fist to pound at it in anger only to jerk his arm back as the door slid open. McKay's smug expression faltered.

"We're under attack," John stated ominously.

"Oh God!"

"Come on, we're heading down--"

"Wouldn't it be better to go up?"

"Up is not going to help us right now." John looked behind McKay to where several of the infirmary staff stood looking lost and afraid. From their white coats and uniforms he knew they were civilian doctors and nurses but, apart from one soldier with his leg in plaster, there were no patients.

"Sergeant?"

"Stackhouse, sir."

"Can you move?"

"Yes, sir... with a little help."

John pointed at the doctor whom he assumed must be Beckett, a slightly short man of stocky build, with dark hair and blue eyes. "Help carry him."

"I'm a doctor not a bloody fireman. Let me go get a wheelchair."

John didn't waste his breath arguing, turning his attention back to the problem instead. They had to get down seven levels as quickly as possible, avoiding any confrontation with the enemy at all costs because he couldn't hope to win in a firefight with just him and one marine sergeant with a banged up leg to protect... He made a quick head count... Five civilians including McKay.

McKay's wide eyes seemed bluer against the sudden paleness of his face, magnified by his glasses. "What's happening? Is it The Trust? Why'd they lock us all into the infirmary?"

"I think they were only after you, McKay."

"Me!" he squeaked. "What could they want with me?"

John tilted his head and stared at him in disbelief because McKay was usually the first to mention his importance to the whole damn planet.

"Just stick close," he stated to a worried McKay, his gaze reaching out to encompass the others.

He led the way towards the elevator, glancing back often to ensure the rest were keeping up, and wincing whenever the wheelchair squeaked. If he was correct then those attacking the SGC believed McKay was locked safely out of harm's way and would only come for him once they had full control of the SGC. It gave him a small window of opportunity to get McKay and the others to the relative safety of the gate room. The elevator doors opened when he swept his security card through the reader and punched in his authorization code, and he sent up a silent thanks to Lorne as he herded the civilians inside, ordering them to press back against the wall. John felt the heat of McKay's body bleeding through the layers of clothing separating them as McKay stayed close to him, pushing up against his back in a way that made him wish this was anything other than a life or death situation. He could feel the warmth of McKay's breath on the nape of his neck too; the tiny, erratic puffs saying more about McKay's frightened state of mind than any babbling words.

"Lorne, I have the package and I'm on my way. ETA two minutes."

"Destination is secure, sir."

When the elevator doors opened onto sublevel 28, John heard the scuffle of boots and weapons. "Hope the welcoming committee is you, Lorne."

"Yes, sir, it is." Still feeling a little cautious, John stepped out and nodded as Lorne and his men lowered their weapons. "There's more space in the gate room," Lorne added, and John nodded for his civilians and injured soldier to go with one of Lorne's men, grabbing hold of McKay as the scientist moved to follow the others.

"No, you stick with me." He turned to Lorne. "Status, Colonel."

"Levels 25 to 28 are secure. All levels above 21 have been locked down as per your order. If we can secure levels 21 through 24 as well then we can handle a siege situation."

"The President?"

Lorne grimaced. "Dead, along with the General."

"Dead!" McKay exclaimed, the color bleaching from his face again.

Lorne nodded. "I guess none of us could have foreseen his own Chief of Staff assassinating him and Hammond."

"And where is Charlie now?" John had to ask because that son of a bitch must have planned this all along.

"Dead, along with four SGC personnel who must have been Trust operatives." Lorne shook his head. "Never figured they'd get so many in here."

"And there's no guarantee they all crawled out of the woodwork during the attack," John added. "We need to get some intel on what's happening out there."

McKay snapped his fingers. "What about the Prometheus and the Daedalus?"

Lorne shook his head. "All frequencies are being jammed so there's nothing coming in and we can't get a signal out."

John looked to McKay who glanced comically from him to Lorne before his eyes widened in understanding. "I can get on with that."

"Do it."

He watched McKay race off, smiling as the man snapped his fingers at several scientists to gather up resources, and then John turned back to Lorne. "How many men do we have?"

"Thirty-six military, mainly support staff and SG teams on stand down since the Ori came calling, and I estimate around forty-seven scientists between here and level 21."

"Here's the plan. I want us to get all the supplies we can carry from both the infirmary and kitchens, and then I want any labs and offices stripped for laptops and whatever else those scientists think we might need. Then we'll fall back to this level."

Lorne looked confused. "We should be able to hold levels 21 to 28 for several weeks."

John smiled tightly. "We'll be lucky if we have a few hours before they break through. This has been planned carefully." He glanced towards the Stargate. "We're not staying."

Lorne's eyebrows rose in understanding. "Yes, sir."

****

Breaking through the jamming signal was far easier than Rodney expected, though it helped that he had someone marginally useful to help him. Peter Grodin had lived up to his reputation as a communications specialist, and Rodney sighed raggedly in relief when the Daedalus responded.

"Colonel Caldwell, this is Dr. McKay. We need help down here."

"Dr. McKay, I'm aware of your situation but we're a little busy up here right now. The Trust has sabotaged the ship. Weapons, transporters and engines are offline. Prometheus is in worse shape. In truth, we could do with your expertise up here, doctor."

Rodney glanced around in dismay. Less than an hour had passed since the meeting with Landry and now Landry was dead and for all Rodney knew, the world outside the SGC was crumbling into chaos. It occurred to him that Caldwell might not know about Landry and he opened his mouth to tell him only to have the radio taken from his hand by Sheppard.

"Colonel Caldwell, this is Colonel Sheppard. Code sigma-tau-alpha-six-three-seven."

"Understood, Colonel."

The transmission cut out and Rodney stared at Sheppard in bewilderment. "What was that all about?"

"We don't know who else might be listening in, and until we can guarantee a secure line then the less said the better." Sheppard pointed at a large monitor. "Can we get cable on this?"

Rodney rolled his eyes and flicked on the monitor, working swiftly to recover the input signal. He gaped in horror as the screen flickered to life, revealing news coverage of events taking place right outside the mountain. A helicopter panned across the access road, the footage showing smoke billowing out of through the entrance to the facility while dozens of vehicles and men scrambled about.

"--Fireball that swept through the lower levels of Stargate Command is known to have collapsed several key levels. Military rescue teams have arrived at the scene and are moving slowly through the wreckage. It has been confirmed that President Landry was killed in the initial explosion along with elite members of his staff. Vice President Robert Kinsey has expressed his horror at this calamitous event."

The shot changed to Kinsey but Rodney turned away, not wanting to hear what that man had to say because he'd never trusted Kinsey. Kinsey had been an advocate of stronger restrictions and using the technology gained offworld to bring about a single world government with the US President at its head. Rodney had long suspected that Kinsey was a Trust operative but had never found enough proof to approach the right authorities. Despite his millions, he knew his own position was tenuous at best, as subsequently proved when Landry blackmailed him into taking over Sam's role. Making accusations against Kinsey without proof would have left him open to worse than simple blackmail. Rodney would not have been the first captain of industry to fall victim to some tragic accident, or to disappear from the public eye only to return a few days later with a far different personality.

He'd had no inclination to end up as the host for a Goa'uld.

"Pack your bags, McKay, we're leaving."

"Leaving? Going where? There's no safe place left on Earth." When Sheppard responded to that with a raised eyebrow and a knowing expression, Rodney caught on fast. "We're going through the Stargate?"

"I need you to gather up every piece of equipment we can transport offworld."

Rodney jabbed him in the chest. "We can't go out there! The Ori have already taken over three quarters of the galaxy. We'd be sitting ducks."

"We don't exactly have a choice, McKay. If we stay here then the only person who might walk away from here alive is you, and I doubt you'd remain you for very long."

Rodney stared hard as Sheppard echoed his earlier fear of becoming a Goa'uld, finally having to look away because Sheppard was right. They couldn't stay on Earth, not if the Trust had finally made their first move to overthrow the Earth's governments, and not if he hoped to remain a relatively free man in control of his own mind and body. If the Ori didn't return to destroy the Earth, then the Goa'uld would enslave every person on it just as they had thousands of years ago, and this time they might never break free of Goa'uld tyranny.

"Atlantis," he stated softly. "We could go to Atlantis."

Sheppard stared hard at him in turn but Rodney could see the idea taking hold. "How? We don't have the power."

"We do if we use the national grid." Rodney swallowed hard, raising his hands in a circle to represent the Stargate. "We feed all the power from the national grid into the Stargate, dial Atlantis and go. All of us in one shot. All I need is access to the Power grid on level 25."

Sheppard remained silent so Rodney continued.

"We know from the other Sam that our universes diverged three years ago when Hayes declassified the Stargate program and let the world know about the Goa'uld and the Ori. Therefore, we know Atlantis is still there at the bottom of an alien sea in the Pegasus galaxy. We know the Earth gate is the only gate in this galaxy that can link to the city, we have the address, and we know we'll have to conserve power until I can get the city to rise to the surface or we bring back a ZPM."

"I thought the city rose on its own once the shields--"

"Not in our timeline. We didn't go to Atlantis three years ago and we won't be taking Elizabeth Weir with us and, frankly, I'm not too keen on the drowning thing in this timeline in the hope that someone else will go back in time and persuade Janus to save our asses in yet another timeline." Rodney looked deep into Sheppard's eyes. "Sam told me how to raise the city. You have to trust me."

Sheppard nodded slowly at first. "Okay. Level 25 is secure - for now." He smiled softly. "Looks like we're going to Atlantis." He took two steps away and then glanced back over his shoulder. "I figure we have less than two hours before the Trust break through."

Rodney slumped as Sheppard walked away. Two hours, he thought. That was barely enough time to re-route the power from the Merlin device to the Stargate, and if the plan was to succeed then he needed to get all that power into the Stargate's buffer because someone was going to notice when every light in the entire country suddenly went out and they would pull the plug. He couldn't guarantee they would have the full thirty-eight minutes, possibly a lot less than that so everything had to be ready to go the moment they locked onto the Atlantis gate, and Rodney would need to be near the front of the queue so he could get straight to the necessary control panel to start work on raising the city.

He pulled off his glasses and rubbed at his eyes, feeling the weight of responsibility lying heavy on his shoulders just from knowing he would have the lives of eighty or more people in his hands.

He couldn't afford to fail.

"Grodin, Kavanagh! Come with me."

As he raced along the corridor towards the elevator that would take him to power grid, he recalled Sam's last words telling him to leave Kavanagh behind when he set up an expedition to Atlantis and Rodney had been confused by her words at the time. He'd watched the man carefully since then but seen nothing that would justify such harsh words. Perhaps the Kavanagh in her universe was different to the one in his.

Whatever her reasons, they no longer mattered as Kavanagh would be going to Atlantis with him, along with a ragtag bunch who would never have been considered the best and brightest in a million years. But they were all Rodney had so they would have to do.

****

Caldwell swore as more sparks erupted from the weapons console. He had not been joking when he told McKay he could use the man up here but without the Asgard transporter operational he had no means of bringing him on board Cheyenne Mountain was locked down tight and swarming with Trust operatives who had the same desire as him, to reach one snarky, arrogant jerk of an astrophysicist who might be Earth's only chance of avoiding the same fate as the rest of the galaxy regarding the Ori. The fact that he had come to respect and even like McKay after a fashion, made the frustration all the greater.

Despite the best attempts by the Trust operatives that had infiltrated the Daedalus, his people had managed to keep control and were working hard to repair the worst of the damage as quickly as possible but Caldwell knew it would be days before they were even close to battle ready. Far too long especially as they had intercepted a transmission aimed towards a fleet of Goa'uld ships.

The Goa'uld had decided to make a last stand against the Ori on Earth, believing in their arrogance that the Ori would be willing to make a deal with them where they had spurned all attempts at negotiation with the human populations of the galaxy. Until McKay had managed to get a message through to the Daedalus, that had left Caldwell with only two options. First, the Daedalus could stand and fight with whatever his crew could patch together, knowing they would ultimately lose, or they could turn tail and run. Problem was, they had nowhere to run, at least not in this galaxy.

It really wasn't that much of a choice so he and his crew had agreed to stand and fight...And then he had received Sheppard's message.

Code sigma-tau-alpha-six-three-seven.

It was a code known only a select few Generals and Colonels, handed to most of them personally by Landry not long after he became President. It was the order to abandon Earth should they lose the fight against the Ori. Sheppard had given that code, thereby informing Caldwell of his intention to escape Earth through the only means available to him - the Stargate.

That it was Sheppard rather than Landry or Hammond giving him the code was a hard blow, confirming that his worst fears had been realized and that both of Sheppard's superior officers were dead or in enemy hands and would be considered casualties of war. He took a moment to regret their loss and then straightened, ready to carry on with his sworn duty. He had a personal set of standing orders relating to that code and defending the planet of his birth was not a part of them.

"Novak, I have a change in priorities. I need the Asgard transporter and the hyperdrive online as quickly as you can."

"We almost have weapons..."

"Transporter and hyperdrive, doctor," he stated more firmly.

"Um... Yes, sir."

With nothing more he could do on the bridge until repairs were completed, he handed over command to the officer on deck and called a meeting with his executive officer and their equivalents on board the equally crippled Prometheus. They needed to carry out their standing orders and leave the area before the first of the Goa'uld fleet arrived, which gave them less than three hours to get the Prometheus's transporters and hyperdrive online too. Still, that was one more hour than he estimated Sheppard had left in the SGC before the Trust broke through.

He pondered for a moment on where Sheppard would go. Most of the offworld sites had been compromised months ago, including the alpha site, which they'd been forced to abandon in a hurry when Ori warships entered the system.

As the clock slowly ticked down, Caldwell found it harder and harder to refrain from interfering with his people by demanding updates, waiting anxiously for them to let him know their current stasis. There was still no word from Sheppard, and Caldwell could only hope the evacuation plan at the SGC was going well. He would hate to be in Sheppard's shoes if the Trust reached them before they had managed to escape offworld.

****

"McKay?"

"I'm working on it!"

"Then work faster," John demanded as he watched the corridor from the threshold of the room housing the power grid. The majority of the work had already been completed when Carter activated the Merlin device so all McKay needed to do now was to connect the national grid to the Stargate instead. Except John knew that would be easier said than done. McKay could not afford to make any mistakes or they would quite literally fry everything and everybody inside the SGC.

By mutual agreement, he had accompanied McKay to the Power grid room alone, not wanting anyone to see what McKay was doing. He was not going to assume that every undercover Trust operative had revealed him or herself following Landry's assassination and the attempted takeover of the SGC. The Trust were not stupid after all.

So far, no one had made any obvious moves to help the Trust break through their admittedly weak defenses but he could not rule out the possibility of someone passing information to the Trust via a hidden communication system. Unfortunately, it wasn't possible to disguise the fact that they were planning to use the Stargate to escape from Earth but only a select few knew of their intended destination of Atlantis. It was essential that everyone else believed that they were gating to another planet in the Milky Way until it was too late for them to do anything about it.

McKay had used some technobabble concerning energy fluctuations, hoping to fool the majority of those listening in on any conversations that there was a problem with the base power but they both knew they could only keep up the pretense for a little while longer. The moment the Stargate carried on dialing past the seventh to an eighth chevron, anyone with even the smallest knowledge of Stargates would know they were dialing outside of the galaxy. Of course, as soon as they started draining power from the national grid, the Trust would discover their use of the Stargate but John was banking on the complete loss of power outside of the SGC buying them the time they needed to push everyone through the gate before a hidden operative was given the opportunity to reveal the gate address. After that it wouldn't matter any more as they would be in another galaxy hunting down ZPMs that could shield the city indefinitely and, courtesy of the alternate universe Carter, they already knew where to find one fully charged ZPM on a planet known as Dagan.

As he waited impatiently for McKay to finish, John divided his attention between McKay, the corridor, and working through the evacuation plans in his head. Lorne had taken as many of the soldiers that could be spared from defense positions to gather all the food, medicines and medical equipment from levels 21 and 22. Others were stripping down the laboratories and offices. They'd carried everything down to the gate room where the remaining civilians were busy working out ways for people to carry as much as possible on their backs. Kavanagh had been rightfully proud of his yoke system made from broken pipes and furniture as it meant everyone could carry twice as much and still be mobile.

Anything too large to carry or considered nonessential would have to be pushed through at the end of the line, or mounted on remote activated MALPs, because it was more important to get all of the people through the gate before the power gave out - or was cut. As they couldn't afford to leave anyone behind who could reveal the gate address of their true destination to either the Goa'uld or the Ori, John had made one last command decision. He would be the last person to go through the gate, and if it shut down before he could get through then he would ensure that anyone who remained on the wrong side of the gate with him didn't live long enough to betray those who had escaped.

It was the least he could do to protect McKay and the others.

"Done!" McKay grinned in relief.

"About time! Let's lock this place up tight and get out of here."

John grabbed McKay by his arm and tugged him away, pushing him flat against the corridor wall as he closed the heavy door and then destroyed the locking mechanism so it could not be opened easily. Beside him, McKay was starting to breathe more heavily as if only just realizing the vulnerable position he was in even though none of Lorne's men had reported a breach in their perimeter. It seemed their luck was holding so far but John knew time was running out fast.

He swore as his radio crackled into life, the sound of P90 gunfire heard as a staccato in the background almost drowning out Lorne's voice.

"They've breached Level 21. Falling back towards the gate room."

John shoved Rodney onwards as he answered the call.

"Lorne, you have to hold them as long as possible and give our people time to get through the gate."

"Yes, sir."

John slid his pass through the security device situated close to the elevator and input the authorization code, keeping his P90 raised and aimed ahead as the elevator door opened to reveal an empty interior. He breathed a barely perceptible sigh of relief as this meant the Trust had not yet managed to override his security lockdown of the elevator. He hustled McKay inside and watched as McKay selected level 28. The elevator jerked downwards and McKay looked across at John nervously as if sensing the tension that coiled in John's belly even though John was trying to act relaxed.

John had already noticed how skittish McKay could get when he wasn't fully occupied, and he couldn't afford to have the scientist freak out on him when there was still so much left to do. Somehow, he had to turn McKay's attention away from any thoughts of impending doom but kissing the man senseless was out of the question. Not that it would be such a terrible act, quite the opposite, but he needed that big brain working on the problems lying ahead of them rather than frozen in shock.

"What's next, McKay?"

"What?"

"What's next?"

"Nothing. We dial the gate, we go."

"You mean you haven't prepared a speech?"

McKay looked totally bewildered now. "What speech?"

"Good! Because we don't have time for speeches."

McKay opened and closed his mouth a couple of times like a fish out of water and then John saw the exact moment when confusion turned to annoyance, and he could not help but smirk in response. The teasing had started out as a way to put the arrogant scientist in his place but, over these few weeks, the biting sarcasm had turned into a strange kind of affection for the man. Admittedly, the physical attraction had helped immensely especially as McKay was exactly John's type.

He'd always gone for the softer-bellied geeks even in high school, turned on more by their intelligence than their physical attractiveness, except McKay had both. He had liquid blue eyes that revealed every emotion; a quirky, wide mouth that begged for kisses; strong yet delicate hands that could probably play across his body with the dexterity of a virtuoso and, of course, that gently rounded belly that gave him the softness and vulnerability that really turned John on. But then there was also the broad shoulders tapering down to an amazing ass that almost begged to be fucked.

Coupled with an incredible mind, McKay was John's hottest dream, which made it all the more intriguing that he was also his biggest nightmare.

The elevator doors opened at that moment, cutting off the rant that McKay was about to let loose. Within seconds they were thrown into the chaos of frightened civilians and tense soldiers, all of them surrounded by the equipment they would be carrying through the Stargate.

John drew out his knife and pulled off the control panel inside the elevator, quickly tearing through wires to disable it as it was only a matter of time now before the Trust gained full access to the elevator system. He could no longer consider it secure. Lorne's men would have to retreat down the emergency ladders connecting each level, sealing off each level as they went but it would buy a little more time, hopefully enough to get all of them through the Stargate.

"Start the dialing sequence," he ordered McKay, gaining a swift nod in return before McKay moved quickly through the crowd towards the control room. They'd already agreed that there would be no time to wait for a slow moving MALP to work its way up the ramp and cross the distance between the two galaxies just so it could send back environment data from Atlantis. Someone would have to go through and radio back if it was safe to proceed, knowing they could be taking a final step to their death should there be no breathable air on the other side.

Though every instinct had John wanting to be the one to volunteer, he knew his duty lay with ensuring everyone got through the gate, including Lorne's men. As the first chevron encoded, John nodded at Bates, who stood poised to be the first man to step into Atlantis in ten thousand years, and then he opened a channel to Caldwell on the Daedalus, giving the necessary security code.

"Colonel, are you accepting gifts?"

"Do you have one in mind, Colonel Sheppard?"

"You could say that. Lock onto my signal and transport on three." He leaned over and handed the radio to Stackhouse. Three seconds later, Stackhouse and his wheelchair disappeared within the brightness of the Asgard transporter beam just as the backwash from the opening wormhole lit up the gate room.

"Package received. Good luck, Colonel."

"See you on the other side."

He watched as McKay pushed through to the front of the crowd, wishing he could be the one helping him shoulder the heavy laptops and other equipment that McKay had chosen to carry. McKay was staring at the rippling surface of the wormhole while everyone started to crowd behind him.

The disembodied voice of Peter Grodin sounded through the gate room letting them all know that he'd received confirmation from Bates that Atlantis was as safe as any place in either galaxy. "We have a go!"

McKay cast a quick glance over his shoulder directly at John, trying to hide his fear behind a false shield of bravado, before turning back and stepping into the event horizon, the tide of civilians, soldiers and equipment flowing behind him. John swallowed hard, wondering if he would ever see McKay again, but then he pushed that thought from his mind. He had a duty to protect those waiting to move out and, from the chatter on the radio, Lorne's men had already been pushed back to level 25.

****

"Colonel, we have transporters, and estimate another ten minutes until we have the hyperdrive back online."

"Lieutenant Kleinman? Any word from the Prometheus?"

"Prometheus has completed necessary repairs and is awaiting instructions."

For one moment Caldwell considered transporting all of the SGC personnel in the lower levels onto the Daedalus but decided that had to be a final resort. Unlike the other essential personnel on the planet, they did have an escape route after all. He deliberated over hailing the SGC but Sheppard's use of the code had inferred radio silence unless he had something critical to add to the evacuation. At this moment in time, that was not the case so he was forced to repair his ship and wait as the clock ticked down the final hours until a Goa'uld fleet arrived to take control of the Earth. He felt momentary sorrow for the billions of people who would be left behind, wishing there was some way that he could have saved them too but their fate was sealed with the planet.

Kleinman straightened in his seat. "I have Colonel Sheppard!"

"Put him on main speakers."

"Colonel, are you accepting gifts?"

"Do you have one in mind, Colonel Sheppard?"

The connection closed soon after with nothing more of any tactical use passing between them, leaving Caldwell feeling jittery as he waited to see exactly what they had transported up to the Daedalus. He frowned as a wheelchair-bound USAF sergeant rolled onto the bridge of the Daedalus.

"Sergeant Stackhouse, sir. I have a message from Colonel Sheppard."

Caldwell's respect for Sheppard rose another notch. "Let's hear it, Sergeant."

"We're going to Atlantis. Colonel Sheppard wants you to head for PCZ-439 and pick up any stragglers before joining us."

PCZ-439 was one of the last Stargates before the stretch of nothing between the Milky Way and Pegasus galaxies. As long as no one else figured out where they were heading there was no reason why that gate address would be attacked by the Goa'uld. His only fear was that the Ori would get there first but it was an uninhabited world for a reason, with the Stargate poised on the edge of a river of magma in a star system where the sun was dying, slowly collapsing to form a black hole, though not in their lifetime. Anyone gating there might have only a single exit route, and that would be by ship alone because the DHD was no longer operating.

"When do they leave?"

"Chevron one encoded while I was in transport."

Caldwell nodded. If his calculations were correct then it would take a minimum of twenty minutes to get everyone through the Stargate, if the power held.

"Sir, the whole of the US has gone dark!"

Caldwell nodded, smiling slightly. The Trust would lose vital minutes in panic and darkness, but after that they would try to disconnect the national grid. All Caldwell could do now was his duty, and if that happened to distract the Trust and buy Sheppard more time then that could only be a bonus.

"Put us in geosynchronous orbit over Area 51. Novak, prepare to transport personnel, and please use full scans to avoid bringing any parasites on board," he added sourly, aware that it would not filter out any pure human operatives planted at Area 51 by the Trust but it was a chance they had to take. They could start a witch hunt for Trust operatives once they were underway. "Inform Prometheus they have a go."

"Yes, sir."

The Prometheus had its own list of personnel to pick up from various locations around the world, which included some of the best and brightest in their respective fields and their immediate families. Once the transports began, though, the Trust would swiftly become aware of what they were doing so they had to be ready to break orbit as soon as possible.

Unfortunately, there was a limit to the number of people they could save, and previous plans had banked on the Stargate being used to transport the majority of essential personnel off Earth. Still, this was a worst case scenario that had been planned ever since the Ori had appeared in the galaxy and started taking worlds, and he would not fail in his duty.

He knew from the peaks on the energy consumption graphs that his command was being obeyed, aware that his ship was slowly filling with frightened, disoriented people, beamed out of their homes, schools and work places without warning using the subcutaneous transponders as the signal. The ship rocked as a missile flared against the shield, aware that the Trust was trying to stop them but Caldwell knew they only had to hold for a short time. In the meantime, the Daedalus slowly circled the Earth from high orbit, grabbing at targets.

He spared a moment to wonder how the evacuation was going deep under Cheyenne Mountain, quietly acknowledging Kleinman and Major Cooper as they carried out their orders to lock and transport.

"Sir, all priority personnel have been transported. Secondary tier personnel are being targeted now."

"Cooper, once secondary targets have been transported, head to the outpost in Antarctica."

"Yes, sir."

Several long minutes passed before she informed him of their position. "Lock onto Colonel O'Neill's stasis chamber and transport, then open a channel to the Ancient outpost." He waited a second. "Colonel Chekov, this is Colonel Steven Caldwell of the Daedalus. I don't believe I need to explain what's happening. A Goa'uld fleet is heading towards Earth, and the Ori won't be far behind. You have twenty seconds to decide if you're staying on Earth or coming with us."

The response came back within ten seconds. "Colonel Caldwell, this is Colonel Chekov. Yes, we are aware of the situation. We thank you for your offer of assistance and are ready to transport immediately."

Caldwell let out a ragged sigh and nodded to Cooper. "Start transporting."

Twenty-one minutes had passed since Sheppard's last communication, and Caldwell took a moment to stare down at the beautiful planet of his birth, knowing he might never see her again.

"Sir, Prometheus reports all personnel transported on board A courier has been transported across to the Prometheus with the first of the rendezvous coordinates."

"Tell Prometheus we'll see them at the rendezvous point. Wait until they enter hyperspace and then follow."

"Hyperspace windows are opening above the Earth. The Goa'uld fleet has arrived, Sir."

Caldwell watched the screen as Prometheus slowly turned and picked up speed, heading out of the solar system. The hyperspace window opened ahead of her, and she streaked towards it before disappearing in a flash of light. Only then did he turn his attention to the danger presented by the appearance of several Goa'uld motherships and smaller vessels above the planet.

"Lieutenant, get us out of here!"

Caldwell felt the thrum in engines of the Daedalus deepen as power was drawn into her hyperdrive. He held his breath as the window formed thousands of miles ahead of them, and then the Daedalus was racing towards the strange opening, the stars beginning to streak past as she jumped.

****

"Lorne, what's your position?"

John heard Lorne breathing heavily as he keyed his radio. "Sealing off level 25. They're right behind us but the seals are holding them up for several minutes each time."

"Casualties?"

"We lost Henderson and Garvey. Markham and two others are wounded. I'm sending them down to join the back of the queue."

John licked his lips, well aware that the back of the queue was still a long way from the Stargate's event horizon but the tide was moving swiftly through to Atlantis, with Bates organizing personnel on the other end while, hopefully, McKay was working on a way to raise the city before the shield collapsed and drowned them all. He hated not being there, aware that his natural control of the ATA gene had made him the optimum choice for being at the front of the queue rather than at the back but his gene was worthless if they couldn't hold back the Trust.

He climbed through the levels swiftly, hearing a loud, explosive boom echoing through the corridors and ventilation shafts as the security hatch on Level 25 gave way to the enemy. A staccato of weapons fire informed John that Lorne had left at least two men holding a defensive position while the others climbed down to the relative safety of the next level. John raced towards the increasingly louder sound of gunfire, stopping only when the first military issue boot appeared on the ladder rung above his head.

The soldier flinched when John steadied him into a graceful fall to the floor of Level 26, weapon rising and then falling in relief as he accepted John's help with the wounded soldier above him. He offered a reassuring smile to the younger soldier.

"Keep moving the wounded down, Markham. A few of the medics are at the back of the queue and can fix them up until they're through the gate."

"Yes, sir!"

John waited until only the sentries remained above and then climbed up to join them, his P90 adding to the noise of gunfire as he covered his men, slapping their backs to indicate that they were to drop down the ladder to the next level in an orderly retreat.

"Lorne!" John called and Lorne nodded, dropping through quickly. John followed, and between them they sealed the next level, setting up the next line of defense as his men continued to hold then retreat, hold then retreat, trying to buy more time for the civilian evacuation to Atlantis.

Eventually, they had to seal Level 27 aware that only a few super thick doors separated the Goa'uld controlled Trust from the Stargate now. John headed directly to the control room as he ordered some of the remaining soldiers to take up position around the Stargate. He looked down through the control room window and grinned as the last of the civilians crossed the event horizon, watching as the MALPs began to move in sequence, forming a column rolling towards the Stargate far too slowly for his liking but some of them would get through. A select few of his soldiers took up a defensive perimeter around the Stargate itself, mostly on the ramp or just beneath it, ready to fall back through the gate at his command while others picked up as much as they could carry and were retreating across the event horizon.

Another loud boom heralded the breach of the final bulkhead between the levels and the security cameras revealed the Trust soldiers and agents pushing through the debris field. Time had run out and John realized too late that he and Lorne were now trapped in the control room with no means of reaching the gate room without opening the tightly sealed blast doors; doors he could not afford to open just to save himself.

"Go, go, go!"

He gave a final order to the men stationed in the gate room and gripped his P90 tighter as he watched them threading through the column of slow-moving MALPs. They grabbed anything they could carry as they passed by, items that would never reach Atlantis otherwise because time had run out. John breathed a sigh of relief as the last man crossed the event horizon and into the relative safety of Atlantis. Only the two of them remained now and he gave Lorne a tight smile as another MALP crawled through but swore when the next MALP stopped abruptly, the tracks on one side turning while the other had jammed, making it turn a half-circle that stopped the few remaining MALPs from moving up the ramp.

"Damn it!"

"Sir, the control room has a blast shield." Lorne pointed to the shield control button.

John looked up, only now noticing the metal shield that would cover the window in an emergency, and he grinned at Lorne as a plan formed in his head. He aimed his P90 at the window and opened fire, the armor piercing bullets shattering the glass. He picked up a chair and used it to knock away the jagged edges of glass and then stared back at the darkened monitors that McKay and Grodin had disconnected and destroyed earlier.

McKay had already rigged the main computer to wipe out all addresses and log files so that they could not be traced to a specific destination as soon as the Stargate shut down so John knew there was nothing more he and Lorne could do now except get to the Stargate. He slammed his hand down on the shield control, sparing no time to watch it slowly drop as he clambered over the control consoles and swung over the edge, dangling precariously for a moment with Lorne hanging beside him before both of them dropped the ten feet to the gate room floor.

John heard a hiss and curse as Lorne landed awkwardly, his ankle giving out beneath him. Hauling Lorne to his feet, John wrapped an arm around Lorne's waist and supported him up the ramp to the edge of the event horizon, letting him drop beside it, P90 raised and aimed towards the control room until the shield slowly finished its drop into place, sealing off the gate room from view. A quick glance proved that the malfunctioning MALP couldn't be repaired quickly, and he didn't have the physical strength to shove it out of the way of the other MALPs so John started grabbing boxes off the broken MALP, shoving them towards Lorne who obliged by pushing them the rest of the way across the event horizon.

A familiar voice in his ear made him smile. "Colonel! None of that equipment is essential and the Stargate could shut down at any moment. I suggest you forget the schoolboy heroics and get out of there now."

"Nice to know you care, McKay."

Swiftly, he grabbed one more box and shoved it through in the hope that there was nothing too fragile inside, looking up as something or someone started to batter at the control room shield from the other side. Time was up. John shoved Lorne through spending his last few seconds on Earth alone in the gate room as he radioed Atlantis.

"Close the Stargate!"

He leaped through as the Stargate began to power down, knowing from McKay's rants about having protocols in place to protect travelers that he was considered a discrete package and, as long as the receiving Stargate was still active, he would make it through.

He tumbled out the other side into chaos as the Stargate shut down behind him.

****

Despite all the panic, with quakes rocking the city at increasing intervals, Rodney spared a glance towards the Stargate as Lorne fell through. He was unaware that he was holding his breath until he released it explosively when John tumbled onto the chaotic gate room floor before springing to his feet instantly with an athleticism that Rodney had to admire.

"Power ratio dropping to minimal sustainable level in twelve minutes," Grodin stated with a finality and calmness that almost made Rodney hate that stiff upper lip of the British.

"I know," he snarled in return. The shield had already collapsed to the control tower, with the rest of the city flooding around them, the weight of water adding to the problems but he was so close to figuring it out now. All he needed was a little more power to jump start the process and the city would rise to the surface.

"Are the Naquadah generators in place?" Rodney had ordered all five generators to the ZPM room and made ready for him. He'd given explicit instructions for connectors and cables, well aware that he was cutting it fine but he knew of no one else with enough skill or knowledge to activate the console and connect up the generators to an Ancient power system.

"Generators are in place awaiting connection. Kavanagh says he can..."

"No! Tell Kavanagh to get everyone back to the gate room...and get ready to punch in that gate address for the second city if this doesn't work," he added grimly. Sam's report had stated that the other city was mostly buried and in ruins but, with a ZPM and the skills of the scientists they'd saved from the SGC, he was sure they could salvage some of it.

Rodney finished one last command on the console. He'd set up the final sequence so the shield would collapse from the bottom of the control tower upwards, protecting the gate room and their only escape route - the Stargate - for as long as possible. He could only hope that it would be enough as once the rest of the city was compromised, the shield would hold the gate room secure for only twenty minutes, barely enough time for a second evacuation. Grodin opened his mouth to object but Rodney snarled and pointed an admonishing finger at him. In another universe, he wouldn't be surprised to learn that Grodin stayed with him while the city sank around them but not in this universe. In this universe, Grodin would escape with all the others or Rodney would drown the man himself.

"McKay?"

Rodney glanced up. "Colonel Sheppard! Just in time." He offered a quick, tight smile but knew it had come out more like a grimace. "Grodin will fill you in." Then he turned and ran, a map of the quickest route between the gate room and the ZPM chamber fixed in his head. The hammering of booted footsteps on his heels had him glancing back, and he used the twist of the stairwell to catch Sheppard's eye before racing down the next flight of stairs. "Go back! You have to get them out if this--"

"Save your breath, McKay. I'm coming with you."

Rodney cursed Sheppard under his breath because there was a good chance neither of them would make it even if he did manage to hook up the generators. He jumped down the final four steps, feet landing with a splash into two inches of water, water that had risen above his ankles by the time he had raced forty feet down a stretch of corridor to reach the ZPM chamber. He breathed a sigh of relief that Kavanagh had used his common sense to place the generators well above floor level even though they were good to work in depths of up to fifty feet. It would make this task easier.

"I thought I told you to go," he yelled when Kavanagh stood up from behind the console.

"You don't have time to do this alone, McKay."

Rodney wanted to curse some more but Kavanagh was right, and even though Kavanagh wasn't even close to being on the same genius level as himself, he ought to be competent enough as an engineer to follow a few basic instructions. Rodney bent to look at the internal crystal array. Assessing them quickly.

"Strip the wires two inches on red, three on blue."

"On all of them?" Kavanagh asked.

"No, I just thought I'd bring the other four generators down here to keep the first one company. Yes! Of course all of them."

"Snippy, McKay!" Sheppard stated almost teasingly.

"Well let's see how snippy you get when you've got less than six minutes to total shield collapse," he yelled back, "And the water comes pouring in here and we all drown!" Yet he noticed Sheppard had pulled out a sharp knife too and was already stripping the cover off a second wire to Rodney's exact requirements.

Rodney knelt down, grimacing as the freezing cold water hit his groin, deciding he wasn't going to think about how far it had risen in just a few minutes. He reached in and began splicing wires and soldering them onto the different crystal connectors beneath the console. He let out a harsh breath as the icy water reached his waist, his vision impaired by the water covering his hands, working almost by feel alone now. He didn't stop working but spared a thought for the two men still with him.

"You need to go now."

From the corner of his eye, he caught Sheppard grasping Kavanagh's arm and tugging him away, feeling a mixture of bitterness and relief that he might end up dying here alone. The splash of water right next to him surprised Rodney and he looked to the side, confused when he found Sheppard kneeling beside him.

"I'm serious, Colonel. This room will be underwater in less than three minutes, and it's going to take me that long to complete the connections."

"Then you'll need someone to make sure your tools don't float off."

He huffed out a derogatory laugh. "Not my tools I'm worried about."

By the time he reached the third generator, Rodney was forced to take deep breaths and work partially underwater; by the fourth, he was having to dive down, silently wishing he'd considered scuba equipment...until a long round tube was shoved into his hand.

"Snorkel?" Rodney stared at Sheppard for several seconds, and grinned. "Why didn't I think of that?"

He didn't wait for a reply, diving back under with the homemade snorkel gripped precariously between his lips and his nose pinched closed tightly with a cable clip. He glanced across the clear water when Sheppard joined him, looking ridiculous with his homemade underwater equipment and yet strangely fascinating too with his almost longer-than-regulation hair swaying in the slight current brought on by their movement and the increasing flow of water into the room.

With no more need to keep kicking to the surface for air, Rodney worked fast on the final connections before pushing around the console to the other side and touching several screens. He glanced up at Sheppard, jerking when the air flow ceased from his snorkel and casting it aside, aware that this was it. If he keyed in this final sequence and nothing happened then he and Sheppard would drown in this room because Rodney did not have the breath left to swim to the nearest stair well. As the bubbles of his remaining air began to escape, his lungs burning from the need to draw in more air, he pressed the sequence. He saw all five generators kick in, felt the vibration of the ZPM drawing in their minuscule but desperately needed power and drew in a desperately needed breath... of water.

****

John saw the moment it happened. He saw the panic in McKay's eyes as he tried to hold onto that last breath, saw the bubbles rapidly escaping as he pushed in the final sequence that would connect the Naquadah generators to the city, his determination to succeed forcing aside the panic temporarily. John saw the exact moment when McKay had no choice left and sucked in a lungful of water.

His own lungs had been burning too and he could only watch in horror as McKay jack-knifed against the water flooding his lungs and then gave in, eyes fixing upon him as if desperate not to die alone; blue eyes enlarged by the lenses of his glasses as the light of intelligence faded from them. John reached out to grab the outstretched hand, knowing he couldn't save him but wanting him to know they were in this together. He had no air left for either of them and, as he clung on to the dying body, part of him wanted to give in too as something deep inside told him he had lost something infinitely precious and irreplaceable.

A sudden shift in current had him glancing up towards the ceiling, and he spent a frozen moment watching the water recede rapidly, draining away so fast that he hit the floor, landing partially on top of McKay. John threw his own homemade snorkel aside, sucking in a desperate breath of air as he reached for McKay, turning him onto his back, stripping off the stupid cable clip pinching the man's nostrils together and removing the skewed glasses; he started CPR.

"Come on, McKay!"

As he locked his lips onto McKay's cold, blue ones, and pushed the first breath into the slack mouth, part of him cried out hysterically that this was not the first kiss he'd imagined sharing with McKay. He felt a rib give way as he tried to massage McKay's heart into beating, knowing he was racing a clock ticking down between full recovery, brain damage, and death. Only one option was conceivable but McKay was refusing to cooperate.

"Damn it, McKay! Breathe, goddammit!"

The body convulsed beneath his hands and John tipped McKay's head to the side as McKay expelled the contents of his lungs and stomach, raggedly trying to draw clean air into his abused body.

"Yes," John hissed. "Yes." He rubbed the man's back as McKay drew up his legs and coughed harshly, breath gurgling as more water dribbled out of his slack mouth onto the damp floor.

With a quick flick of his index finger, he tapped his radio. "Medical emergency to the ZPM chamber!"

He knew someone would come because medical personnel were the same the world over, quick to react to a life threatening situation, and he heard the slap of boots against wet floors just a few minutes later.

When Beckett charged into the room, medical kit in hand, John wasn't sure if he was relieved or angry. Wasn't Beckett a geneticist? McKay needed a medical doctor not some laboratory scientist but Beckett's no-nonsense attitude drove away any thoughts of possible incompetence within seconds. John found himself pushed back, watching from outside the ring of medical personnel as McKay was stripped of his wet clothing with almost weird efficiency, and hooked up to portable equipment.

"I think I broke one of his ribs," John stated, and Beckett glanced up.

"Aye...it happens." The blue eyes appraised him swiftly as if running a full mental diagnostic over his body before turning his attention back to McKay, who was murmuring between harsh breaths. "Let's get him out of this damp area. Lift on three. One. Two....Three."

Like a well-oiled machine, the medics rushed away with McKay between them, leaving John still seated on the wet floor, back pressed against the ZPM console with McKay's glasses held carefully in his hand. He couldn't remember picking them up but he cradled them in his hand, running his thumb over the wet surface of a lens.

"Sir?"

John gave himself a mental shake and cleared his throat. "Sergeant." He stowed the glasses into a pocket of his soaked TAC vest and accepted the hand up from Bates. "What happened up there?"

Bates grinned, and it was almost scary to see such an expression on his usually dour face. "We're on the surface, sir. He raised the whole damn city. The scientists are assessing the damage now."

John nodded, smiling around the tightness in his chest. Yeah, McKay had done it, almost at the cost of his own life.

Bates walked with him along the damp corridor, the fresh tightness in his eyes and mouth revealing his concern as they followed the path taken by the medics. "He gonna be okay, sir?"

John ignored the question, aware that they were not in the best place for dealing with any injuries right now and sometimes there were complications to drowning, the water in the lungs carrying bacteria, leading to pneumonia. Until McKay had figured out a way to save the city, only the most basic of field hospitals would have been set up, ready to pack up and move out through the Stargate at a moment's notice. Yet John felt quietly confident in Beckett's competence after seeing the doctor in action.

"People are going to be tired and hungry pretty soon. I want you to take some of your men and scope out the closest rooms that can be used for temporary sleeping quarters...get them cleaned up and prepped. People are going to have to accept a little overcrowding until we can sort out something better."

"Yes, sir."

There was a strong chance that many of the rooms on the upper floor had escaped the flooding but everywhere else had that reek of an alien ocean now, of salt water and silt, of tiny creatures left behind by the receding water that would rot. Within a few days, the stench of stagnant water would be unbearable. It meant they would have their work cut out for them in order to salvage decent living and working space.

"And get... Oustman?" He continued at Bates' confirmation of the name, "To set up a mess hall. He should know what to do."

"Yes, sir."

They paused right outside the gate room. "I need to check on Lorne and McKay."

"Sir." Bates saluted crisply and jogged off into the gate room, one hand already tapping his radio to organize the men he would need.

John spent a moment staring through the wide gate room door at the semi-organized chaos beyond before stepping inside, noting the small details that many would overlook. Most of the SGC refugees looked shell-shocked now the adrenaline inducing fear of imminent death had passed them by, military and civilian alike, but he noticed the way the soldiers' expressions changed from confusion to determined focus as they received their orders from Bates. The civilians needed the same motivation but they were unlikely to take orders from him directly, and the only civilian John could imagine keeping the scientists in line was currently lying on a makeshift cot in a field hospital on the other side of the gate room.

His eyes were drawn to that area by the swish of the privacy screen that someone had erected out of what looked like pale metallic sheeting. A momentary glimpse of McKay's solid frame was all he gained before the curtain fell back into place, and he felt his mouth dry at the remembrance of how close he had come to losing McKay.

Rodney, he thought. His name is Rodney.

"Colonel!"

John looked up and saw Lorne limping towards him with the aid of a single crutch, and with his left ankle wrapped.

"How's the ankle, Colonel?"

"Not broken but the doc wants me to take it easy for a few days." John wondered if his own scrunched expression matched the one Lorne made. "Unlikely given the circumstances." His face turned serious. "For what it's worth, you made the right decision bringing us here."

John froze for a moment, confused by the statement and the impression it gave, until realization dawned that he was now the military commander in an alien city in another galaxy. However, he was uncertain if he was grateful or not, especially under these troubling circumstances, and then he realized that he'd been in command from the moment the Trust attacked the SGC and assassinated President Landry and General Hammond. He drew in a deep breath and detailed the orders already given to Bates, seeing Lorne's nod of agreement.

"Who can we use on the civilian side to get these people on their feet while McKay is out of it?"

Lorne glanced around the small sea of faces, moving between Grodin and Kavanagh. John knew Kavanagh had been with the Stargate program for a couple of years but the man could be a little too pedantic and uninspiring. He didn't know a whole lot about Grodin as the English scientist had joined the program only a short while ago but the man seemed to have the respect of his peers and a certain amount of organization skill, and McKay seemed to like him in his own caustic way.

Lorne's next words seemed to agree with John's personal assessment. "Grodin's already got a few of the civilians checking through equipment, making an inventory. Another nudge in the right direction and he'll have the rest of them on their feet."

"Okay, I'll leave it to you to give him that nudge."

Following a swift nod of agreement, Lorne hobbled off towards Grodin, and John turned back to the makeshift infirmary, pulling aside the privacy curtain and peeking through.

"Ah! Colonel!" Beckett grinned at him, and then frowned. "You really need to be removing those wet clothes before you catch your death of pneumonia."

"I just thought I'd check on our star patient first...and give him back these." He pulled the glasses from his vest pocket and handed them to Beckett, taking advantage of the moment to peer at Rodney's sleeping form.

"Aye, he'll need these once he's awake." He pulled a clean handkerchief out of his pocket and began polishing them to remove the water marks on the lenses, looking up sheepishly when he noticed John's curiosity. "My mother has prescription lenses."

Beckett's slight grin faded suddenly but John understood and reached out, dropping his hand carefully on the man's shoulder. All too soon the rest would face this same realization, that they had left loved ones behind in another galaxy being slowly overrun by religious fanatics, be they Goa'uld or Ori. And there was nothing they could do to save them.

****

Caldwell ordered several hyperspace jumps in different directions, setting the rendezvous point with the Prometheus only moments before each jump in case either ship still had Trust operatives hidden on board Both crews kept a close watch on any unusual transmissions but eventually Caldwell knew they had to take the chance and head towards their final destination inside the Milky Way. His ship was already overloaded with too many people breathing too little oxygen and it was only a matter of time before the air recycling failed, though he knew the situation was far worse on the Prometheus.

"Open a channel to the Prometheus." He waited a moment, offering a brittle smile when Colonel Pendergast's tired face appeared on the screen. "Status report?"

Lionel Pendergast had a tightness about his eyes that spoke heavily of stress and concern. He'd been nursing the Prometheus along so far, trying to coax the best she had to offer out of the smaller ship but the Trust had managed to inflict a lot more damage on the President's flag ship than on the Daedalus. From the haziness of smoke lingering in the air around the stricken ship's commander, Caldwell could tell that the air filters were barely coping at all, unable to clear the smoke from electrical fires following the sabotage. Behind Pendergast the bridge was littered with pieces of damaged consoles and scorch marks. A fleeting glance revealed a grime-covered crew member moving a little too slowly as if struggling for breath; Caldwell pursed his lips as he waited for Pendergast's report knowing it was not going to be good news.

"The extra passengers are stressing many of our systems to their limits." He took another shallow breath. "So most repairs are proceeding as expected...slowly. We need to offload most of those passengers as soon as possible... and give the air time to recycle through the ship." He grimaced. "Better still, we need to land... and open up all the doors and windows," he joked but Caldwell could see the seriousness in the man's eyes.

"Sending coordinates for the final jump. We'll see if we can find you a good landing spot. Good luck. Daedalus out."

Caldwell nodded at his lieutenant to send the coordinates and then he watched as the Prometheus opened a hyperspace window and disappeared inside it before ordering his own crew to follow. The Daedalus matched her speed to that of the Prometheus, doing her own share of nursing along the more stricken ship by making certain she wasn't left behind. For that reason alone they had kept the jumps short, slowly zig-zagging towards the last but one Stargate world near the edge of the Milky Way.

Caldwell let out an almost silent sigh of relief when they dropped out of hyperspace close to PCZ-439 almost two hours later and found the Prometheus moving into a geosynchronous orbit above the Stargate. A long-range scan revealed no Ori in this sector but that was hardly surprising because no one lived this close to a dying system, which meant there was no one for the Priors to convert to Origin.

Major Emma Cooper studied the readouts, aware that the damage to the Prometheus had affected that ship's external sensors, making her reliant on Daedalus.

"A scan of the surface shows an area in the south of the continent that can support the weight of both ships. The air's a little cleaner there too with far lower levels of sulfur and carbon dioxides."

"Send the coordinates to the Prometheus, Major."

He glanced through the view screen, looking beyond the curve of the planet towards the dying sun until the Prometheus crossed his sight on her descent through the turbulent atmosphere. He followed her less than smooth path down to the surface, flinching as she was buffeted by the elements. It took a moment to notice the discomfort in his jaw from gritting his teeth too tightly but he only relaxed once the message came through that the Prometheus was down safely. The Daedalus continued on a slow orbit of the planet to ensure they were as alone here on PCZ-439 as Caldwell had hoped. Nothing came up on sensors to refute that assumption.

"Sir?"

"Yes, Major."

"Colonel Chekov wishes to speak with you at your earliest convenience."

Caldwell sighed. "Guess that would be about now," he stated wryly. "Have the Colonel escorted to the bridge."

While he waited for Chekov, Caldwell dealt with some of the numerous damage reports, scanning them quickly and conferring with Novak on priorities now that they had escaped from Earth and evaded the Goa'uld fleet. He looked up as he caught movement from the corner of his eye and frowned at the two men standing close by.

"Colonel Chekov and...?" He asked politely.

"Dr. Radek Zelenka." The small, bespectacled man with wild hair gave a nervous grin and held out his hand in greeting. After a split second of deliberation, Caldwell accepted, aware that there was no reason for any continued hostility between their peoples. They were all on the same side now. "Colonel Caldwell, I am familiar with both Ancient and Asgard technologies. I offer my assistance as we are all now in same boat." He gave a small nervous laugh. "Both metaphorically and literally... Yes?"

"This is a ship."

Zelenka looked confused and then huffed softly, a slight smile playing about his lips. "Yes, of course, but blueprints of Asgard hyperdrive and shields are same as Korolev, yes?"

Caldwell nodded, recalling the sister ship of the Daedalus that had been handed over to the Russians in exchange for allowing the United States to retain sole use of the Stargate on Earth. The Korolev had been destroyed during the first battle at P3Y-229, when the Ori warships first came through the supergate from the Ori galaxy.

"I was an engineer in charge of readying her for that final battle."

A veil lifted from Caldwell's mind as he recalled mention of a Czech engineer who - on a good day - could almost rival the intelligence and skill of the vaunted Doctors McKay and Carter.

"I'm grateful for the offer, Doctor, but we have the situation under control on board the Daedalus. However, the Prometheus is in far worse shape and there'll be at least a hundred people on board who are relying on that ship for a ride to safety."

"Then I must go where I am needed. So if you would please excuse me?"

"Thank you, doctor."

The small Czech scientist gave a deferential dip of his head and then walked away quickly, leaving Caldwell with Chekov, both of them watching Zelenka until he disappeared from view. Chekov turned back to Caldwell and smiled grimly.

"And how may I be of assistance, Colonel?"

Caldwell drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly, knowing Chekov would understand his next words because the Russian had been slated to take command of the Korolev before the Ori invasion. Instead, that command had gone to the equivalent of a one star general who had gone down with his ship.

"Even if the Prometheus was fully operational, we have too many refugees for the journey ahead. Some of them are going to have to stay behind and await a second trip."

"Here? On this desolate world with no natural food and water?"

He had no answer for that question. "Daedalus can take three hundred, drop them off at the first world we encounter with a Stargate and then head back for the rest."

"How long?"

"Twenty-three days."

Chekov nodded slowly, no doubt working it out in his own head and seeing the truth in Caldwell's words. It would take the Daedalus eleven days to cross the void between the two galaxies, leaving a single day on the other side to contact Sheppard in Atlantis and, hopefully, offload the refugees where they could gate to safety before the eleven day journey back to PCZ-439.

"And how many refugees do we have here now?"

"Approximately seven hundred."

"Seven hundred," he murmured and nodded, aware that this meant Caldwell was relying on the Prometheus to be space worthy within twenty-three days to ferry the final hundred to safety. It also meant he intended to leave Prometheus behind to offer what little protection she could against the elements and any outside attack.

"Then I will set up a refugee camp and coordinate supplies and rationing while the commander of the Prometheus effects repairs to his ship with the help of Dr. Zelenka." His lips tightened. "But if you do not return within twenty-three days..." Chekov sighed, eyes softening. "Then I do not know what we will do, for there is no place left in this galaxy that is safe."

"We'll be back," Caldwell promised, determined to keep that promise no matter what obstacles were placed in his path. These people were relying on him to get them to safety and he would move heaven and earth to make that happen. For now, though, the Daedalus was in just as much need of clean air and a chance to finish the major repairs as the Prometheus, and as they could not spare the power to transport everyone back and forth between ships and planets using the Asgard beam, the Daedalus had to land too.

"Major, take us in as close to the Prometheus as you can."

"Aye, sir."

The Daedalus shuddered as she moved through the heavier atmosphere of ash and gases kicked up by the volcanic activity surrounding the Stargate. She took a shallow descent path as she moved away from the worst affected area towards the valley sheltered by the mountains on the far side of the single continent. The worst of the buffeting eased as they broke through the lower cloud level, the ship slowing down until she was hovering over a stretch of ground less than a mile from the Prometheus.

He was expecting more of a bump due to the damage sustained by the sabotage but Cooper was an excellent pilot and the Daedalus landed smoothly.

"Good work, Major," he murmured and saw Cooper straighten at the well-deserved praise. He turned in his seat, aware that every moment of delay increased the chances of discovery by the Ori. "Colonel, you have two hours before the Daedalus heads out."

Chekov gave a single sharp nod and left the bridge.

Two hours later, with only half of her refugees left on the ship and barely enough food and water left on board to last the trip across the void, Caldwell ordered the Daedalus to lift-off. The rest of the provisions had been unloaded to support those who would be left behind.

As soon as the Daedalus had established a safe orbit, he contacted the Prometheus. Chekov stood beside the commander's chair, his expression as grim as Pendergast's, and a little way behind him Caldwell could see the small Czech engineer overseeing repairs.

"Good luck, Daedalus," Pendergast stated solemnly.

Caldwell offered a weak smile. "We'll be back in twenty-three days. Daedalus out."

****

The rumble of voices and sound of moving equipment brought Rodney back to consciousness, his eyes straining to focus on the ceiling far above his head and failing miserably. He turned his head but could not spot his glasses on any surface close by. The shimmer of the curtains caught his attention and he frowned because they looked so familiar, and then he remembered where he had seen them before, recalling how he had pulled them off the Ancient consoles in the control area.

Why were they hanging up here though?

He could see movement beyond the dust-sheet curtains, catching a glimpse of a human figure in silhouette, and almost startled when the curtain drew back suddenly.

Rodney meant to admonish Carson for scaring him but was shocked by the pain twisting through his chest when he tried to sit up. A strong hand pushed down on his shoulder, anchoring him as the pain receded; he slowly regained his breath.

"Carson?" The word came out as a barely intelligible croak that aggravated his throat, inducing a coughing fit that caused more spasms of pain in his chest.

Compassionate blue eyes grounded him as the coughing subsided and he accepted a sip of water with gratitude, even more grateful when Carson decided to tell him what had happened rather than wait until Rodney could work up the energy to make a demand.

"You drowned, Rodney, and the Colonel cracked a couple of ribs bringing you back."

"I drowned?" He croaked in disbelief, and then it all came flooding back quite literally. "I drowned!"

"Aye, but you'll be fine, Rodney."

As he accepted his glasses from Carson, the curtain was pulled back again just as suddenly. Rodney put on his glasses and met Sheppard's concerned eyes, seeing the worry melt away when Sheppard realized that he was not just awake but aware too. A wry grin chased over Sheppard's face culminating in what could only be described as a smirk.

"You ready to see our city, or are you just going to lie there all day?"

Despite his indignation, Rodney was grateful for the strong hand that caught his elbow and supported him as he got out of the bed. They walked up the main staircase towards one of the ornate glass windows. Sunlight danced through the stained glass leaving patterns of gold, green and blue across the floor and Rodney flinched as the wall of stained glass parted before them, opening up onto a balcony that overlooked an alien ocean of deepest blue.

"It worked," he whispered. "We raised the city from the ocean."

"You did," Sheppard stated softly, voice filled with pride. "You raised the city."

"Of course I did," he replied, dragging his eyes away from the distant horizon eventually to stare at Sheppard's profile, suddenly aware that if what Carson said was true then the only reason why he was still here and able to enjoy this wondrous view was because of the man standing beside him. "I-I...apparently I have you to thank for... undrowning me?"

Sheppard's lips twitched as he turned to face Rodney. "Is that even a word?"

Rodney pushed his glasses up more squarely on his nose and ignored the teasing, already embarrassed enough at having to even admit that he owed someone something, especially when that something was his life. He returned his gaze, instead, to the glorious rolling waves in an ocean that stretched out before him and basked in the warm sun beating down overhead until another thought occurred to him.

"Um...did anyone check if the planet surface was...um...safe from radiation?"

"No, we thought we'd just come out here and die a different horrible death after nearly drowning."

"I did drown," Rodney spitted out, glancing at Sheppard as he spoke, and saw the man flinch as if someone had struck him with a knife, stabbing deep into his heart.

"Yeah. Yeah, you did." Hard eyes turned to him. "Don't do it again."

Rodney flinched too, not used to anyone showing that much ferocity over him surviving a potential near-demise. Most people tended to wish him dead and he had the death threats to prove it. Least he used to have those letters and emails back in the main office for his company, though he doubted he would ever see his beautiful house and penthouse office again. Even if they discovered a ZPM, he knew there was no way home now because there was nothing left for any of them back on Earth. His only true regret was that he hadn't been given the time to contact his sister and found a way to save her too. Sam - his Sam - had warned him that he would regret that one day and now he wished he hadn't been so pig-headed and had made some fall back arrangements to protect his sister and her family.

Despite what others thought of him, Rodney had learned to feel compassion for others, and he knew he would not be the only person here on Atlantis with regrets and fears for those left behind.

Sheppard leaned against the balcony rail and stared out across the ocean. "Kavanagh checked out the ZPM chamber and he says the ZPM is now fully depleted. I guess that means we're gonna have to find another one as soon as we can."

Rodney had his own ideas of where they could find a ZPM based on the information the alternate universe Sam left behind. Before he became the head of his own business - with a company spanning three countries and holding patents to some of the most amazing innovations of the century, even if he did say so himself - Rodney would have told Sheppard exactly where they should start looking, using the force of his personality to get what he wanted. Over the years he had learned to ask and listen - to an extent.

"And whose ZPM should we... borrow?"

"Well, we're not gonna steal a ZPM from a bunch of kids and, if Colonel Carter was right then Atlantis hasn't got more than half a dozen drones left to protect itself whereas--"

"The Tower should have thousands, and gateships too."

Sheppard screwed up his nose slightly at the mention of the small Ancient spaceships. "But, more importantly, it has a ZPM."

"A nearly depleted ZPM, if not fully depleted by now depending on whether they've had to fight off the Wraith during these past three years."

Sheppard grinned at him. "Are you always such a pessimist?"

"Personally, I call it being a realist," he replied loftily, smiling when he surprised a bray of a laugh out of Sheppard. He hissed when he pulled on his sore ribs, hating the way Sheppard sobered instantly.

"Maybe you shouldn't be out here yet."

He waved a hand as if to swat away Sheppard's concerned words. "I'm...fine. Really. Nothing broken."

Sheppard nodded slowly as if not quite convinced. "Well, we have a little time to plan how we're gonna wrestle that ZPM and the drones away from the people in the Tower."

Rodney snorted. "If Sam's recall was as good as she claimed then all we'd have to do is sneak in and take what we want. Except..." He screwed up his own expression.

"Except what, McKay?"

"Except she mentioned a certain amount of...erh...instability within the structure."

"Instability?"

"Minor tremors," he mentioned in an off-hand way. Sheppard continued to stare hard at him, making Rodney squirm. "Look, the other city has been exposed to the elements for ten thousand years so it's hardly surprising that it's...falling to pieces."

"Anything else you'd care to mention?"

Rodney fidgeted. "We probably shouldn't eat anything in case it's been poisoned."

"Right. I'll bear that in mind in case we get invited to dinner while we're stealing their drones, ships and ZPM." He sighed. "Three days," he stated flatly. "And then we go get the ZPM."

"And if it is depleted?"

"Then you'll just have to see if you're as clever as that alternate universe McKay and find us the Brotherhood's ZPM."

Rodney sighed and nodded, suddenly feeling tired, and bewildered when Sheppard cupped his elbow in one strong palm.

"You need to rest, and Lorne has already scoped out some quarters you can use."

He led Rodney back inside and along one of the ornate corridors with its bubbling columns, stopping in front of a set of beautifully ornate doors with opaque stained glass that almost matched the orange and sea green of the gate room. The doors opened before him and Sheppard ushered him inside the warm and welcoming room where two beds had been set up.

"We're gonna have to share for a few days," Sheppard stated nonchalantly but Rodney really didn't care right now. He was so tired that he'd willingly lie down in a bug and rodent ridden haystack if it meant he could finally get some sleep. The past few weeks had drained him; the stress and fear of an imminent attack from the Ori along with the ever-present fear of suddenly finding himself imprisoned on trumped up charges of sedition and treason, had taken their toll on him. He couldn't recall the last time he had slept easy in his bed, and now the events of the day, of nearly drowning, were hanging heavily over him, sapping away the remainder of his strength.

He lowered himself onto the first bed gingerly, his eyes closing instantly, and if some part of him was aware of Sheppard tugging off his boots, pulling the cover over him gently and whispering, "sleep well," then that part of him smiled as he fell into a deep, recuperative sleep.

****

When the Earth first disappeared while under attack from several Ori warships, the information had rippled through all the Priors in the Milky Way, with all of them seeking an explanation. Of course Daniel knew what had happened and kept that knowledge from them. He knew someone on Earth had built and activated Merlin's transdimensional device, Arthur's Mantle, placing the Earth out of phase with this current dimension, in effect cloaking the whole planet. He also knew from Merlin's memories that the amount of power needed to hide an entire planet was prohibitive and that they could not have accomplished it with what little power remained in the Potentia, the ZPM, from Antarctica. They had to have used an additional power source and Daniel recalled Sam mentioning tying in the whole of the United States national power grid direct to the SGC.

Daniel decided not to focus on how Earth had come by a working version of Arthur's Mantle but on the known facts. Sam had to know that the device would not save them indefinitely unless they had also managed to find another ZPM because the one from Antarctica had been near depletion already following the attack by Anubis, and the national grid could never provide enough power alone. Without a ZPM, Earth could not try the same disappearing trick again and, sooner or later, a passing Ori ship would notice their reappearance and order a renewed attack on the planet.

However, having convinced Adria that he was one of her most ardent followers of Origin, Daniel now had access to an Ori warship. The amazing craft obeyed his every thought as he ordered a jump into hyperspace, heading for Earth.

Merlin had warned him that he could not afford to wait indefinitely before building and activating the Sangraal, aware that every moment spent in the form of a Prior took him one step further away from his humanity. He had already put into motion events that tainted his soul, just to prove he could be a trusted Prior and therefore earn him this ship, and he needed this ship to create and deliver the weapon. However, he also needed this ship to save Jack.

When his warship dropped out of hyperspace close to Earth, Daniel had not expected the warm welcome from the Goa'uld, locking him into an unexpected dilemma. If he destroyed the Goa'uld fleet then he might free Earth from the tyranny of the Goa'uld but that would leave the planet completely defenseless against the Ori, and then it occurred to him that the Goa'uld had never stood a chance against the Ori so destroying their fleet would make little difference. If anything, it was better that he destroyed the Goa'uld now to avoid having to face them later once the galaxy was free of the Ori.

With that thought in mind, Daniel ordered his ship into battle, firing lasers that tore apart any ship in their path. The battle was intense but short, with the debris of destroyed Goa'uld motherships raining down upon the planet, most pieces burning up in the atmosphere in what had to be a spectacular display from the surface.

As soon as the battle was over, Daniel transported down to the Antarctica outpost, desperate to see Jack again. His fondest memory was of them together, and it was etched in his mind; the feel of Jack's warm skin beneath his fingertips, the sound of his soft laughter, breath hot and rapid against his throat as they moved together, seeking that infinitesimal moment when they almost became one person, joined in ecstasy. His final memory of Jack was one of silence, unable to tell Jack how much he was loved because of the stupid military rules that kept them apart in public. Instead, he had held onto Jack's gaze until Jack's eyes froze within the stasis field. He wanted to be in that exact spot when the stasis field dissipated and Jack could see him once more, as if no time had passed between those moments, though he could bet Jack was going to be a little shocked by Daniel's current appearance.

Daniel's victory was short lived when he realized the stasis chamber was gone, and Jack with it. The ruins of the Antarctic outpost was surprisingly clean of bodies, and the alcove where Jack had stood for so many years was empty. Even though it took but a moment's thought to calibrate the sensors to search for the stasis chamber over the whole planet, nothing came up.

Jack was no longer on Earth and Daniel had no clue where to start looking for him.

Time grows short. Once the Ori are gone, you will have more time to begin the search

The small voice of reason was a mixture of both his own and Merlin's thoughts. With a heavy heart, he turned his attention back to his main duty, leaving a frightened world behind him as he headed back towards the supergate that linked this galaxy to that of the Ori.

The Sangraal sat before him now, almost complete. Only one final sequence was needed but he had to wait until he was closer to the supergate to avoid the weapon being detected by Adria. Somehow, he had managed to convince her that he needed to return to the city of Celestis to speak directly with the Ori through the Doci, the Chief Prior. He sent the mental command that encoded the eight symbols needed to lock onto the Ori galaxy and, as the gigantic wormhole whooshed into existence, Daniel completed the final sequence on the Sangraal and activated it.

At his mental command the warship moved towards the event horizon while Daniel raced towards one of the small scout ships sitting in a hangar on the deck below, mentally prepping the small craft even as the rear hatch lowered. The hangar outer door opened and he almost clipped the side, exiting the warship sharply to avoid entering the wormhole that now filled the view screen. Daniel brought the small craft to a halt and watched the Ori ship disappear.

"Three, two, one." Daniel closed his eyes and swallowed hard. By rights he should have felt elated but instead he was all too aware that he had just committed the equivalent of genocide, destroying all of the ascended beings in the Ori galaxy. His only consolation was that, by his actions, he might have saved every human in two galaxies.

****

John had seen the gateship at Area 51 but he'd never had the opportunity to go inside it. As the back lowered to his touch, revealing the small but perfect interior, he wondered who had given the tiny equivalent of a space shuttle such a grandiose name.

"Gateship?" he stated with disdain and Lorne raised both eyebrows.

"Major Carter named it. It's a ship that goes through the gate." He made a swooping gesture with his hand and John raised his own eyebrow in cool reprimand. "Shutting up now, sir," Lorne stated, drawing a smile from John.

John pressed a hand to the main console, his smile widening as it lit up at his touch. He sank into the pilot's seat, straightening when a stray thought - wondering where the navigation information might be - brought up a holographic display.

"Cool!"

"What's cool?"

Sheppard turned upon hearing Rodney's voice behind him but he decided to ignore the question. "Was starting to think you'd stood me up, McKay."

"What?" Rodney pushed up his glasses and stared down hard at John, the little frown lines almost as endearing as the slight down-turn of his mouth.

John gave himself a small mental shake because he knew he was skirting close to the edge of DADT here. He stopped on that thought because, technically, he was IT now. He was the man because the rest of the USA and its antiquated regulations were a galaxy away and no longer relevant, if they still even existed. This was a brave new world and a chance to start afresh. He could overturn DADT right this minute and no one would question his order. In a sense it was quite a frightening prospect as he'd lived by these rules and regulations for most of his adult life, except here was the opportunity to cast them all aside, to allow his soldiers to be free of more of the draconian rules that had shackled them for so long.

Rodney was still waiting for an answer and John offered up a smirk that set Rodney's eyes rolling in disgust.

"Do you think you can fly this thing?" Rodney asked and John grinned.

"Oh yeah."

One of Rodney's scientists had discovered that the ceiling above the gateship bay opened and John gave the mental command, enjoying the way the sunlight filled the room around them, and then they were rising, lifting up into a clear, azure blue sky that was almost the same color as the ocean surrounding them. The temptation to push this ship to see exactly what she'd got was strong but John resisted purely because Rodney was with them, aware that the man was already dosed up on pain killers for the cracked ribs sustained during his near-drowning only yesterday. He didn't want to cause Rodney any more pain and grief. Still, the gateship was a true beauty and so responsive to his touch and thought.

Ten minutes out, he handed the controls over to Lorne. Rodney had already determined that this was one piece of equipment that required the ATA gene constantly rather than just for initialization, linking the pilot to the controls mentally, which meant the non-ATA could never fly one of these birds.

Lorne was pretty good at handling the gateship - damn, but he disliked that name - and John nodded as he handed the controls over to Rodney, eager to see if an artificial ATA gene would work too.

Several white-knuckled minutes later, John was convinced that the terrible piloting had more to do with Rodney than his mouse-gene. He knew he had a few USAF personnel from the SGC who'd had logged flight hours but didn't have the gene. If Beckett's gene therapy worked then that would increase the number of seasoned pilots.

"Ease up a little! Don't hold the controls so tight, you're gonna snap them off."

"Well, excuse me for not being a hotshot pilot!" Rodney stated tightly as they weaved back towards Atlantis.

"Move over," John begged. "I think I'll take her back in."

He took over cleanly and the gateship's path smoothed out. Despite Rodney's terrible piloting, at least they had the answer they needed for when they went to permanently borrow the gateships from the Tower. All John had to do now was set up a program of extensive piloting lessons for those who had the ATA gene - natural or artificial. If necessary, he'd have them practicing a landing on the mainland that Carter had mentioned rather than risk them crashing into Atlantis.

Rodney sniffed, reading John's mind. "Atlantis takes control once you come in range of the city so, no, you don't have to worry about any fiery collisions."

"Well, that's good to hear."

Behind him he heard Lorne smothering a laugh and, for the first time, he truly realized he had lucked out on a 2IC, one that was both experienced and had a decent sense of humor. They landed smoothly, settling back into the gateship bay with barely a bump as Atlantis took control just as Rodney had said she would. The hour working with the gateship had provided them with so much information, even revealing a cloak to hide them from both visual sight and scanning equipment. He let his hand linger against the small of Rodney's back as they walked down the ramp, feeling the warmth of his body seeping through the thin t-shirt and noticing that Rodney never flinched at the contact. He half-listened to Rodney's praise of the gateship as his own thoughts turned to the mission ahead. The gateship cloak would give them a distinct advantage but he and Lorne would still need to plan the mission carefully to avoid as many casualties as possible. They really couldn't afford to lose too many people - if any. Plus, if the Tower was as unstable as Carter had implied then they needed to be prepared for that eventuality too.

Once he had the bare bones of a plan then he would bring in Rodney and his scientists to flesh out the rest, but first...

"You know, I hate that name," he stated to no one in particular.

"What name?" Rodney asked, though John could see Lorne was just as curious.

"Gateship."

Rodney looked confused. "It's a ship that goes through the gate, hence, Gateship."

"That little thing isn't a ship. It's a shuttle...a jumper. I'm gonna claim this one... and call it Puddlejumper."

"Puddlejumper?" Rodney stated with disdain.

Lorne laughed. "Can I call mine Pondskipper?"

"Sure!"

Several hours later, John had the basic mission organized with Lorne, leaving him and Lorne with two days to train up as many pilots as they could manage just in case they only had only the one shot at taking the Tower's puddlejumpers. Now it was time to bring in Rodney and his people to work out how they were going to fill every one of those puddlejumpers with as many drones as they could carry - and all of it done as stealthily as possible.

****

It had made sense to use two puddlejumpers for the mission rather than have all the pilots in the one ship, just in case something went wrong.

As he took the co-pilot's seat, Rodney looked through the front view screen to where the other puddlejumper was readying to take off with Lorne at the controls, smiling softly at the renaming of the gateships. Sheppard's nickname for his personal ship had some how broadened to encompass all of the Ancient craft, much to Sheppard's annoyance, though at least Sheppard could call his ship Puddlejumper 1.

"Puddlejumpers are ready," Sheppard stated into the radio mike connecting him to Grodin. "Dial the gate."

On paper, the mission seemed easy enough but Rodney had never been one to assume everything would go according to plan. He had worked out a dozen different disaster scenarios in his head already, with most of them involving him in some form of deadly peril and yet he knew his place was on this mission. No one else would be able to think of solutions as quickly as him, especially if the Ancient technology within the Tower malfunctioned, and time would be a critical factor for this mission. The longer they remained within the Tower, the greater the chance they would be detected before they had loaded all the drones onto the Tower's puddlejumpers.

He caught Sheppard's eye as the puddlejumper began a smooth transition from the jumper bay to the gate room.

"You all set?" Sheppard asked.

Rodney nodded as Atlantis lined them up in front of the Stargate, taking a deep breath that caught at his still painful ribs and caused him to wince. Sheppard must have given a mental command to go for suddenly they were shooting forward, a moment of disorientation passing as the puddlejumper swooped up into the night time sky of an alien world, the cloak already in place. From Sheppard's words, Rodney knew Lorne's puddlejumper would be only seconds behind them.

Rodney stared up at the unfamiliar stars and then mentally shook himself, head bowing over his laptop as he searched for any energy sources that would lead them to the Tower.

"Patching coordinates through to the HUD," he stated as he made a few more keystrokes, raising his head to watch the HUD appear before them with the coordinates clearly marked. The puddlejumper began a slow curve to the north-west under Sheppard's command and Rodney took a moment to appreciate the way Sheppard melded so perfectly with the puddlejumper, aware that his own attempt to pilot had been dubiously successful at best. Of course, he could always blame the pain from his cracked ribs and the medication he was using to combat it but, in truth, he was not that much better behind the wheel of a car which is why he'd hired a chauffeur from the moment he was rich enough to afford one. Still, flying the puddlejumper had been far more fun than driving a car, and he might not have a choice about piloting one of the Tower's puddlejumpers back to Atlantis depending on how many they found there.

"There!" Rodney pointed at the Tower that was so reminiscent of the central spire in Atlantis. If this city had once been a copy of Atlantis then time and the Wraith had taken their toll upon it for no other spires broke a surface covered in far more than a century's growth of trees.

"Yeah, I see it," Sheppard replied, angling towards it in a wide loop so that they could land close to where Rodney's instruments had shown breaches into other sectors of the city.

Finding somewhere to land was a little more problematical but both Sheppard and Lorne found clearings that were within easy walking distance, which was fortunate as Rodney wasn't prepared for a long stroll through a dark forest. He wanted to get into the city, start transporting the pilots and drones to the jumper bay, and then grab the ZPM on the way out if it was even worth taking. From the energy readings, either the ZPM was powered down or it was reaching entropy. Rodney guessed it would be the latter but even at the low level depicted, he figured there would be enough power to keep the Atlantis shield up for at least a day if they were attacked, and that had to be worth something.

After half an hour's walk, they reached an area pockmarked with sinkholes where walls and ceilings had caved in. Rodney checked out a few and smiled when he found one area that was relatively stable and close to where they needed to be.

"Here," he stated and stepped back as Lorne and two of his men set up a winch to lower everyone down into the city. They moved quickly and within fifteen minutes Rodney was walking along a corridor that had probably not felt a footstep in more than a century despite other parts of the Tower being occupied. The corridor gave off a faint blue glow, recognizing the ATA gene and Rodney hoped no one in the Tower above registered the energy fluctuation and came to investigate.

They reached an auxiliary control room that was used on Atlantis to monitor the transportation of drones between both the main weapons' bay and the puddlejumpers. Having spent the last few days studying the system carefully on Atlantis in the strong hope that it would be identical here, Rodney was pleased to see that his homework had paid off. He brushed away centuries of dirt from the top of the main console, searching for the manual override so he could reduce the power consumption needed to transfer all the drones to the puddlejumper bay above the gate room in the central tower. First of all though, he checked the internal life signs detector and smiled when he noted that no one was within the jumper bay at this time. A few simple commands had the door locking to prevent anyone from entering via the gate room, gene or no gene, until he gave the command.

"I've sealed off the jumper bay."

"Good." Sheppard replied. "How many drones are we talking about here?"

Rodney's fingers danced over the controls, and he straightened, turning to Sheppard with an incredulity. "Thousands! Thousands of drones!" He caught Sheppard's infectious grin, his stomach flip-flopping when Sheppard squeezed his shoulder, the touch lingering perhaps a little longer than most anyone would consider reasonable - except for Rodney.

"That's a lot of drones to transport so... you'd best get started."

"Oh! Yes...Yes."

He gathered his thoughts together, already missing the warmth of Sheppard's hand on his shoulder and turned back to the console. Pushing his glasses back up his nose, he leaned over and studied the console carefully, checking the mechanism that transported the drones from the armory to the launch platform. Several attempts brought only error messages written in Ancient. Eventually he looked up.

"Um... We have a problem. The main drone transporter is damaged and it could take me some time to get it back online...if we have the right parts with us."

Sheppard licked his lips thoughtfully. "Can we move them manually?"

"What? Yes! Of course, but that could take almost as long..."

"We have seventeen pilots standing around here doing nothing, and twenty soldiers standing guard close to the gate, and I made sure we brought a few carts with us just in case. We can start loading up the two jumpers outside, and transport the drones in relays to a secure area close to the gate."

"Why not transport them straight through to Atlantis?"

"Because we can't risk advertising our presence by opening the gate again until we're ready to head back. Hopefully, by then we'll have figured out a way to sneak our pilots past the guards and into the jumper bay so we can steal the jumpers too. But if that doesn't happen then at least we wouldn't be going home empty handed."

"But manually transferring all those drones could take..."

"All night. So unless you want to stick around here all night too then you'd better figure out a way to fix that transporter."

"Oh right, no pressure, hmm?" But Rodney had to admit that Sheppard's plan actually made sense even if it did leave the rest of them without a means of escape should the denizens of the Tower come looking for them. Sheppard seemed to think of that too.

"We leave one jumper on the ground here at all times. Worst comes to the worst, it'll be a tight squeeze in the back with all those crates of drones." Rodney's horrified thought must have crossed his face because Sheppard smirked. "Come on, McKay. You said those things were inert until mentally activated."

"Yes... but there we'd be, trapped in a pile of drones with a dozen ATA gene holders who can't control their wandering hands let alone their thoughts."

"Wandering hands?" Sheppard shifted closer, a teasing light in his eye. "Something you want to tell me, McKay?"

"What? NO! I meant people touching things they really..." He left out a huff of annoyance as Sheppard's smirk widened, aware that he was digging a bigger hole with every syllable falling from his mouth. "Oh, shut up!"

Sheppard laughed softly. "Guess we move to Plan... W then."

"W? What happened to plans B through V?"

"W for wandering hands."

"Oh, ha! ha!"

The warmth of Sheppard's hand on his shoulder brought a reluctant smile to his lips but then he shook off the feeling, aware that the longer he took to fix the transporter, the greater the chance of everything ending in disaster. The sudden tremor running through the decaying city had him reaching back for Sheppard and holding on tight. Rodney glanced up warily as small pieces of the ceiling came down, still clinging to Sheppard once the tremor finished and the dust began to settle once more.

"I did mention that it was unstable, didn't I?"

"Yeah. You did." Sheppard looked around ill at ease before realizing how tight he was holding onto Rodney and stepping back. "Let's get this done as fast as we can."

Several hours later, he was grateful for Sheppard's decision to start moving the drones manually as it kept everyone else too occupied to bother him with inane comments, though he was grateful for the single soldier posted at the doorway. Bates never uttered a word and quite frankly, Rodney found the man a little intimidating but for once it was a reassuring presence at his back. He twisted another pair of the fine optic wires, carefully reattaching them and almost fell backwards when the console hummed into life.

Grinning, Rodney turned to Bates. "I did it!"

"Good job, Doc." Bates tapped his radio. "Sir, we're back online."

Hearing Sheppard's voice through the radio head set gave him a warm feeling. "McKay, start transporting those drones into the jumpers. I'm bringing back the rest of our pilots. Sheppard out."

Rodney stilled for a moment. "Once I start transporting, there's a high probability that someone will notice the power surges and come to investigate."

"That was always gonna be a problem, McKay. I'm on my way back... Start transporting the drones."

"Transporting now."

Small tremors had brought his head up a number of times while fixing the transporter but now a stronger one shuddered through the lower part of the city as the transporter activated, and it was too much of a coincidence to be explained away by bad timing. Some how the tremors and the energy usage in the city had to be connected but Rodney's only thought at that moment was to take shelter beneath the console, arms wrapped over his head as large pieces of ceiling dropped around him. He cried out as something sharp struck his arms and an unprotected part of his head, dislodging his glasses.

When the rumble finally came to an end, Rodney coughed as the dust swirled around him and scrabbled to find his glasses on the debris-littered floor. His fingers located them but the sight of twisted wire frames and smashed lenses filled him with dismay.

"This is not good."

He blinked owlishly through the dust-filled air, trying to see towards the single exit from the room, eventually crawling out from his relatively safe spot to investigate only to find a pile of rubble where the door should be.

"Oh, this is so not good at all."

A tinny noise drew his attention back towards the console and he scrabbled around on the floor until he located the source, pulling it on and tapping it in response.

"McKay! McKay! Answer me, damn it!"

"Sheppard," he croaked, and coughed out some of the dust in his throat and lungs. "Sheppard!"

****

John almost slumped in relief when he heard Rodney's voice on the radio. For one moment he thought this entire part of the city had collapsed on top of the scientist and the personal loss seemed more crippling than the potential loss to Atlantis.

"Don't do that to me," he whined. "Just hang tight, McKay. We're gonna get you out."

John looked with dismay at the rubble filling the doorway before glancing over at Bates. Bates looked sickened, as if he had failed in his duty to protect Rodney even though there was no way he could have done anything to help him at the time. Blood trickled from cuts on the man's face and he brushed at his face with the back of one hand, smearing the blood but, otherwise he had survived relatively intact.

"Sir, we're gonna need a team of engineers to get him out of there."

"There's no time. We're gonna have to dig him out ourselves... and hope the doorway itself held up."

Bates nodded and was already on his radio calling for some of the men to help shift the rubble, and others to stand sentry because someone would come to investigate the strong tremor eventually. Within twenty minutes, they had shifted a fair amount from the top of the pile and John called a halt when he spotted fingers wiggling through a hole from the other side. He climbed the pile and clasped fingers that were torn and bloodied from where Rodney must have been working from the other side.

Boosted by the sight of Rodney's fingers, the men worked faster, pulling away the debris until the hole was large enough for Rodney to squeeze through. John had a moment of fear when another tremor shook the city but they pulled Rodney out quickly, ignoring his cries of indignation at being manhandled so roughly. However, John didn't want Rodney caught halfway through the hole in the event of another tremor just in case he was crushed this time.

"You okay?" He asked softly.

"I broke my glasses, and no, I don't have a spare pair hanging about my person somewhere." Rodney pulled out the twisted frame that he'd shoved into a pocket and held them up for John to see.

"Sir?"

"What is it, Bates?"

"That last tremor took down the back way out of here."

That meant they had two choices. They could either dig their way out or head up through the city using whatever transporters that were still functioning to speed their journey. Most of John's ATA pilots were ranged around him and he had a moment of silent thanks that he'd left a pilot for each of the puddlejumpers brought from Atlantis as that made the decision easier.

"Then we may as well stick to the original plan and make our way up to the jumper bay, and steal ourselves some puddlejumpers."

"And the ZPM."

John stared hard at Rodney and then sighed in resignation. "And maybe the ZPM," he replied, stressing the maybe because that was a decision he wanted to leave until the last moment if at all possible.

The small group started along the first of many corridors, pausing at intersections to allow Rodney to verify their route. John noticed the way Rodney squinted at the laptop that he'd somehow managed to save from the falling debris earlier, and he stuck close. He didn't believe Rodney's eyesight was particularly bad, unlike a cousin who had needed lenses so thick that they looked like the bottom of coke bottles. However, having already come close to losing Rodney, John wasn't prepared to take any more gambles with the man's safety, beyond the one necessary to reach the jumper bay and get the hell out of this crumbling city.

Rodney managed to locate several transporters at different levels, speeding their way up through the city. It was by no means ideal but neither of them wanted to risk transporting live objects - themselves - beyond the safety range specified by the city's barely functioning control system.

After an hour, John ordered a short break as he had noticed the increasing number of times Rodney had rubbed his eyes and fought to focus over the past ten minutes. Now they were getting close to the inhabited parts of the city, they needed to take more care and that meant Rodney needed to rest his eyes for a few minutes. John sat down beside him.

"How're you doing?" he asked softly.

"Not so good, which will come as no surprise I'm sure."

"You're bleeding again." He saw Rodney wince as his fingers automatically sought out the gauze covering the laceration on the side of his face. "And you probably have a mild concussion."

"Gee! That might explain the headache too."

John could see Rodney regretted the sarcastic response almost immediately and dropped a friendly hand on his broad shoulder, squeezing gently in reassurance.

"Come on. We must be getting close now."

"Actually, if my calculations are correct..." Rodney gave a derisive snort as if the possibility of him being wrong was inconceivable, "Then the next transporter should take us six levels below the gate room, and only one level down from the ZPM."

"Let's just get everyone safely to the jumper bay and then we can talk about the ZPM."

"Fine."

He stood up and pulled Rodney to his feet.

"By the way... How many drones did you manage to transport before the ceiling collapsed on you?"

Rodney bounced on his toes, a smug grin lighting his tired face. "All of them."

John blinked, quickly calculating the number of drones in his head and realized they'd manually transported almost half of the drones to the secure area by the Stargate while Rodney was fixing the Ancient transporter system. Still, that meant at least three thousand drones sitting above their heads in the puddlejumpers, hopefully enough to protect the city should the Wraith, that the alternate universe Carter had mentioned, come calling.

Reaching the jumper bay turned out to be anticlimactic despite having to cross the control room balcony that overlooked the gate room. While the others slipped by and up the stairs, John stood sentry, looking down from a concealed position as nearly forty denizens of the Tower descended upon a feast laid out before them like a pack of ravenous hyenas. Their shrieks of laughter and shouts across the long table covered any noise made by the new Atlanteans.

At the head of the table sat a handsome yet sour faced, bald-headed man, his disdain for his dinner companions readily apparent. If they had felt the earlier tremor then it had made little impact on them, and nothing seemed to have been disturbed in the room. All the stained glass seemed to be in place and no debris littered the floor other than remnants of cast off meat bones. The only difference between this gate room and the one in Atlantis was the presence of the Chair, upon which the bald-headed man sat like a king on his throne, except the Chair was upright and dark, with not even the smallest glimmer of blue in its depths from the presence of an ATA gene holder.

A double click in his ear piece made him glance away for a second, and he clicked back to confirm receiving the message that Rodney had overridden the locking codes. He waited until the last of his people had entered the jumper bay and took the stairs to join them, smiling when Rodney locked the doors behind him.

The ramps were already lowered on several of the jumpers with pilots standing ready to take the controls. He went over the plans in his head again.

"Okay, just to confirm everyone knows what to do. Wait at your controls until you have the order to take off. Activate cloaks immediately and once you've gone through the Stargate... keep going. We don't want any fender-benders. Circle around, avoiding the dead zone, and land in a safe place near the gate. Once everyone's through, we'll shut it down and then you wait in your cloaked jumpers until Atlantis gives you permission to dial home."

He scanned the small group. The hardest part would be holding off the indigenous population while they took all the drones stockpiled near the gate straight through to Atlantis, which could take a few hours depending on Sergeant Harriman's organization skills. Lorne would provide air support for as long as it took, backed up by John once he and Rodney had completed their final task. However, John was fully prepared to forfeit the drones on the ground if it became too dangerous for his men, especially knowing they had a few thousand drones within the puddlejumpers in this bay.

"Any questions? Now's the time to ask." He glanced around again but no one spoke up. "Okay. Then let's get this show on the road."

He waited a moment longer as the pilots entered their chosen jumper and the rear hatches closed behind them, leaving just the puddlejumper closest to the jumper bay door for John. Admittedly, Rodney could pilot a jumper too but John figured it was better not to rely on his piloting skills this time around. The scientist had enough to do already if they were going to go back for the ZPM, especially as he had a mild concussion on top of all the bruises and abrasions.

John broke radio silence and contacted Lorne, who was piloting one of the Atlantean puddlejumpers. "Get ready to dial up the gate to M7G-677 on my order. We're just gonna do a side trip for the ZPM first."

He and Lorne had agreed on using the planet of the kids, as Carter had called it, purely because there wouldn't be any people outside of the shield powered by their ZPM, and little chance of the Wraith bothering to go there when they knew they couldn't reach the food. He just hoped no one was stupid enough to fly into the dead zone created by the shield, relying on Markham to keep them in line.

He nodded towards Rodney, who had grinned on hearing John's words. They left Bates and two others guarding the door to the jumper bay as Rodney could not afford to seal it behind them, and moved swiftly back through the control room, staying in the shadows to avoid being seen by the inebriated people in the Tower.

Just as they were crossing an intersection, a drunk stepped out of one of the rooms and blinked at them in confusion.

"Who are you?" he slurred. John reacted instinctively, chopping the man across the throat to silence any further words and then knocking him unconscious. He dragged the man back into the room and dropped him unceremoniously to the floor. Stepping back out, he turned to a shocked Rodney.

"Lock it."

Rodney nodded and quickly dismantled the panel outside the door, swapping over several crystals before replacing the panel so nothing looked amiss.

"Did you...?"

"No, I didn't kill him...but he's gonna have a bruised larynx and one hell of a headache when he wakes up later, and not all of it alcohol related."

"Oh! Good, it's just... You know."

"Yeah," John replied sourly but he did understand Rodney's reluctance to see anyone die, especially when they were the ones doing all the stealing. He didn't feel that guilty though as, by Carter's account, the people in the Tower had been abusing their position for generations, stealing from the people who lived outside of these crumbling walls.

Rodney had to work on the panel outside the ZPM room, replacing cracked crystals from another door further along before he could get the door open. Inside, the dust of centuries lay over the control console, the ZPM just a sickly, pale orange glow in one slot while two long dead ZPMs sat in the other slots. John saw Rodney hesitate, fingers poised over the controls that would raise the ZPM from its slot.

"I was hoping to see residue power in the buffers but they're empty."

"And that means?"

"It means that once I disconnect the ZPM the lights in the gate room will go out, and there'll be no power to open the jumper bay ceiling."

"Okay, I'd already considered that in Plan N...for No Power." John clicked his radio. "Markham? Take them out."

He waited for an acknowledgment that the ceiling portal had opened and then turned on the flashlight attached to his P90 in readiness before looking into Rodney's worried blue eyes. "Do it!"

Rodney took a deep breath and punched in the commands, the lights starting to dim almost immediately. He studied the ZPM for a moment and then pulled it from its housing, stuffing it into his backpack.

"I suggest we get out of here now." Rodney stated unnecessarily.

They could hear pandemonium within the gate room, with one man shouting orders above the panic of the drunken crowd. Ornate candelabra were quickly lit, casting a sickly, yellowy-orange glow over the darkened room that accentuated the deep shadows. John didn't stop to investigate, pulling Rodney along with one hand clasped around the tattered sleeve of his jacket. He pushed Rodney up the stairs ahead, radioing in their position to Bates so they didn't end up the victims of friendly fire.

Bates stepped out of the shadows surrounding the doorway. "All jumpers are away, sir."

"Then I guess it's our turn. Sergeant?"

John indicated towards the sole remaining jumper and pushed his way through the cases of drones to the cockpit with Rodney cursing just behind him. Bates and the two sentries clambered on board, squeezing in among the drones as the rear hatch closed behind them, the puddlejumper already rising from the bay floor. Above them, the unfamiliar stars were still bright in the night sky but John knew the sun would rise in under two hours and they had to use every second of that time to their advantage.

****

The rest of Sheppard's plan had gone off without a hitch. None of the villagers had tried to stop them from taking the drones through the Stargate, and the Tower's military had been no match for the Atlantean forces. Rodney would have felt a modicum of regret for the people of the Tower had he not already figured out that they had no one left with the ATA gene in a strong enough form to operate the Chair. So even if the Wraith were to attack in the near future then it would have made little difference if they'd had one or a thousand drones, especially as they had devised no other means of using the drones as weapons.

In truth, Rodney was positive that no one had come down to that part of the city in generations and probably didn't even know where the drones came from. Likely, they simply assumed they popped into existence upon the command from some chosen one who had the magic gene. Eventually, the villagers would realize that those in the Tower no longer held any control over their protection or their destiny, and what remained of the Tower would crumble into dust.

Rodney watched from the control room balcony as Atlantis auto-piloted the last of the new puddlejumpers up to the jumper bay. Beckett had cleaned his torn and bloodied fingers and stitched the gash on his head, and Rodney had managed to borrow a pair of glasses off of Sergeant Harriman. They weren't the right prescription and he knew he'd have a headache if he used them for any length of time but they were better than nothing while Kavanagh straightened out his twisted frames and replaced the cracked lenses.

He shook his head, snorting in disbelief because Sam's last words before going back to her own universe were a warning not to take Kavanagh to Atlantis and yet, at this moment in time, Kavanagh was probably the most valuable person in the city as far as Rodney was concerned. Admittedly, Rodney doubted he would still feel the same way in a few days time when Kavanagh had managed to screw up some work assignment but, for all his failings as a mechanical engineer, Kavanagh was one of the best optical engineers Rodney had seen. Perhaps in the alternate Sam's universe, their Kavanagh had never discovered his true expertise but with crystals forming a major part of Ancient technology, Rodney hoped it wouldn't be hard to convince Kavanagh to stick with what he knew best.

The gate room ceiling closed and Rodney shared a crooked smile with Sheppard before following him up the stairs to the jumper bay. Every docking point was now in use and he could not help but return the bright grins on every pilot's face as they emerged from their respective ships.

If the ZPM had held even a quarter charge then this day would have been perfect. As it was, the ZPM was nearing entropy just as Rodney suspected. He had installed it anyway because some power was far better than no power at all. Fortunately, the Mark V Naquadah generators developed by his company to his own specifications were good enough for the basics of lighting and heat, and could be used to operate the Chair if they needed to fire the drones. They were just not powerful enough to raise the shield and sustain it, or to fire up the star drive should their only means of escape lie in flight rather than fight. Eventually, they would have to go and find the ZPM left behind with the Quindosim brotherhood but learning its whereabouts had taken the alternate universe Rodney almost a week of researching and digging according to Sam, and that was time he could not spare while they were still settling into the city. He and Sheppard had already decided that the next few missions had to be about securing a food source because the few rations they had brought with them from the SGC would not last much longer.

Sheppard nudged him with one shoulder after Rodney had ordered Grodin to activate the transporter used to unload the drones from the puddlejumpers and store them in the Ancient armory.

"You did good, Rodney."

"Yes. Yes, I did," he preened, turning his head abruptly to grin back at Sheppard, the smile freezing on his face as he caught the heat in Sheppard's eyes aimed solely at him. Sheppard tried to cover but Rodney knew what he had seen, and suddenly it didn't matter that he'd risked his life for an almost depleted ZPM because today was perfect after all.

Sheppard's eyes widened when he realized Rodney was not going to freak out over this sudden revelation and that he did, in fact, return the interest. His strangled smile became a soft smirk and, as oblivious as Rodney was to most aspects of body language, Rodney understood the nod of Sheppard's head towards the door and the slide of a tongue tip over those perfect lips. Sheppard tapped his radio twice.

"Lorne, I'm taking the rest of the night off so unless an emergency should come up..."

"You'd prefer not to be disturbed," came the response quickly.

"Exactly."

Rodney had already given similar instructions to Grodin earlier on Carson's orders, aware that it was either that or be forced to spend the rest of the night in the newly set up infirmary to ensure he got some rest after today's latest set of injuries. He'd accused Carson of acting like a mother hen at the time but now he was glad they had come to a compromise.

As he walked along the deserted corridor towards the room they still shared, Rodney felt a small thrill every time his shoulders or elbows brushed Sheppard's, stealing quick anxious glances because he couldn't quite believe this was happening. Since becoming a multi-millionaire he'd become used to having men and women fling themselves at him but at the back of his mind he knew they were only interested in his money rather than in him. Yet here in Atlantis, he was no richer than the next person, having left all of his considerable wealth behind on a planet that none of them might ever see again. For the first time in years, the person walking him towards the bedroom was not after financial rewards or gainful employment; they were not trying to sell him their company or persuade him not to buy them out.

John Sheppard was interested in him and, quite frankly, that scared Rodney.

By the time they had reached the threshold of their shared quarters, Rodney had almost convinced himself that this was a big mistake because how could anyone as handsome as John want someone as ordinary as him? John could have his pick of any man or woman on Atlantis after all.

As the door closed and locked behind him, Rodney froze, waiting for John to turn and realize what a big mistake he was making but instead, John walked the few steps back and reached out, cupping Rodney's face in the palm of one hand and leaning in to press a soft, dry kiss upon his lips. Rodney sagged in relief, hands trembling as he reached out to grab John, only to hiss as he brushed his sore fingers.

"Guess we'll just have to be careful," John murmured, stepping in closer for another kiss that stole Rodney's breath away, making him forget all about the momentary discomfort as he sank into the sheer pleasure of dueling tongues and sharp, nipping teeth.

Bracing his wrists against John's sides so he could deepen the kiss, Rodney no longer doubted that they both wanted this for he could feel the hard evidence of John's desire pressing against his thigh. He licked hot and dirty into John's mouth, whining in the back of his throat when John started to pull away, unable to tighten his grip on the man due to his injured hands.

John took a few steps back and crossed his arms, grabbing the hem of his black t-shirt and stripping it off to reveal a chest covered in soft, dark curls. Light glinted off the dog tags as his muscles bunched and stretched, the t-shirt dropping to the floor. Mesmerized, it took Rodney a moment longer - and the rise of one dark eyebrow - before he figured out it was his turn to start undressing.

"Good idea," he grinned but the grin turned to a frown when realized he couldn't shrug out of his military-provided t-shirt without a little assistance.

John's soft chuckle annoyed him further but then John's strong hands were sliding beneath the material, skimming over his belly and chest to slide across one already sensitive nipple. He couldn't recall the last time anyone had undressed him and figured it had to have been his mother, but there was nothing maternal in the way John pushed up the material and carefully drew each of Rodney's hands in turn through the sleeves before pulling the shirt over his head. His t-shirt joined the other, forgotten before it had even hit the floor as John leaned in and swiped his tongue across one nipple, sending a bolt of lust straight through Rodney's body. He could feel his cock straining against suddenly tight pants and all he wanted to do was lock John into his embrace and push up against him, feel the friction of John's body dragging over him, though preferably without the restrictive cloth between them. He scrabbled for the zipper.

"Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!"

Agony flared from the tips of his fingers to where the joined at his palm, his erection flagging because, unlike one of the gold-diggers who'd graced his bed for a single terrifying night, he really wasn't into pain, either physical or mental. Rodney followed the gentle touch on his arm and sank down onto edge of the bed, head bowed over as he cradled his sore hands in his lap. He glanced up when John knelt before him with his face scrunched up in a grimace as he carefully inspected Rodney's hands gently and with minimal touching.

"How about you let me do all the work this time?"

Rodney swallowed hard. He would be a liar if he said he had never fantasized about those strong hands stripping him slow and sweet but in his fantasy he'd been the one in control, not lying there helpless and vulnerable. And needy, he thought. Don't forget needy.

He felt even more vulnerable when John reached across and carefully pulled his borrowed glasses from his eyes, gently folding them and placing them onto the bedside cabinet where Rodney could find them later.

As John's agile fingers made short work of his boot laces, Rodney took in a deep, shuddering breath and let it out slowly, allowing some of the tension in his body to flow away, finally accepting that, for this first time, John would be the one taking care of him. All he had to do was trust him.

Rodney lay back on the narrow bed, angling his body to avoid hanging off the other side and let John lift each foot in turn to remove his military-issue boots and socks. Closing his eyes so he could concentrate on the warmth of John's fingers touching him, he felt himself finally relax, but he opened one eye, squinting upwards when nothing happened for several long seconds. Finally, he gave in to his curiosity and lifted his head a fraction to find John still on his knees between Rodney's splayed thighs and grinning at him.

"Comfy?"

Rodney grinned back. "You have no idea." And gasped as John cupped his hardening cock through the layers of material, gently squeezing.

"Oh, I think I do," he smirked again, his hand turning, fingers reaching for the zipper and drawing it down.

"Oh God that's good," he croaked as John mouthed at his cock through the cotton of his boxers, sucking at the head through the thin material.

He lifted his hips at John's silent gesture, feeling the cool air across his thighs and damp groin as both pants and boxers were stripped from his body and discarded onto the growing heap of their clothing. Warm hands slid along the outer edge of his thighs and he moaned as a hot mouth covered his groin, sucking along the length of his cock in wet, open-mouthed kisses, tongue swirling around the head before pressing flat against that sensitive spot. The roughness of John's tongue sent fresh pulses of need through him and Rodney cried out in frustration when he came so close, held on the edge of release for an eternity only to be denied completion when John pulled back with a teasing glint in lust-darkened eyes.

John stood up and stripped off his pants, his hard cock bobbing free, smacking against his stomach as he leaned over to kick off pants and stripy blue boxers. Then he had his cock in his hand, standing with legs splayed apart, jacking himself so slowly that Rodney became mesmerized once more, this time by the thick, blunt head that appeared and then disappeared within the tunnel of flesh formed by John's fist.

"Get over here," he demanded hoarsely, pulling his legs up onto the bed to lie stretched along its length. After one more teasing slide of hand on cock, John obeyed, climbing onto the bed carefully until his body covered Rodney's, cocks lining up, trapped between their sweat-slicked bellies. Rodney ground his pelvis upwards, needing more of the exquisite friction and, this time, John pushed back. Slowly, they rocked together, the sweet sensations climbing, warmth spreading through him until he was so close he could almost taste his release. He just needed that little bit more friction, that minute adjustment, needed to angle his thrust just a tiny fraction more. He didn't care that he was babbling his needs aloud, gasping with every drag of flesh on flesh, and begging John to give him what he needed.

Sharp teeth sinking into the soft skin of his neck bought a yelp of pain, overloading his senses, and Rodney came hard, shouting out as he thrust up against John's body once, twice, and then once more. The erratic thrusts of John's body against his, and the liquid warmth pulsing between their close-pressed bodies, told its own story.

Afterwards, Rodney lay sprawled in an exhausted heap of splayed limbs; too tired to even mumble his need for John to lift his surprisingly heavy body off of him. Instead, he was eternally grateful when John rolled to the side of his own volition, taking the utmost care for both Rodney's hand and his own precarious position at the edge of the narrow bed. He disappeared off into the bathroom, returning moments later with a damp cloth, carefully cleaning the stickiness of sweat and semen from their bellies and chest. Rodney felt the movement as John threw the used washcloth but could not see if it reached the threshold of the bathroom, making a mental note to watch where he stepped when he used the bathroom later.

John flopped down beside him, one leg hanging off the side of the bed.

"We're gonna need a bigger bed."

Rodney opened one heavy-lidded eye. "Don't you think someone might notice." He waved a hand carefully. "DADT and all those inane military regulations?"

John leaned up on one elbow, looking incredibly young with his handsome features softened in repletion and his hair mussed even more than usual. He gazed down at Rodney with a solemn expression.

"The US military is gone, Rodney. The United States, Canada, Europe... As far as we're concerned it's all gone. There's just us in a whole new galaxy." He gave a wry smile. "And the new Atlantean military doesn't want or need DADT."

Rodney could read the unstated words in John's eyes, which said, I don't want or need DADT.

John sealed his unspoken words with a gentle kiss, the kind of kiss Rodney had always dreamed about from a sated lover but had only rarely received. The sort of kiss that left a promise burned onto his lips that this was only the beginning.

Hands caressed Rodney's heated skin, sending echoes of fresh desire racing through his body that had no hope of being fulfilled this night. Neither of them was that young any more, and both of them were exhausted from the day's events. Instead, he welcomed the easy touches as fingers mapped out his skin from the roughness of a hairy thigh to the slightly less flattering curve of his soft belly. He offered token resistance as a finger circled his navel, tickling his over sensitized skin, but sighed as those soft, lust-swollen lips pressed light kisses in a slow path upwards, gently lulling him to sleep. In time he hoped to repay John in kind, looking forward to the day when he could memorize every beautiful inch of John's body with lips and fingers.

He yawned widely, and gave a small disgruntled sound upon hearing John chuckle again.

"Get some sleep, Rodney."

"Only if you will too," he stated sleepily before another yawn overtook him, smiling as John pressed up against his side, head pillowed on his shoulder.

When Rodney slipped into that deeply needed sleep a moment later, he was still smiling.

****

Ten days should not have felt like an eternity but, for Steven Caldwell, the days crossing the void between the galaxies had dragged on despite every little extra they had forced out of the hyperdrive engines. It wasn't the sheer number of people squeezed onto the Daedalus as the majority had adhered to the policy of sitting or sleeping to use as little of the precious recycled air as possible. Instead, it was just a small group that had caused him problems and he wished, fervently, that he'd followed his instincts rather than his duty when he beamed that particular party on board

US Vice President Robert Kinsey had been one of the most vocal against the Stargate program and the biggest advocate of the draconian measures placed on the population of the United States following the exposure of the Ori and Goa'uld threats to the world. Perhaps if President Hayes had handled the initial exposure more carefully then it might not have triggered the widespread panic and rioting that led to his downfall. Instead, Landry had stepped in and he had kept Kinsey on as Vice President out of some misguided belief that the people needed to see that democracy was still in place for the most part.

When Sheppard issued the Code to abandon Earth, Caldwell had obeyed his orders and beamed up Kinsey and his party, and Kinsey had made it very clear from the beginning that he had assumed the presidency following Landry's assassination. He had insisted on being on board the Daedalus rather than risk remaining in the Milky Way with no escape route should the Ori or Goa'uld locate those left behind. The reason given was the necessity for him to be rebuilding a new government on Atlantis but Caldwell could see by the look in the man's eyes that he was thinking more of his own skin than that of the people he intended to lead. Caldwell couldn't help but make comparisons of Kinsey to Landry because Landry would have ordered his vice president to go with the Daedalus while he remained behind in a show of true leadership. Of course, Kinsey's excuse was that he had not had time to select a vice president, let alone swear one in.

Throughout the journey Kinsey had made demands, exercising a thirst for power that was almost unquenchable. He demanded private quarters, more resources, food and water. He demanded constant updates and deferential treatment, and not once did he check on the other passengers who were forced to spend the entire trip shoulder to shoulder in the cargo bays, wrapped in whatever emergency blankets they had not left behind with the others on PCZ-439, and if the others ever learned of the battle he'd had with Kinsey to leave even those modest supplies behind then the people on board might have been tempted to throw Kinsey out of an airlock on route to the Pegasus galaxy, if they could have made it past Kinsey's secret service bodyguards.

Caldwell was more than grateful when they reached the edge of the Pegasus galaxy because he would have the legitimate excuse to offload that particular group of passengers.

"Major Cooper? Anything?"

"Sensors are scanning for Stargates. Nothing so far, sir."

"Keep looking, major."

He knew the ones escaping to Atlantis would not risk setting up a beacon to guide them to the nearest Stargate because they could not risk the signal being received by an enemy. Also, McKay knew the Daedalus had Asgard sensors that could be calibrated to pick up the unique properties of a Stargate from several systems away. Of course, they were taking the alternate Sam's word for it that there were Stargates in the Pegasus galaxy for them to find but there had been little choice in the matter. The Milky Way was lost to them and, outside of using the supergate to the Ori galaxy - which was out of the question - this was the only place left for them to run.

Another hour passed by in a fruitless search, and then he saw Cooper straighten in her seat. He was already on his feet and moving in behind her by the time she spoke.

"Sir! I'm detecting a gate in the next system."

"Best speed, major," he ordered the helmsman, looking ahead as the star field changed and a new star grew closer.

"Colonel Caldwell?"

Caldwell gritted his teeth and turned to face Kinsey. "Sir, we've located a Stargate on the seventh planet."

"Excellent." Kinsey rubbed his hands together, eyes already glinting with excitement at the prospect of taking command of the fabled lost city of Atlantis. It did not seem to matter to him that not all of those beamed up from Earth were American citizens for Kinsey had already decided that he had the upper hand due to the number of American military involved. Both of the ships were under American control, and if Sheppard had arrived safely in Atlantis then Kinsey assumed that it was now American territory too. With Kinsey as the new Commander-in-Chief of the American forces, Caldwell could not see any of the non-Americans objecting too loudly, not if they wanted to live.

When the scan of the star system revealed no intelligent life signs and a hospitable atmosphere, Caldwell gave the command to begin landing procedures close to the Stargate. At the very least they could take on fresh air to replace the stale and depleted oxygen levels on board As soon as the Daedalus was down safely, Caldwell gave another command.

"Get me Sergeant Stackhouse."

He heard Cooper relay his order for the injured soldier to report to the bridge. He knew Sheppard must have given Stackhouse further instructions for when they reached a Pegasus Stargate even though Stackhouse acted as if he had passed on everything he knew. Caldwell would have done the same as Sheppard had he been in his position, wanting to use the lowly sergeant as an additional security measure in case the ship was overtaken by the Goa'uld or the Ori. It was by no means perfect but, under the circumstances, it was all Sheppard had to play with at the time.

While he waited, Caldwell gave the order to disembark the passengers because they would be leaving them here no matter if they gained contact with Atlantis or not. The atmosphere was well within human norms and there was a water source close by which meant there might also be a food source too. With luck, the passengers would not need to test it and would be in Atlantis within the hour.

A young lieutenant wheeled in the injured sergeant.

"Sergeant?" He stated in acknowledgment before nodding at Cooper. Through the view screen he watched as another of his lieutenant's pressed in the symbols for Atlantis, letting out a silent breath of relief when the wormhole engaged.

"Atlantis, this is Colonel Steven Caldwell of the Daedalus. Do you copy?"

The silence stretched almost to a full minute and just as Caldwell decided to speak again, a semi-familiar drawl echoed through the speakers.

"Ferris wheels."

Caldwell frowned but Stackhouse grinned, looking to Caldwell for permission to answer; he nodded his head to him.

"But no clowns and bearded ladies, sir."

"Glad to hear you made it, Daedalus. This is Colonel Sheppard."

"Glad to be here, Colonel," Caldwell replied. "We have three hundred passengers on board that we need to offload before heading back to the Milky Way for the rest."

"The Prometheus?"

Caldwell recognized the new voice instantly. "The Prometheus suffered damage during the escape from Earth, Dr. McKay. We left Dr. Zelenka and Dr. Miller overseeing repairs in the hope he'll have her space-worthy by the time we get back."

"Miller? Jeannie Miller?"

"Yes, Doctor. Your sister and her immediate family were on the code evacuation list."

"And you left her behind in an Ori infested galaxy?"

"Dr. Miller chose to remain behind to assist with repairs to the Prometheus. However, I do have your niece on board with orders to hand her over to you upon arrival."

Sheppard's voice came over the radio though Caldwell could still hear McKay ranting in the background. "Lowering the shield, Colonel. Start your people moving."

Caldwell felt a little guilty as he watched Kinsey's security people take the first steps into Atlantis, wishing he could warn Sheppard in advance about the power-hungry politician and his intentions. No doubt, by the time the Daedalus eventually reached Atlantis, Kinsey would have the whole city locked down under martial law while he consolidated his position as the new leader. Sheppard would have no choice but to back up Kinsey or risk a court martial, and possible execution, for treason.

Once more, he regretted allowing duty to override his instincts, silently wishing he had forgotten to beam up the vice president and his entourage when they escaped from Earth.

****

John had a bad feeling in his gut when the first person across the event horizon looked around warily and took up a stance to one side of the Stargate with another mirroring him a split second later. Two more came through and John was astute enough to recognize secret service agents. His straightened to attention when an older man stepped into Atlantis, snapping off a salute even as he cursed inside. It should have occurred to him that Caldwell's orders would be to pick up the vice president before all others, a man who was technically the acting president and John's commander-in-chief following the death of President Landry. Kinsey was also the man who had enforced the harsh measures of DADT upon the military, campaigning against any leniency despite the growing openness in and acceptance from other military around the world.

"Sir."

"At ease, Colonel Sheppard." Kinsey stared around like a kid who'd just been handed the keys to a candy store and told to help himself, before turning back to John. His next words destroyed all hope that this man was simply relieved to be some place secure and comfortable after days on the run from Earth. "As of this moment, Atlantis is under martial law. Colonel, I expect you to secure all non-US nationals pending formal interview. All positions of authority will be handed over to US citizens, effective immediately."

Behind him, John could hear Rodney spluttering in shocked disbelief. "What?"

"Sir?" John started but Kinsey's eyes hardened and his agents straightened menacingly.

"You have your orders, Colonel. Obey them or consider yourself under arrest."

John straightened to attention and snapped off another salute. He had to pick his battles carefully and here in the gate room, with civilians present and no guarantee that any of the SGC military would follow his orders over Kinsey's, he had no choice but to obey.

"Major Lorne, Sergeant Bates."

Both men hesitated for the briefest moment, which John considered a good sign, but snapped off their own salutes before hollering out commands to the military present.

"John?"

John turned, barely able to meet Rodney's eyes because he already knew what he would see in them, and it would not be the burning adoration and passion of a few hours earlier. Confusion gave way to realization, and then to betrayal as Lorne gently touched Rodney's arm and pulled him away.

"Sorry, Doc. You're gonna have to come with me."

He saw Rodney swallow hard, for once too upset to even speak and the silence was more condemning than any rant. He could only watch as his lover of just a few too short days was pushed gently towards one side of the gate room under guard.

"Inform Colonel Caldwell that he can start bringing the rest of our people through."

"Yes, sir," John replied crisply but his heart was breaking inside as he heard the anger in voices he had come to recognize since arriving in Atlantis. Grodin's British accent, clipped in annoyance, and Beckett's soft burr, hardened in indignation, mingled with curses in German and French. He tried to tune out Rodney's strident shouts, flinching when it rose in sharp pain. John stared hard at the guard who had jabbed Rodney hard with the muzzle of his P-90, silently promising retribution that had the soldier taking a step back from McKay and the others.

As the refugees from Earth began to filter through the Stargate, John bit down on his lower lip as they were segregated into American and non-American, hating the confusion and fear on their faces as the non-US citizens were herded together with the ones brought through the Stargate from the SGC. A group of children came through, and their small shocked faces crumpled as newly made friendships were torn apart. One small child looked lost until Rodney called to her softly.

"Madison?"

She nodded and walked towards Rodney's open arms even though she looked liked she had no clue who he might be. "Are you my Uncle Mer?"

"Yes. Yes, I am."

The small child jumped forward and wrapped her arms around his legs, face pressed into Rodney's lower body in what had to be an extremely uncomfortable position judging by Rodney's wince, but John felt too nauseated with events to find it even remotely funny.

Eventually, the last of the refugees had come through and the gate closed, the full thirty-eight minutes almost up.

"Dial the gate," John ordered, only marginally grateful when it connected immediately. "Colonel Caldwell, we don't have much in the way of supplies, kind of new to this galaxy too, but I guess you're gonna need some before you head back for the others. We'll..."

"Belay that order, Colonel," Kinsey interrupted. "We need to discuss what supplies we can afford to send, and if we send the Daedalus back at all."

John spun around in shock. "Sir? You can't mean to abandon..."

"We have been out of contact with the others for seven days already, once the Daedalus moved out of communication range. For all we know there is nothing to go back for now, let alone by the time the Daedalus can be back in range in another seven days... and we could lose our only ship in doing so."

Caldwell cut in. "Sir, we made a promise to Colonel Chekov that we'd..."

"Colonel, I'm not responsible for any promises made to the commander of the Russian military and, personally, even if I had made those assurances, circumstances have changed dramatically since then."

Caldwell continued to argue. "Circumstances are exactly the same now as..."

"No, Colonel. When we left the Milky Way, we had only the word of a subversive in the form of Major Carter as to the status of this city. Now we know the city is both secure and habitable. Those left behind were left for a reason. They were expendable then and are doubly so now."

Looking across at the two separate groups of people, John had a grim realization that most of the new arrivals had been Americans. With an equally sick feeling he knew that the majority of those left behind had most likely been foreign nationals, and this had been Kinsey's intention all along. He didn't doubt that a number of Americans had been left behind too, mostly the crew of the Prometheus but, from Kinsey's hard expression, they were an acceptable loss. John felt differently because those refugees left behind might be all that remained of the Tau'ri - the Earth humans. John pulled himself up straight.

"I'm sorry, sir, but I can't allow you..."

Kinsey smiled as his four bodyguards pulled and aimed weapons at John, the click of safeties going off echoing around the suddenly quiet gate room.

"I see you've made your choice, Colonel Sheppard, and I simply cannot allow another military coup." Kinsey turned to one of the military from the Daedalus. "Place Colonel Sheppard under arrest for treason."

As he was led away, John heard Rodney shout, "What! You can't do that?" And a small part of him hoped he had won back Rodney's respect if nothing else.

****

Rodney paced up and down the room, barely noticing the small blond-haired child that followed on his heels until he almost tripped over her for the third time. He bit back a retort because her eyes were the same shape as Jeannie's and her mouth had that McKay downturn too. In all other ways she had Kaleb's features but those sad eyes and those trembling lips tugged at his heart. With an under-the-breath curse he picked her up and held her close, continuing on with his pacing as he tried to think his way through this mess while she wrapped her arms around his neck and held on tight.

Trust the Americans to screw everything up again, he thought, though that was a gross exaggeration because he knew most people didn't want this, American and non-American alike. Even Kavanagh had looked shocked at being handed the chief scientist position rather than gleeful, with his eyes cutting to Rodney in a silent cry for forgiveness, as if he felt he could be held to blame for what had happened. Of course it didn't help that the man didn't have the necessary skills to take on the role, probably dooming them all.

However, fear for John and for Jeannie were foremost in Rodney's mind. Somehow he had to convince Kinsey to at least let Caldwell try to make contact with the ones on PCZ-439 to see if there was anyone left to go back and save. For that to happen, Rodney had to make it worthwhile for Kinsey to take the risk but it was obvious that Kinsey had already put a lot of thought into his new empire by the sheer number of non-Americans left behind on PCZ-439. It could be no mere coincidence that almost ninety percent of the refugees on board the Daedalus had been Americans despite the fact that Area 51 alone had been made up with a high percentage of other nationalities - Canadian and European scientists mostly. All of them would bring a wealth of knowledge to the city.

Jeannie and Kaleb were among those left behind, along with several scientists that Rodney had come to respect either from Area 51 or other sources. Even Zelenka would be a great asset to Atlantis because, outside of Samantha Carter, no one else came close to Rodney's level of brilliance, even if he did say so himself.

And then there was John.

Thinking of John made his chest hurt and his head spin in confusion. Kinsey was everything that had been bad about the situation on Earth, with the very large exception of the Goa'uld and the Ori. He was the real face behind the harsh rules and penalties dished out daily to the general population; the very figurehead that the alternate Sam had wanted Rodney to go up against as a voice of reason when compared to Kinsey's hate campaign, power-mongering and distrust. Yet John had deferred to the man from the moment he stepped into Atlantis despite all his words in bed on that first night about them being free to make a fresh start away from Earth and its harsh laws. Admittedly, that deference had lasted only a few minutes but for those vital moments, Rodney had been smacked in the face by the reality of the situation, that John would put duty before him, before THEM. In those few minutes, John had crushed so many of Rodney's dreams of a better future.

Then, just when Rodney had thought the absolute worse of him, John had rebelled.

Now, Rodney didn't know what to think beyond the fact that he couldn't simply turn off his feelings for John, not after sharing his bed since their triumphant return from the Tower. Memories of those few precious nights assailed him and he tightened his hold on Madison, desperately wishing he could turn back the clock to last night and relive the pleasure and comfort he'd found in John's embrace. He wanted to have that back, that sense of peace and security that he'd found with John after spending too many years waiting for Kinsey's over-zealous forces to knock down his door and drag him away in the middle of the night, declaring him a subversive or a Trust operative just because they could get away with it.

Rodney was convinced that Kinsey planned to use John as an example to crush any resistance to his takeover of Atlantis. After all, what chance did a mere civilian have if Kinsey was willing to execute one of his own top military officers just for disagreeing with him. Despite his greater access to Atlantis through the ATA gene, Rodney knew he could not free John on his own. For that he needed to get more of the US military on John's side but Lorne was the only one he felt he could trust, unless...

He sighed, realizing that he would not only have to convince Kinsey to allow the Daedalus to go back to PCZ-439 but to let him go along too, for John's sake.

Rodney knew Caldwell from the few times he'd been asked to work on the Daedalus and, although he and Caldwell would never be considered good friends, Rodney had faith in the man's moral integrity. Like Landry, Caldwell was a stickler for the rules but he was no military robot, and he was able to think for himself. Rodney was hoping that just like with Landry and John, Caldwell would act once he recognized the injustices being meted out by Kinsey. Colonel Pendergast was less of a stickler for the rules but Rodney was convinced he could sway the commander of the Prometheus given both the opportunity and Caldwell on his side, if only by pointing out that Kinsey had never had any intention of returning for those left behind.

Rodney's greatest fear was that Kinsey would have John tried and executed during the twenty-plus days it took to make the round trip back to the Milky Way, so time was a crucial factor for both the people left behind on PCZ-439 and for John. If there was some way that he could reduce the turnaround time then...

The idea came to him in a flash and he almost dropped Madison. Instead, he pointed at one of the other foreigners held in the same holding area. She startled, looking around in case he was actually pointing at someone else.

"You!" He handed Madison over to her. "Take care of her or so help me..."

The woman bristled, responding in a thick European accent. "You do not need to threaten me to look after a small child, Dr. McKay. I will take good care of her."

"Well... Of course." He felt like an idiot beneath her disapproval but turned away quickly, yelling for the guard. "You! Guard! I need to speak to Kinsey."

"You don't get to make any demands of PRESIDENT Kinsey, doctor."

Although Rodney had not found the time to learn the faces of every SGC soldier who had come with them, something about this particular soldier's contemptuous attitude was totally foreign to him, so Rodney could only deduce that he'd come off the Daedalus with Kinsey. It made sense as John's soldiers had too much of a shared history with the civilians they had protected on Earth and worked with here on Atlantis to make good guards.

"On the contrary, soldier. I would like to speak with Dr. McKay."

Rodney's head whipped around upon hearing Kinsey's voice, while the guard snapped to attention. "Yes, sir."

Rodney followed Kinsey out of the holding area to the spacious office overlooking the gate room. Kinsey had already made his mark upon the room, moving in several seals of office, including a carpet with an Eagle that had graced the Oval Office before Landry brought it to the SGC. For a moment, Rodney wondered how Kinsey had come by it and then he realized it must have been a separate copy held on the Prometheus.

"President Landry thought very highly of you, doctor. High enough to make you his chief science advisor."

"President Landry was an astute man."

Kinsey gave a hard smile that didn't reach his eyes, and he steepled his fingers as he leaned forward, elbows resting on the desktop.

"Let's cut to the chase, doctor. The only reason why I've not had you arrested before today is because you've been more useful to me as a free man." He held up a hand when Rodney opened his mouth to interrupt. "Yes, I know all about the alien technology that you'd been acquiring from various sources but I also recognized that you were willing to share the knowledge with the US government."

"You still need me as a free agent."

Kinsey gave another shark smile. "Dr. Kavanagh believes he is not experienced enough to take on the full role as my chief science advisor."

Rodney snorted. "I'm impressed that he realized his limitations before he managed to blow us all up."

"I don't like you, McKay."

"And yet you still need me."

"Everyone is expendable, doctor. You would be wise to remember that."

"I can get you the Prometheus in one week. Air Force One," he added for good measure, noticing the gleam in Kinsey's eye as Rodney dangled that prize in front of the greedy politician. Even though the Daedalus was larger and faster than the Prometheus, she did not hold the same level of prestige that Kinsey had desired so acutely when the Prometheus belonged to Landry as President of the United States. Kinsey was the president now and Rodney could almost see him salivating at the thought of having the Prometheus as his personal space ship.

"How?"

"We recovered an almost depleted ZPM several days ago. There's insufficient power left to run anything bar the most basic city functions, perhaps raise the city shields for a few hours at best." It was a partial lie but no one else understood the power consumption ratios sufficiently to argue with Rodney. "However, if I connect the ZPM to the hyperdrive on board the Daedalus then I could have the Daedalus back to PCZ-439 within three days. I swap the ZPM over to the Prometheus and she heads straight back here... for you."

Kinsey leaned back in his seat. "Very clever, Dr. McKay, but I risk losing the Daedalus."

Rodney pushed up his glasses nervously. "With a ZPM powering her engines, I'm certain she could outrun any Ori or Goa'uld ships... if any are lying in wait for her at PCZ-439."

"If the risk is so small then you won't mind accompanying the Daedalus so you can install the ZPM onto the Prometheus, will you, doctor?"

"Umm..." Rodney hesitated, not wanting to look too eager even though he was amazed at how easily he had gained his wish. "I'm...Yes, I could go."

"You have four hours to load the Daedalus with the equipment you need, and install the ZPM."

"Four hours! I'll need at least a full day--"

"Four hours, doctor, or not at all."

Rodney swallowed hard and nodded. He was already on the commlink to Kavanagh by the time he had taken two steps outside of Kinsey's office, barely noticing the two guards who trailed along behind him. He had a lot to accomplish in only a few short hours but this was the only chance he would get to save Jeannie and John so he had to make every second count.

****

With only ten minutes to go, the ZPM flared to life within the housing he had swiftly constructed on board the Daedalus. Rodney grinned brightly at Kavanagh, whose skill with the crystals had stood them both in good stead.

"Peter, I have one more job for you, for after we leave. I need to know if I can trust you."

Kavanagh glanced to either side of the small engine control room and nodded slightly.

"I want you to access the Ancient database on Atlantis and see if you can find a way to successfully revive Colonel O'Neill, preferably with all his mental faculties in place rather than with his head about to explode from holding too much knowledge." He snorted. "Not that the average military mind can handle even a normal amount of knowledge anyway." He sobered. "I'll have Caldwell beam the stasis chamber next to the Stargate so you can have it transported to Atlantis."

Rodney wished he could have been granted a few minutes alone with John before he left but he couldn't bend time, all he could do was hope Kinsey decided to wait until he had his fleet ship before he made a public exhibition out of John. He straightened and held out a hand, which Kavanagh clasped.

"Take care of my city."

Kavanagh snorted and shook his head. "Good luck, McKay."

****

Radek swore under his breath as sparks flew from the console, quickly sucking on slightly burned fingers. Beside him, Jeannie Miller frowned in dismay but he could not blame her for this. She was a theoretical physicist, not an engineer like himself, though he could not help wishing it had been her brother left behind to fix the Prometheus.

The ship had sustained so much damage during the initial sabotage attempt that the subsequent flight from Earth had simply overtaxed the already delicate systems. However, given enough time and the right tools, Radek knew he could make the ship spaceworthy once more, and that was where the problem lie. At best he had only nine days before the Daedalus returned - IF the Daedalus returned - and at the worst, the Ori could drop out of hyperspace above the planet at any given moment.

For two weeks he had lived and breathed inside the Prometheus, sleeping only when he was too tired to go on, recognizing how unproductive it would be to blow up the ship through human error. He'd heard an old saying that a bad workman always blamed his tools, but for once, that old adage did not reflect the truth. So many of the damaged systems required specialized tools or specific pieces of technology or materials, and without access to any of those or to someone who could make the parts, he had been forced to cannibalize lesser systems in the hope of getting the primary systems back online. Perhaps if the chief Engineer on the Prometheus had not been one of the casualties then the repairs might have gone far smoother.

However, Radek knew there was little point in making wishes for something he was unlikely to attain, and he had his doubts as to whether anyone would return for them anyway. It was not obvious until after the Daedalus had left that the majority of those left behind were non-American. Russians, Czechs and other Europeans, Asians and even Canadians but very few apart from the crew of the Prometheus were American. Radek was almost dreading the day when he could state that the Prometheus was ready to take flight to Pegasus because there would be a riot over who out of the four hundred remaining should have one of the hundred spaces available. He could only be grateful that Colonel Caldwell had stretched the resources of the Daedalus to the limit by the addition of all the children. At least they had been given a chance to live.

He took a deep breath, finding his calm center before making another attempt to patch the intricate wiring beneath the main navigation console. His fingers almost slipped when an insistent beep echoed through the bridge. Pendergast slipped from his command seat and stared hard over the shoulder of the man operating the sensor console and Radek could tell by the set of his shoulders and the straightening of his spine that this was not good news.

Pendergast paged Colonel Chekov to the bridge, waiting tight-lipped until Chekov arrived.

"An Ori scout ship has been detected in the vicinity. It doesn't seem to be looking for us...yet," Pendergast explained.

"But it is only a matter of time." Chekov turned to Radek, the lines of exhaustion so clearly marked on his face. "How much longer to finish the basic repairs?"

"Three, maybe four days."

Chekov nodded, both of them aware that this was time they might not have. "Then it is time to consider an alternative way to activate the Stargate so we can evacuate as many of the people as possible."

Radek folded his arms across his chest defensively. "Dr. Kusanagi believes she has found a way to repair the DHD..."

"...But let's save the evacuation until we really have no choice," interrupted Pendergast. "Unless these people are prepared to accept Origin."

It was a sobering thought but also the truth because most of the galaxy had already either accepted Origin or paid the price for refusal with the destruction of their world. Many of the Jaffa had preferred to die rather than accept more false gods and the more technologically advanced races such as the Asgard, Nox and Tollan had refused to answer any calls for help, if they even still existed.

Chekov gave a bitter smile. "The Daedalus is not due back for another nine days... if they come at all."

Radek noticed that Pendergast did not bother to contradict Chekov's words, and he felt sorry for Jeannie as she tightened her hand around his forearm as if only just now realizing their predicament. Radek turned and whispered reassuringly to her.

"At least your daughter may be safe, yes?"

Her eyes closed and this only served to emphasize the dark circles underneath them for no one was sleeping very well, not even those with little to do while they waited in the makeshift camp outside.

"Is it wrong to wish Mer was here?" She whispered back.

Radek frowned as he did not recognize the name at first, and then it came to him that her brother might no longer use his first given name but his sister had never stopped thinking of him by that name. He felt a bitter twist of irony that he'd been thinking the same thing only a few minutes earlier. Rodney McKay was one of the few scientists on the planet who had intricate knowledge of both Ancient and Asgard technology. Not only was he a theoretical physicist of the highest caliber but he held a second doctorate in mechanical engineering and was a software expert too. The man might be a little abrasive and certainly he was lacking in social skills according to those who had met him, but Radek would excuse all of those faults just to have the man working beside him right this minute. He sighed wearily because wishes would not solve their problems.

"No, it is not wrong but it is counterproductive." He patted her hand. "Come, we still have much to accomplish. If you would pass me the splicer, please?"

They worked quietly for another three hours, the silence broken only by requests for tools and assistance. Radek sat back, pleased when the console lit up and Major Cooper confirmed that they had regained full control of the navigation system. Propulsion was not doing so good and there was a real danger that they could end up stranded halfway between the two galaxies if he could not fix the power leakage.

When the proximity alarms sounded, Radek jumped up, convinced that it was the Ori this time even though the scout ship had not moved from its position in the next star system in all these hours.

Pendergast leaned forward in his command chair. "Lieutenant?"

Lt. Kleinman frowned. "Sir?" He looked up in astonishment. "I think it's the Daedalus!"

****

John had no idea how Rodney had managed to convince Kinsey to let Caldwell return for the others but he wished Rodney had not gone along with the Daedalus. The thought of Rodney riding off into danger without him by his side was worrying because Rodney had no true concept of danger. He might have led a multi-million dollar company, dealing with the cutthroats of the business world while hiding his acquisition of alien technology from a paranoid American government, and he might have known about the threats to Earth from the safety of the SGC and his laboratories. However, Rodney had never met any true life threatening situations face-to-face until the day they escaped to Atlantis.

He had almost drowned on his first day in Atlantis and only John had stood between him and death that day.

John slumped to the floor of the special cell - one that would not acknowledge his ATA gene from the inside - drawing his knees up as he wondered how one man could turn his well-organized yet sterile life upside down in so little time. He had spent years keeping his preference for men hidden, putting his career before his personal desires. He'd even married to throw anyone off the scent and now he felt thoroughly confused. He'd known Rodney only a few weeks and yet he had tumbled into bed with him within days of almost losing him for the second time when the Tower began to collapse around them. John had dug him out, had gripped his torn and bloodied fingers and dragged him to safety as the Tower trembled around them. Then he had taken him to his bed and worshiped every living, breathing, scraped and bruised inch of him, and Rodney had let him, had molded up against his body as if he should have always been there, a missing part of him suddenly re-discovered.

Now Rodney was moving further from John with every passing minute, moving closer and closer to danger without John by his side to protect him from whatever monsters lay in wait for him. Instead John was trapped in this cell, unable to move about a city that had welcomed him with warmth and light from the moment he had stepped through the Stargate, and unable to protect the man who had managed to fill every empty space in his heart and soul. All he could do was sit here and hope Rodney remained safe, for even though they had been lovers for just a few days, he could no longer imagine any future without Rodney being a part of it.

He winced because, as far as Kinsey was concerned, John had no future at all with or without Rodney. The self-appointed President of Atlantis had already given his verdict and was simply biding his time before setting the date of John's execution for treason. John realized that he was being held up as an example and expected the execution to be a public affair with every single person on Atlantis forced to attend and bear witness. This was Kinsey's way of exercising his power over all of them, forcing them to conform to his demands or suffer the same fate.

Although John was glad that the Daedalus had returned to PCZ-439, he wished Caldwell would not be delivering all those refugees from the horrors on Earth to a different form of the same tyranny that they had recently fled. All his dreams of lifting the draconian laws forced onto civilian and military alike had shattered with Kinsey's arrival, and the weight of Kinsey's oppression was all the greater for the illusion of freedom he'd found with Rodney for those too few days.

The door to the cell room opened and he watched as Lorne walked the perimeter until he was facing John. He could see the discomfort on the soldier's face as he battled with his personal views against his sworn duty. It was a hard choice for any soldier to make and John could see Lorne wavering.

"This is wrong," John stated softly. "You know it."

Lorne ducked his head and said nothing, merely turned on his heel and walked out but John felt a measure of hope where he had felt only despondency a moment ago. He'd seen something in the set of Lorne's mouth, in the stiffness of his frame, and it wasn't disapproval aimed at him. Lorne was a good man and a good soldier, and John hoped Lorne was also strong enough to act against the injustice meted out by Kinsey or at least be willing to take John's side when it came to the crunch.

The silence in the cell dragged him back to better memories, of holding Rodney in his arms, of rocking slowly against his body, feeling the wide smile against his throat as moved towards release, so happy and content in each other's arms. That was how it was supposed to be and the whole city had felt alive when he had Rodney in his arms, willing to spill all its secrets just to keep them together. Now the hum of the city felt distant, as if a chunk of its heart had left on board the Daedalus with Rodney.

John let his head drop back onto his knees and this time he didn't fight the images that bled into his mind. This time he let the bars and force fields surrounding him melt away as he soared to freedom with thoughts of Rodney's arms wrapped around him.

****

Daniel had not known what to expect when he pointed the Ori warship towards the supergate and sent the Sangraal through to the Ori galaxy. He knew from Merlin's memories that the weapon would destroy all the ascended beings in that galaxy but he had wrongfully assumed that this would make a difference in the Milky Way. Instead, as he made his escape within an Ori scoutship, he was almost shocked to realize that nothing had changed. From his own converted body he realized that, although the Ori were gone, the Priors remained, and they were still infused with the power of the Ori and a fanaticism to see every living soul turned to the path of Origin - or die. He could feel that power running through him, connected to him by the staff he still carried, and he hated it.

Merlin had encoded his DNA to revert back to human form once he had completed the Sangraal and sent it on its path of destruction, and his skin itched and crawled from the sensation, and yet every time he looked into a mirrored surface all he could see was the gray pallor of his skin and the strange symbols raised upon his face. His thoughts were his own though, with no fanatical desire to preach Origin to anyone, let alone punish them with plagues or the destruction of their world for refusing to accept the new religion.

Yet, with his duty now completed, he turned his thoughts to selfish matters, desperate to find a way to locate Jack before Merlin's knowledge and memories faded, and before he lost the ability to control the Ori scoutship. Merlin had given him no memories on how to stop the Priors but he had given him the address of the Lost City, a place in another galaxy where they could start afresh, safe from the Priors. Perhaps even more important to Daniel, inside the city he would find the device he needed to remove the library of Ancient knowledge downloaded into Jack.

He sighed. Somehow there had to be a way to track the stasis chamber though he greatest fear was that it had been on board one of the Goa'uld ships that he had destroyed above the Earth. That wouldn't make sense though, not unless some Goa'uld had wanted to display Jack like some ornament in his throne room. However, he couldn't put it beyond a Goa'uld like Ba'al, who had taken so much pleasure in torturing Jack in the past, killing Jack over and over only to revive him each time within the sarcophagus.

"If the Goa'uld didn't have Jack then who would?" He murmured softly to himself, eyes widening when he recalled the evacuation code set up specifically for if the Goa'uld or the Ori should conquer the planet. Landry had made it clear that he would do everything within his power to ensure Jack was not left behind. "The Daedalus," he stated. Colonel Caldwell would have been given orders to try to retrieve the stasis chamber.

A memory surfaced from Merlin combined with his own limited knowledge of engineering. "The Asgard hyperdrive."

With the loss of the Asgard race, there were only two ships remaining within this galaxy that had Asgard technology and both of them belonged to Earth, and the SGC in particular. Using Merlin's memories and skill, Daniel recalibrated the sensors to pick up the signature of an Asgard hyperdrive, aware that it would still be the equivalent of looking for a needle in a galaxy-wide haystack but that had to be better than doing nothing at all.

"I must be able to narrow the search." Daniel frowned convinced he was overlooking something, and then it occurred to him that the Milky Way was still falling to the Ori, leaving no place safe. This left the survivors from Earth with only one option and that was to leave the galaxy, using the Daedalus's intergalactic drive. But which direction would they choose to go when they had such limited resources and probably more refugees than could be carried in a single voyage?

Caldwell knew the Asgard galaxy was out of the question as it was in the process of being overrun by the Replicators. Obviously, he would not turn his attention towards the Supergate leading to the Ori galaxy either. That left only a few galaxies close enough to the Milky Way that might give him a chance of making several trips before the Priors located those forced to wait behind.

Whatever the choice, they would need to leave people behind on a habitable world close to the edge of this galaxy.

He decided to start the search at the edge of the Milky Way, choosing to radiate out from the Stargate on one of the closest habitable planets to Pegasus galaxy though he knew from the information feeding into him via the other Ori warships that there would be no one there to greet him. That world was already deserted like so many others across the galaxy, either abandoned by the people or laid to waste by the Priors' plagues that ravaged worlds that refused to accept Origin.

As he came through the gate, he configured the sensors to start the sweep immediately, and he fell back into his seat in shock when the sensor found something only one star system away. It was just a short burst, something he might have missed if he'd calibrated the sensors even just a few minutes later. It was too small for the Daedalus so it had to be the Prometheus. The sensors began to churn out information on the ship's propulsion and weapons' capability and Daniel sighed when it became obvious that, though damaged, the ship was almost spaceworthy.

Still, it made strange sense to find the Prometheus here. Daniel wondered if they had learned the coordinates of Atlantis when they found Arthur's Mantle and were poised to take a leap into the void between the two galaxies.

In his eagerness, he made it through five of the seven symbols of the gate address before he caught his reflection in the polished metal above the dialing console. He couldn't go through looking like a Prior as they would attempt to kill him on sight, and using the staff to deflect the attack would merely telegraph his position to the rest of the Ori fleet, bringing them here.

Perhaps if he waited a few more hours.

He landed close to the Stargate and powered down the scoutship to the lowest energy levels. All he could do was sit and wait, and hope that his transformation back into a human would be completed before the Prometheus finished repairs and headed out into the void.

Three hours later, the sensors picked up a new trace heading towards the Prometheus from the direction of the void; the Daedalus. With growing dismay, Daniel realized that his time was running out.

****

Rodney stared through the view screen as the Daedalus drew closer to the surface of PCZ-439, seeing the rivers of magma flowing not too far from the Stargate as they passed over it and headed towards the distant mountains where, hopefully, the Prometheus still lay waiting. With the ZPM powering the hyperdrive, the Daedalus had made it back in under three days but Rodney was well aware that every hour counted and the refugees had been stranded here for two weeks now. Caldwell had insisted on radio silence, not wanting to jeopardize their position should any Ori be in the vicinity and relying instead on the Asgard sensors on board both vessels to alert Prometheus.

Rodney gave a heartfelt sigh of relief when they came over the mountain and saw the Prometheus nestled on a plateau in one of the high valleys, surrounded by a refugee camp made of camouflage tents. Moments later, Caldwell was exchanging greetings with the Prometheus, his normally dour expression softened with relief and eyes glowing with something akin to joy. Only now was it truly obvious how much Caldwell had hated leaving the others behind and Rodney could only imagine how it must have felt in those few seemingly interminable hours after Kinsey refused to allow the Daedalus to head back.

His own lips twitched in a smile as he heard the cheering on board the bridge of the Prometheus and his breath caught in his throat when he caught sight of a familiar blond head in the background.

"Jeannie," he whispered, aware that she couldn't hear or see him but feeling a heavy weight lift from his shoulders upon seeing her smile. For the first time since the argument that tore them apart, Rodney truly regretted his harsh words and actions, wishing he'd been more sympathetic to her desire to put a family before her career.

"Dr. Zelenka," Caldwell stated. "I've brought someone to help you finish off the repairs." Caldwell turned in his seat, beckoning Rodney forward with the slight tilt of his head.

The scruffy, wild-haired man on the screen straightened, his blue eyes going round with surprise before a wide grin split his face.

"Dr. McKay!"

Behind Zelenka, Jeannie looked up in shock, her blue eyes searching for him through the mass of people on the bridge, body stilling when she saw him. He saw her tremulous smile and he saw her mouthing a word, recognizing it easily as a name and nodded his response. She slumped a little in relief from knowing Madison was fine, leaving Rodney to turn his full attention back to the excited Czech engineer.

Within fifteen minutes, Rodney was on board the Prometheus, knee deep in electronics, optic cables and the stone-like devices used by the Asgard on the main engineering control console.

"Hmm! Not bad...considering you didn't have anyone with my extensive knowledge on board Though if you'd..."

"Yes, yes... but then I would have needed to..."

"Reboot the navigation system or..."

"We would have gone astray when crossing the void..."

"And missed Pegasus altogether."

"Exactly." Zelenka gave a brief, sharp smile while Rodney made another noncommittal noise as he pulled open another panel and began to re-route the damage circuits. Behind him, Rodney could sense his sister reconnecting another panel just as he ordered, the warmth of her hug still lingering, familiar and yet so different from the feel of John's strong arms wrapped around him.

He could easily get used to both.

While he worked, Rodney compiled lists in his head of those he wanted on board Prometheus for the fast journey back to Atlantis, balancing his own needs against the needs of the city and both ships. Whatever happened, he would be on board the Prometheus and so would Jeannie and, possibly, her husband. He knew it was selfish but he knew how to negotiate with the military having headed up his own company for several years. He knew when to compromise and when to go for the jugular. He also knew when to back down but this would not be one of those occasions. The hard part would be leaving Zelenka behind on the Daedalus but - and he would deny this if asked outright - Zelenka was an extraordinary engineer with the necessary knowledge to render repairs to the Daedalus in-flight. Rodney could not justify leaving the Daedalus without a decent engineer because the ship had been damaged by the Trust, and the trips back and forth across the void had started to take their toll on systems that had already been stressed near to the limits. In was only a matter of time before something shook loose and if the Daedalus could not have the best on board to fix the damage - himself - then Rodney was hoping he could place the second best on board instead, and that was Zelenka.

Of course all of this would be moot point if the Ori found them before they could head out.

"Is it still out there?" He asked, aware of the slight tremor in his voice and hating it.

Zelenka didn't ask for clarification, his voice tight and serious. "Yes. It waits close to the Stargate on P37-K5A but it does not seem to be broadcasting any signals to the rest of the Ori fleet."

"A scoutship?"

"Yes. Little more than a space shuttle..."

"An Ori puddlejumper," Rodney mused, feeling a pang of fear ripple in his belly as the word reminded him once more of John sitting alone in an Ancient cell, awaiting his execution. They should have been together, running an amazing city in a whole new galaxy, not facing more of the madness that they believed they had left behind on Earth.

Rodney had spent much of the journey trying to gage Caldwell's reaction to the events that had transpired upon Kinsey's arrival on Atlantis, but Caldwell was too good at concealing his thoughts. Of course Rodney had to consider that, with John out of the way, Caldwell would become the ranking military officer in the Pegasus galaxy but the man, for all his martinet tendencies and career-chasing, had always seemed the decent type. However, Caldwell alone would not be enough. Rodney needed Pendergast on his side too, and maybe even that Russian colonel whose name he only remembered because of the Star Trek connection - Chekov. Of course everything would be easier if they had Jack O'Neill awake and backing him up. The SGC personnel knew and respected O'Neill. They had set him on a pedestal for the sheer number of times he had saved the planet, right up until that last time when he'd sat in the Antarctic weapons chair and destroyed the Goa'uld fleet, led by Anubis, as it prepared to attack Earth.

Rodney laughed softly to himself, amazed that his only hope of saving John lay with organizing a military coup against Kinsey, something that he would never have contemplated even a few weeks ago. His thoughts went back to the alternate universe Sam and her final words, asking him to be the voice of reason in a world gone insane through paranoia; the one whispering in the President's ear to bring back all the civil liberties that had been destroyed by the draconian measures put in place to keep control of the planet during the worst of the crisis. The worst had passed years earlier but power hungry politicians like Kinsey had refused to let go of the tight rein they had over the people, pushing for further restrictions that merely increased the tension rather than relieved it.

They had a chance to change all of that, though Rodney wondered if he would have been the driving force behind making those changes if he had not fallen so hard and so fast for a messy-haired, handsome Air Force Colonel.

A shower of sparks brought a series of curses in Czech, drawing Rodney's concentration back to the desperately needed repairs.

It had not taken him that long to install the ZPM onto the Daedalus and Rodney could see no additional problems in replicating that work on the Prometheus. However, he planned to make that his last task before they lifted away from this dying world, not wanting to take the ZPM from the Daedalus until he was certain that Prometheus could benefit from it.

Another three hours passed quickly as Rodney lost himself in the intricate and often dirty work. He only noticed its passing by the number of interruptions from Caldwell, Pendergast and Chekov as they organized the break down of the refugee camp, bringing everyone on board one of the ships.

Rodney understood the necessity, and had encouraged it.

With the Ori scoutship only a system away, they could not risk anyone being left on the ground should the necessary repairs attract the attention of the Ori, bringing them out of hyperspace right above them. Should that happen, and timing become critical, Rodney had ensured that the Daedalus was fitted with plenty of Ancient drones to protect both ships should they need to fight their way out of the galaxy; work he had carried out during the three days crossing the void. However, for all their sakes, he knew it would be better if they escaped before detection so the Ori couldn't follow their trail.

They couldn't afford to escape from one overrun galaxy only to have the Ori follow them to the next, and the next.

"Mer, you need to take a break. Miko and I can take over from here."

"Later."

"Now, Mer," Jeannie snapped and Rodney looked up in anger, only to slump when he read her concern for him in her tired eyes. He pulled off his glasses and wiped a hand over his face, unaware of the grease he smeared over his cheek, and felt instantly defensive when she smiled.

"What?"

He flinched a little when she drew out a handkerchief and wiped at his cheek, seeing the mothering instinct in her for the very first time, and he wondered if this is how she looked after Madison and Kaleb. Suddenly her life choice didn't seem so wrong because they'd grown up in a household where neither parent made much of an effort to show true caring. Instead, Jeannie had found the affection she craved with Kaleb and Madison and, ironically, it had taken Rodney until a few weeks ago to discover that he'd needed it too.

Part of him wondered why he had not found that feeling of security with Sam. She had been his wife for almost a year before the stress of the changed world pulled them apart, and even then, they had rarely spent any time together due to her commitment to the Stargate project and her team. Instead, it had taken the near destruction of Earth for him to meet someone with whom he could find the love and affection that he'd not been aware of craving. He pushed down the pain and fear for John, staring hard into Jeannie's eyes with a sudden desire to tell her all about the man he had left behind on Atlantis.

"Dr. McKay, please report to the bridge."

With a searching look at Jeannie and the small Japanese scientist who had been Zelenka's second in command, Rodney acknowledged Pendergast's request. "On my way."

****

John had checked over every inch of the Ancient cell, determining quickly that it had been created for something possibly more dangerous than any human, even one with the ATA gene. It had little in the way of facilities as if the occupant of that cell either had no body waste functions to worry about or was not expected to reside in there for long.

Strictly speaking, the force field surrounding the cell was unnecessary but Kinsey had insisted upon it, worried that John's skill and ATA gene would get him through the basic mechanics of the locked bars. It made him a little proud that Kinsey thought him such a threat to his dictatorship that he was prepared to go to these lengths.

In hindsight, John realized that Kinsey had orchestrated the events leading to John's current predicament before stepping through the Stargate onto Atlantis. In a sick way it actually made sense as the previous coup on Earth had been made through the military. Obviously, Kinsey had wanted to dissuade the remaining military from following Landry's example by provoking one of his high-ranking officers into disobeying an order just so he could exercise his power over all of them, military and civilian alike, and John had been stupid enough to fall for it.

However, John had a strong feeling that it would backfire on the self-proclaimed President of Atlantis. At least, he hoped it would because Rodney did not strike him as the type to be easily cowed.

He frowned, realizing how much faith he was putting into someone he had met only weeks earlier, basing his assumptions of Rodney's concern for his continued well-being on just a few sweaty nights spent together in his bed. Admittedly, they were great nights and his body ached with a desire to have Rodney in his arms once more.

He tried to push away the memories but it was hard to do when he had nothing else to focus upon in this cell. Instead he recalled the silkiness of Rodney's pale skin, the surprisingly muscular arms and thighs and that beautifully curved ass. He visualized the soft lips that had traced a path of fire down his body with gentle sucking and sharp bites, tongue smoothing over abused flesh as strong, blunt fingers stroked and pinched before wrapping around his hard cock. He adored that mouth, wide and talented, the heat surrounding him as Rodney sank down on him, taking him deep enough that he could feel the back of Rodney's throat. A shiver of pleasure had run through him with every tiny swallow that tightened that precious mouth around him, taunting him, bringing him so close to the edge and then refusing to let him spill over.

"I want you to fuck me," Rodney had said, voice low and husky, throat raw from having John's cock fucking his mouth only moments earlier.

His fingers had scrabbled at Rodney's body, shoving his legs back towards his shoulders, so desperate to push inside the welcoming body, to loosen him enough so John could slide his hard cock deep inside. John had managed barely more than a few shallow thrusts before he was coming so hard that his mind wiped out in ecstasy but every moment of his climax was pure pleasure with the feel of Rodney's tight heat griping him.

Afterwards he had been lost to the boneless satisfaction of the truly well-fucked as Rodney took his turn, burying himself deep inside of John and gasping out his own release wet and hot against John's sweat-slicked throat.

John had to smile at that thought because being with Rodney had been simply amazing, making him wonder how he had managed to survive the loneliness of his former existence. The fact that Rodney was almost the antithesis of everything he had ever looked for in a lover was just as startling but somehow they had complimented each other both in and out of bed, bringing out the best in each other. He doubted it would always be like that, aware that they could both be obstinate and a little arrogant, though Rodney had a stronger version of that particular trait, he thought with a wicked smile. Still, Rodney's arrogance stemmed from an admittedly valid sense of superiority over others due to his intelligence, but at least he was relatively aware of his shortcomings when dealing with others and had tried not to be too much of a jerk.

Sometimes he didn't try hard enough but Lorne had mentioned seeing positive changes in Rodney since he became Landry's chief scientific advisor, though John suspected that most of those changes had come about once Rodney started his own company. No matter how intelligent you were, no one stayed in control of a multi-million business corporation unless they had started to learn how to deal with people on a one-to-one basis. The financial sharks circling that particular pool would have bought out the majority of shares and forced him from the managing director position if he had been difficult to work with. The fact that they hadn't was testament to Rodney's business skills and his ability to inspire the people working for him.

John had met a few of those scientists and although they whined and moaned about him, any outsider making an attack was met with the sort of single-minded aggression that Kinsey expected from his bodyguards, though without the actual physical violence. Despite Rodney's arrogant put-downs, his volatile nature and his demand for one hundred percent from all of his staff, they adored him, believing they were better scientists because of him. It was the weirdest command style that John had ever seen considering he had spent all of his adult life in the military, and yet it worked for the highly skilled yet equally highly strung scientists.

Unfortunately, Rodney wasn't in Atlantis and the majority of his people were either locked in a quickly formed barracks, guarded by the military under Kinsey's control, or working for Kavanagh depending on their nationality. The oblique reports from Lorne twice a day, hidden by a pretense of checking over the prisoner, had warned him of the growing paranoia as those held hostage due to their allegiance to another country were treated shabbily. Their American colleagues were incensed on their behalf but too scared to go up against someone as powerful as Kinsey alone. Regardless of nationality, they needed someone to get behind, a spokesperson, and John knew instinctively that this person was Rodney McKay.

He lifted his head as the main door opened and Lorne walked in carrying a dinner tray. A nod of his head and the force field came down, the cell door opening moments later. John knew he could have fought his way out, knocked out Lorne and the guard and then made his way to the jumper bay to steal a puddlejumper, except he would have gained nothing but his freedom - and that wasn't enough anymore. He had to place his faith in Rodney, and in Lorne, Pendergast and Caldwell as well as in the civilians and military under their control.

"The Daedalus should have reached PCZ-439 by now."

John nodded. He could tell that the burden of command weighed heavily on Lorne's shoulders, that he wasn't ready to take on the responsibility for the safety of every person on Atlantis, especially under the current circumstances with Kinsey in control.

Lorne smiled wryly. "I bet McKay's bitching up a storm about getting back here as fast as possible."

"Probably."

"And Kavanagh is more than eager to have him back." Lorne snorted. "Guess people do change." Lorne slid the tray across the floor and John eyed the food with interest, noting the dwindling rations that formed the far from appetizing mess. "Sorry, Sir, but prisoners are not getting anything better than the rest of us."

"I just hope we brought enough MREs with us," John replied as he started to pick at the food, message received loud and clear, and now aware that the situation with food was starting to deteriorate since the arrival of a few hundred more mouths to feed; mouths that were probably not being very productive with Kinsey in control.

John had devised plans with Rodney to set up offworld teams using Lorne's knowledge and experience in that area, to see if they could find someone to trade with for food, or at least find something on other planets that they could hunt or harvest until they could produce their own crops. A spin around this planet in a puddlejumper had revealed the single land mass that Carter had mentioned. Before Kinsey's arrival, Rodney had just started to organize some of the botanists and agrarians into selecting an area that could be turned into farmland as well as opening up one of the hydroponic bays in a nearby tower. John could bet that all of that important work had come to a halt while Kinsey consolidated his position of power and he could bet that, like the denizens of the Tower, Kinsey was eating the best food available and leaving the slops for the rest of the people.

"Not gonna be much of a Thanksgiving this year," Lorne added. John nodded while he continued eating, because that information meant their food supplies would dry up within two weeks if they didn't find alternative sources soon.

"I guess a little hunting and gathering might be on the cards," he stated between mouthfuls.

"Without the negotiation," Lorne added softly so his voice did not carry to the lone guard.

Damn, John thought, chewing slowly. He and Rodney had planned on getting all the various departments to put forward potential trade items for Lorne and his teams to use as barter but it appeared Kinsey had an alternative view. Kinsey simply wanted to take, and was most definitely fashioning himself on the same principles as those who had lived in the Tower, feasting on luxuries while the people of the villages around them were half-starved. Any guilt at stealing the puddlejumpers, drones and the ZPM had melted away when John realized he was giving the ordinary people of that world a chance to balance out the needs of all rather than just a select few. Except John had a feeling that Kinsey's greedy eyes would turn to that planet as the only food source currently known to them, and would use their former weapons against them so he could take their harvests.

He didn't need to verbalize his disgust as Lorne could read it in his expression, with Lorne's tight nod showing his agreement.

"If all goes well, the Prometheus should be here in four days," Lorne added as he picked up the cleaned tray and backed out of the cell, indicating towards the guard to lock the cell and switch the force field back on. The force field flared blue around John and he watched Lorne depart without a backwards glance, more convinced than ever that Lorne would be on his side if it came down to making a choice.

Four days, he thought, and then he would find out if his faith in Rodney had been justified.

****

As the final countdown began, Rodney became more and more nervous, shouting his orders and expecting an instant response. This was the moment he dreaded most, the final few minutes when escape looked possible only for some calamity to befall them at the last possible second. He grinned in relief as the ZPM lit up a dull, almost depleted orange in the cradle installed in the Prometheus. There wasn't a lot of power left in there but it would be enough to get them to Atlantis. Quickly, he made his way to the bridge.

"Colonel?"

Rodney gained Pendergast's attention and gave a single hard nod to show his readiness, watching Pendergast's lips tighten with renewed purpose. He listened to the chatter as Pendergast and Caldwell synchronized their take off to ensure neither damaged the other inadvertently. The engines began to thrum with power, the noticeable vibration traveling through the decking and into the soles of his feet and moving up slowly to encompass his whole body, leaving him tingling all over in anticipation. He could feel the engines, could almost measure the harmonics within the sublights as the thrum resonated within him and he knew instinctively that it was within acceptable parameters.

As the Prometheus lifted, Rodney stared through the main view screen, mesmerized as the walls of the valley dropped away leaving him staring into a yellow-tinged sky filled with sulfurous gases and ash from volcanic activity as this world slowly tore itself apart. The yellow receded as they climbed towards the stars, the sky deepening to black as they made geosynchronous orbit above the valley where the Daedalus was powering its own engines ready for its climb through the atmosphere. Once she was off the planet, Prometheus would fire several drones to destabilize the whole area between here and the Stargate, sinking it into the magma running just below the surface with the intention of destroying any evidence that they had been here. They could not afford a Prior coming across this world and guessing where they might have gone to escape the Ori.

The strident alarm from the sensors made his heart skip a beat and he raced to the sensor control, fear skittering through him with the knowledge that they had been detected. The small Ori scoutship had activated the Stargate and had sailed through, landing almost immediately, and a single humanoid had materialized onto this world; there was little doubt in anyone's mind that this was a Prior.

The Daedalus was still climbing, only now breaking through the atmosphere into a low orbit and Rodney heard Pendergast's order for the Daedalus to jump into hyperspace. The Prometheus was no match for an Ori warship even with the new drone weapons installed on board but she could handle a single scoutship long enough for the Daedalus to lumber away. With the ZPM powering her engines, Prometheus would catch up and then pass Daedalus soon enough.

Pendergast ordered weapons ready, preparing to attack.

"Prometheus, this is Dr. Daniel Jackson. Please respond."

Rodney stared across at Pendergast in confusion. He'd worked with Jackson a number of times, usually when he needed a better translation for some of the alien technology that passed into his company's hands from the SGC, but Jackson had disappeared weeks ago, captured by the Ori.

"Prometheus, this is Dr. Daniel Jackson of the SGC. I can explain everything." They heard several coughs in succession as Jackson breathed in the thicker, more sulfurous air close to the Stargate. "Please respond."

Rodney could see the conflict in Pendergast's eyes, the almost desperate need to believe even though the readings were not wholly human, and he saw the colonel turn to him, silently requesting his advice. If it had been almost anyone other than Jackson then Rodney would have favored heading out and leaving whoever it was behind but Rodney knew Daniel. He had spent hours in his company arguing semantics and deciphering technical jargon left behind by the Ancients, Goa'uld and Asgard. He knew Daniel would never accept Origin except under duress and, even then, he would never kill another being simply because they refused to worship false gods. Yet the sensor readings could not be challenged. The person standing on that planet was neither wholly human nor Prior but something in between.

Rodney snapped his fingers. "Wait! I have something. Let me go get..." He raced into what had been Landry's inner sanctum on board the Prometheus when it served as Air Force One, digging through several cabinets until he found the device created by the alternate Sam Carter. He rushed back onto the bridge, showing it to Pendergast.

"Sam said this is an anti-Prior device. When switched on it prevents any Prior within range from using his powers."

Pendergast frowned. "Then why the hell weren't we building more of these things and using them?"

"Umm...It doesn't hold a Prior forever. Eventually, they can overpower the device, negating its effect. The point is, it should work long enough for us to question Jackson."

Pendergast nodded. "Take it to the transporter room and activate it. I'll beam him up."

Rodney nodded and charged off with two security officers pounding behind him. He entered the transporter room and swiftly set up the device, barely noticing the two guards drawing weapons and making ready for any attack.

Rodney tapped his radio. "Colonel? Anti-Prior device has been activated."

"Beaming now."

A shape solidified in front of Rodney and he took a step back in fear as he recognized the gray skin, raised markings and not quite human eyes.

"Rodney!"

Swallowing hard, Rodney took a brave step forward. "Don't try to do anything. Not that you can because this device won't let you but if you were to try then..."

"I'm not going to hurt anyone. I'm not really a Prior anymore. I'm changing back." Daniel straightened and gave a wry smile. "The Ori are gone. I sent the Sangraal through the supergate to the Ori galaxy."

The word Sangraal resonated deep within Rodney's mind as he recognized it from old parchments sent back to the SGC during Daniel's hunt for the Holy Grail. Every translation had indicated that it was a destroyer of angels, which had to refer to the ascended beings rather than to false gods like the Goa'uld.

"You found it?"

"I found Myrddin...Merlin." Daniel pointed at his head. "I downloaded Merlin's memories and knowledge in to my mind," And then swept a hand up and down to indicate his own body. "But I needed the power of a Prior to assemble the Sangraal. Merlin put in a DNA switch to revert me back to human once I'd completed the task." He scraped a finger down his cheek. "See? It's already working."

Rodney had to admit that Daniel look far less Prior-like than the ones he had seen on images sent back from various worlds that had fallen to the Ori. His eyes were not as inhuman, his skin still gray but it was a pinkish-gray rather than the ten-days-dead coloring that the other Priors had sported.

"If you're changing back then...Do you still have his memories? How long until...?" Rodney waved a hand towards Daniel, encompassing his alien features.

"A few more hours... maybe more, maybe less." He laughed softly. "I've not exactly done this before, Rodney," he murmured.

Rodney snapped his fingers in Daniel's face several times in succession. "You knew the Prometheus was here all along. You were waiting on P37-K5A until you'd completed the reversal."

"And when I realized the Prometheus and Daedalus were powering up their engines to leave, I knew I'd run out of time."

Rodney nodded because that made sense in a Daniel Jackson kind of way. The man had obviously intended to wait until he was fully human before coming through the Stargate just so he could avoid scaring anyone half to death. Yet his very presence in the next system was the reason why Rodney and the other scientists had worked so hard to get both ships ready to take flight.

"Wait a... You said the Ori are gone."

"Yes. Unfortunately, that doesn't seemed to have made a whole lot of difference to their followers," Daniel murmured despondently.

"Guess we all kind of thought cut off the head and..."

"Yeah."

"Dr. McKay, report."

Rodney's head snapped up on hearing Pendergast's voice in his ear. He tapped his radio. "We're good, so let's..."

"Wait." Daniel held up a hand and Rodney paused. "Jack. Jack O'Neill."

Rodney gave a small half-smile. "We've got him." He saw Daniel's gray-tinged eyelashes flutter closed in relief and thought for one horrible moment that the man was going to start crying but Daniel raised his head and the warmth and gratitude in his eyes took away any doubt that he was a Prior.

Rodney contacted Pendergast again. "Colonel? Let's finish the clean-up and head out." He froze and glanced across at Daniel. "Um...I hope you didn't need anything from that scoutship."

Daniel narrowed his eyes. "No," he drew out the word. "Why?"

Rodney slumped in relief. "Because I just told Pendergast to fire drones at an active volcano to dispose of any evidence showing we were ever here."

He felt the vibration change beneath his feet, ignoring an impulse to race back to the bridge so he could watch them leave his home galaxy for the last time. Instead, Rodney cleared a bench and sat down facing Daniel. Jeannie had wanted him to take a decent break, and a few hours talking with Daniel while he underwent his transformation back to being human seemed like an ideal opportunity, hoping he could gain some of Merlin's knowledge of ZPMs and Atlantis before it was lost to them forever.

If nothing else, it would enable him to put aside his fear for John for just a little longer, and maybe together he and Daniel could formulate a plan to stop Kinsey. Rodney closed his eyes for a second, silently hoping that Kinsey was enough of a megalomaniac that he would wait for the Prometheus before carrying out the execution.

****

Peter Kavanagh smashed his fist down on the console in frustration. If McKay's calculations were correct then the Prometheus was less than a day from Atlantis, possibly only hours away, but he had not been able to get the sensors online to verify her position. Without the ATA gene he could not operate most of the important consoles even after they had been initialized and it was difficult trying to explain his requirements to the few Americans who were allowed to touch anything.

Major Lorne was his only true option, though at least the man had a decent amount of intelligence considering he was a soldier but Lorne's duties took him away constantly. President Kinsey didn't seem to understand the importance of relieving the current military commander from his post so he could assist with getting the city operational, and neither would Kinsey allow any of the non American scientists with the ATA gene to assist in Lorne's place. Instead, Kinsey planned to wait until he had given everyone an example of his power over their small lives before allowing them a semblance of freedom.

It was frustrating and time consuming trying to handle so much of the day-to-day work alone, leaving him little time to spend on the one task that McKay had requested of him - finding a way to save Colonel O'Neill. He had spent every spare moment searching through the Ancient database but the task required someone with a far greater understanding of the Ancients and their language.

He had, at least, located a device that should help but had no idea of how to operate it.

Peter bowed his head as he admitted failure if only to himself, looking up to stare into the frozen eyes of Jack O'Neill with regret. Perhaps he wasn't on the same level of genius as someone like McKay but Peter wanted to believe he was pretty damn close. At least he had chosen to specialize in crystal technology, learning how to grow and shape the crystals used by both the Ancients and the Asgard, and how to install them. Even McKay accepted him as an expert in that field, calling upon him to help with the repairs around the city - and to fix broken glasses when he revealed that his expertise also extended to lenses.

Unfortunately, unlike McKay, Peter knew he couldn't make those amazing mental leaps into technology and disciplines for which he'd had no previous experience or qualification. He couldn't gather up the threads of a thousand random pieces of data and weave them all into an aesthetically beautiful whole, extrapolating from the results to create new theories, and then turn those theories into reality.

Perhaps part of McKay's strength and mental acuity came from his possession of the ATA gene, or at least from the ancestry that had allowed the ATA switch to be thrown to the on position within his DNA. It's very presence within his DNA proved McKay was a descendant of the people who had built this great city, but Peter couldn't say the same for his own ancestry. Beckett's gene therapy had failed on him.

Certainly, without the gene Peter had to accept that he could not handle Atlantis with the same ease as McKay. The city treated him as wholly human and, therefore, refused him access to all but the most basic commands for light, water and heat.

He straightened as a call came over the radio.

"The Prometheus has entered orbit."

Peter sighed partially in dismay because he had accomplished so little while McKay was in another galaxy but also in relief if it meant McKay had returned. As he raised his hand to his radio to acknowledge the call, the brilliant light of the Asgard transporter beam flared before him. It coalesced into a single figure and Peter stepped back in shock as he recognized the familiar face of a man who been missing for weeks even before the Goa'uld attack on Earth.

"Dr. Jackson!"

Daniel smiled softly, raising a hand in a friendly gesture before his eyes slid sideways as they caught sight of O'Neill. Peter noticed the way Jackson reached out, fingertips brushing across the stasis field holding O'Neill almost frozen in time, his expression confirming every rumor that had ever worked its way around the SGC and Area 51 of Jackson being in love with O'Neill. The moment stretched a little longer, broken only when Peter shuffled nervously. Jackson turned to him, determination written so clearly on his expressive face.

"I know how to save Jack."

****

The journey back from the Milky Way had proved a far greater personal success for Rodney, perhaps because Pendergast had first hand experience of Kinsey's thirst for power, gained from the three years since full disclosure of the Stargate program. Certainly, Pendergast had little respect for the former Vice President and surprisingly, considering he had been so close-mouthed on the trip to PCZ-439, Caldwell had backed up Rodney's version of the events that had transpired on Atlantis from the moment Kinsey walked through the Stargate.

Rodney recalled the final discussion that had taken place as the two ships moved swiftly apart due to the extra power of the ZPM. He remembered the anger given voice by the Russian Colonel once Caldwell confirmed that Kinsey had intended to abandon those originally left behind on PCZ-439. The fact that it had not come as that much of a shock seemed immaterial, especially when Chekov discovered Kinsey's treatment of those on Atlantis who were not American citizens. However, what had outraged Chekov and Pendergast was how Kinsey had put gaining possession of the Prometheus, his symbol of office and power, above all other considerations including the lives of all those left behind.

If Rodney could have figured out a way for the Daedalus to keep pace with the Prometheus then he would have made it happen but every passing hour increased the risk of Kinsey growing tired of waiting and summoning everyone for the first public execution on Atlantis. Having Caldwell and the Daedalus to back him up would have been far more reassuring, especially as his presence along with the Prometheus would precipitate the very event that he wished to stop but the risk of waiting was too great when he had already made a promise to bring back the Prometheus within a week.

Rodney beamed into the gate room only moments after the Prometheus had transported Daniel at Rodney's command. Barely had he oriented himself before he noticed Kinsey walking down the grand staircase towards him, grinning broadly.

"Well done, Dr. McKay. My advisors were convinced we'd never see you again." He opened up his arms wide, "But here you are, and with my ship as promised." He stepped up and placed a friendly arm around Rodney's shoulders, and Rodney had to resist the urge to shrug the man off. "It appears Dr. Kavanagh was as ineffective as both of you seemed to believe he might be so rest assured, Doctor, that you will have a role to play in our brave new world."

Rodney was about to retort when he noticed people gathering around the edge of the room, recognizing the large group of non-Americans being led in on one side from his short incarceration with them. Kinsey's grip prevented Rodney from taking a step towards them when he saw Madison, her small hand held tightly in that of the woman to whom Rodney had entrusted his niece. He offered Madison what he hoped was a reassuring smile but was afraid it might have come out as a grimace when she looked even more frightened.

"What's going on?"

"Something already several days overdue, Doctor."

Rodney gaped as John was led out to the center of the gate room, wrists and ankles loosely shackled together to ensure he could not escape. He resisted the urge to take off his glasses and clean them just in case it was blurring on the lenses that was making him see this lunacy in action. His eyes followed John's lean frame, part of him grateful that John looked no different for his imprisonment, with no sign of bruising or problems moving, proving he'd been treated well despite everything. His chameleon hazel eyes were dark with anger though, his lips thinned and bloodless, only relaxing a fraction when he caught sight of Rodney, the fleeting longing making Rodney's heart stutter momentarily. It took a lot of effort for Rodney to tear his eyes away from his lover as John was shackled to a ring that someone had placed in the gate room floor in front of the Stargate sometime during Rodney's absence from Atlantis. Rodney turned his attention back to Kinsey.

"You're going to do this now?"

Kinsey gave that tight politician smile that never reached his cold eyes. "Admittedly, it might have been better to wait for all the passengers on the Daedalus but they will simply have to make do with the video coverage." His smile slipped a fraction. "As Dr. Kavanagh reminded me repeatedly, this city needs everyone making a contribution, including the... foreigners such as yourself."

Kinsey said foreigners as if it was a distasteful word, and that didn't bode well for the future for almost half of the survivors brought to Atlantis from Earth. As the owner and chairman of a multi-million dollar scientific empire, he'd been given a lot more freedom than most but Rodney was well aware that his privileges had not been extended to other non-Americans during the period of martial law used by the government to enforce their rule.

Rodney shot a dismayed glance at John before glancing around. He saw several people holding small video cameras, looking extremely uncomfortable at the task appointed to them. Kinsey turned away, climbing the stairs until he reached the landing at the top where someone had placed an ornate chair that had been converted into the semblance of a throne so it looked down upon Kinsey's new subjects.

"You can't be serious!"

But it was all too apparent that Kinsey had finally gone insane, driven mad by the power he had gained with the death of President Landry. Kinsey might have lost an entire country on Earth but, no doubt in his mind, he had gained this magnificent city and a whole new world to rule over with an iron fist. Rodney realized that it was far too late to try to reason with Kinsey, that the man was beyond diplomacy and compromises, beyond accepting promises and allegiance based on trust and respect.

Kinsey raised his arms as if he was a new Messiah, preaching to the masses.

"The world we once knew is far behind us. This is a new world filled with golden opportunities for those willing to accept their place and swear their allegiance to Atlantis, and to me. But to take this momentous step into the future, first we must shake off the shackles of the past. We must cast away our former allegiances and we must purify our thoughts by destroying those who would denounce our brave new world."

Kinsey pointed to John.

"This man sought to question your chosen leadership, refusing to accept my position and my judgment, and he must pay the ultimate price for his dereliction of duty."

Rodney bit back on the urge to ask to see the ballot papers placing Kinsey as their chosen leader.

"Lieutenant Colonel Lorne," Kinsey stated ominously, pointing towards the control room where Lorne stood stiff and blank-faced. "Dial M7G-677."

Rodney froze in horror when he realized John was standing in the path of the plume from an opening wormhole but before he could find his voice, Lorne answered.

"No, sir."

Kinsey's face turned a bright red. "I've given you an order, Colonel."

Rodney looked from Kinsey to Lorne, seeing the determination on the SG-1 leader's face. "Yes, sir."

"Then obey it or stand with Colonel Sheppard."

Rodney saw Lorne swallow hard and move from the control panel, taking two of the steps down the short flight of stairs leading onto the landing where Kinsey was now standing in front of his throne. In a blur of movement, Lorne pulled a gun but Kinsey's bodyguard were faster, with Lorne taking a bullet through the arm, the gun clattering down the stairs to land almost at Rodney's feet. Lorne was gripping his arm, blood seeping between his fingers.

"Put him with Sheppard," Kinsey ordered, and Rodney could only step back in horror as Lorne was manhandled down the stairs and past him. The guards used one of the nylon hand ties to tether one of his wrists to the chains holding John in place.

John objected. "You don't have to do this," he yelled up to Kinsey before turning to Lorne. "Lorne, I order you to obey Pres..."

"No, sir." Lorne swallowed, pain-filled eyes holding John's. "I can't do what he orders." He straightened, eyes turning hard as he fought against the pain in his arm. "I won't do it."

As the first chevron encoded, Rodney looked from John to the gun lying close enough to his feet. He'd seen how fast Kinsey's bodyguards reacted and he knew he had no hope of picking up that gun and firing before they took him down but, suddenly, he knew he had to do it, or die trying. He dived for the gun, glasses falling from his face and clattering to the floor but he knew where Kinsey was standing, he would see the man's blurry outline and hoped that would be enough. He heard the sounds of gun shots echoing around the gate room before he'd even grasped the solid handle yet he felt nothing; no pain and no tearing of his flesh as the bullets passed through him. Rodney glanced up in confusion from the floor, blinking against the blurriness as a body bounced down the staircase towards him, barely flinging himself aside in time only to come face to face with Kinsey, his dead eyes no longer manic but blanked over in death. Rodney crabbed backwards, feet slipping on the spreading pool of blood, only to slump down in shock.

He looked up to see the gate dark, the dialing sequence aborted, and scrabbled for his glasses, pulling them on with barely a curse at yet another cracked lens only to see two men moving towards the center of the gate room towards John. One of them held a gun with the confidence of a true soldier and Rodney's felt lightheaded with shock when he recognized the man.

"Colonel O'Neill," Rodney breathed in shock. Although he'd sent Daniel ahead to revive O'Neill, Rodney had never expected him to figure it out so quickly. He thought Daniel and Kavanagh would have a few hours at least before Kinsey organized his little execution party so when Kinsey hadn't obliged, Rodney had discounted any help from that source.

O'Neill stopped and stared at him. "I go to sleep for a couple of years and all hell breaks loose! And what did you do to Carter, McKay?"

"Um...I..." He wondered if O'Neill knew that his former team mate was dead, probably along with Teal'c as he could not see the Jaffa bowing down before the Ori.

O'Neill waived away an explanation, lips tight with grief. "I know it wasn't your fault, McKay."

He finished freeing John and Lorne, watching with interest when John made a beeline for Rodney and dropped down beside him. John reached out and clasped Rodney's shoulder.

"You okay?"

"I broke my glasses again."

John grinned, taking the gun that Rodney wasn't even aware of holding, and handing it off to one of the SGC soldiers. "Yeah. Yeah, you did, but I know a man who can fix them."

"Oh, good because I find the whole not seeing too clearly rather tedious."

O'Neill came over as John helped Rodney back onto his feet.

"Okay, Colonel Sheppard. This is your show so... What do we do now?"

John stared at O'Neill for several seconds before turning to Rodney and deferring to him. "So, what do we do, Rodney?"

****

As Colonel Sheppard deferred to McKay, Jack realized that a lot more had changed than intimated by Daniel since his awakening. He thought back to that moment only ten minutes earlier...

Jack came back to full awareness with Daniel's beautiful blue eyes staring straight into his own, and his handsome face lined with stress mingled with relief, but also with the love they'd shared so openly revealed. The feel of warm lips pressing against his own chased the last of his lethargy away, and he lifted heavy arms, framing Daniel's face as he deepened the kiss.

If this was a dream then Jack was more than happy to live it forever.

The shock of another person clearing his throat brought him back to reality but Daniel refused to let go, and that told Jack more than he ever wanted to know about the situation surrounding them. He glanced across the room, recognizing the architecture from deeply buried memories that might even have been his own, instinctively knowing he was no longer on Earth.

Was that Kavanagh?

"Jack. It's too long a story and I don't have time to explain everything, so I need you to trust me. It's been three years. We're in Atlantis, in the Pegasus galaxy. Earth is lost, and Kinsey's going to publicly execute Colonel Sheppard just to consolidate his power in what amounts to little more than a dictatorship. You have to stop him."

Jack blinked hard. "When?"

"Now."

He grimaced. "What? No coffee and pop tarts first?"

Daniel gave a soft smile and murmured, "Sorry, no time."

Jack stepped forward and almost collapsed, leaning on Daniel's strength for support until the room stopped tilting. "Whoa!" Jack noticed the disconcerted look Daniel shot towards Kavanagh and pushed himself upright, partially shaking off Daniel's support. "Little dizzy there." He narrowed his eyes slightly. "You do have a gun for me?"

Daniel handed over the hand gun that he'd carried down with him from the Prometheus.

"A P90 or one of those zats would have been better," he snapped back before heaving a sigh and gripping Daniel's arm in reassurance. Jack turned to Kavanagh. "I take it you're one of the good guys so...stay out the firing line."

Kavanagh paled and nodded instead of bitching back at him in that haughty way that used to annoy Jack so much. He guessed his location and the loss of the Earth were not the only things that might have changed in the last three years. On the race through strange corridors to the gate room, Daniel talked of the Ori attacking the galaxy, of the Goa'uld infiltrated Trust attacking Earth, and of the strict laws that had made a mockery of democracy after full disclosure of the Stargate program and the threats facing the planet.

As they raced towards this alien gate room, Daniel also outlined Earth's history from the moment Jack had stepped into the stasis chamber. Three years condensed into a few minutes, which was a miracle in and of itself because since when did Daniel ever manage a quick lecture? It was almost too much to take in at once, and probably would have felled an ordinary man but Jack had become used to making life and death decisions based on sketchy and seemingly implausible information - and on trust.

"You stay back when we get there," Jack ordered though he knew from previous experience that he had only a fifty-fifty chance of Daniel obeying. He hoped this would be one of those times because he couldn't afford to waste energy worrying about his lover.

When they reached the gate room, Jack took in the whole scene with a single glance. He saw two soldiers shackled in front of the strange looking Stargate, directly in the path of an opening wormhole, and recognized the injured one as Lorne, a military geologist. Alone to one side was another familiar face, Rodney McKay, and as the first chevron encoded, he saw McKay make a suicidal decision to grab for the gun near his feet.

One thing that hadn't changed at all was Kinsey because the megalomania had always been in there, just never so visible now that the man believed he was the king of all he surveyed, or maybe he even thought he was a god, like the Goa'uld. Jack's first and second shots, fired in quick succession, took out two of the bodyguards aiming for McKay. He knew it was a mistake, knew he should have sacrificed McKay and gone straight for a killing shot at Kinsey but something in Sheppard's expression, and in the way he strained against his shackles desperately trying to reach McKay, made him choose differently.

Split seconds later, when the other two bodyguards fell under weapon's fire from another direction before they could get a bead on him, Jack realized he'd made the right choice after all. Jack made his third shot as Kinsey grabbed for the gun dropped by one of his bodyguards, watching dispassionately as Kinsey's body toppled down the ornate staircase almost in slow motion. The sudden silence in the room was almost as deafening as the earlier shrieks of terror from the women and children as the glowing chevrons on the Stargate went dark and the echo of gunshots faded.

A marine Sergeant with the name tag of Bates stepped forward, gun still raised towards the downed bodyguards, his face hard with determination and the conviction of having done the right thing. He glanced across as Jack and gave a tiny abrupt nod of respect as the other military present lowered their guns in acceptance of the military coup that had taken place right before their eyes.

Jack moved to where Lorne and Sheppard were still shackled, fully prepared to shoot the damned lock off if necessary but another soldier stepped forward eagerly and freed both men. Two others carrying the paraphernalia associated with medics, raced forward to assist Lorne. Sheppard barely stopped to acknowledge Jack's existence before he was racing across the room and dropping down beside McKay and Jack watched the tableau with surprise.

When he'd stepped into the stasis chamber in Antarctica three years ago, he'd been convinced Thor or one of the other Asgard would come to his aid. He'd never anticipated the Asgard being too involved with their own problems, and was saddened to realize that the knowledge of the Ancients contained within his mind could have saved them. Instead, it was likely that the Asgard race was no more, with their galaxy overrun by the Replicators.

He'd also never expected to step out of the chamber to find not just the Earth but the Milky Way lost as well.

To add to the list of things he'd never contemplated, was that one of his first actions upon awakening would be to kill a man, and then to find himself looking at Rodney McKay and seeing past the pale face and broken glasses to a man who was raising his head high as Colonel Sheppard deferred to him. The McKay that Jack had known on Earth more than three years earlier was obnoxious and a complete jerk, and he'd never understood what Sam had seen in the man beyond the obvious brilliance. He could see it now though, reflected in Sheppard's eyes and in the eyes of more than a hundred other people present.

And was that an SG-1 patch on Lorne's sleeve?

Kinsey lay at McKay's feet, sightless eyes no longer filled with the light of insanity. Jack's only regret was that he'd taken the man down in front of the women and children, adding to the trauma they'd faced over the past years - if everything Daniel implied was true.

Now he was standing beside Sheppard and in front of McKay, suddenly aware that this man, this obnoxious yet brilliant man, was the accepted new leader of all these people, and wasn't that a show stopper. Daniel came up beside him, and only years of keeping their relationship a secret prevented him from pulling Daniel into his arms and holding him tight now the adrenaline of battle was fading.

"Rodney?" Sheppard said again and this time McKay shook off the shock that had him rooted to the floor, clearing his throat and walking up the stairs until he'd reached the halfway point. He took a deep breath and turned to face the silent crowd.

"Um...I realize this has been a hard time on all of us. We've all left people we care about behind and the future may seem uncertain...but not if we all pull together. This city has survived under the ocean for ten thousand years. We have light and heat, we have water and shelter from the elements. Thanks to earlier efforts, we have weapons and soldiers to protect us, and we have some of the greatest minds on Earth right here, willing to bring this city back to her former glory. And we have each other."

McKay glanced around, his eyes holding on certain individuals in the crowd.

"The Ori are gone, destroyed..." He paused as a murmur of hope rose but Jack already knew from Daniel that it would be short lived. "But unfortunately the Priors and their armies remain, and by now, Earth has fallen." He swallowed hard. "We can't go back. We can only go forward. Here, on Atlantis."

His eyes moved around the sea of faces once more, landing on specific individuals as he spoke. "There is no United States, no Canada. There is no China, Japan, Australia, Russia, Germany... or Scotland." He was looking directly at one man whose face crumpled in sorrow. "But it doesn't mean we should forget where we came from, only that we should now put aside all national identity and focus on being one people...the new Atlanteans."

It wasn't the greatest speech ever given. It hadn't been written by someone who specialized in creating speeches to fire the soul, full of symbolic gestures and flowery language but Jack recognized that it was honest and heartfelt. It gave those around him a sense of hope where none had existed only moments before. Jack could see the words slowly sinking in as people came out of shock, could see eyes widening in realization that everything had changed, and not all of it was for the worst.

"I could stand here all day giving pep talks but the truth is, we have a lot of work to do and we have a pretty amazing set of people here, and another three to four hundred on the way. We need the botanists to start work on the hydroponic labs, the biologists and agriculturists to check out the mainland for suitable farming areas and determine if there's anything already growing or living that we can use for food. In the city, we need the water damage cleaned up and repairs made so larger areas can become habitable, can become homes."

"And the curfew?" It was a voice in the crowd and Jack couldn't see who had spoken but McKay gave a half smile.

"What curfew?" It seemed the right thing to say because any remaining tension slipped away. "Well? What are you all waiting for? We have a city to rebuild and food to find."

Sheppard was grinning up at a now exasperated McKay as he came back down the stairs to the gate room floor.

"First things first." McKay tapped his radio. "Colonel Pendergast, beam down the ZPM." Rodney gave Sheppard another tiny smile. "If we take the ZPM to the outermost Stargate, Zelenka can reinstall it onto the Daedalus and bring her home faster."

"Home?" Jack had to ask.

When Daniel replied with a soft, "Home," Jack wondered if he was just one of many who felt a warm feeling build inside at that thought.

****

"Home," John stated softly as he pulled Rodney closer, burying his nose in the fine hair just above Rodney's ear and inhaling, breathing in his lover's scent.

He'd never thought to ever say that word and actually mean it, having spent most of his life moving from one post to another since joining the US Air Force. Atlantis felt like home though, and not just because of the way she had welcomed him through his ATA gene. She felt like home because Rodney was here beside him in every way that mattered.

Rodney.

He smiled against the fine hair, planting a soft kiss as Rodney's arms tightened around him. He ought to have felt amazed at the depth of feeling for this man but, strangely, all he felt was...right. He'd never experienced this complete sense of belonging before, but having Rodney here in his arms and in his bed was exactly where they both needed to be, where they both were meant to be.

His thoughts returned to earlier in the day, a day when he thought all was lost.

When Kinsey's men came for him, ordering him out of his cell and pushing him on towards the gate room, he knew his time had come and yet, still he had remained convinced that Rodney would have thought of something. When he entered the gate room and found Rodney standing there, looking shocked and desperate, he felt the first tremor of genuine fear, though not for himself.

He'd seen the determination cross Rodney's face before, watched him drown, sacrificing his own life to save others.

Watching Rodney dive for the gun as the first chevron encoded sucked the breath from John's body. If a trained soldier like Lorne had failed to take down Kinsey then Rodney had no chance whatsoever. For a moment, as gun shots echoed around the gate room, John had almost welcomed the imminent destructive plume of the Stargate, preferring that to the possibility of surviving without Rodney by his side. Heart in his throat, he had expected to see Rodney's body jerk with the force of bullets riddling him, only to see Kinsey's bodyguards fall instead, followed by Kinsey.

John had never met Colonel O'Neill in the flesh before today but he knew his face from all the propaganda used by the government to try to sell the Stargate program to the terrified public, and from the stasis chamber in Antarctica. O'Neill, along with Sergeant Bates, had just saved his lover's life. That their actions had also saved him, and Lorne, and probably many of the others present seemed immaterial compared with Rodney's living, breathing presence on the gate room floor barely fifteen feet away.

Once freed from the shackles binding him to the floor, he had not hesitated to reach for his lover, wanting to assure himself by touch as well as sight that Rodney was, in fact, unharmed. It was almost comical that, once more, Rodney had damaged his glasses, leaving his lover squinting almost pathetically. Yet, when O'Neill asked him what should happen next, John had felt only a moment of confusion before he realized that the people here were already looking to only one man for leadership and answers, and that was Rodney.

The hours that followed had seemed chaotic at the time and yet everyone he saw seemed to be filled with a new sense of hope and purpose. Rodney had ordered the release of all non-Americans and had handed all military matters over to John. He had anyone with agricultural knowledge looking at the map of the mainland to decide upon a good place to start growing crops while everyone else started the clean up of the closest areas for habitation.

Although John hadn't had a lot of time to spare as he dealt with the fallout from Kinsey's short reign, there had been occasions when his path crossed Rodney's. In those scattered moments he had watched as Rodney coordinated a dozen different tasks, accomplishing more in a few hours than Kinsey had managed in over a week.

Much later, he had pulled Rodney aside, closing the door to their shared room behind them. When Rodney had tried to protest, John had simply pulled him into his arms and had kissed him.

Now, less than an hour later, he had Rodney warm and naked in his bed, draped partly over his chest, and with his head pillowed on John's shoulder. The warmth of his breath tickled at the hairs on John's chest and John could almost swear Rodney was drooling on him but none of that mattered. For the first time in years, John had taken someone into his bed for a purpose other than sex. Not that he didn't want to touch and caress, to kiss and lick and explore every inch of Rodney's body, to feel the tightness of Rodney's perfect ass clenched around his cock. He wanted all of that but, for once, he also wanted just to hold him, to make Rodney feel safe after another week of fear and imminent death.

If John turned his head he would see the spare pair of glasses that Kavanagh had made for Rodney, placed on the bedside cupboard. Without them Rodney looked so vulnerable, and it made John feel relieved and perhaps even a little humbled to know Rodney still trusted him after what had happened initially with Kinsey.

That trust was written in the slack expression and closed eyes, and in the soft sounds of contentment breathed against John's skin.

Later there would be time to satisfy his more primitive desires for the body in his arms. For now they would both sleep peacefully, knowing their hopes of breaking free from the restrictions placed upon both their lives could finally be realized.

Draconian Measures Art by Osianna

****

One Year Later, the Council of Atlantis concluded its early morning session promptly though it was more like a glorified staff meeting as far as John was concerned. They spent an inordinate amount of time discussing issues relevant to each section of the community, from the mundane day-to-day workings of the city to the most esoteric scientific breakthroughs. Somewhere in between came the military, handling security both on and off-world.

John hadn't been surprised when Rodney's first action as the accepted leader of Atlantis was to demote himself to head of a council, stating that no one should be given the unlimited power accorded to a single ruler. He cited data that he and Daniel had pulled from the Ancient database that proved the Ancients had ruled through a high council drawn from different disciplines.

John represented the military for off-world missions while Jack O'Neill handled all internal security. It worked well because Jack had already come back from retirement once following the discovery of the Stargate by Daniel, and had been considering retiring permanently just prior to the attack on Earth by Anubis. Convincing him to take a post equivalent to homeland security had been easy with Daniel's help. Colonel Chekov took the third military position on the council, bridging the gap between Atlantis and her two ships, Daedalus and Prometheus.

On the civilian side, Radek Zelenka took responsibility for the physical maintenance of the city while Daniel handled the Ancient database and other interfaces that required his linguistic and anthropology skills. Carson Beckett covered all the medical and life sciences while Elizabeth Weir fulfilled the needs of the ordinary person, ensuring that the people had a voice too. John had been impressed with her diplomatic skills while they were on Earth and she proved her worth here on Atlantis. She handled most of their offworld negotiations for trade, and teams who accepted her assistance were far more successful than those that did not use her prowess with words. In the alternate Sam's universe, Elizabeth had been the leader of the Atlantis expedition but despite her obvious qualities, John was glad that the head of the council was Rodney, someone who had no political agenda.

Rodney tipped the balance even further away from the military by heading up all of the sciences. Under the circumstances, John didn't think that was such a bad idea especially when the very first issue brought before the Council was a call to form a new Atlantean military. With so many open-minded men and women on the Council, no one argued against taking the best of international military rules and regulations, thereby throwing out DADT and all its restrictions.

Until that moment, John had never realized how much DADT had weighed him down mentally and now he was free of its restrictions, and able to love another man openly, especially as that man was Rodney McKay. He'd seen the same weight lift from Jack's shoulders too, recalling the first time he saw Jack and Daniel acknowledging their relationship in public, and the sheer joy on both of their faces as they shared a simple show of affection without fear of reprisals.

In the year since Jack had removed Kinsey permanently from office, they had achieved amazing things, somehow managing to avoid awakening the Wraith that Sam had spoken of at great length. Having spent the past years battling the Goa'uld and then the Ori, no one had wanted to confront another powerful enemy so soon, but Rodney made certain that this sleeping enemy was not forgotten. After all, these were the creatures that had defeated the Ancients, forcing them to abandon the Pegasus galaxy and return to Earth ten thousand years earlier. It was inevitable that they would cross paths eventually but, unlike the Ancients, John hoped the new Atlanteans would be fully prepared by then.

With the ZPM retrieved from the Quindosim, they did not lack for power in the short term but the city had been built to run off three ZPMs working in parallel. If the Wraith were to awaken and realize the city was occupied once more, sending another armada to besiege the city, then the shield would not hold indefinitely.

When they discovered the remnants of a powerful weapon on a dead world called Doranda, John didn't need to warn Rodney of the potential disaster ahead of him as Sam had already forewarned Rodney, explaining why the weapon was flawed. Perhaps her Rodney would have ignored the warning, too full of hubris to allow a puzzle of this magnitude to elude him but John's Rodney let that dead world rest in peace. Instead, he concentrated his efforts on fine tuning the work started by their own Sam Carter, to extract energy from parallel universes without creating the exotic particles that had caused the destruction of five-sixths of a star system or pulling in part of that universe that was out of phase with the rest of it. The work was proceeding slowly as no one had the slightest intention of suffering the same fate as Carter but John knew they would eventually succeed.

"Breakfast?" Rodney asked, breaking John out of his reverie.

John nodded and followed Rodney to the mess hall where most of their meals were still cooked and eaten. As he entered, though, John noticed slightly fewer people and smiled as he joined the queue. Last week they had opened up a new part of the city close to the main tower, one that contained family units with cooking facilities. Perhaps the mess hall would gradually lose some of its customers as people began to regain the privacy of their former lives. Certainly, last week had been hectic enough organizing all the moves but he'd heard few complaints.

John had to admit that he'd taken advantage of being on the council to grab one of the best apartments with a balcony overlooking the ocean rather than facing other towers. He figured he and Rodney deserved it after all they did to protect and maintain the city and its inhabitants, though John hoped they wouldn't have to move again any time soon. For people who had arrived in Pegasus with just the clothes on their backs, the new Atlanteans had managed to acquire an extraordinary amount of possessions in such a short space of time, and that applied to Rodney in particular. Of course moving also meant they were no longer living next door to Rodney's sister and her family, and John considered that a good thing because Rodney felt he had to keep down the erotic moans and cries knowing his sister was only the depth of a wall away - even if the rooms were soundproofed.

In the last week, John had done his best to make up for almost a year of Rodney stifling his passionate cries. He'd teased and caressed his lover, drawing out the pleasure until both of them were shaking with need, and waiting until Rodney was begging for release before bringing him over the edge with a resulting cry that should have rattled the foundations of the city itself.

Rodney pushed up his glasses and glared at the purple fruit overflowing a bowl on the serving counter.

"Does that have citrus? I'm deathly allergic to citrus and I'd like to see how long this city remains floating if I should succumb to anaphylaxis and die."

"No, sir. Verified citrus free by Dr. Beckett himself so you'll be perfectly safe eating it."

The fruit had come from Athos as a new trade item and, graciously, the Athosians had allowed them to pick as much of it as they wanted in trade for other goods. Based on alternate Sam's information, they had made contact with the Athosians one of their first priorities and found their leader, Teyla, every bit as wise and friendly as Sam reported. It also meant they had fresh meat on the menu on a regular basis as well as leather-type goods. Teyla was even kind enough to introduce them to other trading partners though they stayed well away from the Genii much to Teyla's confusion.

John's only regret was that they had yet to find the runner called Ronon Dex. In the other timeline they'd come across him after he had been a runner for seven years, so if nothing else had changed then he'd been running for almost a decade now - if he was even still alive.

John grabbed his usual breakfast and waited for Rodney before selecting a table close to the high windows, noticing that Rodney did not pick up one of the purple fruit despite the assurances. He grinned when Jack entered the mess hall with Daniel not long after, unsurprised when they thread their way through the tables to join them.

"Whatcha got?" Jack asked, eying Daniel's plate warily, and John had to smile.

Of all of them, Daniel was the most likely to try anything new, seeing it all like a cultural experiment. Jack was more like Rodney where food was concerned, sticking to plain dishes until someone proved the new item on the menu wasn't out to kill him or his taste buds. He saw Daniel sigh and cut off a piece of the dark purple fruit and hand it to his lover. Jack eyed it cautiously before popping it into his mouth, letting the taste flood over him before deigning to chew carefully, and then with gusto as his warm brown eyes opened wide in appreciation.

"Not bad. You should try some, McKay."

Of course Rodney was watching avidly. "Really?"

John exchanged a conspiratorial smile with Daniel as Rodney and Jack fought over Daniel's purple fruit.

They parted after breakfast; Rodney to the labs as he refused to spend all his time dealing with administration, and John to organize the offworld teams due to go out later that week to collect more of the purple fruit that Rodney had suddenly declared fit to eat after sampling it at breakfast. John had to admit that Daniel could be pretty manipulative on occasion.

They caught sight of each other at odd moments during the day though with never enough time to do more than brush fingers or smile before heading off in different directions but John knew all that would change this evening. He smiled as he thought of the night ahead, already anticipating the silkiness of Rodney's skin beneath his fingertips and the warmth of his breath against his throat as they rocked towards a perfect climax.

Tomorrow the city would celebrate the first anniversary of the new Atlantis, the day when they cast aside the draconian measures set up on Earth following disclosure of the Stargate program and began to live again as a free people. For John, every day he spent with Rodney was a new day to rejoice, and he planned to be celebrating for as long as they both lived.

THE END