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anallagmatic \An`al*lag*mat'ic\, a. [Gr. 'an priv. + ? a change.] (Math.) Not changed in form by inversion.

It took John Sheppard a few long seconds to recognize the sound that had awakened him was a ringing phone. First, it was -- fuck! -- just after oh-three-hundred and he'd been dead asleep for all of two hours. Secondly, the ring was from a cell phone, and while the supply sergeant said he'd set the ring tone to play Ring of Fire, John would have to take his word for it as the tinny, atonal sound wasn't anything he even recognized as music, much less as Johnny Cash. But it was the third and fourth reasons that had confounded him the most. For the last two and a half years John had been stationed in a war zone overseas. Cell service had been nonexistent and the only communication other than direct voice to ear was through a headset generally muffled by his flight helmet. He been back in the States for all of … fourteen hours and eleven minutes, having finally been released by the doctors stationed at Ramstein to finish his medical leave anywhere else he'd wanted.

He didn't recognize the number on the phone readout. Considering only his superiors, the local doctors, and those back in Germany knew how and where to find him … he probably should answer it.

"Sheppard."

Woe to them if it was a wrong number.

"John? Oh, thank God, I found you! They've taken him. They've taken Rodney!"

John's mind had stuttered on how unrecognizable his own voice was, but given the damage he'd sustained, he should probably just be happy he could talk at all. It took him a few more seconds to realize that he had no idea who was speaking to him so familiarly.

Even so, a damsel in distress --

One of these days he really had to stop letting that get to him.

"Whoa, calm down," he said automatically, thinking that without the hysterics she could be someone he knew. "Take a deep breath and hold it for a few seconds, then let it out slowly."

He heard a half cut-off sob first, and then a big, gasping breath. "Good… perfect. Now, let it out and do it again. Then tell me who they are, who Rodney is, and who the hell you are?"

"What? Oh, fuck, are you deliberately being obtuse? I mean, Jesus F, John! Oh, wait. Where are you? What time is it? Have I -- Christ on a stick, Johnny, you were in bed, weren't you?"

Although still a whirlwind of words, the initial anger had sharpened her diction, and 'Christ on a stick' -- yeah, he knew who said that.

"Jeannie?"

Why wouldn't the person he heard from first upon returning to the States after three years be his ex?

"Yes, it's Jeannie. Of course it's Jeannie! Who did you think it was, Johnny?" she said in one breathy sigh. Even looped from the meds, John recognized that combination of frustration and exasperated fondness.

"I had no idea, Jay. Which is why I asked!" Although he manfully kept his own sigh from getting loose.

"What's wrong with your voice, Johnny? Don't tell me I've interrupted you with --"

"I was asleep." This time he let a bit of an edge through. "It's oh-three-hundred here."

"Well how was I supposed to know?" she groused. "It's past seven here. Even so, I seem to remember you never had too much trouble staying up beyond three in the past."

Seven? So not even East Coast. "You're not in Berkeley anymore then?" He still had to ask because although it might have been on the small side, Jeannie had happily spent most of the six years of their marriage fixing up their old Victorian.

"The Vic was ours, Johnny. I couldn't stay in it after you left. I rented it out for a couple of years to some of my grad students, but when the housing market took off so insanely, I sold it and moved back to Halifax just after the first of the year. Hey, I made sure you got your fifty percent even if the house was my part of the settlement --"

"It's okay, Jeannie," John interrupted. "That was very generous of you. I'm sure it's all there. I've been stationed overseas for the last few years, though. I haven't had any particular need to check my bank balance to see what you'd done."

Her huff was another conglomeration of mixed emotions: pique and concern being the most prominent in knowing what type of duty station would have entailed little need for any disposable income. Flying fighter jets had been bad enough in her mind, but they'd always known he'd be tapped for special ops even if the hot action in the Middle East hadn't come, thanks to the damn Sheppard legacy.

"So, do I have to worry about who else you woke up getting my number?" He quickly changed the subject before she decided to rehash a very old rant. He tried to make it sound like a joke, but that last thing John needed was some CO -- especially a former CO -- pissed at him for yet another reason. He was already banished to Antarctica as his next duty station once he was off medical leave.

"I didn't call your dad, if that's who you're thinking."

No, since dear old dad was dead. John supposed he should have gotten around to telling her. Of course, she hadn't gotten along with him any better than John had.

"You've still got me listed as your next of kin on your service record," she continued. "A quick call to the Air Force BuPers got me this phone number once I convinced them I was who I said I was."

Yeah, well, there wasn't anyone else he cared enough about to change the information for if something happened to him, divorced or not. It was funny though, in a Twilight Zone kind of way, just how close she'd nearly come to having the full proceeds from their house, plus his pension and inheritance last month.

After four years of virtually no contact, however, she'd probably have been more pissed than grateful with John's death being the next time she'd have to deal with him.

"Now that you've found me, Jay, what's going on? Who's Rodney?"

"My brother. And they -- well I've got an idea of who they are, but I can't be sure. Actually, Zelenka won't agree with me, but I don't know if it's because he's scared too, or because he doesn't really care, although why he would have called me then if he didn't at least respect Rodney and he certainly sounded like he cared --"

"Jay!" John shouted into the phone to get her attention. "Stop! Take a breath again! Most of what you've just said doesn't mean anything, right?"

Exasperated sigh number two, no doubt enhanced by facial expression thirteen (John, I know you're not as smart as me but do try to keep up).

"Dr. Rodney McKay is my younger brother. He's an astrophysicist by way of MIT, and a mechanical and aerospace engineer from Carleton. You never met him because he's been involved in one think-tank or another since leaving Ottawa, and, well, he's also a big, arrogant jerk. Thinking he's always right and that he doesn't have time for family. Which, okay, you did meet our parents so you can probably understand the reason behind some of that, but --"

"Gotcha, Jay. Rodney's your annoying little brother who's also a genius." Interrupting seemed the only way to make sure she took a breath now and then. "And you think he might be missing. Are you sure? I mean, if you're not close enough for him to have come to our wedding, maybe he just doesn't want to talk to you? Or," he sped on before her sputters became something a little more barbed, "if he's with some sort of secret government project, maybe he's just been reassigned somewhere out of touch for a while. What do his superiors say?"

A genius herself, normally Jeannie was also one of the most self-sufficient and level-headed women he'd ever known. For her to have called him … John really didn't think she'd have done so if she hadn't already exhausted all other avenues. Their divorce had been as amicable as their marriage, but the fact remained that she'd never been able to rely on him to be there when she needed him.

"He doesn't really have any superiors, John," she chided. "He really is probably the smartest man in his field. Jesus F, only you military would call supervisors superiors. I can assure you, if the people I work for aren't superior to me, those Rodney gets his paycheck from can't be. Nor is it a government-run project. Rodney wouldn't work for either of our governments no matter what they offered. Sure, there are probably government contracts involved, but the Institute's primary funding comes from the private sector, from an individual, actually, who I guess is mega-rich. Maybe she does have some secret investors -- she's Dr. Elizabeth Weir, before you ask -- because yes, I've done my homework."

John smiled to himself as she confirmed most of his thoughts, easily picturing the eye-roll that went with that last tone -- number seven; the one she usually reserved for retail and food clerks (if I had wanted the meal/stamps/carwash, I bloody well would have said so in the first place). He levered himself up against the headboard and a couple of pillows without too much difficulty -- he'd been handed a bottle of the good drugs! Even though this was some kind of emergency, it sounded like it'd be a while before Jeannie got through what she felt compelled to tell him.

"Elizabeth Weir -- her doctorate was PolySci by way of Purdue -- was some sort of UN diplomat or power broker or whatever. She resigned from your State Department a couple of years ago to start up something called the Asgard Institute. She recruited Rodney and a handful of other really top-notched specialists in both hard and soft science fields. I found out about it when Rodney talked me into coming for an interview eight months ago. It was all too X-Files for me to say yes and stay, but Rodney and I reconnected regardless. While I was there I met some of his colleagues. I guess I made an impression on one of them anyway, because he called me five hours ago to say that both Rodney and Dr. Weir were missing."

"You're sure they didn't just …" Except he couldn't really say it. It was about her brother, after all.

"Please, not you too," she spat out and John guessed someone else did manage to get the words out. "That's exactly what local law enforcement is implying. What with Vegas being only a couple of hours away and all --"

"Did you say Vegas?" Despite all of John's own scientific (and cynical) background, he'd become quite the believer in karma thanks to a few too many coincidences. Like this one. He'd had his choice of bases to check in with during his recovery. He'd picked Nellis because it had been his first duty station out of basic, and he still had fond memories of some pretty lazy (and wild) weekends. Not that Vegas looked like he remembered; the lights they'd flown over a few hours ago were probably five times the spread and volume he'd been expecting.

"Actually, the Institute is back in the hills between Beatty and Amargosa Valley, but I was flown into Vegas then given a limo ride out."

"And you're sure the cops aren't right? Maybe they didn't sneak off to get married, but it's not like there can be anything to do up there without taking the trip to Vegas." Even as he asked, John couldn't help but place Amargosa Valley and Beatty on a map from memory. He'd always had a mind for spatial relationships (which had made the transition from budding mathematician to pilot a lot easier).

Amargosa Valley was halfway between Vegas and Tonopah, and in the shadow of the on-again/off-again nuclear storage facility under Yucca Mountain. It was also only a couple hundred miles east of Edwards, and another couple from Vandenburg. Groom Lake and Area 51 were even closer if you continued east. Okay, so X-Files was fiction (as was most the shit attributed to Area 51), but that was a whole bunch of high profile military areas near this Asgard Institute.

"She didn't seem to be the gambling type. Nice enough, but I also got the impression she was already hooked up with one of the scientists who was not my brother. Rodney's not just a genius; he's also a geek in all of the socially retarded ways. Dr. Weir would be much too … refined for someone like him. Oh, and, of course, there is also the little fact that Rodney is gay. You'd probably like him. He's not as cute as I am, but you always maintained looks didn't matter in the long years. He's a little taller, a little, well, not really fat, just soft and cuddlier. Assuming he'd let anyone touch him, of course. We're not talking Howard Hughes type hypochondria, but …"

"He sounds a lot like you with a dick, Jay," John had to laugh. "Actually, he sounds perfect." A male version of Jeannie McKay. John could really get into the possibility of someone like that. Except for that whole Air Force thing he had going on (which was why he'd let Jeannie talk him into marrying her in the first place). But daddy dearest was gone now. There were plenty of other Generals who'd be just as pissed off to find out one Major John Sheppard was gay (not to mention the colonels, other majors and just about everyone he had to work with). Antarctica meant he'd pretty much already fucked-up his father's plans and legacy, as well as any opportunities for any further advancement, but coming out could still get him arrested and thrown into Leavenworth to finish out his career.

"Fine, great, I'll be happy to put in a good word for you, John. But first we have to find him!"

He had the exhaustion of injury and travel, not to mention the drugs to excuse his wandering thoughts. But she had worry and paranoia, plus probably a couple of hours to stew before she figured she could call. John supposed he should cut her some slack even if her yelling was doing his headache absolutely no good.

"Sorry, Jay, you're right. Find him first." He took his own deep breath and began recalling all the little side bits she'd said mainly to herself. "So the local cops don't care. And the Feds won't do anything until he's been gone for more than twenty-four hours unless they had notice of him previously being threatened or stalked. You could have played up the whole foreign national thing, him maybe having government or military secrets, but I'm guessing no given your own distrust of the New World Order."

The 'bite me' was more rote than radicalism. "Even if he does know things, Johnny, what could I tell your Feds if his company won't?"

"How did you find out Rodney was missing?" She'd said something about a 'they', and a Zolka? Zenka? About someone being scared and calling her.

"I already told you, but you were probably still asleep for that bit and I suppose I might not have said everything. One of his colleagues, Radek Zelenka called me," was then repeated quite carefully and clearly. "Zed ee el ee en --"

"I get it Jay. I don't think I'll be quizzed on how to spell his name." John would have given an eye roll of his own, but he could hear the underlying panic beginning to build in Jeannie's voice again.

"He's a cute little guy from Czechoslovakia or whatever they call it these days." She tended to go off on tangents when she was nervous or worried.

"Czech Republic or Slovakia, depending on what side of the Velvet Divorce he was living on." Jeannie was brilliant, but often times only about the things she was interested in. Conversely, John could easily recall mountains of trivia (and this was about maps). Although to anyone else it would seem like he was encouraging the tangential course, just his interrupting with something so trivial would redirect her focus against him wasting time.

Besides she had more or less asked. And it was about maps. Which were simply coordinates on a grid, connected by vectors and yes, tangents. This was as close to the math they had once shared as he generally got nowadays.

"Thank you Alex Trebek."

Yup, annoyance on demand. Just like Old Faithful.

"Don't think I don't know what you are doing, but I'll thank you now anyway, just in case I forget to later, Johnny," she added in a much softer tone. "God, you are just what Rodney needs, someone generally sane and in control, but you can keep up... Anyway," she started again before John could make any sort of response to probably the nicest thing she'd ever said to him.

"Radek and Rodney were supposed to have gotten together last night after a late dinner break to go over something new the Institute is working on. Rodney didn't show, wasn't at home when Radek headed over to the apartment Rodney keeps there at the facility, yet his car was. Radek then called the Institute's Head of Security, who called Dr. Weir to see whether she'd redirected Rodney somewhere. She wasn't answering or at home once they followed up on it all, either. Weir never goes anywhere without letting one of her people know, so don't even start."

Oh-kaay. Sounds like she made another friend like she had with the local cops.

"What did their security guy say?"

"His name is Bates. Something Bates, not Bates something. He seemed very by-the-book. Little or no imagination, absolutely no sense of humor and I actually met him once when I came down for the interview. I don't know if he knows about Rodney's preferences and I have no idea how he might feel about gays in general, since most people dislike Rodney long before they learn that about him. But I would say Bates also wouldn't put Rodney and Weir together in some sort of tryst, so he's not going to be working with the locals either. My fear is that he's only concerned about Weir. I'm pretty sure he's thinking the two of them being gone isn't related."

"But you do?"

As she hesitated, John realized that while his phone had a powerful battery (military issue), he had no idea when it had last been recharged. They'd given him a charger that he'd promptly dropped onto the night table. He'd then simply collapsed on the bed after kicking his shoes and pulling jeans off. Reaching the charger from here would mean having to twist his body in a way it definitely would protest. Getting up didn't sound any less painful. That option would, however, let him find some paper and a pen, which he didn't need yet, but might.

He cut back in when she took another deep breath. "Hold that thought for a second, Jeannie. I need to set the phone down while I get some stuff to take notes."

"Since when do you need to write something down to remember it?" came back before he could follow through.

Since I'm still on a morphine treatment, John thought, but didn't figure he should say. Not until she got to the part about what she was expecting him to be able to do.

"Just give me a minute, Jay," and this time he put the phone aside before he might hear something else. It took him more like three minutes to actually make it up off the bed and reach down to plug in the damn phone charger. Since he was staying in an extended stay hotel that was more like an apartment, he found the paper and pen in the first drawer he opened.

"Okay, I'm back," he let her know after he'd rearranged himself back on the pillows and bed.

"No shit, Johnny. Spill. You're breathing like you just ran a marathon; your voice hasn't cleared up even though you're obviously now wide-awake and I could swear I heard some moaning going on in the background when you moved away. Either you do have someone in the room with you that you just took care of, or you're hurt. And since I know you would never rush like that, maybe you better start with where you are? I can look up area code 702 on the internet you know, and there's still the guy at the Bureau of Personnel who seemed to like me --"

"Fuck, Jay! I don't have anyone in my damn room. It just happens that said room is in Vegas at the moment, which is a hell of a coincidence, but also pretty damn convenient for you and your brother's sake. You remember him, right? The reason you called and woke me up at oh dark thirty?" He wasn't really angry, and knew she'd pick up on what he wasn't saying, but John also hoped she was still wise enough not to ask for any more of an explanation since he hadn't given her the answer.

The silence held for most of a minute before John sighed and fell into one of his own numbered expressions; number two (would you please just trust me? ) -- said to wives and fathers and COs alike.

"What do you think I can do to help, Jay? I don't really know the area anymore, as Vegas has really grown, but not so much that Amargosa is like a suburb or anything. It sounds like being military isn't going to open any doors either, assuming the rest of the eggheads at the Institute feel the same way you and your brother do."

"Well, I don't think they've found their mathematician yet, and you do still have the creds, Johnny, if you just forget to mention the Air Force thing…"

"Drop the voice, you know I think you're the second coming of Athena, born maybe not from your father's forehead, but you'll never convince me you were a little girl no matter what you try to sound like."

"Yeah, your little kid expression was always a lot better than mine."

Wasn't that the truth; it had saved him from getting in trouble more times than John could remember.

"Okay, I'll figure out how to connect with them on my own. But you also said something about there being a 'they' involved?"

"Right. Yes." She was not so much confirming John's question as she was simply focusing herself again.

"Three months ago I was contacted by a different think-tank. I figured Rodney had referred me since I'd turned down working for Asgard, but when I called him on it, he mentioned he'd been contacted by them too. He practically forbid me to even meet with them. Which, you can imagine, didn't go over very well, but he went on to say that the Mr. Cowan he'd interviewed with had made him feel extremely uncomfortable, but not in the 'you're not even smart enough to know how smart I am' way that he usually gets from prospective recruiters. Turns out Cowan wasn't a recruiter, either. He's the damn Chairman of an organization called the Genii Group. When I looked them up on the web I found very little information about Genii as a whole, or about their man Cowan. When I called their PR department, I was turned over to some bint named Sora, who you just knew was going to be a blonde, perky Barbie type. In living up to my expectations, all I got was a song and dance from her about Genii being this benevolent future-studies group concerned with promoting the privatization of space travel and technologies but without exploiting the environment like NASA and the rest are doing."

Well, John supposed rocket launches could be considered polluting; might even become a real concern some day in the future -- maybe a million days in the future given how slowly his government was in getting back into the business of going into space again.

"From that you think they've got something to do with Rodney's disappearance? And Dr. Weir's?" Okay, he had speculated on the possibility of corporate kidnapping when she'd first mentioned where Rodney should have been, but people didn't really do that here in the States. At least not the environmentalists, who cared a lot more about creatures and other living things than they ever did about people. Even if they weren't really some fringe Green group, kidnapping was an awfully extreme way of hiring someone, especially when the guy in question had family and/or friends who would care that he was missing.

"I know I sound paranoid, which is why I didn't mention it to the local idiots when they asked me if I had reason to believe that Rodney wouldn't just go off without letting his estranged sister in Canada know first. Rodney said they kept calling him even after he said no. He'd even been approached face-to-face by an Acastus Kolya, and said this guy really didn't want to take no for an answer. Frankly, Rodney sounded scared the last time he mentioned him. When I asked Radek this morning if he'd ever met this Kolya guy, who he described sounded a whole lot more like some sort of … well, secret agent or spy than he did some VP of R&D. It could all be a coincidence, of course, but what if it isn't?"

That was the kicker. John would feel pretty guilty if he just blew Jeannie off and something really was wrong with her brother. He did have the time (if maybe not enough of the energy). Plus, this was Jeannie.

"I know that if they have taken Rodney, you can't just go in and ask them. But you've always been able to pick up on stuff most of the rest of us miss, John. And your instincts about people are always dead-on. I guess I was thinking that if you looked into it, maybe talked to some of Rodney's colleagues and maybe they noticed something they wouldn't say to Bates. Maybe someone or something would ... just … pop. The Air Force would give you leave for a couple days, wouldn't they? I know we're not really family anymore, but --"

"Hey, Jay, don't cry. You'll always be family to me." You're all I have left. "I'm already on leave and I'll be happy to talk to anyone who'll let me. I'm just not sure what I'll really be able to accomplish."

"Even if all you do is convince Bates to worry about Rodney too, maybe he'll go to the police with it. Wouldn't they then have to do something -- if multiple people file a report?"

"Yeah, I can do that," John responded to her statement since she wouldn't like his answer to her question. Telling small-town local boys that they had to do anything really never worked. "Might be better if I talk to your Radek Zelenka first, though. I doubt anyone's going to just let me walk into their lobby and start asking questions, but if he can smooth the way --"

"I've got a contact number for him directly, and I might have mentioned that maybe you would be calling --"

He snorted. "Glad to know I'm that predictable --"

"Reliable, Johnny; you're the guy on the white horse, remember? It's why I married you."

"I seem to remember the white horse was yours Jay." Once the funding for the project that had included his scholarship had fallen through, his father had refused to even co-sign a loan so John could finish. The General had been right that the Air Force was then John's best recourse, and it had opened up flying for him, which had made up for almost all of the other crap. Until dear old dad had found out he was gay. Though John had never been fully convinced his father would have really turned him in, getting married meant it would have taken more than even the General's say-so regarding John's real preferences. While always a marriage of convenience, they'd both benefited and it had been fun since they'd been each other's best friend since they'd helped each other out on their Masters' theses.

"Fine, we saved each other, B-Good."

God, that was a name from long ago.

"And now we're going to save my baby brother, okay?"

"You're not coming down here!" The thought of Jeannie being in danger -- even if it was only from more ridicule by the locals -- wasn't something John was prepared to deal with. Protecting people in the abstract like search and rescue operations or intelligence gathering and emergency evacs -- he could do that. Even the Air Force agreed that he was actually pretty good at it. But protecting people directly? No, that was something everyone knew he sucked at, and damn if John didn't have the ghosts to prove it.

"No, I understand that. There's no way I could get a fake passport soon enough to do any good anyway. It's more than likely someone from the Genii Group would recognize me if I went snooping around. They approached me within a month of me getting the cover article of Science News. Being a woman in a primarily male-dominated discipline, the magazine folk made sure my picture was a big part of the four page spread."

"Bragging, Jay?" She was pretty good at stemming off panic herself.

"Of course. You might have dropped out of the running of proving who's better, but Rodney is more than making up for the both of us. The first thing I heard out of his mouth that first time he called, was about how many awards and articles he'd gotten. Like he had to justify why I should talk to him. We bonded when I threw my own accolades right back. I guess I've gotten a bit more competitive than what you might remember."

"More beautiful too, I'm sure."

"Like you'd know."

"Hey, I like women just fine, Jay -- even you. But I am also a serial monogamist, and cheating on you, even if you were my beard, never felt right."

"Yeah, well, you always were the best, Johnny-Be-Good. Thank you."

"Back at you, JayKay. Is there anything else you should tell me before I get started?" He glanced over at the bedside clock and was surprised to see it was only a quarter to four. It had certainly felt like they'd been talking much longer, just like it hadn't felt like it had been years since they'd last done this. He was keyed up, but not so much that he wouldn't be able to still get a few more hours of sleep before making arrangements to get up to Amargosa Valley.

"Just that the Genii Group isn't in Nevada, I suppose. They're --" she suddenly paused. For a good minute or longer.

"Jay?"

"They're out of New Mexico, just outside Los Alamos."

There was that fucking karmic balance again. Los Alamos and Santa Fe, Albuquerque and Kirtland. The absolute last places on Earth John wanted to return to, including Afghanistan. But Jeannie knew that and she'd asked anyway, because she didn't have anyone else to turn to.

Reliable or predictable, he wasn't going to let her down by not even trying. Not to mention that, if he'd had it, John would bet anyone a million dollars that Jeannie McKay wasn't a paranoid.

Plus there was that whole military/government lab thing again with the Genii, which may still be coincidence, but also maybe not. He'd dedicated his life and had given up his future happiness to protect the security of his country and the world, the importance of that maybe being the only thing he and his father had ever agreed upon.

"So give me some phone numbers and I'll get started."

********

John's watch alarm, being a noise he was used to waking up to, this time didn't come with a similar rush of adrenalin to the one that Jeannie's unexpected phone call had produced. He'd set it to go off at seven-thirty. First on the schedule should have been one of his morphine pills, but not if he was going to be driving. His alternatives, either someone else driving or different meds, wouldn't be found at Nellis, however.

Fortunately John knew a local doctor (the other reason he'd chosen Nellis for his monitored leave). Carson was someone he could probably talk into prescribing something not-exactly-standard to get him through the next couple of days. Taking the Kadain was out if he was going to be doing any long distance driving -- or anything else that required some actual concentration. He could probably get by on Percocet or Darvoset, especially if he could get Carson to also get him one of the milder muscle relaxants that had been verboten while taking the morphine sulfate.

Definitely the muscle relaxant, John groaned to himself as he rolled off the bed. He was so fucking stiff and achy. He'd been unconscious through most of the whiplash recovery and the worst of the burns, but he still had colorful bruising just about everywhere above the waist to go with a few cracked and broken bits. Just being totally bedridden for almost three weeks had done a number on his flexibility, strength and stamina.

Carson was going to go nuts.

John had first met the good Dr. Beckett when they'd both been stationed at RAF Lakenheath. Carson had been in his second of three years in serving his country as a Medical Officer for the RAF, while John had been slotted into the 48th Fighter Wing. They'd seen each other around the base, but hadn't introduced themselves or even really interacted until nine months later. Equipment failure had brought John under Carson's surgically-skilled hands ultimately out of his F-15 and into a helicopter cockpit and a transfer to nearby RAF Mildenhall).

Carson's easy-going manner and sexy accent had kept John interested long after the good drugs had worn off. Even if he had been willing to chance something that could have gotten him deported and thrown into Leavenworth, Carson had been obviously and terminally straight. Not that that had prevented John from cultivating him as a friend. A good enough one that they'd stayed in touch even after Carson had finished his tour and returned home to Scotland.

No one stays in one place for too long when they're military, however. When John was being reassigned to take part in Operation Desert Fox over Iraq, Carson had ended up moving too. For the sake of his ailing mother, the Becketts had expatriated to Las Vegas for its dry, high desert air. Being a world renowned geneticist, the US (and just about any university or hospital) was happy to have him.

For the next year it had been limited to long distance calls and email. Until John's duty station turned out to be the Malmstrom AFB in Montana, which wasn't all that close to Las Vegas, but could be managed over a really long day, driving pretty fast.

Carson had been the only one John had said goodbye to before his last deployment to Afghanistan, as his father had been a year in the grave and they hadn't talked all that much after John's divorce (or before it in truth, not really since his mother's death when John had been eleven, except for those occasional grand blow-ups that had involved a lot more physical interactions than vocal ones), given that General John Sheppard had never been able to reconcile walking in on his decorated fighter pilot son doing his Radar Intercept Officer.

For the last three years John and Carson had only been able to exchange emails save for one ten-day leave, but that was enough to know that Carson had continued keeping his hand in treating patients as well as conducting research. He just had to hope Carson would be able to find some time for him this morning.

But that would be his second -- no, third call. First he should notify the base doctors that he'd be off their radar for a couple of days. He didn't expect that to be a problem since he could use Carson's name as a reference that he'd still be under observation should someone in the Air Force really care. The nicest thing about not recovering in Afghanistan he supposed, was that everyone there let the CO set the tone, and Colonel Marshall Sumner had made it no secret that he valued the loss of the thirty-million dollar MH-53J Pave Low over the death of John's insubordinate flight crew or the near fatal injury to its pilot.

John figured his second call had better be to this Radek Zelenka before the scientist got it in his mind to bother Jeannie again. He'd also need to arrange for a car, probably something that could go off road since it was likely he'd be driving through a bit more than whatever Vegas' traffic headaches had turned into. And clothes, some more gear, and maybe even a back up gun, since the Air Force probably wouldn't look too kindly if one of their issue was used in something they hadn't sanctioned.

That was one of the other beauties of having landed in Vegas. They had surplus stores and pawn shops on just about every street corner in the old downtown district. He didn't care that it needed to be registered. Just that he had some decent choices without feeling cheated if he ended up dumping it afterward. At least with his military id he could pick something up without worrying about the waiting period.

He guessed he better add a stop at the bank in his planning. Thanks to Jeannie and three years of no expenses, he could probably rent a damn copter with what was in there. Maybe that was something he should consider too. Except the thought of getting into one left him cold all over, light-headed and gasping for breath.

Fuck!

John managed to stumble his way into the bathroom and get the shower started. He didn't look at himself in the mirror; he didn't need to in order to see his Technicolor skin. All he had to do was pull off his shirt and boxers to see the evidence for real instead of in a reflection. The worst of it was still covered with bandages -- which he vaguely remembered he wasn't supposed to be getting wet -- but fuck that too. He knew for a fact that Carson had wrapped more than a fair share of ribs before.

John quickly discovered that reaching around in order to pull at the start of the bandage hurt more than losing the pressure against his ribs. He couldn't do the same with his left wrist, though. It had a fiberglass cast. If the doctors hadn't use a waterproof lining, he'd just have to use the hairdryer than handy hotel people had included to dry the padding out. Figuring his hotel room didn't come equipped with extra trash bags -- and not sure he wanted to spend the effort searching through the various cupboards and drawers looking -- John wrapped one of the extra hand towels around for a little more protection before stepping under the spray.

The hot water stung like a son-of-a-bitch, especially on the burns. John just shifted a little aside and hunched over to protect most of that shoulder and chest area because, otherwise, the heat was doing wonders in getting rid of that shocky feeling that had kept him feeling frozen clear down to bone. He intended to just stand under the spray anyway; applying soap to most areas would involve too much moving and twisting. Letting the water pound against tight muscles just might give him back enough mobility so that he wouldn't feel like he was in his eighties instead of his thirties.

The great thing about being put up in a hotel was that he had nearly unlimited hot water. But he wasn't one to just sit in the corner and have his freak out just because he didn't have to worry about the water turning cold. He'd been here before, had gone down hard in an F-15 and a copter. He'd even been hurt this badly previously, and had spent his time with the shrinks. Yes, he knew it wasn't his fault (not what his CO said!), knew Dex had already been dead before the Pave Low had started going down and that Mitch was probably shot up just as bad from the ground fire they'd taken during the extraction. John had lived with survivor's guilt for twenty-five fucking years already -- and with not living up to expectations even longer. The charges of recklessness and insubordination hadn't been formal, but he'd have lived with consequences worse than Antarctica even if they had been, because he'd done the right thing in going on against orders to exfiltrate those Marines.

He'd be damned if he'd let anything take away the last remaining love in his life. When he was flying, it was only him and machine and the sky, the ultimate freedom and a physical manifestation of the numbers and equations that had never left his head even when he'd had to leave them behind. In the sky his father had never been able to touch him. Not physically, not verbally, not even with his legacy -- because wings were the one thing Air Force Brigadier General John F. Sheppard had never been able to earn for himself.

Fuck! Even though the old man was dead, it didn't look like he was quite ready to give up that bit of baggage.

Good thing he had someone else's problems to deal with; a full month of just dwelling on the fuck-ups that had led John to this point in his life would have him back with the shrinks just to be able to go to Antarctica.

Getting out of the shower was a lot easier than getting in, although the stuff with the towels still created some extra pain. Another reason being in Vegas came in handy; with a relative humidity of about seven, walking around would dry the rest of him off in a minute. He wouldn't have to fuss over his hair either, since it stood up no matter what now that it was growing out from its regulation cut (he wondered if they'd even care in Antarctica). Shaving would be a bitch, but he hated beards and it was just bruising he'd have to be concerned with and not any of the burns since they'd come from his melting flightsuit.

On the other hand, scruffy wasn't all that bad a look on him, when he finally chanced a mirror. Too, it was yet one more tiny rebellion against the expected spit and polish. Most of the damage hadn't been to his face, just one side of his chin across the impact area. The damage to his throat had been internal due to the smoke inhalation and the tube that had kept him breathing those first couple of weeks. Once he put on a shirt, most of the healing skin would be covered. No doubt it would itch -- maybe even hurt, but he figured he could live with that. At least the cream they'd given him wasn't narcotic and didn't have any odor, so it wasn't like he'd need to forego that part of the treatment until he finished this thing for Jeannie.

While he would have preferred a t-shirt, John opted for another button down (the last clean one) as it was easier to get on. He pulled his jeans back on though they hung a bit from the weight he'd lost from being fed intravenously up until four days ago. He supposed he should do some of that clothes shopping before heading off to the Asgard Institute. The combat boots might be a dead give away, but they were the most comfortable things he owned right now, and it wasn't as if out-of-uniform military personnel weren't common around here.

Three phone calls later (and one check of his bank balance on-line), and John was sliding into the drivers seat of a brand new, silver metallic Ford SVT Mustang Cobra convertible, because you could rent just about any damn car in Vegas if you had the money -- which yeah, he did now. Maybe it wasn't the off-road vehicle he'd originally planned on, but it would be able to get him to Amargosa by lunch even with all the running around he had to do first, and was big enough to hold more than just himself should things fall into place.

He'd decided to drive over to Carson's without calling, knowing it would be much harder for the Scottish doctor to refuse him in person. If Carson wasn't there, it would also be a lot easier getting information out of a colleague as to where he was or when he would be expected face-to-face using that little-boy look Jeannie was so envious of.

Memorizing the route (and a couple of alternatives should traffic be backed up on the freeway with tourists) had been quick and easy thanks again to the internet, although it had made the soldier in John a little uncomfortable to see how available detailed satellite imagery was (even if it was six or so months out of date). In the end he'd decided to bring his own gun even though he planned to pick up another, and had made sure the car had a locking glove compartment. He had half an expectation that Carson was going to want to come along with him. Although not expecting to get involved in any shooting, it might be easier for Carson to deal with a weapon he had some experience in holding. Should it end up being used, well using John's would make it easier for John to be able to take all the heat.

Unless things had changed since the last time they'd talked about Carson's schedule, on Thursdays the good doctor should be volunteering his morning out at the UNLV student health center. A half hour later John gratefully parked close to the door thanks to someone pulling out just as John was pulling in. He got a few looks as he ambled up to the doors, but part of that was because he was a good ten plus years older than most of the students breezing around him. The rest was likely his looks, but that was normal even when he hadn't been dragged out of a downed helicopter. Jeannie had always thought it quite unfair that he had as an attractive face as he did a personality, along with a little extra intelligence, since most people were lucky if they were given one of those attributes.

If he turned up the charm just a little for the pretty gal at the admissions desk, well, that was to be expected, right?

"Can I help you?" and she turned up the wattage of her own smile just that much more.

"I hope so, darling." Fortunately the drawl rarely made it sound sexist. "I'm looking for Dr. Carson Beckett?"

She frowned, but not in annoyance. "You don't have an appointment; I know all of his regulars." Although she did make an obvious show of looking him up and down before letting the frown creep back over the interest in what she'd seen. "I'm not sure he's going to have any time this morning to take walk-ins," she said with a gesture to the fourteen other people already waiting. "Usually it's just whatever doctor is first available unless you're here for follow-up treatment, Mr…"

"It's John, and no, Carson isn't expecting me."

"Oh, it's personal?" Even as that brought a bit of a blush to her cheeks her interest didn't wane, although it seemed more speculative now than predatory. Surely she couldn't be implying what John was interpreting -- terminally straight.

"Oh, wow, just give me a minute to go see how soon he'll be done --"

Just then Carson's own appearance walking a student back out into the lobby ended the necessity of that. Just as his happy "John" and the hug John abruptly found himself on the receiving end of only cemented the young woman's assumptions, given the deeper blush that came with a giggle from her this time. John found it a bit of a giggle himself, but it was a groan that escaped his throat instead as his ribs protested the enthusiastic greeting.

Too skilled a practitioner not to put that together with John's involuntarily stiffening and his knowing him, Carson quickly let go and took a step back. Only to begin to look him over even more carefully than the student volunteer had.

"Och, what have you done to yourself now, boyo?" he fussed and lifted his hand to ghost his fingers over the shiny skin of the healing burns visible at the unbuttoned collar before gently twisting John's chin as he catalogued the bruising.

"Exactly what you're thinking I did," John smiled back self-consciously and then gave a modified shrug when Carson took steely-eyed note of his voice. Everyone had assured him it would return to normal eventually.

"Aye, I've no doubt of that," he clucked. Carson then turned to the redhead behind the desk. "Jenna, love, the others are going to have to cover for me for a bit, I'm thinking. Do I have anyone specifically scheduled today?"

She made a point of checking the calendar even though she'd already implied she knew Carson's schedule. Since Carson's expression hadn't changed from the look of mild distraction and concern, John wasn't sure Carson had picked up on the twist of a smile she was trying to hide by her sudden diligence.

"Just Aaron Seaman who's due in at eleven-thirty, but didn't Dr. Hoff treat him first? She's clear then and I'll just let her know --"

"You'll be letting me do that and I'll let you know if she's willing to take back over."

John had been content to just let the burr of Carson's accent wash through him and so it took Carson actually giving him a tug to realize the doctor wanted him to follow.

"They've given me a wee office here that will be more comfortable for you to wait in than in the lobby while I double check with Perna," he said as he led John back through the labyrinth of corridors, offices and exam rooms. "I've a feeling our talk will go better too, if we're not interrupted or overheard.

John gave a weak smile and a nod; it was probably better he and Carson had never hooked up since the doctor too often had an unfailing ability to make John feel like he was just seconds away from being scolded, and that most definitely was not one of John's kinks.

"Well I managed to convince Perna that she did not have time to be meeting the lad important enough to take me away from my duties," Carson started with as he came back into the shoebox of an office only a couple of minutes later. "She's quite a lovely lass and I think I'm getting somewhere with her, so I'll thank you kindly not to be giving her the eye as you were young Jenna."

Okay, Carson hadn't picked up on Jenna's assumptions -- or on John's reality.

"S'okay, Carson, she's all yours. They both are. I'm gay." And didn't that feel good to say to someone he should have told years ago, even if it was more or less out of the blue.

Carson gave him a quick, hard look again, then a brisk nod, before stepping right up into John's personal space and began unbuttoning John's shirt with a doctor's impersonal touch tempered by a friend's concern.

And just like that, crisis averted -- well, one crisis.

Because it was easier and a hell of a lot less painful, John didn't try to stop him --or try to help. He hadn't made any attempt to rewrap his ribs, so pretty much all of the evidence was there in full bloom: the criss-cross and waist-banding ligature marks from the seat harness; the dark, deep-tissue bruising and internal bleeding where the restraint hadn't fully contained his impact against the control console; and, of course, the ugly, too-shiny swatch of where his clothing had begun to melt into his skin.

Carson stopped just after unbuttoning John's jeans as the damage stopped just below his waist band. "How long ago?"

"Nineteen days. I was fortunate and made it back to base before losing control. They pulled us out almost immediately, not that I was very aware. I woke up in Ramstein twelve days later and spent the last day and a half flying here. I got in about nine last night."

"What are you on?" The focus was still intense and impersonal, even with the voice a little rough around the edges.

"That's the other reason I'm here, Carson. They've got me on Kadian, but I've got something I need to do with a clear head."

"And without the Air Force's knowledge." Accusation mixed with understanding, which was Carson all over.

John nodded. "I got a call from Jeannie this morning -- my ex?" in case Carson didn't remember since he'd never had the opportunity to meet her. At Carson's own nod he continued. "Her brother's missing and the locals don't seem to care, so she called me to see what I might be able to find out."

"Local here?"

"Up Ninety-Five toward Tonopah. A little town called Amargosa Valley a couple of hours northwest," because Carson just didn't seem like the type to have gone off with his buddies during weekend leaves and explore all of the grand, desolate desert that made up so much of Nevada.

"I'm coming along."

"Look, Carson, it's probably just some misunderstanding. All I really need is something not quite as strong to manage the pain if it comes up, and maybe your help in picking up some supplies here in town since you'd know better than I where I can get stuff for a field kit."

"I'm coming with you and I'm driving," Carson insisted as he more or less bullied John into the chair next to the barely visible desk. "I know you, John. You're going to do this regardless of what I say or suggest, but you are also two shades whiter than my lab coat and you be squinting even though there be no direct light in this room." He brought up a light. "Your eyes aren't near pin-pricked enough, so the effects of the morphine have worn off, meaning you're already in pain." Being a good doctor, Carson had also been busy taking John's pulse and heart sounds during the lecture, and was now reaching for a blood pressure cuff.

"My field kit won't have all the deadly gadgets yours would," he continued, "but I've a few things even you could nae lay your hands on without you breaking the law and it's here and packed. With me driving, you can rest in between stops. Frankly, boyo, that's the only way I'm going to be letting you walk out of here, much less in to any of the stores."

John couldn't stop the smile even though he knew it would only infuriate Carson more. "You do know how to drive a stick?"

"I'll manage."

Not quite the vote of confidence John was hoping for, but he doubted Carson was pig-headed enough to make a claim he couldn't pull off. Getting into a car accident on top of everything else would kind of defeat Carson's need for blustering.

"Then I guess you're coming along, Doc. Your mom is going to be okay?" Even if Carson wasn't absolutely devoted to her, John had this thing about moms and sons, and that was even more important than Jeannie's brother.

The question stopped Carson's busywork for a moment, but he then gave a sad nod and continued to stuff a number of things he was collecting into an already full duffle. "Aye, she's in managed care now, John, so that someone's there during the times I'm not. She's not really worse, mind you, but she is old and managed to slip and break her hip a few months ago, so we both decided it would be better to have a nurse on hand to help her out. I'll just have to let them know it'll be round-the-clock care for a few days; fortunately there are several of the caregivers she gets along with quite nicely."

"Okay then."

******

Getting clothes for John was easy, although they'd picked up more than Carson had anticipated. John wasn't being particular, or particularly imaginative. It was mainly a bunch of dark shirts, tees and jeans. Except for the thousand-dollar suit, which was when Carson learned about just who Dr. Rodney McKay was, who he worked for -- and to what means John was willing to go to in order to find out if his disappearance was anything sinister.

The other stuff was also fairly simple: food enough for several days (since towns were few and far between through most of Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico); basic survival provisions to cover most emergencies; and one more extensive, civilian first-aid kit (John being concerned that they might need to go off in different directions at some point). The inclusion of a gun wasn't a surprise. John was a career soldier and it was his job to consider the worst possible scenario.

Carson had drawn the line at using John's Air Force issued weapon. While he had no intention of even having to handle one, he'd have his own, thank you very much, and would take full responsibility if he did have to use it. So they picked up two at one of the ubiquitous gun shops, a 9mm Colt for him and a Beretta made US M-9, which was slightly heavier and bulkier than the M-11 locked in the glove compartment. Both got registered under John's name, but the clerk didn't even bat an eye because what was one more soldier collecting guns.

They'd even made time to stop so Carson could say goodbye to his mum and let her know he'd be gone for a few days. She still remembered John, but then all the women did, for he couldn't help but be the charmer. It was only when they stopped by the house so Carson could pack a wee suitcase of his own; however, that John casually mentioned that he was due up at the Asgard Institute by twelve thirty, leaving them an hour and a half to make a two plus hour trip.

"Aye, and I'll be the one stuck with the ticket!" Carson groused as they piled everything else into the boot.

"I'll be more than happy to drive --"

"I'll be thinking no." Not only because John wasn't really in any condition to do so, but because the brawny Mustang handled almost as well as Carson's more expensive BMW. Carson might not have had the burning need for speed growing up that had so obviously shaped John, but there was still a sixteen-year-old boy left in Carson's thirty-five-year-old body.

The likelihood of them even seeing a highway patrol officer as they sped up Highway 95 once out of Las Vegas was pretty nil. No weekend traffic yet, it being Thursday, so the worst they'd probably have to dart around would be lost tourists, the odd lorry, and trailers carrying motorcycles or off-road ATVs.

Carson had a bit of worry when John gave in with no more fuss. So far he had made a point of refusing anything stronger than Tylenol 3, deciding that it was better to deal with the pain than compromised alertness -- at least until they had a better idea of what and who they would be dealing with. He'd popped on a pair of wrap-around aviator sunglasses the minute they'd picked them up, and was now leaning back against a deeply reclined seat with eyes no doubt closed underneath.

That was fine; the car had a cd player which John had let him pick the music for. Instead, though, Carson decided just to ramble, to fill John in on all the things they hadn't exchanged by email; not really caring that John wasn't holding up his share of the conversation. He was saying enough that Carson knew he was listening, and Carson much preferred to see some of the lines of pain fade as John relaxed.

It had always been Carson's accent; he knew that (at least with his foreign friends). With John's gay revelation, Carson wondered if it might not also be something more, but found that thought didn't bother him. Intellectually and clinically he cared not a whit what people's sexual orientation was, as long as they were practicing safe sex (and that was just as much for his heterosexual friends as the gay ones). Mother Church might frown on the lifestyle, but then there were already a few things Carson did or thought that went against his upbringing. It wasn't as if he were Roman Catholic to have to cut off all ties in order to be saved.

There was also the fact that John had never treated Carson any differently than he did any of his other friends. John flirted with absolutely everyone. Most had just taken it for what it had appeared, including the burly RAF and American mechanics that'd have given the skinheads and soccer hooligans a run for their money. Given that he'd known John for -- Lord's sake -- nine years now and he had never been made to feel uncomfortable (nor sensed John being ill at ease in return or depressed in pining for him), Carson saw no reason why this new knowledge should change their friendship.

At a quarter past twelve, Carson was just passing the sign announcing the turn off to Amargosa Valley being five miles ahead. John had fallen asleep about fifteen minutes earlier and Carson was loath to wake him until the last possible minute. All he'd been told, however, was how to get to this point and so he needed more directions for their final destination.

"John, boyo, I need you to wake up now." He'd known more than his fair share of soldiers that reacted poorly to being shaken. He'd had plenty of experience in treating said soldiers at hospital and so the words and tone came automatically. Like those others, John woke immediately as he was without the disorientation of a sedative. He stretched against his seat, albeit carefully enough to clue Carson in that not all of his waking had been so cognizant in the recent past.

"We're a couple of miles away from the rest stop and Highway 373," Carson said since he doubted John would be recognizing anything of the scrub and dirt that covered the hills they'd been driving in.

John nodded and checked the watch that'd he'd put on his right wrist since the left held the cast. "I knew you could do it, Doc," he grinned before reaching for the nearly empty bottle of water left in his cup holder. "There's supposed to be a couple of gas stations next to and across from the rest area. One has a casino, it's probably just an extended room with a few slot machines, but that's the one we're supposed to pull into and fill up. This Zelenka guy seemed awfully paranoid about who might see us meeting with him, so it's supposed to just be a coincidence that two old friends happen to run into each other there."

"You've not met the man?"

That got him one of John's disarming shrugs, also slightly abbreviated as it pulled against the bruises and ribs Carson had taped again before they'd left.

"He described himself and he's got a pretty distinctive Czech accent. How hard could it be?"

Turned out is wasn't hard at all, because all John seemed to do was look at the man quietly singing to himself by one of three petrol pumps before John was being acknowledged and hugged a little too enthusiastically. Oscar material their clandestine Czech was not.

"Radek." John carefully manoeuvred himself away from the demonstrative man. "I don't think you ever met my friend Carson," and Carson was waved over.

"Dr. Carson Beckett." Carson offered his hand. "And you must be the Radek Zelenka John's mentioned to me."

"Is common name back home, but not here, so your assumption is right." Said in a friendly enough tone, but Carson was pretty sure the suspicion and panic hadn't been there behind the glasses until Dr. Zelenka realized John hadn't come alone.

"I'm a medical doctor," Carson quickly assured the little, wild-haired man. John had told him everything Jeannie had said and surmised; had he been a doctor in one of the Institutes areas of study, he had a feeling Zelenka would have run. Assuming he'd be believed in the first place.

"Yes, actually, I've heard of you," Zelenka said as if he were surprised himself. "You're working on recessive gene therapy, right? You also dabble in trying to quantify extra-sensory things like intuition and luck? Consult on the James Randi webpage, right?"

John's raised eyebrows made Carson blush more than from just having been recognized in his field. "I'm a professional debunker," he said rather stiffly to the infuriating pilot. "If we're ever going to prove some people do have psychic abilities, we have to disprove the frauds first."

"Hey, I didn't say anything, Doc. What you do on your own time…"

"Yes, yes, fascinating. We should probably take the time to talk, to catch up. Do you stop for lunch before you continue on?" Zelenka rolled with the changes, getting a bit better and fitting things back into the set-up.

It was only as John turned his attention back to the other man that Carson realized what John had been doing. Had Carson been taking note of where the petrol station employees were, or the others who'd stopped in the rest area and at station across the street, everyone would know they were being scoped out, so he didn't even try. But he did catch John's attention for just a moment and raised a brow, to which John nodded almost imperceptibly and then let his shoulders and body loosen until he was actually leaning against the nearest gas pump. Carson had no doubt John wouldn't be able to come back to full alertness if necessary, his current body language, however, was telling Carson it was okay to relax.

"Lunch sounds great. Assuming there's someplace around here we can find real food?"

"If you not mind coming back to my workplace, we have fantastic dining room and world-class chef. Elizabeth paid many dollars to hire him away from high-tech company in Silicon Valley.

John looked surprised but only for a moment before nodding. "Since she paid a butt-load for you too, I expect the food would have to be good somewhere around here in order to keep you. Do you want to tell us how to get there, or do we just follow you?"

"Actually, car here being repaired. Maybe I come with you?"

Another easy smile and a shrug, although Carson watched John's eyes harden again. Carson didn't see anything wrong with the arrangement, but something was obviously setting John on edge.

"Sure, I'll just get in the back and let you take shotgun so you can direct Carson easier."

Damn, but Carson had been put completely at ease with Zelenka's somewhat manic but mostly harmless manner. He knew exactly what John was doing, though, by taking a position to keep a close eye on the other man while also looking out for Carson's safety.

It seemed that Zelenka recognized it too. The minute they all got their seat belts on and Carson had started up the engine, Zelenka was turning around so that he could face John, even placing both of his quite empty hands beside the seat rest although this contorted his body no doubt uncomfortably.

"You are correct to be suspicious, and I know this not what you are expecting. But things have changed since we first talk," Zelenka offered. "Rodney has been found."

"And you didn't think I might want to hear that, that I could have saved myself a trip?"

"Yes, no -- we still need you!" Zelenka blurted. "Rodney is unconscious. Has been so since stumbling into lab an hour ago. He said nothing intelligible except Elizabeth's name then collapsed. He was bleeding, but only his arm and it could just as much be hypoglycemia instead of something worse."

"What and you couldn't call Jeannie?" If anything, John's tone was getting quieter, not exactly angry, but not happy about what they were hearing either.

"Where am I to be going?" Carson interrupted to calm things down for just a minute. "

"Just down 373 few miles," Zelenka passed on without taking his eyes from John. "You see turn off for Jackass Aeropark on right. Take and keep going past parking area. Road only goes on to Institute."

Carson looked up into the rear-view mirror to get approval from John who nodded.

"Elizabeth still missing," Zelenka said as Carson got them rolling.

"Jeannie said you have your own security--"

"Yes, yes, and for most part, Bates is good man. His second is even better but too young to be taken seriously by serious people. This time, though, they've decided Rodney's disappearance overnight means nothing since he's shown up. What has happened to Elizabeth, they say, is because of one of her own people -- her Communications Director. Lovely girl, Teyla Emmagan, from someplace wet and tropical --" The Czech shook his head and raised his hands in a gesture universally translated as an apology but hey, I'm a guy so what can you expect.

"Because Elizabeth and Teyla are spolu … are couple together and had recent fight, Bates has decided Teyla is responsible."

"I thought Dr. Weir was seeing a scientist?"

Zelenka looked surprised and sad, and for a moment Carson had to wonder if maybe he had been the scientist John thought Elizabeth Weir had been seeing.

"Dr. Peter Grodin. He was before, yes. But he died seven months ago. We all wait and wonder if Elizabeth would let herself become close to anyone again. Then there was Teyla."

"Died how? Was Teyla working there at the same time?"

"You're suspicious too, but no. Teyla was hired four months ago. Someone Elizabeth knew from before, was translator for the UN. Teyla was loyal to Elizabeth long before they start sleeping together. She not care what Asgard does, only that she work with Elizabeth again."

"And just what would that be?" Carson had to ask as he pulled to a stop before the tall, very high-tech security gates.

Zelenka spun around in his seat and reached across Carson with his badge as Carson rolled down the window at the guard's prompt. The guard took the badge and ran it through some kind of scanner, then bent down to make sure Zelenka was the one who'd been holding onto it. Carson had little doubt he was also checking to make sure neither he nor John were holding anything threatening on the scientist. Someone's disappearance was surely being taken seriously now.

"Dr. Z?"

"Is fine, Stackhouse. This is John Sheppard," he gesture wildly to John in the back seat. "He is on your list."

"And the other gentleman?" the identified Stackhouse questioned as he also checked down the device that apparently also doubled as an entry list.

"He's my driver," John said with a bit of an edge. The cuff that had been carefully buttoned around John's wrist had been loosened and the lurid pink cast (someone's idea of a joke back in Ramstein according to an embarrassed John), was now fully visible.

"I'm going to have to search the car, sirs," to which Carson began to panic, but John just leaned up behind Carson's seat and handed over his military identification.

"And you're going to find two Berettas and a Colt. The rest is medical and camping supplies."

Stackhouse took a step back and fell into some sort of soldier's attention -- enlisted to officer -- probably without even realizing it. It looked like this Dr. Weir was recruiting from a wide variety of professional fields.

"I'm going to have to notify Ser-- Mr. Bates."

"Whatever the rules are, soldier. We're here to help, not make trouble."

Carson refrained from turning to look back at John, but just barely. The way he'd been told, this was not a government- or military-run facility; John had stressed how adamant Jeannie had been that her brother wouldn't be working for the military. Stackhouse didn't bat an eye or correct John's assumption though. He merely stepped back a few more feet before disappearing into the enclosure that Carson figure was lined with bullet-proof glass.

"We are not military," Zelenka was frowning from where he stayed watching Stackhouse too.

"Well, it looks like some of your security people are, Dr. Z," John said with more openness than he'd shown since they'd met the scientist. "And that's going to make anything I do both easier and harder." He went ahead and sat back again, showing no obvious concern that someone was now relaying his military information off to someone else. He'd told Carson he was on leave, was actually between duty stations at the moment. Being here shouldn't be something that would get John into any sort of trouble. Too bad that although his expression was back to one of unconcern, the tension hadn't left John's body.

Stackhouse returned to the car a few minutes later, first noting the model and number plate, then he handed back both Zelenka and John's ids. "You're clear to proceed, but you'll need to present your id again Major Sheppard, once you've reached the lobby. And your … driver will also need to present some form of identification."

Carson had brought only his international driver's license and his university badge at John's insistence when he'd made to include his passport. He supposed if this facility was sophisticated and connected enough to have the military's personnel database accessible, they'd have the means to check his own security clearance too.

"Direct them to the security office, Dr. Z," were Stackhouse's final words. "Markham and Miller are on duty right now, but I imagine Ford will be coming over to check things out personally, what with everything that is going on. Oh, and say hey to McKay for me if he's back alive again. Tell him we appreciate the overtime bonus we're going to get for being called out to look for him last night."

Carson wasn't quite sure if the last bit was genuinely derisive or simply feigned disregard; John's description of Rodney McKay did not make it sound as if he and the Institute's security guards did very much interacting. Equally though, calling one of the scientists 'Dr. Z' spoke of some level of camaraderie, so maybe the division wasn't quite as pronounced as Carson expected given his own interactions with both campus security and those who protected the secrets of his corporate bosses.

He followed Zelenka's directions and pulled into one of the temporary parking slots since he figured they'd need the car to get around. Even from what little was laid out before them from the gated entrance; it was obvious the Institute covered tens of acres if not a hundred or more. The front buildings were the typical mid-rise facilities you'd find at any corporate headquarters or hospital. John had mentioned there to be living facilities on site also. Carson thought he even saw an observatory dome peeking up from behind a well-filled, multi-storey car park. An observatory or a very small nuclear power plant without the attendant smoke stacks.

"Keys, Doc," John called as they climbed out of the car and immediately proceeded to the boot and withdrew the case where two of the three guns were stored. "Dr. Z, would you mind holding onto this," he then asked and handed it off before the man had a chance to protest. John then went back to the front of the car and opened up the passenger-side door again to unlock the glove box.

About this time, two young blonds with crewcuts and sharply tailored suits came out to meet them. Carson was pretty sure he caught a glimpse of at least one shoulder harness and a gun butt. Neither of them did more than keep their hands loose at their sides, however, as John drew his own gun out from the car. John set the holster on the car's bonnet, pulled the gun slowly and carefully from it and made a point of directing the barrel down and to the side as he released the clip, then pulled back the slide to eject the round in the chamber. While Carson wanted to chide him about traveling with a loaded gun in the car, now was probably not the time or place.

"These are you friends, Dr. Zelenka," the one whose badge read Miller asked upon approach as he took the now unloaded gun from John's hands with a nod of courtesy and maybe even a little respect. Military or not, they seemed to recognize another professional, but weren't getting territorial or paranoid about it.

"Friends perhaps too strong," Zelenka shrugged. "But I vouch for them, yes. I know Dr. Beckett by reputation, and Major Sheppard is the man Rodney's sister called."

"Which would be good enough for me, but you know how Bates is," a third man called out as he joined them. He held out his hand first to Carson, then to John. "Aiden Ford," he introduced himself. "Welcome to Asgard, and sorry about all of the hoopla, but then I guess that's the reason you're here."

His affability was completely opposite John's, open but eager and enthusiastic instead of easy-going and relaxed. On most people, especially those involved with some hush-hush think-tank, it would be as plastic as the badges they all wore. But Carson sensed this young, black man was simply one of those happy souls that really did look forward to getting up and going to work every day. He was also terribly young; he barely looked old enough to shave, much less be handling weapons or be someone's second, other than perhaps on the university soccer or track team.

He collected up John and Carson's identification and took a glance, but then passed them on to Miller and turned his attention back to them -- and the car.

"Nice wheels," he exclaimed as he bent over to check out the interior.

Again, from someone else Carson would say he was inspecting the interior for contraband -- and maybe he just was that good. But he also seemed to know enough about cars that in seconds he and John were talking about engine sizes and torque and Lord-knew-what else that Carson and the other two security men simply tuned out, although Zelenka seemed just as knowledgeable and enraptured.

"Everything checks out sir," Miller came back with the licenses a few minutes later and handed them back.

"I'll keep the case and your loose piece in my office," Ford said with a nod to the case Zelenka still held his hands. "They'll be returned when you're ready to leave. I assume you still have the key?"

John nodded and made no move to hand it over, but Ford also didn't seem to expect it, so Carson guessed that it was alright.

"Everything else should be safely left in the trunk."

"I'd like to take my case with me," Carson said quickly since he had a feeling it would need to be searched and signed off on before he'd be able to do so. "I'm also a medical doctor --"

"We have our own staff on hand, Doctor Beckett," Zelenka interrupted. "Rodney is in good hands with Dr. Biro even though she is mainly pathologist and like I said, it might have just been hypoglycemia --"

"Actually, he probably wants it for me," John smiled in obvious amusement over Zelenka's focus -- or lack thereof. He gestured with his left arm, the pink beneath the cuff still visible since he hadn't buttoned up again. If these men were half as well-trained as John had been, Carson figured they might have also noted the visible bruising.

By the way Zelenka was staring at the neon cast, this was the first time he'd noticed it; the whole Carson as John's driver thing must have just been considered a clever dodge. Zelenka had the excuse of being preoccupied of course, and quite likely also suffered from the common scientist's affliction of social myopia.

"You can search it if need be." Carson had kept it in the back seat just in case something from it had been needed in a hurry, and so he wasn't too surprised when Ford took the offered keys from John and pulled it out without going to the boot first. The kid was as sharp as he was friendly.

Carson didn't carry the classic doctor's bag although the fuller kit in the boot was an enhanced EMT kit. What he'd set aside for John (and any emergency need) was kept in one of the book bags like the kids carried around University, with its separators and pockets so he could keep things straight and easy to find even in the dark. A couple days supply of John's current meds were in the front pouches, and Carson had also added extra wraps for John's ribs and even a small bag of plaster, splints and extra cloth strips in case he had to replace John's cast on the run.

Not like he was expecting things to be go south or anything --

"It all looks good, Doc," Ford was saying as he handed back the pack. "We'll note it in the log in case someone else asks, but as long as you keep with Dr. Z, you probably won't be given much of a second look. I'm assuming you're going to be checking first on Dr. McKay?" he then asked of Zelenka.

"I know Teyla had nothing to do with Elizabeth's appearance. But your boss' mind is made up. So even if Rodney not awake yet, there may be something in his possession that give us clue to what happened."

"Yeah, well, keep me informed if you find something. Or if McKay does wake up. I'm afraid that if I'm not there to run interference, one of the two of them is going to take their animosity a step too far and then it might not matter what McKay knows."

"Good plan. I not suppose you make arrangement for us to get key to Elizabeth's facility apartment?"

"Just that one, Dr. Z?" Ford laughed. "You don't want one to her in-town place too?"

Zelenka shrugged. "Neither Rodney nor Elizabeth's cars removed from Institute grounds. Rodney looked like he come through woods when found. If taken from town, he would have called one of us to come there, or called cab to bring him here. I think Bates looking in wrong place about many things."

Carson gave an uncomfortable look toward the other two security guards, but they didn't seem surprised or upset to see division in the ranks. John was also keeping an impassive expression that Carson tried to copy.

"Good hunting then, Doc -- Docs. Sir."

"Marine?" John asked softly as the young man turned away.

"How'd you guess?" came that big smile again.

"Too clean-cut for Army, too down-to-earth for Navy, and not arrogant enough for Air Force," John smiled right back.

"Ex-marine, actually. A bunch of us are, although we've got a few wet and dry fly-boys around too. Markham and I served our five years, Miller eight, but we were given a better offer than reenlistment. It's a good place and Dr. Weir's a great woman to work for. I guess that's why Bates is so hyper on getting her found. Me, I don't care who does it, just that it gets done."

"A fine attitude to take, son," Carson smiled though he felt down-right old standing before the three security lads.

"And none of us are doing it by just standing here. You'd best be seeing to McKay, I'll see to Bates, and we'll let these guys get back to their jobs."

At Zelenka's signal they climbed back into the car. Carson was directed out to a perimeter road. He drove for almost a mile before being directed toward a series of townhomes that looked a lot like the rooms John had been staying in.

"Just before I meet with you, Dr. Biro had Rodney taken home. Miko, I think stay with him in case something more goes wrong."

Before they started up the steps to the second-floor door Zelenka had pointed out; John bent over and transferred what looked to be a small handgun from under his pant leg. He tucked it in the waistband at his back after untucking his shirt.

"What?" was his only response when both Carson and Zelenka looked at him askance. "They shouldn't have just taken my word for it that I was only carrying three," he then said with an unrepentant grin. "Dr. Z here thinks things might have started here on the Institute grounds. Would you rather leave your safety to guys who don't know enough to double check things -- and aren't anywhere near in the first place?"

The uncomfortable expression on Zelenka's face turned to agreement and appreciation. "Yes, good, but not shoot anyone even if you think Rodney deserves. He not bad man, only … cranky."

"Not cranky, I just don't have any use for people more than fifty IQ points away from mine and where the hell have you been, Radek?" A dishevelled, ashen-faced man with a lop-sided frown now peered over the railing at them. He looked roughly his or John's age, but to Carson's expert eye, he was not taking care of himself even if he hadn't been abducted the night before.

"Miko said --" the man who had to be Rodney McKay abruptly pulled away from a small hand that was trying to draw him back in the room. He turned his glare from Zelenka to fix it on Carson and John.

"You're obviously Jeannie's husband, she always did like them pretty," he dismissed John with a wave before studying Carson. "So who are you?" he snapped with both his voice and his fingers.

"Carson Beckett," John answered before Carson could, and Carson noted he did not mention the whole Doctor thing, but given how many of them there seemed to be around here, it probably would have only confused things more. That training, however, was coming to the fore and telling Carson that Dr. McKay shouldn't be on his feet yet.

Apparently the small Japanese woman agreed with Carson. She came further out onto the landing and began to physically pull McKay back into the apartment. Zelenka charged up the steps to help when McKay's knees began to buckle, with Carson and John only a couple of steps behind. Ultimately it was Carson who manhandled the scientist onto the couch when John did his own staggering from McKay's stubbornness against being moved.

"Dr. Zelenka, would you be getting my bag?" Carson asked as he began taking the too pale man's pulse with one hand and easily held him down with his other. "Inside the top interior pocket you'll be finding a syringe. It's a mild sedative," he then directed as McKay began fighting against his hold. "It won't put you out laddie, it'll just be calming you down a bit!"

"I don't need to be put down or calmed, thank you," McKay blustered. "And you're not about to stick anything into me. Just who in the Hell do you thing you are?"

"You don't believe in Hell or God," Zelenka muttered as he took a position kneeling next to Carson. "And I'll stick you if you don't calm down. You were missing for nine hours, Rodney. We were all worried -- well, Miko was, right?" he directed to the wide-eyed woman who was helping a gasping John keep his feet. They too moved closer to the couch.

Miko nodded vigorously behind her oversized glasses, almost knocking them from her face.

"John?"

Carson was waved off and so he turned his attention back to Rodney McKay. "I'm a medical doctor, lad. I know your own looked you over, but you did just about faint --"

"Pass out."

"Excuse me?"

"I do not faint, I pass out. From hunger and hypoglycemia, or from being threatened and tortured, resulting in massive blood loss."

"Torture?"

Although John's voice was still too hoarse from both recent and not so recent trauma, any breathiness was covered by a darkling interest. Carson wasn't real happy to hear it or the reason for it.

McKay lifted up his right arm. Like John he was wearing a long sleeve shirt, but under Carson's inspection, he decided that yes, there could be a bulkiness under it although nothing as thick as John's cast. Bandages then.

"What happened?" John asked.

"I was taken. I don't know by whom, but what they wanted were my security codes."

"You gave them?" Zelenka stated as if it wasn't a question. "Have you called Bates?"

"I didn't give them the real ones," McKay snarled and a spot of color started returning to his face.

"Well none to any place important," he was continuing. "Just for one of the side gates and Kavanagh's lab, which I told them was mine. But it's not like he's working on any of the … project," McKay most obviously temporized, glancing between Carson and John like he shouldn't have even said that. "He's not in town right now, right?" his attention turned back to Zelenka. "So he won't be in any danger if they use them. I had to do something," he then sputtered against Zelenka's look. "They demanded verification and kept carving on me anyway."

"Everyone breaks under torture, Dr. McKay," John growled with the voice of experience that made Carson shiver. "That you kept your head to give them incorrect information, not to mention you managing to get away from them, is pretty damn impressive. But you should let your people know that base security has been compromised."

"Okay, first, this isn't a base, it's an institute. Bases are run by governments and military, which we most assuredly are not. Secondly, of course I kept my head, that's what I do. I'm probably the smartest person you'll ever meet so keeping my head is child's play. Well, if I am that child.. And thirdly, I'm sorry, but it was damn impress -- oh, wait, that's what you said, didn't you? You were complementing me."

"I realize it's a rarity for you," John grinned. "Someone actually admitting to appreciating your talents --"

Carson just sat back on his heels, his mouth open in wonder, not sure which one he should be watching. Dr. Zelenka seemed to have the same thought, and his grin was even bigger than John's.

"Are you making fun of me?"

John's smile grew in proportion to the very lop-sided frown deepening across Dr. McKay's face. "Actually, I thought I was coming onto you, but that's probably a rarity too, so it's understandable --"

"Who are you?"

"You are most definitely Jeannie's brother."

"Yes, yes, and you were married to her. But now you're coming on to me?" McKay blushed.

John simply laughed as McKay's face grew redder.

"Mate later," Zelenka scowled as he handed Carson the needle and his pack before regaining his feet. "Need call Bates with what you know. Elizabeth still missing and he thinks Teyla behind it."

"Missing? What? Elizabeth -- still? Teyla?" As impressive as the lighting-fast changes of subject were, watching his expression change with each of them was even more so.

"Elizabeth disappeared same time you did." Zelenka frowned. "I thought you taken together. You saying this incorrect?"

"Is incorrect, yes." McKay started to pull himself up, snapping his fingers at either Carson or John when he couldn't maintain a grip on the couch back with his damaged arm. Carson bemusedly moved in close to assist and then helped him get steady as the scientist swung his feet to the floor.

Carson still wasn't happy with the rapid pace of McKay's pulse, but the paleness wasn't returning even as the blush and bluster were disappearing, so it wasn't shock.

"Why is she missing?" McKay asked the pacing Zelenka. "Why in the world does Bates think Teyla is behind it?" He began coughing and then started snapping his fingers again; obviously a common action for him. Fortunately Miko seemed to understand. She immediately scurried into the kitchen to bring him back a glass of water and what looked like an energy bar that McKay unwrapped and stuffed into his mouth before he took a drink.

"That can't be healthy," John commented before Carson could.

"Neither is me passing out from hypoglycemia if we're going to figure out what is going on," McKay snarled back. "Now, again, what's going on with Elizabeth, Teyla and Bates?"

"Because Teyla and Elizabeth fight, Bates thinks Teyla has done something," Zelenka said as he came back over to stand in front of McKay.

"But why would Teyla involve me? Why would she have someone torture me for information she already has?"

"To make it look like it's something a lot more serious than a lover's quarrel?" John suggested, though from the expression the accompanied it, Carson didn't figure John was seriously proposing it.

"Lovers --" McKay began to squeak. "Who?" but he stopped when Zelenka raised his hand and gave a little shrug.

"Okay, yes, fine, they are and someone here has a big mouth." Not that Zelenka paid any attention to this glare either. "But torturing me is a little extreme, don't you think?"

John nodded, a smile still ghosting across his lips. "It would have been much easier for her to just kill you if she was trying to make it look like some sort of serial thing."

John proved just as immune to the glare, Carson noted. Unless you counted their whole interaction as foreplay.

"Okay, so who would kidnap the two of you, Rodney?" John asked more seriously. He moved to join the rest of them by the couch, electing to sit on the arm farthest from their gathering around McKay. No doubt so he and McKay could look at each other without straining anything. "Jeannie seems to think it was someone from the Genii Group?"

"Well that would make sense if it was just me." McKay nodded and his expression became speculative. "They really didn't strike me as the type who cared how they convinced people to come work for them. God, Jeannie didn't contact them too, did she?" McKay asked in horror, looking between Zelenka and John.

"No, she was leaving that up to me," John said with a cocky tilt to his head.

"Why? Who are you? Besides the obvious of being Jeannie's ex. You met when you were grad students, right? Why would she call some mathematician instead of the FBI or the Royal Mounties or something?"

Carson watched in interest as John looked down and away for a moment, choking on a breath. Without thinking about it McKay was leaning over to pass John his remaining water and was given an appreciative nod in return before it was finished off. Carson wanted to know where McKay's assumption had come from since John had never mentioned postgraduate work to him.

"Actually, we met before grad school and, ah, I never pursued my post-graduate career," John fumbled, doing his own blushing now. "We got married during my second year of service in the --."

"You were military?" the squeak came again or maybe it was more a squawk, as it was not only high pitched, but full of incredulity and anger.

"Still am." John was definitely uncomfortable now.

Carson wasn't sure whether it was because of McKay's so obvious sense of betrayal from his sister, or that maybe John was feeling that he'd long ago betrayed himself.

"Air Force Major … helicopter pilot. I flew F-15s when Jeannie and I were married," as if that might be more impressive -- or less offensive.

"My God," McKay dropped his face into his hands. "She married Tom-fucking-Cruise."

"That was Navy," both Zelenka and John corrected.

"We are the 'Roswell' guys," John then continued. "Or maybe Dawn Patrol? Twelve O'clock High?"

"Gregory Peck was a bomber pilot and weren't both of those movies back when your Air Force was still under Army control?" McKay raised his head and snarled. "You … you're that pilot lawyer on tv!" he bemoaned and gestured in John's direction with a wide-flung hand before abruptly looking pained and bringing his arm back to his chest.

"Still Navy, McKay. How about Chuck Yeager or the Thunderbirds? Better yet, how about we concentrate on why we're here instead of movies or television shows?" John's frown was not lop-sided but his lips did narrow just as thinly as McKay's.

As entertaining as this was proving, John was right. Carson decided he'd better establish his own presence a little better too. He took gentle hold of the hand McKay was cradling and started unbuttoning the cuff to check the wound. "Do you want something for the pain?"

"Not yet," McKay frowned in his curious fashion.

Although Carson saw no other evidence of trauma or further nerve damage in McKay's face, he started to raise his fingers to explore until John cleared his throat and then waved him off when Carson looked over.

"It's hereditary. Jeannie frowns the same way."

"As does our mother," as if John had accused McKay of something. "I'm sorry my facial expressions do not meet with your approval --"

"Actually, I always thought it was pretty cute on Jay, but we're back off-topic again, which I guess is another family trait?" John made sure to smile again, which did seem to blunt a wee bit of McKay's bluster. So, too, were his flagging energy reserves to Carson's eye.

"Tell us more about the people who held you," John asked. "Where were you grabbed and how? Anything you can remember about where you were taken or who was interrogating you? How about how many people were involved?"

McKay leaned back against the couch. Instead of closing his eyes as Carson was expecting, he turned his head just enough so that he had John back in view. "I had just finished dinner and had gone out for a walk. Yes, I know that isn't something I normally do," he defended -- to Zelenka, Carson supposed, since the small Japanese woman did not look like the type who ever willingly contradicted Dr. McKay.

"I had a few things to go over in my head and I guess I wandered away from the residences. The moon was just past full, so there was enough light to navigate by." McKay shrugged. "The entire complex is supposed to be safe save for the odd animal or reptile that might not have been run out by our arrival. I certainly wasn't expecting to be jumped by anyone. That's why Elizabeth is paying for all of her ex-military goons." The last was added with a sneer, but John didn't seem to take offense.

"How many?"

"More than two, but I'm not sure how many more," McKay responded without needing to think. "I definitely had one on either side of me grabbing my arms. Someone else dropped a hood over my head that immediately cut off all my sight and most of my breathing. From behind. Someone in front then tightened the hood by a drawstring across my throat. By the timing, it could have been the same guy moving in front of me. He laughed as he did it."

McKay's breath began to race just remembering what had happened. Carson quickly reached his hand over to his patient's shoulder and gave him a reassuring squeeze while John would be continuing to work on reassuring him emotionally.

"I understand this is …stressful, Rodney, but you're doing great and you're safe now. Three or four men are a hell of a lot to try to take on, especially if one of them was going to enjoy hurting you." John slid down from the arm of the couch to take a real seat, bringing one leg and knee up so that he could keep facing McKay and have something to lean against. He didn't move close enough to become threatening, and was still giving off only trustworthy body language.

Feeling McKay making the effort to try and relax, Carson spared a glance at the other two occupants in the room. Miko had come to stand next to a stationary Zelenka, who now had his arm around her as she looked like she might begin to cry. Carson gestured with his head toward the chairs that were set around a four-person dining table in the space between the living room and the kitchenette. Not having the authority or the right to suggest that they leave since he and John were more the interlopers here, Carson still figured it would be better if they were more comfortable.

At least one of them agreed and they both moved. That movement wasn't enough to be pulling McKay's attention from John.

"Did they take you to a car or van?"

"I'm not sure." McKay manoeuvred to copy John's position at the opposite end of the couch, giving a funny, almost apologetic or regretful look toward Carson when he moved away from Carson's steady grip. "I blacked out, or was given something -- Biro said she found a pin-prick in my arm, but that could have just as easily come later."

Carson twitched to move and examine it himself. Instead he put everything back in his pack and moved over to one of the chairs himself, feeling it to be better to wait before acting more invasively. He did, however, carry the chair back toward the couch to be closer at hand.

"They took me into a room, more like a warehouse or an empty lab, because there were echoes to my … s-screams when they began c-cutting -- when I wouldn't answer their questions."

"Good pick up," John encouraged but didn't make him dwell on it. "Did you hear other noises? Traffic sounds maybe? Did they use anything like music or something to screen what they were doing from potential witnesses?"

The frown returned. McKay was obviously trying to recall more of what happened, but he still didn't close his eyes to be aiding in that recall.

Not that Carson blamed him. It would have been damn terrifying even if McKay had been able to be seeing what his captors had planned or were doing. Preventing the poor man to be getting the opportunity to be preparing against what they'd done could have only been adding an additional level to the torture.

"No traffic," McKay finally decided. "We don't get that much out here, of course, not unless you're right by the highway or one of your compatriots are out testing their secret planes and black helicopters. They seem to enjoy rattling our windows."

John smiled at that little show of pique and nodded. "And nerves too, I'm sure. We're incorrigible like that. So, no radios or loud music either? They weren't concerned about being overheard?"

"Maybe sound-proofed," Zelenka offered from his position at the table. "Some of our facilities are."

Carson could see McKay's eyes widen as the other was caught off guard in being reminded that there were still other people in the room. The scientist didn't actually startle, however -- or dismiss the interruption as Carson had been anticipating.

"There was an overall muffled sound to our footsteps," McKay nodded thoughtfully.

"Do you think you were kept here on the Institute grounds?" John suggested. "Does Asgard have unused or abandoned buildings?"

By the number of cars they had seen in the multi-storey, the Institute employed a couple of hundred people here. Even if half of the buildings were labs or test facilities instead of offices, there was obviously more than a wee bit of room for growth.

"But if they already have access to facility, why demand Rodney's gate and lab codes?" Zelenka brought up.

"You mentioned a product -- no, I'm not asking you to tell me what it is," John flipped his hand up from where it was wrapped around his knee for a moment as three mouths set to protest. "Rodney, you seem to know at least one of your other colleague's lab codes. I'm assuming that's not standard practice though? That most of the what, two-hundred people here don't have the same type of knowledge and access?"

Carson gave himself a little smile as his guesses had matched John's observation.

"I know handful of others," Zelenka offered. "Some of us oversee multiple projects."

Miko was nodding.

"I, however, am the Head of the Science Division," McKay said with just a touch of gloating behind his tone. "That includes the security systems and so I know everybody's codes. But outside of Elizabeth and her pit-bull Bates, no one else does. And those two would have to look most of them up."

"Meaning the codes are stored somewhere if not more than one place," John was saying almost to himself. "It's a lot safer trying to get information by hacking a computer file or breaking and entering than it is from kidnapping. Of course it's easier to torture the same information from someone if violence is their natural inclination in the first place. Especially if they're on some sort of time crunch in when they need it by." John brought his focus back to McKay. "By taking you, though, they've guaranteed that the codes are going to be changed, whereas the incursion might have gone undetected if they'd chosen to break the system."

"Our encryption was set up by the best in the world," McKay began his expected defense.

"But he is dead now," wee Miko spoke up for the first time.

"Let me guess, Peter Grodin?" John asked.

"Is there anything you didn't tell them?" McKay growled in Zelenka's direction, only to be earning himself a Slovac shrug of fatalism. Even as he gave the appearance of something deciding whether it would be useful to do more berating, a contemplative look settled over McKay's wildly expressive face. He turned back to look at John.

"By Peter Grodin, yes. He was involved with Elizabeth at the time of his death. Maybe there's a connection --"

"Since you said death and not murder, am I right to be thinking this Mr. Grodin's death was an accident?" Carson asked.

"That's how it was ruled by the locals," McKay grimaced and began to redden from agitation. "He would never have gone to someone else with our secrets."

"But what about things now that he's gone?" John deflected the temper that was rising as McKay had misinterpreted Carson's reason for asking.

"How hard is it going to be to change the security systems given the information they took from you, Rodney? If he was the best in the world, I imagine more than just recoding things with a random number and letter generator will be needed?"

Zelenka was nodding, and McKay started to look pensive again.

"I could do the work, as can Radek. Maybe Simpson? But I don't think that new Canadian who took over Peter's job is sharp enough. It wouldn't be something that can be done in a couple of hours, either. Well, yes some of it can. The actual changing of the codes because it wouldn't be very practical if it took days to change them since badges get lost and people leave sometimes as we're not being forced to work here, of course. But for a breach like this we're going to have to review and reset our entire series of protocols and --"

This time John did invade McKay's personal space, using his hand to stop the wild gesticulations that accompanied this verbalized stream of consciousness.

"Stop for a moment and breathe, McKay. Just take a deep breath." It was said with such familiarity and a look of fondness that Carson had to figure this was yet another way John was being reminded of Jeannie McKay. Indeed, Carson was beginning to wonder if much of the patience, understanding and comfort might be having more to do with some kind of inverse attraction from sister to brother, than just being some aspect of John's military interrogation training.

Carson was also wondering whether his speculation was true or not, just how McKay might be feeling about it if he started thinking the same thing of John.

"You would be bringing then, someone from the outside to handle the computer work?" Carson asked to show he'd also been thinking this all along instead of accusing their former friend of anything untoward.

McKay nodded and let out a long sigh. "There is just too much needing to be done if we've been totally compromised. If Elizabeth stays missing for more than a couple of days -- or if she turns up dead …"

McKay took another deep breath, but let it loose too quickly and tried again. "I don't have any idea what would happen to this place," he was beginning to panic. "If she's found, but has been compromised too -- "

"We're not military," he stressed yet again. "We're not government either, but the work we are doing here could very well end up changing the world. Most of us could probably recreate a lot of it, but we wouldn't, not for some sort of big brother overseer."

The deep breaths weren't helping other than to let McKay run longer and longer strings of words together. And to be bringing him closer to hyperventilating.

"Elizabeth lets us pick our fields of study, the projects … I mean, of course, she must be selling some of what we are doing to others and maybe taking in investment money. But the only review board we answer to is made up of our peers," he was still trying to explain. "I don't think she's ever threatened to cut off someone's funding even if what they were working on failed. Not even Bill Gates is that rich, though, so it is probably some DOD secret fund or something. And if she's not there to manage it … us … God! They would have to turn us over to someone like Cowan and the Genii Group or come in with their own marionettes and jack boots."

"Rodney, if you'll nae listen to John, then listen to me. You have got to be calming down, laddie. Now I still have a sedative, but I don't want to use it if you were already drugged unconscious once today --"

"At least twice."

"At least twice?" Carson did his own bit of squeaking.

"I have no memory of being taken to where they questioned me, or of getting away. I don't have any idea whether they actually let me go. I was behind the observatory when I finally became aware I was even moving. If I got there on my own I have no idea how I managed it, or where I might have come from before that point. I also passed out at least once while they were questioning me -- b-before they were through h-hurting me. Radek, you said I was gone for eight -- nine hours? I maybe remember three in total. That still leaves them five or six to have done who knows what to me?"

Carson leaned forward and took both of McKay's hands into his. "Your doctor has had enough time to discover something like Scoplamine or Sodium Pentothal in your blood, laddie. They dinna really work anyway, not as a failsafe truth serum. They're fast-acting barbiturates and likely would have put you under too deeply."

"What if they injected something else? Something to make me more suggestible, or even some kind of transmitter?"

John scooted closer and added his own hand to McKay and Carson's. "Incisions leave traces, Rodney. There wouldn't have been time for enough healing for your doctor to have missed something like that when you were first found. They could have tried some kind of drug and hypnosis set-up, but you're a genius, remember. You are not the type to be susceptible to that kind of mistreatment."

"Yes, right. Even my subconscious would have been too smart for them," McKay began to be letting them settle him.

"So, what else is out by the observatory?" John coaxed McKay back into thinking about the abstract of his capture. "Why would they have dropped you there or why would you have gone there?"

"There isn't anything there yet. I know Elizabeth owns -- or maybe leases the land -- for maybe a mile beyond. There's an area that has been leveled and cleared for an airstrip although we use the one just off of 95 and 373 right now. The tarmac hasn't even been laid yet, and there aren't any support buildings even under construction so far. No warehouses, no labs."

"Any idea what's beyond the Institute's grounds? Do you have any neighbors?"

"Just coyotes, scorpions and snakes. You might not have gotten a chance to look, but Amargosa Valley isn't all that much of a town and this whole area isn't all that much of a place to live. We're surrounded by Federal land, most of which is under restricted airspace and controlled by your Air Force buddies."

"It's not my fault, Rodney. I've been overseas for the last few years," John raised a hand to absolve himself.

That got him a ghost of a smile in return and just a hint of interest, but McKay -- no, Rodney dinna appear quite ready to be giving John too much yet.

"We should probably check out the area anyway," Rodney sighed. "There could be something there, maybe even an underground bunker for all that we know."

"This could be true," Zelenka agreed with growing excitement. "Big nuclear testing area, so ground geologically stable, at least before they set off bombs. Could be old site or storage facility, no longer on books or maps --"

"The military is pretty keen on not track of any of their bomb sites, even if it was just a support facility," John punched a wee hole into their excitement. "Nor are they likely to have sold any property that had ever contained one to a civilian, given the liability if something bad was stored there -- that whole Superfund, environmental clean-up stuff. But," he continued when Zelenka looked like John had just shot his puppy, "that's not to say someone else might not have built something underground for their own purposes since the government has proven it's viable. I'm assuming your active security perimeter is only set up around the occupied portions of the grounds?"

"I think even our trained goons would notice someone digging a big hole in the ground."

"The hole could have already been there." John responded with a mild smile. "This is Nevada, Rodney. There were silver mines all over the state a hundred years ago. Many are probably still privately owned, even if they aren't producing anything. You guys got any of the touristy ghost-town maps for the area?"

"I have a T-3 line," Rodney was definitely gloating this time as he pulled himself up off the couch.

Zelenka got to the desk on the other side of the room. "I not like to think Elizabeth being held in old mine shaft, even if converted into something else," the Czech muttered as Rodney pushed him away to take over the searching.

Carson and John both also rose, but while Carson moved to look at the computer over the two scientists' shoulders, John stepped back for a moment to check on Miko who had not been getting up. Carson mentally kicked himself for having to be having someone else point out his job. He'd been ignoring more than a wee bit in getting caught up in the threats and excitement.

"Are you sure you're okay, love?" Carson asked again as he caught the nod from her to John's similar question. "You're looking a little peaked." She was also trembling but Carson wasn't sure whether he should point that out. Medical training said yes, of course, yet he was a sheep away from his flock here, not knowing the people or the personalities enough to assert his own.

"Should we call someone? Maybe Dr. Biro? Or Mr. Bates?" he asked a bit louder, because doing so had been mentioned more than once, yet it hadn't gotten done.

"Actually, I was wondering if there might not be any more energy bars and bottles of water like you gave Rodney when we first came in," John overrode Carson's concern by offering her one of his trust-inspiring, little-boy grins along with his questions. "We were promised this great lunch by Dr. Z, but --"

"Oh, yes," she nodded with an eagerness that seemed to be out of proportion to the question.

Carson glanced at his own watch and was shocked to be seeing it was near half-past three. Now reminded, his own hunger was making itself known. He suspected, however, that John's hunger -- and getting Miko contributing -- was only part of why John had asked. The Percocet tablets John should have been taking a good hour ago needed to be done so with food.

"Food, yes, food would be good," Rodney agreed having overheard their conversation. "We could go out --"

"You've already found something?" John looked surprised.

"I've set up the program to cross reference the US geological data with the Nevada historical society data base" Smug wasnae such a bad look on Rodney because this time, Carson decided, it was coming from feeling proud and clever to be thinking of it, nae because he had thought of it first. "That is being filtered through listings of known and former mines up to two hundred and fifty miles away. The first sort is for the ones large enough for something like a bunker to have been put in place without it being too obvious to an outside observer. I am also referencing all deeds and titles of property within a three hundred mile radius against the names of the Genii Group's employees -- and any of their major investors -- with the IRS rolls to see if there are any matches."

John's little boy came out immediately to play with Rodney's. "Well then, ignoring how many laws you just broke, I'd have to say good job again, Rodney," John grinned. "And thanks. I'd love for you to take us to lunch."

Mouth open for a beat with nothing coming forth in response, Rodney then nodded sharply and gave into the inevitable. "Fine. But we're taking your car."

*******

When Rodney McKay was a boy, he learned as many things about himself as he had the world around him. The most important thing had been the awareness that he would never be like the others, and learning how to accept that. Whether it came to his intelligence and ability to learn, or simply his desire to learn, ninety-nine percent of the people around him would think he was stupid, including his parents and most of his teachers. His sister was the only exception for many years, for she had been much the same way. Except she never seemed bothered by the condescension and patronization. Or may she had just learned much earlier than he had how to mask the hurt and anger. How to pretend it didn't matter.

People, therefore, never found reason to dislike Jeannie McKay -- except maybe for Rodney. Most of his discomfort stemmed from her being four years older. She got to everything first. Even when he proved that he could keep up with her intellectually despite their age difference -- that he was, therefore, smarter than she was -- all he ever heard was oh, how clever; you're just like Jeannie. Or, yes, Jeannie already showed us that. And, finally, why can't you be more like Jeannie?

Needless to say, he didn't like anyone very much through all of that.

Resenting that he was following in her footsteps, he spent most of his so-called formative years, therefore, findings ways to surpass her so that he might once achieve recognition before she did. His first success to that end had been during high school, but it hadn't been academically. In one single day he'd become the first McKay child in four generations to be suspended from school as well as arrested. Oh, and the first McKay to come out. Not the most auspicious start, but the gay thing did give the two something to bond over instead of competing against when Jeannie finally admitted to him that so was she.

Even if that closeness didn't survive their separation to different colleges and disciplines, it had still served as a basis to get back in touch years later once Rodney found out she'd been left by someone. He'd ignored the marriage since it had been just another way of her hiding and conforming to expectations, but that didn't mean she'd deserved to be hurt because she was shallow. Fortunately for them both, she'd emerged the stronger for the divorce -- more honest about whom she really was and damn anyone who didn't like it!

She'd become the kindred soul Rodney had always been looking for.

The soul who, unconsciously but through the capriciousness of fate, had once again become the resented trail blazer.

By having found John Sheppard first.

The attraction was instant, because Rodney had always appreciated beautiful things too, and John Sheppard would be a striking figure even if Rodney wasn't interested. Rodney was, though. Because while he might not be the most social of creatures, Rodney still had the same biological urges of his species, even if they were skewed to something off the norm.

There was still the concern that Sheppard's own apparent returned interest might just be a product of his military training or just a desire to solve a puzzle instead of actual attraction. Rodney didn't think the latter was anything too detracting, of course, since he needed to solve them too and so it was still an area in which they could bond.

Rodney could still be setting himself up for disappointment though. That Sheppard was refusing to be intimidated (and not purely based on some knee-jerk, testosterone-laden, Neanderthal competitiveness), was also providing a level of appeal. As did the evidence of Sheppard trying to be friendly without expecting anything in return, at least as far as Rodney could yet figure out. But people didn't really do that. They always wanted something.

So what did Sheppard want if not Rodney?

It wasn't as if Jeannie had been in touch with her ex for years, or that she would now be expecting him to come back to her even if he was looking for camouflage again. She was in her own relationship, one which had even precluded her from growing closer to her own brother after all. Plus she already had, against Rodney's better judgment, given Sheppard half of the proceeds from selling their once, jointly-owned house even though she had been under no court or moral obligation to do so. So it wasn't likely that Sheppard would be thinking he could get some money out of this.

Nor would helping Rodney help Sheppard's career. The major wasn't a scientist (although Rodney was pretty sure he could have been), and so wasn't looking to get a piece of Rodney's research to make his own name off of Rodney's work. He apparently didn't know Elizabeth Weir from a hole in the ground either -- and he appeared quite happily military for life, so it couldn't be that he was looking to find a job with the Institute out of this.

No, from the facts on hand and any extrapolation Rodney made, there wasn't anything in it for John Sheppard to be friendly to him, other than maybe that was just how Major Sheppard was.

And so just maybe there was some real returned attraction there instead of reflexive flirting.

Unfortunately, Rodney was smart enough -- and honest enough (at least to himself) -- to realize a portion of his own attraction to Sheppard was because Jeannie had had him first. That meant Sheppard was safe. As well as pretty and smart. Jeannie would have settled for nothing less, especially if their sham marriage had been a convenience for both of them. If it wasn't about love, then there sure as hell had better have been something interesting and fun to it. Being safe was good.

Outshining his sister was better.

Jeannie had had Sheppard, but hadn't kept him. The competitive part of Rodney's animal brain didn't care why she had let him go as long as Rodney could either keep him longer or drop him faster. Either way it would prove once more that Rodney was smarter … better. It wasn't right, probably wasn't even fair, but Rodney believed, as Richard Dawkins had so aptly put it, that the universe doesn't owe us condolence or consolation; it doesn't owe us a nice warm feeling inside. If it's true, it's true, and you'd better live with it.

Even if the truth was one of his own flaws.

Why couldn't he be just as petty and shallow as his fellow man?

"Dr. Zelenka, I'm thinking maybe you should be the one doing the driving," the Scottish fellow was saying as they all trouped down to -- wow, a really nice-looking car.

Rodney hadn't any idea of what he'd been insisting on when he'd ordered Sheppard to cough up his car; all he'd been thinking about was the embarrassment of his own in the face of an Air Force fighter pilot. Somehow, despite how efficient, economical and reliable a Honda Civic was, what it wasn't was sexy.

Or big enough to fit the five of them.

Not that the Mustang was going to be very comfortable either.

"I must be back to my own work, Dr. Rodney," Miko suddenly seemed to remember her proper responsibilities, or maybe she'd figured out that by being the smallest, she'd be the one crammed into the middle of the back seat. "You have doctor, friend and protector now, so you are needing me no longer."

Rodney nodded. "Yes, good, back to work. You can tell the rest about my miraculous return, and that I'm now off to save the day once again."

Jeannie's friends looked a little put off while Radek was ignoring him. Rodney, however, did know how to manage his own people, thank you. Miko hadn't been expecting any expression of gratitude, his belief in her ability to take care of what he'd entrusted her with was a lot more important -- and special -- than a simple thank you.

His head was aching too much to pretend to be nice right now anyway. As was his stomach. Rodney hadn't eaten anything substantial since dinner the night before, so in addition to his blood loss, his blood sugars were getting too low. It was par for the course that everyone made fun of his hypochondria, but not even Kavanagh laughed when the person who kept everything running fell into a fucking hypoglycemic coma!

The unpleasant logistics of their next activities taken care of, Rodney ducked into the passenger seat as soon as the door was unlocked, letting the others sort themselves out with Jeannie's friends climbing into the back seat through Radek's side. It wasn't like they were going to want him to get car sick. That wasn't something Rodney was generally prone to -- which was surprising considering all of the other medical problems he'd had to live with -- but he'd been nauseous since he'd woken up --

Actually, since the first time he'd awakened, although so far he'd managed not to vomit. Still, Rodney wasn't going to take any chances.

"Nauseous," he bit off at Radek's look. "It's not like it's my fault --"

"Is this a sudden thing or have you been feeling this way for a while?" The Scottish guy was up leaning between the seats to put his hand against Rodney's forehead and then cheek.

"Do you mi --" Oh, yeah, doctor, Rodney remembered. One of those kind, where it was all guesswork and voodoo practices, as evidenced by the fact that the moonlighting sheepherder was checking for a fever when Rodney has clearly said nauseous, plus using his hand, which was the most unscientific tool…

"It's been for hours, thank you. Eating should help, and sleeping most definitely would, but once again I'm needed to save everything so I guess I'll just --"

"Have to soldier on?" came from the ex sitting directly behind Rodney.

"Yes, very funny, Major." Rodney turned far enough in his seat to catch the other man's eye. "We'll leave the soldiering to you why don't we? Aren't you supposed to do that no talking thing, like the Snake Eaters or Benedryl monks?"

"That's the English Beefeaters," Sheppard corrected. "Snake Eaters are Army special ops," came back with a wink -- a fucking wink -- the same time the Scot exploded right against Rodney's ear.

"Are you daft, man? It's the Benedictine monks, not some antihistamine. And they dinna practice a vow of silence. But if someone here should --"

"Where am I driving?"

Rodney submitted to the Scot's obsessive need to keep taking his pulse and frowned toward Radek. "You forget how to drive to the executive dining room?"

"Is third Thursday of the month. Is Lemon chicken day."

"Lemon chicken sounds good."

"I happen to be allergic, Major --"

"To chicken? Must be tough --"

"To lemon. To all citrus actually, and yes, it is tough when most people think it's no big deal to forget to mention that they might have substituted orange juice when the recipe calls for sherry, or when they decide lemon bars are somehow classier than chocolate chip. Do the words anaphylactic shock mean anything?"

"Well I seem to remember ana being from the greek, and phyla --"

"Oh shut up." Rodney decided he didn't mind that his irritation sounded forced. He was having too much fun. Only Radek ever bothered to dish it back to him. Not always having enough of the same language and cultural reference points made it frustrating though, as well as entertaining. There was something just that much more satisfying in matching wits with someone who seemed able to keep up with him

"Yes, it is Lemon chicken day," he then granted. "But Elizabeth recognizes that not poisoning me is in her best interest. The cooks are prepared to make something different if I ask."

"You call them cooks instead of chef, you get --"

"I get what I deserve --"

Radek snorted. "I can only hope." He sighed. "Leaving means going through security again. You already forgot to tell Bates that you are awake and think you know where Elizabeth is but are keeping to yourself to be big hero. Also, the Major would have to surrender his hold-out gun and no more Dirty Harry."

"Gun?!" Rodney whipped back around at the same time "Hey!" came from behind him.

Sheppard blinked first. His raised hands and the rather sheepish look that Rodney then got in return wasn't all that unattractive in and of itself, although Rodney wasn't quite sure how he felt about having won something so clearly so soon.

"It's the first rule of Chicago, Rodney," the other than managed to dredge up. "They pull a knife, you pull a gun."

Rodney let the smile curve his lips as they were getting out of the car. Pretty good save by Sheppard, not that Rodney would ever acknowledge it. By the time they reached the door and its security scanner he was back to looking disgruntled and inconvenienced in waiting for the three others to scan their badges too.

"Isn't your badge use going to be registered in the security offices?" the Scot asked.

Damn … right. He should have just ghosted in on Radek's instead of trying to set the right example once again. "Oh well, can't be helped. We'll just have to get our food in a hurry or expect to be interrupted." Not that he wouldn't anyway, but that was why he came here instead of the more popular -- and much more crowded -- main dining cafeteria.

"So is there a reason outside of maybe trying to show him up, that your not including Bates on any of your speculations?" Sheppard asked, the drawl making it seem if he wasn't really interested although Rodney wasn't fooled.

Rodney let him get away with it since he rather liked that drawl. It was as sexy as the Scot's in its own way, and a nice change from the typical flat, Hollywood-blandness that was the American accent to most of the world (or the even worse absurdities uttered by hardcore Easterners and Southerners). Not that most of Canada was any better, Rodney could admit to himself. He still couldn't believe Jeannie had resettled in Halifax. The only place where they sounded worse might have been Quebec.

"Bates' security people have made it more than clear that they are here to do their jobs and I am here to do mine, and never the twain shall meet," Rodney huffed. "I consider this an object lesson. If the stakes weren't high, they'd never be bothered to learn any better. It's obvious that killing Elizabeth isn't the goal; otherwise we would have already found her body. The miscreants have a plan, one that is obviously clever if not actually intelligent. Which means it will be beyond Bates to figure it out. Too bad he's also too stupid and petty to ask for my help."

"Did you just say miscreants?"

"To big for you, Major? It means villains --"

"Oh, you mean the bad guys --"

"Speaking of Bates, Rodney..."

Rodney spun around from glaring at Sheppard to follow where Radek was now pointing to the nearest glass-walled, conference room. There, indeed, was former Marine Sergeant Eugene Bates, but for once Rodney had spotted him first instead of the other sneaking up behind him intentionally. Nor did it look like Bates was going to notice Rodney any time soon. All of the security head's attention was currently focused on the exotically gorgeous redhead that was Elizabeth's latest hire, protégé and bed companion.

Teyla Emmagan.

It was obvious that the two of them had been arguing for some time. Both were flushed and squared off against one another as if they were prize fighters waiting for the bell. Bates, it seemed, heard it first, however, as he suddenly reached out and grabbed her by the upper arm to nearly pull her from her feet.

Which was apparently enough for one Major John Sheppard, too.

Oh my god, he's not only Tom Cruise, but James-T-fucking-Kirk!

The door slid open soundlessly under Sheppard's touch. Both combatants were so focused on each other that neither had any clue they were no longer alone until Sheppard pretty much grabbed Bates as Bates had a hold of Teyla.

"What the fuck!"

"Hurts, doesn't it," Rodney could barely hear Sheppard's growl. "So maybe you better let her go."

Something Bates did instantly, but not because of the suggestion. Bates turned around swinging, only to howl when his fist impacted against that absurdly Barbie-colored, fiberglass cast Sheppard had been sporting on his left arm. That prompted a creative bit of cursing on Sheppard's part as something broke, and Rodney lost the race to get in through the door to the Scot who forcibly pushed his way in between the two of them, only to earn a fist in his jaw as Bates recovered first before the major had.

More, quite colorful swearing followed.

Seeing Teyla start back toward the fray along with a pissed off John since his doctor friend had gotten hurt. Rodney panicked. He knew that Bates carried a gun. Before he could add himself into the mix, however, there was a bellowed, "Stand down, Sergeant!" from the doorway and Radek, who shouted in his best heavily-accented, John Wayne voice.

Damned if Bates didn't freeze and pull back, before shaking himself as if he were a wet dog.

Sheppard moved next, only far enough to reach down and help the doctor to his feet. Who then pushed John into the closest chair and began pulling away the cast that was now coming apart in pieces. The doctor didn't give Bates a look, but Sheppard did, and Rodney was certainly uncomfortable with the expression being leveled on the security man.

Not that it hadn't been deserved.

Rodney shook his head over the irrationality of others and then looked back up. He'd moved behind the major's chair without being particularly aware of moving, and hadn't been the only one. Bates was suddenly now against the back wall, hands clearly away from his jacket and the visible gun holstered underneath. Teyla and Radek moved toward one another and all three were also watching the doctor's ministrations.

"What's wrong with you?" Rodney blurted out.

Sheppard twisted his head, his brow going up. "Physically or metaphysically, Rodney?"

Rodney just stared, and after a beat the other answered, "Are you asking why I felt compelled to stop your Head of Security from committing assault and battery, or…" Sheppard shrugged, somehow encompassing the wrist and fingers the doctor was carefully manipulating and (now that Rodney was actually paying attention and really looking), the hint of bruises and bandaging visible from Rodney more or less looking down the major's shirt.

He could also see more than hint of dark chest hair, and defined muscles that were a bit beyond both Kirk and Cruise.

"I was in a crash a few weeks ago," Sheppard finally answered under Rodney's intimidating glare.

Rodney started to frown. Most people would have said car wreck or automobile accident. Calling it a crash could mean a bicycle or subway or plane -- no, he'd said he had been a fighter pilot but was now flying helicopters. Rodney had the sudden thought that Sheppard had left out the identifying factor on purpose, and Rodney didn't think it was because he was seeking out more attention by having someone ask. Rodney was being stared at -- probably by everyone else in the room except for -- Thomas Becket who was staring only at the injury he was trying to fix.

Rodney gave a short nod and took a step back, knowing that something had just happened between him and John. For once though, he wasn't going to analyze it to death. He let his gaze shift to Teyla and then turned on Bates. "What, exactly, is going on here, Eugene?"

"I don't have to answer to you, Doctor --"

"Actually, I believe that you do," Rodney interrupted gleefully. "In Elizabeth's absence, the day to day operations actually fall to Miss Emmagan, while you would be dealing with security matters. Seeing as how you both are involved in what's going on however, responsibility would then shift out of Operations and into Science. Which is me." He rocked on his heels before gesturing the door to be closed. It was bad enough there were already two outside witnesses in Jeannie's friends. Further airing their dirty laundry with the rank and file was not the way to inspire confidence when their leader was missing.

"Okay," he then scowled when Bates remained silent. "Are you prepared to file charges with the local authorities again Miss Emmagan?"

Bates actually looked startled at that question, as did Teyla.

"Oh, come on, people!" Rodney threw his hands up. "We aren't our own colony or country here. There are rules and laws even we have to obey no matter how important the work is that we're doing. If you think Teyla is guilty of something, Bates, then have her arrested or lay off," he scowled. "Frankly, your authority to even question her probably ended when you laid-on hands. She can have you arrested for assault and battery, or sue you for harassment and it won't fucking matter if you once carried an M-16. And none of this is even considering all the shit you could be in for throwing some punches at an Air Force Major and … and at Sir Thomas Becket," he finished in a rush.

His last words stopped everyone from even breathing for just a second, and then an explosion of laughter started.

"Car…son. Carson Beckett." John sounded like he was about to swallow his tongue. It could have been because Thom -- Carson had pulled out some splints from his ever-present bag and was rewrapping the Major's wrist. Rodney, however, was pretty sure it was from laughter too.

He threw up his hands. "Fine, so I'm lousy with names and my brain tries to make up for it by using associative patterns."

"But you do know who Sir Thomas Becket was, right?"

Even Bates almost cracked a smile at that one from John. At least Teyla's laughter was soft and rather musical.

"Of course," Rodney drew himself up. "He was the one who killed Brutus, right?" he asked, earning a downright dirty chuckle from John.

"Time to reprogram search functions," Radek snickered from his position standing next to Teyla. "To upgrade or change systems maybe?"

"The first part might have been the least bit clever, but you've never known when to stop, Zippy."

Bates cleared his throat.

Rodney shot him a scowl. "Don't even start. We're entitled to feel giddy. You haven't shot anybody and I haven't had anything but a couple of power bars to eat since eight o'clock last night."

"Rodney."

His name being drawn out into three syllables should not be sexy, but he couldn't help but respond to John. "Yes, fine, he was just doing his job when he attacked you. You were just doing your … hero thing, and I'm stuck picking up the pieces yet again between fainting from blood loss and hypoglycemia. To that end --"

"I go get us pizzas or something," Radek offered. "I have heard what you next say."

Rodney nodded and dismissed Radek with a hand-wave.

"Just what is it that Dr. Zelenka already knows?" Bates growled suspiciously.

Not because he thought Rodney was behind all of this -- well, Rodney hoped he wasn't thinking that.

"I -- we think we know where I was held, and it makes sense to think Elizabeth is there too."

"You know where she is?"

Teyla rushed up from her chair and Rodney found himself automatically taking a step away from her and closer to John, his hands rising to protect … whatever.

"We are figuring out the most logical places to look," Rodney temporized before turning back to Bates.

"I was indeed kidnapped and tortured for my security codes." He held up his hand to prevent Bates' explosion for withholding that information until now. "Ultimately we are going to need to rework them, yes, but whoever took me was already on Institute grounds. It stands to reason that they already have something or someone set to do something if you change the codes, so doing so may be more dangerous. Or, counting on us thinking that, they're instead prepared to gain access once we redo the entire security protocol."

"Maybe it's even both." Rodney shrugged. "Because of Peter's death, keeping it in house will mean that someone -- probably me -- will be taken off existing projects for a couple of weeks, maybe even a month, and that could just as well be their goal. If we hire outside help, on the other hand, and these guys are as good as they seem to be, you can bet one or more of their people are going to be on our short list of hires." He gave John a glance. "What have I forgotten?"

"Only what it means if it's not all about you," John said seriously, but not mockingly.

"Oh, right. Why they took Elizabeth." But before Rodney could expound on that, Radek was sliding the door open with his elbow, his hands full of several boxes that were indeed pizza.

Of course the first one Rodney opened had pineapple on it. He shot Radek a dirty look, but didn't rise to the bait, instead sliding it on down the table and checking the second box. Pepperoni and sausage. Fine. There had been a real meeting in here earlier, so there were filled water pitchers, dual pots warming on the coffee station, plus one more with hot water and enough of those stupid little tea bags still unopened. Beer would have been better, even soda, but …

Rodney passed around clean glasses and filled a mug with coffee for himself, letting the others forage on their own for the rest.

He wasn't the only one whose speed in finishing their first piece brought a frown from Carson. At least the frown didn't come with a lecture. It did seem to come with a couple of orange tablets for John, who emptied his glass of water as he swallowed them. Could be his for the asking too, Rodney knew. Right now, however, he wanted access to all of his brain.

"What happens to the Institute if something happens to Elizabeth?" Rodney asked after his third piece.

That was enough to bring Bates from the wall to take a seat at the table, his gaze turning to Teyla instead of staying on Rodney.

"The money … her estate is in a trust, or rather a series of them since the holdings are too much for a single one." Instead of eating, Teyla was gripping her own hands, not quite twisting them or trying to prevent herself from gesturing, Rodney decided.

Rather it was more like she was wishing she could be doing something more forceful with them. From what Rodney had overheard weeks ago, outside of the security guys, she was the one who most took advantage of having a world-class gym on the property. Which, given how she had torn into the pizza, was probably a good idea.

"Elizabeth has no living family to inherit from here. I do know that she has set up arrangements for all of us to be paid out our pensions and some sort of, well, bonus or severance based on how long anyone's been employed here if she dies suddenly. As far as the research going on here, the equipment, property or anything else…" Teyla shook her head. "I have no idea. I guess maybe only Elizabeth and Kate does."

"Kate Heightmeyer," Rodney answered John and Carson's unasked question. "She's our lead Corporate Attorney."

"Ideas have monetary value," Radek brought up. "Is why she lets us keep our names on patents as co-holders. But there are many projects here that are..." and it was his turn to shake his head.

"Even though you've been saying you nae be government, nor militarily funded, some of those projects are probably being under their auspices." Carson had finally finished fussing over John's wrist and took his own seat and a couple of slices of the abomination that was ham and pineapple. "How likely is it being that some of those would be turned over to someone like the Genii Group?"

"You know it was Genii?" Bates turned another look of accusation Rodney's way.

Rodney brushed him off. "I've been warning you about them for months. Once they successfully recruited Sora away --"

"All of her equipment, badges and keys were accounted for when she left," Bates said stiffly. "Any security protocols she had a hand in setting up or overseeing were also modified after her departure. She isn't the infiltrator."

"Why? Just because she used to work for you?" Rodney sneered back. "But before you get all defensive," he continued, "that wasn't what I was accusing her of. What if successfully luring her away made them cocky, made them think they could bring any of us over? Maybe they then got pissed when that didn't happen and so are taking more drastic steps to get access to our, what, we're all calling it projects, right?"

"Wait a minute. You're saying Sora was one of the security crew here?" John interrupted.

It was John's turn to earn Bates' suspicion. "You know Sora Tyrus?"

John shook his head. "Sora isn't a common name, though. Not common enough to assume there are two of them working there. The Sora that McKay's sister spoke to, however, said she was in public relations."

"You said Jeannie didn't contact them!" Rodney turned on John. Damn the man --

"In reference to the steps she had taken today to find you," John threw right back. "She didn't call them this morning. If Sora is still working security and if they were actively keeping tabs on Jeannie, though," he then continued with something that might have been sympathy, but quickly turned to thoughtfulness, "they might have been thinking they could use her to get to you, Rodney, and so her number could have been flagged for special treatment if she did call."

"Does that mean they've got agents working in several countries?" Rodney wondered now if he hadn't just put his sister in grave danger.

John shook his head. "She's already suspicious of them, Rodney. They wouldn't have much luck in coming at her directly, and you know she's awfully damn hard to trick."

Rodney wasn't quite reassured. "I'm still going to call her when we go back to check on the search program."

"Well, yeah," John agreed. "You should tell her you're okay."

Radek let out a nervous cough. "Actually, I already did that right after he was found, Major."

Rodney watched John's eyes narrow.

"When you didn't call me? I suppose you told her not to call me either?"

"As I said, I thought we needed outside perspective to get to bottom of this mess." Radek firmed up his expression. "I was right, no?"

"That remains to be seen," John scowled. "I imagine Mr. Bates would have worked with you two if you'd bothered to let him know all of your suspicions. That's something you can work out amongst yourself." A pointed look came Rodney's direction too, before John softened it again. "But since I'm here, I might as well stick it out. Do you think the program is done yet?"

"What program?" Bates asked, as Teyla offered: "How can I be of help?"

Rodney cracked his knuckles. "We're checking to see if any Genii employee has title to anything within a three hundred mile radius of the Institute. With most of the acreage being military or federal, there won't be that many names, and even if none of them are what we're looking for, I'm also flagging all of the local mining operations, active or not, because I'm convinced I was held in some sort of underground bunker. I was only missing nine hours, I was held in the same place for at least three, and so they couldn't have taken me more than three hours away from here to get me back within the same."

"Unless they flew you somewhere," Bates countered.

"Given, but why would they have bothered to fly me back?"

"Flying you somewhere and back without you being aware of it would get you looking in the wrong area to find Elizabeth."

"Oh, please," Rodney dismissed the idea. "You're just sore that you didn't --"

"Arguing amongst ourselves won't find Elizabeth," Teyla pounded her fist on the table. The blush that swiftly followed, Rodney supposed, was from embarrassment from the loss of control.

John shot Teyla a smile obviously meant to be comforting. "Even if we just confirm she's not being held close by will be useful. Now," he then looked between Rodney and Radek. "I'm assuming with all of the projects you're quite carefully not identifying, one of them gives you reason to believe you can find a bunker once you've refined a list of areas to search? Otherwise, you do know that it could take days to search even one old silver mine, right?"

Rodney gestured over to Radek, as it was one of the engineer's projects that Rodney had only okayed and oversaw.

"We have something that combines thermal imaging, sonar and seismic surveying, and laser sensing to a finer degree than even oil companies are using. Portable scope still prototype and we not discovered all limitations, but we are looking for something that has above ground entrance, so not like we need penetrate layers upon layers."

"That's still a hell of a lot of ground to cover, especially if there is only one device," Bates shook his head. "I'm not about to send out even half of my people to turn over rocks. Who's to say this isn't all a damn red herring, a feint to draw off the people that would be needed to shut down any subsequent security breach?"

"We could have two hundred extra of your people and it wouldn't be enough," Rodney didn't bother to hide his glare at Bates' stupidity. "Obviously we'll be checking the initial sites from the air and note the most promising ones for a ground team to follow up on."

"And who's going to do that kind of precision flying, McKay? You? Not even Markham has the level of training to keep a copter skimming the local mountains and canyons."

"Can't Lorne do it?" Surely it wasn't that big of a deal. Why else would Elizabeth have chosen him for her regular pilot?

"If he happened to be here right now, maybe," Bates snorted. "He's off to his sister's wedding, though, remember?"

And maybe Bates couldn't help but sound mocking.

"I don't have time to keep track of my own peoples' schedule, much less Elizabeth's people," Rodney gestured dismissively. "But can't he come back? It's Thursday. Who gets married on a Thursday?"

"He is scheduled to be gone for a week, Dr. McKay," Teyla was obviously trying to make up for Bates' attitude. "The wedding is Saturday, with the final rehearsal and rehearsal party tomorrow. Marcus is part of the wedding party."

"Did you not say you flew helicopters, Major Sheppard?" Zelenka asked. "Being active military, I imagine you've done exactly the type of flying we need."

When Carson turned as white as John, Rodney had his answer as to what kind of crash John had been in.

No less than a month ago.

"No," Rodney started shaking his head. "Miller is a pilot too. And ex-military. Navy?"

"He flies planes, McKay. Not helicopters." Bates lifted his chin in an obvious challenge. "What about it, Major? Is your Air Force training up to the --"

"Guess that depends on what kind of helicopter a civilian keeps on hand."

Rodney sighed, but refrained from throwing up his hands and drawing attention away from the pissing match going on. He did manage to share a commiserating glance with Carson, but really didn't like how worried the Scot's expression had turned.

"If you've just got a light piston engine, then no, the copter isn't going to be able to handle the job you need done."

Leaving unsaid that any failure wouldn't be because of the pilot's skill, yes, very subtle. But what about the pilot's nerve? Rodney had to wonder. If it had been him …

"Is MD Explorer, like US Coast Guard use, only no guns. This one used formerly for emergency medical services out of Reno, so now has only three cabin seats plus those for pilot and co-pilot." Zelenka dropped his eyes. "Although I am not primary mechanic, I have learned enough about it to keep it going if necessary."

"Is that good enough for you, Major?" Bates kept up his challenge.

"It's a sweet ride," John acknowledged. "It'll do the job and I can do your flying, but if it's going to be today, we better figure out where to right now. It's got an IRF system, so night flying is doable, but landing it in a patch of dirt on the side of a mountain is probably better left to the daylight. Assuming the bird's good to go with just a pre-flight check?" he then asked Zelenka.

"Is kept on ready status. More than once we have been called upon to assist in medivac, and once there was fire. If Markham helps, we can prep for you while Rodney checks search program and gets prototype scanner delivered. You and Mr. Bates can then figure out who will be going."

"I'll be operating the scanner," Rodney got out before Teyla's "I would like to," was overrun by Carson's flat "I'm going too."

"If Elizabeth has been drugged or injured you might need a doctor," Carson further explained, except his eyes hadn't strayed away from John.

The discomfort that brought Rodney gave Bates the opportunity to protest again. "I get that you're Elizabeth's …" but he couldn't say it, and Teyla wasn't letting him finish, regardless.

"The position I held when Elizabeth and I first met was translator and bodyguard for the Tanzanian ambassador to the UN. If I was deemed skilled enough to guard someone considered quite important to my birth country," she said most unapologetically, "I can also look after myself as well as be of aid to the Major."

"Well, it sounds like your involvement is then up to the Major," Bates backed off from a further confrontation with her. "But I want one of my people taking the last seat."

"What about Elizabeth?" Rodney protested. "The last seat should be held for her."

"You can fit more passengers than you have seats for, Rodney," John corrected. "Having someone else trained in, well, infiltration and extraction is a good idea."

Okay, so John wasn't objecting to Teyla's presence.

"Will you loan me Ford?" he then asked Bates.

"Isn't he awfully young?" Rodney found himself interjecting.

"He's old enough for Bates here to have picked him as his second. I doubt that was just to make himself look better."

"The kid can handle himself a lot better than you can, McKay," Bates said with a growl; John's compliment being backhanded at best. "He was a munitions and hand-to-hand expert while in the Marines. Probably would have been fast-tracked on the promotions list if he'd stayed and why I recommended to Elizabeth to see if she could talk him into changing career paths." He looked more appraisingly at John, as if recognizing Ford's qualities somehow made the major not quite so much of an object of derision.

"If he's willing, he's yours for today's op," Bates then nodded. "I'll go with you on the next one and the two of us will rotate between as many flights as you're up to taking."

*********

Luck was not something Rodney believed in. Good things happened because of hard work, intelligent deductions and the occasional leap of logic, not because you wished for it, were blessed by leprechauns or by praying to some imaginary friend the ignorant populace called God. Just as bad things didn't happen because you deserved it, because you proved a co-worker was an idiot, you yelled at your cat, or because you forgot to tithe to that imaginary friend. Things went wrong when you worked with incorrect data -- and because other people's reactions could not be properly quantified.

To all intents and purposes, the data Rodney had used had been correct. Although they hadn't found any land purchases matching the names of any of the Genii Group's employee roster, they did find four properties within a fifty mile radius that had been sold within the last eighteen months to corporations, including to two off-shore holding groups. By examining available satellite imagery, the one that stood out the most looked as if was being worked as a farm. While Agro-corporations were common enough here in the States, this one appeared to be more like a family holding despite being one of the off-shore purchases, and despite central Nevada not being good farming country for anything other than tumbleweeds. So maybe a tax dodge, or something even more … nefarious.

A judicious check of freight company databases showed an inordinate amount of things having been ordered and received over the first year after the sale. Rodney hadn't been able to hack into what specific companies had been sending those deliveries, at least not in the timeframe they were working under. Still, he could tell that it hadn't just been tractors, seed and manure. Heavy-duty excavation equipment was a definite possibility, given it was one of two properties that had once had a working silver mine on it. Not any longer, though. At least there hadn't been any record of stuff being sold on the commodities market under the names identified.

Enough oddities to make it the most viable place to start with in Rodney's mind, and it took him next to nothing to convince the others. Except for Ford, who seemed awfully concerned with how the information had been obtained.

Teyla, fortunately, had only been interested in Rodney's results, while Carson had just said he was only along in case someone got hurt, and John had just shrugged when Ford had launched his protests and said the deed had already been done and wouldn't it be a shame to let the information go to waste when it might lead them to Elizabeth.

And so they added trespassing to their list of sins.

The helicopter ride had been … interesting. It was obvious to Rodney that John had hesitated before climbing in, and that Carson was set to hover. That last part had been easily solved; Rodney needed the clearest view and the least interference to work the equipment and so he simply commandeered the co-pilot seat before the good doctor could seat himself. Rodney also expected that the concern the doctor wasn't any good at hiding was also goading John into proving he was fine with it all. While Rodney still wasn't sure if it had been a put-up job or actual fretting on Carson's part, it had worked. Because here they were, two miles out from where something big and empty had registered underground when they'd flown over the property, and the only evidence Rodney had seen of John being nervous was an unsteady hand that had gone away once the helicopter had reached altitude. It had been the smoothest, least terrifying ride Rodney had ever taken, even when they'd flown low enough to ruffle a few tree tops.

Wanting to complain bitterly about the walk that followed, even Rodney agreed that just because the only thing they'd had to deal with so far was a barbed-wire fence marking the property line, didn't mean that there might not also be a perimeter guard to overhear them had they landed closer. At least they hadn't found evidence of any electronic surveillance so far.

Rodney's disgruntlement wasn't helped in that Ford and Teyla both looked as if they had just walked from one office to the next; that even John wasn't breathing too hard. It was nice that Carson was huffing and puffing a bit too, but he wasn't nearly as winded as Rodney nonetheless. Nor did any of them seem worried enough about being beaten down by the ravages of the sun. Rodney, however, could already feel the tightening of the skin on his forehead that was heralding cancer-causing sunburn.

Why was John the only one who'd thought to wear sunglasses? Sure, pilot-flying-into-the-sunset-and-being-blinded was bad and so he'd been right not to turn them over while they'd actually been in the air. Now, however, it was just pure selfishness given that Rodney was the one fighting the glare to be able to make out the screen of his EM scanner.

"Okay, let's hold up here," John abruptly stopped and raised his hand in some sort of signal that made sense to both Ford and Carson, with Teyla catching on fast enough to keep Rodney from running into any of them.

"We should be coming up on the perimeter of whatever they're storing underground and this is no where near the old mine entrance Dr. Z verified on the old topological maps. It's time for Ford and me to scout ahead. Put on the radios that Bates gave you and turn them to channel three." John let his gaze move between the rest of them.

"Teyla, I'm counting on you to keep your head and get our docs back to the chopper if something goes south. Rodney, unless your scanner works on people, put it away for now and try to pay attention to your surroundings so you can help her out. Carson … just try not to kill Rodney, okay?"

Rodney scowled, his frown depending even further when he was having trouble putting the damn radio on. He didn't even use his cell phone headset (not that he used his cell phone all that much in the first place). When John came over to check and help him out, he couldn't help but flush over the attention -- and the touch of John's fingers against his cheek and jaw when positioning the microphone, even though it was all with neutral, business-like intent.

"Just speak normally, or even a little softer if you need to use it," John instructed as he also set the transceiver body's position on Rodney's belt. "It's currently set to stay open to receive." He took one of Rodney's hands into his to show him the logistics, still holding on when he made Rodney go through the various buttons and knobs. "You just have to press this to talk. If you hear this" and John clicked his own transceiver twice," that means signal received, but we can't respond -- do the same if you get visitors to let us know."

"Do I also get one of the guns?" Rodney asked without being sure of what he wanted the answer to be.

John looked at him way too intently. "Do you know how to use one?"

"Just point and shoot, right?"

"Ah, not exactly," Ford had come over to see what the hold up was. "It's probably better, sir, if we don't --"

"Carson can show him how to reload," John contradicted and pulled out one of the guns he'd retrieved before they'd left. He popped the magazine from the bottom and checked the chamber to make sure it was unloaded. "Everyone else is armed, and if something happens and he gets separated…"

He let it go at that and Ford backed off. "The safety is here, Rodney. The clip release here and yes, it's utterly stupid that they mirror one another. I didn't design them and this wouldn't have been my first choice for you." he cut Rodney off just as if he knew Rodney was about to comment on the impracticality of the design. "It will, however, get the job done."

Once again he started manipulating Rodney's fingers. "It's a double action hammer, first pull, second," except Rodney was focusing more on the feel of skin on skin than skin on metal or John's words.

"Magazine holds fifteen rounds, and you can load one in the chamber for the extra shot. If you have to use it and reload, don't worry about taking the time to pick up the clip, just release and let it drop. If you're down to a couple of shots left and you know you'll need to expend more, release it early and reload when you have the time instead of waiting until it's too late. We'll worry about evidence once we're not being shot at in return."

Earnestly said, but not particularly sharp; as if John trusted him to understand what he was saying and so Rodney couldn't help but respond to that with a bit of a smile. Instantly John's face took on a much more severe look and Rodney tensed in anticipation of being yelled at for not taking things seriously. What came instead, though, was:

"Also, don't aim it at someone unless you're ready and able to shoot them, Rodney. Keep it hidden, set it down, something, but don't shoot unless you're prepared to kill. Wounding someone is great in the movies, but that kind of shot is not easy to make. Just aim for the biggest target you have, which will be their torso. Most people get pretty pissed off to have a gun on them and if they're the type to shoot back, they will, whereas if you're unarmed, they may just want to find out why you're here. If you're worried about your hero badge, remember that without what you and Zelenka did, we wouldn't have made it this far. If you can't shoot, no one on our side is going to think anything of it, since it's not something even most people can do."

"Once we get through this, clue Bates in on that, would you?" Rodney whispered back so that Ford couldn't overhear.

John smiled and clapped him on the shoulder. "If we find your Doctor Weir here, I'm pretty sure I won't be the only one reminding him of how that was made possible. No soldier wants to work with incorrect or missing data, not even an ex-one like Bates."

As potential final words, Rodney wasn't sure John couldn't have said something better. He still appreciated the sentiment and respect that had been underlying it though. Plus, Rodney didn't have anything more profound to offer in return; they weren't really even friends after all with the only thing in common between them right now being his sister.

"Don't get lost," he finally called out, because Rodney couldn't just let John and Ford walk off without saying something.

"I am sure they will be fine, Dr. McKay," Teyla came over to stand beside him. "Perhaps we should wait over there," she then pointed off to a denser collection of the scrub trees and bushes that covered the arid ground leading up the hillside the other two were disappearing into.

If this was farmland, Rodney had no idea of what kind of crops were being grown. The miles they had walked through certainly hadn't been cleared for any sort of planting. Nor had the clearing they'd found to land the helicopter in been surrounded by anything more than natural growth. Not enough to really hide it if someone were specifically looking, yet screened enough that it wouldn't necessarily be noticed if someone just randomly came into the area. At least the nearest paved road for through traffic was five miles further away.

Even so, Rodney felt the lack of the two soldiers' presence and was hoping it wouldn't take them very long to find an entrance, secret or not. He was in enough danger just in having met John Sheppard -- of having his heart broken when the Air Force Major returned to his helicopters and his closeted life that had no place for a gay, high maintenance genius without having to worry about defending himself against the people that had already hurt him.

Just as Rodney had decided to quiz Carson Beckett on the subject of one US Air Force Major anyway, their radios came alive and they were being called to rejoin the other two.

It was a barn, or a duck blind, old miner's shack or something equally absurd, as it had no business being here on a 'farm'. Made to look as if it had been constructed years ago and just abandoned over time, Rodney recognized that the materials nevertheless were mostly synthetics made to look like wood. He could also see the evidence of a trail once it had been pointed out, but it was obvious that this wasn't a widely-used area. Before Rodney could comment that maybe they were looking in the wrong place after all, John had opened the door. It didn't take a genius to see the partially-covered hatch built into the dirt floor.

"If the numbers 4, 8, 15, 16, 23 and 42 are cut into it, I'm not going down," Carson said in a whisper.

"Oh please," Rodney scoffed. "Even if there were such things as curses, it would not be a random string of numbers."

"Who says they're random?" Ford grinned from behind John's shoulder. "Just because we don't know what they mean --"

"You probably don't know what any numbers mean," Rodney snapped back. "Case in point, 9,941, prime or not prime, Ford?"

"What?"

"Is 9,941 divisible by any number other than 1 or itself? If prime there would be no other numbers. Not prime, then it could be divided by, say, the number seven. So 9,941, prime or not prime?"

"Mersenne Primes are not fair representations for his first time, Rodney," John drawled from where he knelt by the hatch. "Hand me your scanner."

Ford looked as confused as Rodney felt, but that was the boy's usual response around the Institute's scientists unless he was asked to help them blow something up. For Rodney on the other hand, having his hypothesis confirmed, that Jeannie had indeed picked John because of a like aptitude for mathematics instead of just falling for the cutest jock on campus, came close to shorting out his brain. His hesitation was long enough for John to turn a look his way that matched the drawl before rising up from his haunches and taking a position next to Rodney.

"If you won't share your toys, do you want to check and see if you can detect any security system?" he then asked with a nudge to Rodney's shoulder. "If it's something as simple as a chain of bells that falls when it's opened, we're screwed, but since you seem to think your nemesis likes the same kind of tech you do, I'm betting it's either unprotected, or someone's spent half a million dollars on it. I'm also assuming that if it's the latter, you have something in your bag of tricks that can counter it?"

Rodney nodded, still distracted by the enigma that was standing way too close, whose breath was now tickling his neck as John made the pretense of looking over Rodney's shoulder. But Rodney's focus was drawn back to the matter at hand when the scanner's read-out lit up like a Christmas tree. A quick check of one reading made him glad he'd set the equipment to mask its own operating signature, as just activating it in here would have set off an alarm of its own.

"You're sure this isn't part of some secret military base your government is so fond of?" Rodney was back to whispering, but this time for safety's sake instead of not being able to find his voice.

John nodded, and although Rodney knew there was no way a mere Major could really know that, he decided to take the confidence on faith. They could get arrested, sure, but the military didn't have a habit of shooting trespassers without at least warning them first. Rodney was also fairly confident of being able to talk his way into any secret lab; it wasn't like it would be his first. He just had that problem of dealing with rigid authority types too stupid to tie their shoe laces, and so had never been able to stay long enough no matter what kind of neat gadgets they had for him to play with.

"Give me a couple of minutes to work out a bypass."

John's quick nod was enough to keep Ford from finishing his question about Rodney's abilities. Rodney would have to remember to thank John for that too, once this was all over. He could get used to working with someone who at least understood that he knew what he was doing as claimed, instead of everyone transferring their own levels of incompetence onto him.

"Carson --"

"Dinna even, John. You don't have the manpower to spare to be leaving me up here, and if she's hurt she is going to be needing some care before you're going to get her up some sort of emergency exit out of the bunker. I might slow you down a wee bit, but not enough to offset my usefulness."

"I wasn't going to say you weren't useful, Carson, but --"

"I may nae be liking guns, but you know I'm proficient, and I probably know more ways to hurt a body than you do," the good doctor added quite sternly. "Besides, this could still be some poor farmer's storage facility for his winter seed or something. and he's just conforming to the local historical preservation society to keep up the proper appearances. It could even just be a secure way to be keeping the local lads from getting down into the old mines."

"Got it," Rodney called out as something clicked loud enough to override John and Carson's intense whispering. He then shifted back and met Ford's expectant glance with one of his own before shaking his head. "You're not expecting me to lift it? It probably weighs a couple hundred pounds -- that's five inch thick concrete and steel. You're supposed to be the infiltration expert anyway."

Rodney grinned at Ford's pained look in response and stepped aside further when John came over to help Ford. Surprisingly, Teyla quickly took up a position opposite the two men without being asked; her gun pulled and held snugly -- expertly -- in a two-handed fist. She would have the first look at what was down there Rodney realized. He couldn't stop the quick gulp in being reminded that this wasn't just the conclusion to an interesting puzzle.

"I've neutralized the alarms," Rodney told them quickly. "There is something down there drawing a lot of power. I have no idea what it is, nor whether any lights are going to be on or off. What I have done is made sure that the status of the lights won't be changed by opening the hatch. Also, from best I can tell, it's a fifty-foot drop, so if it is dark, we won't be seeing the bottom."

"Should we be setting a rope?" Carson asked from a position back by the entrance to the shed, his attention more or less focused on any outside interference.

John was shaking his head. "If this is an emergency hatch, they'll have a ladder or steps. Leaving a rope would only give away that someone has entered."

"Sir, when it opens, I should probably go down first," came from Ford. He had a funny type of look on his face when John's expression asked for an explanation (or was refuting him); Rodney didn't have the proper angle to know which one.

"You don't work for the Institute, Major. If something is going to go wrong, I'd feel a whole lot better being in front."

There was a pause, but John then nodded. "Assuming it is clear, Ford goes first, then Teyla. Rodney, you after that, then Carson and I'll bring up the rear. Use the double click on your mics to confirm your arrival on the bottom, and no one starts down until the one ahead of you has given that all clear. Also, don't cluster around the entrance. Don't wander too far away either." He took the moment to meet everyone's glance. "Are we ready?"

At the nods, he and Ford knelt back down and started twisting the hatch open. Whatever its purpose, it moved without noise and so Rodney figured it was safe to conclude that this wasn't something left over from the fifties or sixties. Once the bolt was turned out of position, however, it still took the two of them to manoeuvre the hatch open.

No alarm sounded, and once it was pulled away enough, Teyla bobbed her gun and head over, taking a quick look and pronouncing it clear for the moment. "The lights are on. It is a vertical ladder bolted into the wall," she confirmed. "I would estimate that Dr. McKay is right about it being fifty feet to the floor."

Unfortunately a vertical ladder meant they would have to use both hands, holstering any guns or scanners or anything else that might let them know someone was coming and protect themselves. For once it made sense as to why the special ops teams in the movies Zelenka kept inflicting on Rodney had their guns strapped and hanging at their chests.

With great reluctance, Rodney holstered the gun he'd been given, all too conscious of the abnormal weight resting against his thigh and the vulnerability that it represented. When the double-click that signaled his turn came, he had to force himself not to scramble down the rungs. Not that it was easy going slow either, but somehow he managed not to loose his grip and break his neck. Once down he was, however, hoping that they'd find another way out when all was said and done, even if it meant walking back more than two miles. As tough as going down had been, Rodney didn't want to think about trying to climb back up, especially if they were being chased. Or had an injured Elizabeth who couldn't climb on her own.

Waiting for Carson and John to arrive was just as nerve wracking as waiting for his own turn had been. Nothing happened, however, by the time John dropped the last ten or so feet. No alarms, no guards -- no real evidence this place was being used other than an expensive lighting and security system, plus the place was too clean to be totally abandoned. It reminded Rodney of the one time he'd been invited inside Cheyenne Mountain, except this was obviously not US military. And all they'd discovered so far was a long corridor that took them perpendicularly away from where they'd entered, even though Rodney knew from the scans that most of the facility was directly away from where they'd entered.

After a couple minutes of more nothing, Rodney was ready to call out to someone just to get rid of the feeling that they were the only ones left alive down here. With a twenty foot high ceiling, there was no way he should be feeling claustrophobic. Not even their footfalls could be heard, however. As if the corridors had also been lined with something to make them sound proof, within the concrete. They had a few rooms like that in the Institute, mostly for blast chambers and engine testing facilities, but not also along corridors. There was no way a farmer would need something like this.

The first door they finally found was a double one; not two side-by-side in an opening, but one leading into a small antechamber followed immediately by another across from it. Both were thick and surrounded by glass with not too much of the room beyond particularly visible other than it was big, and there were stationary objects that were probably tables or work stations. No people, no identifying stencils saying clean room or something.

When they peered more closely through the front glass, there didn't need to be. The door -- both doors -- had hermetic seals and the interior glass they could now see was reinforced with filament wires of metal.

"It's a hazards lab," was Carson's conclusion. "Chemical or biological. If you look just there to the side, you can be seeing another door that probably leads to a storage and changing chamber for hazmat suits."

Not the type of stuff that inspired a warm fuzzy feeling, other than it was more evidence that whatever was going on here was hinky.

"An emergency escape if something goes wrong?" Ford pointed back down the way they'd come.

"Not something I want to play around with and find out," was John's response before he moved back into the lead and took them away from the lab another hundred yards to an abrupt left turn.

This corridor then continued seventy or so yards beyond before a branching corridor joined it from the left while the original one still proceeded forward. Here, finally, was the first sign of inhabitants, although only in the form of a diagramed layout to aid those who might be lost. They were shown a five-sectioned perimeter, each color-coded and split by corridors, some intersecting and others dead-ending into something not always identifiable. Only the green section they were standing in had the rooms actually detailed, whereas the overall perimeters of the rest were just solid color blocks. Plus no company logo, no legend, and no identifiers as to purpose or responsibility.

No way of choosing which area to explore other than by random chance.

Before Rodney could comment on the utter futility of it (there was no way they'd remain unmolested searching through underground laboratories that covered a few square miles), John asked Ford for something and the other brought out what was obviously a hand drawn map of some kind.

"What have you got?" because Rodney recognized Zelenka's writing scattered across part of it, but it was of nothing he recognized and he should, if one of his people had a hand in making it.

"This is where you were found wandering around, Rodney," John pointed to the blue circle on what turned out to be a graduated-scale grid map. "The blue line here is the border of Institute property," almost next to the blue circle, "and the red is the property line of our hosts." Not very far away either or so it looked, although Rodney had yet to see the definition of the scale. "The closest contact point is less than three miles if you were traveling in a straight line, all overland and through some pretty rugged country, yet definitely doable if you had a few hours to make it in."

"Wouldn't I have remembered a trek like that?" Not that he would have wanted to, and Rodney was pretty impressed with himself if he had actually done it. Not that there were mountains or anything, just some more of the sloping hills that mainly made cell and satellite reception a bitch.

"Depends on what they had drugged you with." John's expression held sympathy and personal knowledge. "I imagine you're a pretty focused kind of guy when you get angry," he then smiled, though faintly. "After what they'd done, you were probably only concentrating on putting as much distance between you and them. These hills would have made it more appealing despite the effort," he pointed to the features Rodney could now begin to differentiate and understand although he'd never seen a map like this before.

"More places to go into and lose their line of sight, along with the possibility of caves to hide in. I'm a little surprised they didn't keep going until they found you. Maybe they figured you'd fall and kill yourself, or that you'd be too out of it to be able to bring anyone back."

"The red square is what?" Rodney asked as he ignored the vague reference to someone maybe wanting him dead, and looked instead at the map for more details.

"Center of this property, and where the satellite photos showed the main structure. Based on the GPS coordinates of where we set down, I'd make the entrance we came down about here." John made a new mark with a pocket-sized green Sharpie. "Matching it up to this diagram, you could have come out here." His finger was poised a fingernail's width away from the red line closest to the blue one on Zelenka's map, and on the edge between the blocks of yellow and red on the wall layout. About halfway down and across to the opposite side of where they now stood.

"It stands to reason that if they held you there, they've got Elizabeth somewhere nearby. Especially if they were making her watch or listen to what they were doing to you."

Shocked and sickened by Ford's thought, Rodney staggered and might have fallen if John hadn't grabbed hold of his elbow. No one said anything about his less-than-manly showing, however, for it appeared as if Ford had even dismayed himself, and Teyla was also looking decidedly pale.

"I didn't need to hear that," Rodney whispered, only realizing he'd spoken it loud enough to be overheard when John gave his arm another squeeze before letting go.

"Just keep remembering that none of this is your fault," he was told in a voice just as soft before John was moving again, back on point and with a quickened step that was all about confidence and getting the job finished now that they had the direction to go.

Maybe.

Rodney had been absolutely overwhelmed by the pain and terror he'd been forced to endure. For once, though, he could also wonder if there might not have been something worse that could have been done. Like he and Elizabeth's places being reversed, with him having to watch her being hurt. He would have spilled any secret they'd wanted to know, no embellishments or lies.

Except that he couldn't, not even then, not even if they had killed Elizabeth in front of him.

When he'd hinted to John that they were working on world-changing stuff, that hadn't been the half of it. If they were right, were successful, they'd end up shaking the fundamental laws of the universe and be able to bring down governments overnight. And that was just the benevolent uses. Should someone who didn't object to kidnapping be successful in getting their hands on it, the changes wrought could be catastrophic.

Not just changing the world, but ending it.

"McKay!"

A growl, snapped off and full of anger -- no, full of something else, because John's eyes were sympathetic again even as the rest of his face was hardened into someone Rodney was pretty sure he'd never want to know. It worked in reclaiming his focus, which was no doubt its intent.

In truth everything they were acting on and supposing was all just one big house of cards, logically built and stable for the moment, but with one simple misassumption or misstep and it would all come to nothing. No proof the Genii were behind anything, no proof that Elizabeth had been there near Rodney, or was here now. No nothing, except the knowledge that they would have to do this all over again somewhere else if they were wrong.

And what did that say when you were hoping that you were creeping through some evil overlord's underground lair?

"Why have we not run across any others?" Teyla asked softly as they were probably half way to that exit point between the yellow and red sections.

"I get the feeling this facility isn't fully operational," Ford offered. "The two other rooms we checked aren't empty as in nothing-going-on, but as in stuff-hasn't-been-brought-in-yet. Otherwise, too, how would Dr. McKay have escaped? There were probably only a few guards then to keep him here. Maybe they started an evacuation afterward, just in case McKay did find his way back."

"So you do not think Elizabeth is here?" Instead of the confident, hard-as-nails go-getter, Teyla sounded scared.

"If they bugged out in a hurry, then they'll have left evidence," came from John. "I doubt they have places like this scattered all over the country. If they're not here, then they're in New Mexico. We'll find --"

"Oh, no."

"Rodney?"

His attention still buried on his scanner, it took Rodney a moment to realize that everyone had stopped when he had, and were now somewhat anxiously waiting for something from him. "I … I found something."

"I thought that thing didnae detect people." Carson frowned.

"It doesn't. But it does register anomalous energy readings."

"What have you got?" John asked as he came back to Rodney's shoulder for his own look.

For a moment Rodney started to turn the scanner away so John couldn't see, but then realized he was being stupid. John wouldn't know from just seeing the reading, and, really, if they were going to go investigate it as Rodney knew they needed to; John was going to find out anyway.

"It's … it's a duplication of something Radek and I have been working on. But there is no way anyone else should be able to reproduce it -- not unless they've stolen some of our … equipment." He looked up; saw the dawning look of horror mirrored on Teyla and Ford's faces, the confusion on Carson and John's. "I hate to be the one saying it, but it's more important than finding Elizabeth," he whispered harshly. "I have to see what they've done, what they have. World-changing, remember? A definite threat to your national security, and Canada's, England's ..."

John caught that Ford and Teyla knew what was going on, and that they seemed to agree with Rodney's assessment. "Okay, then the four of you had better go check it out."

"Four?" Carson began to protest.

"If it's that important, and stuff you need to get away from them, it'll probably take a couple of you to disrupt or move the experiment. If it is that important, they're not going to want to lose it, so there are probably guards. Rodney, you tell Carson how he can help you do your thing, while Teyla and Ford take care of anyone trying to stop you. And then all four of you get your asses back to the copter and call up reinforcements as soon as you get to its radio. I'll find Elizabeth and we'll join you as soon as we can."

Rodney wanted to protest – Hell, Teyla looked like she was going to. Ford, however, nodded and put his hand on her arm. This wasn't quite watching someone else get tortured, but it was still putting Rodney in the position of having to decide to sacrifice one or more for the greater good, and yeah, he was pretty sure he was going to be sick.

But they didn't have the time for that -- or time to argue.

"Here is a recent picture of Elizabeth, Major," Teyla produced from her wallet.

John took a careful look at it and then handed it back when Teyla would have let him keep it. She gave a sad, grateful smile and tucked it away inside her shirt instead of pulling the wallet out again. Next to her heart, no doubt. As if it might be the last of Elizabeth she'd see.

Rodney's stomach tightened just that much more.

"John --" Carson didn't understand the importance, didn't want to give up, but John took it out of the doctor's hands with a quick "so long" before turning and starting down the corridor at a pace that despite the stiffness of his movements, Carson would have been hard-pressed to keep up with.

"Where to, McKay?"

Rodney let the harshness of Ford's tone wash over him without comment. He certainly wasn't any happier than the rest of them. And it wasn't his fault.

At the next intersection of multiple corridors he led them too, they found another map and this one had the red area delineated with the other sections just showing solid colors. Rodney took a look at his scanner again, shifting it until he could make a better guess as to where the strongest reading was coming from, and compare estimated distances from the scanner with the wall display. "Here," he pointed to another cavernous room that was three turns and two corridors away. Red still seemed to be labs instead of offices, so maybe the people there would be technicians rather than security.

Ford took point, with Rodney just behind his shoulder, Carson, then Teyla following. The other three had their guns out again, while Rodney kept the scanner in hand in case the room he'd chosen was not the correct one.

He hadn't miscalculated.

"Son of a bitch."

They had managed to put a reactor together, one about twice the size of his and Radek's design. Even with just a cursory glance, Rodney could also see that they hadn't made all the proper connections. Not that this had stopped them from adding the naquadah, though at least they were using it in its liquid form and not the much more volatile, solid naquadria variant. Of course, that still meant that if the reactor wasn't adjusted or shut down, there would be a new valley in these hills.

"Either they've left this as a welcoming gift, or someone has just stepped away to use the restroom," Rodney barked out. He ignored Ford's attempt to keep him back and crossed into the lab. "If someone jumps out to stop me, stop them first or just fucking kill them. We have maybe twenty minutes before this area will rival the Barringer meteor crater in Arizona."

The engineering part of his brain wishing for the time to fix it, Rodney settled instead for figuring out how to turn it off. He called Carson over to assist, figuring the doctor's hands -- even if the guy wasn't a surgeon -- would be steady enough; probably steadier than his own at the moment. "Check my bag," he instructed the Scot at the sudden realization that his blood sugars were plummeting. "Find me something to eat, candy bar, power bar, I don't care."

The nice thing about Carson being a medical doctor was that he didn't immediately dismiss Rodney's hypoglycemia as hypochondria. Rodney's pasty-white face and trembling hands were probably a dead give away too. The energy bar was peeled open and offered -- nutritious calories over blissful ones -- leaving Rodney wishing his last taste would have been real chocolate rather than simulated chocolate chips surrounded by granola and whatever other supposedly healthy grains had been fused together.

He wolfed it down regardless.

"What can I be doing next?" Carson then asked, sending Rodney's opinion of him even higher when the other didn't protest about not knowing anything about reactors -- or bombs.

"We've got to shut this down. It's not going to be an on/off switch. Well, there probably is one, but they haven't connected it properly and so I've got to figure out which wire means off before I find the one that means accelerate the reaction and kill us all." Rodney snapped and pointed his fingers at the pack Carson had pulled the snack from. "Find the tool case in there. It'll be small and slim, like a manicure set."

In the background Rodney could hear Teyla and Ford exchanging words, and thought he'd heard Ford passing on their situation to John. There was only one of those damn double-clicks that came back in return over their headsets.

Can't talk. Enemy within range.

Fuck!

"Someone's coming," Ford then whispered back to Carson and Rodney in his own warning.

Well, that was why John had left Ford and Teyla with him. Rodney didn't have time to play soldier. It was still rather nerve-wracking to have to rely on someone else to do the protecting.

"Dammit, she must have seen something --"

"I can catch her --"

"Teyla, no, wait -- Fuck!"

Rodney tuned Ford and Teyla out.

Fortunately the idiots here were as simplistic as they were stupid. It took him only a couple of minutes to identify the proper set of wires and fuses, then a few more, with Carson's help, to isolate it and make the proper bypasses and snips. It was only once he let out a big sigh of relief and rocked back on his heels that the words that had just been part of the background registered. That, and the fact Teyla was no longer in the room with them.

"Can you guys get that up through the hatch?" Ford asked when he saw Rodney's attention on him. Although the ex-soldier was trying for a hard look, it was really more one of worry, and a true indicator of just how young he still was, that being in the marines hadn't kicked that out him yet.

"No, but you two can," Rodney countered.

"I don't think so, Doc. Teyla can handle herself." Which, of course, hadn't been what Ford was going to say or pretend if he'd been able to convince Rodney and Carson to go off with the reactor; it was all over his face that he wanted to go after Teyla.

Or maybe just get in on the action.

Too bad.

"I certainly hope so, because if she can't, there are going to be alarms going off any second now," Rodney scowled at Ford's transparency and foolhardiness. "She knows the plan. You two get the bomb out," figuring if he used the word bomb, Ford would take it much more seriously. "This can't be their only supply of naquadah, and I'm not leaving it in their hands." All true, and fortunately, they couldn't have too much more since the damn meteor hadn't been all that big to begin with (and oh how heads would roll once Rodney figured out who'd let some of it be stolen!).

Rodney was also concerned and was planning to go after John instead of making for the helicopter once he did locate the rest of the extra-terrestrial mineral. If nothing else how would Elizabeth know John was there to help instead of being some kind of mind-game to get her to trust an unknown member of the Genii?

"It canna be triggered anymore?" Carson asked.

"Well don't drop it," but then Rodney relented and shook his head. "No, it's been rendered inert. The catalyst, though, is a liquid that you don't want getting on your skin or especially not into your bloodstream."

Carson nodded, began rummaging around in his own pack. He pulled out a case similar in appearance to the one holding Rodney's tools. "Here. The capsules are Dexedrine, the white pills a pain reliever and the blue ones a muscle relaxant. The two syringes contain a stimulant that will bring anyone back into consciousness in seconds, but if she's been drugged or looks to have a head injury, don't use them."

Rodney began to deny his intent, but Carson shoved it into his hands and then shouldered his pack before moving to lift the reactor. "Just in case," he said with a grunt as it took both hands the carry the ungainly device.

It was weird being taken at face value, especially in being mistaken for being brave. While Rodney certainly appreciated it, he was also pretty sure it wasn't something worth the feeling since it meant he also had to act brave. Even if Teyla caught up with whoever had sussed them out, Rodney really was expecting an alarm to go off any second, and he really didn't want to meet up with the thugs who had held him here the first time around. Just thinking about it was making his arm ache abysmally, which led Rodney to investigate Carson's little pharmacopoeia and take a couple of the white pills himself.

The naquadah had been processed next door, but there wasn't any left behind. The entire room was empty, as in stripped of most of its equipment. So the reactor had been a bomb that they just weren't competent enough to have constructed properly. That also meant both Teyla and John had probably walked into a trap.

Rodney knew he was no Rambo. Carson had been expecting him to back John up though, and the plan for finding Elizabeth still might have had merit, especially if the bad guys were going to blow the place up.

Murder was so much tidier if you didn't have to pull the trigger yourself.

So Rodney was really just saving himself.

Any worry Rodney might have had in being able to track John's passage was pushed aside as he came across the first of several bodies. The men were trussed up, tie-wrapped hands bound behind their backs and their own socks tied with shoelaces as gags stuffing their mouths. The first two weren't conscious, the third one was (until Rodney clocked him with the butt of his pistol), and the fourth and fifth were actually dead from their necks being snapped. There was also blood on the wall and floor near them, not too much, and it wasn't coming from any wounds they'd received.

Rodney sucked in a deep breath and tried not to dwell on what that might mean.

Rushing on, hoping that this meant there wouldn't be anymore threats for him to stumble across; Rodney hit the area where red became yellow, and had a moment's disorientation as the walls swam before his eyes before snapping back into place. He had been here before, and had gotten away, finding the exit just a few doors down as confirmed by the ever-handy display in front of him. It was the sounds of gunfire, though, that caught and returned Rodney's attention to his surroundings instead of the recovered memories.

He had three doors other than the exit to choose from; two leading into a single cavernous room going by the map, and the other leading to stairs that appeared to exit onto a balcony or observation post overlooking the other.

Where Elizabeth could have been forced to watch him being tortured.

Rodney chose the stairs, figuring if the firefight was going on down below, he might be of better help in taking the higher ground or, at worst, he'd been in the same area and not at the greater disadvantage himself. This door had a keypad lock, but it had been forced open already, the wires powering it stripped and reset like a hotwire. Maybe not what Rodney would have done, but then the incapacitated guards had already given away that there were intruders within the facility, and the inelegant solution had worked.

The door was already open a few inches. Had to be how Rodney had heard the gunshots, since if this was where he'd been held, the greater room was soundproofed. He pulled it open and slid through, not bother to see whether it would swing closed again. Even though there was another keypad on this side, it wasn't ever going to lock again without some maintenance, and open or closed, the sound of voices or more gunfire would attract its own attention should there be others about.

"Give it up. You're on your own now."

Rodney was pretty sure that was John's voice, and he tried as stealthily as he could to hurry up the steps.

"You may have eliminated my men, but I have still have Dr. Weir," came a voice that still played the odd role in one of Rodney's nightmares; Acastas Kolya, who was no scientist or administrator.

"You're not going anywhere with her. I will shoot you if you don't let Dr. Weir go.

Fifteen or twenty more steps, but by the distance of their voices, they weren't right on top. Which Rodney had to consider as good news.

"And risk hurting Dr. Weir? I don't think so."

Rodney began puffing and his legs were screaming at him. It might have been only thirty yards, but they were stairs.

"I'm not aiming at her."

Just as he broached the top, Rodney saw Koyla fall away from Elizabeth a split-second before he heard John's gunshot and saw the blood began to spread out from Koyla's chest. In the next second the Genii operative fell back against the railing and Elizabeth wrenched herself free, her shove against him pushing Koyla over. The Genii man didn't scream, but Elizabeth did, and instantly tried to grab for him even though he'd been threatening to kill her just moments ago.

Not in time.

John was moving forward, maybe fifty feet ahead of Rodney and so he reached Elizabeth first. "I'm not going to hurt you," Rodney heard as John pulled her to her feet.

She resisted, but only for a moment as she could barely stand without his help. "Who are you?"

"Major John Sheppard, United States Air Force," Rodney called out before John could, or before Elizabeth used her elbow again and sent John following after Kolya to his death below.

"Rodney?" came from two very surprised voices.

Rodney wasn't sure than John's might not have been more pleased, which in turn ...

"I'm here to rescue you," Rodney responded in his best Luke Skywalker voice. "Well, and I had help," he added to the incredulous look John shot back his way. "But we need to get out of here."

"Rodney, you called in the Air Force?" she asked even as she also allowed them to shoulder her weight between them and get her moving toward the steps.

"They had naquadah, some of ours I have to believe. They were refining it, even if they were doing a piss poor job of getting it to work."

"They who, Rodney?"

"The Genii Group, but I suppose they'll just claim it was a rogue faction acting without authorization. The guy you just … he was one of their recruiters although he obviously had his own ideas about how to get people to work for him. We've got the reactor they were trying to build. There is nothing on it -- at least on the outside -- that we're going to be able to use to prove it was done by them, and as far as the government knows, we're the only ones with the stuff, so…" Rodney trailed off. By the time they got anybody back to the base, no doubt it would be empty of Kolya's body and any others. There would be forensic evidence, fingerprints galore, but he'd bet dollars to donuts that any local, state or federal database would not have the correct information to indict anyone involved in something this covert and treasonous.

"We'll figure out what's been done and by who, once we get you two back to the Institute," John was saying. Instead of leading them back the way where the others had hopefully rendezvous by now, he was leading them toward the exit Rodney had escaped from the first time.

Not a moment too soon, as alarms finally did start echoing throughout the facility. But they were off, different --

"That's a biohazard warning signal!" Rodney panicked. He and John redoubled their speed, basically carrying Elizabeth between them as they gave her no opportunity to regain her feet and try to keep up. Depending on the level of the contagion, every door in the entire facility could start closing, and they had to be on the other side before it reached a full shutdown in order not to become trapped.

They weren't the only ones fleeing. Rodney saw the decision whether to shoot them or not cross over John's face, but in the end the major let them run, although he was obviously keeping close track of their movements and still had his gun in the hand that wasn't supporting Elizabeth's waist. Fortunately the exit they were heading for was obviously not the main one. Even though this was an emergency, those who where used to going in and out of the facility were moving toward the area they knew instead of following logical evacuation procedures. Foolhardy and possibly suicidal; Rodney made a mental note to practice their own drills back at the Institute, just in case.

Once they were up and out on the surface, Rodney led them in the direction he'd gone in his first escape; just beyond the trees that hid much of the building from the casual eye was a ravine that he had caught his breath in without being found. Once there, John was immediately on his radio and attempting to contact the others.

"Carson, Ford?"

"We're out, John," Carson's brogue came back through their radios. "Teyla too," he offered before John could ask. "I was the one to be setting the hazard alarm. We could hear part of your confrontation, and figured anything we could be doing to slow down pursuit would be useful to you."

Rodney let out a big sigh and began fussing over Elizabeth. She'd obviously had a time of it, but she didn't appear to have been roughed up except at the end. "Are you okay, Elizabeth?"

She shook her head, but said, "I will be," with a rueful smile before reaching to give him a hug. "Thank you, Rodney. And you, too, Major Sheppard," she offered over her shoulder.

Now that he had the luxury of time, Rodney gave John his own once-over, and wondered if the other man would let him fuss over him too. Or give him a hug, manly, of course, something just to acknowledge that they'd been successful and survived.

"You're welcome, Ma'am."

Understandable, even expected words, but they were delivered by the Air Force Major -- not the killer any longer, thank god, but also no longer just Jeannie's ex, just John.

Rodney guessed he wasn't going to get his hug.

*******

John could see the exact moment when the hurt and confusion crept into Rodney's eyes; it happened in the same moment his military mask shifted to his dealing with civilians face. But John had no choice. He'd been identified to Dr. Weir as military, and regardless of what naquadah was, the Feds were going to need to be brought in on this, although he was thinking military first, and then Homeland Security and maybe the FBI. From what he extrapolated from Rodney's words and concerns, this was beyond al Queda or some simple home-grown terrorists like Timothy McVey and he'd caught glimpse of some military grade hardware back in there, possibly old Russian, but even more likely Chinese.

Being involved in this just might get Antarctica from hanging over his head, but not if he was visibly making eyes at Dr. Weir's Head of Research. There was still also the possibility that instead of this being foreign backed, he'd just shot his way through a deep cover black ops being run by the DOD or NSA, and if so, it wouldn't be Antarctica, but Leavenworth even if their actions did involve kidnapping and torture.

He took stock of their surroundings, of their condition and also his own. One of the security guys had gotten him with a knife, but the wound was shallow and not bleeding too much any longer although a long trek would probably get it started up again. The worst was the adrenaline burn, and he knew the other two would be crashing just as hard. It would be a three or four mile walk either back to the Institute taking the route Rodney had -- god was it only this morning? -- or back to the others and the helicopter. He still wasn't all that anxious to get back into the cockpit again, but they needed to be picked up, the copter needed to be returned, and it sounded like they had taken something out with them that also needed to be gotten out of here.

"Major, what's your position?" Ford's voice suddenly cut through his deliberations.

"We exited out the west side, the same exit we guessed Rodney had taken. We're just laying low until I'm convinced there isn't a passel of security beating the bushes for us." And because he wasn't sure he'd actually be able to stand again without taking a few moments, but John wasn't going to pass that on.

"Understood, sir. I took the liberty of contacting Bates and he's called out your compatriots, seeing as how we're sitting on something even more dangerous than a pocket nuke. Unless it puts you in danger, I suggest you just camp out there until the reinforcements arrive. They'll come in on our frequency once they're in range."

"Smart call, Ford. I'm sure they'll be bringing someone else who can fly you home."

"And I'll make sure Dr. Beckett is seen too, sir."

"What does he mean by that?" Rodney interrupted and reminded John that the other man was listening even as he was seeing to Dr. Weir's well-being. "Why won't you be flying us back? That was the plan, wasn't it?"

"Rod -- Dr. McKay, once the military gets here, they're going to need to be walked through the facility. As ranking military – Hell, as the only military that's been there, it'll be my duty to show them what we've found."

"But you're on leave," he protested. "They can't make you work when you're on medical leave. Or when you're bleeding all down the side of your pants."

Despite any protest John might have made, Rodney duck-walked over and was practically sitting in his lap, while at the same time pulling up the waistline of his shirt and tugging down his pants.

"Rodney!"

Because even though Rodney was only touching John with almost as clinical a hand as Beckett would be, this was still a level of intimacy that John had steeled his mind away from wanting.

"Stop squirming," Rodney clucked over the length of the slice but not getting all pale and hyperventilating this time at the sight of blood (and maybe it was only the sight of Rodney's own blood that made him faint). "It's pretty shallow --"

"I knew that --"

"But who knows what might have been on the end of the blade. Have you got anything to wash it out with -- oh, wait. I do. Elizabeth, toss me one of the water bottles from my bag. And go ahead and take one for yourself. You might want to …" He gestured toward her general direction.

John wasn't sure if Rodney had been about to say have a drink or wash up (as there was a trickle of blood still present from a split lip, and either smudges of something or the beginning of bruises along one side of her jaw that her sweat-dampened hair wasn't long enough to cover), or who knows what else the inept, ersatz Florence Nightingale might have meant. Dr. Weir, too, looked a little bemused, but she did as he'd asked (ordered!) and tossed the larger bottle she'd found Rodney's direction.

He missed it, of course, and came too damn close to putting his knee into John's groin when he tried to twist to reach it before it rolled away, but couldn't hold his balance. "Stay put," John ordered, even though reaching for it himself had him needing to lean across Rodney to keep his own balance.

Rodney was bringing out a slim case when John cracked the cap, then handing over a handful of pills, both white and blue. "From Carson," John was reassured when he started to wave them off. He nodded and popped the white ones in his mouth at once, then took a long, deep drink. Not the Percocet, he suspected, probably only Tylenol, but if he was lucky at least Tylenol 3, and even if it was the stronger stuff, three wouldn't be enough of an overdose for him to worry about. He didn't really care what the blue ones were; if Carson had given then to Rodney, they could just as easily be sugar pills. Frankly, even were they a sedative, John decided to take them. It'd no doubt piss off the officer in charge once he or she arrived, but if John was looped enough or simply out of it, he wouldn't really have to care.

"Gentlemen, I know it is inconvenient, but I need to pee," Dr. Weir said with no embarrassment or apology, which made John smile although he didn't show it to her lest she think he was laughing at her.

It was a rare woman who was comfortable enough with herself to even admit to having body functions, much less announcing one. Confident, realistic and intelligent; knowing that they weren't just going to allow her to go off on her own --

"I will also probably throw up, so if you could hand me one of your guns, I'll see to my own safety while Rodney finishes taking care of your wounds, Major."

Confidence was obviously too mild a word, and John found himself nodding and directing Rodney to give her his. John had not taken the time to reload his own (although he did so now), and if anyone was going to keep brandishing a gun when the military -- or anyone else -- came along, it was better off being him.

"Call out if you need any assistance," Rodney offered without looking toward her, although he did first check to make sure the safety was on before holding the gun back over his shoulder for her to take. Again it was not offered in jest, but by someone who knew exactly what this woman was capable of handling. A rare quality in them both.

"I'll need to wrap this," Rodney began and started unbuttoning John's shirt before he could object. Immediately his eyes were drawn to the other wrapping much higher across his torso, and the pinked, ridged skin of the still healing burns. "Wow, that probably still hurts. Is that why Carson was so worried?"

John sighed and then nodded. It wasn't something to be ashamed of, of course; and wouldn't be his first collection of scars. But the reactions of Colonel Sumner had tainted more than just the consequences of what he'd done and been through, and John couldn't help but wallow in a moment of self pity.

"Hurts like a son-of-a-bitch," John admitted. "Probably more now than when it happened, but I was pretty out of it. It's nothing though," he continued with more than a touch of bitterness, "compared to the strip my CO shaved off me for having crashed and burned my thirty million dollar Pave Low."

"Yeah, well, military officers are assholes. And you're the exception that proves the rule," Rodney steamed on before John could say anything. "A Pave Low is some kind of helicopter?" he then asked. "Like a Blackhawk or an Apache?"

John nodded. "We lead the Apaches in -- and they belong to the Army , as do the Blackhawks. Air Force is Pave Hawks and Pave Lows now, and the occasional Huey although those don't get used in combat areas. But you probably don't care about any of that, right?"

Rodney shrugged. "Radek will be thrilled to talk about them if you need someone to. And it's obviously important to you. But why don't you fly fighter planes anymore?"

"Not as sexy if I'm not Tom Cruise?" John asked, and then could have bit his tongue for what he'd just implied. Active duty, soon to be immersed in salutes, and not wanting that, remember? His hiss, however, came from the roughness of whatever Rodney was using to clean off the blood.

"You couldn't help but be sexy even if you were driving a horse and buggy, Major, although I assume you wouldn't be caught dead in something that moves so slow. And it was clean," Rodney added when John figured out he was using a handkerchief.

"I like Ferris wheels," John said somewhat wistfully, "but yeah, I prefer things that can go over two hundred miles an hour."

Rodney nodded as if this confirmed everything he'd been thinking, and John had no idea of whether that was a good nod or not.

"Ninety-five thousand three hundred and sixty-nine."

"Huh?"

"Prime or not prime, John? Ninety-five thousand three hundred and sixty-nine?"

It took a few long seconds for John to calculate it since Rodney was busily piecing together several of his wrist restraints to make a couple of ties long enough to wrap around his torso to hold the cloth more or less over his cut -- which had probably been Rodney's intent in the first place.

"Prime," he finally gasped as Rodney synched the first tie. The second tie was pulled just as tight, possibly too tight, but it was a pretty clever makeshift given they had no bandages between them, and ripping off sleeves or tails from shirts worked a lot better in the movies, always appearing long enough when you usually had to piece at least two together and the hold wasn't strong enough to keep it from sliding down your rib cage just from simply breathing. Even this wouldn't hold for a long length of time, but no doubt there would be a medic or two coming in with the reinforcements and he could make it that long.

Rodney looked justifiably proud of what he'd accomplished, and John didn't blame him, but he was more caught up in the smile of shyness being offered, as well as the fact that once again Rodney was putting his arms around him, this time to check the fit of the wrap, although John really suspected Rodney was getting in a hug. Even so he didn't expect the soft brush of lips against his own, and began kissing back before he realized what he'd done -- what they were doing.

"Rodney, no," he breathed into lips that just followed his own as he attempted to move back.

"Why not? Jeannie told me all about you -- all about your arrangement. I'm as smart as she is and I can be fun --"

"But you're not that type of guy, Rodney."

That got him to pull back, all bluster and affront. "I am too gay. Just because I don't have a long list of conquests doesn't mean I don't know what --"

"Rodney, you're not the love them and leave them type, and I try not to be," John let his thumb rest against Rodney's down turned mouth. "I'm on a month's leave, not reassigned here. I ship out to Antarctica on the seventh."

"Antarctica? Who did you kill --"

But that of course was the question, and Rodney recognized he'd gone too far even before they heard Elizabeth calling out so she didn't get shot before she came into view.

Almost on her heels were the sounds of more people moving through the brush, and John's transceiver clicked on to announce the arrival of the Air Force.

"So long, Rodney."

**********

"Shut that down, Rodney. It is time for the meeting."

Although tempted to growl at Radek to go away, Rodney sighed instead and did what had been suggested. Over the last six months, Radek had proven completely impervious to his anger or melancholy, and it really wasn't any fun when you didn't get the proper results. Plus Rodney knew Radek was right. Elizabeth had already made it very clear what she thought if anyone missed the big reorganization meeting.

Yeah, Rodney would attend. And then hand her his badge and resignation.

It had only been a matter of time before the military got its hooks into Asgard, once they'd learned the type of research Rodney and the others had been doing. They didn't care where the naquadah had come from, or that they had no chance in hell of finding any more unless they suddenly discovered the means for interplanetary space travel -- and a host of planets or asteroids housing the extra-terrestrial material. No, their panties had simply gotten into a twist because someone had a better bomb than they did, and that just wasn't acceptable.

Neither was the speed and ease in which Elizabeth had capitulated to their demands. Rodney had given her the six months it would take to hammer out the agreements. Yeah, like she really could protect their autonomy -- or their patents. He didn't really care that he'd be leaving her in the lurch; Radek was more than capable of taking over as Head of Research, and Kavanagh certainly thought he was the right person to take over the old Genii location. Elizabeth had hired the bastard; she could find out what an idiot he was on her own.

In truth, Rodney didn't need to work for the money, and if he got bored, he knew any university in the world would be happy to have him as a teacher. Jeannie was happy as a professor. What did it matter that she had chosen it first?

Radek saw the file he'd picked up and frowned, but they had already argued at length about Rodney's intent. Just as Rodney had realized the futility of acting mad around Radek, Radek had learned the futility of expecting Rodney to change his mind.

The Institute's on-payroll psychiatrist, Lindsey Novak, had decided Rodney was suffering from some form of post-traumatic stress. She'd spent many wasted hours trying to at least convince him to take some leave before resigning. Like he'd ever be able to work with the military, even if it wasn't going to be the Air Force who'd become their new overlords.

He'd miss a few of his co-workers, but not that many really, and he knew even fewer would miss him. Maybe he'd get a cat once he figured out where he was going to live.

He and Radek took one of the golf carts over to the main building. The only facility they had that was large enough to accommodate all of the employees, outside of the testing hanger, was the main cafeteria, which Rodney usually avoided at all cost once Elizabeth had caved in to creating an executive dining room. It wasn't that he minded eating with others (okay, yes he did), but it was much too easy to be fooled into tasting something that could kill him when the food preparers were working in bulk instead of creating separate entrees. And even Elizabeth had come to appreciate the ability to eat in privacy without every member of the rank and file deciding they needed to tell you how to do your job.

Maybe there would be coffee and donuts or muffins, despite needing to cater for three hundred people. He'd just need to watch out for something that had been leaning next to the lemon poppy seed, or the meringue filled, because he might as well get something out of this waste of his time.

At least Elizabeth had forgone making the department heads sit up on the stage with her. The only reason Rodney figured the room had a stage, complete with curtain, was for meetings like this; at least to the best of his knowledge they'd never held a stupid Christmas pageant or something. But it made the room look more like an elementary school's auditorium and every time something was set up on the stage, Rodney would relive countless spelling bees and poetry recitals.

"Good morning," Elizabeth began precisely at eight o'clock. "Thank you all for coming. I know there have been a lot of rumors and concerns going around the last six months, and I'm happy to say that I can now put an end to them."

Elizabeth had also been assumed to have been suffering from her ordeal, yet she certainly looked in top form today. The first couple of weeks had been uncomfortable between her and Rodney, leaving him to conclude that Ford had been right when he suspected Rodney had been taken as much for a hold over her as for his own knowledge.

Overall, they still weren't completely sure why Elizabeth had been taken in the first place, since she couldn't have given up anywhere near the amount of sheer data or expertise as almost anyone else. The final conclusion had been that the Genii would have eventually tried to coerce her into signing over the Institute -- or maybe forced her into a merger -- or that had she died or gone missing long term, the Genii Group might very well have been the company their backers would have gone to in salvaging what they could. At least with governmental and military intervention, there would be no more motivation for threatening or harming Elizabeth should the Genii ever try something again.

And boy, had he been right about rogue factions and not our fault --

"I know many of you have been concerned about falling under more stringent government oversight and how that might affect your own status within your own countries. While we will remain operating here within the United States, our work will benefit the entire international community. President Hayes will be meeting with fellow heads of state and together they will choose representatives who will be kept informed of our progress, and who will shoulder some of the burden of funding our research."

Oh good, the only thing worse than a single government being in charge would be a council of them -- just look at the UN.

"Yes, I said some of the burden," Elizabeth was reiterating. "This means they will also only have some authority. This is my Institute and I assure you I have no intention of stepping down, or compromising the work we are doing here. It will be the same for the military's involvement. Most of you were already aware -- or you should have been --that some of the work we are doing is defense contracts --"

Or you should have been, Rodney. She could have said it.

"Because of the nature of the materials involved in those contracts, it has been determined that we will fall under the aegis of the United States Air Force since we are here and they already take the responsibility for all space related technologies and equipment. But there, too, a broader coalition of personnel will be put together over time, drawing from all free nations and always working toward global security. For the first year, maybe a little longer, certain divisions will have direct interaction with the Air Force, and I'd like to introduce you all to the man who will be in charge from their end."

For the briefest of seconds, Rodney's heart caught in his throat, because Air Force -- and the Institute …

Except it wasn't John Sheppard who came out from behind the curtain, and of course it wouldn't be. A job of this importance wouldn't be handed over to a lowly, black-marked Air Force Major. This was definitely a general's billet, and the Jack O'Neill that Elizabeth introduced certainly fit the bill from his flat-top, grey hair, chest full of combat medals and postings, right down to the spit polish of his wings, boots and gun.

Rodney tuned out the inevitable rah-rah, nothing's-going-to-change speech, although at least O'Neill didn't seem to be the type of general who got off on hearing himself speak. You could almost imagine a hint of humor behind his words, a bit of pragmatism that said he knew how despised he was going to be and not only did he not care, but he was determined to make you not care either. Not exactly another Elizabeth all shiny and full of hope and platitudes, but someone who'd been around the block more than once and was aware of the way things really worked -- and just might be okay with that.

Still, not Rodney's concern. Nothing Air Force was Rodney's concern any longer. Certainly not stupid Majors who couldn't bother to sit down in front of a computer and email more than once every one or two months, with absolutely nothing to say but how great and quiet it was. At least Rodney had gotten a friend in Carson out of it; they tried to get together at least a couple of times a month. He guessed even that was going to end now that he was leaving.

Definitely a cat.

"Thank you, General O'Neill," Elizabeth said as she retook the podium and turned back to her charges. "Both General O'Neill and I will be attending each of your departmental meetings set up through the rest of the week, so that he can be introduced to all of you individually, and so that you can ask your questions. Nothing is off topic and no actions will be taken against anyone, but I do expect you to be a little more judicious in the language you use in front of us than what you've been saying in front of each other."

Rodney would have liked to say fat chance, but yeah, Elizabeth did command and deserve that kind of respect.

"The other thing I wanted to bring up before letting you all go is a couple of staffing changes. As all of you know Eugene Bates was injured in a car accident several months ago. While I am happy to report that his recovery is going better than any of us could have hoped for, he has asked that he be relieved of his duties as our Head of Security and I have accepted his resignation. Additionally, Dr. Henry McCoy has elected to take a leave of absence so that he might continue to pursue all avenues to see if Gene's paralysis can be reversed. While I did ask their seconds, Aiden Ford and Dr. Biro to step into their shoes, both have declined for various reasons, although both have stated they will be happy to continue to work for their replacements. So, please, let me introduce you to our new head of Medicine and Genetic Research, Dr. Carson Beckett, and our new Head of Security and Military Liaison, former Air Force Major John Sheppard."

*** finis ***