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Exodus

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Casestory 5: Exodus by Tarlan - Art by Danceswithgary

John: ZPMS and More Questions

John watched as Rodney's hands flew, mesmerized by the way the fingers danced in the air. It was as if he was sketching his thoughts in some sign language that no one else could read, and only the occasional gesture made any sense among the chaotic yet almost elegant motions. Beside Rodney, Zelenka was bouncing up and down on his heels like an overexcited puppy waiting for his master to throw the ball and say 'fetch'.

"And you're sure it will work this time?"

Rodney gave John a hurt look before his expression firmed. "Yes." But his eyes made a quick dart to the left, and John had learned to read those tell-tale signs that warned him when Rodney was holding something back.

"Rodney?" he asked, drawing out his name questioningly, and caught a tiny flinch.

"There's an infinitesimal chance that something might come through." He pinched his thumb and forefinger together leaving just the tiniest gap between them.

"Something? Like another McKay?" He asked, referring to the last time they had tried something similar and ended up with a second McKay from another universe.

"Highly unlikely. Anything alive existing outside of time couldn't survive in our ten dimensional universe-."

"Ten?" Woolsey looked confused, but John had spent years listening to Rodney and other scientists expounding String Theory and P-Branes.

Originally he thought Rodney was engaging in some nerdy method of slinging insults, thinking he'd said Pea Brain, except Rodney had never been one to disguise his insults. Most of the expedition were used to it by now but in the early days there had been a lot of ruffled feathers from Rodney calling people out on their stupidity to their face. Keller had never understood or accepted Rodney in all his egotistic glory, so it was probably for the best that she had decided to break up with him and move onto someone who didn't need to change to make her happy.

He thought of Keller for a moment longer while Rodney tried to give Woolsey the Idiot's Guide to String Theory, unsuccessfully if Woolsey's expression was any indicator. He still felt a little guilty as he had never really liked Jennifer, mostly because of how Rodney had acted around her, but partly because he still blamed her for almost losing Rodney to the brain parasite. She had saved Rodney's life by performing on-the-spot brain surgery under less than desirable conditions but, in John's opinion, it should never have come to that.

He did wish her all the best as CMO in Area51, but he was happier knowing Carson was taking back the Chief Medical Officer role on Atlantis.

Rodney had been miserable for about two days after the break up, and then the news came through from the I.O.A. that Atlantis was to return to Pegasus. It was as if a switch flipped and all thoughts of Jennifer Keller were dumped from that giant brain to make more room for his work.

After all the talk of using Atlantis to protect Earth - despite objections from O'Neill, Woolsey, and the Scientific community, or at least those with full disclosure - it came as a surprise when the I.O.A. gave the order to go. John thought it suspicious, especially as a massive number of engineers and other scientists had descended upon Atlantis, starting repairs on damaged sections, setting up new hydroponic areas, and clearing several towers close to the main one, making them ready for habitation. When John checked off the stock and operating supplies from Homeworld Security and the I.O.A., it included over five thousand mattresses, and enough supplies for every one of those beds to be used and the occupant fed and clothed for a year. Not that they would rely completely upon supplies from Earth as they had a good network of allies on various worlds in Pegasus to supply goods and food - unless of course those worlds had been culled in their absence.

Five thousand people was the equivalent of a small town, and when John checked through the supply list on a suspicion, he saw items for children as well as adults.

Something was up.

As for ordnance, Atlantis was being fitted with more rail guns and had taken on enough ammunitions and weapons to conquer a small galaxy. This was rounded off by fifteen Mark V generators, the latest and most powerful yet. The only thing they were lacking were fully-charged ZPMs, which brought him back to Rodney and his nervous yet expectant look.

Woolsey sighed as Rodney's explanation came to an end. "When do you want to do this?"

Rodney cast hope-filled, excited eyes between him and Woolsey. "Now?"

John looked to Zelenka, who seemed to be holding his breath in anticipation. He and Rodney had made great inroads into understanding Zero Point energy and wormholes, especially with the creation of the Wormhole Drive that had brought them to Earth in time to save the planet. Yet John still recalled the epic failure from the last time they had tried to extract Zero Point energy from another universe, and almost caused the destruction of both that universe and theirs in the process.

Through the glass panels of Woolsey's office, John could see the other members of Rodney's team waiting with that same look of anticipation. He recognized some of them as mathematicians and theoretical physicists who had gone over the math and theory with a fine tooth comb. At the front of the team, Jeannie was chewing on the side of her forefinger nervously in a habit that reminded him of her brother, Rodney. Flanking her were two scientists brought in from some other government think tank - one older and affable, the other younger but just as brilliant.

Henry Deacon and Zane Donovan.

They seemed a mismatched pair on first acquaintance. One was more cautious and almost world-weary at times, as if he had lost more than he had gained over a lifetime, and the other almost too eager to dive in without testing the water first. They counterbalanced each other, but what all of the scientists had in common with Rodney was this joy of discovery; this almost vibrating excitement to step into the unknown and test out their theories.

None of these other major contributors to the project had raised any red flags so John gave a small nod to Woolsey to show his agreement.

"Then, gentlemen... Good luck."

The boyish enthusiasm was back in Rodney's eyes, making them shine, and John couldn't help but be drawn into them, smiling back. Rodney and Zelenka rushed away and John followed, determined to be a part of this, if only as an observer. He was not surprised when Henry fell in step beside him. He liked the older man, who had an ability to get along with anyone, never complaining when he had to 'dumb it down' for the non-scientists.

Henry cut him a look, dark eyes both teasing and serious at the same time. "You know how much I respect Rodney despite his... eccentricities. You should tell him how you feel," Henry murmured, "You might be surprised."

John rolled his eyes slightly at this continuation of what now seemed an old argument.

He wasn't sure how Henry had figured out his feelings for Rodney so quickly, especially as no one else seemed to have caught on despite the passing years - except maybe Teyla and Ronon. Neither were on Atlantis though, having taken advantage of an unexpected offer from Homeworld for a lift to the first planet in Pegasus that had a Stargate. It was an offer that was unlikely to be repeated, and John wished he could have gone with them but his place was here. He had tried to convince everyone - including himself - that he was staying for the sake of Atlantis, but Henry had seen through that ruse the first time they met. He'd seen what others had missed and had made it a self-appointed task to remind John of all he stood to lose by remaining silent.

"My chance for happiness was snatched away from me after four... amazing years. And yet that now seems far less tragic than when I watched two good friends dance around each other, both unwilling to accept what they meant to the other... until it was far too late. Don't make the same mistake, John."

In the brief sideways glance, John caught the sadness in Henry's eyes that spoke of grief and regret. Henry refused to go into any more detail, but it made John think of all the close calls he and Rodney had experienced over the years; all the times when it looked as if one or both of them wouldn't make it back alive. There was always a reason - an excuse - to put off saying something to Rodney; fraternization rules, regulations... Sam Carter, Katie Brown, and Jennifer Keller. None of these applied any longer, and yet still he prevaricated, afraid to take that final step for fear of losing the best friendship of his life.

Henry reached out and squeezed his arm, and though he usually hated anyone touching him, he found the gesture strangely comforting on this occasion.

The scientists fanned out to their respective workstations once they entered the laboratory but John knew all the action would be close to Rodney - or at least that was the excuse he gave for moving up next to him. Rodney moved from station to station, checking the readouts and making snarky observations to some of the team while offering a modicum of praise to others. Donovan seemed to be in his element, and Rodney begrudgingly praised the man. Somehow John ended up right where Rodney wanted to be and for a moment Rodney looked surprised and confused as their eyes met.

Then he saw it; a flicker of warmth and a tiny, shy smile that was quickly lost as Rodney moved onto the next task, brushing past him gently rather than shoving him aside as he would do to others. Perhaps Henry was right, and when they were back in Pegasus, maybe he ought to make that first move.

"Are we ready?" Rodney yelled, gaining affirmation from all present.

His blue eyes were shining in excitement as he gave John one last look before starting the procedure that would - hopefully - replenish the energy within the empty ZPM. A hum began to fill the room, slowly building as the machine that had once brought an alternate version of Rodney across from an parallel universe began to spin and vibrate.

"It's working," Donovan cried out, and John could see the tiniest orange-yellow flicker very slowly strengthen inside the large dead crystal.

Around him scientists were congratulating each other and John shared a smile with an exuberant Rodney. From the information provided at the meeting, this was just the start and it would take several days before they had even a half-full ZPM, but it was still a cause for celebration. For the first time since learning of the immense power of a ZPM, they could refill the crystals, and one day they might even be able to make their own completely from scratch.

The possibilities were endless.

****

Henry: Losses of Past and Future

Henry spent the next few days keeping a watch over the experiment but he could see it was going exactly as expected, though perhaps more slowly than anticipated. The energy illuminating the ZPM barely filled a third of the crystal container but it was still a glorious sight. However, it was a slow process that could not keep his mind fully occupied so he was almost glad to have another pressing matter requiring his attention.

Over the past year spent as the Director of Global Dynamics, Henry had gained full knowledge of what was happening in the Stargate program, and of the political unrest beyond their little tiny corner of the galaxy. He looked around the conference room at those gathered knowing he, General O'Neill, and Woolsey were about to release some shattering news. Henry allowed the General to begin.

"Daniel Jackson used the Sangraal to destroy the Ori back in their home galaxy, and SG-1 set off another device to neutralize the Priors, but that still left a fleet of Ori warships in the Milky Way."

Henry knew from a glance around the table that this wasn't news to most of those present.

"Those ships are no longer indestructible but many of the former Ori commanders have joined the Lucian Alliance."

O'Neill paused, letting that sink in while Woolsey continued.

"Many of you are aware of the terrorist attack off-world that destroyed Icarus Base, with Doctor Rush sending the survivors fleeing to an uncertain fate on-board the Ancient research vessel, Destiny."

Henry saw a few nods. He knew Rodney had come up with an ingenious way to connect to Destiny but it had required a Stargate powered by a Naquadriah-rich planet core. The Langarans had forced the Team to shut down the Stargate before Rodney could prove to them that it would work without tearing their planet apart - and now that option was lost to Earth for the foreseeable future. Unfortunately, planets like Langara were rare even in a galaxy as large as the Milky Way, so for now the survivors on Destiny were on their own.

"What you might not be aware of, however, is that there have been an increasing number of terrorist attacks on Earth and, so far, Stargate Command has repelled a number of minor planetary attacks."

Woolsey waited for the shocked murmurs and speculation to subside.

"Probably probing for weaknesses in Earth's defenses," John stated and Henry silently agreed with his assessment.

For now Homeworld Security and the I.O.A. had managed to fool the media, pushing the blame onto militant extremists across the globe, even though it was causing friction between various groups. The alternative - full disclosure - wasn't an option at this time as it could lead to mass hysteria.

Gaining a nod from Woolsey, Henry took over.

"The Lucian Alliance has infiltrated positions within the Government. The D.O.D. has already tried to shut down Global Dynamics, thereby almost dismantling the town of Eureka and half of Area51. What they hadn't counted on was my predecessor, Director Fargo, arranging a last minute save from a civilian conglomerate."

Henry saw a few nervous shuffles because that conglomerate had not had the best reputation until recently, and he gathered most were not aware of its true origins.

When Allison's autistic but brilliant son activated the Grant-Einstein Bridge, he sent Henry, Jack, Allison, Jo, and Fargo back in time to Camp Eureka in 1947, where they met the inventor of the device, Doctor Trevor Grant. Curious about the future, Grant stole Jack's cell and he returned to the present with them, his actions almost marooning Jack in 1947. Of course upon discovery Jack was livid, but Henry helped Fargo hide Grant's existence by creating a false identity rather than risk the whole group being sanctioned for time travel violations, especially as their presence in the past had resulted in small but noticeable changes to their future. Henry suspected those changes were still rippling forward in time, like a small pebble dropped into a lake.

After leaving Eureka, Trevor - now Charles Grant - amassed a fortune in a relatively short time, though Henry knew much of it had come from taking up the reins of a secretive Consortium he had spearheaded back in 1947. After the execution of Ba'al, the last of the Goa'uld System Lords, Grant quickly eradicated the remnants of an extreme element within that organization, known as The Trust. Now, what remained of the Consortium was a civilian conglomerate with very strong ties to the I.O.A., bent on the pursuit of peaceful resolution where possible, but not afraid to research and use weapons as a last resort.

Henry wondered if John knew his family business - Sheppard industries - was now part of that conglomerate.

Woolsey continued. "However, Earth is now within reach of not just the Lucian Alliance... but of the Wraith too."

He nodded to General O'Neill to continue.

"Long range sensors have picked up a fleet, twenty strong, of Wraith hiveships and dozens of cruisers moving across the void, heading straight for Earth. They don't have Asgard hyperdrives but we expect them to reach the Milky Way in less than two months." He paused before adding, "And the Lucian Alliance are already on the door step."

Rodney huffed. "Not that they would matter much in the long run."

Rodney didn't needed to explain further as everyone present knew the Wraith would be the eventual winners. Atlantis was powerful and she had taken out the Wraith superhive threatening Earth, but even Atlantis could not hold off twenty Hive ships and possibly double that number of accompanying cruisers. Once the Wraith reached Earth they would let loose hundreds of darts to scour the surface of the planet, culling anything edible - humans.

Lorne clicked his fingers. "The ZPMs. If we can charge enough of them, we could set up a planetary-wide shield or cloak."

"Already ahead of you, Major," Rodney stated nonchalantly, and Henry didn't doubt him.

If anyone could build a shield in time it was Rodney McKay, though Lorne was likely recalling an incident with another parallel universe in which Sam Carter created a device that could phase the entire planet out of this plane of existence. Basically, it would cloak Earth from their enemy, but it had taken a massive amount of energy. Sam had brought all the research back with her from that other universe, and now it might be possible to use a ZPM to power the phase shifter instead of using the entire national grid.

Certainly it seemed a viable option, except for one problem beyond their control.

If Earth hadn't had the threat of the Lucian Alliance hanging over them then it might have been all they needed to protect the planet but Henry doubted a shield or cloak would keep Earth safe for long. Unfortunately, there simply were not enough ZPMs to go round even if they had time to recharge all the depleted ones in their possession. Undercover agents working for the Lucian Alliance would want the technology to protect their own worlds from the Wraith, and they would steal both the technology and the ZPM by brute force if necessary, leaving Earth defenseless.

Still, he had argued in favor of trying, and with Grant backing him, he had won that particular argument. It was the best they could hope for Earth under the circumstances, but with threats coming from all sides, they also needed a worse-case scenario backup plan.

Having explained all of this to the others, he hated being the one to say his next words out loud.

"If we are to have any chance of saving the human race then some of us will have to abandon our home world to its fate."

As far as Henry was concerned, the arrival of Atlantis on Earth could not have come at a better time. Since its discovery, the option of using Atlantis as a safe haven had always been a possibility, but the logistics of sending thousands of people through the Stargate to the city while it floated on an alien sea in another galaxy had seemed impractical, if not impossible. A window of thirty-eight minutes took up a tremendous amount of energy from an already nearly depleted ZPM, and they could move barely a few hundred people through at best, along with the supplies they needed to survive.

Until a few days earlier they'd had power remaining for only four more Eight Chevron connections, so Henry knew they would have been lucky to save even a thousand of their top people with their families.

With Atlantis now floating just off San Francisco, that problem was resolved. The I.O.A. could open up the list of potential evacuees from the original thousand to five times that number, and perhaps even double that. For this reason every exceptional engineer on the planet who was willing to sign a Top Secret agreement had been brought in to work on the city, and over the past few months they had repaired several residential districts within Atlantis. The I.O.A. had already guaranteed them a place on Atlantis along with a limited number from their immediate family, mostly spouses and children.

As of this morning, the Daedalus and Apollo had used the Asgard beaming technology to transport supplies for over five thousand men, women and children directly onto the East pier, ready to be distributed among the newly opened and assigned quarters.

Henry prayed they could more than double that number before Atlantis was forced to flee, but for now Grant had identified the additional group that would bring it up to around five thousand, and for once the names on the list were decided on merit rather than on wealth and status. According to Grant it was a relatively easy task as most of the best and brightest in their respective fields from around the world already worked for either Global Dynamics, Area 51, Stargate Command, the I.O.A., or The Consortium. It was simply a matter of expanding the number of people chosen from those organizations, and taking into account their immediate families.

Yet five thousand souls from a world of seven billion was still just a drop in the ocean.

Fortunately, years earlier Rodney had transmitted all the schematics for an Ark used by one Pegasus civilization to save a small number of their people, and Global Dynamics had started working on that technology in Section 5, originally under Nathan Stark's control. Unfortunately, the Ark was still several months away from testing, delayed by the loss of Nathan, and no one wanted to place thousands of lives into it without reasonable guarantees that they could be retrieved intact.

Various other plans had gone forward, including the use of Wraith storage devices to transport people off Earth, originally through the Stargate or on-board the two surviving Earth ships, but those devices carried only fifty patterns at best, and no supplies. It was still being considered as an option, for even if they had to store the people away for months until they had the resources available to reintegrate them, it was better than leaving them behind to be culled by the Wraith.

The arrival of Atlantis was fortuitous as now they had the expertise on hand to work faster on ways of storing the pattern buffers of thousands of Terrans - or Tau'ri as called by the Ancients.

And yet five thousand, ten thousand, even a hundred thousand was so few saved. It would still leave so many billions behind to an uncertain fate.

The meeting broke up and Henry watched small groups form to discuss all they had heard, most looking solemn or troubled. His eyes fell on Rodney who was in a huddle with John, Radek, and Zane. He suspected they were talking about a shield or cloak for Earth using the recharged ZPMs. He had hated to burst their altruistic bubble with hard facts but until they could create ZPMs from scratch, they simply did not have more than one ZPM to spare, especially with the likelihood that it would be taken by the Lucian Alliance, by force if necessary.

Rodney was waving his hands about and Henry smiled as John rolled his eyes at something Rodney said, but he had that small, indulgent smile playing about his lips that spoke volumes to Henry. It spoke of love and trust.

After Atlantis returned to Earth the I.O.A. considered replacing Rodney as Chief Science Officer, even offering the post to him, but having seen Rodney McKay at work first hand, Henry had vetoed the suggestion. The man was brilliant and his knowledge of Ancient technology unsurpassed. He seemed to be able to juggle several disciplines at once, and though his people skills were not as exceptional as his technical abilities, once they knew him his people respected and trusted him.

In many ways Rodney reminded Henry of a less charming and more animated version of Nathan Stark.

The thought of his lost protégé - and friend - sent a shard of pain through Henry, and with it his thoughts turned to another friend - his best friend, Jack Carter.

The weight of grief settled on him as he thought of two men who had unknowingly settled for second best because they refused to accept what Henry had seen from the outset, that they were meant for each other.

In a timeline that only Henry remembered - one in which he had saved Kim, the love of his life - Nathan had left Eureka under a dark cloud following the destruction of the Artifact. Allison and Jack eventually married, and they had been happy together for almost four years before the collapse of that universe, but too much had changed between Allison, Jack, and Nathan in this timeline. Different choices had led to different paths. For starters, this Nathan had seen proof that he wasn't to blame for Kim's death, eventually being reinstated as joint head of Global Dynamics with Allison, and regaining her affection.

Jack had bowed out of their rivalry graciously when Allison accepted Nathan's second marriage proposal, but to Henry, Jack had seemed more upset that she had chosen Nathan than the fact that she had not chosen him. And when Nathan died while saving the universe from a time loop, Henry witnessed a little bit of Jack dying with him.

He had seen Jack standing by Allison stoically when they buried an empty casket, and supporting her when she gave birth to Nathan's child, but it was obvious to anyone with eyes willing to see that he was just as devastated as her. Sadly, Jack remained in total denial but in those early days following their loss, Henry had caught the choked back sorrow whenever Jack thought of a new way to torment Nathan, only to remember that Nathan was gone.

Although Allison and Jack had ended up together eventually, Henry knew she would regret her decision to marry Jack sooner or later, so he'd been happy enough to play along with her indecision, cautioning her to wait a little longer; to give herself more time to mourn Nathan. He still felt a momentary pang of guilt because Jack was his best friend and he could see Jack hurting over her evasiveness whenever he mentioned wedding dates. But when they were both on the verge of drowning, with no known hope of rescue, it had seemed churlish for him to spend their last moments counseling them to wait, so he had married them.

Henry sighed. He loved Allison because she was beautiful, compassionate, and smart, and he loved Jack too for more reasons than he could count. They each deserved to be more than someone's second choice, whether Jack realized the truth of it or not.

Unfortunately, Henry was proved right and the marriage had lasted exactly one year before the differences between them became a chasm neither was willing to cross for the other. Two months after the birth of their son they separated, fortunately amicably, and Allison moved out of the bunker with the three children. She'd never liked SARAH anyway, and although SARAH had remained polite while Allison lived there, Henry knew the feeling had been mutual from the number of times Fargo had been forced to intervene with SARAH's programming on Allison's behalf.

He wished Jack was here with him now, knew he would welcome the stress relieving presence of his friend, but this project was so secret that even most of the Eurekans on the evacuation list did not know of the existence of Atlantis - yet. Henry was still fighting to get Jack's name included on the list along with Zoe's, even if it was just as a pattern stored in a Wraith device. As the father of one of Allison's children he should have been included automatically, but that courtesy would not have extended to Zoe. Jack would never leave his daughter behind, so with regret Allison had taken his name off her personal list.

Zane was still trying to get Jo to agree to marry him but the harder he pushed, the harder she pushed back, confused by his increasing desperation. If it came to it, Henry would grab two witnesses and marry the pair moments before Atlantis took off. However, he doubted Jo would agree to leave without her brothers and their families so Henry and Zane were working behind the scenes to see if they could get them included on the military list. General O'Neill had been surprisingly helpful in that respect, especially once he saw their military files as all the Lupos seemed to be exceptional soldiers like their former-U.S. Army Ranger sister.

Perhaps it was nepotism on his part, but it was human nature to want to protect close friends and family.

****

Rodney: Possibilities

Now the truth was out there, Rodney was glad Jeannie and her immediate family had gained their place on Atlantis automatically as it meant he didn't have to fight bureaucracy over her inclusion. He would have won of course, but he would rather expend his energy and time in more useful pursuits such as increasing the pattern buffers on the Ark and Wraith devices, and testing them to ensure no one got mangled like that transporter accident in Star Trek - or worse, ended up sharing someone else's brain like that unfortunate incident with him and Cadman.

He shuddered at the memory, still embarrassed at Cadman using his body to kiss Carson. Not that Carson wasn't a good looking man but, really, they were best friends and not at all romantically inclined towards each other. Of course he ignored the little devil on his shoulder that wondered if he would have been so appalled if she had kissed John instead of Carson.

As he checked the readings to ensure the ZPM was still charging safely, he pondered over John's reaction to him kissing Carson all those years ago.

At first Rodney thought it was disgust, but over time he'd noticed John pull that same expression whenever Rodney expressed any romantic feelings for anyone, even his few girlfriends - Katie or Jennifer. John had looked horrified when Rodney showed him the engagement ring bought for Katie, and annoyed when he arranged to take Jennifer to Malcolm's invitation-only presentation on Earth. He had bristled openly whenever he spotted Rodney being romantic with Jennifer - holding hands, greeting with a kiss - and seemed in remarkably happy spirits since the break-up. Rodney thought it was simply because John had disliked Jennifer, comparing her unfavorably to Carson, but now he wondered if there was more to it than that.

All in all it gave credence to Henry's observation that John lit up in his presence, smiling more, and looking at him like he was the most important person in the room even when O'Neill was present. Which was true, obviously, as weighing it up... Brilliant scientist or Neanderthal General? Admittedly, a General who had saved the world once or twice, but then, so had he. On the other hand, O'Neill hadn't destroyed most of a star system but he had almost had his brains scrambled by downloading an Ancient database into his head not once but twice.

The problem with Henry's observation was it gave Rodney hope where little had existed before; hope that John might have real feelings for him that extended beyond the platonic friendship that what the mainstay of his life. He couldn't bear the thought of losing John's friendship if Henry was wrong.

Momentarily distracted, he didn't notice the sharp increase in exotic particles until the alarm sounded. Rodney dived in immediately, resetting controls and verifying that nothing had escaped the chamber, only breathing a sigh of relief when everything settled back down. After hours of exhaustive tests, accompanied by lots of yelling between him, Radek, Jeannie, Zane and Henry, Rodney stepped back, content that it was just an anomaly. Whatever happened, nothing appeared to have escaped the chamber or affected the ZPM charging.

When he turned, John was leaning against the laboratory wall several feet behind them, intently watching the action without interfering. He pushed up straight and took a few steps towards Rodney.

"What happened?"

Rodney shrugged. "A spike, but it was contained... I think."

"You think?" John started to look agitated.

"Yes. Yes, I'm sure it was contained."

"Rodney?" John drew out his name, unconvinced.

Rodney straightened up and looked him direct in the eyes. "It was contained."

After a moment John nodded.

"They're serving meatloaf today."

Rodney blinked at the non-sequitur but almost as if conjured up by John's words, his stomach rumbled. Startled, Rodney glanced at his wristwatch, surprised to see it was well past lunchtime.

"Then lead on," he stated, gaining a soft lift of John's perfect lips in response.

****

Jack: A Cop's instincts

Jack knew something was up from the cagey way certain scientists tiptoed around the town, mostly the Section 5 scientists working on top secret projects. Most of them were good people looking faintly guilty, something he had a sixth sense for, though a couple of the more arrogant ones walked around with secretive smiles, showing their disdain for others more acutely than usual.

He wanted to talk to Henry about it but he and Zane were off working with some other government think tank for a couple of months - one that wasn't Area 51 because Jack had checked.

Creepier was the way Allison acted around him these days, allowing him to see their son any time he wanted. Her smile held that same trace of guilt mixed with regret and he wondered at first if it had anything to do with the divorce papers he'd signed only a few days earlier. Jack didn't know whether to be sad or grateful that the divorce had been clean and simple this time despite the existence of their baby son, with none of the animosity and battling lawyers from the end of his first marriage to Abby, though the accusations leading to their divorce still stung.

Allison had never held his lack of genius level I.Q. points over him, though he knew she'd been anxious about introducing him to her multiple PhD parents and brother. He'd got along okay with Marcus eventually, though her parents had remained polite but distant, only beginning to thaw when they caught him playing with all the Blake grand kids. But then he guessed they likened his intellectual level to that of a child's. They loved their latest grandson though and talked to Jack civilly, which is more than he could ever say for Abby's parents.

No, what stung was the accusation that he'd been just as much in love with Nathan as her, and that they were using each other as a substitute for what neither of them could have - Nathan.

It was insane.

It couldn't be true because she had caught his eye the day they met, though the more he thought about it, the more he realized his interest had only heated after that first antagonistic meeting with Nathan Stark. Tall, handsome, and wicked smart - as Zoe would say. Nathan had won the genetic lottery, though Jack considered himself smart enough in other areas where it counted and certainly not inferior to Nathan.

Earlier today Doctor Jensure had given him an awkward wave and smile, increasing Jack's sixth sense of something going. Unfortunately he had no one to talk to about it. Allison was away for a few days, having headed to whatever secret location Henry and Zane were working.

"If I told you where I was going I'd have to kill you," she had stated before leaving but, for once, her eyes had held no teasing glint.

It made him even more nervous, but at least he had all three kids to himself - and SARAH.

Now it was late evening and, feeling anxious, Jack decided to do 'the rounds', starting with Kevin to make sure he was switching off whatever experiment or game he was working on. Even bright kids needed a good night's sleep. Peeking into Zoe's old room he could see Michael Carter-Blake fast asleep in his crib but Jack froze when a dark shadow moved from the crib to hover over the bed where Jenna was sleeping. Instinctively he reached for his sidearm but he'd locked his gun away when he got home earlier, but then the shadow seemed to take a familiar form that tore at his heart.

"SARAH, lights!"

SARAH responded immediately to his urgent tone, flooding the room with light. Mikey and Jenna both startled awake with a cry but Jack ignored them, eyes scanning every inch of the room until the urgency of their plaintive wails overcame the fear that had iced his heart momentarily. The room was empty. Silently berating himself for letting his cop instincts overwhelm his common sense, he moved quickly to pick up Mikey and carry him over to where Jenna was sitting up looking tired and miserable as she rubbed her eyes.

Kevin rushed in and dropped down beside Jack.

"What's wrong?"

Jack looked at him for a moment, debating on whether to say anything about the shadow but decided Kevin didn't need to be burdened with Jack's paranoia or vivid imagination.

"Just me being too over protective."

Between them they settled both toddler and baby back down and Jack tiptoed from the room having already asked SARAH to lower the lights.

"Go on. You have school tomorrow so-."

Kevin gave him a typical teenage eye roll but he did as he was asked much to Jack's relief, because Jack wanted to head downstairs and have a quiet talk with SARAH - and a beer to calm his shattered nerves.

"SARAH? Did you... sense anything out of the ordinary in Mikey and Jenna's room just now?"

"Other than you startling both children awake?"

Jack opened his mouth to deny he'd done any such thing but sighed instead. "Yeah, apart from that."

"No, Jack."

"You sure?"

"I can re-examine the data if you-."

Jack waved a hand, "No. No. I thought I saw..."

Nathan Stark, but perhaps he was just seeing what he wanted to see. After all he had been thinking of Nathan earlier that evening.

"Jack? Your heart rate is slightly accelerated and I can detect an increase in-."

"SARAH, I'm fine. Just tired." He sighed again, looking longingly at the refrigerator before deciding he needed sleep more than a beer right now. "I'm going to head to bed early." He trudged back up the stairs, footsteps heavy.

Closing the door to the master bedroom behind him, Jack undressed swiftly and settled into bed, pulling the sheets over his naked body.

"Lights off, SARAH."

"Good night, Jack," SARAH murmured softly.

"Yeah, good night SARAH."

Closing his eyes he must have drifted off in seconds but he awoke in near darkness, staring up at the ceiling with his sixth sense running full tilt. He strained to hear what might have woken him knowing SARAH would have raised the lights higher and said something if one of the kids needed him, but everything in the bunker was silent.

The covers had migrated south while he slept, gathered at his waist and leaving his bare chest exposed to the slightly cooler room, but his skin felt... electric, as if someone had caressed him gently, and his lips tingled as if softly kissed. He moaned in annoyance, deciding he'd likely been dreaming. A glance at the luminous numbers on the alarm clock - totally not needed according to SARAH - proved he'd only been asleep for about an hour.

"Nathan Stark, if you're haunting me, I'm going to kick your incorporeal ass." Yes, he knew that word now.

Jack closed his eyes with a wry smile, falling back to sleep easily, strangely comforted by the thought of Nathan watching over him and the kids.

****

Nathan: Incorporeal

After what had seemed both an eternity and mere seconds, the crackle in the world surrounding Nathan had drawn him to a strange rupture in time and space. Instinctively he knew something was drawing on the essence of this dimension and he moved towards it, fascinated by the complexity of the math required, and silently hoping it was his way out of this strange dichotomy of nothing and everything.

His mind had expanded, and Carl Carlson's words had reverberated through it all.

"Will you be ready?"

Ready for all the knowledge hidden in the stars and caught between dimensions. He'd sensed others in this plane of existence but they remained aloof, slipping away when he approached. Now there was a tear in the very fabric of space and time, one large enough for him to slip through.

The physicality of a new dimensions tore at his body and he fought to retain some cohesion as his molecules spread across time. Something was pulling at him and he drew himself towards it, sinking into cool boundaries, drawn along crystal lattices into the heart of something both living and yet not living; an A.I. more complex than Callister, his android creation... his long dead son.

'Ego anias Atlantus'

The strange words formed inside his mind as he sank into the strange world surrounding him where math was the language of the stars, rippling into one unknown to him and yet he understood perfectly.

'Loci egio,' he asked. Where am I?

'Avalon. Terra. Mundas Tau'ri.'

Earth. He was in the Milky Way, on Earth.

'Ego deserde asordo. Comdus.'

Please, he begged, asking for help, and information flowed into him from that which called itself Atlantus. He felt the city take shape around him, moving through corridors as he followed the brightness emanating from some occupants while others barely registered. He saw beauty in tall spires floating on a blue sea, recognizing the Californian coast by the familiar landmark of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. He knew where to go, leaving the spires behind to move swiftly up the coast before turning inland, heading home.

Eureka was not the same as he remembered. Small changes pointed to a parallel or alternate time line; the Archimedes water fountain was no longer made of granite. Light spilled through the window of Cafe Diem but Nathan felt drawn to the Sheriff's Office, seeping into the interior to find another A.I. behind Jo Lupo's desk. It stopped what it was doing, smile freezing in place as it scanned the area but its programming could not compute Nathan's form so after a moment it continued writing up reports.

Nathan left it, heading to the only other place where he might find Jack Carter.

SARAH had the same momentary glitch before her programming decided he was an aberration and ignored him as he blended into the shadows at the corners of the room.

Jack was a bright beacon in the room, shining brightly like some of the others within the Alteran city of Atlantis, and Nathan knew he was seeing them as Atlantus saw her creators. Jack's eyes glowed with an ethereal light, blue like a cloudless, bright summer's day. His skin radiated in shifting refractions of light, bleeding different colors as he moved.

As beautiful as Nathan remembered him from those last moments.

He was drawn upstairs behind Jack, who seemed anxious, as if he could sense Nathan's presence, so Nathan moved away towards two more beacons of light. One glowed more strongly than the other - a baby - and Nathan felt sorrow when he realized the parentage as Jack's child with Allison. He had hoped Jack had seen through the layers of denial and competition to the honest truth that they were meant to be together, something Nathan had discovered as he drifted between the seconds of another dimension. Yet, Nathan could not sense Allison's presence within the bunker, except within the DNA of three young lives. He sensed himself though, sensed his own DNA and moved across to the other bed where a little girl lay sleeping within a paler glow.

"SARAH, lights!"

Light flooded the room but Nathan was neither light nor darkness, insubstantial as if he existed on another plane that merely dissected with this universe. He watched as Jack scanned the room much as the android deputy had done in the Sheriff's office.

"Jack! Jack, I'm right here."

He reached out but his fingers slid through Jack's skin. He could feel Jack on a quantum level, and perhaps that was why Jack sensed him, but before he could gauge Jack's reaction to his touch, Kevin came running. Nathan retreated to the side of the room as he watched his adopted son help with Nathan's daughter and Jack's son.

Later, while Jack slept, Nathan could not resist being drawn to his light, reaching out to caress the soft skin on display and leaning down to press a kiss on sleep-parted lips. His actions seemed to register on some level as Jack awoke, though he was amused by Jack's words.

"Nathan Stark, if you're haunting me, I'm going to kick your incorporeal ass."

"Eureka! You finally stopped mangling that word," Nathan murmured, his words falling on seemingly deaf ears until he felt a ripple of Jack's thoughts brush against his.

'Yeah, I know that word now.'

It had to be coincidence as he heard nothing more, and though he was tempted to stay with Jack just in case, his link to Atlantus called to him. It drew him back to the great city as she echoed his own words, pleading for assistance.

'Ego deserde asordo. Comdus. Incursus Wraithis.'

Nathan slipped into the city A.I., a ghost in the machine as he followed pathways of achingly pure mathematics, seeking information on how to help Atlantus fight the approaching enemy: the Wraith.

****

John: Weeks of Preparation

"Huh!"

John came closer because a bemused, 'Huh,' from Rodney could lead to something really good or very bad. Before John could ask, Rodney was turning to one of the new engineers at the environment controls.

"I'm reading increased pressure on the water throughput to the hydroponics section."

"Uh... I'm seeing it here too, Doctor McKay."

"Then... well done, Fergus."

John heard a faint response of, "Fargo." The scientist was smiling in confusion while still enjoying the unexpected praise, though it was obvious from the cheesy grin that he wasn't exactly sure why he was being praised.

"I'm assuming an increased throughput is good," John stated, amused by the way Rodney flinched at finding him close enough to murmur in his ear.

"Are you deliberately trying to give me a heart attack? If yes then I hope you know someone else who can get this city flight-worthy before the Wraith arrive."

John smiled broadly this time because despite his words, Rodney looked flushed with pleasure rather than anger.

Over the past two weeks John had decided to take Henry's words to heart, flirting lightly with Rodney. So far the reaction was positive, and if they were not in the middle of preparing for a global apocalypse, he would have stepped up his game and pressed harder. Henry had noticed for John had caught his good natured laughing at the pair of them on a couple of occasions.

"Don't you have work to do?" Rodney asked airily.

"I just spent five hours going over ordnance and signing off on more military personnel. I figured I deserved a break."

"So you thought you'd come here to interrupt my important work."

Anyone else might have felt slighted but John wasn't anyone else. He knew most of Rodney's bark was posturing, and he knew Rodney had missed lunch again due to his distraction. John reached out and grabbed a fistful of Rodney's t-shirt tugging him forward as John headed away, knowing Rodney would follow. He smiled as Rodney fell in step with him.

"Where we going?"

"Mess hall."

"But it's... Huh!"

Minutes later he watched indulgently as Rodney piled high a tray, catching the eye of the long-suffering server who gave a placating nod through the usual round of questions concerning Rodney's citrus allergy. Eventually they grabbed an out-of-the-way table, partially concealed behind a small wall of plants. It kept both of them out of sight so they could eat in peace.

John listened when Rodney started talking about the repairs to Atlantis, hands occasionally waving, sometimes forgetting that he had a mouthful of food in his eagerness. Jennifer had always berated him over it, scolding him like a child, but John had always taken a slightly different tack, holding up one finger and raising his eyebrows. Rodney seemed to register the cue without getting a hurt look on his expressive face.

Usually John let Rodney's words wash over him, paying more intention to the tone than to the details but something Rodney said made him sit up straighter.

"You think Atlantis is waking up?"

"Since we added the second fully charged ZPM, there have been... changes."

When he thought about it, John realized he had felt those changes on a subliminal level. The lights had always reacted to him, burning just that little bit brighter wherever he went on Atlantis but the slight dimness ahead of him as he walked along a corridor was now gone. Doors opened easier, the transporter seemed smoother, and some of the old niggles from ten thousand years of neglect - and Wraith damage from the first siege - had eased.

"So Atlantis is fixing itself?"

"Yes... and no. It's like something is directing..." His hands moved as if to encapsulate whatever he was trying to describe. "I've long suspected Atlantis is an A.I., self-aware like the Asuran but programmed like... Like..."

"Asimov's Three Laws?"

Rodney snapped his fingers and pointed straight at John. "Yes, except there's this sense of a... guiding hand."

John nodded because he had sensed it too since the second ZPM came online though it seemed benevolent, easing lesser scientists through tasks that might have taken them days to figure out alone. It left Rodney free to focus on the more important issues such as the stardrive and the wormhole drive, as well as monitor progress with the Ark and Wraith storage devices, though Henry and Zane had taken those problems back to Eureka with them a few days earlier. Sam Carter and her team had taken over work on the planetary phase cloak, while Grant's consortium looked at a means of raising a shield that could work with both a ZPM or a several linked fusion reactors.

'Colonel Sheppard. Please report to Section 8. Intrusion alert.'

"On my way," John answered Lorne, momentarily pausing half-way out of his seat when he saw Rodney looking confused. "There's a problem I've got to take care of," he stated softly, not waiting for Rodney to nod his understanding before grabbing his tray and dropping it off on his way out of the mess hall.

When he reached Section 8, John was surprised to see an angry man held in a small containment field. Lorne was looking a little baffled but John felt a whisper in his mind that seemed to come from the air around him.

'Incursus.'

John stared at the man, who was ineffectively trying to free himself from the personal force shield while loudly proclaiming he should be freed immediately. Incursus. Incursion. Invasion. Attack. Attacker. His mind went through words quickly and he glanced at the tools scattered on the ground, seeing something of alien but not Ancient origin.

"Get Beckett down here with a portable scanner."

Beckett arrived out of breath a few minutes later, confused when he saw everyone standing around.

"Where's the emergency?"

"Here," John stated, stepping aside so Carson could see their prisoner. "Scan him."

Carson huffed in annoyance. "I'm a bloody doctor not a-."

"Is he human... Terran human?"

Sighing, Carson ran the scanner over the man, who'd become agitated at John's words and John didn't need to hear Carson's answer as his expression gave it away.

"Lucian Alliance," John murmured, and the man's expression turned ugly.

"We will have this city to protect our own worlds from the scourge you have brought upon us!"

The Wraith were two weeks out and John was surprised the I.O.A. had managed to keep that knowledge - and this city - from the Lucian Alliance for this long. It meant they were running out of time and if there was one Lucian Alliance agent in the city then there could be others. As he ordered Lorne to take the agent into custody until he could be transported off the city, John pondered on the logistics of scanning every person in Atlantis.

The thought seemed to trigger a command and he shivered slightly as he felt something pass through him. Both Lorne and Carson cast an alarmed glance towards him, along with one of the four soldiers present, the others simply looking confused.

"What was that?" John demanded, but Lorne was lifting his finger to his radio.

"A report of two more trapped in force fields."

John had a strong feeling they would be non-Terrans too.

When he reached the control room, Rodney was already there with a disgruntled console operative glaring at the back of Rodney's head from where he'd likely been shunted aside. Rodney's fingers were flying across the controls, reading Ancient programming faster than some people could read their native language.

"It seems Atlantis has decided to be proactive in scanning for non-Terrans," Radek stated quietly to John as Rodney continued to work.

"O...kay."

"It is a problem as it is unwritten extension to existing programming." Radek blinked owlishly as if expecting John to understand but he finally realized that John didn't realize the significance. "Captain Helia used the same command codes to lock out all non-Alterans." He shrugged. "This command should have done same except possibly for those with strong expression of ATA gene. Instead-."

"Instead it affected only non-Terrans," Rodney finished, whirling on the chair to face John. "Someone... or some thing has been rewriting the base programming without leaving a trace. No access from any terminals or control panels in the city."

By now Woolsey had joined them, looking equally concerned by this latest development but he waited for Rodney to continue.

"So far this... 'ghost in the machine'," he air-quoted his words, "has acted benevolently. Preparations for leaving Earth are further advanced than we could have ever hoped for, even taking into account the resources thrown at the city since we arrived on Earth."

Woolsey nodded and sighed heavily. "Perhaps it's time to put Project Exodus into action."

John agreed. Now the Lucian Alliance was aware of the city, they needed to start bringing in the people and preparing to leave Earth. The plan was to stay within the solar system for as long as possible before activating the wormhole drive. He knew Henry still had high hopes of having the Ark fully tested and ready to upload a few thousand more people before Atlantis was forced to leave the Milky Way, but time was running out. Equally, Sam Carter and Zane Donovan had almost completed their projects to try to protect the billions left behind - if possible.

"I'll schedule a conference as soon as possible," Woolsey stated. "In the meantime, Doctor Grant is about to upload the final list of personnel and their family members onto the Atlantis database. You'll be pleased to know the exceptional hard work has paid off and we can support in excess of seven thousand individuals."

"Going to get a bit crowded," John remarked, but he knew the city had been built to hold ten times that number.

Still, he knew he'd better go back over his plans to keep the city secure, before the arrival of the first batch of people.

****

Henry: A Hard Decision.

Henry knew before he'd even opened the file that Jack and Zoe's names would not appear on the list even though the numbers had swollen to just over seven thousand. He still had a small hope of getting their names on the Ark list but with billions of people to choose from across the world, Henry couldn't find a way to justify the inclusion of a local sheriff with an average I.Q. in spite of all of Henry's connections. Of the three thousand people in Eureka, only three hundred and eighty names had not made the cut, mostly the elderly in the retirement home, and support staff like Jack.

The I.O.A. had tried to push for the inclusion of far more of their own people than they could justify, especially as most of the names put forward were politicians and pen pushers. As far as Henry was concerned, they ranked lower than Jack as there were plenty of scientists or their family members who already handled those positions in some capacity. The strict rules enforced by Grant applied equally to the I.O.A. as they did to him. No one would be buying their way onto Atlantis. However, the I.O.A. and Eureka did add those skilled in the arts to their lists - painting, music, dance, theater, and gastronomy.

He smiled softly at the inclusion of Vincent. They would need someone with his amazing talent for molecular gastronomy.

Scientists and their families from Stargate Command, Area 51, and Grant's consortium accounted for another three and a half thousand, and the remaining places had gone to the military, mostly those who were already a part of the Stargate program. Jack O'Neill had gone out of his way to find a place for Jo's brothers, though that had been an easy task as two of them were already part of the off-world program, and all of them were highly decorated and skilled soldiers. Of course it helped that only one had a family - a wife and two children.

All Zane had to do was convince Jo to marry him so he could justify her inclusion too, and with the go ahead to start bringing people on board, Zane was now free to tell her why it was so important. Henry had a feeling he'd be getting a call soon to exchange his 'Director of Global Dynamics' name tag to 'Celebrant' so he could officiate over their marriage.

Henry sighed heavily.

All he could do for his best friend was try to place a shield or cloak around the planet, and hope the Lucian Alliance did not tear it down leaving Earth defenseless against the Wraith.

With a heavy heart he called Jack up to Global, aware that he'd be leaving Jack to deal with the fallout from this as those left behind wondered what was happening. He had hated keeping all of this a secret from Jack though he knew Jack suspected something was going on as Henry had spent the past month slowly closing down experiments and moving them onto Atlantis. Many of the scientists were already on Atlantis in assigned quarters. It was just a matter of bringing their families on-board now.

He hoped Jack would understand and would help.

Fifteen minutes later, Henry mustered up a smile when Jack entered his office.

"Jack, before I explain what's happening, I just want you to know that you are my friend and I have done everything within my power to change the outcome of this meeting."

Jack frowned. "Am I fired again?"

Startled, Henry laughed. "No! No."

"Okay, because that sounded like a goodbye speech."

Henry sighed and poured out a drink for each of them, handing one glass to Jack, and waiting for him to take the seat across from his desk before he started speaking. He told Jack everything about Atlantis, the Lucian Alliance, and the approaching Wraith. He told him of the measures they were trying to put in place to protect the billions left behind on this world, and he spoke of his fears that it wouldn't be enough.

"Allison and the kids?"

"They have a place on Atlantis." Henry saw the troubled look cross Jack's face. "Jack, she wanted to add your name to her list, but it wouldn't have extended to Zoe."

"I wouldn't have left Zoe behind," he stated adamantly.

"I know," he replied softly. "Jack, I need you to help me with the transition. Grant has people coming in to replace those leaving Eureka so the town will still need its sheriff... and its director."

"You're not going?"

Henry felt something unclench inside him for the first time in months as, once again, simply talking with Jack cleared away the mess of his thoughts, giving him clarity.

After all Jack had done for the town, for the universe even, but most especially for him, he couldn't simply abandon his friend to an uncertain fate. Jack had stood by him when he was sent to prison after the Beverly Barlow incident. He'd been the only one to visit, the only one to give Henry a chance to make things right. He'd even given him a sunset, admittedly as a hologram but still such a beautiful gesture, making him regret all the time he had spent angry with Jack after Kim's death.

That had never been Jack's fault but he'd made himself an easy target for Henry's grief and anger.

Jack was courageous and loyal. He deserved better than this, and if Henry stayed in Eureka then maybe he would be able to find a way to protect Jack and the others in this town who would be left behind. If the planetary shield held for long enough, perhaps he would have time to build a second Ark and hide it on this world, to save extraordinary yet ordinary people like Jack.

Henry poured a second drink.

"Yes. I'm staying."

****

Rodney: Engine Failure.

The upheaval over the past week was making Rodney's head spin. In the space of a week the number of people on Atlantis had swollen to over seven thousand. Most of them were confused family members reunited with husbands, wives, parents or siblings. Rodney had preened when he watched Kaleb gawking like an idiot at the magnificence of the city, and fortunately Madison had grown tall enough not to seriously injure him when she came running over to hug him.

He had witnessed John greeting his brother, seeing the same awe on David's face, and finally got to meet John's brother, sister-in-law, and nieces. It was a strange meeting, with Dave looking between him and John with a knowing smile.

These were just a few of the more memorable reunions as far as Rodney was concerned, though learning Cadman had an identical twin sister was frightening. Jennifer was back too with her new husband after a whirlwind romance, an epidemiologist from the SGC, but Rodney didn't expect to see much of her.

Most of the new arrivals were beamed down onto the South pier in the residential sector and taken to previously assigned quarters so the main control tower wasn't that much busier than usual. The labs were teeming though, with individuals fighting for lab space, so Rodney was glad when Henry came in to manage lab assignments and other quarrels. It helped that Henry was a genius in many fields, like him, but also diplomatic, managing to soothe bruised egos and find compromises.

When he learned of Henry's intention to remain behind on Earth, Rodney was stunned into silence, before anger took hold. They needed him far more than some of the other scientists already on-board, but he couldn't fault the man's loyalty to his friends. Henry wasn't the only one to give up his place rather than leave family or friends behind, and their names had simply been replaced by those on the reserve list. Fortunately Rodney had not been placed into a similar position of leaving the city. Despite talk of handing Atlantis over to a higher ranking military officer, Rodney knew they needed John for his strong expression of the ATA gene, if nothing else, though he still made it abundantly clear that if John stayed behind on Earth then so would he.

It wasn't a bluff so it was fortunate for Atlantis that no one called him on it.

With all the supplies and people on-board, the decision to move off Earth was given and Rodney brought up the controls for the Stardrive while John settled in the Control Chair. Everything was going smoothly, with no power surges or red lines. Green across the board, and the Chair was glowing a strong blue as Atlantis interfaced with John. It was the equivalent of 4 a.m. in San Francisco, chosen as the deadest time of the day when most would be sleeping and associate any tremors with normal tectonic plate movement.

"Bring the engines online slowly... I want a clean take-off with barely a ripple."

John nodded, focusing intently as neither of them wanted to be responsible for a tsunami destroying San Francisco. Rodney expected to feel the vibration through the city but nothing happened.

"John?"

"I'm trying. It won't engage."

"Try harder."

"You think you can do this?"

Rodney tapped his radio. "Radek!" He gained an immediate response.

"I can see no problem this end, and yet it is simply not engaging."

'Amaxiceum Invenium.'

The words came clearly into Rodney's mind and from the way John bolted upright, disengaging the Chair, he had heard it too.

"Amaxiceum Invenium?" John asked while Rodney began to field calls from Radek and others with the ATA gene who had heard the same words. "What the hell does that mean?"

Rodney shook his head because it didn't make sense. This was something for Daniel Jackson to figure out... and quickly.

By the time they reached the main conference room it was teeming with linguists and others. Rodney figured O'Neill had transported in anyone with more than half a brain. Daniel had set up a white board with two columns, one column holding each of the Ancient words and he was writing down translations against each column, using Latin and Ancient Greek and even Gaelic but none of it was any clearer to Rodney.

Amaxiceum: transporter, carriage, carrier, or if they were wrong and it was A Maximiceum, then greatness, special, largest
Invenium: invention, discovery, acquire, ascertain, devise, earn, find

"What if it's literal?" Daniel murmured.

Someone leaped onto the idea. "Atlantis has discovered the city is carrying something we need to remove, or not carrying something we need."

"Or someone is a carrier... a disease?"

"Didn't the Ancients leave Earth because of a plague?"

Several voices started talking over each other as they latched onto the idea but Daniel was frowning, and Rodney knew that could be a good or a bad sign.

"Wagoner," O'Neill stated out of the blue, probably still recalling words from the two times he had an Ancient database inside his head; Daniel added that to the first column.

"I think it might be more literal than that." Henry walked forward, confirming Rodney's belief that O'Neill had pulled in everyone on the off chance as Henry had chosen not to stay on Atlantis. He noticed Henry was focusing intently on the new word added by O'Neill.

"How literal?" Daniel asked Henry.

Henry circled two translations - Wagoner, and where someone had scrawled, 'I found it'.

"Another word for wagoner is carter-."

"Sam?" O'Neill interrupted but Henry pressed on, tapping the second phrase.

"Eureka." He looked around at the sea of confused faces. "Carter. Eureka."

Rodney still didn't understand and he hated that, especially as John's eyebrows were climbing in enlightenment.

Zane came forward. "Despite the average surname, no offense to Sam." He smiled at the beautiful and smart woman, "There were only two Carters in Eureka. Sheriff Jack Carter and his daughter, Zoe. Who's brilliant, by the way."

O'Neill nodded, already giving orders to Caldwell to locate both Carters and bring them on-board.

In a flash of the Asgard transporter beam, Zoe appeared before them in her pajamas, eyes comically wide in alarm until she spotted Henry.

"Henry?"

He moved over to her.

Caldwell's voice filtered through. "We're having a little difficulty picking up Sheriff Carter. He seems to be in a shielded area."

"Um, wait," Fargo stated and began clicking on a keyboard. "Bringing down SARAH's shields."

Another flash and Jack was standing in the center of the room, looking stunned and confused, a sheet clutched tightly around his naked body as he tried to preserve what was left of his dignity.

"What the...? Henry!"

The lights in the room blazed fiercely for a moment as if in triumph, and Rodney felt the slight tremor of the stardrive finally engaging.

****

Jack: The Key.

Everyone was looking at him with a mixture of awe and amusement so Jack pulled the sheet tighter around himself, confused and desperately praying he wasn't looking a complete idiot. The lights had blazed for a moment before settling back to normal and he could feel the slightest vibration beneath his bare feet through a surprisingly warm floor, considering it looked like it was made of stone or metal.

Henry was beaming, and that's when he noticed Zoe standing beside Henry clad only in her pajamas.

"Zoe?"

"Dad!"

She rushed into his arms and he momentarily lost his grip on the sheet, having to quickly snatch it back up to cover his exposed ass. By then Henry was right next to him too, a hand on his arm drawing him away from all the smiles and - yeah - there was sniggering too. Yet what caught at Jack's attention most was a warmth inside his head - a sense of welcome as if he'd come home after years alone in the wilderness - and yet there was something more besides. He sensed love, affection, desire as well as a smugness that reminded him so much of Nathan that it hurt. He could sense all of this mingled with regret, along with two words that meant nothing to him but brushed against his mind like a lover's caress.

'Salveo amatus.'

"Henry, what's going on?"

"You, my friend, have a guardian angel."

"You!" A guy with a receding hairline, annoyed blue eyes, and a slanted mouth pointed a finger at Jack. "Come with me."

"How about we let the guy get some pants on first, Rodney?" A good-looking military type with a very non-military haircut raised one eyebrow.

"What?" The guy called Rodney looked Jack up and down as if only just noticing Jack's state of undress. "Why are you wearing a sheet?"

"I was kind of in bed. Asleep. Until a few minutes ago."

"Naked?"

Jack looked at him askance. "You have a problem with me sleeping naked?"

Zoe threw up her arms, giving an exasperated cry. "Aagh! TMI! You know, I really don't want to hear about my dad being naked. Or see it."

"Wait! Oh God, this isn't real," Jack exclaimed to the small group surrounding him. "It's that naked dream all over again."

"Now that's a memory I didn't need to recall," Henry replied but his eyes were filled with merriment at Jack's expense.

Zoe sank her head into her hands, uttering another exasperated cry, reminding Jack that half the town had shared that particular dream, including his daughter and her best friend, Pilar... and Henry, Jo, Fargo. Hell, for all he knew Nathan and Allison had shared it too though he was sure Nathan would have said something derogatory if that had been the case. Or had he? He had seemed particularly smug and cagey that day.

Throughout all of this, Rodney looked confused and faintly horrified, but the military guy had taken the opportunity to have some clothes rustled up from somewhere. He led Jack to a small office, darkening the windows somehow before leaving Jack to get dressed alone. The military guy was waiting just outside once Jack was ready, leaning up against the wall with his hands buried deep in his pockets. He took Jack's haphazardly folded bed sheet and handed it over to some guy under his command before putting his hands back in his pockets.

Jack read his name tag. "Colonel Sheppard-."

"John. After all I have just seen you naked... almost."

Jack snorted, feeling any remaining anxiety leach away because Sheppard - John - wasn't much like any other military guy he'd ever met, and certainly more laid back than General Mansfield.

"Sheriff Jack Carter. Jack."

"Before I hand you back to McKay, I just need to know something."

He pulled one hand out of his pocket and held it out palm up. Jack looked at the small object resting on his palm. Before Jack's eyes it began to glow a beautiful bright blue. John offered it to Jack and, tentatively, he took it, marveling at the delicate design as the glowing object warmed in his hand.

"Yeah, I thought so," John remarked.

"Huh?"

"You have a strong, natural expression of the ATA gene."

"I have a what?"

"Rodney's going to hate you."

At that moment, Rodney stomped round the corner, "How long does it take to-. Oh, that's just perfect," he snarled sarcastically as he spotted the glowing device in Jack's palm.

"Told you," John stated softly, smirking.

The clothes were a little baggy and the sneakers a size too large, but it was better than a bed sheet so Jack followed John and Rodney back towards the conference room where Henry was waiting for them, but they didn't go back inside.

"Zoe?"

"Is safe with Zane and Jo."

Henry fell into step with them but Jack stopped abruptly when he came to the top of a majestic staircase leading down to where the most unusual looking donut ring sculpture dominated the far end of the room.

"Is this...?"

"Welcome to Atlantis, Jack," Henry murmured.

Jack barely had a moment to admire the beauty of the mythical lost city before Rodney ushered him down the stairs, leading him into a room not much bigger than a storage closet. The doors slid shut and then opened again a moment later. Years of seeing the most amazing things in Eureka had definitely had its effect on him as he wasn't surprised at all when he realized they were someplace else in the city.

"Is that some kind of elevator?"

"It's a matter teleportation device. It breaks down your pattern at a molecular level and...

"Yeah, kind of," John replied over the top of Rodney's explanation, probably recognizing the confused, glazed look in Jack's eyes, but all the technical jargon still went over his head most days.

Jack scrubbed the back of his head and followed one indulgent, and one put-out scientist to a room dominated by a strange, ornate chair. John moved to it straight away and sat down. The chair moved smoothly into a reclining position and began to glow the same beautiful azure blue as the device John had handed to him earlier. The whole floor lit up beneath the chair too.

"What do you want me to do?"

"Nothing. Don't touch anything," Rodney ordered and Jack almost quipped back that his name was Jack Carter, not Douglas Fargo, a man who had yet to meet a button he was not tempted to push. "Just stand in that corner and think happy thoughts."

Puzzled, Jack looked at Henry, who merely shrugged and smiled.

"Bring her up slowly," Rodney murmured. "Imagine you're a feather caught in a slight breeze; a fluffy cloud lifting gently-."

"I get the picture, Rodney," John interrupted, and Rodney huffed in annoyance.

The vibration increased only the slightest amount.

"Shields are raised. Clearing Earth's atmosphere in three. Two. One. Cleared."

If Henry hadn't already let him in on most of this to help with the transition around Eureka, he would have believed it was some new test simulator, and a boring one at that. He could sense the tension in the atmosphere more than he could feel anything physical.

"Now for the Pink Floyd maneuver," John stated softly, with a wicked smile.

Rodney rolled his eyes, "Oh yes, very witty."

Jack had to ask, "The what?"

"Dark side of the moon," Henry replied, smiling. "That's where the city will wait until the final moment."

As the minutes passed slowly, Jack began to shuffle from one foot to the other, bored out of his skull, but he froze when he felt a ripple of amusement tickle against his mind. It wasn't the first time he had felt that since they beamed him on-board.

"Uh, this is going to sound crazy but is anyone else... hearing things?"

Henry frowned, intrigued. Rodney scowled but John smiled.

"Clavia Amatus," John murmured.

"Yeah! That!" Jack pointed at John.

"Key friend... No. Beloved Key," Henry replied. "I've picked up a little Alteran," he added with a shrug, which probably meant he had more than a passing knowledge of it knowing Henry's ability to soak up knowledge.

"Huh."

The Chair came upright with John looking more than satisfied with whatever he'd been doing. He smiled at him and Henry but Jack noticed he kept his warmest and most affectionate smile for Rodney, making Jack wonder if they were together. It twisted something inside him as he recalled the last smile Nathan had ever bestowed upon him - "See you around, Jack" - because it looked just like John's to Rodney, except for a hint of regret.

He'd thought of Nathan often over these past two years, slowly coming to realize how much he had lost that day, but now the man seemed constantly on his mind. Nathan filled his idle waking thoughts and invaded his dreams, and he missed him so damn much. It was why he laid no blame at Allison's feet for the debacle of their marriage.

"Allison," he murmured.

She had a place here so all his kids were on-board: Kevin, Jenna, Mikey... and now Zoe too, who was probably asking questions and demanding answers. He needed to go find her before she took it into her head to start looking for him and got herself lost, because this city was huge according to Henry. Images came into his head, most of it too technical for him to grasp but he got the idea of exactly how large, seeing the different quadrants spread out like a giant snowflake.

"I have to go find Zoe. She'll be going crazy right about now."

The door slid open before him and he was almost ten feet down the corridor when he realized he didn't have a clue where he was or how to find her. Jack turned to find the others a few steps behind but before he could ask, he had a map inside his head. Jack had long ago learned to trust his intuition while working as a fugitive hunter for the U.S. Marshals, so he turned and followed the mental map, finding the transporter closet. He touched the map on the back screen with just a moment's hesitation, and instinctively turned left into a wide open room full of people and the aroma of freshly brewed coffee.

"Dad!"

There she was. He smiled widely as she ran up to him, still clad in pajamas but with Zane's jacket slung around her slim shoulders.

"Dad, this place is amazing. Why didn't you tell me we were coming here. Pilar had three hours notice so she had time to pack, so did Lucas."

Jack drew her away from the rest, though Henry followed discreetly behind them.

"Zo, we weren't on the list."

"What? But you're the Sheriff?"

He smiled wryly. "Atlantis is like... a life raft. There wasn't room on-board for everyone, and they needed the best and brightest. Pilar and Lucas are here because their parents are at the top of their fields." He snorted softly. "That's why they were living in Eureka."

"But you should have been included with Allison." Her eyes widened. "Wait, is this why she divorced you so quickly? To leave us behind?"

"No! Zo, you're 18. An adult, and not her legal daughter." He stared at her earnestly. "I wouldn't have gone without you, and she knew that. She had to make a difficult choice but it was the best decision for her, and for Kevin, Jenna, and Mikey. You have to understand that."

Her voice was small. "You gave up your place to stay with me?"

Technically, Allison had given up his place without telling him but it was for the right reason. He reached out and held Zoe's small hands.

"You're my daughter, and I love you."

She buried her head against his shoulder, muffling her response. He stroked her soft, fine hair, but after a moment she pushed away, scrubbing tears from her eyes.

"Then why are we here now, Dad?"

"Yeah, apparently the city is something like SARAH, and refused to budge until we were on-board."

"And the question on everyone's lips is why? My apologies for eavesdropping." The stranger held out a hand to Jack. "Richard Woolsey. I'm the... Captain of this life raft."

Jack shook Woolsey's hand. "My daughter, Zoe."

"It's a pleasure to meet you, Ms. Carter."

"Yes, yes," Rodney blustered in. "Now all the introductions are over the question still remains. Why does Atlantis want you?"

"Actually, Rodney, we haven't been introduced." John smiled at Zoe. "I'm John Sheppard... and this is McKay," he added almost as an afterthought, though Jack suspected this was a teasing game he played with Rodney.

"Doctor McKay," Rodney added with a huff, stressing the word 'Doctor' and throwing an annoyed look at John that held an edge of jealousy.

Once more Jack wondered if the pair were together, especially as the military rules had changed some time back to throw out all the stupid homophobic regulations. Certainly Rodney was acting more like a jealous partner than a colleague.

"Again. Why does Atlantis want you?"

Jack was stymied. He really had no idea why an alien city would refuse to leave Earth without him on-board. All he could do was shrug his shoulders.

"I have no idea."

****

Nathan: Simple Connections.

Nathan continued working alongside Atlantus, nudging the scientists down the right paths when he could but aware he was seriously handicapped in his interactions. So many times he tried to explain his presence to them, but any blatant attempts were somehow blocked. He could reach the minds of those with the strongest expressions of the gene, purer descendants of the Alterans who had fled back to Earth to escape the scourge of the Wraith. However, only Jack seemed open to him, perhaps because he wasn't a genius, or perhaps because he was new to all of this. He hadn't learned to build walls in his mind, though Nathan had touched upon barriers that confused him as Jack also seemed oblivious to them.

Pressing against one, he eased into thoughts of another timeline, of Henry breaking all the rules to save Kim and nearly destroying a whole universe in the process. A flash of a memory wiper was all that remained, along with an image of Allison heavy with Jack's child, but that could have belonged to this timeline. Nathan had seen the small boy carrying his father's strong gene.

The other barrier was stronger and it took him a week of pushing against it before Nathan felt a presence that he recognized from his first brush with death, almost burning up from the inside. The Artifact. He recalled Carl Carlson healing Jack when he was struck with a phaser gun blast to the chest, using his link to the Artifact to channel cell rejuvenating energy into Jack's dying body. Had Carlson channeled more than healing power? Had he hid something away inside Jack's mind?

Not that there was much else in there, he thought with a smile, though their bickering had turned less malicious over those last months before he stepped into the Time chamber to save the universe.

It had taken dying for Nathan to finally acknowledge his true feelings for Jack. Except, he wasn't actually dead, not if he could still think and, on some level, feel. The words came to him in Alteran.

Mea putam, ani ergeo. I think therefore I am.

Zane and Fargo were working on a planetary shield, and it was close to completion. Similarly, Samantha Carter's phase shifter was nearing completion but both required the power of a ZPM to stay active. From what Nathan had learned of the Wraith, the phase shift gave Earth a greater chance of survival, cloaking them from all instruments, whereas the Wraith had battered against Atlantis's shields for a hundred years before the Alterans were forced to sink the city and flee to Earth.

He saw the schematics for the Armeria - the Ark. It had been his project in Section 5 once so he knew it intimately, and now he could see where it was failing. He made a small but crucial adjustment, noticed only by Henry's keen eye. Henry blinked, and Nathan waited for the 'Eureka' moment to set Henry's face alight with triumph.

"Aha!" Henry's funky Russian math filled the white board and the other scientists scrabbled to keep up. When he stopped writing, Henry looked up the same way Jack had always glanced up at the ceiling when addressing SARAH. "I wish I could hear you, and I hope you can hear this, but... Thank you."

Daniel Jackson was in the room, helping with translations. He pushed his glasses up his nose. "Unfortunately, the Chair is the only full interface with Atlantis, and for that you need a strong expression of the gene - natural or through the gene therapy."

Henry hummed. "The gene therapy took with me but, sadly, not strongly enough to operate the Chair."

"What about the holographic inter... whatever?" Jack asked.

Both men turned to Jack as if they had forgotten he was there, which was quite possible. No one had time to figure out what to do with Jack so they were using him mostly as a glorified light switch for turning on Ancient devices or opening up sealed areas of the city, freeing up John Sheppard from the duty. But when he was at a loose end, he often ended up watching Henry work, bringing coffee and sandwiches, just as he had in Eureka.

Daniel looked a little baffled but, like Henry, he didn't put Jack down. "The holographic Avatar is for talking with the Ancient database."

"Yeah, I got that, but doesn't Atlantis talk to it too, like SARAH and the database at Global?"

It was such a simple connecting-the-dots idea that it had been entirely overlooked, even by Nathan. Both Henry and Daniel straightened, and Henry tapped the radio he wore.

"Doctor McKay and Colonel Sheppard. Can you meet me in the Avatar chamber?"

"On our way, Henry," came an immediate response from Sheppard.

****

John: Ghost in the Machine.

When John arrived, with Rodney a few steps behind him, Daniel was stepping up onto the speaker's platform. John took a moment to check out the others present, unsurprised to see Woolsey and Radek. He was not overly surprised to see Jack Carter either as Atlantis had taken a shine to him, probably because Jack's gene was as strong as his and O'Neill's.

O'Neill arrived moments later. "Does anyone want to fill me in? Daniel? Henry?"

Henry left Daniel speaking with the avatar, a woman dressed in Alteran clothing with a regal but bland disposition. Any answers given were direct and logical, giving hard facts only. It was like putting a term into the Google Search engine but only getting the top response, which wasn't necessarily what you meant or wanted.

Henry spoke first. "I am convinced there is a... ghost in the machine. Something that is not wholly Atlantis guiding us."

"Actually, that makes sense.... because most of those idiots out there couldn't figure out how to blow their nose even if handed a handkerchief," Rodney stated uncharitably.

"Don't hold back, Rodney," John murmured, but Rodney continued on with just a slightly scathing glance.

"And yet they've made breakthroughs that have accelerated repairs in the city."

"Sufficiently for us to bring another thousand men, women and children on-board," Woolsey added.

"And it just now corrected a flaw in the Ark, making it possible to start uploading patterns immediately," Henry grinned because John knew it meant thousands more could be brought onto Atlantis, waiting until there were resources available for them.

John was aware of Henry's plan to recreate the Ark technology on Earth to see if he could save the lives of thousands more before the planet was laid defenseless by the Lucian Alliance. He had hoped he could persuade Henry to change his mind about leaving Atlantis now Jack Carter was on-board, but the man was a humanitarian, unwilling to put his life above the lives of others.

"So why are we here?" John asked.

"Something Jack said." Henry pointed at Carter to avoid any confusion between Carter and O'Neill. "But I have a theory that's beginning to make a lot of sense." He turned to Carter. "Jack, I need you to step up on the podium beside Daniel."

"O...kay."

Looking ill at ease, he stepped up.

"Now think about what you said to me a few days ago. How your thoughts keep turning to-."

The Avatar began to distort, the Alteran woman fading out as another shape began to form in her place as a patch of shimmering light. Tall and most definitely male.

"Nathan?" Jack looked both shocked and choked as the image coalesced further into a tall, dark-haired man with a well-trimmed beard and shining green-blue eyes. Henry was grinning as if seeing a theory proved.

"Salveo, Jack."

Rodney stepped forward. "Isn't that Nathan Stark? I thought he was dead."

"So did I," Henry stated softly.

Jack choked a reply. "I was there when it happened. He... disintegrated into sparkles of light, and vanished."

O'Neill stepped forward, eyebrows twitching meaningfully. "Daniel? Doesn't that sound kind of familiar?"

"Ascension?" Rodney answered, but Daniel added, "Or something close."

Jack looked at the avatar of Nathan Stark warily. "How do we know it's really him?"

The avatar rolled its eyes. "Jack, tu prorsus ilithium."

Henry laughed loud but warmly while Daniel and Rodney smirked.

"What? What did he say?"

"He said you're a complete idiot," Rodney answered smugly.

Jack scowled. "Oh, that's him alright."

Nathan smirked, but John could see how overjoyed he was to speak to and be seen by Jack Carter, even if it was just as a holographic image.

"Jack, dicia circumanam tu esto."

Henry translated. "He said he would see you around."

"Hic ego ani!" Nathan spread his hands.

"And here I am."

"Can't you speak English anymore?" Jack asked.

"Non Atlantus est."

"No, not through Atlantis," Daniel translated.

Jack sobered. "Nathan, I..." He trailed off, glancing away awkwardly but looked back at Nathan in shock for a moment before a smile lifted the corners of his mouth. John suspected Nathan had sent something to him alone - a word or a feeling.

"Nathan, how do we get you back?" Henry asked.

"Ignaram. Set clavia Jack."

Daniel turned to the others, looking thoughtful. "He doesn't know. But he thinks Jack is the key."

****

Rodney: A Timely Solution.

Rodney waited for Carson to finish examining Jack Carter more thoroughly using Ancient medical scanners.

"Aye, there's definitely something there."

"Not very helpful, Carson."

"A barrier, but it seems to be eroding quite naturally, though remaining compartmentalized inside his brain for now. Accessible without overwhelming him."

"Yes, but what is?"

"I think it's something General O'Neill ought to be very familiar with as it's happened to him twice before, though the Asgard took care of it both times."

Rodney looked dismayed as he turned to Henry. "O'Neill had the entirety of an Ancient database downloaded into his mind, and had to go into stasis when it reached the point where it was going to destroy him. The human brain simply isn't sufficiently enough like the Alteran's to cope."

"Except for Carter's," Carson added.

"What? Let me see." Rodney scanned the images, knowing enough about it after his brush with Ascension to read the data. "Huh! He's right. It is compartmentalizing perfectly."

"Thank you, Rodney."

"There's something wrong with my brain?" Carter asked but Rodney continued to talk over him.

"He has an entire database downloaded into his head but its like having a set of encyclopedias on a book shelf. All the knowledge known to the Ancients but it hasn't made him any smarter."

"Hey! I'm right here."

Rodney had the grace to look a little apologetic but, really, something like this was wasted on someone like Carter with an I.Q. of exactly average. Most of those of Alteran descent had genius level I.Q.'s, including the military like John, who hid his sharp, mathematical mind behind a Flyboy exterior. But Rodney had hacked John's file years earlier. He knew John had a Masters in Aeronautical Engineering and Math, similar to O'Neill, who also downplayed his intelligence. Even Lorne had qualifications in Geological Engineering.

Thinking of Lorne reminded Rodney of an amusing incident from Jack's first day, when he had given John's second-in-command a double-take and called him Andy. Of course, nothing was ever that simple and it turned out Fergus, or Fargo, or whatever his name was, had stolen a holographic image of Lorne and used it as the replacement skin for his android - Deputy Andy. The only real difference was the creepy smile - on the android, not Lorne.

Carter's daughter was highly intelligent, and Rodney suspected Carter thought she'd got that from her mother, but it was possible the closeness of his brain chemistry to true Alteran had actually handicapped him when mixed with human DNA. His brain chemistry and the Alteran database in his brain certainly explained how Carter could link esoteric pieces of information to point others at a solution, even if he wasn't clever enough to actually build or create whatever was needed.

It could also explain why Stark thought Carter might be the key.

"Rodney? The meeting?"

Rodney sighed and nodded to Henry. Stark would have to wait a little longer as the Wraith were at the edge of the Milky Way, drawing ever closer, and the Lucian Alliance was causing havoc on Earth as it turned over everything in its search for ZPMs and any planet-saving technology.

Carson was needed to oversee the pattern storage in the Ark, having abandoned using Wraith technology as they couldn't store enough patterns to make it worth the time spent building the devices. And Sam's phase generator was ready. It was the preferred option, but like Zane's shield, it relied heavily on the Lucian Alliance not sabotaging the generator to steal the technology and ZPM.

When he arrived John had saved a seat beside him as usual these days, and that lifted his spirits. Over the past weeks they'd become closer than ever, and any doubts had slowly faded until Rodney was 99 percent certain John wanted more than a platonic friendship with him. As he wanted the same thing from John, it had made him feel giddy with anticipation, but neither could spare time for their personal lives while the future of Earth lay in the balance. Once this was all over - one way or another - he knew he and John would figure this out properly.

Rodney took over the meeting from Henry, outlining the work done so far.

"Sam's phase shifter is still the best option for the same reason the cloak worked against the Wraith during the siege in our first year. If the Wraith can't find the planet then they'll move onto another."

It seemed cruel to state that out loud as the Milky Way was teeming with human life despite the destruction from the Ori and the Lucian Alliance, and some of those worlds had been allies.

"Until agents from the Lucian Alliance find the generator and ZPM."

"Can't you just shift it permanently?" Jack Carter asked.

Rodney saw several eye rolls around the table but from what he'd read up on Carter, and what he now knew about that set of encyclopedias stocked inside his otherwise empty head, there was a chance he'd picked up on something. Rodney spoke up before anyone else could say something derogatory or condescending to Carter and put him off saying anything further.

"In what way?"

"Well... You said Stark was phase shifted more than ascended. In time."

Sam's chair screeched back as she stood abruptly, mirroring Rodney, Henry and Radek.

"Is possible," Radek stated, and the four them began to talk over each other, finishing off each other's sentences as they raced from the room.

"If we use the same set of quantum equations from-."

"Walter Perkins and Weinbrenner's experiments-."

"And the additional ones from Stark and Fargo that..." Henry stopped on the threshold, holding the others back momentarily. "Jack... You're a genius."

"I am?"

Rodney was already too caught up inside the math in his head to do more than register Carter's wan response. They had a world to save and only a day left to do it.

****

John: Out of Time.

John raced to the control room when the klaxon sounded.

"What have we got?"

"Two Ori warships are approaching the Solar system."

"And the Wraith?"

"Are at the edge of the Milky Way, preparing for the final hyperjump to Earth."

"How long till they get here?"

"Two hours, thirteen minutes."

John chewed on his lower lip. It was going to be a close call. Even now their main scientists were deep in Cheyenne Mountain, finalizing the preparations to send the whole planet out of phase into another dimension. He looked around the control room, recognizing many of the faces present. Some, like Chuck, had been with them from Day One while others like Amelia Banks had arrived during this last year. Others he didn't recognize so they could be some of the new people brought on-board over the past few weeks.

They all had one thing in common. They were focused and dedicated, allowing no distractions as the clock ticked down.

He selected the military channel, knowing the klaxon would have already sent his men into battle stations, manning the rail guns, though he hoped they would have no need to drop the shields. Lorne would be in the Chair, ready to fire drones, and it would be a simple matter of giving the order to fire.

"This is Colonel Sheppard. This is a direct command. Do not fire until I give the order."

Woolsey settled nervously beside him. "But we could take out the Ori ships. Protect Earth."

"No. We can use them to fight the Wraith if we can keep them in check for another two hours."

"By then Earth will be phased out of existence. We can't take that risk."

Henry's voice came from behind. "And if we destroy those Ori warships, we will condemn the rest of the Milky Way to the Wraith. From my understanding, these ships are stronger than anything this galaxy has, other than this city."

"Though not invincible," John added, because they'd found the weakness and had used it against the Ori ships.

However, the Wraith would not know of that weakness, so these two Ori ships could take down a number of hive ships, perhaps even make the Wraith back off altogether. After all, the Wraith knew Earth was just one world out of many to feast upon in this galaxy.

Woolsey turned to Henry Deacon. "Henry? A word, please, in my office. General?"

John barely acknowledged them leaving, too focused on his duty to his men and the city. He tried not to let anything distract him but Rodney hovered at the edge of his thoughts. At the moment, Rodney was still on Earth and John wouldn't relax until Rodney was back on Atlantis where he belonged.

The Phase generator was almost in place, and Rodney had come up with a brilliant means of activating it using one of the ZPMs connected to Atlantis. It meant they didn't have to lose a ZPM to Earth.

John glanced around the control room again, listening in on the chatter as everyone made final preparations.

It was as if everything was falling into some preordained plan because Jack Carter's 'set of encyclopedias' was more accessible to him than anyone believed possible, though it worked best when he was on the podium in the Hologram Chamber, connected directly to the Atlantis Avatar, or rather to Nathan Stark. Atlantis called him 'Clavia', which meant 'Key', and having Stark as a ghost in the machine had worked in their favor too, speeding up requests for information while Jack came to grips with his newly found skills.

It hadn't made Jack any smarter, but it had given him a undisputed place in the city, negating all the rumors of Stark blackmailing everyone for Jack's inclusion. All Stark had done was point the Atlantis A.I. at Jack and she - Atlantus - had done the rest upon recognizing the Artifact sealed inside Jack's head - her long-awaited Clavia.

Rodney still considered himself the greatest mind in multiple galaxies, but he was deliriously happy to have other almost-as-brilliant minds to fire ideas off. John had seen him shine even brighter during his interactions with Radek, Zane, Henry, Sam Carter, and to a lesser extent, Nathan Stark - though only because Stark could only respond in Alteran, mostly translated through Daniel Jackson. John had a feeling there would be epic battles of will ahead for Rodney and Stark, but he knew Rodney thrived on it.

Thinking of Jackson moved his thoughts to O'Neill, who had returned from Woolsey's office and was standing just a few feet away, allowing John to run the show and offering advice occasionally. John liked O'Neill, considering him the best C.O. he'd worked under in all his years in the military. O'Neill was... flexible in his thinking, likely from all the years leading SG-1 into alien situations and unknown dangers where he needed to think fast on his feet. O'Neill had learned to trust the people around him, just as John had learned to trust and believe in the skills of Rodney, Ronon, and Teyla: his team.

Teal'c had chosen to come with them and his arrival was imminent, and John had requested Atlantis's first stop should be the Pegasus galaxy to right a few wrongs, charge a few ZPMs, and see if Teyla and Ronon were interested in joining him and Rodney in this new adventure. He'd hated losing them when it looked like the I.O.A. would never allow Atlantis to head back to Pegasus, but Teyla had left her family behind in Pegasus: Torren and Kanaan. She and Ronon had hitched a ride to the edge of Pegasus on a Tel'tak fitted with a hyperdrive, an unexpected offer pushed through by O'Neill.

The Daedalus and Apollo were handling the last minute exchanges of personnel, and John had mixed feelings about some of the losses.

Admittedly, he'd never really got along with Jennifer, mostly because of his feelings for Rodney, but she was a brilliant surgeon. However, she'd never been cut out for all the danger they'd faced in Pegasus, so she'd elected to go back to Earth now there was a way to make the planet safe. Atlantis hadn't fallen short for medical doctors though as both Carolyn Lam and Allison Blake were staying to head up separate departments with Carson as their Chief Medical Officer.

John had to admire Allison Blake. It had to be one of the weirdest love triangles he'd encountered, and she'd taken most of the day to come to her decision after Stark made it very clear to her that he was choosing Jack. John wondered if Kevin Blake's determination to stay with his adoptive and step father had any bearing as in the end as she'd decided to stay so her children would grow up knowing their fathers.

"Apollo to Atlantis. Permission to land."

John nodded to Chuck and the shielding around the East pier receded sufficiently for the Apollo to land. Eventually he hoped they'd figure out a way for the Terran-Asgard ships to pass through the shield.

"Permission granted, Apollo," Chuck stated before adding, "Wraith ships are in hyperspace. ETA one hour 45 minutes. Ori warships are holding position just beyond Saturn."

"Sir, there's been an attack on the White House put down to the Lucian Alliance. President Hayes has just released a worldwide communication." Amelia turned in her seat. "And he's requested the transmission of all technical schematics for the shield, phase shifter and Ark technology to all worlds."

Henry Deacon stepped up. "Do it."

Amelia looked to Woolsey, who nodded, so she started the transmission.

Woolsey stepped up closer. "John, it's been a pleasure working with you, but I'm heading back to Earth while I still can. Henry Deacon is replacing me."

John felt stunned for a moment before reaching out a hand awkwardly; it was grasped firmly.

"Richard-."

"Good luck, John, and please extend the same to Doctor McKay and the others."

John snapped to attention and saluted crisply, not surprised to see O'Neill and others do the same. He felt tears prickling at the back of his eyes but he understood. Woolsey had grown into the job from a shaky start but his love had always been for Earth and its politics - and he missed his dog.

"I've left my cigars and that good bottle of scotch on the desk for you."

Before John could answer, the Asgard transporter beam grabbed him, and Woolsey was gone.

"Sir, the Phase Shift generator is in place, and Doctor McKay is back on-board along with his team."

Something inside John unclenched as he acknowledged Chuck, knowing Rodney was safely back on-board, but there was still work to do and time was running out.

"Rodney, how long until Phase Shift?"

"I'm working on it."

"May I be of assistance, Doctor McKay?"

"Deacon? I thought you'd gone." There was a pause, probably while Rodney took in the full meaning. "Yes, yes. Get down here now. Tell that idiot, Carter, I need the information from... No. Not Sam Carter, the other idiot..."

John could hear Radek calling Rodney a 'miserable man' as Rodney finally remembered to close the connection, and he had a feeling both Carters would be ganging up on Rodney. Henry smiled broadly, sharing his mirth with John before he headed off, eager to be where he could be of most use right now. The whole exchange had lightened John's thoughts for a moment, before Chuck spoke up.

"Ori warships are moving at sublight speed towards Earth."

"ETA?"

"Fifteen minutes."

"Damn," he murmured.

He had hoped they would turn away now they had what they had come for, except the schematics would have revealed the need for immense amounts of power. The Ori ships had an equivalent to a ZPM powering them but once they were cut off from the Ori galaxy, any means of recharging them had disappeared. They would want ZPMs and Atlantis was the only known source in this galaxy.

"Rodney? We're running out of time!"

"Daedalus to Atlantis. Permission to land."

Once again John nodded and Chuck relayed instruction, receding the cloak on the South pier. This was it. As soon as the Phase Shift generator was engaged, Atlantis needed to make a wormhole jump to stop the Wraith from tracking her.

"I'll take over from here, Colonel. Head to the Chair."

"Yes, sir," John replied to O'Neill, knowing Rodney would be racing towards the Chair control room as soon as Earth had phase shifted.

He wished he'd be able to see it with his own eyes, wanting to take one last look at the planet of his birth, knowing it would be lost for thousands of years - if not forever. Duty came first though, so he ran down the main staircase heading for the lower corridor. John was surprised when he almost ran into Rodney coming from the opposite direction.

"John!"

"Rodney? We need to get to-."

"We have a few minutes to spare, and some things need to be witnessed."

John recalled this window overlooking the city from the first day on Atlantis. He'd stood here beside Rodney as the shield holding back billions of tons of water slowly collapsed, before the city rose to the surface when it reached a critical level. Atlantis had cleared the dark side of the moon and Earth hung like a blue-white marble in the sky. He could make out North America between the striation of clouds.

Beautiful.

Rodney tapped his radio and gave a single order. "Engage."

Before them, Earth shimmered momentarily, and then she was gone. Safe.

As a weight of fear and concern lifted off his shoulders John turned to Rodney, took his face in both hands and kissed him. "You did good, Rodney."

"Yes. Yes, I did," he murmured before kissing John back with all the passion John had longed for over the past years.

"Sheppard, the Ori warships have joined the Lucian Alliance fleet, and are heading straight for Atlantis." There was a pause. "And so is the Wraith armada," O'Neill added sarcastically.

Someone had miscalculated the time it would take the Wraith to jump to Earth.

"On our way to the Chair now."

Everything was already set up and John sat down quickly, the Chair reacting to his sense of urgency and reclining smoothly, lighting up the panels surrounding it.

"Wormhole drive coming online."

"Rodney, I'm not connecting."

A call came over the radio from Jack Carter. "Nathan's on it."

Rodney followed the information scrolling across the screen from Stark. "Got it," he yelled triumphantly, typing furiously.

"Increasing shield density."

He could feel the bombardments as the Wraith began to fire on both Atlantis and the Lucian Alliance ships, and could see the retaliating fire from the Ori warships.

"Wormhole drive engaging," John added, focusing everything onto the incredible drive built by Rodney and Radek.

He could feel the city vibrating beneath him, compensating quickly as fresh information slid into his mind through the Clavia - Jack. His innate pilot's skills and his experience flying the city were sorely tested as he banked the city round, feeling space crackling around them as a wormhole opened.

Atlantis jumped.

****

Jack: Clavia Amatus.

Jack swayed as the city jumped back into hyperspace abruptly, grasping hold of the podium. This was second wormhole jump since leaving Earth a week earlier. The first was to the Pegasus galaxy where they'd checked in on a few allies and convinced Ronon, Teyla and some of the Athosians to come with them, and now they were heading onwards, following Destiny's path in the hope of one day catching up with those stranded on-board.

"Jack?"

Daniel was by his side immediately though the worried cry had come from Nathan. He held up one hand.

"I'm okay. Just got to remember to take a mental step back. It makes my brain hurt."

"Too easy," Nathan stated in English with a smirk.

Jack rounded on him in exasperation. "You know, I think I liked you better when I couldn't understand a word you were saying."

"Could you ever?"

It took Jack a moment to get the insult, and he sighed heavily, but couldn't resist grinning at the jab. He'd missed the insults from this man.

Jack had found the key to translating basic Alteran to English, and between McKay, Henry, and the other scientists, they now knew how to bring Nathan all the way back into this dimension. Jack could sense Lorne was in the Chair, gaining experience on flying Atlantis rather than relying solely on John Sheppard. His mind worked slightly differently as his ATA gene was not quite as strong, but Jack compensated for the difference as he 'interfaced' with Atlantus.

Once Atlantis had settled onto this course, heading away from the Pegasus galaxy, Rodney and Henry had agreed to bring Nathan back.

"Are you sure you want him back?" Daniel murmured, and Jack deliberately pulled a 'thinking about it' face just to rile Nathan, before smiling softly, staring straight at Nathan.

"Yeah, I'm sure."

The sweet moment was broken by the arrival of Rodney and the others. Jack watched as Henry, Zane, Sam, and Radek began setting up the equipment while Rodney fussed around on his laptop. A few others came in, and Jack left the podium to greet Allison, who had arrived with Carson and a small medical team. He took her hands.

"This thing with Nathan doesn't mean... I'll always be here for you, Allison, and for the kids."

She leaned in and kissed his cheek softly. "I won't say I'm completely happy, but as Henry is fond of saying, everything turns out the way its supposed to be."

"Are you ready to do this?" Zane asked, and Jack nodded, aware he had a small part to play in getting Nathan back.

Rodney stepped up and asked, airily, "Are you sure about this, Stark? You'd be far more useful if you stayed in there."

Nathan raised both eyebrows, smiling. "I'm sure I'll be just as useful as you in corporeal form, McKay."

Jack exchanged a smirk with John Sheppard as Rodney scowled. They had decided to let the arrogant scientists battle it out between them, well aware both loved a good verbal sparring. Plus Jack decided it would be good payback on Rodney for calling him an idiot all the time, just because he didn't have a zillion I.Q. points. But then, Rodney called everyone an idiot, including Henry and Sam Carter, so Jack couldn't really take offense. He noticed Rodney was staring at him impatiently.

"Would you like me to go get a sandwich while I'm waiting?"

"Rodney, play nice with the other kids," John murmured, his words barely audible to Jack.

Jack returned to the podium, allowing the A.I., Atlantus, to delve into his mind and find the information needed, relaying it to the screens on the equipment present. Zane began to read out numbers and things that made no sense at all to Jack but as his voice sounded relaxed, Jack figured it was all good so far.

"Stabilizing power fluctuations," Henry stated. "But I'm seeing a rise in-."

"Compensating," Sam interrupted, fingers flying over her laptop.

Rodney stopped what he was doing and glanced up at Nathan. "This is it. All or nothing."

"Do it," Nathan ordered, making Jack fearful for the first time, as no one had mentioned an 'all or nothing'.

Nathan locked his eyes on Jack, just as he had on that fatal day in the time laboratory, but this time there was no denying the feelings hanging between them. This time Jack knew he was important to Nathan. 'Clavia essentia meus', the key to his heart and soul. He held Nathan's eyes, a soft litany of 'Please, please,' running through his mind as he put his faith in the exceptional group of people around them.

There was a flare of light, glowing more brilliantly around Nathan as billions of sparkles of light began to coalesce. The transparency of the holographic figure began to cloud, growing more solid until, suddenly, Nathan was there, stepping forward to leave the Avatar of Atlantus behind in his place.

Daniel gripped Jack's arm when he made to leave the podium and race to Nathan, murmuring, "Not yet," and gripping tighter still when Nathan buckled.

John surged forward, grabbing Nathan before he hit the floor, with Carson and Allison only seconds behind. Jack waited on the podium with Daniel, tense with worry but after a moment the small crowd parted and he could see Nathan seated on the floor, looking dazed but wonderfully alive and whole. Daniel released his tight hold and Jack rushed over, dropping to his knees beside Nathan, joyful when he felt Nathan's warm hand against his cheek.

"Welcome back," he murmured softly, resting his forehead against Nathan's, and breathing in his solid presence.

****

Henry: Journey's Beginning.

Henry stood on the balcony outside the control room staring through the shield into space as the stars streaked past. So much had changed in the last week, though he considered mostly those changes that had affected him personally.

Once they realized it would be possible to push Earth out of phase permanently, needing only to use the power of the ZPM once to achieve that state, some of those on Atlantis had asked to go back home. Others further down Grant's list had begged for a chance to replace them, or be uploaded into the Ark for when the city had the resources to release them.

Surprisingly, Grant had opted to stay on Earth, but he had a multi-billion dollar business providing him with everything he needed, and so many discoveries still to make on Earth without the inherent dangers of space. Grant planned to create a monument that would last through the millennia, in the hope the story would not be lost to legends and myths. He had hopes of Atlantis returning far in the future, once the Wraith were no more, and finding the Lost World, bringing Earth back into phase with the rest of the universe.

When Woolsey had been one of those asking to return, happy to put a space-faring life behind him so he could concentrate on the more mundane diplomacy and organization back on Earth, he'd offered up Henry's name as his replacement to O'Neill. As Henry was no longer filled with guilt at leaving billions behind to suffer under the Wraith, he had readily agreed.

This was the life he had always dreamed of for himself. A chance to explore the universe and increase his knowledge. This was his opportunity to head to the stars and make sense of everything the cloned version of Kim had brought back encoded into her DNA. And he could have all of this while surrounded by his friends and loved ones; his family.

O'Neill had talked of retiring to fish his pond but surprised them all by staying on Atlantis in an advisory capacity, preferring to leave the day-to-day command of the military to John Sheppard. Henry had a feeling O'Neill's decision had more to do with Daniel Jackson's insistence on staying. O'Neill had made sure Sheppard was promoted twice in quick succession - once to Full Bird Colonel by a grateful President Hayes the day before they activated the shield, and then a further field promotion to Brigadier General a week later, to ensure John outranked all other officers on Atlantis - except for him.

Both of Earth's remaining spaceships were docked on the massive piers, no longer of any use to a world in another plane of existence. Henry was sure they'd be put to good use on the journey ahead. They also had the Astraeus, Eureka's prototype that had been outfitted with a modified version of Rodney's wormhole drive and the Asgard beaming technology for instantaneous travel over short distances. Grace was its commander when not working directly with Radek.

Henry had already divided up the sciences into sections, and although Rodney had acted a little miffed at the reduced responsibilities and the implied demotion from Chief Science Officer, he was secretly pleased to be able to foist all the paperwork off on someone else and focus on 'real work'. The same applied to Nathan, who finally understood why Henry had been so mad at him for climbing the political ladder instead of honing his brilliant mind into creating something beautiful for the benefit of all. Of course Rodney and Nathan's areas overlapped so there would be sparks flying occasionally, but Henry was looking forward to seeing what was created from those fiery exchanges.

He heard the door slide open behind him and smiled when Jack leaned on the balcony next to him, taking a moment to gaze at his best friend and see the awe in Jack's eyes as he gazed up at the streaking lights.

"Not sure this will ever get old," Jack said before looking at Henry, smiling. "I still can't wrap my head around it."

Henry laughed softly, sending out a quiet thanks to the universe for his friend's presence at his side.

Jack had been the key - the Clavia - just as Nathan said, and not just a key to saving Earth but to bringing Nathan back into corporeal form. He thought of them both fondly, glad they had finally come to their senses and realized they were meant to be together. He knew the same could be said of John and Rodney, who had asked him to perform his first joining ceremony as a Celebrant on Atlantis. It was an honor he was more than willing to perform, celebrating love in all its varied forms.

This city was filled with brilliant, special people. Every single one of them a bright light that would help guide them forward. he knew this was just the start of a new adventure - for all of them - and Henry was looking forward to an incredible journey with this amazing group of people beside him.

END

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Exodus Art by Penumbria 01    Exodus Art by Penumbria 02