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In the Place of Jackals

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Monochrome beachscape, gray sky, gray sea, gray sand. A single silhouette moved against a fog-shrouded horizon.

Cyclops watched, the eye of the storm open, unblinking, day and night, filling half the sky.

High tide scrabbled angrily at the pebbled shore, throwing scraps and trash at the island's barren edge, tearing away everything it could as it bled back, endlessly repeating. The man on the beach thought of another tale, another time and place, another man with a story of an ocean of dust at the end of a world.

Determination would wear iron beams down to needles. Even the seas washed away on the tides of time.

Out of long habit, he avoided the seething foam's edge without even looking. The invisible weight of the gas planet overhead no longer pressed his shoulders down. No Atlas, he. Shrugging off the surly bonds of Earth had turned out to be harder than defying gravity.

He came down and walked to where the water tossed up interesting bits and pieces of another long vanished alien civilization most days. His eyes always turned to the western horizon.

Some days he could see the dim gleam of sunlight on a broken naquadah curve.

Even when the sea was quiet on this shore, he could hear the boom of the ocean crashing into the mainland rocks. Midday high tide, he could see the spume geyser several stories high as it battered through eroded labyrinths of stone. It would shatter any boat and drown any swimmer foolish enough to brave that approach.

He didn't indulge in foolishness any longer.

He walked with a driftwood stick he'd picked up. He'd leave it behind when he walked back to the cabin, but until then, he amused himself working out a set of equations that mapped his latest theory. He'd made progress since the last time he took a walk here. When he ran into a problem with the math, the tide erased it, while he strolled higher up the beach and tried again. By the time he walked away, all evidence of his work was gone, down to his footprints.

He liked it that way.

He considered whether he could work out the problems inherent in his latest discovery. Weaponizing the effect wouldn't take much effort, but it might not be worth it, considering the inherent weaknesses. Someone who understood the physics underlying it could engineer a counter-effect in less than a day. Of course, few minds were close enough to his caliber to spot the flaw and, under the circumstances, he doubted any of them would ever see the specifications. Flawed but still useful, he decided. Good enough for government work, since it wouldn't be for his government.

Without a watch, he had to estimate the time, but until the evening fog rolled in he could stay out, navigating by the eerie planetlight reflecting from Cyclops's face.

Eventually, though, a grumbling gut reminded him to turn back along the track he'd worn from the beach to the simple cabin that had been built for him when he arrived. He didn't want to try to light a fire in the dark while shivering and cold from the mist beginning to bead on his clothes.

A glance up showed him a veil of fog, cataract white, blurring the vast dark storm on the hemisphere the gas giant kept facing its G-type star. Though he knew it was all a fancy in his head, he gave a nod towards Cyclops. The planet was his most constant of companions, after all. The Jovian saw all, but spoke only in tongues, a constant radio roar no one listened to no matter what they heard. Cyclops had a period of nine Terran years. Very soon, let the circle be unbroken, Cyclops and he would return to where they'd begun, Ouroboros orbit, world without end, amen.

To bed, to bed, back to his very own hermitage, and tomorrow he'd walk the path again and stare across the strait, at the narrow passage, if the sun deigned to shine through the overcast clouds. The English major would have recognized the fragments, the flotsam and jetsam, that whispered commentary through all his thoughts these days, and would have taken more comfort in them. Though not perhaps in the voices that spoke them. He considered those a maddening indication that his brain cells were rotting away. Not comfort. Comfort was… Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me, no, they didn't. No one was with him. Physics and math alone soothed him, were the blocks he first built into a fortress of the mind, a fortress of solitude.

I'm not Superman… Does anybody think…? No, no one did. No longer.

He shook his head to clear it as he hurried his steps while there was still light to see the path. He didn't let himself think of how lonely he was except at night. He lost track too easily these days, lost time too. Fog and dusk could fool his eyes; they weren't as sharp as they had been once. He blamed the damned candle light more than age, though the aching in his joints grew worse season by season.

~*~

On the wettest days, the electrified fence sizzled and sparked a visible reminder of the lethal charge running through it, while diamond droplets of rain glittered on the razor wire. The clean, galvanized chain link provided a brutal contrast with the bare dirt at its base. Yet even when this world's sun warmed its way through the clouds, the area had nothing to commend it beyond neatness. The latest soldiers were conscientious, but then they'd only begun their tour a month previously, while their predecessors gratefully rotated out. After five more months, these soldiers would likely stop caring about the niceties of base upkeep, too. No one came to Elba voluntarily; it was a punishment assignment. Most of the past deployments had given up on pretending otherwise half-way through their rotation; none of them had ever made any efforts at beautification.

This batch had sprayed everything inside the compound with a chemical defoliant — he called it the Guard Shack, though there were three buildings in all — along with a wide swath beyond the fence. Salting the earth. The poison had killed the native plants and broken them down to sludge, leaving behind only bare dirt that turned to mud each time it rained.

In the seven years he had experienced on his own extraterrestrial Elba, it had rained for at least an hour every day.

The local ground cover wouldn't conceal a mouse, not that the local ecology ran to mammals. The biggest thing it boasted was a hand-sized amphibian analog that burrowed after underground-growing fungi. After the soldiers sprayed, hundreds of them had crawled down to the beaches and died. He couldn't imagine why anyone cared enough to wipe out a few weeds, unless it was pure boredom and the will to destroy that seemed to nestle in every human. It hadn't been necessary, since there were cameras on each post to make sure no one, meaning him, made it over or under the fence unseen.

As if, after so long, he'd suddenly reveal he was a ninja or a mole man.

He would have preferred stepping through a stargate, but while stone walls did not a prison make, an island on an alien world with a disabled stargate made for a very effective cage. One which no one, were they free, would ever look to find.

The three buildings inside the fence were all prefab military-industrial ugly, unadorned, and unmarked. They formed a triangle with an open area containing a set of cargo-sized transport rings. During his third year on Cyclops's rock, a soldier had walked out with an assault weapon and sprayed all three buildings with fire until one of his buddies took him down.

One building had been put up as barracks. The soldiers not on duty spent most of their time inside it; Elba had nothing to offer to such men and no one was allowed outside the fence anyway. He hadn't seen inside, so he didn't know what their lords and masters sent them as entertainment, but it couldn't be much. No one had ever stayed beyond one tour. No one had ever returned either.

The second building consisted of storage, duty offices, monitoring, an armory and an infirmary — where they'd kept the soldier who went postal sedated and in restraints until the biannual resupply ship arrived. The Guard Shack didn't possess any comms to call for help out of fear he would find a way to subvert it and, if it had an emergency beacon, one mental breakdown that hadn't resulted in any casualties hadn't been reason enough to use it.

The third building could only be accessed by the officer of the day with a code that changed every six hours, along with palm and retinal scans and a second command code transmitted from the duty office within a thirty second window. Two armed guards accompanied him inside while he worked, while another two remained stationed outside the sole exit. There were no windows.

Aside from a quarterly physical, the cavity search he was subjected to when he was escorted out of the research lab each time was the only human touch he'd experienced in years, besides his own. He physically ached for all the inconsequential contacts that had once annoyed him. No one returned his insults, no one smirked or rolled their eyes, or teased him either and he missed all of that as well.

A single naquadah generator provided power for the entire compound. Its location was a carefully guarded secret — he had deduced it within the first week of his imprisonment — though what they thought he'd do if he managed to shut down the compound confounded him. It wouldn't get him off the moon. It wouldn't even get him off the island.

He presented himself at the single gate in the fence, where the camera could take a good look at him, per the rules. With a sardonic twist to his mouth, he held his arms out and turned a slow three- hundred-sixty degrees to give whoever was on watch the complete view. He hadn't been tasked with anything since the last pick-up, so he wouldn't be going inside the fence again until the next one, unless he got sick enough to warrant an infirmary visit. They had him chipped so they could track him wherever he went on the island, but the newbie officer brought in the month before was insisting on SOP: the prisoner must present himself once a day.

He had preferred the last one: an aging officer who hadn't given two shits about anything except staying drunk as many hours of the day as possible. That officer had sent out his last half bottle of booze just before leaving, the single most generous action he could remember from any of his guardians. Another two months and this latest asshole would begin cracking, based on the evidence of previous commanders.

It would be entertaining, at the very least, if this one started shooting her own men. Less so if she tried to kill him, but he counted that an unlikely possibility. It was a punishment posting, but one that only went to a certain screened and trusted complement.

~*~

The tremor made the candle flames twist and shiver, but he ignored it. The island routinely shook harder; the entire moon suffered nearly daily quakes. The engineers who put up the Guard Shack and his tiny, bare-bones cabin had chosen the sites for geological stability. That the two locations were out of direct line of sight had been an accident, though he treasured the illusion of privacy it provided.

At some point it had become necessary to pretend the only other humans on the moon with him weren't always watching. True solitude would have been easier than living on sufferance, waiting for the next time his masters yanked his leash. Maybe that made him crazy, but who wouldn't be in his shoes?

The engineers had done a good job of putting the cabin together. Unless he brought it in with his clothes, neither the fog nor the rain tapping on the roof crept inside, and no dampness lingered so long as he had something to burn in the small hearth.

The cabin held nothing except a twin bed, a table and chair, and a wall of shelves containing the meager supplies he was allowed. Any tools were preformed plastic or wood. Even the zips on his jumpsuits were plastic. Their paranoid terror that he would build a weapon or bust out using a laptop and a fork alternately amused and depressed him. He could have done a lot with even basic tools, but he couldn't build a starship or even find a way to hijack one. Yet he knew if they hadn't considered his brain, his beautiful, dangerous mind to be an asset too valuable to give up, he would have been executed instead of exiled under Cyclops's eye.

Aside from a change of clothes, a crate of packaged meals and bottles of water, the shelves also held boxes of matches, candles, a few extra blankets, pencils and a box of loose paper. The latter two weren't any kindness; more like lures, since no one considered him a suicide risk, not with his ego. If someone had thought that ego would lead to him keeping a journal which they could use as a lever to pry open his head, he'd fooled them. He routinely left poisoned proofs written out for the soldiers who regularly searched the cabin to record and pass back to their masters instead. His real work he kept in his head or encrypted even as he drafted it and burned as soon as he finished.

He kept his hate to himself. The others would have been shocked at how silent he'd become, you have the right to remain silent unless you've signed an NDA and the rest of your civil rights away, and he had been pretending he was broken since he'd arrived. He'd been patient as a spider weaving a blind web, softly softly catchee monkee.

Hunching over the paper so that no camera could get a glimpse of it made his back ache and the crappy light had a vice slowly tightening on his entire skull with each pounding pulse beat. He finished the code section he'd hide in his next project for the enemy — the flawed weapon — memorized it and shredded the paper with a few choice curses to signal the frustration of a failure for anyone monitoring. He fed each piece into the candle flame, watching it catch, the edges ember bright then blackening as it curled and contorted. He inhaled the sharp reek of smoke from the burning paper, so different from either a candle or a match. When the flame threatened to blister his fingers, he finally dropped the last ashy fragment to the table top. The last remnants were swept into his palm once they cooled and he flushed them into the chemical toilet in the corner.

He stripped down to boxers and t-shirt and socks, lined his boots up under the table where he could find them in the dark without tripping on them, then blew out the candle. He knew the dimensions of his single room even in the dark and stepped over to the bed without hesitation, crawling under the covers and lying straight. It helped his back a little.

In the dark, he let his mask of madness slip, let the ache and the loneliness and the acid worry that tainted every moment rise up, swallowing a sigh but allowing his face to crumble with sorrow. Infra-red wouldn't show his expression, but audio pickups would let any listeners identify every sound he made.

Maybe his pain would incite pity, but he suspected it would just as likely trigger contempt and bullying. Human nature was to attack the weak, while human instinct was to avoid the mad, in case it was catching. His intermittent insanity — it wasn't all an act, no, indeed — served as his protection in more than one way.

Sadness, though, sadness was a weakness, just as love and mercy had proved to be. They had been quick to take advantage of the latter. He wouldn't give them the satisfaction of seeing the former.

A resupply ship was due soon, sometime in the next few days by his calculations, another six monthes washed away with the tides. A tear slipped from the corner of his eye, so that he blinked against the dark. All day long my dishonor is before me And my humiliation has overwhelmed me. If they sent their favorite dog, he'd have a chance to execute his plan, but it was a chance he couldn't take. He had to hope and he had to wait.

He'd been waiting for years.

He steadied his breathing, made himself as quiet as possible, and tried to remember what it had been like when there had been someone else in a bed with him. He'd replayed every encounter he'd had with Jennifer and everyone else he'd ever slept with until he couldn't be sure if the details he remembered were real or invented. All but that one afternoon in a motel, that remained real, because it still hurt. Let me recall his valour, not his love; Love was his loneliness; his living pride, Save when we lay bewildered side by side. The sound of the rain brought it forward, but he couldn't bear to wear the memory away the way he had all the others.

The words stayed inside. He didn't allow himself to even shape them silently. He missed everyone so much, worried about Jeannie, Kaleb, and Madison, because he'd made them targets, wondered if any of the people they'd evacuated at the end had managed to stay free, but, more than anything else, he missed John.

He missed John when it rained.

It rained every day.

~*~

Rodney woke with a grunt, shocked out of his uncomfortable doze by a blast of dusty air hitting his face as John wound down the driver's side window. His neck and back both immediately protested the bucket seat and the slump he'd assumed in it. He pawed gunk from his eyelashes and twisted to look at John with his mouth open to complain, but no words came forth, instead he studied John with a melancholy intentness he'd always hidden before.

"Hey," John said. He had one hand on the steering wheel and the other lying along the edge of the open window. The arms of his wrinkled blue button-down were rolled up and the slipstream ruffled the dark hair on his forearm. His wrist looked bony and vulnerable without the bulk of the heavy watch he normally wore, but they'd ditched and replaced all their personal effects down to their underwear once Rodney had fried their subcues. Everything was new, clothes straight from the racks, and somehow John hadn't replaced the watch or the brace his wristband had always concealed. Even the black aviator sunglasses were new, bought at a gas-n-go after they paid cash for the car. They hid John's eyes, but not the crinkles at the corners. Reflected in the lenses, the blacktop highway ribboned straight to the storm-darkening horizon.

Rodney refused to believe in omens, but they were leaving the light behind, driving into cloud shadows.

"Unh."

"Eloquent as always."

Rodney wanted to ask him if John knew what he was doing, if they knew what they were doing, because it could only end in disaster, but he didn't. John was his best friend; he knew John better than he'd ever know Jennifer, and John knew as well as he did that this was beyond tilting at windmills. So he didn't say anything. It had been too late to back out the first time they walked through a wormhole together.

"Bite me," he muttered instead.

John's mouth twitched into his quirky, half-smug smile. As usual, by late afternoon, he needed a shave. The ominous pre -storm sunlight caught on the short bristles, highlighting where John's beard was coming in silver. "Yeah," he said. He lifted his hand from the steering wheel and pointed to the roiling clouds massing in the west. "Storm coming."

"Hands on the wheel, hands on the wheel!" Rodney screeched at him and made a grab for it.

John gave out a soft snort, but conceded so far as to place both hands on the wheel. The heel of one hand grazed Rodney's fingers on the smooth-worn plastic, warm, damp from the oppressive heat, and as familiar as breathing.

"Segilla next," John said. "I figure if we stay there tonight, the storm'll blow through by morning and we can take turns until we reach the coast."

Rodney didn't want to contemplate what sort of motel they'd end up in. "Okay," he replied.

"Can't be worse than some of the places we've slept offworld."

Imagining bed bugs, cockroaches and scorpions, Rodney still didn't bother contradicting him, not even when he reflected that they were even looking at being locked up if anyone figured out what they were planning. He did his best to stretch his stiff muscles without knocking an elbow into John's arm instead and calculate how much longer they'd be on the road based on the road sign for Segilla they passed and John's lead foot.

The motel didn't even have a name, just a worn and faded blue sign following the sight line from the gas station-market-sporting goods store. The neon tubes to light it at night were broken and Rodney briefly wondered first if the place was even still in business. John insisted on filling the Firebird's tank first, in case they had to take off — though if they had to run in it, they were already screwed — and confirmed with the attendant when he paid that the motel had rooms.

John checked them in, one room, paying in cash the way they both did anywhere they could, and came back out with a key he tossed to Rodney before starting the car again and driving it around the west side of the motel. It put them out of sight of the highway. Rodney got out after they parked and stared in disbelief. The arid flats stretched to the mountains and there was a tumbleweed on the barren concrete walkway between the parking lot and the mustard colored wall.

"I said I wanted a room as far from the road as possible so I could sleep better," John explained.

"Oh. Good thinking." Rodney checked the number on the yellow key tag — why was he not surprised that this place had never progressed to swipe cards? — and found the associated door. John was already pulling their two bags, bought at an Army-Navy surplus in St. Louis, out of the trunk. The third bag, the one with the guns, was in the backseat, because if they needed them, there wouldn't be time to get them from the trunk. Rodney grabbed it and the case for the laptop he'd bought and reformatted while John was getting the guns and carried both to the door, where he had to juggle the laptop case to get the key in the lock.

He didn't bother commenting on the bed, just settled the laptop and the gun bag on the faded cover and headed for the washroom. The bath-shower had chipped white tile and rust stains, but was clean. The single towel hanging on the skewed rack over the toilet might serve to dry someone's hands.

John ducked his head inside as Rodney was splashing water onto his face. "Could be worse."

"Yes, yes, I'm sure that we'll both be intimately acquainted with that truth before this is over."

"After anyway," John amended. He eyed Rodney before smirking and handing him the towel. "I'm going to catch a nap."

Rodney commandeered the room's chair and table to set up the laptop and hooked up the smartphone that provided a portable hotspot. He checked each of the innocuous sites where the others might have left coded messages, while John shoved the gun bag to one side on the double bed and stretched out. John slept quietly, without moving much, and Rodney ignored him. His presence soothed Rodney's nerves despite everything; it had been that way since the first mission together. As long as they were together, the superstitious part of his brain insisted, they'd be okay.

The wind outside picked up, rattling loose boards and window frames like a burglar, but the rain still held off and the room simmered just above sweltering even with the window AC cranked on high, until the electricity cut out, the deaf emptiness of its absence almost painful. The only sound left was the huff of his laptop's fan. Since Rodney always picked a high performance model, it ate battery time like a kid with candy, so he saved the code he'd been working on and closed it.

John snapped awake.

Without even the blue light from the laptop, shadows shrouded the room, but enough light seeped through the curtains on the front window to reflect from John's eyes.

Rodney watched John roll out of bed — just a shadow himself — with an unlicensed and no doubt illegal Glock in his hand. He even accepted the Beretta and extra clips John handed him. He tapped the phone instead. "They'd jam cell transmissions if they found us," he murmured. He didn't say he hadn't heard any engines approach or helicopter rotors: the SGC had Asgard beaming, they could set up an assault without a sound.

John stayed low and checked the view from the cramped bathroom's window before coming back. The wind scratched at the door and Rodney could hear himself breathe, he thought he could hear his own heartbeat, and the sound of John clicking the safety back on the Glock.

"If anyone's out there — "

"We're screwed anyway." Sweat made Rodney's shirt cling under his arms and along his back. The room was already nearing unbearable.

John tucked the Glock under the waistband of his jeans at the small of his back before pulling the tail of his shirt over it. "Shit, it's hot in here. I'm going to go take a look around, maybe find a cold drink."

"Get me one too," Rodney told him.

He waited until John had ghosted out the door, then gave in to the heat and stepped outside too. The wind fingered his shirt and got enough dust in his eyes to make them water, but it was cooler. He could almost taste the rain promised by the clouds. A zigzag too fast and white-bright to do more than register leaped between earth and cloud and Rodney counted out the seconds until the thunder arrived. It had likely been a lightning strike that took out the electricity. Just enough light to see by outside, though not in the smothering room.

John came back with a sweating bottle of water and a green-and-yellow soda can. He accepted the water and twisted it open, then sat down on the shallow step where the concrete met the pavement.

"We're so fucked," Rodney said.

The shush-pop of the can of pop being opened didn't contradict him. John shuffled closer, close enough Rodney could lean his shoulder into John's leg. His cheek rasped against the denim. They'd always touched on missions and this felt like one. Dangerous and comfortable at once and Rodney was tired of holding himself separate. John didn't shift away. A tumbleweed, skeleton fossil, bounced and rolled until it hit the Firebird's back bumper. It rocked a little from the wind after that but stayed wedged.

Sweat dried at his throat and his temples while they watched the slate-blue storm clouds build higher over the mountains, steadily darkening into deepening charcoals, increasingly streaked with lightning.

Rodney listened to John taking a swallow of his drink, then metallic creak of the aluminum can flexing under the pressure of John's fingers gripping it too tightly. He didn't look up, not even when John's other hand settled on the crown of his head, butterfly light. That was amazing, so new he didn't dare move and end it.

"Still time for you to get out," John said. "You and Jennifer."

They'd kept everything as compartmentalized as possible. Besides John and the team and Jennifer, there was no other member of the conspiracy who could say for sure Rodney was part of the plan to take Atlantis back. Of course, it wasn't hard to guess, but if he married Jennifer and headed for Canada, they could still weather the fallout. No one could prove anything and he had enough to offer that the IOA probably wouldn't try too hard. He'd have to sell his soul to them, of course, along with a first-born child probably, but he could have a comfortable life on Earth.

Except he couldn't. Rodney didn't rate their chances high, but without him, failure was guaranteed. Jennifer was committed; so was he. Someone had to blow up some windmills.

Of course, John — who never met a suicide mission he wouldn't take on — would give Rodney the out. The sonovabitch had been martyring himself on the cross of guilt since before Rodney ever met him. John Sheppard wasn't in love with death, not even half: no, he wanted the absolution of sacrifice, the bastard.

"No."

John's hand stayed on his head, a light touch that weighed heavy as a mountain.

The wind rose and another tumbleweed bounced across the parking lot. The last late-afternoon sunlight dimmed as the cloud cover swept overhead. On the highway, the sound of a car dopplered closer and louder until Rodney could pick out the shush of its tires along with the engine, then the thrum faded, rolling onward. The first patter of droplets gusted across the pavement. Tiny puffs of dust rose up when the heavy drops hit the dry dirt beyond the parking lot. They left visible wet spots on the concrete, spreading and dark. Everything felt preternaturally sharpened. The wind lifted and twisted, spattering his face, making him recoil though the rain drops weren't really that cold. Reflex.

He didn't make a conscious decision. He'd known; he'd understood John felt something stronger than the love of a friend for years. They'd both fought it for almost as long as they'd known each other. He'd turned to others and finally found Jennifer, but John hadn't even tried. Yet as long as John hadn't said it, Rodney had pretended he didn't know. That's how they'd functioned. We keep the wall between us as we go. Despite never acknowledging it, Rodney had known he desired John, in all his complicated, contrary beauty. Time to pretend otherwise had trickled away, until they found themselves in this hollowed-out moment.

He got to his feet without looking at John, but caught his hand and drew him along, inside the dark confines of the motel room. John followed, willing and silent, letting Rodney get rid of the soda can and water bottle, coming to a stop when Rodney did, then shivering and closing his eyes as Rodney caressed his cheek. Rodney waited, unmoving, while John swallowed hard, his long, bare throat giving him away, waited until John opened his eyes. He smiled, meeting John's uncertain gaze.

"Now?" John asked in a hoarse voice.

"Why not?" Rodney replied, because the risk was nothing compared with what they had planned. What was one more charge against them? This could be their last and only chance. Rodney couldn't bear to pretend any longer. His breath caught with a mixture of apprehension. John's eyes were dark with the same desire he felt; it made Rodney's heart trip and rush with gathering excitement.

"Jennifer?"

"She's okay."

She knew how he felt about John, intuited that John reciprocated, and had guessed their tacit agreement to never act on their attraction because of consequences. She was the one who had made Rodney face that he would always put John before her or anyone else, when he'd tried to feel otherwise. He loved her too, but never as much. It had been John first, it would always be John first.

"She knows?"

"I'm here with you, right?" He didn't allow John time to answer. "Right," Rodney confirmed. "She knows that it was always you and me first. Why else would I be doing this?"

"Because it's the right thing? Because you're my friend?"

"That's why the others are doing it. Not me. Though I would," Rodney blurted, "I would anyway, that's enough, even if this plan is going to get us all killed. Have you considered the odds against success? Even you don't have that kind of luck." He scowled at his own prediction. "But I'd — I'd do it anyway." Even if it was wrong, he thought, if it was for you.

John dipped his head and Rodney copied the movement automatically so their foreheads touched Athosian fashion, hands on each other's shoulders. Heat radiated through the thin fabric of John's shirt from the sharp bones and muscles under Rodney's grip. Shudders of anticipation ran through them both, heightened by the thin barriers of their clothes. Just opening one button of John's shirt had been forbidden until now and sliding his hand beneath the cloth… Rodney stopped before he did any more. He needed to savor every second of this.

John's breath hitched as he shifted, all fierce desperation and neediness. His hands stroked down Rodney's back so he could impatiently pull them both closer together. "I should have… " His voice cracked. "I wish… "

"Don't, don't wish, don't regret," Rodney told him. Time wasn't their friend, it never had been. They'd played it coy anyway. Let Lot's wife look back, they both knew better: it was tears that turned her to salt.

A sigh against his lips, the brush of eyelashes, and he shook as John's fingers found bare skin. John made a noise, a humming sigh, that left Rodney burning. Something wild and desperate leapt between them and Rodney finally reached for John, granting them both a stay before the execution, an admission of what had always been there, nerves and regrets and reason all cast away.

John took his cue and kissed Rodney, tender and tensed, but without drawing away when he paused to wait for Rodney's response.

He traced the shape of John's face for the first time with touch; his hands and John's bare skin, John's beard pricking the pads of his fingers, the lithe line of his neck giving away the drumrace of his pulse under Rodney's palm, and John's lips against his mouth lush then stinging rough. John held onto Rodney tight, as if he was fairy gold, destined to leave him clutching at nothing come dawn. Ardent, indulgent, then urgent, the sleek lick of tongues gave way to raw need, to teeth and pressing themselves to each other bruising close. Not a melting kiss, no, not one Rodney could lose himself in. A kiss to remember, instead, all of it: the heat, the hunger and relief and John's hesitant sweetness twined within it too. He only relaxed when Rodney moved in for another kiss, this one starting gently too but swiftly becoming desperately carnal as they clung together.

I see your mouth – oh, I can see. No, you have loved me: I am not afraid; I was wondering if it would be we. Words from some book he'd read when there was nothing else and remembered for their desperation. Memorized despite himself, knowing even then the lover's sorrow they described would arrive inevitably for John and him too.

No more wondering now. Rodney wanted more, wanted John wild under him, trembling with eagerness, and John moved with him, willing and matching him, as if Rodney could always have had him this way, if just once he'd reached out. That was too bitter to contemplate, so he pushed John back toward the bed. John caught his shoulders and pulled him almost angrily into another, harsher embrace. Lip to lip, with his hand clenched in John's hair, John's hands hard on his shoulders; hip to hip, grinding against each other recklessly, uncaring that the layers between them pained their pleasure.

Thunder swallowed whatever words might have spilled between them. They tumbled onto the bed, tangled arms and knees, the dim light letting them pretend there were no shadows in their world, while the storm broke at last with a rattle and a roar. Down drummed the rain, against windows and walls, roof and door, an enemy siege on a saintless sanctuary. Down smashed the walls they'd both built from the stones they'd made of their hearts.

Years of walls, but they crumbled with nothing more than a touch.

~*~

Sweating and breathless afterward, sprawled with John curled like a comma along his side, Rodney squinted at the ceiling. John had an arm slung over Rodney's waist, his head resting between Rodney's chest and shoulder. Rodney tangled his fingers through John's hair, combing loose the strands stuck to his temples and his forehead. He listened to the rain that had calmed into a steady downpour. It shut out everything else. They could have been home in Atlantis, back in Pegasus, camped on some nameless world… Rain always sounded the same.

"You're it for me, you know," John murmured in a faint lull, so low that Rodney wouldn't have heard if the rain hadn't slowed unpredictably.

"So? And?" If he sounded cruel, his hands silently gave the tender lie to his words. "I suppose it doesn't matter now."

He pressed John's head closer.

Rodney let his palm rest against the nape of John's neck, damp and warm and so vulnerable it made his breath catch, hearing the rest of John's meaning in the dense quiet of the electricity-less room. You're it, that's it, it's done, the end. Ask not for whom the bell tolls, just be ready to pay the toll, and the piper, and the ferryman.

"Just thought I should say it once."

~*~

As Rodney had predicted, the latest commanding officer had swiftly succumbed to the depression that saturated the damp air and given up on pointlessly yanking Rodney's chain. Mandatory every day check-ins had given way to Rodney showing up when he needed a new crate of MREs.

Since he didn't want anyone to realize he tracked the appearances of scheduled supply runs, Rodney made a point of not showing up at the gate the first day the ship was due. He spent his morning on the beach, enjoying the uncertain sun and picking up shards of a blue-green pot washed up with the morning tide. Figuring out its shape from the curves entertained him until lunch. He tucked a couple pieces in his pockets. The ceramic had been high quality and the color brighter than anything natural to the moon. He'd stick them on his shelves. It would give the searchers something new to find.

The grass stuff — it wasn't really grass, but a tangled, springy mat of filaments that tied together beneath the surface of the ground and kept the incessant rain from washing away the island's topsoil — had begun to turn mustard brown, a sure sign a colder winter was coming. The amphibian analogs would burrow underneath the net of roots soon to hibernate through the worst months.

He shoved his hands in his pockets and watched as the jumper arrived at the compound. That meant Coolidge; one jumper had been left in Atlantis when the Mutiny failed. Coolidge had made it his private chariot, another way to put Rodney in his place whenever he saw it. He wouldn't be allowed inside the fence until its pilot returned it to the ship.

Just watching the jumper rise again, returning through the atmosphere up into vacuum where a ship orbited invisible by day made him smile. Whoever the pilot was, he was no John Sheppard, who would have calculated a least-energy-burned arc in his head in a way that had always made Rodney sigh at his skill. Just watching, Rodney knew this pilot had had the ATA therapy. The sluggish way the jumper accelerated and drifted off course gave it away. It had always done the same with him.

Rodney lengthened his stride. No need to pretend he hadn't seen the jumper and didn't know what it meant. Ignoring a chance at tricking any news of the outside universe from a visitor would be out of character.

It was important to stay in character, as it reassured his captors that they had a handle on him.

Which they did, of course, the same one they'd had since his sentencing.

Two new guards — US marines this time, which Rodney filed away wondering if it meant something political — met Rodney at the gate. They stared at him in silent suspicion, but their fingers lay next to the triggers on their weapons rather than in them. He didn't look like much to a big bad marine. Of course, a square of plastic explosive looked like silly putty. Young soldiers, though, hadn't learned yet not to judge a book by its cover or that it might not even be a book.

Maybe they'd assigned marines because they'd sent Coolidge this time.

Rodney knew he looked like a wild man, since his hair and beard were only cut every quarter — scissors and electric razors being on the list of things forbidden for him to possess — but he'd aged better than the American IOA representative.

Coolidge had taken over the commander's office. He wrinkled his nose when the soldiers brought Rodney in.

"Excuse me, do I smell?" Rodney snapped. "Maybe if you let me have a damned shower and more than one change of clothes…."

"Still trying to demand concessions?" Coolidge asked.

Rodney shrugged and took the visitor's seat. He kicked his feet onto the commander's desk. Clumps of wet mud plopped off his boots onto the top. His manners, never good unless he made a point to think about them, had devolved. "It's your nose. I'm used to it." If he smelled, he truly didn't notice any longer.

Coolidge sniffed but said nothing more.

Rodney snapped his fingers. "You have something for me?"

"What would you do if I said no?"

Rodney didn't let the ice in his bones show, just shrugged. You shall not bind the mouth of an ox, while it is treading out the grain. "Absolutely nothing." He waited a beat. "Ever again."

Coolidge scowled but withdrew a crystal drive from his pocket and plugged it into the laptop sitting on the desk. A tap on the touchpad and his expression darkened further, but he spun the laptop so Rodney could see the screen.

"Proof of life."

~*~

"So how's the rest of the galaxy doing?" Rodney asked once the laptop had been closed. He leaned back while once again wondering about the friends and colleagues who had never been part of the show. The ones who were either free or dead. He had never asked and never would, because if anyone had managed to slip away unknown to the SGC and IOA, then he certainly didn't want to bring their names up.

He didn't want to hear that they were dead, either. This is the end. What hope have I? You, too, led captive and without cry?

Coolidge didn't disappoint him, just shook his head in mock sorrow. "Now, you know you're not allowed any information you might use against Earth."

Rodney folded his hands together over his belly. He could infer the shape of a thing from the shadow it threw. If the IOA still needed weapons technology then peace hadn't swept through the Milky Way. The way things had been shaping up, by now the Tau'ri might be as universally hated as the System Lords had been. With Atlantis in their backyard and the things Rodney had developed for them, the IOA might have built their own empire. No one loves an empire that isn't their own.

He hated thinking about it.

Even torturing himself with his next question was better.

"What about my sister and her family? Telling me about them would be so dangerous how?" Rodney didn't lean forward and let how much he wanted to hear anything about them show. Of course, Coolidge knew he wanted to know, but Rodney's bad record with his family had helped him pretend they didn't mean nearly as much as they did. Faking that they weren't important to him had been one of the few ways he could still protect them and himself.

"Do you really believe you deserve to know?" Coolidge asked.

Once, he'd thought Richard Woolsey was an ass and, well, in some ways Woolsey had been, but he'd never been a sadistic prick the way Coolidge was. Most of the IOA representatives were similar; they had all climbed the same ladder over the backs of anyone they could stab, but Coolidge made it personal too.

"Well, I'd kind of like to know if Jeannie ever saw the light and divorced the English major and, of course, while my niece was displaying a certain level of McKay brilliance, by now her father's sub-par genes might have dragged her down." He waved a hand. "As a matter of fact, please don't tell me if she's a teenage mother or studying literature. There are actual benefits to exile, it turns out."

His nonchalance frustrated Coolidge. Rodney marked up an invisible point to himself. Screwing with the few people he had to talk to was one of his rare amusements. Scoring on Coolidge, well, that maybe deserved an extra bonus point, what with how much Rodney hated him.

The smile that spread over his face made Coolidge recoil. Rodney added some teeth to it, hoping for some of the menace Ronon used to put into his snarls.

"Though I still contend denying me a decent coffee ration is cruel and unusual punishment and a violation of the Geneva Convention," Rodney said. He complained about the coffee and its lack every time. If he didn't, someone would become alarmed. Besides, withdrawal had been torture. A brain the quality of his deserved and needed caffeine in a dark, delicious liquid form. Though he had stopped needing it years ago, he still dreamed about a cup of Jamaican Blue Mountain, the heat of the cup in his hand, the aroma wafting from the smooth, nearly black surface, the smooth porcelain against his lip as he imbibed the first, perfect mouthful, the nearly orgasmic flavor as he savored and swallowed… Thank God he was too old for wet dreams, the coffee ones were bad enough. He pulled himself together enough to glare at Coolidge. "But that's right, the IOA isn't a signatory of the Geneva Convention, even if its member countries are. Still keeping the stargate classified on Earth? Of course you are. If it had been declassified, you and all the rest of the secret despots would be out of a job and on your asses. Providing a mob didn't string you up."

"Your life could be so much worse, you know," Coolidge replied.

"What are you going to take away?" Rodney shot back. "Candles? Because I get so much done by candlelight."

"Your freedom to wander around this island, perhaps?"

Rodney gave him a scornful look. "I'm sure the unlucky bastards assigned to this base are going to want to escort me everywhere. Or were you thinking of having me locked up in the compound? Let's be honest here. You don't want me talking to any of the guards. I may not be nice, they may not like me, but they'd still listen to me because they're bored. Then, when they rotate out, they might talk to someone and the next thing you know, someone is questioning whether that terrible war criminal Rodney McKay isn't still alive. You wouldn't want anyone to know that, would you?"

Coolidge smiled at him.

"In a few hours, I'll be leaving here. No matter what ridiculous threats you level, that doesn't change. I'll leave and you'll still be a prisoner."

~*~

" …The accused, a Canadian citizen, did, in violation of signed non- disclosure agreements entered into in the course of employment by the United States of America Department of Defense, the Stargate Program, Homeworld Security Agency, and the Atlantis Expeditionary Charter, and in contravention of the laws of the International Oversight Advisory member nations, conspire to distribute classified materials, commit acts of property destruction, cyber crimes, sabotage, theft, murder, attempted murder, armed assault, Class A crimes against peace and Class C crimes against humanity under the London Charter, espionage, sedition, terrorism, piracy, mutiny and treason."

The star chamber treatment didn't run to actual star-shaped rooms: the International Oversight Advisory Tribunal met in a rectangular conference room. Guards in ballistic armor, faces hidden behind riot shielding, stood at attention at all the exits. Four of them flanked Rodney.

The iron chains and manacles on his wrist and ankles dragged at him, but he ignored them to stand straight. They weren't any worse than his aching ribs and other pains. He refused to hunch over. It would look too much like bowing to the Tribunal facing him from their elevated half-circle. They kept him naked in his cell — suicide watch his moon-pale ass — and would have had him marched in the same way if it wouldn't have embarrassed them more than him.

Rodney met each censorious glare without flinching. He wasn't sorry, not for any of it, and not for what he hadn't done either. He could face himself in the mirror — if he ever saw one again.

Strom, the South African, was running things, but Rodney had no friends among the others either. France and Russia, LaPierre and Chekov respectively, were in a voting block with Strom, while Chapman and Dovelock, the UK and Canadian representatives, would follow the US's lead, which translated to Rodney was royally screwed. Coolidge hated Rodney almost as much as Rodney despised him. That left China as a wild card, but Shen Xiaoyi would be hot to make examples of him and anyone else they'd caught, to expunge the embarrassment of having given Woolsey a glowing performance evaluation.

Not that he'd expected anything but unanimous condemnation from the IOA.

He tuned out the self -aggrandizing lectures delivered by Strom and the others. Yes, yes, treason doth never prosper. It had been a fool's errand from the beginning, but there had been no choice. Not trying would have been a betrayal Rodney couldn't have lived with after. Not backing John's play, betraying Teyla and Ronon and everyone who bled and died in Pegasus remained unthinkable, even after they'd failed.

Had he and John and the others succeeded in taking Atlantis and leaving Earth behind, then this same Tribunal would have been suing to start peace talks and accord Rodney diplomatic status instead of trying him.

Accused and tried 'in timely fashion' by the IOA didn't mean being allowed council or representation or even to speak for himself. The first day, when he tried to argue at least one of the charges — Class C crimes against humanity and Class A crimes against peace as described under the London Charter — he'd been gagged. Rodney hadn't bothered speaking since. If he had been the war criminal the Tribunal charged him with being, Atlantis would have been free and major chunks of Earth would have no longer existed. Along with Atlantis itself; he'd had his finger on the button, John's command codes and his already entered and the self-destruct counting down. Blowing the stargate with it would have taken out the west coast of North America.

The IOA couldn't conceive the destructive power of a naquadah event or how lucky they were that Jeannie and Kaleb lived in Vancouver, BC. Rodney had stopped the countdown at fifteen seconds. A Pyrrhic victory wasn't worth it. If the Goa'uld and the Ori could be defeated, then someday the IOA would fall from power too.

Strom droned on.

"This Tribunal unanimously finds the accused, Meredith Rodney McKay, guilty of all charges."

Rodney raised his chin and glared back defiantly, making it a point to meet the gaze of each Tribunal member in turn until they flinched. Dovelock looked almost apologetic, Chapman glanced away, Shen presented a stony mask, and Chekov looked angry, as he had through the entire farce. LaPierre wouldn't look up from the papers before him. His shoulders were hunched; no doubt Strom had strong-armed him with some of the same blackmail material Rodney had found on him and refrained from using.

More fool Rodney, he realized now.

Coolidge looked smugly pleased.

Strom didn't give away anything. He demanded in a bored, pro forma tone, "Have you anything to say?"

Rodney snorted in disbelief and contempt. "Sentence me."

"Having been found guilty under Paragraph 46 (2) (a), (c), and (d) of the legal code of the Dominion of Canada, you are sentenced to a minimum punishment of life imprisonment."

Rodney sneered at Strom. The moron didn't even know it wasn't the Dominion of Canada, just Canada. Without Richard Woolsey, the IOA seemed to lack any decent lawyers. Of course they might mouth the words, but they operated above the law anyway.

Life in prison. He'd been expecting it. Had expected worse in fact. That they'd wall him away, likely hidden under a false identity, until they found a use for him. Following Canadian law must provide them some loophole they meant to exploit.

Strom stared back without expression and finished, "However, under the authority of the International Oversight Advisory Tribunal, superseding Canadian law, you are sentenced to death. The execution of the sentence not to occur in less than seven days or more than fourteen."

Rodney swallowed hard, shocked, but managed not to throw up. His mind leaped immediately to how it would be done. Electric chair? No, that would require access to a US prison and paperwork the IOA wouldn't want. Lethal injection then; the IOA had numerous doctors it could call on to do its dirty work. Unless they went with a firing squad…. At least it would be fast.

He wouldn't bow and he wouldn't beg. He'd be strong the way he knew John would be. He imagined John standing before a firing squad, a white blindfold over his eyes, standing straight and fearless, and had to muffle a scream of denial.

No, John would have some smart-ass quip to throw at them.

Rodney's throat was too dry and his mind too full of panic to manage any words.

"This Tribunal is closed," Strom stated. "Guards, return the prisoner to his cell."

Rodney turned without giving the guards a chance to jerk him into motion. The manacles kept his strides short. The chains clinked with each step, the dull sound echoing death, death, death.

~*~

Every-ATA positive in Atlantis felt the city scream. Rodney heard it over the comms too: the end of everything, invaders and air strikes and artillery shrieking across the sky while the alarms screamed sensor warnings.

His gaze tracked the ballistic arc back to the launch base a hemisphere away and drew the only conclusion possible. "Close your eyes!" he shouted.

Amelia pushed Miko down in a crouch, a hand resting on the back of her neck, hiding her own eyes in the crook of her elbow, and cursing. Rodney hunched over a console and covered his face with his hands.

Nuclear reaction flared against the shield, night flashing brighter than day, and Atlantis itself screamed around them, heaving in the poisoned waters. If hell wasn't silent, then it was the deafening clap that followed. The shield held, but half their Earth-built systems fried. The comms filled with ear-bleeding static, despite Sheppard's insistence on EMP-hardened tech, unless Rodney had simply gone deaf.

Rodney blinked away white-orange after-images of his bones outlined by light, illuminated, irradiated, glowing gold through crimson veils of flesh, and struggled to bring up Atlantis' own internal comm system. Behind him, Ronon rode through the jolt with a shout of anger. Miko took over from Rodney a second later. Her glasses were skewed on her face, one lens cracked and tears mixed with blood on her cheek, yet her hands moved over the control surfaces without hesitation. Amelia went back to her own post, cursing under her breath.

His hands were shaking, fingers stumbling as he tried to push the systems to full power for the stardrive. The ZPM had just enough charge for a single lift-off and hyperspace jump. Rodney and Radek had both calculated it over and over. The plan had required a minimum of twelve hours before launch and they'd scheduled the takeover for the night shift to give the buffers time to fill overnight from a stacked series of naquadah generators. A cold start using only a nearly drained ZPM threatened to tear Atlantis apart and the collateral damage from the attack on the city now would be nothing compared to what lighting the stardrive while the city was still half-immersed would do.

The ZPM was drained too far, and no matter how many non-critical systems Rodney sacrificed, naquadah generators just weren't strong enough to light the city's stardrive and maintain the shield. He'd hoped for more, despite Radek's direst predictions, but no magic fix revealed itself. They were crippled.

He shut down the transporters, feeling sick, in order to keep the shield up just a little longer.

"Partial comms back up," Miko reported.

Over the control room speakers, Lorne's voice blared deafeningly, mixed with static and jamming. "We have to pull back. I don't have enough people to hold and they've taken the armory."

Lorne didn't have enough people, Rodney didn't have enough, and neither did Sheppard; they'd had to make their move with only a skeleton crew in place and too many of them unaware of the plan.

Rodney located Lorne's group, far out in the city on Pier Two, and the lifesigns of another assault squad. The plan had been good, it should have worked, but the other side had reacted too fast. No time to wonder who had sold them out. Everything was crumbling around him.

He pushed Miko to the side and activated the comm. "Do it now. They're using nukes. Everything outside the shield is a hot zone and I'm going to retract the shield in three minutes, on my mark. Transporters are down."

"Why don't you come down here and fuck us in person?" Lorne demanded.

"Too busy here getting screwed myself," Rodney replied. Lorne's bitterness only made him feel more put-upon. As if he'd be more useful holding a gun than keeping the city mostly intact. "Mark."

"Ackno — " The transmission fizzed and spat, cutting out anything else Lorne said. Rodney controlled the urge to slam his hand down on a console. He couldn't afford — Lorne and his people couldn't afford — to accidentally jump that countdown forward.

Something plastic was burning; he could smell it. Amelia hissed and jerked back, stumbling into Rodney before catching her balance. She spun away without apologizing, grabbed a fire extinguisher from beneath the dialing console and doused a sparking laptop in foam.

Atlantis always situated itself to catch the rising sun through the gate room windows, while at night they mirrored the interior darkly. The merciless false dawn of another explosion outside the shield bled color through the stained glass for a heartbeat. Rodney jerked his attention away from the eerie beauty, the gemstone colors blazed into the floors and walls, blinking desperately. The chances of seeing the true sunrise were rapidly disappearing. The windows on the far side of the gate faded to paper-pale, kohl-rimmed gray once more.

"Get me the chair room," Rodney told Miko. He had to talk to Sheppard. Sheppard, not John, because he always thought of him that way when they were in the shit. Not as John, whose skin he'd caressed, whose mouth he'd kissed, who made him hurt with happiness and the fear of losing it. He swallowed back bile, though a panicked voice in the rear of his mind babbled about extreme radiation poisoning. He began inputting the parameters to deform the shield into an oblate that would continue to include the ZPM chamber, cursing the designers who spread both out from the control tower. The Ancients hadn't believed in centralization and they'd been too arrogant to ever believe they'd be vulnerable. Atlantis had few internal security measures once it had been breached.

At least they'd been fans of redundancies.

The city shuddered and fired a first salvo of drones, reaching into the sky in tracer-fire arcs, lines of gold against the mauves and purples of dawn. Rodney drew a breath against the tightness in his chest; John was in the command chair. Bombers and attack fighters streaked down, firing weapons based on Goa'uld and Ancient tech Rodney knew all too well at the city, splashing chrysanthemum explosions against the shield. The drones tore them from the sky with ruthless precision under Sheppard's direction, but the enemy outnumbered them and a second wave shrieked in from the still-dark western sky.

"Damn it, I said get me comms to the chair room," Rodney shouted. He redirected the power from the transporters to the stargate. Maybe John would have an idea, an order, something for them to do to rescue themselves, because Rodney's mind had gone hollow.

The earpiece of his comm spat worse static.

"That is as clear as I can make it," Miko declared.

Rodney nodded and shifted so she could take his place. "Monitor the shield. I've got — we're in trouble, if I can't pull a miracle out of my — "

"Rodney, what's our status?" Sheppard demanded. He sounded strained, no doubt from splitting his attention between directing drones and trying to power up the stardrive: impatient, focused, yet still cool as ever.

"Out of luck," Rodney snapped back. "We never planned to run the shield until we left atmosphere. The beating we're taking isn't helping — "

"You pulled the shield in."

"It's not enough."

"What if I start the stardrive now?"

"No! No, no, no, you can't! It will blow up."

Rodney monitored Lorne's group retreating. Sheppard said nothing. Miko had the second comm channel operating again. It carried the sound of gunfire and shouting; someone had been wounded. On the screen a lifesign winked out. I once was blind but now I can see. He didn't want to see anymore. He amputated again by routing the trickle of power the lifesign sensors needed away. He checked the power buffers for the stardrive. They were nowhere close enough for a cold launch; they should have been by this hour, but the shield was a power hog draining everything the generators could provide and sucking down more from the ZPM too.

"God damn it," Sheppard cursed. Rodney imagined Atlantis was feeding sensor information straight into his brain. "There's too many of them. Can you — No, I can see — " He stopped and the lull between words was the acknowledgement of the end. The outer edges of the city were dying, the beautiful spires torn apart, going black and blank on the sensor net. "Could really use one of your brainstorms now."

"I'm all out of miracles," he blurted. "I warned you, I said I couldn't, that we wouldn't — "

Another salvo of drones flung themselves through the shield, arrows tipped in the sun, burning.

Rodney shut up. He should have been able to think of something. He'd beat worse odds. People were dying, John was going to die, because he couldn't figure out a way to save the situation. He whimpered under his breath, too softly for the microphones to pick up.

"I'm sorry for getting you into this," Sheppard said abruptly.

Rodney pulled up the city self-destruct and waited with his hands hovering over the keyboard. Sheppard's confidence that Rodney could fix anything was infuriating. He'd always known it was going to get him killed.

"Don't give yourself so much credit," he snapped.

Sheppard didn't answer, whether because he needed to concentrate or because he had no answer. Rodney stared at the Ancient display and swallowed again, lightheaded with nausea and fear. He didn't want to do this. It was Atlantis, his home, his dream.

"Dr. McKay, you are not going to destroy the city?" Miko asked. She had been crying, was still. Her usually lilting voice quavered, drawing Rodney into glancing at her despite himself.

Her question drew Ronon over. He gave Rodney a look over Miko's shoulder, his expression set.

Rodney typed his command code in, ignoring them both, and said, "Today is a good day to die." Star Trek said it best sometimes. Too bad Sheppard wasn't with him, he'd have got it.

Ronon grinned back at him, wild and fierce as the first day they'd met, and clapped him on the back before taking up a place guarding the entrances to the control room. "Be better if we were killing Wraith, but this will do."

On the comm, Sheppard said, "Dial the gate and take the jumpers. Get everyone out. You go with them."

"I'm needed here. Why don't you fly one of the jumpers?" Rodney replied. John wouldn't go. He moved to the dialing console and sent the list of stargate addresses he'd put together at the beginning to all of the jumpers. He'd only held off before out of fear of someone not part of the conspiracy finding the damning information while doing maintenance on them. At least all of them were always loaded for emergency evacuations on Sheppard's orders.

"Rodney."

"No," he replied.

"Teyla's with me, I'm going to send her up. You have to make sure she goes through with Torren and Kanaan, damn it!"

Ronon tapped his mic on and said, "I'll get McKay out."

"The hell you will," Rodney muttered. He'd go when John went. He squeezed his eyes shut and refused to imagine that he could lose the chance to call him John again. He moved to the next console, yanked out the leads to the useless laptop attached and began typing in Ancient. The hooting evacuation alarm began blaring through the city. "Not without him."

"All of us," Ronon agreed.

Teyla argued in the background, her voice raised far enough in uncharacteristic anger that John's mike picked it up, followed by John shouting, "Damn it, go! Go!"

Rodney leaned in to speak into the Ancient mike that would override the evacuation alarm wherever the city sensors registered a lifesign. Tonelessly, he instructed every ATA pilot they had to report to the jumper bay. "All others, I repeat, all others report to the gate room for emergency evacuation."

He'd dial a planet with no known inhabitants and decent weather. Anyone who didn't fit into the jumpers could go straight through the gate. Once everyone was through, he'd wipe the dialing records to make sure no one followed them.

Sheppard spoke quietly in his ear. "I'm sending Teyla to release Todd."

Rodney drew breath to argue.

"I can't stand by while we turn into the Genii."

Rodney heard Ronon growl, but no protest came from him. If he understood — and he did — he figured Ronon did as well. They knew the best, the very best the enemy had planned for the Wraith was starvation. The worst — condemned lives fed to him while their scientists experimented — seemed even more likely.

"You've got my command code."

Rodney couldn't make himself answer, but he typed in Sheppard's command code, translating it into Ancient as he went, into the self-destruct authorization program — the original one put in place by the Ancients — that would blow the stardrive, the ZPM, and all the naquadah in their stargate. Nothing would be left to salvage and no one left on Earth would be in any shape to care. God, God, how could he? Sheppard didn't — couldn't — grasp the devastation the self-destruct would cause. This was Earth, this was millions of people who had never heard of the SGC or IOA, never had a say in what they did, who would die as collateral damage. Yet if there was any other, lesser option except surrender, he couldn't think of it.

The first evacuees arrived down below the control level. Most of them wore packs they'd filled against this possibility. All of them were haggard from more than running up the control tower stairs. The expressions they turned upward were filled with fear, anger, and the same aching despair Rodney felt himself. He looked for John and Teyla with every face, knowing they wouldn't be there.

No one needed to be warned to stay clear of the splashzone. Only a handful of the military were among them. The majority were with Lorne or guarding other approaches to the control tower and chair room. All, except two or three second-wave Lanteans like Lorne, were veterans of the first expedition. They knew the dangers of an operating stargate the way they knew to look before crossing a road.

The city shook under the bombardment from the fighter- bombers on their strafing runs, but the power to the gate remained steady and the chevrons lit blue and brilliant as the wormhole formed with a rush. The rolling sense of movement on the water felt wrong. Atlantis had always been steady under their feet. Miko had to be pulling power from the inertial stabilizers to augment the shield.

The instant the event horizon stabilized, Rodney yelled from the balcony overlooking the gate room. "Move, move, move!"

The first jumper dropped down from the bay and swept through, followed by more people on foot. Opticon had a pack strapped to his back and a dolly piled with metal cases that he rolled behind him. Stackhouse, one arm in a bloodstained sling, went through while ushering Biro, Esquevilla, and Ndome. Four more jumpers followed, while Atlantis trembled and strained. Rodney lost track as Lorne's panting voice sounded on the comm again.

"We're in the control tower and we've got hostiles on our tails. Repeat, the perimeter has been breached."

Rodney darted back to the comm console. "Hold them," he shouted. "You've got to keep them back a little longer, Major. We're evacuating now."

"Hey, nice of you… to let us know," Lorne answered, static breaking up the transmission. "You've got… be… ten minutes at…" The sound of gunfire punctuated his communique and then nothing but white noise.

Not enough time to get Sheppard back from the chair room.

Rodney grabbed Amelia's arm. He knew she didn't want to leave without Ronon, but Ronon wasn't going without Rodney, and Rodney… wasn't going.

"Take Miko and get out now," he ordered.

She glanced back at Ronon, who had taken up station at the top of the internal stairway. He ignored her.

Rodney gave her a hard push.

"Time to go, Dr. Kusanagi," Amelia said smoothly as she tucked an arm through Miko's and guided her down from the control room to the stargate. She snagged two packs that were sitting at the top of the stairs and handed one to Miko.

A flash of white hair and black leather riveted Rodney as Todd entered the gate room. He fumbled for and drew his sidearm, aiming the Beretta at Todd, but Todd ignored Amelia and Miko, stalking toward the open gate.

Just short of the event horizon, Todd paused and looked up as Atlantis bucked and shuddered under another bombing run. He looked up and found Rodney.

"I did not expect this," Todd called out. He turned and disappeared with a slurp through the blue, leaving it unclear if he meant being freed or Atlantis' impending destruction at the hands of anyone other than the Wraith or the Asurans.

Amelia and Miko followed seconds later, then a spate of mixed military and scientists including Teldy, Porter and Simpson. The last jumper hovered before the event horizon and its pilot transmitted a last message before it sped through. "Left Jumper One for the Colonel."

Rodney swallowed an aching knot in his throat, then made himself get back to the shield console. Deforming the shield to exclude the jumper bay gained them a little power, but not enough to reactivate the lifesign detectors. He tried the comm channel to the chair room without success.

"Sheppard. Answer me. Sheppard. John."

Static answered him, the comms out again or jammed.

"You should go," Ronon said from behind him. "Sheppard wants you to."

Rodney ignored him and started the self-destruct countdown. You can't always get what you want, he wanted to snarl, and if you ever do, it's so you can know exactly how much it hurts to lose it. Better to never love and never lose. Then he wouldn't know, he wouldn't be waiting for someone who wasn't coming. God damn you, John.

"Five minutes," he told Ronon. Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve. A new, even more strident alarm sounded steadily, picking up speed with every second that ticked over.

He still held the Beretta loosely in his other hand. The obscene uselessness of it struck Rodney and he set it aside. The holographic screen behind the consoles flickered, numbers cascading, their meaning clear even without any understanding of Ancient.

"Rodney!"

He peered over the railing to the gate room, blue- lit by the still open wormhole. Jennifer was carrying Torren, flanked by Kanaan and Marie, bothed armed.

"Come with us!" Jennifer shouted. "You can't stay here. They were right behind us!"

A spatter of gunfire from the stairwell and the thunder of Ronon's gun responding made Rodney shake his head. Ah, love, let us be true. He'd be staying. He hadn't seen Teyla go through the gate and guessed she'd gone back for Sheppard, because there was no way Sheppard was walking away from his city.

Soldiers in assault gear flooded into the gate room, firing blindly for cover. Marie staggered and fell into the event horizon. Kanaan swept Jennifer forward, putting his body between the guns and Torren and her and shoving. They disappeared with a squelching sound.

Rodney darted back to the consoles. Time had run out. He deactivated the stargate and entered the command that would wipe any record of where it had dialed.

The sun was up.

Ronon kept firing into the stairwell, but the control room had too many avenues of attack. There were soldiers arriving from the gate room. The self-destruct kept up an endless, nerve-shattering wail. The bombardment had stopped, no doubt explained by the presence of soldiers from the other side in the city. No more drones fired. Rodney shut down the shield, well aware of the radiation hit he was about to take, as Ronon gave out a pained grunt.

Rodney left the Beretta where he'd set it. He couldn't make enough difference with it to make it worth being shot.

He tried the comm one more time. "Sheppard. Colonel Sheppard. Come in. Sheppard."

Nothing.

Ronon's blaster tumbled from his fingers, skidding over the deck, and Rodney watched him fold and fall after it, bright blood sailor's warning red in the naked morning light. His gaze lifted to focus on the two soldiers sidestepping into the control room from the stairwell, one pointing his weapon at Ronon and the other aiming at Rodney.

Rodney hovered his finger over a single button on the console.

John, he thought. Teyla. They could be… They could live to fight another day. If they were still alive, they could. He could still see John again, some how; he could find a way, make a way, berate or bludgeon or beg for a way. Damn Pandora.

"Don't move!"

Thirty seconds.

The soldier in charge didn't look away from Rodney. "Is he dead?"

"Bleeding out," his partner replied.

Twenty.

"Do what you can. Someone call for a medic. We've got another prisoner, too."

Rodney pressed the button, stilling the countdown at fifteen seconds, ignoring the muzzle of the weapon that zeroed in on his movement, gambling the man aiming at him would see he was unarmed.

"Don't move, I said!"

He held his empty hands away from his body. He'd just saved the world again. Rodney wondered if anyone would ever credit him with that.

Better a live jackal than a dead lion.

The alarm died into silence.

Rodney's ears still rang with the echoes of its screaming.

~*~

Three days passed before Rodney saw anyone. He assumed three days since the lights in the white, windowless cell never went out but the crappy meals arrived regularly. No one had attempted to interrogate him since the 'trial' began, so there was no reason to screw with his time sense. Not less than seven, not more than fourteen. He was already on a clock anyway.

The sense of urgency warred with his absolute inability to accomplish anything. Rodney stretched out on the bed — a plastic-covered foam slab on a bench, no sheets, no blankets, nothing he could use, and stared at the ceiling, his mind whirring away, only his brain was an engine without a transmission and went nowhere. The cinderblock construction muffled any noises, but he thought if anyone else had been housed in the same wing he would have heard doors opening and closing, voices, or some sense of movement. Sometimes he heard the guards on patrol in the corridor.

The speaker set beneath the red eye of the camera monitoring him activated with a crackle. "Prisoner. Stand. Face the wall."

Ah, so that would be why they hadn't divested him of the jumpsuit. He was going to have a visitor. Slowly, Rodney got to his feet and assumed the position demanded, then waited as someone stepped into the cell.

"You can turn around now."

Coolidge wore a suit and carried a laptop case.

There were worse things than being sentenced to death. Rodney leaned back against the cool wall, glad of the thin insulation the jumpsuit provided, and crossed his arms. He should have realized the death sentence was a gambit meant to frighten him into cooperation. Of course, they were all morons and so he'd believed it, convinced they could be just that stupid, but he should have realized the IOA wouldn't want to give up on what they could get from him, even now.

Coolidge glanced around the nine-by-nine cell as if he had no clue of Rodney's circumstances before stepping inside.

"Not exactly comfortable."

Rodney was terrified of the Wraith, of the Goa'uld, and alien brain parasites. He was afraid of getting sick, of losing his mind, of pain and dying. The guards outside the cell frightened him, and so did the prospect of being tortured — only slightly less than breaking under torture and failing the people he loved. He was afraid of being alone, of dying alone, of dying unloved. He was human.

But Rodney wasn't soft and he'd never been easily intimidated by political or academic weasels. He could still fight back.

"It's the Ritz compared to a Wraith cocoon."

Let Coolidge chew on that. Rodney watched him twitch nervously at the thought. Rodney wondered if Coolidge had been among those evacuated through the stargate when the super hive approached Earth. It seemed likely.

"The IOA is prepared to commute your sentence, Dr. McKay, if you cooperate with us," Coolidge replied.

"Not interested."

They needed him (or Radek, Miko, Simpson and Sam Carter) to undo some of the booby traps he'd left behind in Atlantis' systems. Rodney had known the odds of successfully stealing a city-sized starship approached negative numbers. So had the rest of the science department. He had no doubt many of them had left spiteful presents behind for the IOA in case the self-destruct failed. He hadn't been willing to blow up the city and kill millions of innocent people. That didn't mean he'd made it easy for the 'victors.'

Coolidge glanced around a second time, searching, it appeared, for some place to open up his laptop case. He settled on the bed — the other alternatives being balanced across the open toilet or on the floor — and set up quickly. Rodney stayed where he was. The camera was watching them, of course. Fast movement might bring the guards in and he didn't want to get tasered or beaten down, pleasant as the fantasy of punching Coolidge or taking him hostage to stage a break-out might be. He didn't know the layout of the prison, didn't know where it was, and had no exit strategy. Ronon or John or Teyla might manage that kind of action-movie escape, but Rodney knew his limitations. He watched Coolidge from the corner of his eyes while acting disinterested.

"I believe you may be interested after all," was all Coolidge said as he started a program.

Rodney couldn't see the screen from where he was, only Coolidge's face, but whatever it was came with audio.

Screaming.

He jolted away from the wall and across the cell fast, faster than Coolidge could recoil, but Rodney grabbed the laptop instead of him. He already knew the voice, but the picture confirmed the identity.

The screaming went on, broken only by the need for oxygen. He thought they were using Goa'uld pain sticks, but he couldn't stand to look at the video any longer and threw the laptop at the wall. It hit next to Coolidge's head, the plastic case shattering into brittle pieces.

"That was stupid, Dr. McKay," Coolidge said in the silence that followed.

Rodney pinched the bridge of his nose and tried to breathe through the horror and fury.

When he didn't reply, Coolidge moved on.

"Despite your disloyalty, there are those among us who believe you could still serve a useful purpose for Earth. There is the matter of the sabotage done to Atlantis' systems and your ZPM research — "

Everything he'd ever developed in regard to reverse engineering the ZPMs and building their own had been destroyed. Thanks to the NDAs, he'd never published anything in regard to them. It had been terrifyingly easy to erase the work of a lifetime. He and Radek had finished a bottle of cheap vodka between them after they released their tailored viruses into the SGC's network.

"It's quite simple. If you work for us, your fellow conspirators will live. The clip I showed you was chosen for its shock value. Surely you don't wish to responsible for the torture and executions of your friends. Do you?"

They'd tell him they'd gone into it eyes open, the way he had. They'd tell him to tell Coolidge to go fuck himself. Rodney hesitated. They'd tell him to find a way to live. Teyla, John, Ronon, any one of them would say as long as they were alive there was a chance. But they had nothing to trade the IOA for their lives and Rodney did.

He had to stay alive to keep them alive.

"Not everyone agrees with this plan, so officially, your execution will go forward in two more days, but you'll be removed to a secure facility and eventually relocated off world. All precautions will be taken to prevent your escape or any rescue. I'm sure a genius of your caliber won't do anything stupid that would force us to punish any of your confederates." Coolidge mimed a theatrical shudder. "Those screams… I thought it would take more to break — "

"Yes, yes, whatever," Rodney interrupted. He struggled to sound flippant, since he'd already given too much of himself away, while he fantasized about giving Coolidge to a Wraith. Who would be screaming then? "You keep me alive, I do whatever you want. Deal. If I'm ever a bad boy, you use the other prisoners as whipping boys. Anything else?"

"Do we have an agreement?"

"Isn't that what I just said? No wonder you need to keep me around."

Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows. There had to be a way to make whatever he did for them work for him too.

There had to be. He dreamed of screaming.

~*~

Rodney rested his boots on the officer of the day's desk and tuned out Coolidge's meaningless conversation. As always, he had to talk himself out of going through with his original escape plan. Canst thou remember A time before we came unto this cell? Coolidge finally opened his laptop for the ritual presentation. Rodney let his boots thump to the floor and leaned forward eagerly. Six months between glimpses of the only reason he had for living stripped him of any ability to fake cool. He wasn't allowed to keep the pictures. He no longer knew if there was anything he wouldn't give up for this. Lately, he'd been slipping, forgetting, accepting his fate, his determination eroding away like the island's shore. Even stone gave away to the inevitable, like the beach and the rocks on the headland.

The gallery open on the laptop showed him a series of familiar faces growing older, a couple in as bad a shape as he, graying, unshaven, and unbarbered, but alive. He didn't know where any of them were, though he suspected they were all in separate locations. The pictures were always of individuals, the backgrounds digitally censored to erase anything that could identify where they were. He memorized as much as he could, taking in the new white hairs, the deeper wrinkles, the burnt tan in one case, and a scar that infuriated him in another. He loved them so much; they were all beautiful to him, one face above all.

He studied the tip of a head, the set of broad shoulders, a sardonic smile, even the sneer on one face: they were all unbroken still.

This, this, was what kept him here, kept him 'cooperating,' kept him alive inside. Keeping them alive. Without that purpose, Rodney knew he would have gone mad, much more so than he was now.

Every six months, Coolidge or another IOA representative reminded Rodney that the people he loved lived on sufferance for only as long as he kept providing the IOA with what it wanted. If it burned, well, that was the price of shaking hands with the devil. Of course, the devil was in the details, and it was always too late to read the fine print when you made a deal with him. Rodney had only realized that the first time Coolidge showed him a set of pictures and explained: if Rodney ever tried to escape, if he succeeded, then the others would pay the price in his place. He would never find out where they were; he could never rescue them.

He'd already been only one step away from making that escape, after just a year; opportunities had been more frequent in the first year, when the check-ins had come every three months.

Proof of life was the carrot in front of him. Their helplessness was the IOA's stick. He couldn't escape. Love was his cage and their damnation, because he didn't love honor more.

Rodney wondered sometimes if he was part of another montage, keeping one of the others in line. If they were all part of a round robin of hostages. It was hard to believe that none of them had made an attempt after so many years. They were none of them easy prisoners or likely to give up.

The slide show cycled through to the beginning again and Rodney barely suppressed the sudden need to stop it on one picture. He forgot to breathe as he realized he'd seen it before, but not at the beginning of this slide show.

He had seen that picture, the same angle, the same exact pattern of wrinkles on a jumpsuit shoulder, even the same unique reflection in one eye — a pattern of pixels he'd tried desperately to parse into a clue, four proof-of-life shows back. Two years. He counted his days to the meter of these agonizing gifts. The differences in the picture before him and the one before were insultingly minor. As Rodney compared them in his mind's eye he could pick out where someone had delicately aged the subject and less carefully photoshopped the background into different colors.

He couldn't pick out whether any of the other pictures were recycled or not, but it didn't matter. If one had been faked, then all of them were questionable.

The faces he saw now proved nothing.

Everyone who had ever mattered to him could be dead already. A thousand cracks in his mind blew wide open, as lava-like rage blasted free and inundated his thoughts. For an instant, Rodney hovered between holding onto his sanity and giving into the fury. His vision narrowed as he struggled to restrain himself. Hatred tasted like blood and he wanted more, wanted to paint the office with it, held back only because killing Coolidge could never be sufficient. Nothing would ever be enough to ease this agony that seared away everything human inside him. Holding on only compressed everything inside him into an adamantine determination.

"Is the weapon we requested ready?" Coolidge asked him.

His choice made, Rodney swiveled his attention back and heard himself answer automatically though he'd barely registered the words. "The specs are. I think you'd disapprove of me manufacturing one here."

Coolidge chuckled and took back the laptop. "We've gone to great lengths to make sure you can't. I have to say, some people had their doubts that you could be successfully defanged." He tucked it back in the case. "You've done great things for my career."

Rodney nodded without paying any attention.

"I might even see my way to arranging something extra for you. Chocolate, perhaps, or some books."

"A new mattress," Rodney said to play along. I do begin to have bloody thoughts. His demented interior smile had nothing to do with Coolidge's promises, only Coolidge's presence. That it was Coolidge this time made things so much easier. The seething hatred inside made Rodney impatient, but he wouldn't have to wait much longer. He had to keep the smile from showing, because even Coolidge wouldn't remain oblivious if Rodney's real feelings slipped free. Reminding himself of that let him keep up his cooperative act. Coolidge was the critical variable; without the jumper, Rodney's equation didn't solve. "I've got a bad back, you know."

"Well, we shall see how this latest design works out."

"Everything's on the green crystal drive." Rodney began to sweat, nervous sweat that he hadn't experienced in years, and cursed his inability to remain cool in the face of stress. He drew in a breath to steady his nerves. His mind cleared to diamond clarity.

The pictures were falsified. He'd never been given an opportunity to examine any of them, not even in the beginning. What if everything he'd been shown had been faked? The Tribunal had sentenced him to death, but kept him alive because he could be useful. No reason to believe they would have been more lenient with John or hesitated to kill Ronon or Teyla. Provided Ronon hadn't died before the medics arrived. He'd been such a fool, so desperate to believe he could save them.

"And have you made any progress on the ZPM charging process?"

Coolidge started toward the door. The guards would escort Rodney out, while Coolidge went to the computer building and retrieved the crystals and flash drives from the safe there.

Rodney hoped that if his voice sounded strangled, Coolidge would think it was frustration at giving up something so important. His head had begun to ache, no doubt a result of his skyrocketing blood pressure and the rage fueling it. His hands itched to fold into fists. The thump of his heartbeat filled his head, making it hard to listen Coolidge and his lies. No more. He would give them no more after this.

"Yes. It's there," he lied. "You'll have to plug it into an Ancient system for it to make sense unless you have a mathematician with you."

Coolidge gave him a look of surprise that quickly gave way to speculation and then smug greed. No doubt he was congratulating himself again on confiscating the only remaining jumper for his personal vehicle. Rodney thought if Coolidge hadn't been carrying his laptop case, he would have rubbed his hands together in anticipation. How little of what Rodney had designed since his exile had reached the SGC?

"Dr. McKay, that might rate you a new mattress and chocolate."

"It's mostly proofs and specs, but there's a summary explaining some of what you'll be able to do once you've started manufacturing ZPMs."

Tension thrummed through him, the result of holding onto the need to strangle the truth out of Coolidge. He still needed Coolidge and his greed for a little longer.

Coolidge just needed to plug that crystal drive into the jumper's systems. Rodney needed him to do it.

"I hadn't quite finished that part," Rodney said. His lips felt numb and he spared a thought to the irony inherent if he stroked out at this moment. "Of course, you won't understand the science, but you're really only interested in applications." He hoped reverse psychology worked on Coolidge. He put as much disdain, all real, into his tone as he could.

Coolidge snapped his fingers at the guards waiting outside the office. "Escort the prisoner outside the compound."

Rodney went quietly, counting down in his head. The IOA ships and his minder's checks had never lasted longer than twenty-four hours. While he'd been inside the office, the new shift of guards had been ringed down and begun storing the supplies for the next six months, while their counterparts packed and did whatever it took to turn over their responsibilities.

He'd know if what he had set in motion worked soon enough.

He took the beach path, walking fast, too much anger and adrenaline burning through his frame to settle inside the confining walls of his tiny cabin.

~*~

On the beach, Rodney stood, contemplating a shard of blue-green ceramic, wondering if it belonged to the vase or bottle he'd been finding pieces of for the last week. Maybe the long since vanished locals had just been very fond of that color.

The clear sky meant Rodney could see the stargate. It had been disabled when he arrived, a section sliced away and dropped beside it as if to taunt him.

A brief, blazing star appeared in geosynchronous orbit above the Guard Shack. Hook, line, and sinker. Coolidge hadn't been able to resist checking the stats on Rodney's bait.

The first dazzling flare served as a warning. Worse to come. He squeezed his eyes shut immediately, head still bowed, and pressed his arm over them, while softly counting under his breath. No sound heralded the end above before the horizon seared flame-white. Color disappeared in the noiseless, glaring onslaught. He'd gambled Coolidge wouldn't be able to resist checking out the crystal drive. Now the only question was if the rest of the plan had worked. The timing, perforce, had to be precise.

After sixty seconds, he lowered his arm and determined the flare of destruction had subsided. He opened his eyes cautiously and blinked down at the damp sand. Grains of it clung to the sides and toes of his boots.

The perpetual rush and rage of the water splintering the rocks across the strait echoed off the stone cliffs down the beach, louder than usual, without any fog to muffle it. It mimicked the ocean of emotion surging within Rodney. He tugged the jacket he'd pulled on over his gray hoodie closer. The chilling wind sliced through it anyway.

That had been quicker than he'd anticipated.

There had always been the chance Coolidge wouldn't use the crystal in his personal jumper or would do it too late, but he must have been too eager to wait. The distinct sound of transport rings had carried beyond the fence as Rodney walked away.

Why the IOA ships didn't use the Asgard beams instead of rings puzzled Rodney. Lying in bed, he'd decided it had to be a power issue. He assumed Earth was fighting a war with someone again, maybe the Wraith, or they wouldn't need the constant influx of new weapons technology. Plus Asgard beams required experts to tune them; the SGC might not have enough people trained to use them. The Goa'uld had designed transport rings to be used by Jaffa who had been denied any chance of understanding how they worked. Theoretically, they were foolproof.

He suspected the enemy might be winning and had decided he didn't care. It ensured the IOA continued to need him, at least. He hadn't wanted Earth destroyed and supposed he didn't want it taken; after all, he still had family there. Otherwise, he would have let Atlantis's self- destruct finish its countdown. The resulting devastation would have wiped out civilization over the entire globe. But that had been before he caught the IOA out, before he spent seven years exiled and alone, before he faced that John was most likely dead at their hands, and nothing he did would save anyone else. Before he snapped — and there should have been a sound to herald when a mind as magnificent as his broke, but it had been as silent as the death of that ship above.

Once, Rodney hadn't been willing to make an end of everything, blindsided by the possibility that John or Teyla might still be alive, while Ronon bled out on the floor. Who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him? But Ronon had been young, still so young, and the red had been so wrong. He'd thought Ronon could live and he'd faltered, desperate for any chance that didn't leave him alone already.

He'd deceived himself with the lie that he could save them, save someone, find a way out.

John would have reminded him he wasn't Superman. John would have gone through with it, maybe with a wince, maybe with his eyes squeezed closed, but he would have finished it. He'd given Rodney his command code, because he had trusted Rodney to do it, too. He would never have given into the IOA; refusing to go along with their plans had been the point of the Mutiny.

Every day Rodney had questioned whether he'd been right. Until now. Now he knew he'd been wrong. He hadn't saved anyone.

He'd failed them all, living and the dead.

The years spent on this moon had been a betrayal worse than the Mutiny and he had to undo it.

The wind freshened and gusted sharp and he shivered. He wondered what the name of the ship had been. Better than imagining the names of the crew aboard it. So much death already, but he'd only begun. The security force on the ground would register the loss of communications even if none of them had seen the dying star nova of a starship opening a hyperspace window inside its own drive room.

Dealing with them came next. No one would know what had happened, but there remained a chance that someone would be paranoid or smart enough to realize that Rodney McKay could kill a ship and everyone on it while beachcombing.

Dusk, mauve and ashen-rose along the horizon, washed the beach in shades of lavender and blues, the wet gray beach glittering dark, while Cyclops dominated a sky so full of stars it never darkened beyond indigo. That flagrant, careless beauty had comforted him many nights, but Rodney kept his gaze lowered. The stars could offer him no comfort now, nor did he want any.

He started and stopped, catching the gentle hum of a jumper approaching. It didn't circle the way it might have under the direction of a pilot. The autopilot found the nearest ATA-positive lifesign outside the compound and set it down within a few meters. Exactly in accordance with the remote operation program hidden in the crystal Coolidge had taken. The hatch dropped open. It struck Rodney that the Ancient alloy that covered the hull looked almost exactly the same shade of gray-bronze as the sand.

The changes to the interior made Rodney blink and wince. Coolidge had turned the rear compartment into a luxury traveling office that would not have been out of place in any corporate CEO's skyscraper office. If a clear path to the cockpit hadn't been necessary, it probably would have been worse. All in WASP good taste, of course, all the angles and curves of Ancient design covered up in an epitome of leather-upholstered, wood- paneled, First World white male privilege.

A soft chuff of air reminded Rodney to keep moving past Coolidge's body. He'd dispose of it later. The hatch closed and the compartment sealed — just the way it would have once Rodney's program initiated. He plucked the green crystal out of built-in slot in the wall where redecoration had been forced to accommodate the jumper's original design. It wouldn't evacuate the atmosphere in the compartment a second time; Rodney just wanted to tuck it in his pocket like a good luck charm.

Had Coolidge and the rest of them really believed they could keep Rodney trapped and use him at the same time? Every design he'd created had come with an built-in weakness, fragments of programming that had long since come together to lie hidden in a jumper or a weapon or the control mechanisms of a hyperdrive, waiting for a single strand of meaningless code to activate the domino fall.

The jumper had always been the key, because its systems had been modified to communicate with Earth's technology. But while Daniel Jackson could understand the Ancient its programming was written in, he didn't have the sort of knowledge to interpret Rodney's program. Not that Rodney thought the IOA had ever let Jackson or Carter near anything that might have revealed Rodney's exiled existence. Though Sam, for one, was too bright to not recognize Rodney's designs as they came into production.

For all he knew, she too was dead by now or forced out of the program. The blowback of the Atlantis Mutiny might have reached her. He couldn't spare much sympathy for whatever troubles she'd faced, though, if she was alive.

Shoving such thoughts away, Rodney took the time to check the rear compartment for the emergency supplies and tools that had once been part of every jumper's complement. Coolidge, in his arrogance, had all that space taken up with his belongings. Rodney nearly kicked the body as he headed for the cockpit.

"This next part is your fault," he told the body. "If I didn't need tools… "

He slipped into the pilot's seat and brought the jumper's HUD up. The systems all read optimal, so whoever Coolidge had had piloting had been seeing to its maintenance. A full complement of drones filled its magazine too. Rodney laughed raggedly. It hadn't occurred to him that the jumper might not have been armed.

It took no more than a thought to activate the jumper's shield, though he doubted the Guard Shack had anything powerful enough to scratch the jumper's hull. After so many years, it surprised him how easily the jumper responded to his intentions. Rodney's mind was clear and concentrated on the jumper, empty of everything else but his current purpose. If he thought too much, he might falter and doubt his own reality, and then he'd fail.

Again.

He'd already crossed his Rubicon, started his march back to Paris, and could only hope the other side had no Wellington.

Rodney took the jumper up from the beach and skimmed over the terrain he'd walked so many times on the way back to the compound. The lifesign detector showed him most of the new security contingent were in the barracks. Two of them were in the offices and another two were on guard at the gate.

The IOA should have been merciful. They should have killed him. Rodney wouldn't make their mistake.

He fired three drones and only landed the jumper after the last lifesign flickered and disappeared.

~*~

Nightsky seascape under the Milky Way, under Cyclops, under way, one small jumper, drive pods deployed, arcing through the evening. It paused, hovered, opened. A black speck tumbled away and down, falling into Elba's restless ocean to puzzle whatever swam in those cold depths.

Rodney slapped the manual hatch close and returned to the cockpit, disengaging the autopilot hover. Burying Coolidge with the dead at the compound had struck him as wrong.

He'd salvaged everything he thought he'd need from the compound, mostly tools and laptops from the untouched computer building, along with some weapons and MREs, and after another look at the interior of the jumper, a tent and sleeping bag. All of it piled in the cockpit with him.

Cyclops filled half the viewscreen, swirling bands of blue-white layers and orange-brown, the massive Black Mark so clear Rodney could make out the eye the storm's endless winds circled. A glittering spark seemed to streak across it, as if the gas giant winked. More sparks followed. Debris from the ship burning up in the atmosphere.

Rodney angled the jumper away. He didn't want to watch that rain.

He wondered if, despite his confidence and the jumper, he'd be able to repair the stargate. If not, he'd be trapped on Elba until another IOA ship came. He might be able to hack a ship's system remotely from the jumper, but the odds would not be good. The crew would be on guard. Or he could try to reach another system with the jumper. Those odds were almost worse.

Of course, anyone else couldn't have achieved what he just had. He'd always done the impossible for John. You'll figure something out, buddy.

Landing, as always, proved rougher than taking off. The jumper's forward momentum plowed it into the low brush that dotted the headland before Rodney killed power to the drive pods completely, then it dropped a third of a meter. The inertial dampeners kept him from feeling it, but he imagined John's pained expression if he'd been in the next seat. It made Rodney squeeze his eyes tight shut and simply sit, holding onto the near hallucination, pretending John was there to scold him for abusing 'his' jumper.

He stayed until the last noise of mangled shrubs settling into new positions faded and the silence scored his nerves too deep to endure in darkness.

You gonna sit here all night?

"Don't hurry me," Rodney mumbled. "You're always telling me to hurry up."

Night had fallen, but nights on Elba were brilliant with planetlight and starshine provided sufficient illumination for Rodney to set up a basic camp. He used the brush the jumper had torn and broken as fuel for a small fire, built where the heat would reflect from the hull of the jumper. The smoke and darkness evoked a hundred missions on empty Pegasus worlds, so that he kept waiting for the music of Teyla's laughter, the shift of shadow as Ronon paced the perimeter, the warmth of John's knee and shoulder nudging him in silent companionship.

A chunk of brush crackled and shifted, falling further into the heart of the flames. Leaves crisped and curled, blackening before they caught and burned fast. They added a pleasant, peppery scent to the smoke. The wind abruptly changed direction and gusted the smoke into Rodney's face though, drawing tears to his eyes.

He wiped them away impatiently.

The fire ruined his night vision, but Rodney squinted past the flames at the stargate. It had been clad over in stone, Goa'uld work, but at some point someone had stripped it back down to the basic naquadah. The weathered and broken stonework lay scattered at the stargate's base while the ageless metal above gleamed with yellow-orange reflections. The DHD had been removed, but with the jumper he wouldn't need it. Lifting the sheared section back into place would be possible with the jumper if he rigged up some kind of winch. The damage done when it was cut out would be the real difficulty.

He hadn't had enough light to examine it and determine how big a problem it would pose.

Rodney tipped his head back and looked at the stars, picking out those he'd identified over the years. He'd charted Elba and Cyclops's movement against their background and calculated his position in relation. He knew where he was in the universe.

Worse came to worst, he'd take the jumper out and try for another planet with a stargate. P7C-384 spun around a star Rodney recognized. From its magnitude in Elba's sky, he calculated he'd reach it in less than a year. He wondered if he'd still be sane after that long stuck in the confines of a jumper and began to laugh. As if he was still sane now.

He'd know in a few days whether he had to make his escape the hard way. Another year wouldn't change Rodney's plans.

You can do it.

He had weapons that weren't deliberately crippled to build and allies to buy.

He had an empire to end even if it left the galaxy a graveyard.

Fin