John Sheppard pushed his glass back and forth between his hands, the condensation making the wooden table beneath his wrists slick and shiny. The drink - he didn't know what it was called, something foreign and alien his tongue would have as much trouble pronouncing as it did withstanding the aftertaste - sloshed brightly against the sides of the glass. John picked his glass up and took another swig, using the motion to check who had walked through the door without being obvious.
It was no one he recognized, no one who was looking for him either, and John returned his attention to the sensation of burning that traveled from his throat all the way down into his stomach. Kavanagh, the bar owner, was an arrogant son of a bitch, but he did know his alcohol and always sent something new John's way when John sat down at his table at the back of the bar. John paid his bar tab in non-traditional ways, most of which involved the attraction of more shady types of cliental that needed a hidden place to discuss business that couldn't be spoken of on the city streets or in its more upstanding meeting places.
"Are you, are you John?"
John turned and stared at the man who was standing a few feet away. He raised an eyebrow at the kid, because he couldn't have been more than twenty and had a backpack slung over one shoulder. He was tall, lanky, and was the very epitome of a gawky university student who had yet to grow into his new found height. "Who's asking?" John asked when the kid continued to stare at him with wide eyes.
"Detective Lorne said you'd say that." The kid grinned brightly and sat down across from him like John had offered him a seat. "I'm David Parrish. I go to UNA; I'm doing my doctorate in the xeno-botany program."
"Uh huh," John said, letting his disbelief show openly. Lorne worked the University of New Atlantea beat - UNA to the locals - and occasionally sent someone his way when John could help them more than the police department could, not that Lorne would ever admit in words that the police were helpless in many situations in New Atlantea.
"Don't worry, I can pay you, if that's what you're worrying about," Parrish continued as if John had said something more substantial.
John took another gulp of his drink as he thought of exactly what he was going to say to Lorne about sending a university kid into a bar like Kavanagh's. It was like sending a kitten into a Goa'uld Hive Ship, or a lamb into a Genii stronghold. There were some things that just weren't done. "You can pay?" John asked skeptically, eyeing the kid again. People who could pay didn't come to people like him for help, it was the way of things. People who could pay went to real detectives, not ex-military deadbeat private investigators who lived out of their offices because they couldn't pay rent on an apartment.
Parrish flushed, visible even in the dim lighting in the bar. "Well, not a lot. Student loans and all that, but I have some money put away and this is important. Detective Lorne said you might be able to help me, that you know people who deal in, well, unconventional items."
"He said that, did he?" John asked, silently cursing Lorne again. It was true, John knew people that dealt with unconventional items of all kinds; weapons and alien technology were only the tip of the iceberg. But what truly made John useful as a private investigator, and let him make the meager living that he did, was that he could find things and people in the city. It was like he had a sixth sense, an uncanny talent that helped him stumble into exactly what he needed to see.
"Detective Lorne did everything he could, and he said he's still investigating, but he thought you might have a better idea of who would be dealing in such things," Parrish said, looking at the glass between John's hands and then around the bar like he just realized where he was.
"Alright, out with it," John said, knowing that he would probably take the case. Something about people wandering around like they didn't even see the world around him made John want to help; he knew too many people like that for his own personal comfort. "What is this 'unconventional item' that you need?"
"Two, two items, actually," Parrish said, looking into John's eyes. "The first is a data drive that has my research on it. It was taken from the lab at UNA. Naturally I had the data backed up on other drives, but all of the files have been corrupted somehow."
John nodded, already going through his list of contacts in his mind that owed him a favor that might be willing to at least take a look at the corrupted data. Fixing the files they already had would probably be easier than tracking down one data drive. "And the second item?"
"A plant," Parrish said. "Can I have a drink?"
"How old are you?" John returned, raising his eyebrow again.
"Twenty," Parrish said with a shrug. "Had to ask."
John could give him that much at least. "A plant. Like drugs?"
"No!" Parrish said, a little too loudly. "No, not like drugs."
"Well, yes drugs, but not like you're thinking," Parrish amended. "My research is on a plant from Hoffa that could possibly reverse certain medical conditions that are brought on by aging. Organ failure is the primary target, but if the plant works the way my research predicts it could increase the life expectancy of most of the life forms we've encountered, including humans."
John's first thought is why would you want to do that? but he keeps that to himself. "Someone stole your data drive and your plant?"
"The plant clippings of the hybrid I've been breeding in my lab. Without them I'll have to start the process over again and it will take another year before I have any meaningful results," Parrish said, his expressive features suddenly solemn. "My scholarships won't cover another year at UNA and my student loans won't make up the difference. If I don't get my plant clippings and data back, I won't graduate. I don't, I don't have anywhere else to go."
No one came to New Atlantea if they had somewhere else they could be. "Relax. Why don't you tell me about your lab, and your plant, and about anyone you know who would be interested in stealing or sabotaging your work," John said, trying to wash out the wave of empathy he felt by finishing the rest of his drink in one swallow.
Parrish quickly shook his head. "I only share lab space with one other botanist and Katie would never do anything to sabotage my work. I can't think of anyone who would be interested in it really. Usually whenever I talk about plants people stop listening."
John sighed and signaled for another drink. This was going to be a long and painful conversation. "Let's just start at the beginning."
"Go back to your dorm, stay on campus and watch your back. I'll contact you as soon as I have something," John said as he hustled Parrish out of Kavanagh's. A rougher crowd, even rougher than usual, had started to pour in and the last time John had seen a group of Genii he had barely survived the encounter. "Don't come looking for me, understand?"
Parrish retrieved his bike from where he had locked it to a nearby lamp post. "I understand. How much money do you want up front?"
John shook his head as Parrish reached in his pocket. "Payment upon delivery. If I can't find anything, you don't owe me anything," he said. And this was why half of the time he could barely afford to eat and to arm himself. It was impossible not to know that John was a damned bleeding heart as soon as he stumbled across someone who had been screwed over and had nowhere else to turn.
"Are you sure?" Parrish asked, holding tight onto the handles of his bike as he peered at John.
John moved further away from the lamp light. He didn't need a UNA kid looking at him like he was something to be pitied. John didn't need anyone's pity. "I'm sure, get out of here kid. Go." He waited until Parrish had pedaled away, away from the docks and towards the university campus and the slightly more civilized sections of the city.
When John was certain he was alone he leaned back against the wall, the grit from the humidity soaked bricks scraping against the back of his suit jacket. With half of his attention on his cellphone he typed out a message to Detective Lorne's personal phone: you owe me - don't send kids out here again. There were a handful of contacts John could think of who might deal in stolen academic information and maybe a dozen more who would trade in experimental drugs. John had been a lot more willing to take the case after Parrish had explained that his hybrid plant had the potential to do a lot for the medical community and would have almost no use for illegal drug trade. If there was anything New Atlantea didn't need it was more off-world drug runners coming through the city.
It was late to most of the folks living and working in the city but in John's business the working hours were just starting. He had maybe thirty minutes before midnight, which would be enough time for John to go back to his office and change into clothes that were a little bit more suitable for slumming in the academic underground. With his mind half occupied with searching through people who would know anything about botany and the neon lights in alien languages behind him throwing everything in the alley into stark relief, John only barely managed to keep from falling on his face as he stumbled over something on the damp ground. He reached with one hand to steady himself and found the leather clothes beneath his fingers still warm with body heat.
"What the hell?" John asked as he tried to straighten himself and untangle his foot from where it had caught on a strap of the alien's bag. Even in the dim light John was sure this wasn't an alien he had ever seen before and he wouldn't have any idea how to check for signs of life. The alien wasn't moving or breathing, which as far as John knew wasn't a good sign in any humanoid species, and there was a massive alien gun in his hands. John rested one knee on the ground as he started working his shoe free from the strap, pausing when a small pouch came tumbling out of the bag. He instinctively closed one hand around the pouch, his other hand reaching for his phone so he could call the police dispatch when a sizzle of a projectile weapon being fired caught his complete attention.
John pulled his foot free as he rolled across the grimy concrete, taking the alien gun that he landed next to and bracing himself against the ground as he fired back. The arc of energy from the weapon was like nothing John had ever seen before, a stunning bright light that almost looked like a lightening bolt and sounded like John had brought the entire wall of the opposite building down. When John's vision cleared from the after-image he saw that he'd done no damage to the building whatsoever, but the sound of gunfire drove him back down to the ground.
He sensed more than saw his escape route, his time in the military was filled with escapes that he shouldn't have been able to make. John fired the borrowed gun twice, first directly at where the shots were being fired from and then toward the opening of the alley way, all the while hoping that no one had come yet to investigate the noises - in New Atlantea most everyone learned to ignore the sound of explosions and gunfire if they wanted to live. As soon as he fired the second shot, John rolled to his feet and started running toward the narrow gap between a building and one of the city's stone walls that was originally supposed to divide the city into sections. He slammed into the wall as the gunfire started again, gasping as he felt the lightning hot pain of being shot somewhere in the vicinity of his left shoulder.
Barely keeping his grip on the gun, John wedged himself between the wall and the building and started to climb with the faint hope that he wasn't leaving a blood trail behind. Moments later he tumbled down the other side of the wall and landed on light feet on the mossy stone path. At least his military training was useful for something. He waited, listening as whoever had been shooting at him pushed their way through the narrow space between the other side of the wall and the building and spilled out onto the joining street. The wall on John's side curved into a dead end and he crouched down and gave himself a minute with his eyes closed before he made himself take stock of his situation. The minute turned into five and then uncounted seconds as the numbness spread from his shoulder into his chest. John let the alien rifle rest at his feet and held his hand to his chest. Just a few more minutes and then he would move.
When John struggled to open his eyes, drips of water hitting first his forehead and then just above his lips, his first thought was to curse out the landlord who had promised he had finally fixed the patch in his ceiling that leaked when it stormed. It rained a lot in New Atlantea and John had resigned himself to forever dancing around nearly full buckets of water on his floor half of the year. His second thought was to wonder if he'd been shot and had managed to stumble back to his office and pass out there because as the numbness in his arm and chest was wearing off he could feel the steady burn of torn skin and muscle.
John opened his eyes. Nearby a door opened, light and noise spilling into the narrow alley as someone emptied a bucket out their backdoor and closed the door with a slam. Apparently John wasn't the only one with roof problems. He shrugged his shoulder and tipped his head back against the wall behind him as sparks danced in his vision. Right now, not dying in a back alley took slight precedence over his slacker landlord. On the bright side, if there could be a bright side to waking up in an alley without even a hangover, if he was going to bleed out he probably would have done it already.
After rolling his shoulder gingerly and deciding that nothing was broken, John pushed himself to his feet and leaned against the wall as he took stock of the situation. He pulled his cellphone out of his pocket to check the time; it was now half past midnight - he'd lost about an hour judging from his last sent text message. Depending on how serious the guys who'd been shooting at him were, they were most likely still be looking for him. John had the giant alien gun, his own 9mm Browning in a holster at the small of his back, and somewhat limited mobility in his left arm. In the minimal light of the alley John couldn't tell how bad the wound looked or how evident it was that he'd been shot, but he figured that it was probably pretty obvious. Either way, running around with an alien rifle the length of his arm would attract the wrong type of attention. The last thing he needed tonight was to call Lorne to bail him out of jail for running around with illegal weapons. What John needed was a safe place, somewhere close and with someone who wouldn't be put out by the sudden arrival of a wounded man on the run.
John started walking down the alley, keeping the gun close to his side so that it wouldn't be obvious what he was carrying from his silhouette. The alleys were a never ending maze, a constant curse to local law enforcement and a blessing for those who could walk the passages in their sleep. New Atlantea had always been like an open plain to John. The twists and turns of the city had never fazed him and in return he was able to do something useful for once in his life. With his military discharge he couldn't apply to the local police force, but when Lorne and a handful of local deputies realized that John could help, John had felt something fall into place for him. New Atlantea was home, dangerous and damned, but home nevertheless and it never led him astray for long.
A smile that was more like a grimace stretched John's lips as he looked at the doorway where his feet had taken him. It was perfect. Carson owed him, would owe him for a long time after John had gotten him out of that debacle with the Genii, and Carson was no stranger to people showing up bleeding on his doorstep in the middle of the night. There was a second buzzer, hidden near the doorknob, and John pressed it and moved so that he could be seen in the light that briefly shown down from the window above.
"Ach, John. What have ye done now, lad?" Carson Beckett said as soon as he'd let John inside and shut and locked the door behind him.
"Got shot, passed out in an alley," John explained as he set the alien gun and his own 9mm on the table near the door. Carson didn't let people bring weapons further than his front door, though John knew there were stashes hidden in every room of the dwelling. John kept the knife at his ankle - Carson knew it was there and he knew John wouldn't go any further without it.
"Were you followed?" Carson asked, losing most of his acquired accent as he reached for a hidden wall panel.
John shook his head. "Nope, they lost me when I passed out. See, my cunning plan and everything."
Carson tutted and led John into the kitchen that doubled as Carson's main treatment room. It took the two of them a few minutes to peel John's jacket off and then his shirt. There actually wasn't much blood, the bullet must have grazed him, and John sat on the table while Carson set out his supplies.
"I assume the rather impressive rifle you were hauling with you has something to do with your injuries," Carson said as he examined John's arm and prodded the tissue surrounding the wound.
"Yeah, I thought we talked about you not asking questions anymore. The less you know," John said, slightly fascinated by the way that he couldn't feel Carson's touch at all. The rest of him was slightly panicked. That wasn't what being shot usually felt like in John's experience.
"You said you passed out? Numbness spreading from the wound?" Carson asked, frowning as he stepped back. "Did the weapon you were carrying cause this wound?"
"Carson," John said, a warning in his tone.
"I only ask because I've seen two others with those symptoms in the past week. One was on a body where the shot shouldn't have been fatal, but there was some type of electrical or chemical disruption dealt by the impact of the bullet that paralyzed the surrounding tissue," Carson said, getting to work cleaning John's wound.
John sighed. At least the numbness made the cleaning and bandaging a lot less painful. "Not the weapon I was carrying. That one shot lightning or something. So, we're looking for guys carrying guns with stunning bullets or something. That's a new one."
Carson shook his head. "They need to get those off the street. Whoever shot you is looking for something, information from what I've been able to gather, and I would suggest that you lay low until they're done."
"I need a jacket and a bag for that rifle," John said as soon as Carson finished wrapping the bandage. "And as soon as I'm gone I need you to use a burner phone to call in a dead alien, I'll write down the coordinates for you. Body probably won't be there by now, but there should still be some evidence that there was a firefight."
"And no one listens to the suggestions of the doctor, why am I not surprised," Carson said to himself as he walked from the room.
John slid off the kitchen table and pulled his shirt back on. The blood on the shoulder was mostly dry and the hole only around the size of a golf ball. John had wore worse, though he left his tie and his ruined suit jacket on Carson's table. There was a pad of paper on the counter and John used it to mark off the coordinates where he'd stumbled over the dead alien. "It's a war out there, doc. Someone's got to be on the front line," John called.
Carson came back with a jacket that wouldn't fit Carson but was reasonable for John. "I thought you weren't a soldier anymore?" he asked as he looked John up and down while John eased his wounded arm into the sleeve.
"I was never a soldier. I was an airman," John corrected, feeling more like himself now that he was starting to put together a plan of action. "Besides, once the war is in you, it doesn't leave. You'd know something about that, wouldn't you doc?"
"Aye, I do," Carson said as he walked with John back to the front room. "You know where to find me when they've shot you again."
John placed his holster on his hip so he could cross-draw and accepted the worn duffle that Carson dug out for the rifle. "Thanks. I appreciate your confidence."
Carson smiled, but it lacked any trace of happiness. Instead it just looked hollow, like Carson was smiling because he had once smiled and his mouth remembered that was what he was supposed to do. "If you go looking to get shot, then you will be shot. It's as simple as that."
"Thanks again, Carson," John said, conveying his gratitude with a wave of his hand. "If there's anything you need."
"I'm already enough in your debt for this lifetime," Carson said, letting John out and then shutting and locking the door behind him.
John moved through the narrow alley once more until he reached the main roads. Now that he could think clearly, the strange burning in his arm a summoning beacon of pain, he knew his next step.
Twenty minutes later John stepped into another section of the city and he automatically lost some of the tension he'd been carrying as he slipped through the misty alleys, the light rain tapering off. Of course, this was one of the most dangerous streets in New Atlantea. This was where the crime mobs and the more prominent elements of the underground set up shop. By all rights, with John's connections to the police, he should have been very unwelcome in this area, but as John walked through he received the occasional nod of a head in acknowledgement and mostly averted eyes.
There was something to be said for saving the life of Ronon, one of the major powers in the area, while sending Ford and his gang from the city. John hadn't known exactly what he was doing at the time, and the stuff that Ford had been caught up in still itched at the back of his mind, but overall it had helped John on more than one occasion. At least here he didn't have to be worried about being shot at from the shadows. This was one of the most closely guarded streets in the city. John lifted an eyebrow and touched the temple briefly as he passed the front of Athosia, a restaurant that specialized in off-world cuisine, and caught the eye of the woman standing in the front window. Teyla bowed her head in return; with that simple exchange she would know that there was something dangerous loose in the city. She would alert her people, who would alert Ronon's and so on down the line until everyone, including the police, was prepared.
John kept on down the street and followed the winding path until he was seeing smaller shops with apartments nestled overhead. This street started to run into the older section of the city, one long winding path that would eventually lead to the central spire. He turned off before he left the Pegasus quarter and a few doors down he saw the person he'd been hoping to find.
"John, you have come for dumplings, yes? Or for grilled sausages? You have not had the sausages in many weeks," Radek called, setting down his computer in favor of greeting John with a wave over the edge of his window.
"No sausages tonight, Radek," John said as he twisted so Radek could see the duffel bag.
Radek nodded and pulled down the screen over his serving window. A moment later the door creaked open and Radek poked his head out. "Fish soup, perhaps? You cannot take on the city with an empty stomach."
John huff2ed and then winced as his stomach growled. He hadn't had anything to eat at Kavanagh's bar and he couldn't remember if he'd had a meal during the daytime hours or not. "Maybe a sausage if it won't take too long," John conceded as he stepped inside the small shop.
Most of the room was taken up with Radek's food preparation areas, everything clean if not entirely neat. John sat down on one of the stools at the counter and watched as Radek moved briskly between the grill and the compartments he'd set up in the counter. "Give it a few minutes to cook, in the meantime, break bread with me and tell me what has happened," Radek said as he placed a small loaf of brown bread on the counter and cut it evenly.
John gave in and took the slice of the bread that was pushed in his direction. He wound up eating the entire slice in one breath, his hands shaking slightly as his body reminded him that being shot took more out of him than he tried to let it. Radek placed another slice in front of him along with a glass of water and waited patiently for John to regain his bearings.
"This is great," John said as soon as he managed to make himself stop eating for long enough to watch Radek take the sausages off the grill.
"How about this, you eat and I will look at what you have brought me. We will talk after, yes?" Radek asked, putting a full plate along with mustard and horseradish in front of John and gesturing to the bag John had set at the foot of the stool.
John nodded as he pulled the plate toward him. "Yeah, just don't set it off in here." He started eating, the sausages - smoked and tangy and delicious - almost burning his mouth and John didn't care. He kept half an eye open as Radek pulled his workbench down from where it folded up into the wall, hidden to anyone who didn't know Radek's true work. Radek, hiding in New Atlantea after unnamed disasters off-world that he'd never gone into detail about with John, was one of the best alien weapons experts that John had ever met. Give Radek a gun, a bomb, a weird box that looked harmless, and he could say how it worked, he could fix it if it didn't work, and he could most likely improve it too.
Radek set the duffel on the counter and opened it carefully. He peered inside and started speaking in Czech so rapid that John couldn't follow. Most of John's Czech consisted of cuss words and asking where the bathroom was, so he didn't really expect to get more than a gist anyway.
"Where is this from?" Radek asked, transferring the weapon to the workbench and pulling down a magnifier from a panel in the ceiling so he could look at the details.
"Found in on a dead alien," John said, pausing to swallow and take a drink of water. "At least, I think the alien was dead. I've never seen anything like it before."
Radek didn't look up from the magnifier, gently turning the weapon and moving to examine the business end. "I have not seen this before, I do not recognize the design, no, or many of the materials. This is what shot you, yes?"
John shrugged his good shoulder and turned back to his sausages. "Actually, I don't think so. That one is more lightening. The one that shot me had stunning or paralyzing bullets. You ever seen that?"
This time Radek did look up, considering John over the rims of his glasses. "No, though I could see how it might be possible. But I do not know of any who use ammunition as such, but then I am not the one to ask on such current affairs."
"McKay?" John asked, not quite resigned. He had figured he'd wind up at McKay's before this was all finished.
"Yes, I believe Rodney would be most likely to have that information. He might be able to tell you how it was done as well," Radek said, turning back to the weapon.
John shook his head and finished his meal. Radek wasn't easily distracted when he had new technology to examine. When John was finished, leaving his dishes next to the washing station, he reached in his pants pocket for his wallet and came out with a small pouch as well. He considered it, vaguely remembering pocketing it out of habit when he had been attacked. John opened the pouch and poured the contents into his hand.
"Ah, data crystals. The technology is not used so much here. Later, later when we understand it more," Radek said. He had glanced up to see what John was doing as soon as John had stopped moving.
"Can you see what's on them?" John asked, turning the crystals in his hand.
Radek shook his head. "I do not have a system that will read them, not in New Atlantea. And I do not leave New Atlantea. Rodney is rumored to have a system, though it is not an original. Something he built, I believe."
John should have guessed. He put the crystals back in the pouch and opened his wallet.
"No, no," Radek said, not bothering to let John consider how little he had left. "You bring me the most interesting things I have seen in months. You do not pay me, not for sausages."
"You sure?" John asked. He knew that it was hard enough for anyone to earn a living in New Atlantea and he wasn't going to take from Radek if Radek needed the money.
"More than, do not concern yourself," Radek said, waving one of his hands. "Now, go to Rodney. Let me work, and I will send a message if I discover anything that might help."
John put away his wallet and went for the door, glad to be leaving the alien rifle behind with someone who wouldn't bring down a building with it on accident. "Thanks Radek, really."
"Come more often, but go for now," Radek said absently as he went back to work.
After turning the sign on the door to 'closed' and setting the inside locks to fall in place when he left, John went back out to the main street and started the trek further into the city to McKay's Place.
John moved more quickly without carrying the alien rifle with him and it was only because of a lifetime of practice that he kept his hand from hovering near his holster. There had been no sign of anyone following him or watching him with undue interest, but John figured that would change as soon as he started making inquiries. Asking McKay about alien weapons was about as subtle as posting a billboard advertisement. McKay could keep secrets, John would bet that McKay kept a lot of secrets after his brutal dismissal from a civilian post with the military, but there were eyes and ears everywhere in that bar. Peter Grodin, the man McKay employed to take care of the bar itself, used the spies to control what information left the bar, but even Peter couldn't cover everything.
McKay's Place was closer to the heart of the city, accounting for the varied customers that wandered in. John stood in the shadows of a nearby building, watching the area for others who were also watching and waiting. When he was certain that it was just the usual eyes, no one who should be hunting him, John strolled casually across the street and went into McKay's like it was a last minute decision and not his intended destination. The lighting in the bar was bright even at the late hour. John moved to the main bar, glancing around as he went. There was a group of university students in one corner, their tables littered with an assortment of liquor bottles, coffee mugs and computer equipment. The rest of the room was occupied by smaller groups of people, most of them engaged in casual conversation, but John could see a trade or two taking place around the edge of the room.
John sat down near the end of the bar and only had to wait a minute before Peter Grodin wandered his way.
"I haven't seen you for a while, Sheppard," Peter said, his smile not unwelcoming but still slightly suspicious. "What will it be?"
"Actually, I need to talk to McKay. It's urgent," John said. He put on his most charming smile in return, though he was slightly hampered by the continuous burn of his arm.
Peter, ever observant, glanced to John's wounded arm and nodded. "Coffee?"
"Please," John said, for once glad that McKay hadn't seemed to have frequented any bars before opening his own. McKay was good at not playing by the rules and if that meant John could get a good cup of coffee in a bar, he wasn't going to say anything to change that.
A few minutes later Peter returned with a mug of coffee and watched as John wrapped his hands around the warm ceramic. "Rodney is finishing up some business. He knows someone is waiting for him, but I didn't tell him it was you." Peter tapped the palm his hand on the counter and walked away to take care of the student who had been sent with his hands full of coffee mugs from his companions.
John sipped at the coffee and decided that it was a good thing that McKay took his time doing whatever it was he was doing. The last time John had met up with McKay, they'd wound up cornered down near the docks. McKay hadn't taken to kindly to being shot at and had seemed to blame John, despite the fact that John had saved McKay's ass on more than one occasion on that little escapade. Since then McKay had refused to see John, letting Peter pass information between them when it wasn't a problem Peter could address himself. John liked Peter Grodin well enough, he was a good man and talented, but there was simply no one in New Atlantea who worked with technology like McKay did.
"Oh," McKay said as he entered the main bar and saw John sipping at his still too hot coffee. "That rat bastard. I should have known when Grodin didn't give a name."
"Hey, McKay," John said, setting down the cup and watching as McKay's face twisted through a range of emotions, starting with irritated, going through worried, and finally settling on resigned.
McKay went around the counter and stood with folded arms as he watched John. "What now? Do you have gunmen after you again? I've told you that I don't want that here. The damage form the last time took me a full week before I could reopen."
"Next time I'll try to avoid getting shot when I save your life. The Genii were after your tech," John pointed out, pulling his cup of coffee closer when McKay scowled in response.
"But Kolya was after you. If it had just been the tech they wanted, they never would have tried to kill me." McKay touched his arm where the Genii called Kolya had cut him open, the scar hidden beneath his rumpled work shirt. "Elizabeth and I almost died."
John sighed; McKay would have to bring Elizabeth into this. "Elizabeth is fine. I saw her a few weeks ago. I'm very sorry you almost died, but again, not my fault. Now, are you going to help me or am I just going to sit here until the people who shot me tonight track me to your very nice establishment?" John asked. It was an empty threat, John wouldn't purposefully lead the enemy into a room full of civilians, but McKay already seemed to think the worst of him.
McKay's eyes darted to the door and the windows. "Why don't we take this in the back?" he asked, his words forced.
"I think that would be wise," John agreed, standing and taking his coffee with him. He followed McKay through the maze of tables and caught Peter's sympathetic but pleased gaze just before they stepped through the 'Employees Only' door that led to McKay's workshop.
It hadn't changed overly much since John had last been there, computers lining the walls and counters covered with various odds and ends. John gave a friendly nod to a young woman he only knew by the name of Miko. Miko smiled back at him and silently kept working on the project she had spread out in front of her. McKay had once explained to John that he found someone attempting to hack his network and had traced it back to an open lab at UNA. There he had found Miko, a teenager who was living on the streets and had been sneaking into university classes, and he had taken her in as his assistant. McKay had couched it as not letting exceptional talent go to waste, but the way McKay had said it like it was what anyone would have done had done more to endear McKay to John than the three years he had been passing on information.
"Miko, why don't you call it a night? Go show up the UNA students out there or something," McKay said, getting a bright smile from Miko in return as she quickly cleaned up her work area and slipped out of the room with a nearly inaudible "goodnight".
There was another woman in the workshop, someone who John had never seen before, and he watched as McKay paused and seemed more interested in the woman herself than in the equations she was marking on the large board in front of her. Interesting.
The woman glanced back, her eyes tracing John's form with a small quirk of her lips. "What's with the soldier, McKay?" she asked as she tucked a strand of blonde hair away from her eyes.
"Not a soldier, just a guy," John supplied quickly.
Her eyebrows arched and her gaze went to the small lump in John's jacket where his holster rested.
"Sheppard, this is Doctor Samantha Carter. She's borrowing some lab space from me while she's in the city," McKay said as she gave John a suspicious eye.
"Sam, just Sam," she supplied and turned to shake hands with John.
"John," he said in return, feeling the corners of his eyes crease as the movement of shaking her hand jostled the wound on his shoulder. The numbness from whatever the weapon had done to him had edged off once again, which John was going to take as a good sign even with the increasing pain.
"Not a soldier, huh? Sure looks like you got shot like a soldier," Sam said, nodding to John's shoulder and turned back to the board of equations, the fluid movement revealing the bottom of her own holster strapped to her right leg as her long jacket swung open.
"Shot? You're actually shot?" McKay asked.
John nodded slowly. "I did say that I had been."
"Yes, but I thought you were just exaggerating so I would help you. Why aren't you at the hospital? Are you still bleeding?" McKay asked, his hands fluttering above the assortment of parts on his worktable like he wanted to seek out the wound and fix it. At the heart of what McKay did, he was a fixer. He solved problems and John had a certain amount of respect for that.
John eased the pouch of data crystals from his pocket and gently tossed it the few feet to McKay. "I'm fine, just a graze," John said, catching a small smirk from Sam as she kept half of her attention on them. It seemed he wasn't the only person in the room with battle experience.
McKay emptied the pouch into his hand and then looked scornfully at John. "You got shot over a handful of data crystals? They aren't even original Ancient crystals. These have been manufactured recently," he said, holding one up to the light to show how it was translucent but not entirely clear.
"I think I was probably shot because of what's on the crystals, not over the crystals themselves," John said, but McKay had a point. John hadn't really stopped to consider why he was being shot at, only that he was. It probably said something about his life that he was so accustomed to being shot at that he had disregarded the motivations of his attackers entirely. Was it really about the data crystals, or was it because he'd discovered the body of the alien who had quite possibly been murdered?
McKay shook his head as he started to look over the crystals and examine the nodes that would allow them to connect to a machine. "Well, I'm not sure how much I will be able to get off of these, my machines aren't designed to work with knock-off technology, and even with the original it can be a little hit or miss when it come to data retrieval. I'll probably have something in an hour or two," he said as he moved over to the pieced together Ancient terminal that took up an entire corner of the room.
John glanced at the time on his cellphone. It just past two in the morning and the docks the outgoing transports to off-world opened at six. If his attackers decided to flee without trying to get their data back there wouldn't be anything John could do about it once the sun had risen. "Sooner would be better," John said, easing his cellphone back into his pocket and shifting uneasily in the windowless room. He didn't think he'd been tracked, but there was no true way of knowing if he had. It left him with the uncomfortable dilemma that haunted most of his time in New Atlantea: Was it safer for the people around him if he was there to protect them or was he better off going to ground and letting McKay contact him?
"Yeah, it's always sooner," McKay muttered as he returned to his worktable and considered the objects there with a frown.
"I could take a look if you'd like?" Sam offered, the tip of her marker leaving streaks on her fingers as she considered the Ancient terminal.
McKay shook his head. "No, you're doing your thing and then you're leaving. Not that I don't appreciate having you around, but I don't actually appreciate having you here. Bad enough with his kind cluttering up the space."
Sam rolled her eyes but went back to her own work without responding.
John sat down across from McKay and found the energy to smirk. There was absolutely something going on there and while John wouldn't say anything about it with Sam present, it was good information to have for later. "Oh, so what do you know about stunning bullets?" John asked, shrugging his shoulder gingerly.
"Stunning bullets?" McKay repeated with a skeptical frown.
"Yeah, like after you've been shot it releases some kind of paralyzing agent into your body, even if it wasn't a solid hit," John said.
McKay frowned. "Well, I could see how it could be done, and why, but no one I know of uses them."
"It's not a paralyzing agent," Sam said, her marker clattering to the tray on the board. "It's not a chemical at all, actually. You've seen one of these weapons?"
John frowned when he saw that Sam's face had gone pale and drawn. "I was shot with one of those weapons. What the hell is it?"
"Where? When?" Sam asked, pulling out a cellphone from her pocket and starting to type rapidly.
"A few hours ago in an alley halfway across the city. There was a dead alien, the whole works. Now what the hell is going on?" John asked, noticing that the handgun in the holster wasn't the only weapon Sam was concealing under her long jacket.
Sam looked up from her phone. "I've contacted my team, they'll be here shortly. McKay, we need the information that was on those data crystals."
"And like I said, it will take at least an hour or two. I'll do what I can to speed it along, but there's not much to do but wait for it to finish," McKay said with a scowl as he got up and went back over to the Ancient terminal. "And, for the record, I wouldn't mind an explanation as well."
"It could just be a coincidence," Sam said as she walked the perimeter of the room and used the peephole in the corner of the room to peer out into the main area of the bar.
John shook his head. "It's never a coincidence. If you are what I think you are, you know that."
Sam gave a short nod and walked over to the table. "Tell me more about what happened and I'll tell you what I know."
"Hey, I was the one who got shot, I think I have a right to know what I was shot with," John said, smiling as disarmingly as he could. "But in the interest of good faith, I fell over a dead alien, got shot at, grabbed the pouch, and shot back. I never saw who was shooting at me, seeing as I was running for my life at the time."
"Good," Sam said, digging through a pile on the table until she found a notepad and a pen. "Can you give me a sketch of what the alien looked like? Anything you can remember would help."
John took the pen, mouthing good? to himself. "What was I shot with?"
"If it's the weapons I've encountered before, it's a combination projectile-energy pulse rifle," Sam said, returning to the peep hole for a moment before starting to walk through the room again.
"Isn't that overkill?" McKay asked from the terminal, his upper torso almost completely encased in the machine as he worked.
"Not for the Wraith," Sam said. "Most of them are dedicated to being the most lethal hunters in the known galaxies."
"Most of them?" John asked at the same time as McKay pulled his head out to ask "More lethal than the Goa'uld?"
Sam glanced at McKay. "Yeah, more lethal than the Goa'uld. The Goa'uld care about power and wealth. The Wraith only care about killing and feeding."
John held up his sketch, the details all the best he could make out in the dim light of the alley. "This is a Wraith?"
Sam and McKay both joined John at the table to look at the drawing. "That's a Wraith," Sam confirmed. She pointed at the insignia on the Wraith's leather sash. "You're certain that's what that looked like."
"I am," John said. He could remember the outline of that metal piece digging into his chest as he hit the ground when the first bullets started to fly.
"That's not good. This is one of Michael's soldiers," Sam said, touching the side of the paper with a deepening frown. "Michael is leading a small group of Wraith who don't want to feed on other lifeforms in order to survive. If they are being attacked here, on Earth, then that means Michael's plans have been compromised."
"Could you define 'feed on' in this context?" McKay asked and John nodded because he was more than a little curious about that himself.
Sam took the paper from John and started to draw. "The Wraith have these suckers on the palm of their right hands. They press it against someone and suck their life out until all that remains is a husk of a body. The process only takes minutes."
John leaned forward and stared at the hand Sam had drawn. It was grotesque and something about the whole idea filled John with an almost frightened revulsion that he had been so close to the feeding hand of the dead Wraith soldier without even knowing it.
"Oh, that's all," McKay said, the slight shake of his voice ruining the sarcasm. There was a beep from the Ancient terminal and McKay walked away with a distinct slump to his shoulders. "Okay, let's see what these freaky life suckers wanted to know about. Looks like medical research. The ones that have been flagged are an experimental treatment by a Doctor Beckett and some drug research by a guy named Parrish," he said, stumbling almost unnoticeably over Beckett's name.
John stood and joined McKay at the terminal, his stomach churning at the idea that Carson could have anything to do with this Wraith business. "How much is there on Parrish?"
"Quite a bit," McKay said as he scanned through the data. "Most of it seems uncorrupted, even if there are a few sections missing."
"The drugs and treatment won't do any good without a dispersal method," Sam said as she watched the data from over McKay's shoulder. "That was what had stopped Michael from attempting to experiment on more of his soldiers. Michael himself is only partially transformed."
"Is this Michael guy here on Earth?" John asked as he pulled out his own cellphone and started typing into the notes section where he kept a file of information for if he died. Lorne would know to look.
Sam shook her head. "Michael and his allies have taken refuge a few solar systems away. He was supposed to wait for our team to contact him with more information, not to come and take the information himself."
"Sounds like someone you can totally trust not to suck the life from you," McKay said as he went through the data again. "The other crystals are less intact, so it will take longer to get the information. We're starting to look into the days time frame instead of hours."
"That's fine, that's all I needed to know," Sam said. She walked over to her board of equations and took several pictures with her phone before she started to erase her work.
"McKay, can you transfer all of Parrish's work onto a external drive and keep it here?" John asked. "I'll come back and pick it up when this is all over, or I'll send a message for someone to come get it for Parrish."
"Simple enough," McKay said, reaching for a drive and then pausing. "Unless these guys are going to come in here shooting up the place?"
John shook his head. "No shooting, just a university kid whose work was stolen."
McKay's expression softened and he nodded. "Come yourself so I know I'm not just giving this to anyone. Actually, come so I know you didn't die in this stupidity."
"If I can't come, I'll send Detective Lorne in my stead," John promised. Sam was almost to the door when John realized that he was looking at someone who was heading out for a fight. "Wait up."
Sam paused at the door. "My team and I will take care of this. It's best if you stay low until the Wraith have left New Atlantea."
"Like hell," John said, following her out the door and lowering his voice as they passed through the bar. "I can help and you know it."
"No way. You're already injured," Sam said, not looking back at John as she stepped out onto the street and hurried toward the docks.
The docks weren't John's favorite place in the city but he kept pace at Sam's side. "An extra pair of eyes and hands won't hurt. I know what I'm doing. And I still have a job to do. There's a plant that was stolen along with that data, and I'm thinking the plant is probably the important part."
Sam shook her head. "You really are persistent, just like McKay said. Look, I'll keep an eye out for your plant, but you're not coming with us."
"And just how are you going to stop me?" John asked, pulling his own gun as soon as he saw Sam reaching for hers. They stood mere feet apart in the opening of an alley, both of them aiming for kill shots reflexively.
John glanced away from Sam just for a moment and discovered two more people with their weapons drawn, both aiming for him.
"Nothing I can't handle," Sam replied, her aim still unflinching.
"Why don't you put that on the ground now, before there's an accident," the woman who had just joined them suggested, her gun moving slightly so that she was aimed at John's hands.
John separated his hands, leaving his 9mm in his right hand in a loose grip, and carefully leaned to the ground to put it down.
"Where are Daniel and Teal'c?" Sam asked, using the cover of her team to lean down and neatly pocket John's gun.
"Something came up," the man said, his gaze never wavering from John. "I take it we're moving up our timetable."
"Who's this one?" the woman asked, stepping closer with her weapon now resting at her side.
Sam nodded and holstered her own weapon. "This is Sheppard. He's going home now," she said pointedly.
"He is going to go get a plant from some Wraith guys, and then he's going home," John said, putting one of his hands on his hips when the movement to fold his arms pulled painfully on his left shoulder. He wasn't above pretending to retreat and then follow them stealthily, but he'd rather not get shot by friendly fire when he was a movement in the shadows they weren't expecting.
"Oh, I like him. He's got spirit!" the woman said, shaking her dark hair free from where it had fallen forward of her shoulders.
John grinned. "See, she likes me."
"That's not a point in your favor," the man said. "But you seem like you're steady on your feet. You've seen action?"
"Enough," John said, meeting the man's eyes in the near darkness.
Sam shook her head. "No such thing. Fine, since we seem to be short tonight, Sheppard can tag along. It goes like this; Vala and Cam take point. Sheppard you stay toward the back and provide cover fire. This is a simple clean out. You see a Wraith, it goes down."
"Fair enough," John said, holding out his hand. Sam hesitated for only a few seconds before she handed John back his gun with a neat flip of her hand.
"Everyone stay close. In and out should take ten minutes on the outside," Sam said and turned down the alley.
Cam, the man with strong shoulders and suspicious eyes, made a gesture for John to follow before him and John stepped in with a knowing nod. John didn't feel particularly great with having unknown elements at his back, but he figured that went both ways. He could live with it for the time being if it meant he got Parrish's plant clippings and got the Wraith out of New Atlantea.
Twenty minutes later they were at the far end of the docks and crouched down around a boarded up cellar door. Vala, the woman with dark hair, was humming almost inaudibly to herself as she picked the complicated alien locks that were tucked under the boards. John checked his gun and rolled his shoulder with a wince as he prepared to go in. If he closed his eyes he would easily feel the desert sand shifting beneath his feet as his team prepared for a mission, so John kept his eyes open and focused on the people who weren't his team. Vala's humming cut off abruptly as the locks popped open and she and Cam carefully pulled the boards and metal locks aside.
Sam gestured John over to the handle of one of the doors while she took the other, Vala and Cam aiming their shortened semi-automatic rifles at the cellar doors. Sam counted down silently with her free hand and she and John pulled back the doors simultaneously. Vala and Cam led the way into the cellar, the small room beneath the abandoned building giving way almost immediately into a tunnel.
They hadn't gone for more than a minute when the tunnel filled with the sound of weapons fire. John stood carefully to Vala's right, frowning at the discovery that it took a direct head shot or multiple hits in the central mass to take down a Wraith. He almost regretted leaving the alien lightening rifle with Radek, though he really wouldn't have felt comfortable firing an unknown weapon when there were allies who could get caught in the backlash.
"Down!" Sam shouted, her voice nearly lost in the noise. John grabbed the back of Vala's jacket just in time to pull her down and against the wall as a flash grenade was lobbed over them.
Vala pulled away as soon as they were clear, managing to spare a grateful glance to John as they continued their push through the tunnels. John noticed that Cam gave John a similar glance of appreciation and John nodded in silent acknowledgment.
They reached another open space and took out the handful of Wraith inside without any difficulty. John caught a glimpse of computers that looked similar to the Ancient terminal in Rodney's workshop. Nearby there were small containers and John took the opportunity as the others paused at the entrance of the next tunnel to reload to hurry over and peer inside. Just as he suspected there were plant clippings nestled inside water packets. John scooped them up, wishing he had something to carry them in other than his borrowed jacket. He had just taken the last of the clippings when he felt hands larger than any human hands wrap around his chest.
With a barely gasped shout of warning, John felt his knees give away at the overwhelming pain in his chest. He managed to look down and saw the pale green hand had tore his shirt open and was resting almost directly over his heart. There was nothing John could do, caught as neatly as an aimless bug in a spider's web. John had almost lost consciousness, the pain in his chest the only connection he had left to the world, when he felt it stop along with the echo of a single gunshot in a confined space. Hands, smaller than the Wraith's, grasped under his shoulders and John couldn't quite open his eyes enough to see who was carrying him.
"Ach, leave him be," another familiar voice said. John felt his wrist being turned over as his pulse was checked. "It's not everyday someone survives that."
John pried his eyes open and stared up at the stained ceiling of McKay's workshop. "Plants," he said, his arms not cooperating with his intentions as he attempted to feel for his jacket.
"The plants are safe and well, unlike some people I could name," Carson said, frowning down at John. "Plants, John? Really? I thought this was about aliens?"
"That too," John said, aware of the burning in his chest as he remembered how to breath. "Where are the plants?"
McKay entered John's field of vision. "They're in my safe, along with Parrish's data. Carter and her friends dropped you off here before they left for off-world. Said something about you being too stupid to live, but somehow you managed to do it anyway."
John doubted that's what Sam had said, but then again she had held a gun on him, so maybe he wasn't such a good judge of character. Either way, she or one of her team had saved him from the Wraith, so he wasn't too concerned with whether or not they liked him. "Okay," John said, mostly to himself, and used his hands to push himself into a seated position. He was on the big worktable, the rest of the technology pushed to the sides or scattered around in piles on the floor.
He let himself close his eyes for a brief second before he forced himself to look down at his bare chest. There was already a mound of scar tissue, red and inflamed, but no sign of an open wound. "How long was I out?" John asked, looking to where Carson was packing up his bag.
"Maybe an hour, not so long considering," Carson said with a nod to John's chest. "I don't imagine that will heal well. None of the feeding marks I've seen ever had, but I'm afraid there's nothing to be done."
John nodded, painfully aware that there was more about Carson than he had ever guessed. "Are they going to tell anyone about this? About the Wraith, here on Earth?"
Carson shook his head as he went for the door. "Afraid not. They don't want to cause a panic. It's not like it was thirty years ago, not now. Try to rest, John." He left before John could say anything more.
With a heavy sigh John slipped off the table and found the remains of his ruined shirt, well aware of McKay's eyes following him. "Just let me get Parrish down here to pick up his plants and I'll be out of your hair," John said as he found his cellphone and his empty gun set neatly next to each other with the jacket he'd borrowed from Carson.
"You could rest upstairs if you want. Just until Parrish gets here I mean," McKay said, shifting awkwardly where he stood. "The bar is closed, no one but Miko is around and she won't say anything. Carter said it might not be safe on the streets just yet, not until her team is gone."
John finished his text to Parrish with directions to McKay's and glanced around the room until he located where the small beat up couch that had been pushed back into one of the corners. "If it's not too much trouble, I could just crash on your couch for an hour or two. Parrish shouldn't be long."
"No trouble, none at all," McKay said, neither of them moving. "And, uh, thanks. Carter also said that if you hadn't come here, this probably would have been the Wraith's next stop for someone to build them a dispersal system. Having a reputation for being a genius does have its disadvantages."
John gave a small laugh that immediately sent reignited waves of pain through his chest. "Just doing my job, McKay. That's who I am. Just like you."
"Right," McKay said, finally looking away. "Right. Let me get you a blanket. Carson said you would probably sleep for a while since you're not dead and all."
John made his way over to the couch and carefully laid out so he wasn't putting pressure on his left shoulder. His ankles and feet stretched over the end of the couch but John couldn't even bring himself to care.
McKay returned a minute later and set the blanket over John, stopping before it would reach the angry wound on John's chest.
"So, how do you know Carson?" John asked as he gave into his body's demands for sleep.
"Oh, uh, well; that's actually a funny story," McKay said, sitting down on a stool near the couch.
John never did get to hear that story, his body already lost to sleep and his mind settling in the never quite forgotten memory of being seven years old and watching first contact on television; that first night when aliens landed on Earth.