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The Girl, The Gold Watch, And Everything

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THEN:

She's out on the East Pier. The Ancients, being suicidal dickheads (and not having OSHA or anything like it), don't believe in guardrails: the pier stops and the ocean starts and here in the dark it's all one long sweep. The night is cool and moonless, and the water is glassy-still. Bright stars overhead, and their mirror images below. It's like hanging suspended in space. Like the view from Apollo's bridge, but without the wall of metal and glass between her and all those countless millions of little pinpricks of light. What matters, Merry McKay thinks now, is that she's never going to see this again. None of them are.

She's usually the one who pulls the last-minute save out of her ass. Not this time. She doesn't feel the crushing weight of failure so much as she feels a faint irritated satisfaction: all this time they'd just thought "oh, McKay will think of something," and it turned out...not. That will teach them to make assumptions.

So she's here, because if this night is all the rest there's ever going to be, she'd rather not spend it in the company of idiots.

Not that it would be anything new. She'd been a late bloomer as a teenager: small for her age, emotionally several years behind pretty much everyone else (even the "slow" kids). At sixteen, she'd looked maybe ten and still thought kissing was icky mushy stuff. She'd take her superhero comics over a rom-com any day of the week, and when all the other girls were busy going out on dates and breaking curfew and buying dresses for the prom, Merry McKay had her nose buried in her DiffEq book.

(Meredith R. McKay had always been a disappointment to her mother.)

By the time Merry came to the conclusion that boys might be more than just lab partners and study-buddies and that kissing might not be so horrid after all, she'd become, well, her. And there weren't a whole lot of people in the world who wanted to kiss Dr. Meredith McKay. ('Bitch' was one of the kindest things her peers had called her, back before the boys from Groom Lake came calling. Back before Project Giza. Before Russia, Antarctica...Atlantis.)

Three hundred million light years and nothing's changed. So the upshot is (not that anyone cares), Dr. Merry McKay has never been kissed. (Not in the grown-up, romance novel sort of way, the kind of kiss that ends with—so she's given to understand—breathlessness and a pounding heart and sometimes swooning.) The first few (several) times the Atlantis Expedition faced fire or plague or Wraith or any of the other innumerable delights Pegasus holds for the unwary, Merry had found herself thinking how unfair it was that at fortymumble years of age, she was about to die a galaxy away from home, without ever knowing what it was like to be kissed.

Knowing what's going to be here in six hours (knowing that she probably won't see the sun rise over the water ever again), she thinks the reason she was thinking about something as stupid and frivolous as kissing all those other times was because somewhere, deep down, she knew they'd be all right in the end.

Not this time. But it looks as if she isn't going to be left to herself after all. She's not sure why Ronon's followed her out here onto the pier (inevitable though it was, honestly, she is not stupid.) She's not sure why he spends any time around her at all, really.

(She asked once. Ronon told her that she was one of the toughest, bravest people he knew. Merry laughed in his face. She couldn't help it.)

He doesn't speak. She doesn't turn around. They don't have that kind of relationship (don't have any relationship outside of AR-1, she tells herself firmly). Even so, she blushes (all unseen here in the dark) when she thinks of the things she used to call him. Tarzan. Conan the Barbarian. Dr. Zaius. Cousin It.

That was before Sateda, before she learned Ronon had been like her (not like her) once: a scholar and a teacher. Probably better at it than Merry ever was, because (even now, after everything), Ronon has the kindness Merry's never had. She's never asked (no reason to pour salt in old wounds), but she imagines Ronon's students loved him. Once upon a time, they probably lined up to register for his classes. She would have. (Not that she'd ever tell him.)

Knowing what he was (what he lost), she's tried to be nice (nicer) to him. She's not very good at it.

She can feel him standing just behind her, a warm, quiet shadow. She's never known what to say to him (to any of them, really, but Ronon most of all), but she knows he knows she knows he's there, and that he knows she knows he knows it (and her brain is going to get all twisted up if she unravels those fractal integrities much longer), so they just stand there for a while, staring out at the stars overhead and the stars in the water and the city shining gently all around them. (It would be nice to quote poetry at this point, but she doesn't know any. Never has.) Still, she sighs. She can't help it. She's going to miss this, if it's possible to miss anything when you're dead. (She supposes she'll find out for sure before sunrise.) (One data point she's not looking forward to collecting.)

"Doc," Ronon says behind her. He doesn't talk much, so there's at least a thousand words contained in that one syllable and she can't even begin to unpack them. His voice is rough and warm.

She turns, looks up at him. She can't really see his face in the half-light. "What?"

"Shh," says Ronon, and he leans down.

He presses his lips to hers.

They're softer than she expected, and warm. This close, he smells of sandalwood and smoke. She twines her arms around his body.

(It's not icky at all. There are stars all around them, and her heart pounds.)

#

NOW:

Her name is Danielle Alexandria Jackson (Doctor Danielle Jackson if you're keeping score, and sometimes she is) and four months ago she left Colorado Springs and her entire life behind and moved to Washington DC, where she spends her days at a nothing-special desk in a windowless office in a featureless building somewhere inside the Beltway that proudly announces to the world its name is The Aristarchus Institute. Malcolm Barrett (NID liaison to the IOA-formerly-IOC which is poised to become yet another alphabet once the curtain goes up, probably starting with "UN" this time) says it's a cover organization, Jack says it's a false flag operation, Dani doesn't care. She's writing the books she always said she was going to write (the ones nobody's ever going to read) in hopes someone will use them someday: the official narrative of Disclosure—currently set for June of 2012, as if it were a summer movie—has edited out both the Goa'uld and the Ori. (God knows what Stargate Command's been doing with 12 billion bucks each year for the last thirteen years in that case.)

She's starting to suspect she'll be really sick of Washington long before she gets to leave it.

The one bright spot in all of this (aside from being with Jack, who swears he's retiring once Homeworld is dissolved—as it will be once the Gate is public—and she only hopes retired means retired: civilian and unemployed and far from the Washington Merry-go-Round) is getting to spend time on all the things the military doesn't care about, like translating all the ancient texts deemed to be without tactical importance that they looted from the far corners of the galaxy.

And, okay, yeah, learning Ancient. Because the Atlantis expedition has spent the last five years learning to read the language with their Speak'n'Spell (which works a lot less well since she chased Morgan le Fay out of it) and their third-rate linguists have been sending Dani huffy little notes and extensive transcripts. Which now she has the time to figure out (which is better than watching the months tick down to June of 2012), and once she's got that figured out, she gets to read Janus's secret diary.

Janus was an Ancient whose obsession was time travel. He made a time machine that works perfectly well—they have it at Area 51, if it hasn't been made to disappear yet—and then decided not to use it, even though it could have averted the First Ori War, the creation of the Wraith and the Asurans, two galactic plagues, and the Goa'uld Empire. (Dani is pretty sure she doesn't understand the Ancients.)

Most of the other Ancients didn't like Janus's mad scientist act (they didn't like Merlin's road show either; standards among the Builders of Roads had certainly declined since the days when the Ancients created thirteen flying cities and a couple new sentient races), so he hid most of his work. She'd still be mourning the fact that his labs were probably all either looted by the Goa'uld or ground under the wheels of emerging post-Ra human civilization if Dr. Bogumierz Szczepansky hadn't sent her yet another database dump in the spirit of malicious completeness.

That's how she finds out that Janus-the-wingnut-Ancient had a secret lab on Atlantis. And he might have left it reasonably intact when the Ancients bailed on the Pegasus galaxy because their war-toys got frisky. (She has got to stop listening to Jack one of these days. Really.)

Of course, Janus didn't say exactly where this secret lab is.

#

She isn't the only one who sees the Atlantis datadumps, of course. Or even the only one interested in her Ancient translations, apparently. Because at about the same time that report heads up the foodchain (redaction and explication and risk-nullification and denial) she's getting a flurry of requests for all her information on Atlantis. And that's when it occurs to her that the Disclosing of Stargate Command and of offworld sites Alpha through Zeta-Eta-and-Theta should logically (as logically as anything the IOA ever does) include disclosure of the City Of The Ancients, too.

And it doesn't.

Why not?

One advantage to having started at the Pariah Level of the glorious video game that her life has become is that she doesn't bother to ask. She just digs. On the surface, it doesn't make sense: Disclosure is structured as an elaborate informational bait-and-switch. Something glamorous and useless (See the Secret Laboratories of the Stargate Builders!) is just about ideal as the kind of faux-information-dump distraction that will (so those in the corridors of power hope) keep the voters (in those countries that vote, anyway) from rising up in a justified fury against the people who've kept everything secret from them for all these years (while taking hair-raising and sometimes hare-brained risks with everyone's lives, don't forget).

These days she isn't quite sure whose side she's on. She doesn't think they could have done anything other than what they did. But she wonders, now, if they did the best they could do.

It doesn't answer the question of Atlantis, though. It should be on the IOA's agenda. She should be writing a Briefing Book about it. And it isn't. And she isn't. (Officially.)

Eventually she finds out why.

(She wishes she hadn't. Almost. But she knows what she has to do next. If she can.)

#

It takes her longer than she expects to talk Jack into letting her visit Atlantis. (Secret Ancient Lab! More exciting-yet-useless information! Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!) She swears she will use the travel time both ways to do the same work she does now (the only thing that will be different will be the sleeping arrangements, but she doesn't mention that). She almost misses Daedalus's departure. (She could've gotten around Jack in under a week, but General O'Neill of Homeworld took more convincing.)

Part of the reason he says yes, she thinks, is because she can use most of her weight allowance to bring Atlantis a few luxuries. She knows Jack's been fighting about the resupply manifests ever since he went to Homeworld (it's a piece of his job that isn't above her security clearance, thank fuck, so it's what passes for small talk), and never getting anywhere. Plenty of money for more ammo. Plenty of space, too. Nothing much for coffee and tea and pretzels and beer. Or a good bottle of Scotch.

(She knows why, now. And she hopes Jack doesn't. And not being sure is the real reason she pushes so hard for her little "pleasure trip". And maybe it's why Jack sends her off with half a dozen crates of junk food and video games. If they're both very lucky, she'll never know.)

(They've never had that kind of luck, he and she.)

#

If it had been up to her, and she'd come 320 million light years to another galaxy and a city older than human civilization, Merry thinks, she would not have decided to have staff meetings when she got there. Weekly staff meetings. Weekly staff meetings at which attendance is mandatory for all department heads.

So she has to attend, but nobody can make her pay attention. She sits and reads journal articles from the last databurst on her laptop while Dr. Weir goes on about...whatever. Meetings invariably have two topics: the state of their supplies, and the state of their alliances (and who's trying to kill them this week, so: three). And none of them is anything the Physics and Engineering Department can do fuck about. (And if it is, that's what Radek is here for, because Radek, unlike sensible people, thinks pooling one's ignorance can actually solve problems. Go, Prague Uni.)

Staff meetings are almost as much of a waste of time as mission briefings. (Why have them if you don't know what's going to be on the other side at all? Just assume there will be exciting Pegusan life forms that want to (a) kill, (b) sacrifice, or (c) devour them and get on with it. But no, the universe seems to run on endless meetings, and staff meetings (in particular), are concrete proof of the existence of Hell.) Lieutenant Aiden Ford (she wonders if they'll ever see him again, and if they'll be on the same side if they do) used to say "the devil's in the details." Dr. Meredith Rebecca McKay doesn't believe in the Devil. She doesn't need to, because on the Eighth Day, God created Dr. Danielle Jackson.

Fifteen years Merry put in at Project Giza. Fifteen goddamned years she could have spent publishing papers and writing grants and getting tenure somewhere that her name and her face and her office number would have been on the fucking website. Somewhere that more than a handful of people would have known her work. Somewhere she wouldn't have had to spend a decade and a half lying to Jean-Paul about what she was doing in fucking Virginia. (Arlington, Virginia, to be precise, in a large ugly building visible from space.) Somewhere normal. (You don't do normal, her inner monologue reminds her, and she tells it to fuck the fuck off, ta very much.)

She's pretty sure her brother never really believed she'd been teaching math to a bunch of dumb Americans at a community college. (She's pretty sure Jean-Paul knows her well enough to know she'd rather stab herself in the eye with a dull spoon.) After all, Merry's a genius, and even if she'd been the first to say so, she'd had outside corroboration. Exhibit A: the CIA—why it hadn't been CSIS, because, hello, Canadian here, she has no clue—trying to grab her right out of grade six just because she'd built a non-working (hadn't been able to get the uranium in time) nuclear warhead for the École Polytechnique de Montréal science fair.

(The science fair had been the last point at which her life had been remotely normal.)

After that, the CIA had dogged her for years—all the way through MIT (which beat UBC and Cambridge at a walk) and her postdoc work—until DARPA and the United States Air Force swooped in to chase them off, and she'd been so stunned by that she'd actually let the idiotic American lackwits get through their recruitment spiel. And after that, well...

She'd been lured by alien metals and thoughts of wormholes and the promise of problems in particle physics for which the mathematics hadn't yet been invented. Problems maybe only Merry McKay could solve.

Problems Merry McKay had been damned close to solving by February of 1995—so close she'd been scheduled to fly out to Colorado the following month and see Dr. Langford's mathom in the flesh.

Then the fucking kid showed up.

Dr. Danielle Jackson, anthropologist, wunderkind, and noted crackpot. Younger than Merry, with five or six Ph.D.s to her name (though none of them, Merry notes with an emotion somewhere between bitterness and satisfaction, in anything resembling a real science). From what Merry had heard, Dr. Langford spirited dear little Dr. Jackson away to work on Project Giza just as Dr. Jackson was being let go from the University of California (at Berkeley, which actually has a pretty decent Physics program, not that the kid gave a rat's ass about that, of course), primarily for being really goddamned crazy.

Merry had always known the universe wasn't fair, but the arrival of the kid pretty much rubbed her nose in it.

It was Merry who'd done all the fucking grunt work for almost fifteen years, all of the heavy lifting and the swearing and the kicking and the triple-checking of equations and power requirements and every other goddamn tiny little thing without which none of this would have been possible, but it wasn't Merry who finally got the fucking ring Dr. Langford's father dug up in Egypt back in the Dark Ages to work.

No, that singular honor belonged to the damn kid. Dear little Dr. Jackson makes a bunch of wild guesses and suddenly bing, bam, whoosh, and heeeere's wormhole and the Air Force idiots are getting ready to send Men With Guns through to find out what's on the other side.

Merry didn't (still doesn't, unless they're her men with guns) give a damn about men with guns, or even particularly about what happened to be on the other side of the wormhole. No, all she'd been able to think about just then was that Dr. Danielle Jackson was forever after going to be the Woman Who Opened the Stargate, and Dr. Meredith McKay would be a footnote, a minor citation, one of the people who laid the groundwork. Rosalind Franklin to Dr. Jackson's (the kid's) Francis Crick.

And that? Really fucking sucked. (Maybe she should call it McKay's Law. Rather have a physics law by that name, but at this rate, it's never going to happen, and she's going to spend the rest of her (likely unnaturally short, given the safety record of the Pegasus galaxy) life reliving goddamn secondary school. ) It was also pretty much exactly what happened.

So Dr. Jackson got the brass ring, and Merry (and the rest of Giza East, sans Doctor-Captain Samantha Carter) were packed up and sent off to a black site in Nevada to spend the next several years toiling in obscurity, running simulations while the ever-so-special Doctor Jackson basked in glory and goddamned Samantha Carter, darling of the Air Force, got to play with the wormhole and all the other cool toys besides.

Nevada would have sucked a lot less if another jackass from another of the Americans' infinite number of secret agencies hadn't been breathing down all their necks. She was never quite sure who Frank Simmons worked for, but she'd wished to hell he'd go back there. And that was before he dragged her off to Colorado five years later as some kind of expert witness. (And patsy: there'd been a lot of yelling, and Merry never admitted to anyone that Simmons was presenting one of her simulations as dead solid fact, meaning that when the real live person stuck in the Gate buffer died because of her simulation, everyone would blame her, not him.) After that came Russia, something which made Merry very much regret the employment contract she'd signed with the US Government, even if it had paid off all her student loans. (She knew who to blame for that, of course: pretty much nothing in her life had gone right since the kid came on the scene.)

She glances over the top of her tablet surreptitiously to see if it's over. No such luck. Dr. Weir is still talking. Shep looks entranced (she suspects he's actually asleep), Teyla probably is entranced (she and Weir are meeting-conducting soulmates), and Ronon smirks at her when he catches her looking. She looks back down hastily. How can being in a whole other galaxy, living in the greatest technological discovery in the whole of human history (even including fire, the zero, and coffee) be made this boring?

At least there's more to life than meetings, or she'd have shot someone by now.

Still...Atlantis. She's never been sure how her name had landed in the hopper (as far as she knew, after what Simmonds pulled, Stargate Command and all who sailed in her hated her guts, world without end, amen, and her second visit there had gone no better than the first one), but she'd jumped on the chance to get the fuck out of Russia, even if where she was going was even colder. But Antarctica was the gateway (ha and also ha) to Atlantis, and Atlantis had everything Merry could ever possibly want: a treasure-trove of Ancient technology, a chance to escape most of her colleagues on Earth (a chance to finally get out of the shadow of Sam Carter and The Kid), and best of all, by virtue of the tiny size of the expedition, fewer available people to hate her guts.

Should've occurred to her (though it obviously didn't, seeing as how she's here and not back on Earth) that a tiny population with nowhere else to go and no one else to socialize with (the Athosians totally don't count), was going to be just like fucking high school. The jocks (jarheads), the brains (scientists), the drama geeks (the linguists and anthropologists and other devotees of fluffybunny disciplines, never mind that officially the fluffybunnies are lumped in with the science staff; Merry knows better), everyone else...and Merry McKay (the opposite of a jock, so smart the rest of the brains hate her, too mean to the drama geeks, and too goddamn shitty at people skills to get along with everyone else).

In the beginning the whole thing had been a total clusterfuck (still kind of was, to tell the truth), but she'd gotten the city off the ocean floor and gotten the shields up so the life-sucking alien vampires and the bomb-building totalitarian paranoids and all the other Little Space Friends who came free with your new Ancient residence in Pegasus Dwarf Galaxy couldn't just come and go as they damned well pleased, and things had eventually (kind of, sort of) settled out. Considering that the original mission had been given fifty-fifty odds of ending in permanent fatal death for everyone, Merry had to rate the actual outcome as more or less okay.

Except for all the meetings.

"—especially since she'll be working so closely with Dr. McKay," Dr. Weir says, and Merry looks up again. Who? What? (Oh God please no.)

"But I'm sure all of you will join me in making Dr. Jackson more than welcome here in Atlantis," she finishes.

Everyone around Merry looks as if Dr. Weir is actually making sense.

The Kid is coming here?

Crap.

#

Once upon a time there was Prometheus, Earth's first starship, followed by Odyssey and Daedalus, and another ship they gave to the Russians (who named it Koralev, after Sergei Koralev) and by that time Homeworld had stopped being stupid about what they named their ships and there was Apollo and Hammond (General Hammond, and she misses him, and she hopes he'd be proud of his namesake: it's the only memorial he'll ever have).

She's been aboard all of those vessels (except Koralev, probably; though she thinks she may have toured it while it was being built). Prometheus and Odyssey (and Koralev) are gone, now Daedalus and Apollo do turn and turn about runs to Pegasus, while Hammond provides local bus service among the SGC's (numerous and multiplying) offworld bases. This time it's Daedalus. She knows Colonel Caldwell; she isn't quite sure what he thinks of her (military versus civilian, the eternal dance). He's unlikely to shoot her or lock her up at any point during the next three weeks, though, so she'll count that as a win.

The trip is odd and isolating in a way it hasn't been before. No team, no mission, and no way to pick up a phone or send an email to anyone ahead or behind. It gives her a strange feeling of suspension between two states, of being blind to dangers she can no longer see. (Ridiculous, of course: she knows precisely what the dangers are, and they won't change just because she goes jaunting three million light years.) At least she'll get to see Merry McKay again. It's a little sad, maybe, that this is one of the attractions of the trip, but it is.

The first time she saw Cheyenne Mountain (the future SGC's secret lair; home of the Stargate) Dr. Barbara Shaw (astrophysicist), said Project Giza had already been running for fifteen years (all Dani really did was find the "On" switch, not that the Disclosure Salvation Show cares about the truth). She'd dismissed the statement as irrelevant to her job. It came back to haunt her, of course. They always do.

Fifteen years of blackboxing and simulations and the lead scientist on the job was a wunderkinder who had graduated from MIT at the ripe and ancient age of eighteen. (It would have been at sixteen except for the time needed to bag the second and third PhDs.) Meredith Rebecca McKay.

"Peerless" is a word that's been devalued by time and use and ignorance (most American adults have a working vocabulary of under 150 words), to only mean (in the same vague nebulous way they use most words) "good". It doesn't mean that at all, of course. It means unmatched, unequaled; unrivaled, unsurpassed. Unique.

From the time she began competing in the Academia Olympics, Dani has known what it is to be peerless. At its root, it is standing alone in a very large room with no one to talk to. Even after Stargate Command, that flagrant spendthrift harvester of genius, she was still alone.

("There's brilliant—and then there's me.")

And then Merry arrived, borne upon the wings of that ubiquitous stormcrow, Francis Simmons, whose endgame was the destruction of Stargate Command (by inciting mutiny among its most senior team, by killing one of its members, the NID was nothing if not labyrinthine in its ratiocination).

Killing Teal'c.

And Merry came, brandishing calculations, and Dani remembers the single moment of horror on her face when she realized this wasn't a "scenario" but a live fire exercise.

She buried it, of course (it's what you do to stay alive) and Dani wasn't there for most of the rest of it, but for years afterward Sammy delivered spontaneous philippics on arrogant prescriptive pigheaded ignorant theoretical physicists, so Dani's pretty sure Merry got on in her absence about as well as Dani's gotten along all her life with experts in her own field. Different disciplines, overweening arrogance (pot, kettle), and still no one to talk to. But not alone. Not any more.

Simmons went to prison, Adrian Conrad escaped, and Dani had dug through the wreckage left behind until she'd found what she'd known was there: the emails from Simmons to Merry that convinced Dr. McKay it was only a simulation.

(She'd told Jack and General Hammond. She has no idea whether or not it did any good.)

Half a year later, Merry was back, consulting to avert the disaster they later saw as Anubis's prolegomenon to annihilation. No less abrasive, no less brilliant. It had fallen to Dani to act as her de facto babysitter as one plan after another to avert Doomsday failed. If Merry hadn't asked how they'd gotten the Stargate there in the first place, they'd all be dead now. A year later, they'd found the Atlantis outpost and Elizabeth Weir was in charge of the SGC; she'd told Elizabeth about Merry.

And Merry got to go to Atlantis, and Dani stayed behind. It's odd, looking back on it now: the total time they've spent in each others' presence can be measured in hours. But they're still the only two people in that metaphorical room. And it doesn't matter that they don't speak the same language. Not at all.

It will be good to see Merry again. Meanwhile, there's plenty of time to work, and blessed solitude in which to do it. Conditions would be ideal, except for the fact she doesn't want to play. Not hard to figure out why. Back in the day (when love and all the world were young) her papers, lectures, briefings saved the lives of friends and comrades. Now? Her work will be used to prop up the careers and the egos of petty kingmakers who look at the galaxy and see, not a garden of hope and bright images, but a banquet table.

It has to be done anyway. The Goa'uld? The enemy, yes, but certainly not (or not any more, in the revised IOA version of history) evil brain-sucking parasites that steal human bodies. (She hardly dares to wonder what convenient fairytales of parallel evolution is going to explain them.) The Ori? Erased from the historical record: it isn't as if Earth's billions are going to get a chance to talk to any of the scant and scattered people who survived Origin. The Nox, erased. The Furlings, (conveniently) long dead. The Asgard, a minor footnote (and one of the so-important questions the IOA feels the need to settle is what to rename them, since to call them "Asgard" is apparently impossible).

Lies upon lies, laundered and redacted truths pile one upon the other until the last fifteen years of her life is reduced to gibberish. She wishes she didn't have to be there to see it.

They'd all looked forward to the day when they could stop keeping so many secrets. It never occurred to any of them that secrets would be replaced by lies.

If it had, would she have done anything different?

#

Not even the exciting news (Merry sneaks a look at the minutes from the staff meeting; Major Lorne always writes them up, and as a result they're actually informational) that there's a Secret Ancient Lab hidden here in Atlantis is enough to reconcile her to the impending royal visit. It's all a trick, anyway. If the point was to discover the lab, the SGC or the IOA or whichever part of the alphabet that's won the turf war over Atlantis this week could just have sent the information by databurst. Or hey, here's a thought, sent a nice written report by ship. Something with, oh, diagrams and pictures and something that might be a little more useful in trying to find a laboratory needle in the Manhattan-sized haystack of an Ancient city.

But no. Instead they get a state visit from Dr. Space Princess Jackson, who is clearly coming to Atlantis for some other reason than to go looking for an ancient Ancient lab. (Where, you know, someone did real science, not whateverthehell the kid does.) It doesn't take any particular level of insight to figure out what the real reason probably is, either.

Merry McKay is not stupid (even her enemies will give her that). What she is, is profoundly uninterested in the daily lives of stupid people. This doesn't mean she's unaware of what stupid people do with their time (know your enemy), and one of the things the stupid people have been doing for the last five years is trying to replace Elizabeth Weir.

Dr. Weir was attached to the Atlantis Mission because she'd been the one in charge of the White Rock (Ancient Outpost) Research Program—in Antarctica, therefore a multi-national civilian research team, therefore the IOA, and the (former) head of the SGC was the only one with the clout and the diplomacy to keep a hundred multi-national scientists from killing each other—and that had magically transitioned to her being the head of the Atlantis Expedition (probably, Merry thinks, because someone in American government wanted her dead). Since (probably unfortunately from somebody's viewpoint) the Expedition survived, the IOA (and the SGC) have been trying to replace her ever since. (And praying every night that Colonel Sheppard stops a bullet somewhere, because there's no other way they're getting him back from Pegasus.) It looks like they've finally found the perfect candidate. Why else would Dr. "The Woman Who Opened The Stargate" be coming to Atlantis?

Merry briefly contemplates a world in which the kid signs off on her requisition lists and shudders. She thought she'd gone far enough away to finally get out of the shadow of Sam Carter and the kid and do things that those two didn't have the chance to do ten times better than Merry did while simultaneously making it look like a run out for a double-double and Timbits because science, like the rest of life, isn't fucking fair, but apparently not. She supposes she's just lucky both of them aren't coming.

Maybe little Dr. Jackson will take a look around, contemplate the chronic scarcity of coffee, and get right back on to Daedalus when it leaves again. (A woman can hope. After all, the last time the Kid Wonder was here, she really didn't get a chance to experience the full awesomeness that is a supply-chain that crosses two galaxies and several different bureaucracies.) Meanwhile, they're all supposed to believe the Official Story about why she's "visiting", with Merry cast in the role of Chief Sacrificial Lamb. (She doesn't mention this to anyone, of course. What's the point? They always think she's paranoid until the moment when she turns out to be right.)

At least they don't have any missions this week. (She'd like to think it's because of the upcoming visitation, but the fact is, the Marines are always low on ammo just before the ship gets here, so any discretionary missions get held back for the next supply cycle.) At least there's that.

#

When Ronon comes up behind Merry and puts his hands on her shoulders, it scares the everliving shit out of her (as usual).

That might have something to do with the fact that the last time she checked, the door to her lab was locked and she was all by herself with her latest experiment (the way things are meant to be, not that anyone ever seems to give a shit), and for the first time in a week and a half she'd been working on something that wasn't someone's broken shower or busted light switch. And now, rather than doing something actually productive, she's trying to recover from the heart attack Ronon's given her by sneaking in here a-fucking-gain, because exactly one hundred percent of the time Ronon is entirely too fucking quiet.

Probably it's something you learn from being a successful Runner (successful meaning still alive). The damned biologists would say the behavior has survival value, and they might even be right, but Merry isn't feeling particularly charitable just now. In her book the "behavior" is just fucking annoying. (Now and any other time.)

"You're brooding," he says.

"I'm working," she corrects, brandishing the soldering iron. "Or at least I was."

"That's not your 'working' face," he says in a tone she can't quite decipher. (Life would be so much easier if people just fucking communicated by email.) He starts to work at the knots in her shoulders, and she grits her teeth to keep from letting him know how good it feels. (It isn't fucking fair how good it feels.)

"No," she grumbles, "it's my 'glaring' face. Last time I checked, the door was locked."

"I unlocked it."

"I changed the code."

"You're predictable." He's smiling. She turns to swat at him. He ducks. It's a familiar ritual. Soothing, in a weird way. Interacting with him is like trying to speak some goddamned foreign language where she understands maybe one word in every five. Like when Radek starts speaking Polish.

Speaking of whom, Radek drives her crazy, especially when he's right. But she's used to him, and she's willing to wager a month's supply of coffee that he drives her a hundred times—no, make that a thousand times—less fucking crazy than little Dr. Jackson will. (It would be nice if someone—Ronon, say—would just shoot her upon arrival, but he'd get in trouble, and the Kid Wonder has more lives than Schrödinger's Cat.)

With a sigh, she sets the soldering iron aside and gets to her feet. "Want some tea?" (And Shep says she doesn't have any social graces to speak of).

"You hate tea," Ronon says, settling on the stool she's just vacated. "What about coffee?"

"We're out." (And no chance that Daedalus will be bringing them nearly enough: they're always out within a month and the resupply is on a three-month schedule.) "And by out, I mean out-out. Not one bean in the entire fucking city, unless someone is holding out on me."

He raises an inscrutable eyebrow. At her? At the fucked-up supply chain that theoretically serves Atlantis's needs but mostly just provides them with too much peanut butter and too few centrifuge tubes and so little coffee that it's practically inhumane? God knows. Right up until Dr. Weir announced the imminent arrival of Dr. Danielle fucking Jackson, she'd really been looking forward to Daedelus's arrival. Coffee. Cheetos. Chocolate bars. The latest physics journals. The trappings of Western goddamn civilization. (Lost in Space, Merry discovered over the last several years, is only fun on TV.)

She fires up the little electric kettle she keeps on the back bench for emergencies, and rummages through the pile of assorted junk on the shelf above it (wrenches, drill bits, canisters of screws and nails and washers, stray dishes from the canteen) until she comes up with a couple of relatively clean-looking mugs.

"I have Lipton, and … Lipton," she says, plunking one bag into each cup. "God, I hate Americans." (At least it's not decaffeinated. If it was, she'd have to shoot someone. Possibly several someones.)

"You're still brooding," Ronon says. (Gotta give him points for persistence, she supposes.)

"I'm out of coffee," she points out. "We're all out of coffee. The whole fucking city is out of coffee. In a few days the entire science department is going to turn on itself in a withdrawal-induced rage." (Right about the time Daedalus gets here: so much for their credibility in the eyes of the United States Air Force.)

By now steam is pouring out of the kettle. Before she can distract herself with the business of making tea, Ronon unfolds himself from his perch and lifts the kettle himself. He pours water over the teabags in the mugs, stirs about half a cup of sweetener into hers (local stuff; brown and crumbly).

"This isn't about the coffee," he says, pinning her with a look she feels like she ought to understand. (Numbers are easier than people. Circuit-boards are easier than people. Anything is easier than people.)

"I really hate it when you do that," she grumbles. T minus three days and counting until little Dr. Jackson appears on the scene. She sighs.

"Teyla says talking helps," Ronon remarks. She bites back the automatic rejoinder. She likes Teyla. And Teyla (inexplicably) likes her.

"Do I look like I want to talk?"

Silently, he holds out her cup. She takes it, takes a sip. Tea sucks. Fuck the IOA and their inability to calculate anything remotely resembling a reasonable coffee ration anyway.

He looks at her. She glares at him. He shrugs and drinks his tea. Eventually, she starts talking.

#

If there's one thing Specialist Ronon Dex has learned over the last few years, it's that Dr Meredith McKay is brave and brilliant and kind (in a way that suggests she thinks of it as a secret vice), and can't tell a story to save her life. Oh, with the appropriate prompting from Sheppard and Dr. Weir, she can lay out the events of a mission in more-or-less chronological order with most of the relevant details included. But left to her own devices, Doc's explanations resemble something between an absurdist comedy and a piece of abstract art. (Sateda had both. Before.)

Still, somewhere in between "In 1928 on the Giza plateau," a long and rambling story about a terrible apartment with terrible plumbing in some place called Russia, and a tirade about how there must be a conspiracy in the IOA—possibly headed by their soon-to-be-guest Dr. Jackson—to make sure Atlantis never has enough coffee, he's managed to gather that Doc and "little Dr. Jackson" have...history.

What that history is, he can't quite manage to piece together. And there isn't anyone he can ask, because there isn't anyone in Atlantis who knew Doc before they all came here, and she doesn't talk about her past any more than he talks about his.

Except Earth is still there, so he wonders, every so often, what Doc's life was like in her homeland. He's been to Earth, of course—or at least the place called Virginia America—and Sheppard talks about it all the time (while apparently having no interest in ever going back). Ronon thinks Earth is weird—not because it's an advanced civilization (there are still a few like it here)—but because America Earth is composed of equal parts technology and indifference, with the addition of remarkably stupid "television" and artificial food in shiny packages. (He tried "Cheetos" once, the time Daedalus left them a couple of cases. He has no idea what Doc sees in them.)

Then again, it doesn't really matter how any of this started, because the one thing that comes through loud and clear is that whatever had happened between Doc and Dr. Jackson back on Earth, it hadn't been good.

And now Dr. Jackson is coming here.

#

Dani's never really gotten used to the Asgard transport beam. She knows it's ridiculous when she's traveled by Stargate and ring transporters for a good third of her life, but at least those have a sense of something going on, some sound and fury to cue (and soothe) the unconscious mind that thinks anything more advanced than walking is an inherently bad thing. The Asgard beam is silent and instantaneous; you're somewhere else in the blink of an eye.

Still, it wouldn't do to complain. Daedalus and Apollo don't land unless they have to these days: they're much more valuable in synchronous orbit, keeping an eye peeled for the next disaster. (She understands the Wraith are getting worse all the time. They're starving, after all, and none of them willing or perhaps able to go back to sleep. Probably a wise tactical decision, all in all, since the humans here would hunt them down, but in the short term it's no fun for anyone.)

Commander Caldwell lets her watch the approach from the bridge (repayment for not doing anything exciting on the trip here, she supposes). She's grateful. From above, Atlantis looks like a stylized flower. She wonders if that was the Builders' intention. (Either way, she'll never know. She tucks that thought down deep.)

She's traveling light—just a duffle, a bag, and her laptop. The gifts for Atlantis, nominally hers, will be offloaded with the regular supplies. After Daedalus settles into its orbit, she heads back to her cabin to collect her gear. (It seems strange to be visiting Atlantis in civilian clothes, but she's no longer a member of the SGC; if they imagine she's going to show up in one of her formal suits they're doomed to disappointment.)

(She can't wait to see Merry again. It's been seven years. A lifetime.)

#

Merry thought it was bad enough before, but this morning she finds out that Dr. Weir has some crackpot notion that Dr. Jackson is an honored guest who should be greeted upon her arrival in the Gateroom. Which would be fine if it was just her and Shep, but nooooo—she wants Merry there too, "Since you'll be working so closely together on this project." (Since she's being yanked out of all her regular duties to "assist" Dr. Jackson with her Easter Egg hunt. She never thought she'd be wishing for a nice normal Genii/Wraith/Asuran/Whatever attack on the city. Life's funny that way.)

So it's her and Weir and Shep, and Ronon tags along and they'd have the whole AR-1 matched set except that Teyla is taking advantage of the hiatus to spend time on the mainland. (Lucky Teyla.)

"Well," Dr. Weir says, joining them in front of the Stargate. "This is an exciting day!"

"Absolutely!" Shep agrees fulsomely. He grins at both of them.

"Well," she says, "you know. It's what we've always hoped for. People coming here to do research—to learn about Atlantis—"

"To leave again afterward," Merry mutters under her breath. She doesn't know whether Ronon was going to say anything, because right then the tech radios that Daedalus is ready to beam their passenger down and then start the unloading. (Merry hopes to god someone bothered to send decent coffee this time.)

She takes a deep breath. Coughs in the middle of it because the flash of light takes her by surprise.

And there she is.

"Dani!" Dr. Weir says happily. "Welcome back to Atlantis!" (Merry has always thought that their Head of Mission has about as much sense of self-preservation as a biologist; she demonstrates it now by going over to hug dear little Dr. Jackson.)

The hugging is accompanied by the usual meaningless white noise. It's irritating. This is what she got dragged out of her last precious moments of peace and sanity for?

"Merry!" dear little Dr. Jackson says at last. "I'm so glad to—"

Enough is enough.

"Fine, okay, greeted, busy now, going, work to do," Merry says, walking off. It's too much to hope for that someone won't show the kid where her lab is, but she can still hope.

#

Well, that was unexpected... She remembers Merry as being more the "beat the dead horse: it's good exercise" sort. Of course, this was a meet-and-greet and not a debate, but...

Dani shrugs. She can catch up with Merry later. (She's trying not to just gawk at The City of the Ancients. It's beautiful. She didn't get to see much of anything on her last, too-brief, visit here.)

She glances at the rest of her welcoming committee. Elizabeth looks exasperated but not surprised, Colonel Sheppard looks bland (he's Merry's team leader; Dani wouldn't expect anything else no matter what had just happened), and she can't get a read on Ronon Dex at all (also AR-1, Pegasus local; she didn't get much chance to talk to him the last time she was here and the reports aren't very helpful).

"I suppose you'll want to get started right away," Elizabeth says. "We're so lucky to have you here; I can't imagine how we managed to overlook Janus's lab."

"It's probably hidden pretty well," Dani says. "The other Ancients really didn't approve of his research; I'm just hoping Merry will be able to help me make sense of what I've got so we can actually, you know, find it."

"Well, the Doc knows the city pretty well." That's Colonel Sheppard's contribution. He makes a motion toward her duffle (can't just stand around here in the Gateroom all day, after all), but Ronon steps forward and picks it up before anyone else can, smiling...triumphantly? (Alien culture, she reminds herself. She misses Teal'c.)

"Then I'll let you two get to work," Elizabeth says. "I'm looking forward to seeing what you find. Meanwhile, Colonel Sheppard can show you to your quarters."

"I'll do it," Ronon says quickly. (Sheppard looks obscurely relieved.)

"Sure," Dani says. "Um...there are some crates. On Daedalus. They should be offloading them with the rest of the stuff. They're marked as mine, but, um, they're really yours."

"Presents? Aw, you shouldn't have," Sheppard says. (No wonder Jack liked this guy immediately. She suspects Jack was just like him, a few promotions ago.)

"I figured we'd all get a lot more done if we were properly caffeinated," she answers absently. She's about to explain more (and use the opening Elizabeth gave her to set up a time to meet privately, which, considering everything, is kind of vital), but Ronon is already walking away (and this is probably too public a place for even that conversation anyway). "Um...see you later," she says, hurrying after him.

#

Ronon doesn't seem interested in making small talk, or (for that matter) in making sure she keeps up with him. Bad enough that she keeps stopping to look at just one thing and falls even further behind, then has to run to catch up to him before he vanishes around a corner (Atlantis is visually confusing; who knew?); she has to scramble not to lose him completely, so just as well she isn't having to come up with something to say at the same time. While it's true that she studied all the reports the Expedition sent back (in the service of preparing a Briefing Book the IOA has no interest in), it's not the same as being here. (The elevators go up and down and sideways, just for starters.) By the time Ronon stops in front of a door that looks just like all the other doors, she's completely lost (and just then she remembers she forgot to ask Elizabeth for one of the headsets everyone here wears. Well, she can always ask for directions). As it swooshes open, she wonders if Ronon has the ATA gene. She wonders if Dr. Beckett's done any studies of the Pegasus natives to see if it occurs more often here than on Earth. She wonders if any of the local populations are intact enough to generate meaningful data. (She wonders a lot of things these days. Funny thing that.)

Ronon steps aside and she walks in. The chamber has a certain "dorm room" ambiance, as if the Ancients shopped at IKEA. She wonders—

And then she doesn't, because Ronon drops her duffle and slams her up against the wall. She's at his eye-level now (her feet don't touch the floor). She stares at him, trying to remember who the anthropologists are for the Expedition, and if any of them are ethnographers. She doesn't think she's offended him (hasn't had time), but hey: that's usually when you do. (She thinks of all the times she gave the basic lecture about "just because they look like us doesn't mean they think like us," to Sammy and Jack.)

She and Ronon stare at each other. Is she supposed to say something? What?

"You'd better watch yourself here," Ronon finally says. (Clearly she's missed her cue.) "Atlantis can be dangerous. You want to get home safe."

Well, okay, as intercultural communications go, this is...odd? And he's clearly waiting for her response.

"Thank you," she says. "I appreciate your warning. It's very kind of you."

His eyes narrow. She's sure she's managed to screw up somehow, but she knows exactly nothing about Satedan culture or Runner subculture. (And apparently nobody here gives a rat's ass about studying either one; she remembers all of Jack's jokes about "going with the lowest bidder" back when they were staffing out the original mission.) (And she still wishes she'd been able to go with it.) But all Ronon does is let go of her and step back, and by the time she's got her balance, he's gone.

She looks around her room and sighs. "Welcome to Atlantis," she says. (She just hopes Janus's diaries won't be this confusing to Merry.)

She makes quick work of her unpacking (only doing any of it, if she's going to be honest, in the name of giving Ronon enough time to be somewhere else, and she wonders if there's any point to trying for clarification of his behavior, considering that AR-1's cultural specialist is also native to Pegasus and not here besides). Change of clothes, usual toiletries (and at least Atlantis is in the middle of the ocean so there's very little she can be allergic to here), no sidearm this time (Atlantis is a peaceful city, ha and also ha), and only one thing of importance. (Hidden in among the regular clutter, something she didn't need Jack to teach her; any archaeologist knows the ins and outs of smuggling.)

A wooden box, about eight inches square, six inches deep. Some light colored fine-grained wood. Dovetail joints. Hinges and a tiny hasp latch. (Common as pig tracks, Cam would say.) It's full of little sachets of tea, the kind you can open easily if you want to build a pot, or use as-is in a cup. It's a present for Elizabeth, who drinks tea.

(It's the reason Dani's come to Atlantis.)

She looks around the room, knowing that to hide it conspicuously is just as dangerous as leaving it out somewhere that it can just disappear. She compromises by shoving it into the back of a drawer (she wonders what the Ancients used this piece of furniture for) and dumping the rest of her kit around it. Nothing to see here. Move along.

Then she picks up her laptop case and slings it over her shoulder. Always make it look good if somebody's watching, Jack says (has said, too many times to number, and she thinks of serpents and betrayal).

#

Ronon leaves little Dr. Jackson's (the Doc's gotten him thinking of her that way now, though the two of them are pretty much the same size) temporary quarters no more enlightened than he was when he walked in.

No, make that even less enlightened. A lot less.

Specialist Ronon Dex is an intimidating man, and he knows it. It was something he'd tried to minimize, Before. Being intimidating wasn't much of an asset to collegial relations with one's colleagues, and scaring the students in your tutorial too much tended to be counterproductive. But things are different now. The whole damned galaxy is different. And intimidation is something that Ronon sure as hell (as Sheppard would put it) trades on these days.

Usually it works, even on folks that are lying through their proverbial teeth. (English is full of weird expressions, Ronon thinks.)

But intimidation hadn't worked on Dr. Jackson. She hadn't looked scared, even for an instant. She'd looked startled (maybe), but not afraid. (That makes him wonder, because he's been told she was on the Milky Way version of AR-1, and he's seen all of them—Teyla, Sheppard, Doc—plenty scared at one time or another.) Mostly she'd just looked confused when he snarled and growled and showed his teeth.

Baffled, even.

Thing is—as Ronon learned over the years, even before Atlantis took him in—guilty people don't actually look like they have no idea of why you're threatening them, even if they claim to have no idea at the time. (Dr. Jackson had blinked at him like a particularly stupid grazing animal and smiled tentatively.)

Which means one of three things.

One: she's stupid. (Given the fact that Doc doesn't bother to hate people who are actually stupid, Ronon figures he can cross that one off the list.)

Two: she's the best liar in two galaxies. It's possible, but he's met some damned good liars (AR-1's own Colonel Sheppard among them), and none of them (except maybe Colonel Sheppard) were ever that good. Then there's the fact that Dr. Weir seems to like her. Elizabeth Weir is much too trusting, Ronon thinks, but aside from wanting to think the best of everyone, she usually has pretty good judgment about people (even if she has really terrible judgment about tactics).

That leaves Door Number Three, as Sheppard would say. (There is no door. There never was a door. The saying is from something called a "game show" on America Earth, and no one has been able to explain the concept to Ronon's satisfaction.) But Door Number Three is: something in the past (everything before Atlantis) Doc never talks about got lost (as the Builders are always saying) in translation. Maybe Doctor Jackson doesn't know she's Doc's enemy (not yet, anyway). It wouldn't surprise him at all: Doc's brilliant at physics and engineering and high explosives, but she doesn't understand people very well.

#

It takes Dani over an hour to locate Merry's lab, and that's after she's gotten directions (twice). She can't help but compare Atlantis's P&E section to the SGC's. Instead of grey concrete and fluorescents everywhere, there are storm-sea colors of blue and grey; ruddy patina'd panels that seem to have no purpose but decoration (she knows it's unlikely that the Ancients—they call them the Builders here, no surprise that—used this space for what the new Lanteans are using it for now, but still).

The first Physics Lab she ends up is a huge workspace shared by a dozen people (another thing unlike the SGC, where the wonks defend their solitary lab spaces with the ferocity of invaded termite colonies). One of them, Dr. Miko Kusanagi (young, Japanese, female), walks her back to the hallway and indicates the proper door, but does not escort her all the way (it's another datapoint, and as usual, she's collecting them without knowing what puzzle they're the pieces of). The door is shut, but not locked—or at least, it opens when Dani pushes the right button.

This room looks far more familiar than the other. It's smaller, for one thing, and the airs and graces of Atlantis are masked by a battalion of whiteboards and racks full of equipment. Some have blinky lights, some stands dark and dead. Display screens ring the room, and Tau'ri and Lantean technology seems fairly evenly mixed throughout; half the lighting is original (Ancient), the other half is tensor lamps. Merry is here, hunched over a laptop; the monitors all around her show a dozen different images.

"Um...hi?" Dani says.

Merry gives her a baleful look. "So. I'm sure you're just waiting to tell me everything about this amazing Ancient lab you've found."

"I haven't found it yet," Dani says. "I'll need your help."

"You? Need help?" Merry scoffs. Dani doesn't know why she's so angry. She knows exactly how much (or little) information flows between Earth and Atlantis. It's mostly a one-way street (guess which way). Atlantis doesn't (or shouldn't, take your pick) even know that Disclosure is pending.

So there's no reason Merry should be mad at her. Unless Merry knows something Dani doesn't know. (And if she does, depending on what it is, the possibilities for apocalypse are infinite.)

"Um...that's why I'm here?" (It isn't, and she knows Merry can hear the lie. Dani doesn't know what she'll say if Merry calls her on it.)

"Whatever," Merry says dismissively. "So. What are you planning to waste my time with?"

"Janus," Dani says instantly.

"The inventor," Merry says, her tone halfway between scoffing and patronizing.

"He was a lead scientist," Dani says (wincing internally because she's lecturing Merry on things Merry knows better than she does). "And—" a bit of a renegade.

"Look," Merry says shortly. "This is work we've already done. My department's been over all of his logs. So why don't you take your—"

"He had a secret lab here in Atlantis," Dani interrupts. "And I think you and I can find it."

"The databurst said that. Except for the part where I get any credit, of course."

Why shouldn't Merry get credit? (Not that it will matter soon, one way or the other.) The riddle delays her for too long to let her keep control of the conversation.

"I've been over Janus' database entries with a fine-tooth comb," Merry interrupts. "I never saw any mention of a secret lab. Which implies there isn't one, and even you should have been able to figure that out without this little field trip. So why don't you—"

"Janus was a renegade," Dani blurts out. "A lot of his work was unauthorized by the rest of the Ancients. So he experimented in secret and hid his research. Here."

"Again: no mention of a secret lab."

"Do you include all of your research in your official reports?" Dani snaps. Oh, god, she thought she was bringing information they needed, but what if they already know? Everyone knows the Stargate Program leaks like a sieve, and the IOA is worse. No wonder Merry's angry with her...

(Is that why? Is it something else?)

"Just get to the point," Merry says brusquely.

"Okay. Janus was doing a lot of work that wasn't exactly approved by the Ancient Council—"

"Repeating!"

"—and he was supposed to be documenting everything in his official database, as you know—"

"Bored!"

"—and you sent a copy of the database to Earth years ago, but I hadn't had time to look at it until now or cross-correlate it with the Ancient information we found in our own galaxy, but several of Janus' peers suspected he had a "bastion of unfettered thought and experimentation" or—as one of his lovers put it—"

"Blah, blah, blah..."

"—'an isle of solitude within the city walls, so while none of these writers had any idea where the lab could be, one of his young assistants, a woman named Hipece, recalls a day where Janus turned a corner down a hallway—" They're talking over each other now; an intertwining duomonologue that is less than the sum of its parts. Somehow it's important to finish—is that what winning means? And (all things considered) why should she want to?

"'Today, saw Janus in hallway.' I'm on the edge of my seat. Really."

"You should be," Dani answers sharply. She's starting to get irritated, and that's the last thing they need right now. Why is Merry angry with her? What has she done? (What has the Stargate done to each of them?) "Because when she chased after Janus, Janus was gone. The hallway was a dead end. Janus had vanished—and where else could he have gone but into his secret lab?"

"Any number of places," Merry says dismissively. "Including—oh, here's a thought—into an orbiting ship. So your bright plan is for us to go down every blind corridor in the entire city hoping we find a sign?"

"Hipece said which hallway," Dani says.

There's a moment of silence. Maybe she's finally gotten Merry's attention. (Maybe she should spend the next two weeks on Daedalus, but no. The stakes are too high for that.)

"Well? So? Which is it?" Merry says.

"Can I sit down?"

Merry grudgingly makes a space for Dani at her workbench. Dani opens her laptop case and sets the computer on the table. When she opens it, several screens of Ancient database entries pop up, overlaying each other.

(Merry looks bored. Truth or façade?)

"You see, the thing is, I don't know. When they talk about the city, Atlantis, they're using references I've had no way of checking, so what I was hoping was that you, since you're more familiar with the city and have actually been, well, you know—",

"Give me that," Merry says, reaching for the laptop.

#

It's lunchtime. Ronon runs into Sheppard in the canteen. They load up their plates. Macaroni and cheese for the third—or is it fourth?—time in the last seven days. He can always tell when supplies are running low: first meat vanishes from the midday meal, and then from the evening meal. Even when the new supplies come, it takes a day or two for them to work their way up to the kitchens. Ronon isn't particularly fond of macaroni and cheese—the orange cheese is yet another oddly textured, chemical tasting, example of fake food from America Earth—but it's warm and filling and he learned a long time ago (after Sateda; long before Atlantis) that food was survival.

Sheppard complains about the IOA dragging its feet scheduling supply runs. Ronon thinks the Ancestors (or Lanteans or Builders or Terrans or Americans; they can't make up their minds what to call themselves, so nobody else can either) ought to just start getting their food locally and quit depending on a government that seems perfectly willing to let them starve, but he sticks to noncommittal noises. Last time he said anything, it had turned into a huge argument between Sheppard and the Doc and a couple of other people. Apparently the Ancestors feel strongly about maintaining close ties to their homeworld.

"Where's the Doc and our guest?" Sheppard sets his tray on their usual table. Ronon just shrugs. He doesn't even know where to start.

"She's been in a weird mood since Elizabeth said Dr. Jackson was coming for a visit," Sheppard says. "Cranky. I mean, she's always cranky, but right now she's extra cranky, with a side order of pissed off. As you've no doubt noticed."

Ronon doesn't bother to answer that one either. "You know her?" he asks instead.

"Dr. Jackson? Nah." Sheppard forks up macaroni and cheese, chews with the thoughtful indifference of someone who doesn't expect food to taste good. "Not to talk to. She was at the Outpost when I got there, and I heard a lot about her while we were prepping. Woman who opened the Stargate. You know. We wouldn't be here if it hadn't been for her."

"You know Doc worked on the Stargate for fifteen of your years before Dr. Jackson showed up. So did a lot of other people." He only knows this because Doc repeated that point several times, and suddenly bits and pieces of that disjointed rant are starting to make a lot more sense.

"Huh," Sheppard says. This is clearly news to him.

In Ronon's experience, the Ancestors are not only willing to tell everybody everything, they insist on doing so and are hurt if someone refuses to listen. He can't imagine Sheppard wouldn't know about the Doc's work on the Stargate if it was part of the public story, but clearly it isn't. All he knows about is Dr. Jackson, so clearly that's all that's being told. Ronon has never trusted people who take credit for other people's work. It isn't just theft. It's a kind of killing. Erasing someone and all their work, the way the Wraith erase whole populations. The way Dr. Jackson has erased Merry McKay. (It doesn't matter that she's SG-1, a hero, someone who helped save her homeworld. You can do those things and still be a thief and a killer.)

Ronon wonders what Dr. Jackson has come to Atlantis to steal.

#

It's four hours of mind-numbingly tedious cross-checking, making notations on a map, (cursing the idiots in Atlantis's Anth and Linguistics Department for not thinking this information was important enough to prepare a searchable database of) before they can figure out where Hipece was the day she saw Janus vanish. It's a remote tower on the far edge of the city, and for a moment Dani thinks Merry's going to leave her to find it by herself, but apparently not. (Too territorial? Too suspicious? Dani wishes she knew what Merry obviously knows, because none of this makes any sense.)

Merry has a couple of flashlights in her office (apparently Atlantis support systems can be kind of random), and considering the distance they have to travel to reach their destination, Dani's about to suggest at least picking up a canteen or two (and a radio for her, dammit) before they go, but Merry seems to think they're fine as they are. (Merry knows Atlantis, Dani doesn't; it's the reason she's here, isn't it? More or less.)

It's not really a surprise when Ronon joins them at the end of the second elevator ride. Merry makes a faintly grumpy noise. Ronon doesn't say anything, and Dani's not quite sure she can read his expression. Still. Gate Team, and more is probably better. (He's armed, though; the first person she's seen carrying a weapon inside the city as a matter of course. Was he armed when he escorted her to her quarters? Probably.)

There's an open space to cross before they reach the next set of elevators; much of Atlantis is still (even after all these years) unexplored, and parts of it aren't working. It was designed to be powered by three ZPMs and the mission only has one.

"Where're we going?" Ronon asks when they finally reach the outside.

"On a wild goose chase," Merry says.

"It's a simile," Dani says instantly (Ronon's look of puzzled disbelief is all too familiar). "A goose is—" She stops when both of them give her identical looks of disgust.

Maybe she needs to have that talk with Elizabeth for more reasons than she thought.

#

Either the hike mellows Merry or she forgets Dani's here; either way, she provides a running commentary (to Ronon, true, which seems to support the second theory, but at least she's talking), of everything along the way that is either broken or has tried to kill someone in the past. Dani keeps quiet and listens. How long until they find Janus's lab? Once they do, it's Merry's show all the way, unless the lab also contains something of cultural interest. (Unlikely.)

But they find the right tower without much trouble, and start searching it. No power here, or at least no lights in most of the interior (Merry radioed back to someone to turn on the power in this tower; most of Atlantis seems to be kept shut down in the name of power conservation), and the amount of attention Dani has to pay to her surroundings (wants to pay: this is Atlantis) finally stops her from thinking about anything else. The corridors are walled with panels like the bronze ones in the main tower, but these are verdigris blue and with a surface like wet wrinkled cloth. (Why the change? Does anybody here know, or care, or spend any time studying the architecture of the city?) Unlike the panels in the main tower, these are interspersed with columns in the color she's starting to think of as "Atlantis blue". It changes in response to the ambient light. (Much like political alliances, really.) Then she looks up, and sees nothing is really what she thought it was: these panels aren't matte-verdigris. They're discolored. Further along , the corridor dead-ends. This is their most-probable Secret Lair location because of it, since most of Atlantis is built like the Labyrinth at Knossos (though the Goa'uld built that, not the Ancients) and when a corridor stops, it's usually at an elevator or an open space or some other corridor, and in any of those Hipece wouldn't have been surprised not to catch up to Janus, or that he'd vanished. But this one just...stops.

"Is that a water line up there?" The hallway is marginally-lit and gloomy, and the line of greenish corrosion is almost twelve feet above the floor.

"Yeah," Merry says. "This section of the city flooded the first year we were here. Anything salvageable got moved to the main tower."

"Was this section in much use when the Ancients—the Builders—the Atlanteans were here? Janus wouldn't want anyone around when he came in and out of his secret lair."

"Just like the Batcave," Merry says, as if that makes any sense. Dani can't tell whether she's making a joke or not, and so she isn't sure what to say. "Well, I'm not picking up anything unusual," Merry adds, brandishing her tablet.

Ronon (Dani risks a glance over her shoulder to check) is still silent, still there (back near the entrance), and apparently entirely content to contribute nothing to the conversation she and Merry aren't having. By now Dani has a dozen theories to explain Merry's behavior, and because she doesn't dare test even one of them, she knows she's coming across as...mendacious. (Nobody likes to be lied to. Color her surprised.) She wishes she could explain that she isn't lying (but that would require an explanation of what she is doing): her hole card has always been her truthfulness. Jack said (many times) that she was incapable of lying. (He used to be right.) Times have changed.

And Janus's lab doesn't have to be here in this specific corridor (though she thinks it is). But it has to be somewhere. Because she came to Atlantis saying she had proof of its existence, and suddenly it's terribly necessary for her to be right about that.

Start with the evidence. (What do you have and what do you need?) "Something used to be attached here," Dani says, running her fingers over one of the columns. She glances across the corridor. Same columns, no attachment points. She steps away from the column and shines her light back the way she came. The columns are unblemished. "And here," she adds, moving forward. "This one too." Three in a row on the left side, and the Ancients were really fond of symmetry, so there should be more, and there aren't. "Any idea what they are?"

"Looks like a run-of-the-mill sconce interface," Merry says dismissively. You idiot. The unspoken words are loudest.

"So where are the sconces?"

"After the flood anything worth salvaging was moved to the main tower." Merry repeats herself with sing-song malice.

"Please tell me you kept detailed records of what was found and where," Dani says, half under her breath.

"It's a sconce interface," Merry says again in long-suffering tones.

"An asymmetrically-installed sconce interface," Dani says, finally losing her temper decisively. "And while I realize you're only interested in the Ancients insofar as they produce ones and zeros, those of us who have actually studied Ancient culture and artifacts realize that they are way too invested in tricks, traps, riddles, puzzles, and hiding things in plain sight! Oh yes: and making things match! So there are three sconces on pillars—which are superfluous anyway because of the lights overhead—and no more sconces! In short, it is an asymmetric installation in an area we have already determined probably holds Janus's secret lair, so I think you could be a little more interested in the anomalies here and I think those lights are important!"

There's a pause.

"The Ancients didn't use a base ten numbering system," Merry finally says. She walks back and peers into one of the sockets, pokes her finger into it, then shrugs inscrutably and walks back toward Ronon.

"Where are you going?" Dani demands.

"To look at the records," Merry calls back. "Stay here if you want."

Not without a gun and a sandwich.

#

They retrace their steps back to the main tower, and then track down the person in charge of Documentation who can give them the file numbers for the archive containing the images they need to consult and send an access code for them to Merry's lab (everything here is compartmentalized for reasons Dani isn't privy to). "They", of course, being her: Merry clearly doesn't want to associate herself with this, but she doesn't seem to want to go away, either. Once the three of them (Ronon seems permanently attached) get back to Merry's lab (Dani's pretty sure Merry wouldn't let her in there except for the fact that her laptop is there, and Merry—she knows—considers computers sacred), Dani goes through image after image of waterlogged Ancient city corridors while Merry fidgets and yawns. (Eventually Merry gets tired of watching her slog ineptly through the unfamiliar interface and grabs her computer again. The images flick past almost too fast to see.)

"There. That's the hallway. Can you, um, can you enlarge that part back there?"

Merry rolls her eyes, but does it. "There!" she says, with an entirely false tone of triumphal discovery, "Behold the missing sconces of Tower 24 East!"

"So where are they?" Dani asks.

"Right there," Merry says. "On the floor."

"No they aren't," Dani says, because it has already been a long day and she's hiked halfway across the city twice. "We were there, and they weren't."

"Well they aren't there now," Merry says. "They were salvaged. They're in Archival Storage now."

"And do you think it would be possible for us to go to Archival Storage and locate them?" Dani asks in a very very very even voice.

#

Archival Storage is in another tower at the opposite side of Atlantis from Tower 24 East.

Four hours later, they're back in Tower 24 East. (Two of them are; Ronon vanished when she wasn't looking, god knows why.) Dani is hoping her hunch is right: she has no hope of finding Janus's lab without Merry, and she's on the verge of dropping Merry into the nearest available body of water. Deep water.

But Merry actually starts to look interested when the three lights they've reinstalled...chime. Each in a different tone, and from Merry's reaction, this isn't the expected behavior of (non-previously-waterlogged) sconces.

Then she falls through the wall.

"Merry!"

Dani runs to the wall, pounding on it (did she see what she saw?) but it's solid and somehow Merry is on the other side of it and Dani still has no radio with which to call for help.

How fast can she get back to the main tower? Is there another way through that wall? (Is there air in there, oh, God...)

"Merry!" she shouts again (as if Merry can hear her through solid stone). "I'll get you out!" She pounds the wall (hoping Merry will hear, hoping she knows rescue is coming)...

...and falls right through it.

#

"Controlled magnetic harmonic resonance," Merry says cheerfully from somewhere in the gloom. "Nikola Tesla was close to something like this before Edison trashed his lab! That wall was specially designed to destabilize when bombarded with a very specific harmonic resonance. That's what the sconce tones were! And the strong magnetic property of the particles is what keeps the door from just crumbling into dust! It's a great way to hide a door because, you know, if you're looking for a door to open, it's never going to be found! It's like a hologram, only better, because it's a solid mass until the tones are played—"

"What?" Dani says, sitting up. It's dusty here and she sneezes violently several times. When she can open her eyes again, she sees things lighting up. (Familiar things.)

"I found it!" Merry says gleefully. "I found Janus's secret lab!"

All around them, screens and consoles and things are lighting up, one after another, a sweeping circuit around the room until the walls are glowing, blue, green, yellow, and it's almost as brightly lit as the Gate room in the main tower. The room isn't square, but there's so much equipment here that Dani can't decide whether it's round or hexagonal. (If the Ancients used a Base 12 numbering system, why does Atlantis have five piers?) And (leaving all question of who discovered what aside), Dani is very grateful that Merry is on record as having taken the "Ancient Gene Therapy", because Dani is also on record as having been tested for the "Ancient Gene" and not having it, and not (of course) having had the therapy. The last thing she wants is for someone to wonder who's turning on the lights in here.

Merry sits down in a chair at one of the consoles, spinning it around and around with childlike abandon. Dani gets to her feet and sits down beside her. They stare at their discovery in silence (broken only by the arrhythmic dovelike cooing of the Ancient tech). Dani risks a look sideways; Merry has a goofy grin on her face, and her mouth is slightly open in wonder.

There's a lectern facing a translucent flatscreen monitor, the only display in the room that doesn't look like a part of the wall. Lines of Ancient text are scrolling across the display, bottom to top. They look familiar, and Dani gets to her feet to take a closer look.

The display halts when she steps onto the lectern; she breathes a sigh of relief. This is Janus's "public" diary: it's already been translated, and using this as a key she should be able to translate anything else they find. (Or Elizabeth can; Dani taught her pidgin-Ancient while they were working at the Outpost and she's learned more since. Not that—Dani supposes—Elizabeth has the time these days to do anything useful.)

Despite herself, she's grinning: it's moments like this one that make everything else endurable. It's been too long since the last time she turned a corner and saw...wondrous things.

"So," she says, turning to Merry. "What do we do now?"

#

What they do now is: Merry goes back out through the door-wall (it's just a button on this side, but it takes them almost an hour to find it) and radios the Main Tower, and about half an hour after that, Colonel Sheppard and Ronon and half of P&E and even some Marines (good at lifting heavy things) arrive (they're waiting outside for them) and Merry riffles through the equipment they're carrying as if they're all drawers in a file cabinet, plugs two components into a naquadaah generator, flips a switch, rings the three sconces again, and then walks back through the wall into the lab.

Everybody looks at each other.

"What are you waiting for?" Merry demands, poking her head back through the wall. "I've set up a sub-sonic tone generator. The door is permanently open."

"Good to know," Colonel Sheppard says, glancing at Ronon. Then he turns to her. "After you, Dr. Jackson."

#

Merry pretty much ignores the people filming items in situ, making inventories, and (then) packing up everything movable (and identifiable) to take back to the main tower. She's running through the list of files on what looks like the library console. The open files mirror to the lectern, which is just as well, as Merry isn't having a lot of luck opening anything but the official diary. All the other files want to ask questions first.

"The sun," Dani says. "Merry!" She has to raise her voice to get Merry's attention (and not just because there's a lot of background noise). Merry looks at her, frowning ferociously. "The sun," Dani repeats. "That's not a password prompt. It's a riddle."

Merry growls and types in the answer. (Dani feels an irritated pang of inadequacy: fluent in Ancient and physics? Good thing she's about to retire: she might just be outclassed.) Of course, then the computer asks for something else, and since Dani can't read the question, it's a pretty good bet it's written in Physics.

Merry stares at it and grumbles and gets up and steals a clipboard from somebody and scribbles and mutters something about "...coffee..."

"Doctor Jackson brought coffee," one of the physicists says. He looks up and smiles at her. (His flag patch is two bars of color, white over red. Czechoslovakia. This must be Dr. Zelenka.) "A great deal of coffee," he adds, smiling. "And other things, as well. Thank you," he says, speaking directly to her.

"I had a luggage allowance," she says, returning his smile.

"We have coffee?" Merry asks in a voice of doom. "Then why isn't it here?"

Dr. Radek just smiles and turns away, fingers to his headset.

"You brought coffee and you didn't tell me?" Merry demands, turning her attention back to Dani.

"I figured you'd notice sooner or later," Dani answers. "I brought you a personal stash too, since the rest of it's going to the mess."

"Not all of it," Merry says. "Not if the Marines want to keep on taking hot showers."

#

Coffee arrives (two carafes, two mugs, sandwiches, and a bag of Cheetos) about the time the first items are being packed up and carried out. Dani grabs a mug and a sandwich: she has no idea what time it is by Daedalus reckoning (or Atlantis reckoning), let alone back in Washington.

Merry grabs the Cheetos and looks prepared to defend them with her life. Dani waves away any interest in them. "We have to unlock the system before we can do anything with it," she says. "And apparently, we have to pass a quiz first."

"How's everything going?" Sheppard asks, coming over to them. He hands both of them a Snickers Bar. (Merry grabs Dani's, saying "you don't need that.")

"Well," Dani says, "the the good news is: we definitely found Janus' secret lab. The bad news is: getting in was the easy part."

"There are levels of encryption on all the data here that even the most paranoid CSIS agent wouldn't use," Merry says, her words almost unintelligible through the Snickers bar she's stuffed into her mouth. She gestures with the remaining one. "I mean, really paranoid."

"Some of them seem to be math problems. Others are Ancient riddles," Dani adds.

"You know Ancient riddles, right?" Sheppard asks.

"Until we start deciphering these lab notes, there's no way to be sure what any of this stuff does," Merry says, before she can reply.

"Ancient riddles. Right," Dani says.

"Well, sounds like you guys make a good team," Sheppard says (in the universal tone of a CO passing the buck).

"Um..." Dani says.

"Not really," Merry says. She looks back at the console, holding her hand out peremptorily. Sheppard puts another Snickers in it. "You're more than welcome to help me crack this first stream cipher," she says, sounding slightly mollified.

Sheppard looks alarmed. "Oh. Ah. Thanks. But I've got...work. Lots of...work. Somewhere else. You just, oh, you know, call me when it's done." He's backing away as he speaks.

Merry snickers rudely (Dani suspects this is an inside joke). "Mensa," she says opaquely.

"Table?" Dani says blankly.

Sheppard has reached the door. He raises a hand, waving, as he steps through it.

She's forgotten to ask about a radio again.

#

It's been a couple of hours since the last items were carried off to the main tower, and Ronon's been checking back every so often. There's a Marine guard post at the other end of the hall outside (four hour watches and hourly check-ins), but what they're here to do—aside from relay requests for more coffee—isn't quite clear. The tower is as safe as any other place in the city (safer than some), and Ronon knows his presence isn't needed (or particularly welcomed). Maybe he's just worried Doc is going to find a way for little Dr. Jackson to 'accidentally' trip and fall off the East Pier. It's not really her style, but all of AR-1 knows Doc can be plenty dangerous when she's sufficiently motivated. (Something he's pretty sure the Genii are still wishing they'd figured out a little sooner.)

He knows he's being quiet enough (because Dr. Jackson doesn't look up from the screen) but Doc sees him come in again anyway.

"Enough!" she says, throwing her hands up in exasperation. The motion makes some of the sheets on the teetering stack of notes drift to the floor. (Every time he comes in here the stack seems to have grown.) She glares at him as if he's personally responsible as she leans down to pick up the papers. "You've come in here six times in the last three hours," Doc says darkly. "I don't know what you're expecting to find."

He's pretty sure there's no safe answer to that, so he just shrugs. Besides, he's not quite sure himself. She's got the edgy, wired look that she gets after she's polished off two or three carafes of coffee (no matter how slowly the rest of the supplies trickle into place, the new ration of coffee is always available immediately) and enough sweets to make him feel a little ill just thinking about it.

Dr. Jackson looks up now, an expression of mild interest on her face as she sees him. She looks harmless enough. (Then again, so do a lot of things here in Pegasus.) They both clearly see the interruption as an opportunity to refill their coffee cups. (He thought they'd be fighting by now, but instead there's a strange air of cooperation between them.) Dr. Jackson fills Doc's first (that's interesting), and Doc stirs four spoonfuls of sugar into her cup, takes a sip, and sighs.

"Look," Doc finally says. "There's a whole army of nice Marines out there keeping an eye on us," she pauses to snort at her own joke, "Go get some sleep. In eight hours you can come back and drive me batshit some more."

Dr. Jackson makes a strangled noise that he suspects might be a laugh.

"What about you?" he asks, even though he knows exactly how Doc is when she gets her teeth into a puzzle. "Janus's lab isn't going anywhere."

Doc waves a hand absently. She's already staring at the monitor again, her lower lip between her teeth.

"It would be like going to bed without reading the last chapter of the murder mystery," Dr Jackson says, smiling at him.

Doc looks up to give her a look of pained-but-grudging agreement before focusing on him again. "Shoo. Scat. Go annoy Shep or Teyla or someone who isn't me."

Ronon wishes anything about her relationship with Dr. Jackson made any sense, because he's increasingly sure that the two women have vastly different ideas of what that relationship is. He also wishes he had any idea what a 'murder mystery' is (an entertainment almost certainly, but what kind?). He supposes he can ask Sheppard: if he asks these two about that right now, he's pretty sure they'll join forces to flay him alive.

With a sigh, he walks back through the wall.

#

Okay it's Atlantis and an intact Ancient lab, but the rest of this is pretty familiar. Notes piling up around both of them, carafes being whisked away and returned again, and always, always, the maddening labyrinth of an Ancient puzzle.

(Dani decided a long time ago that all the Ancients were just crazy, case closed.)

Ronon Dex keeps prowling around (probably thinking she's going to murder Merry and stuff her body into one of the consoles) until Merry finally sends him packing with a comment about sleep. Dani checks the display on her laptop; she still doesn't know what time it is in Washington DC, but according to the Atlantis intranet, she's been here for almost twenty hours.

"You know," she says, when Ronon is gone, "it's almost dawn. If you want to call it a night, it's, um..."

They aren't getting much of anywhere. The logic puzzles seem to have some relationship to the mathematical formulae—hints or puns or something—but there are a dozen ways to translate any Ancient sentence and she doesn't have the math background to pick (what's probably) the intended one. And Merry has no general knowledge of Ancient culture at all. (What they need to do is find some way to mind-meld the two of them together like on Star Trek. This would probably go faster then.)

"Go if you want to," Merry says dismissively, not looking up. "One of the Marines can take you back."

"Oh, sure, because you're going to get so far with this by yourself," Dani says in irritation. "Did I miss the briefing about this being a competition? What do I get if I win? AR-1?"

#

Ronon's path toward his bed takes him, not entirely accidentally, past Dr. Jackson's temporary quarters. He regards the door and sighs. He knows Doctor Weir wouldn't approve of this, not for a second. Then again, Doctor Weir's greatest weakness lies in wanting to think the best of everyone, even the Genii (he'd say it's an Ancestor thing because sometimes Doc can be that way too, but Sheppard is as pragmatic as anyone Ronon's ever met). Sometimes Doctor Weir's trustfulness works out, but sometimes all it does is get her (and them) into trouble.

He didn't bother to tell little Dr. Jackson that it was possible to set a personal code, and she was obviously too obsessed with Janus's lab to bother asking anyone else. (Apparently all the scientists who come to Atlantis are obsessive). She was too obsessed to bother with unpacking, either. Her duffel is lying on the bed, full. The smaller bag is beside it, empty. Her computer, of course is with her.

Everyone in the city is talking about the six crates Dr. Jackson brought with her, because in addition to coffee, they're filled with all the stuff the Ancestors have been complaining about missing: Earth America junk food in shiny packages (one crate holds nothing but the Ancestor candy called 'chocolate'). Entertainment discs. Batteries for personal electronics (that'll make Doc happy, he thinks, not having to build or charge replacements for the ones already here). Earth America books made out of paper, and hundreds more (currently being uploaded to the mainframe) on portable drives. Despite all that, the duffel holds more of the same: bottles of liquor, carefully wrapped against breakage (he's willing to bet the contents taste a lot better than the stuff brewed by either the Marines or the Science Department). There's chocolate here, too, in shiny gold boxes as if to be presented to a ruler; a dozen bags of coffee beans, filling the room with their bitter toasted scent; some bright bottles with colorful pictures on them (he opens them to see what they are; one of them smells like the stuff Doc uses to wash her hair).

It makes no sense. (Under other circumstances, he'd be embarrassed to be going through her things like this.) Is she trying to bribe her fellow Ancestors? Or is it possible that what she's been worried about is breaking some rule about bringing these small comforts to Atlantis? (Ronon has met some of the IOA once. He wasn't impressed. They seem like petty chieftans everywhere; what worries him is that such venal, self-interested people hold the City of the Ancestors in their grasp.)

Either possibility—bribery or comfort—worries him. The first because it suggests that Dr. Jackson is exactly as dishonest and malevolent as Doc believes, the second because no leader purposely denies simple human comforts to people on dangerous duty far from home unless it serves some dishonest purpose. (Maybe Dr. Jackson knows what that is, but to ask her he'd have to trust her first.)

At last he finds her personal effects stuffed untidily into a couple of drawers. They're few enough to support the story that she's only going to be here a few days. White socks, plain cotton underwear, some t-shirts that have seen better days.

He's about to give up when he finds it. A small wooden box, stuffed in the back corner of the bottom drawer. It's some light-colored alien wood, polished to a pleasant shine. The little silvery metal clasp is clearly for show, not for use. The construction is adequate, but it's nothing special.

When he opens the lid, he sees that the box is lined in green paper and packed with sachets of tea. He picks one up and sniffs it cautiously: it's exactly what it appears to be. (Smells like that Earth tea that Teyla likes; the one Dr. Weir drinks when—she says—it's time to treat herself. He can never remember the name of it.)

The tea and the box look like the kind of gift anyone astute might bring for Doctor Weir (he supposes everyone on her homeworld must know what kind of tea she likes; Sheppard says they know your shoe size and the name of your first girlfriend, whatever that means.) It's nicely chosen: lavish enough to convey respect and gratitude; not so opulent as to suggest a bribe. If it hadn't been stuffed in the back of a drawer in a way that suggested it had been purposely hidden, he'd think it was perfectly innocent.

He hefts it thoughtfully in his hand. It's hard to say for sure, but the box seems heavier than it ought to be. He's debating whether to take it to Sheppard (to take it to Dr. Weir would entail one of her disappointed looks and the suggestion that he confess and apologize to Dr. Jackson, something he has no intention of doing), when his radio crackles to life.

"Ronon! Meet me at the East Pier! We've got trouble!"

Sheppard.

The East Pier is the one nearest Janus's lab.

He throws the box on the bed and runs.

#

"You wouldn't last ten minutes on AR-1," Merry says in a deadly tone. "In fact, you—"

Dani never does find out how that sentence (or the fight) would end, because suddenly Merry stands up, hand to her radio, clearly listening. "What?" she says, and: "Why?" Dani gets to her feet as Merry turns toward the door.

There are two unfriendlies coming through the door. (They're wearing full armor—worn and battered—and carrying guns, so she thinks that's a fair assessment.) She doesn't recognize the armor and doesn't expect to (not her galaxy, after all) but Merry doesn't seem to recognize it either, and that's worrying. (Atlantis was supposed to be safe. Impregnable. A fortress.)

She raises her hands as the one with the drawn pistol shoots Merry. (Is she dead? Is this an assassination? What's going on?) She takes a step forward.

And that's the last thing she knows.

#

It takes her a few minutes to remember where and when she is. Not on a mission. Not SG-1. (Not even in her own galaxy.) She strangles the heartbeat of terror—no Sam, no Cam, no Jack, Vala, Teal'c to come and find her. Alone, adrift, astray.

Her head hurts. A lot.

Merry.

Merry lies jumbled on the floor beside her, in the awkward position an unconscious body can assume when deposited by an indifferent captor. She's breathing, though. (That's something.) Wake her? Dani decides not, or not yet. Find out as much as she can, first, though her surroundings aren't being very cooperative in that regard.

Hard floor. Black space of indefinite size. (Can't see the walls, dammit.) Caged inside that space by a triangle of closely-spaced narrow green-glowing horizontal beams. She reaches out one fingertip cautiously to touch it. Flash and sound of spark-spat and blinding numbing pain. She sucks on the wounded finger, grumbling. No way out, then. (Unless and until their armored kidnappers come for them.)

Everything is silent. The only light comes from the energy beams of their cage. It's impossible to tell where they are—ship? planet? elsewhere on Atlantis? (a nice idea, but no). After about five minutes she runs out of ideas (good ones, anyway) and Merry's starting to stir. Dani kneels beside her and shakes her gently.

"Come on, come on, come on," she mutters under her breath. "You're the one who knows all the local bad guys..."

Merry opens her eyes, looking dazed for a moment, then indignant (a good sign). "What the hell happened?" she demands, sitting up.

"We've been kidnapped," Dani says.

#

She's pretty much completely unsurprised to find herself in a fucking cell. (Another fucking cell. Since joining AR-1, she's become something of a connoisseur.) She swats goddamned Dr. Jackson away and sits up, reaching for the weapon she didn't have in the first place and which the Assholes in Armor would undoubtedly have confiscated anyway. Her head is splitting and she feels like someone landed a Jumper on her, possibly multiple times. Some kind of stunner, evidently. At least that argues that the Assholes in Armor wanted them alive. (Them personally? Or just humans-from-Atlantis? Another unsolvable puzzle.) And if the Assholes in Armor went to that much trouble getting their hands on the two of them, they probably aren't going to kill them just for funsies. (Probably.)

She's not sure if it should bother her that she's more annoyed than she is afraid.

"Yess-s-s..." Merry says waspishly. "That much I managed to figure out. By whom?"

"Your galaxy," dear little Dr. Jackson points out. (Merry thinks about hitting her. Hey, they're both probably going to die here: who'd know?) What started out as a fucking shitty day (thirty-six hours ago? More? Less? Who the hell knows? Unconsciousness sucks.) has graduated to Goatfuck Condition Red. (But that's almost normal these days.) Fuck Pegasus, anyway. (Sad thing is, it's about a million times better than Earth. Even with the Wraith.)

She glares at Dr. Jackson (who doesn't notice, of course), and begins to pace (not a lot of room in here: she wonders who—or what—this cell was originally designed for). "Okay, this is not a coincidence. I mean, I discover Janus' super-secret lab and less than a day later a bunch of aliens show up, all guns blazing? Don't you think that's a little odd?"

"Your galaxy," the idiot archeologist repeats. "Is it?"

Duh.

"The lab lit up when I went in," Merry says slowly, frowning as she tries to put her memories in order and make them make sense. "Something in here—there—started broadcasting. That has to be it. The Armored Assholes came straight for the lab—there wasn't any time between Shep's call and us getting zapped for anything else—and that means they had to be following some beacon—a sub-space signal. We've come across them before," she adds (because the people they get from the SGC are even more insistent than the idiot IOA scientists that everything in Pegasus has to be just like it is back home). "They're a real-time, practically instantaneous, link between two Ancient devices. They can be separated by, like, half a galaxy, and still linked. I think it has something to do with the pocket—"

"Like cellphones," Dr. Jackson interrupts. (Really, Merry thinks she should get a medal for not murdering her.)

"Yes, Dr. Jackson," Merry says with ponderous sarcasm. "Just like an Ancient cellphone that the unknown aliens just happened to be listening to when it went live."

"So they followed it to Atlantis," Dr. Jackson says, nodding as if this makes perfect sense. "And decide to grab the two of us?"

"I don't think we were the targets," Merry says slowly, rethinking her position. "I think your "cellphone" was. It has to have been. I don't have a broadcasting subspace link and I'm guessing you don't either. Did you see them take anything?"

Apparently this question either gives the damned woman a headache or reminds her she's got one. "They zapped you, then they zapped me," she says, rubbing her eyes. "I don't even know how long we were out. Not very, I think."

"What, you're an expert?" Merry demands.

"On getting knocked out and tossed in an alien jail? Yeah, pretty much. You?"

Merry snorts, smirking a little. "Usually the jail cells are more...organic." The cell doesn't look like anything she's ever seen (from inside or out), but at least it's not Wraith (at least they're moderately likely to not be on the menu). (Probably.)

"Well, you work with what you have," Dr. Jackson says (that makes no sense at all). "So, we're captured, we're in prison, we're somewhere...probably on a ship traveling through hyperspace. What do we do now?"

"I'll think of something," Merry says absently, pacing the cage. She reaches out (somewhat incautiously) to poke an energy beam. The jolt makes her stumble backward, snarling. (The first thing everybody picks up of a new language are the obscenities; that always made Ronon laugh and it was years before he told her why.)

"Oh, I forgot to say: they zap you when you touch them," Dr. Jackson says blandly.

Merry finds herself giving little Dr. Jackson a look tinged with grudging respect. She recognizes payback when she sees it.

"I don't think there's anything we can do right now, anyway," Dr. Jackson says. To illustrate her point, the woman sits down on the floor (no chairs here in the Hostage Hilton). "They stripped us of everything but the clothing on our backs and surrounded us with laser walls. I'm not sure how much play we have here."

"We've got one thing going for us," Merry says stubbornly.

"What?" Dr. Jackson asks.

"We're not dead yet," Merry answers.

Dr. Jackson smiles at her. (Encouragingly. What the fuck?) "Good point."

Unfortunately, she also seems to be right about not being able to do anything right now. When you're in a cell on a ship, you might be going anywhere; Merry's pretty sure neither of them can fly this thing, and space is big. So when something like that happens, you don't break out. You wait. Maybe the guys who kidnapped you want to declare you their king and have forty days and nights of feasting before they sacrifice you to the volcano god. (Of course there's the bullshit about the volcano god at the end, but in the meantime you get to eat really well and you also have forty days and nights to figure out how the hell you're going to escape.)

Merry's stomach rumbles. Those Snickers bars were a long time ago.

"Yeah," Dr. Jackson says regretfully, "me too." She pats down all her pockets, but they're empty: the Armored Assholes might have left them their clothes (and Dr. Jackson's glasses), but they took everything else, including Merry's headset. Merry sighs, thinking longingly of all those bags of Cheetos back on Atlantis. And Snickers bars. And coffee. Hell, she'd even take another serving of the mac 'n cheese from the Commissary, even though it's slimy and covered in cheese sauce and she's pretty sure she's eaten it twenty eight days out of thirty in the last month.

But she doesn't say any of that. Instead she say:, "We should get try to get some sleep before the Assholes come back." (Captivity and torture suck even more when you're sleep deprived. Unfortunately Merry's speaking from experience here too.)

So they both lie down on the floor of the cell. (The floor is hard.) They have to fit themselves carefully, because the cell is triangular and neither of them wants to bump the lasers. They end up sort of head-to-foot (Merry really hopes she doesn't manage to poke her foot into the lasers somehow).

"They'll find us," she says. She knows it's a dumbass thing to say, given that they're in jail on some alien ship (and don't even know which fucking aliens) on their way to god only knows where. Dr. Jackson said they were, but she was guessing: Merry isn't. If she lies perfectly still on the floor she can feel a tiny, persistent rumble: a ship in hyperspace. If Shep were here, he'd swear up one side and down the other that she's imagining it, but she's never been wrong. (That's why she's an engineer and he's not.) That tiny rumble hints at really big engines, somewhere.

Whose?

The Wraith use the Goa'uld playbook and do their best to wipe out (to eat) any civilization that becomes too advanced (they're perfectly happy to eat anyone, really, but advanced civilizations get precedence: Sateda had spaceflight.) Dr. Weir says that there have to be other advanced civilizations in Pegasus (Fermi's Law can bite her) that they haven't met.

Looks like they're meeting one now. Whoopee shit.

She doesn't have to see Dr. Jackson's face right now to know she's giving her the same look of naked disbelief that Radek does right before he tells her she's crazy. That's almost funny: if anybody should believe her, it's Dr. Danielle Jackson, SG-1.

"Who will?" Dr. Jackson finally asks.

"AR-1." Merry doesn't believe in God (if he actually exists, she's pretty sure he doesn't actually give a shit), but she does believe in AR-1. If that's faith, then she has it.

"Sure." Dr. Jackson doesn't sound like she believes it, but she isn't scoffing either.

"We don't leave anyone behind," Merry says. Involuntarily, she finds herself thinking of Aiden Ford. "Not if we can help it, anyway."

She hears a sound, as if Dr. Jackson was about to say something and didn't. (She'd sit up and look, but she doesn't want to risk kicking the cannibal laser beams.) Not for the first time, she thinks that life would be much easier if people came with fucking subtitles.

"You said you don't even know who took us," Dr. Jackson says at last.

At least that leaves Merry on surer footing. "No," she agrees, "I don't. But if they've left behind anything Atlantis can track, Radek will find it."

"Dr. Zelenka," Dr. Jackson says. (Okay, maybe some people do come with subtitles.)

"Don't you dare tell him I said this," Merry says fiercely, "because I don't want him getting a big ego or anything, but Radek is almost as smart as I am."

Dr. Jackson makes a strangled coughing noise that Merry thinks might be a laugh she's trying to hide. Weirdly, it doesn't make her mad.

"My lips are sealed," Dr. Jackson says gravely. There's a beat of silence. "You know," she says, "you could call me 'Dani'. I think being stuck in a cell together is pretty much the equivalent of a formal introduction, you know."

Merry would be willing to swear she sounds sort of … hopeful? (The Queen of the Stargate Program worried that somebody doesn't like her? Ha.) But Merry is a scientist, and if a theory doesn't fit the facts, you throw out the theory, not the facts. And the facts are Cheetos, and six crates of coffee, and Snickers bars. (And all that's come after.)

"My team mostly calls me McKay," she says hesitantly. "But I guess you can call me Merry if you really want to." She's not sure exactly what she's supposed to do here. Shake hands? They'd both have to sit up.

"Pleased to meet you, Merry," Dr. Jackson—Dani—says formally.

"We should get some sleep," Merry says.

"Weirdest sleepover ever," Dani says. She sounds like she's smiling.

#

After about half an hour of (very careful) tossing and turning, Merry is coming to the conclusion that short of getting stunned again she's not getting sleep any time this century. She closes her eyes more tightly and grits her teeth. She's cold and hungry and uncomfortable and she's so fucking angry at the Assholes that she's practically shaking. (And somewhere deep down on a level she doesn't want to talk about ever, she knows she's scared shitless. Best not to think about that part.)

"I can't sleep," Dani says forlornly. "Sorry."

"Never mind. I can't either," Merry says.

After a bit of careful gymnastics, they're both sitting up. Cross-legged, back to back—not only does it give each of them something to lean against (more or less), but it means they can watch most of their surroundings. (Not that those surroundings look to be doing anything any time soon.)

The silence stretches, while Merry considers the fact that some aliens are actually alien and it's only their best guess that this is a (temporary) jail cell and what if the Assholes aren't coming back?

"Do you have any family back on Earth?" Dani asks.

It's a fucking nosy-ass question and Merry should tell her to fuck off, because that's a question that doesn't lead anywhere good. (She'd punch her, but she'd have to move to do that and she's just gotten almost comfortable.)

"Sorry," Dani says after a moment. "It's probably— It's none of my business."

She sounds like she means it. God knows what she heard in the silence; it's like every other human being but Dr. Meredith R. McKay speaks some kind of goddamn secret language.

It's really dark out there beyond the laser beams.

"I have a brother," Merry says finally. "Back in Canada. Jean-Paul." (She has no idea why she's telling Dani this.) "He played hockey for awhile. Professionally, I mean. Now he's a physics teacher at École Polytechnique de Montréal." She thinks of his big clever hands and his ready laugh and of arguing physics with him over pizza. Sometimes she actually lost.

"You're close," Dani says, and Merry can't tell whether she's asking or telling. (Why do people always want to talk about stupid things? Of course, it isn't as if she can discuss new ventures in N-space theory with Dr. Never Met A Soft Science She Didn't Like.)

"We tried to be." Merry thinks of awkward phone calls and heavily redacted emails and the Americans' insistence on "project security" and all the secrets she really hated keeping. The only time that hadn't been completely weird was the time he'd come to Virginia to see her over Christmas and they'd gorged themselves on junk food and played chess until 2 am and then got drunk and argued about Godel's incompleteness theorems. "The above top secret shit made it hard. And then I came here."

She could've sent him a message on the databurst. A lot of the mission keeps up with people back on Earth. She could even have sent him a letter via Daedalus or Apollo. But that would've been like shining a light on him, and more than anything she'd wanted Jean-Paul to get to make his own choices.

"If I get back," Dani says quietly, "I can take him a letter from you. No one will know."

Merry swallows hard against a sudden lump in her throat. "It's not if," Merry says firmly. "It's when. AR-1 is going to find us. Or maybe we'll bust out of here and find our own goddamn way home." We don't leave anyone behind. Shep always repeated it like a mantra. So did Ronon, once he'd learned to believe it.

"My parents died when I was eight," Dani says after a moment.

Merry's not even sure what to say to that. It's an exchange of hostages, she knows that much. (Chess makes sense. People don't.) What to offer her, other than another truth?

"Mine pretty much disowned me. I haven't talked to them in over thirty years."

Dani reaches back to put a hand on Merry's leg. (The position is as awkward as the sentiment.) Merry reaches across herself to cover it with her own. It's warm and solid and weirdly comforting. "You still have AR-1," she says.

"So do you. I mean, SG-1," Merry says.

Dani laughs, and even Merry knows it's not a happy sound. "There isn't any more SG-1. Jack and I are in Washington. Sammy is at Area 51. Cam's in Nevada. Teal'c...went back home. And god knows where Vala got to."

"They still love you," Merry says. She's pretty goddamn sure of that, because AR-1 is just like SG-1, and she wouldn't want Shep to stop watching his six just because he went back to Earth or something.

It's only after she's said it that she thinks maybe "love" was the wrong word to use. It was the right word, because it's true. But maybe it's one of those things you aren't supposed to admit you know? (People make no damned sense at all.)

"'And only I am escaped alone to tell thee,'" Dani says. She's quoting something, Merry knows that much. She just has no fucking clue what it means.

Silence again.

#

"If we don't...get back—in a reasonable time, I mean, you know—what will happen to my stuff?"

She knows Merry has to think this is the mother of all stupid questions. (Shows what Merry knows.) She'd give anything to re-do the last twenty-four hours. The first thing she should have done when she reached Atlantis was get a meeting with Elizabeth. (The Ancient Lab could have waited. It's been waiting for the last five million years, after all.) The box of tea is still wrapped up in her underwear. At least she hopes so.

And if she dies here, vanishes here, whatever, the IOA and Homeworld will suddenly, disastrously, be on the same page about Atlantis. Oh, god, coming here was the stupidest idea she's had in a lifetime of stupid ideas, and she still can't see anything else she could have done.

"They'll send it back to Earth on the next ship," Merry says finally. "Not Daedalus. They'll still be looking for us."

A few years ago the IOA wouldn't let SG-1 spend even a month searching for Cam.

"Nothing really worth sending back," Dani says. "Most of it was stuff for you guys."

"Why?" Merry asks bluntly.

"Shorting you on coffee isn't fair," Dani answers (has to say something, and a half truth is better than no truth at all). "It isn't like there's a, a, a transportation cost. Sammy told me: when you're boosting things out of gravity, like with a rocket or the Shuttle, cost-per-pound is huge, because the rocket has to lift itself and it's payload and that costs."

"Engineering 101," Merry says dismissively. "And?"

"So there's no cost when you're Asgard-beaming supplies to a ship in orbit. And it isn't as if the carriers don't have cargo space, even when they're carrying two wings of 303s. Those ships are big."

"I always figured it was because they hate us," Merry says simply. "I still can't figure out why you don't hate me."

One good thing about Merry's scattershot conversational style (pot, kettle, yeah, yeah) is that it's distracting. She doesn't want to think about Elizabeth not getting her box of tea (or, worse yet, someone else getting it), and, when Merry says that, it's an epiphany: ever since she arrived, Merry had been acting as if they were enemies of long standing. And that's simply not possible.

"Hate you?" Dani says in bewilderment. "Why would I hate you?"

#

"Merry?" Dani says again, and Merry sighs. So much for their truce. It had been nice while it lasted. (And she's brought it on herself, too. When the hell is she ever going to learn to keep her mouth shut except when it's physics?) Dr. Meredith R. McKay, PhD, PhD, hadn't exactly made a lot of friends for herself the first (or the second) time she visited Cheyenne Mountain. Fighting with Sam Carter had been more or less inevitable (arguing is the thing that scientists do best of all), but that hadn't been the unforgivable part, the part Merry's spent all the years since kicking herself for. (The part that sometimes wakes her in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, terrified that it had actually fucking happened.)

Five years after Stargate Command was up and running, she'd walked into the SGC and sentenced a man to death, and only the fact Teal'c's team was every bit as fucking stubborn as AR-1 turned out to be had kept that death sentence from becoming a reality. Never mind that Merry had thought the whole thing was about a goddamn simulation Simmons had asked her to run back at Area 51 (because that was what Dr. McKay did in those days: sit in an office and run simulations); the point was, she hadn't fucking asked. (At the time, she was too busy being pissed off about the fact that Sam Carter, Space Princess, did everything better than she did.)

That was bad enough, but even after she found out Teal'c wasn't a hypothesis, it didn't really register with her that he was someone's teammate. She didn't even understand the concept at the time. So that part of what she'd done hadn't even occurred to her until she was on Atlantis and (somehow) had a team of her own.

Ronon. Teyla. Shep. (Aidan.) She's never been able to bring herself to tell them any of it. (Blowing up a solar system takes second place, all her sins do, to the one she'll never name aloud.) Probably she deserved Russia (which directly followed her stellar turn at the SGC). Probably she should still be there, freezing her ass off in that godawful little apartment and eating borscht.

"I can't imagine any reason I'd hate you. Not one," Dani prompts. (What Merry hates right now is that her own silences are apparently so fucking communicative).

"I tried to kill Teal'c," Merry says. She's glad she and Dani aren't facing each other; she doesn't want to see Dani's face right now.

Dani scoffs. "No you didn't." (And oh god, that's just cruel. Because the last thing Merry wants to have to do right now is explain this in tiny words suitable for the intellectually challenged.)

"In the Gate buffer. 48 hours for the pattern to degrade. Remember?" Merry says tightly. (Apparently she'd been wrong: this day can totally get worse.)

Dani makes a sound Merry can't even begin to interpret. "You were set up by Simmons. We figured that out about the time we realized he was working with a snake."

Most of Dani's sentence (as usual) makes no sense, but one part is clear: Merry was set up, and everyone knew it. Everyone but her. She tries to parse what she's feeling. She's not even sure where to start. (She sucks at feelings; always has.) Mostly she's pretty sure she wants to hit something. She's not sure what. The goddamn laser beams bite, and Dani probably hits back.

"Nice of someone to tell me."

"That's pretty much why we got General Hammond to send you to Russia," Dani says, sounding utterly reasonable. (The temptation to hit her is becoming stronger.)

"Russia sucked." Russia was cold and the food was nasty and the plumbing in her apartment never worked. Oh, and she didn't fucking speak Russian, either. (Still doesn't, except for a few necessary words and phrases: Sit down. Shut up. Don't touch that. Where's my coffee?)

"Being dead is worse." Dani squeezes Merry's thigh in what (Merry supposes) is meant as a companionable gesture. Oh well. It's not like this could get any more awkward. Or make any less sense.

"I'm not sure what dead has to do with anything," Merry says finally. "Unless you mean Carter. I think I really pissed in her Cheerios."

"Simmons would have killed you," Dani says, speaking slowly and clearly in what Merry thinks is probably her 'talking to idiots' voice. "He went to jail over what he did, but all he would have had to do was get a message out. And that—clearly—was not a problem for him."

"Simmons was my boss." Kinda, sorta. As much as anyone had been after the military grabbed the Program away from Dr. Langford and then a bunch of E-ring generals started comparing dicks to try to figure out who it belonged to now. (Not the people who'd babysat it to life for fifteen fucking years, that's for sure.) Bosses don't kill people.

"Simmons was the head of NID after Harry Maybourne," Dani says with something Merry thinks might be patience. "And he certainly tried to kill all of us a lot of times." (By 'us', Merry figures she must mean SG-1.) "And then he stole Prometheus before it was finished and ended up dead."

"Oh." Merry says (she isn't going to give Dani the satisfaction of asking how Frank Simmons stole a starship while in jail). Because what the fuck else is there to say, really? "I hate the alphabet agencies."

"So that's why you had to go to Russia," Dani says.

"Thanks," Merry says. "I think." Was Russia better than death? Some days she hadn't been sure. (Not that she'd known, at the time, that's what her choices were, either.)

After a moment, Dani goes on: "I liked seeing you again, even if we all thought Earth was going to be destroyed by Anubis. But Russia was really pissed about the 302 program, so you had to go back there. But when we started excavating the Ancient Outpost, everyone knew most of that team would be going on to Atlantis if we could find it, and I made sure you were transferred to Antarctica. It was an international civilian program, so Russia was okay with it. I thought you'd like it."

"You mean you saw the one chance you'd ever have to send me somewhere even fucking colder than Russia," Merry says lightly.

And after a long pause, gratifyingly, Dani laughs.

#

After that, Dani tries a number of what Merry supposes are conversational gambits (Shep always talked about football when they were in prison together: it took her ages to figure out why), but they don't find a topic in common until they get to chess. They play a couple of blindfold games until Dani's leaning all of her weight against Merry and her moves make no sense at all.

At least somebody's getting some sleep. Too bad it isn't her, but after what feels like about six hours (or maybe forever), Merry feels the faint trembling of the deck plates under her ass accelerate for about half a second and then stop.

Ship's dropped out of hyperspace. Apparently wherever they've been going, they're here. She wonders how far they are from Atlantis—can't really even begin to make a back-of-the-envelope guess without knowing how long they were unconscious. Wherever they are, she hopes the Assholes' engines leaked radiation all over the goddamn place so that AR-1 can follow them back to their Secret Asshole Lair and blow their Asshole asses to hell. (Probably that's uncharitable of her. She doesn't give a fuck.)

She thinks about saying something to Dani, but it's not like they can do much in the meantime to get ready for … whatever. Despite the campfire tales circulating among the Marines, even she can't MacGyver much of a weapon out of boot laces, shirt buttons, and their underwear. She takes what comfort she can (none) from knowing that at least one of them is going to go into Goatfuck Condition Red a little bit rested.

Around the time the ship enters atmosphere, Dani wakes up from her sort-of nap. There's never any mistaking that stomach-lurching transition from artificial gravity to the real thing (and Merry has yet to meet a civilization advanced enough to build a ship where you can't feel it. You even feel it in the Jumpers, and the Ancients built those, so she suspects it just can't be done).

"I think we're here," Dani says, rubbing her eyes.

"Yeah," Merry says. "Wherever the hell 'here' is."

"I guess we're about to find out."

#

Not long after that, three Assholes show up, still wearing their Asshole Armor. They're all armed. Lovely. (So much for making a break for it into the wilds of whatever brave fucking new world they've landed on.) It's a minor point of interest that Merry can now see the space they were being held in: it looks like every abandoned hangar-or-warehouse she's ever seen. One of them pokes his wrist, and the lasers shut off.

Of course that's Dani's cue to stand up and start talking.

"Hello, my name is Danielle Jackson. This is my friend Merry McKay. We're peaceful explorers and mean you no harm. If we could just—"

Two of the Assholes step forward while the other one points his gun at them. One of them grabs Dani by the arm and her collar. "Merry, run," she says in a prison-yard whisper, but it's too late (it doesn't matter that there's nowhere to run to: it falls under Shep's heading of "making new friends everywhere we go").

The cold of the armor seeps through the sleeve of Merry's uniform. The other gauntlet, pressed against the nape of her neck, burns like ice. (This is shaping up to be a really wonderful visit.) The Assholes don't even bother to see if they'll come along quietly: they're dragged.

It's about six city blocks' worth of Industrial Grunge Alien Spaceship, and the temperature is dropping every meter. When they reach an open hatch (and get dragged through it) the reason becomes clear, and the approximately thirty seconds (it feels like an eternity) that they spend being frog-marched across the tarmac at Alien Asshole International Spaceport is enough to convince her she's actually glad no one gave them the opportunity to run. They've apparently landed in the middle of a raging blizzard. (Middle of winter? Middle of summer? Permanent state of affairs? Who the fuck knows with an alien planet. Especially when you're talking about Planet Asshole.) The wind that slices straight through her clothes (apparently Assholes don't believe in providing prisoners with niceties like winter jackets, and she bets Dani isn't doing much better) is cold enough to make February in Moscow seem positively tropical. This is the kind of weather where they warn you that any exposed skin is likely to develop frostbite in under five minutes. This is the kind of weather where they cancel school in Saskatchewan.

She's willing to bet the Assholes' armor is heated. Fucking Armored Alien Assholes.

The inside of the building feels like an oven in comparison. There, Asshole #3 departs, to be replaced by his twin brother, who's carrying either an Asshole Easy Bake Oven or some device looted from Janus's Lab: she can't get a good look at it. (Whatever the hell the Device does, Merry is willing to bet it's nothing good. People don't generally kidnap other people over stuff that's going to produce world peace and unicorns and rainbows.)

Fortunately by the time Merry has a chance to finish that thought, they're out of the wind and in some kind of underground complex. She's shivering too hard to really take a good look around, but when she's able to pay attention to anything beyond the chattering of her goddamn teeth and the burning pain in her half-frozen hands and feet, she has an impression of long corridors branching off at intervals.

The lighting is soft and muted. The architecture is unmistakably Ancient. (Ding-ding-ding-we've got a winner! Shep's voice says in her imagination.) The sconces, Merry notices, look pretty much exactly like the ones on Atlantis. She wonders if that means anything. But if the installation is Ancient, the Asshole Armor sure as hell isn't (Merry's never seen it before, but she knows what Ancient tech looks like, and the armor doesn't even come close).

I bet the Assholes need us because they can't make the Device work. Whatever the hell it does.

The thought fills her with a sense of triumph that cuts through her frozen misery. That gives them a bargaining chip. Or at the very least, one hell of a delaying tactic.

And (she notes distantly), Dani has never once stopped talking.

"Look, can we talk to somebody in charge? I think there's been a bit of a misunderstanding. There's no need to treat us this way. If you need our help, we'll be perfectly happy to offer it; while I can't speak for Elizabeth Weir, of course, I'm certain that she'd be happy to do anything in her power to—"

The only thing that interrupts the monologue is their arrival at their destination. Thing One and Thing Two drag them into the middle of the room and shove them forward while Thing Three drops the Toaster Oven of the Gods into a console in the center of the lab (because there's nothing else this place could be besides a lab). Apparently that's just where the Device belongs, because the fucking thing lights up all happy-like and a viewscreen behind it comes to life.

(Merry doesn't like what this implies either. Generally when an important part of some piece of tech winds up clear across the galaxy from where it belongs courtesy of its own inventor, it means that said piece of tech does something bad. Like blowing up star systems. Great. Wonderful.)

She could have predicted the first (the only) words out of the Asshole's (the one who'd been carrying the Device) mouth, because they're straight out of the Evil Alien Overlord Playbook: "Get the Device operational." Yeah, no surprises there.

Her protest is automatic. "We don't even know what it is!" (Why should she expect the Assholes to care about a little detail like that? Dr. Weir never does.)

Whereupon (of course), the three Assholes turn and walk self-importantly through the doors. Which, naturally, slide shut behind them. "Fuck you too, Talky McSays-a-lot," Merry mutters under her breath, but she's already walking toward the doors. (The room looks a lot like Janus's Secret Janus Lair on Atlantis. Only a lot bigger and a lot shinier.)

The doors don't open. She doesn't really expect them to. There's a spot by the doors where a control panel used to be; the panel's been removed and a piece of metal has been welded tidily over the hole. This tells her that the Assholes don't know a damned thing about Dr. Meredith R. McKay, because after a decade in Pegasus she knows her way around Ancient tech almost as well as she knows her way around Earth tech, and she's been hotwiring broken doors on Atlantis for years now. (The City of the Ancients is still a fucking mess, world without end, Selah.) A glance around the lab tells her that the Assholes have even thoughtfully left her tools (probably to fix the Device, but who the fuck cares?). Merry's willing to bet this place is the central headquarters of Secret Janus Labs Incorporated, and it looks pretty much intact. Under any other circumstances, the thought would fill her with uncontrollable glee.

At the moment, it only fills her with a sinking sensation of oh fuck.

"Oh great!" she says loudly (smile pretty for the cameras, as Shep would say, but even when they first met there wasn't one dammed thing he could tell Merry McKay about living a lie). "Sealed shut and they've removed the door controls from this side!" She hopes she isn't overplaying it; acting requires some knowledge of people, and it's usually Shep's job anyway. Then again, the Assholes don't seem to have any more in the way of social skills than she does, so maybe it's okay.

Dani is looking at her sidelong. Merry gives her what she hopes is a very tiny smirk. This whole communicating-with-subtle-facial-expressions thing is really goddamn hard.

But whatever Merry's face actually looks like in reality, Dani seems to understand what she's trying to get across. Because she asks (sounding dumber than even the average practitioner of the soft sciences), "Where the hell are we?"

Merry puts on her own talking-to-idiots voice. (She has to admit that she probably doesn't need to, but the look on Dani's face is worth it.) "Well, I'd say, judging by the Lantean architecture, I'd guess, you know, it's a secret Janus facility. Which is probably bad for us, because it probably means it's hard to find. Ancients, you know." (Apparently the Secret Janus Lair on Atlantis was just a branch office. The universe isn't fucking fair.)

"So I guess that means no rescue anytime soon," Dani says in dejected tones. And then she winks at Merry.

"Nope," Merry says, "no rescue for us. Noooooooo rescue. We are prisoners. Helpless prisoners." She walks over to the Device. "Does this look familiar to you?"

Dani follows her over. "It looks like something that was in Janus's lab."

"Guess we know what your 'cellphone' looks like," Merry mutters. "At least we know why they brought us with them."

"To get the device operational," Dani says obediently. "But what does it do?"

"Only way to find out is to turn it on," Merry says. "So lets fire up these consoles and see what we're dealing with."

Dani bows theatrically and gestures toward the console. "We have no choice," she says, as if she's reading something out loud. "Because we are helpless prisoners of unknown yet powerful forces."

Time to get to work.

#

She's trying not to think of where they are, because by the time they got to wherever the fuck the Assholes wanted them, she was pretty sure they're at least a mile under the fucking ground. (She's flashing back to Cheyenne Mountain, and probably Dani is too; turns out this place makes her just as goddamn claustrophobic as the Mountain had, too.) Gotta be something about being able to calculate exactly how many tons of solid rock are probably sitting on top of them right now. (Without knowing anything about Planet Asshole's geology, it's just an estimate because density, but even on the low end the number's a lot bigger—a whole lot bigger—than Merry likes.)

Too deep for Daedalus's Asgard sensors to find them. Yes? No? Maybe? And that's assuming Daedalus can track them here in the first place.

"Do you think the Ancients like ice?" Dani asks.

"How the fuck should I know?" Merry snaps. This is the point at which (usually) her personal interactions go tits up, but Dani just shrugs.

"We just keep finding their stuff on glaciated worlds," Dani says. "And sure, after a few thousand millennia the ice melts—or forms—but either way, you have to figure they like ice."

"Machinery generates heat," Merry says absently. Apparently the Assholes managed to break at least some of Janus's encryption, because a bunch of Janus's notes are accessible on one of the consoles. (Merry sincerely hopes it was by brute force, using really fucking big computers, because the notion that the Assholes might have managed to successfully fight their way through that rats' nest of mathematical proofs and incomprehensible cultural references is somehow intolerable). Of course, because the Universe clearly hates Dr. McKay and Dr. Jackson, the notes have also been heavily redacted and enormous chunks have been ripped out wholesale, sometimes midsentence. What's left for Merry to work with is a jumbled mess of incomplete technical specs, N-space math, and fragmentary paragraphs filled with standard-issue Ancient doublespeak. Good times. But it isn't all bad: the Assholes have also left Merry with access to at least some of the facility's systems (she supposes they'd have to, if they have any real interest in her getting the Device working. A quick once-over tells her that this place has the exact same fire-suppression systems that Atlantis does, which means they probably have an easy way out of Secret Janus Lair 2.0 (or is this one 1.0 and the one on Atlantis 2.0? Never mind). Of course, before she plays this particular hole card she'd really like to know how closely the Assholes are watching them and whether they'll have anywhere to go besides the surface once they get out of the Secret Janus Lair, since at least they're alive down here and they'd be dead in short order Upstairs. (Maybe Dani's right. Maybe the Ancients just like ice.) "It's easier to bleed off waste heat if you're sitting on top of a glacier at the time." (She'd also like to know what the Device does and why the Assholes want it. Sue her.)

"Wouldn't it flood?" Dani asks, as if she's been waiting her whole life to have this conversation and it's the entire point of her existence.

"You mean the ice would melt. Yes. Temporarily. After which it would freeze again in a denser form. And none of it would matter if your secret volcano lair had adequate drainage."

For some reason this apparently strikes Dani as funny. "Can I help?" she asks, waving at the screen.

"Not unless you can get a theoretical astrophysics degree in less than five minutes," Merry says.

Dani leaves off studying whatever she's been looking at (probably some design on the wall that gives her Insight Into the Ancient Mind, because all fucking social scientists are like that) and comes to stare over Merry's shoulder at the screen on the wall. (She does this by resting her pointy little chin on Merry's shoulder and sighing. If it were anyone else, Merry would punch her in the nose, but weirdly she doesn't mind it, coming from Dani.)

"That's Janus's lab notes—I recognize the symbol sequence—but it doesn't look like anything but gibberish to me," Dani says. "Is it still encrypted?"

"It's N-space math," Merry says. "We mere humans have been poking at it for awhile, but the Ancients … they perfected it. They'd have to've, to build the Stargate network. Took me two years of pretty solid work after we got here to even start to get a handle on it."

"You read Ancient," Dani says. She's really good at asking questions by making statements, apparently.

"No thanks to those third-rate linguists the IOA sent us. Dealing with them is like watching someone try to translate 'General Theory of Relativity and the Law of Motion' using a picture dictionary." She'd learned to read Ancient out of self defense, really. If she'd kept relying on the linguists for translations, the Atlantis mission would have blown themselves to hell inside of three months. They kept arguing about nuance and context and multiple possible translations rather than paying attention to the big red letters that said 'DO NOT TOUCH THIS BUTTON UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES OR YOU WILL BE SORRY.'

"You're not a linguist." Again with the statements.

Merry shrugs. Dani's chin digs into her shoulder. "No. Physics, aerospace engineering, and theoretical math. Three-dimensional math is three-dimensional math anywhere in the universe, once you figure out the base system and the notation. Between that and the Speak-n-Spell, I managed to put together the basics."

"You used math as a Rosetta Stone," Dani says. She sounds … impressed?

"What's a Rosetta Stone?" Probably it's some fluffybunny thing.

Dani sighs heavily and hugs her from behind. "Never mind." (People don't make any goddamned sense.)

#

It takes several hours for Merry to even begin to make heads or tails of Janus's notes. It would probably be easier with coffee or, you know, breakfast. She's not sure how long it's been since they last ate, other than entirely too damned long. Without adrenaline, her blood sugar would be in the toilet right now: there's something to be said for terror.

"Hey, Assholes," she calls toward the door, a couple of hours in, "you know us human being type people need to eat and drink and stuff, right?" But apparently either the Assholes aren't listening that closely or they don't give a fuck, so she goes back to work. With her luck, most of their cuisine would be citrus-based anyway.

In between staring at Ancient lab notes until her brain hurts, she paces the lab (Dani sits and stares off into the distance like a cat Merry used to own). It's got a nice little window in it, too (a mile underground?) but the window only looks into another chamber, brightly-lit and eerily blue. It holds the largest subspace emitter Merry's ever seen flanked by two equally-large antennae. Designed to work with the Toaster? She has no idea, but at least by now she's found its schematics. (In pieces, of course: fuck the Assholes anyway.) She pieces them together so that they make sense (okay, they don't exactly make sense, but they're certainly more coherent than they were), and what she has is something like a hyperdrive, if someone took a hyperdrive and turned it inside out. Multiple subspace emitters, just like a hyperdrive. Big ones, probably even bigger than the ones in the engines of the enormous Ancient capital ships that everyone's read about but no one's ever seen. (Aurora was a rowboat by comparison: she'd like to devote some time to trying to find one of the big ones, except that they're always too busy fighting the goddamn Wraith or trying to keep the city from winding up on the bottom of the ocean because of the latest technical glitch. Or, you know, getting kidnapped by Assholes.) And that would be a wonderful and soothing explanation except for the little problem that the arrangement of the emitters doesn't make any goddamned sense.

Arranged like this, they couldn't possibly create a hyperspace window. Mostly they'd just … make a mess. And they'd draw an enormous amount of power—a fucking impossible amount of power—while they were doing it. There's no way a ship could carry a set of emitters like this. To get that kind of power, Janus would have had to tap a planet's core.

A planet's core.

Struck by that thought, she gets up and walks slowly over to the observation window again. Now that she has a hunch about what she's looking at, the jumble of antennas and power conduits and pieces of machinery beyond the window sorts itself out into something that makes sense. The emitters on the Toaster make no sense because they aren't. Emitters. Not exactly. They're an intermediate stage. A tuner. Something that shunts a signal to...

The scale of the thing raises goosebumps on her arms. At least ten—probably closer to fifteen—times bigger than the biggest ship engine she's ever laid eyes on. And when you're talking hyperspace (or subspace, which is basically the same thing when it comes right down to it), things don't scale linearly. They scale exponentially.

She looks from the window to the Toaster, seated in its little console and glowing cheerfully.

"Jesus Christ." She doesn't realize she's said it aloud until Dani appears in her peripheral vision.

"You figured something out."

She's getting used to Dani's not-questions. At least Dani doesn't babble at her when she's trying to think. She's better than most people that way, even Radek.

"This facility's tapped into some pretty serious power generation. I've never seen anything like it before," Merry says. "Tapping a planet's core is just fucking suicidal unless you know exactly what you're doing. But Janus took the risk. He had to."

Dani just looks at her, waiting for the punchline.

"I think I know what this thing does," Merry says hesitantly, feeling as though saying it aloud is going to make it real. (Which is stupid. The fucking Toaster is already sitting right there, real as death and taxes.) "I think it's an endgame device." Those emitters might not be big enough to reach clear through Pegasus, but they're sure as hell sufficiently large to reach most of it.

And that the fact that someone (even an Ancient as fucking crazy as goddamned Janus) built it—the real thing, not just a vastly scaled-down proof-of-concept mockup—tells her just how badly the Ancients must have been losing the war against the Wraith. Put a decimal point in the wrong place when you're designing something like this, and you'll wind up ripping apart spacetime instead of just making life hard (okay, really hard) for the Wraith.

"Endgame," Dani says, "as in blowing up the galaxy?" Merry thinks that she sounds more resigned than she does shocked. Apparently she knows what the bastard Ancients were capable of too.

"Not quite," Merry says. "But it would sure as hell put an end to the Wraith once and for all—if it works the way I think it does."

Dani blinks, digesting this. "How does someone flip a switch and kill all the Wraith in Pegasus?"

"I didn't say it killed them." She's groping for a way to explain this to Dani, who isn't going to understand the physics of the thing. (Physics that scare Merry shitless, to be quite frank. Fucking with subspace isn't smart on a good day, and this hasn't been a good day.) "But it would stop them dead in their tracks."

"How?"

"It creates a very specific kind of sub-space static." No, that isn't the right word. Translating things into layman's terms has always been her Achilles heel, and right now that fucking sucks because it's kind of an emergency. She shakes her head in frustration. "No. Turbulence. Turbulence is probably a better way to think about it. Turbulence in one particular subspace band."

"Which …?" Dani is frowning, and looks like she might be narrowly restraining herself from making 'go faster' gestures.

And probably Merry shouldn't be explaining this, because the Assholes are no doubt listening. Then again, the two of them probably wouldn't be here if the Assholes didn't know what the Toaster was for. "Okay, look. Um, although they all work on basically the same technological premise—because they have to—that's just physics—each race—that we know of—that has a hyperdrive—has a slightly different type of hyperdrive. Ours are based on the Asgard drive with our own little twist, the Ancients had their own particular type of system, and the Wraith … you already know all this, don't you?"

"Now I know how Jack felt," Dani mutters. "Some of it. Keep going."

"Anyway, at a base level, a hyperdrive lets you travel vast distances by entering and exiting subspace … which you already also know. I keep forgetting that just because you don't know math, it doesn't mean you're a complete idiot. Never mind." She takes Dani's arm and leads her over to the console where they can both regard the Device balefully. "If this fucking thing is actually capable of functioning safely—and that's a big goddamned if—it disrupts the specific subspace frequencies the Wraith use."

"So when it's turned on, they can't engage their hyperdrive?" Dani asks tenatively.

"Oh, it's better than that," Merry says. She can't decide how she feels about Janus's little war-toy. Impressed? Furious? She guesses it doesn't matter; Janus is long gone, so she'll never have a chance to take it up with him. "They'd be able engage their hyperdrives just fine. But their particular subspace band would be destabilized all to hell. Their ship would be ripped into a zillion little pieces the instant they tried to go anywhere."

Dani whistles softly. "When the Device is turned on, every time a Wraith ship enters hyperspace it will self-destruct?" Merry nods shakily. "That's a pretty effective idea."

"Yeah," Merry agrees. "And even if they other Wraith got wind of it somehow, they wouldn't be able to go anywhere. They'd be stuck using sublight engines in the interest of not becoming one with the stuff of the universe."

"And since the Ancients use a different subspace band, they could just fly around Pegasus and pick off the Wraith."

"Or just leave them to starve to death out there in the vastness of space."

Merry and Dani just look at each other, because they both know that's more the fucking Ancients' speed. If she were a nearly-omnipotent being, Merry would at least bother to give a shit about the other inhabitants of the universe once in awhile.

"There's a catch," Dani says after a few more beats of silence. She's eyeing the Toaster like it might jump up and bite her. "There's always a catch."

"Yeah," Merry agrees. "The catch is that Janus ran a three-day test about ten thousand years ago and then shut the whole fucking project down and took that thing," she jerks a thumb at the Toaster, "back to Atlantis and far away from this place. His notes say something about 'unforeseen side effects.'"

"Which are...?"

"I have exactly no fucking clue," Merry says, starting to pace again. "You see, our friends out there edited Janus's notes with a fucking chain saw."

"That's never a good sign." Dani folds her arms and leans against the wall.

"Yeah, no," Merry says, stopping. "And this is the key to... everything. Janus took it back to Atlantis, but he kept it connected to the systems here. God knows why."

"They seem to think we can make it operational," Dani says neutrally. "'We' meaning you, of course."

"Oh, I have no doubt that we can." That's not arrogance talking; that's just a fact. The Toaster doesn't actually seem to be broken, and she has the schematics for the whole subspace-busting suicide machine right here in front of her. She's fixed Ancient devices that actually were broken with a whole lot less to go on. "I'm just not sure we should."

She goes back to pacing. Finally Dani says, "Merry? You okay?"

"Yeah," she says shrugging. But somehow she doesn't feel like pretending she's just fine (even though she knows it's what she's supposed to do For The Sake of The Mission or some shit like that). "No. The last time I went down this road, I … I kinda destroyed a solar system."

Because that's what you get when you play with the big kids' toys.

#

Never mind that they're both probably going to die here anyway (if it was Merry trying to find them, Dani would be more hopeful, but she doesn't think AR-1 is going to ride to the rescue this time, and SG-1 is gone), she can tell that it's something else that's scared Merry more than half to death. Dani can't follow the science, but Merry's trying to pretend she isn't scared, and that alone tells Dani depth of the kimchee that they're standing in (as Jack might say; she wonders if she'll ever fully inventory the collection of lexical quirks that have colonized her internal monologue; probably not, if she's going to die in the next day or so). Not just bad. Not just death. But right up the scale to holocaust and Armageddon and The End of All Things. (It's the Ancients' favorite party-trick: they've had two do-overs that Dani knows about and left behind enough toys for Anubis to make a try for three.) And it's obvious that Merry knows exactly what the lightbulbs are capable of (knows how little anything ever matters to them besides winning, even if winning means wiping out all life within a billion light-year radius). Probably Merry knows that better than anyone, seeing as she's been studying Ancient technology for the better part of two decades. (Seeing as she taught herself Ancient with nothing more than the Speak-n-Spell and a bunch of mathematical equations.)

Dani finds herself thinking of Leroy Jethro Gibbs (down in the dark quiet of his basement while he planed minor imperfections from the hull of a boat), of him telling her that to catch a criminal, sometimes you have to to think like a criminal. (He still hasn't told her what happened in Poland, and now she thinks he'll never get the chance.)

"The last time I went down this road I… I kinda destroyed a solar system".

(These metaphysics of magicians And necromantic books are heavenly; Lines, circles, scenes, letters, and characters ... O what a world of profit and delight, Of power, of honour, of omnipotence Is promised to the studious artisan! ... But fearful echoes thunder in mine ears "Faustus, thou art damn'd!")

How many tiny pieces of her soul does Merry lose each time she touches one of the lightbulbs' infernal devices?)

"I'm not too keen about experiencing those unforeseen side effects," Dani says.

Merry turns to face her, eyes wide and dark even in the lab's brightness, her face as still as if she's gazed upon Medusa. Dani can see the pulsebeat leaping in her throat as she gazes on a devastation only she can see.

"What do we do?" she asks. (And Merry never asks for help; Dani is as sure of this as if they've worked together for years: asking is vulnerability, punctures invincibility, leaves a hundred thousand ways for the waiting leering enemy to drag you down and eat you.)

Delivering solutions has never been Dani's job, but this time it has to be. There's no one else.

"Simple," she says. "We...ah, we reason with them."

#

It's not that easy, of course. First they have to get their attention. Yelling doesn't work, or banging on the door with their fists, and finally Dani pulls off one of her boots and uses it to bang with.

The sound echoes.

Suddenly the door opens (Merry grabs her around the waist and drags her backward) and one of the armored aliens is standing there (Dani tries not to call them the "Assholes in Armor" even in her mind: telepathy is more than a punchline and she wants to talk, not fight.)

The back of her mind (which usually leads a gay mad unfettered life all its own, checking back with her at intervals) is saying that the fact he's still in armor is damned strange since the two of them are unarmed and (at a best guess) mostly harmless and no one is likely to be shooting at the aliens in their very own top-secret Crazy Ancient Mad Scientist Lair. If it's not alien SWAT gear, then what is it? (Occam's razor, Sammy's voice whispers in memory.)

Of course, there's a reason someone might just keep on wearing their nice full-coverage protective armor in a perfectly safe environment with a perfectly breathable atmosphere. Dani knows it because she's used exactly that tactic: the really useful thing about armor is that no one knows what you look like under there. (No one goes to that much trouble to hide their appearance without a good reason. Now the memory-voice is Jethro's.)

So just who exactly is under those suits, and what is it they don't want their captives to know (other than anything at all about Janus's notes)?

"Is the device operational?" The voice is highly modulated. No way to tell the sex, or even the species, of whatever's under that suit of armor.

"No!" Merry snaps, stepping forward. "Are you out of your fucking Asshole mind? Do you even know what that thing does? Probably not, because if you had any goddamn sense—"

And Dani moves before she's even aware of it, putting herself in between Merry and whatever's wearing that armor (even though it's useless, just as it always was, and is, and ever shall be, worlds and universes without end).

"I'm hungry, I'm thirsty, I'm tired, and I want to pee," Merry is saying loudly. "You know, Asshole, we might work a little more efficiently if you actually fed us at some point."

The alien swivels its head to look at Dani, and the words start spilling out of her mouth in a riverine rush, an uncontrollable reflex, as if words did any good (she used to think they did, but that was long ago). "Look—look—look—this is—as I said before—all this is, is just a big misunderstanding, and if we could just sit down and talk things over with whoever is in charge I know we could come to a mutually-acceptable conclusion that would be to the benefit of all of us. We know what the device does—we, we, we know you're excited about the possibility of ending the Wraith's reign over this galaxy once and for all—and of course we all want that, and I know you're hoping this is the solution—but the reality is that this device and this facility were abandoned by their creator for a very good reason—you see, um, it doesn't work—not properly—at least, not safely—from what my friend—from what Dr. McKay—can tell, and—"

"This is because messing with subspace on this scale is dangerous," Merry interrupts. " Not to mention fucking stupid, which if you had half a brain you'd know already, but clearly—"

Whatever's under the armor continues staring at Dani impassively. Dani takes Merry's arm. "Look," she says placatingly, interrupting before Merry has a chance to call their captor a suicidal fuckwit (or worse), "clearly we share the same goal. If we share information perhaps we'll find out that our two races have many things in common, things we could share to our mutual benefit, but to get the device working safely, we'd have to contact our people and bring in a much larger science team—see, I'm not that kind of scientist—and what my friend here is trying—"

The helmet swivels to regard Merry. Merry opens her mouth. Dani reaches across herself to take Merry's hand and squeeze it. Merry closes her mouth again (fuming).

"Get the device operational within one hour," the creature in the armor says, and raises a finger to point at Dani. "Or I kill her. Do you understand?"

"Yes," Merry says, in an unnaturally steady voice. (Dani thinks of the reports she's read on AR-1; the things they said, and the things they didn't say.) "Yes, I understand."

"Good."

#

The doors open. The Asshole turns, walks through the doors and out. Calmly, like it's just made the most reasonable request in the world. When it turns its back, Merry flips it the bird. (Mature, McKay. Super mature.) It makes her feel a little better, anyway.

And Dani's just standing there, looking like there's nothing out of the ordinary going on. (Maybe in her life there isn't; Merry's heard the stories about SG-1. They can't all be lies.) She picks up her boot, and sits down to put it on. "So what are we going to do now?" she asks.

"What the hell do you mean 'what are we going to do now?' You heard him—he just said he's going to kill you if we don't get it working!" (Playing for the cameras. Yes, no, maybe. The thought of the Asshole shooting Dani makes her feel things she can't parse, but she knows she doesn't like them.)

"It might be a female under there," Dani points out irrelevantly. "Or a member of some alien race that's actually genderless. You really can't tell with all that armor."

"Jesus Christ, you stupid bitch!" And Merry's mad now; she's yelling, and it doesn't matter that Ronon and Shep and even Teyla (all in their own ways; Aiden did too) told her (repeatedly) that the worst thing she can possibly do in the field is let her emotions get the better of her, she doesn't fucking care because Dani's sitting here calmly and looking like she thinks getting her brains blown out is maybe the good option. "You heard him! Or her! Or it! There! Are you happy? The fucking Armored Asshole is talking about permanent fatal death here! Your permanent fatal death! And you want to worry about political correctness?"

Dani just shrugs one shoulder, staring at her shoes.

Merry turns away to stare out the little window again. She can see the massive antennas just waiting to project waves of turbulence into the Wraith bands of subspace. She wonders how far the turbulence will spread. With a little more time, she could make the calculation. "What else can I do?" Merry asks, not turning around.

"There's always a choice," Dani says. "Don't do it. They obviously can't make it work without you. And if it's going to destroy a solar system when you turn it on, let's … not."

"And then what?" Merry demands, turning around. Dani isn't looking at her. Dani's looking at the schematic that's still up on the viewscreen, just as if it makes sense to her. Merry's fighting to keep her voice even. Persuasive. Mature. ("Women can't cope with the demands placed on their intellects by the hard sciences because women are flighty by nature and tend to hysteria." She forgets now which of her professors said that during a lecture.) This is really not the time to have to find out that the kid is suicidally crazy. "This place has the same sensor suite Atlantis has, and they're probably a hell of a lot more operational, so it's not like—even if we can actually get out of here," (that would actually be the easy part, but it's not as if Merry is going to fucking announce it when the Assholes are probably listening to every word they're saying) "—we're actually going to be able to hide anywhere in the facility. Whatever ships they have, we can't fly, even if we can get to them, and that leaves Door Number Three: the great outdoors, a place that will kill us just as fast as the Assholes would."

"There's a fourth option," Dani says quietly. "We can smash the device." She's still not looking at Merry. What the hell happened to 'if it can't be done, send SG-1?' (The first time she heard that phrase—and several of its variations—she'd laughed; later she hadn't laughed in quite the same way; later still, she adapted it and made Aiden laugh: "If it can't be done, send AR-1: why settle for two enemies when you can have four?")

"No," Merry says firmly. "No, no, no. That's a bad idea. That's a really fucking bad idea. That's like worst ideas in human history levels of bad. That's like ideas-the-IOA-thinks-are-smart levels of bad. No. We're not going there."

"Look, Merry—" Dani says.

And Merry isn't any fucking good at people, but she doesn't need to be in order to predict the bullshit that's just about to come out of Dani Jackson's mouth, and she doesn't want to hear any crap about how how Gate teams all know that someday they might have to make the ultimate sacrifice for the greater good and blah blah blah.

"Shut up. You probably think this martyrdom bullshit is noble, but let's talk about reality. So you let the Assholes blow your brains out—or whatever: dead is dead and who cares how—and go off to Heaven or wherever the fucking fuck The Woman Who Opened The Stargate is going to go in the afterlife—not that I think there is an afterlife, which isn't the point here—and you know what's going to happen next besides you being all dead?" She's yelling again, and Dani is looking really irritated, and Merry doesn't fucking care. "Here's what's going to happen: I'm still alive and the Device is still here, and guess what: since you aren't the person who can actually make the Device work, you've managed to accomplish exactly fuck all." The next words rise up in her throat, choking her, and she refuses to say them: And then the Assholes will just find a different way to torture me until I give them what they want and what good will it do either of us you being dead? (Ronon says everyone has a breaking point. Everyone. She believes him.)

Merry's eyes burn and her cheeks feel suspiciously damp. She turns her back, face burning, and scrubs at her eyes with her sleeve. She can feel Dani's eyes on her anyway. Now she knows what Shep means when he talks about knowing someone's staring at you. She'd always thought he was making it up until now.

"I'm not 'The Woman Who Opened the Stargate,'" Dani says finally. She doesn't sound mad. She just sounds tired.

"Sure you are," Merry says, not turning around. "Everyone says so. Besides, you're the one who did what none of the rest of us managed to do: open a wormhole to another planet."

"God, I hate Emmett Bregman," Dani says quietly. She laughs, a little jaggedly. "Oh, god, you have no idea."

Merry turns around. Dani gives her a tiny smile and pats the floor beside her invitingly. (No chairs in here. What did Janus have against chairs? Or did he have an absolute favorite chair and take it back to Atlantis with him and that's why there aren't any chairs here?) Merry sits down beside her, making sure to keep frowning so Dani doesn't think she's capitulating or anything.

"That documentary is pretty bad," Merry says, after a few moments. She'd watched it once—mostly out of morbid curiosity—it was one of the standard orientation pieces for people entering the Program after 2003.

"And it's going to follow me for the rest of my natural life," Dani says wearily. "And it isn't true. It's—It's—It's infotainment. All I did was find the right phone number to dial. Translating the Coverstone—which is all I did—would have been worthless without all the work you and Sammy and Barbara and Catherine and everyone else on Project Giza did for fifteen years before I ever showed up. Without you guys, the Gate would have just been a… a big pretty lump of metal. An interesting artifact."

"Proof that you were right all along about aliens having been on Earth," Merry points out. She knows the official legend (Aiden swore it was true) that Dr. Jackson's insistence on aliens founding Earth's civilization was what got her dumped from U. C. Berkeley. Merry also knows that Dani's never going to get an apology (or an acknowledgement that she was right all along), even if the all details of the Program eventually go public. Academia doesn't believe in apologies. "Is it true the SGC used to brown out half of Colorado Springs every time you dialed the Gate?"

(Truce?)

Dani chuckles. (Truce accepted) "It got to the point we were starting to run out of excuses to give NORAD." She puts an arm around Merry, very carefully. "So, genius, what are we going to do?"

Merry takes a deep breath. "We're going to turn it on," she says. Dani flinches and starts to open her mouth and Merry holds up a minatory hand before she can start up again with any self-abnegating martyr-type bullshit. "Janus ran it for three days, and this solar system is still here and the Device didn't wipe out all life in Pegasus or anything." Three days is a pretty good grace period by Pegasus standards. Maybe by then AR-1 will have shown up, or she and Dani will have figured out a plan that doesn't involve hypothermia, torture, or assisted suicide.

Dani opens her mouth again. Merry holds up a silencing finger and leans closer. "Besides," Merry murmurs in pidgin Russian, which she's pretty sure Dani speaks and she hopes to fucking god the Assholes don't, "we can always shut it off again. Janus did."

#

After all the fucking drama, turning on the Evil Janus Subspace Turbulence Device is nearly anticlimactic. Everything's in working order: the device was never broken, just shut down. Now the device from Atlantis has been reunited with the rest of the machine, and the only other things they need are a basic understanding of Janus's coding style (Merry) and the Ancient gene (Merry again). Really, all she has to do is push the button.

The room dims. The unearthly blue light—like a television tuned to a dead channel—grows brighter. Lightning climbs the antennae, leaping to bridge them, coruscating like the Tesla coils of Victor Frankenstein.

All the indicators flash green. The Device is glowing brightly, but it's the glow of an Ancient device operating within normal parameters, not the glow of an Ancient device that's going to explode within the next twenty seconds.

Dani's got her eyes closed and is holding her breath—just as if that could have any effect, good or bad, on what Merry's just done. If she were a bad person (Merry thinks wistfully), this would be the time to let out a bloodcurdling scream and fall to the floor. Instead, she pokes Dani in the ribs.

"All done," she says.

Dani opens her eyes and looks around. "Are we still alive?" she asks dubiously.

"I'm only a brilliant physicist and expert on Ancient technology, but I think so," Merry says archly.

"Good," Dani says on a gusty sigh, "Because I'd hate to think this is what heaven looks like."

"Who says we went to heaven?" Merry asks. Dani laughs and swats at her.

"It's working?"

"As far as I can tell," Merry says. Relief is making her woozy. She turns away from the console and walks to the observation window. Dani follows, a couple of steps behind her.

What's taking place beyond the window is mesmerizing, and both of them stare transfixed. Enormous arcs of energy are leaping—dancing, caracoling, soaring—gracefully from one antenna to the other. The subspace emitter is glowing brightly, cold blue turning nearly white. When Merry places a hand carefully against the window, it's faintly warm, and she can feel a subsonic hum vibrating through the entire structure—not unlike the hum of a big hyperdrive, which tells her more surely than words or formulae that she was right about what this thing is and what it does. (She also knows for damned sure that the observation window isn't made out of glass, because with the amount of energy jumping around out there in the chamber just beyond the window, a piece of glass would have been slag inside of two milliseconds.)

It's scary as fuck, but it's also beautiful.

"Give me a couple of months with this thing, and I could probably reverse-engineer an Ancient hyperdrive," she says softly. Reverently. (Well, either that or rip apart the space-time continuum on a molecular level. That's why she'd build a scale model—a very small scale model—first.) And the first step is getting off Planet Asshole alive.

Dani puts an arm around her shoulders. (Dani is all about the touchy-feely. Merry is starting to get used to it.) "Maybe you'll get your chance. It's beautiful, you know."

"Yes," Merry says softly. "I know."

#

There isn't much to do now aside from wait and see if they get cooked alive by undetectable radiation or the fabric of the space-time continuum peels apart like a fruit roll-up, or, you know, whatever. Merry's read a little bit about what happens to people who get exposed to an unshielded hyperdrive (fucking morbid curiosity, and she wishes to god she could just turn it off), and it's sure as hell nothing she's keen on experiencing personally.

So far everything seems to be operating within normal tolerances, and Merry's nerves and internal organs seem to be unliquified, so she supposes that's a good sign. Now that they've had the main event, she's been distracting herself by paging through the rest of Janus's fragmentary log entries, but so far nothing scarier than the design of the fucking device itself has jumped out at her. (About the only thing she's getting out of these damned log entries is the distinct feeling that Janus was even more impressed with himself than the usual run of Ancient. The guy died millennia before she was born, and Merry's pretty sure she hates his guts anyway.)

"Anything out of the ordinary?" Dani's been alternating between staring through the observation window and staring at Merry with an unreadable expression on her face (not that Merry's that good at reading expressions anyway; she never saw much point to it).

Merry shrugs, feeling the irritation (fear) (anger) she's been successfully ignoring bubble up looking for a target. "I have no idea what ordinary is for this thing, seeing as the fucking Assholes gave us exactly zero chance to study it," she snarls. (Deep breath, McKay, Shep's voice says in memory. No need to bite someone's head off just for asking a question, right?). She grits her teeth and breathes. Shep's an asshole even in her head. "But everything seems to be in the green."

"What about those unforeseen side effects?" Dani asks.

"Still unforeseen," Merry says. (The fact that Dani's scared too makes Merry—perversely—feel better.) "I still haven't found anything in Janus's notes, such as they are. Maybe they take more time to show up." (Maybe everyone else in the entire galaxy except them is dead. Maybe they're now living in some alternate reality and don't know it because they were here when the timeline changed. She's going to take a pass on thinking about that.)

"Well," Dani says, "At least we're still alive."

"So far," Merry says. "Maybe now the Assholes will give us a nice pat on the back and an all-expenses paid trip back to Atlantis." She misses her bed. She misses indoor plumbing. She misses coffee. (Hell, she even misses Staff Meetings.)

Dani laughs. (Ronon laughed like that when he saw what was left of Sateda.)

"Yeah," Merry says quietly. "I didn't think so either." She goes back to scrolling through the disorganized fragmented mess the Assholes have left of Janus's notes (trying to figure out a way out of here if Radek doesn't get his ass in gear and find a way to get her team to her). Dani goes back to staring at nothing (now with added pacing).

#

Janus's notes are mostly boring. Janus (the man, the mystery, the legend) might have been brilliant (might have figured out how to manipulate subspace so he could travel through time at will, and that's a nice trick), but he was also as pedantic and self-congratulatory as fuck. At least if you're going to be a gigantic mansplaining wannabe-omnipotent dickwad, you could do your audience the favor of having a goddamn sense of humor. The guy could probably make the hierarchy problem seem yawn-worthy. (Back at MIT, she'd had a physics prof like that.)

She yawns and braces her arms against the console, still looking vaguely at the dense lines of text on the viewscreen. Maybe she can talk Dani out of her jacket. It'd make a good pillow. Maybe Janus's bullshit will be easier to deal with after a power-nap.

She's just about to suggest that when one of the equations (one tiny little buried equation, and if Janus ever wrote a textbook she'd have to fucking shoot him) in the middle of a block of self-important text jumps out at her. "Shit," she says. "Fuck. Shit. Goddamn it." She straightens up so rapidly her back spasms in protest.

"You found something," Dani says. She's standing behind her so quickly Merry wonders if soft-science wonks can teleport.

"Yeah," Merry says. She's staggering a little and the room spins (subjectively), but Dani's there to steady her. "The unforeseen side effect."

"Harmful radiation?" Dani eyes the Toaster with grave suspicion.

"That'd be nice," Merry grumbles. "Then at least we'd probably take the fucking Assholes with us. No, we're fine. They're fine too, unfortunately. It's the rest of the galaxy that's going to have problems. Including Atlantis. I've got to shut this thing down." She's trying to remember the mission schedule back on Atlantis, and she can't, and it doesn't really matter because she has no idea what fucking time it is anyway, and she can't think about that right now because she has to get the goddamn Toaster shut down yesterday.

She reaches for the console, trying to remember the Ancient "stop" and "abort" codes. She could disassemble the Toaster itself, but that would take longer and maybe not work. Her hands are shaking. (Adrenaline, lack of food, take your pick. Great fucking timing, regardless.) She starts tapping in the series of commands that will let her access the Toaster's command menus. Dani is standing beside her now like a nurse in one of those medical dramas. Merry can't decide if it's sweet or she just wants to punch her.

"Any Gate that activates in Pegasus while this thing's running is going to blow up." Merry knows her voice is shaking as hard as her hands. "And by blow up, I mean blow up. That's the unforeseen side effect. That's why he shut it down."

She hears the door slide open (because of course the Assholes have been watching all along; of course they fucking have) and she hears Dani say something as she steps away from her that Merry tries not to listen to because she has to concentrate and she's almost there, almost there, why are Ancient damned computers all so fucking slow?—and she reaches for the console keyboard and then an icy, teeth-rattling shock courses through her bones and that's the last thing she knows.

#

The first thing Merry notices is that her head hurts (more this time than the last time, or maybe it's cumulative). The second thing she notices is that she's hungry (she's been hungry for what feels like forever) and horribly thirsty and she really fucking has to pee. The third thing she notices is that she isn't in Janus's Evil Ancient Mad Scientist Lab anymore. Wherever it is, it's substantially less cushy (smaller, too, and colder). She's lying on the floor. The floor is hard. She sits up gingerly and swallows hard against a wave of nausea. "The fuckers stunned me again."

"Yeah," Dani says darkly. "Me too." She's sitting propped against one of the walls, looking about the way that Merry feels. Merry feels an irrational surge or relief to see her. (And it's stupid, because if they're both in here, no one is in the lab shutting down the goddamn Toaster.)

"I'm starting to really hate these guys." She starts to stand up, thinks better of it, and rests her head on her knees instead. (She will not pass out. She will not throw up. She won't.)

"Ye-e-a-ahhhhh... worst sleep-over ever," Dani says (another patented non sequitur from the champion of the fluffybunny sciences). "So. What was that you were saying about the Gate when the, uh, when they showed up?"

"Not the Gate," Merry says, looking up. "All the Gates." And this is a hundred thousand times worse than what happened with Project Arcturus, because the Doranda system was uninhabited when she blew it to hell, and this particular arrogant fucking mistake is going to wind up costing millions of lives. (One of these days she's going to fucking learn not to think she knows more about physics than the goddamned Ancients because it almost always ends like this. Someone should fucking shoot her before she ever has a chance to do it again.)

"All the Gates," Dani says, in her not-a-question way.

"All the Gates in the Pegasus network, anyway," Merry corrects. She might as well confess her sins aloud. Confession doesn't help (it never helps; Merry knows this because she grew up Catholic and confession was a fucking sham) and Dani is probably going to hate her—now, if for nothing that came before—but at least it's the honest thing to do. She pulls herself painfully to her feet, clinging to the wall for support. "Look. Although the subspace turbulence only affects the Wraith ships' hyperdrive systems, it also creates a very dangerous type of radiation that, uh… well, it messes with the basic operation of the Stargates."

"And when you say 'messes with', you mean what?" Dani's voice is surprisingly gentle. Merry figured she'd be angry. It was Merry's idea to turn the Device on, after all. Maybe Dani hasn't figured it all out yet.

"Any time someone dials a Gate," Merry says quietly (she's staring at the floor; it's safer by far than looking at Dani), "power's going to build up inside the out-dialing Gate until it overloads. And explodes. Big explosion. Big. Equivalent to a dozen nuclear warheads. Millions of people are going to die."

#

"Millions of people are going to die," Merry says, and in her voice is a complex symphony of toxic emotions that Merry herself probably can't name but Dani can without any particular trouble. Anger. Guilt. Grief. Self-hatred. (Terror.) Pretty much the Gate Team Special (and that's Jack's voice in the archives of memory again, and Dani wishes he were here instead of in his sterile little office in the Pentagon, because he'd know exactly what to do—or at he'd least do a damned good job of pretending that he did. A good enough job to convince her. A good enough job to convince all of them).

And suddenly, sitting here on the cold floor watching Merry (watching Merry turned inward and hating herself for something that isn't so much her fault as it's the fault of the goddamned lightbulbs, just like so many other things, like the Replicators and the Wraith and Asurans and the Ori and even the Goa'uld, who took up the treasury of the Ancients and built an empire of blood), Dani suddenly finds herself wondering how many times Jack was only pretending. How many times he'd been just as sure as she was that they were all going to die. (But they hadn't died, because Jack had convinced them everything was going to be fine: well enough, for long enough, that they kept fighting even when any sane person would have decided the odds were really goddamned ludicrous.)

"If it can't be done, send SG-1: the team that comes back from the dead to bitch about its funeral arrangements."

She wishes he was here now. But it doesn't matter. She knows what he'd say (knows what she has to say, has to make Merry believe).

Morning always comes.

It was Jack's mantra, his talisman. No matter how dark the night, no matter how bad the odds, no matter if Dani couldn't remember who the fuck he was, let alone who the fuck she was, even if Teal'c had gone mad, or Sammy was possessed (or dead), or they were all in the wrong place at the wrong time in the wrong timeline, it was what he always said.

Morning always comes.

And she and Sammy and Teal'c and Jack (and Cam and Vala and Earth) are all still alive, so she supposes he was right all along.

She drags herself to her feet, totters across the floor, and puts an arm around Merry. Merry practically jumps out of her skin. (Dani knows what that's about: Merry's undoubtedly convinced that Dani must hate her for insisting on turning on Janus's device. Fuck the lightbulbs anyway. With a lightbulb.)

"The only way millions of people are going to die," Dani says, soft and close, and then she switches to Russian, speaking carefully and slowly because Merry's said her Russian isn't any good, "is if we don't get out of here and shut that thing down." Whatever this room's purpose was before, their captors probably hadn't planned to use it as a prison for brilliant scientist, because there are random scraps of metal scattered across the floor (as if some heavy equipment was moved out of here; she wonders what it was). None of them is really big enough to use as a weapon, but they don't need a weapon. She bends down and picks one up and puts it in Merry's hand and closes Merry's fingers around it.

Merry looks at her and grins speculatively.

Good.

#

About the time Merry is about halfway done prying some panel off the wall (she looks like she knows exactly what she's doing—Sammy always did—so Dani just sits quietly in a corner and doesn't jostle her elbow), one of the Assholes in Armor shows up. (Dani is trying not to think of them that way, even in the maybe-privacy of her own mind, but at this point it's kind of irresistible). He/she/it is still in armor, and it's impossible to read anything in the blank eyes of the mask. (Why still in armor? Is it more than just armor to them? Some kind of protective suit? Protection from what? She knows most people (Merry) would dismiss the question as irrelevant, but the answer might be the key to figuring out who these guys really are. And they have to figure that out: it's the only way (Dani thinks) the two of them are ever going to leave this place alive.)

She gets to her feet. When Merry heard the door open, she slid the piece of metal unobtrusively into her pocket. Now she's leaning casually against the half-open panel, obscuring it. (Good girl.) Something tells Dani this isn't baby's first jailbreak (and that's Cam's turn of phrase, and Dani wonders—in the irrelevancy brought on by privation and sleeplessness—if Merry would love him or loathe him.)

The armor regards them (maybe) silently for a moment. Somehow its armored helmet seems annoyed to Dani. (Or maybe that's just her imagination. If you can't trust yourself who can you trust? Further deponent sayeth not.)

The creature in the armor points at her. "You," it says. "Come with me." (Same highly-modulated voice; no way to tell who or what is talking. Its elusive familiarity has been driving her crazy ever since they were kidnapped, and suddenly she makes the connection: Darth Vader. Star Wars.)

"Me?" Dani says. (Deep breath, don't laugh, the Bad Guys never take it well.) Playing dumb, playing for time, information, whatever she can get. Oldest game on the books save for murder and prostitution. Whatever's under the armor unholsters its gun and points it at her. Apparently the game doesn't work on Assholes. Too bad.

"Whoa," Merry says. "Whoa, whoa, whoa." (And her playing the hero is the last, the absolute very last, thing they need right now, because if Merry dies there isn't going to be anyone who knows how to shut down The Janus Device, unless by some miracle Radek Zelenka and the rest of AR-1 come riding to their rescue, and Dani's not counting on that. Not any more.)

"Merry," Dani says warningly. She's never (be honest) had much sympathy for Jack (Jack the Lad, Saucy Jacky, Jack the leader of SG-1, Colonel O'Neill: "I have many names," said Arrowroot) before. She sure as hell does now (watching Merry prepare to blow things all to hell in the name of fairness, oh, isn't payback a motherfucker?) She wonders if she'll ever have the chance to give him the apology he clearly deserves (now or after death). Doesn't matter now. Focus on the mission.

And of course the moment Dani opens her mouth Merry's chin acquires that stubborn tilt that Dani was half-expecting, half-dreading, because that's exactly how the last however-the-fuck many hours have gone. "No," Merry says, to Armor Guy. "We'll both go."

"No," the creature in the armor says Sithishly.

Dani fixes Merry with a warning look and prays she'll understand it. She wishes to God (or whoever) that Merry knew the hand-signs Jack taught to SG-1 (and most of the SGC, but the Atlantis Mission didn't get many veterans of the Gate in the first place (damn the IOA) and Dani's tried half-a-dozen of them on Merry in the last several hours and Merry hasn't responded once). That would make all of this about a million times easier, especially given Merry's obviously-shaky grasp on nonverbal communication in general (Dani knows what and why and all about the angels in the neural architecture and how oblivious is just another word for armor and this is not the time). Merry sighs rebelliously (but leans back against the wall in acquiescence), and Dani finally lets out the breath she was holding.

"I guess it's your turn to use the fitness room," Merry grumbles theatrically. "Or maybe the restroom. I think I'm jealous."

"Sorry," Dani says lightly (smile for the cameras). Whatever's under all that armor jerks its gun at her. Her shoulder blades prickling, she moves toward the door.

"Good luck," Merry says.

"Yeah," Dani says. "You too."

#

She can't get anything more out of Armor Guy: it directs her through the halls with ungentle pokes and shoves. Finally it prods her through an opening door (lights and wall displays, but not the lab she and Merry were first held prisoner in: a monitoring room?) where she's face-to...back... with another of the armored aliens.

(Behind him/her/it, line after line of Ancient scrolls up the screen, and Dani can't read a word of it, and she bets Merry could.)

"You wished to speak to me." The modulator robs its voice of all inflection; the armor masks its expressions and body language. She only has the words to go by, unhelpful as a line of print. (She wonders if this is how Merry sees all the people around her, as placeholding cyphers for actual communication that never happens.)

Showtime.

"You're the leader?" Dani asks.

No acknowledgement. She has to get something going or they'll just take her back to the cell (at best), and she's certain they won't give her this chance again.

"Thank you for seeing me. There's something I need to tell you. You need to shut this device down immediately." (The "aliens". The "device". What she wouldn't give for a nice old-fashioned proper noun or two.)

The alien monitoring the display turns around to face her. "No," it says flatly. "I do not."

Not what she expected. They needed the ATA Gene to get the device working, but surely, if they broke Janus's encryption, they know what the device is, what it does, about the "unforeseen side effects"...

"I'm sorry," Dani says. "Please let me explain. Yes, this device will destroy the Wraith. I understand wanting to destroy them. I do. But using Janus's device—as it stands—isn't the way to do that. You—"

"I disagree," the alien says flatly. And she's exhausted, and cold, and hungry, and her mind keeps trying to tell her she's facing down Darth Vader, and of course she'll win, because the good guys always do, and besides, nothing really bad can happen to you while you're asleep, can it?

Deep breath.

"Please. Listen. I don't know if you're aware of this, but Janus's device doesn't merely disable Wraith hyperspace access. It makes Stargates explode when they're activated. I know you've read Janus's worknotes. This is the side-effect he mentioned, the reason he—"

"We do not use the Stargates," the alien says conclusively.

So "I've got mine; screw you?" Maybe. Or maybe aliens are just alien. She tries again. "All right. Yes. You don't use the Stargates. So the device woudn't affect you. I see that. But you see, but lots of other people here do use the Stargates, and even if they—"

"They are of no concern to us."

She takes a deep breath, feeling as if she's drowning. They knew. The aliens knew all along that if the Janus Device was activated, all life in this galaxy would end, because even populations that don't use the Gate live near them, and...

Oh. Oh god. Is Atlantis still there? Is Daedalus? Was it still in orbit? Are they all dead? (Doesn't much matter; she and Merry sure the hell are. Dead Geeks Walking.)

"So you're just going to let them die? Millions—hundreds of millions—of innocent helpless people all through this galaxy? When you can stop it? Why?" She swallows hard. She feels sick.

No response.

"You're no better than the Wraith." Or the Goa'uld, or the Ori, or even the goddamned Ancients. It's monsters all the way down. She can hear the anger in her voice, the judgment. The interview (she assumes) is over now, but the soi-disant leader actually responds.

"Perhaps. But we have little choice."

Dani feels a rush of hope so powerful it makes her giddy. This is the overture to a dialogue, curtain going up, let's try to find common ground even though we're nothing alike. If she can't use righteousness as a lever maybe she can find something else that will work. "Why?" she asks bluntly. And once again she's answered.

"Our planet is dying. It can no longer sustain us. For the first time in countless generations, we must venture out into this galaxy again—a galaxy controlled by the Wraith. If we do not destroy them, they will destroy us. This is the way it must be."

"We can find another way," she says desperately. "There must be another way. We're talking about the deaths of millions of people. You must know they aren't the enemy. They're victims of the Wraith too. How can you think what you're doing is right?"

No reaction.

"And what is it you're so afraid of?" she asks, hearing the spitefulness in her voice (the personal is political). "Why are you still in your battle armor? I can't hurt you." She laughs unhappily. "I can't even convince you that what you're doing is very very wrong."

The alien is still facing her. Silent. A suit of armor, and it occurs to her that her life has been defined by armor, metaphorical and otherwise, for more than half the time she's been alive, leading (by some ineluctable transfer of essential qualities) to her habitation of a world she moves through and cannot touch.

"I know you're not human, and you're definitely not Wraith. And if you were an Ancient, you wouldn't have needed our help to activate the device, so what are you?" she asks mockingly (snake-baiting, the sport that never grows old). "C'mon. You can tell me. Who can I tell?"

One more long moment of silent stalemate, then the alien turns its back and takes a few steps away. She's sure this is Game Over, and that the one behind her is about to drag and chivvy her out of here (or maybe just kill her where she stands), but then the back of the suit begins to retract (she thinks of Horus Guards and Serpent Guards and Ra on his desert throne). There's something alive inside. Something much smaller than the armor; the size of a child. It steps down out of the armor and turns to face her, cocking its head in a familiar gesture.

Its skin is grey and hairless and gleaming. Its enormous black eyes blink at her mildly.

"You're Asgard," Dani blurts out. (She knows she ought to feel something more than tired at this newest revelation; well, maybe later.)

"You've encountered our kind before," the Asgard says. It isn't much easier to read him in the flesh that it was in armor, but she thinks he's surprised.

"No, not just encountered," Dani says. "I know your people well. I've worked with them, even called a few of them... my friends. The Asgard have always been friends to us, humanity, all the way back into our earliest legends." She thinks of Cimmeria, K'Tau, others like them, dozens of worlds filled with humans watched over and protected by the Asgard.

"Indeed? And where are your "friends" now?" this Asgard asks.

"Gone." She thinks of Thor and all his people lying in their technologically-enchanted sleep, a world-sized computer filled with glass coffins all awaiting the awakening kiss from the master mind with its solution to their genetic decay. "But that had nothing to do with us," she adds hastily. "They were clones—their bodies were copies of copies of copies going back generations—and Thor—do you know him?—told us once that they'd suffered irreversible genetic degradation as a result." She closes her eyes in weariness and frustration. "But you probably already know that, don't you?"

"Of course," the Asgard says, "because we are clones as well, subject to the same law of diminishing returns. And yet we are still very much alive."

"Wait. What? You solved the problem? Why didn't you go to Othalla? Why didn't you tell them?"

"They would not have listened. Our disagreement was an ancient one. We believed that experimentation on your race would yield much useful information, and we were right. Once we were able to conduct our research without interference, we made significant progress. As you see."

"You did research on humans," Dani says flatly. She thinks of Loki, of clones born to die within a handful of days, of one who survived. He's out there somewhere. (Focus.) "Something the Asgard High Council refused to consider."

"They did not believe the ends justified the means."

"They don't," Dani says grimly. "They never do. They never have." She concentrates on the fishtail sweep of jewels over the Asgard leader's right eye, the opaline bar-pin on his left breast. Both set directly into the flesh: are they ornaments, control interfaces, something else? (Wondering that is better than wondering if she can break its neck.)

"Ideals," the Asgard says. "And look where it got them."

Dani can finally detect an emotion in its voice. Amusement. Mockery. She concentrates on breathing. In, out, don't think about what the words mean, just remember them for later, to bring out and recite for posterity in a quiet room where no one ever screams. And now this should be over (and now my tale is told, said Girolamo Savonarola, said Hieronymus, of his garden of delights: rack and thumb-screw and gridiron and pyre) but the Asgard leader is still speaking. Is it confession? What absolution could she grant? Or is it persuasion, that she will go gentle into the night between the stars.

"We came to this galaxy during the war. With both the Wraith and the Ancients occupied, we were free to conduct our experiments. Unfortunately, the hostilities came to an end sooner than we'd thought—and with an unexpected result."

"You were betting on the Ancients," Dani says. The Wraith/Ancient War was ten thousand years ago. Old habits die hard: she suspects she'll still be probing for information on her deathbed, challenging Death to a game of Twenty Questions to gain answers she can never use. "They might have tried to shut you down—if they knew about you—but at least you knew they wouldn't exterminate you." (No, they had bred monsters—in their sleep of reason—for that.)

"The Wraith do not tolerate the presence of advanced technologies other than their own," the Asgard says. (Ruefully? Pedagogically? Does it matter at this point?) "Before we knew what was happening, we were under attack. We lost our intergalactic ships in the first battle and we did not have the resources to build more."

Exiled and now marooned; unwilling or unable to ask the other Asgard for help. "So how did you survive?" she prompts.

"We had no choice but to abandon our settlements and retreat to a place where the Wraith could not look for us – a planet with a toxic atmosphere."

"Oh. Well, that sounds nice," she says politely. (There's such an overweening sense of unreality in all of this that she has to remind herself it's all real.)

"It was tolerable at first," the leader says (clearly taking her words at face value, no ironies need apply). "We were able to survive using simple breathing apparatus, but over the passage of time the environment grew so harsh that not even our armored exoskeletons can protect us now."

"So you ventured back into the galaxy and that's where you came across this place." It's the answer, or most of it, to so many of the questions she's had since the beginning of this disaster, and now it only makes her sick.

"We knew it was built by the Ancients and why, but we were unable to activate it until you came along."

Is she supposed to be grateful to have been useful? Is the Asgard expressing gratitude? (Too bad that now that she's willing to try one of Jack's patented solutions there are no big honking space guns near to hand.) "Look. I'm sorry that you were trapped on a poisonous planet for the last ten thousand years. I know the Wraith are a threat to you. They're a threat to everybody. But none of that justifies what you're doing. There are other—"

"My people are dying. Our brothers are gone already. If we do not do this, a hundred thousand years of history—our history—will be gone forever. I cannot allow that to happen."

She tries. She really does. She tells him the Asgard are only asleep, not dead. She tells him the Asgard have presented the Tau'ri with a database containing all their knowledge and history, so it cannot be lost. She tells him Atlantis will aid his people against the Wraith, that Atlantis will offer them sanctuary, that there are a thousand different things they can do instead of this. She offers to remain as their hostage if they'll let Merry go to Atlantis to speak to Elizabeth. Or she'll go and Merry will stay. Or they'll both stay if the Asgard will only take a message to Atlantis and shut down the device until Atlantis answers.

She begs him.

Nothing works.

Atlantis is probably already gone anyway.

#

The Asshole leaves with Dani in tow. Dani's got this look like she does this kind of thing every day and twice on Sundays, and maybe she does and maybe she's just pretending to make Merry feel better (because that seems to be a team thing: Shep and Ronon and Teyla do it all the goddamn time, even when it doesn't always work.)

Merry leans against her wall (against the partly-open panel that the Asshole thankfully didn't seem to be paying the least bit of attention to), and she feels it shift a little under her weight. She counts to a hundred, and then to two hundred, and then she does it again in base 11. (And that makes her think of subspace and hyperdrives and possibilities—not just the bad ones, though god knows there are always plenty of those.) She wonders if (when: Shep says it's always when) they manage to get out of here and shut down the fucking Toaster and take care of the Assholes (somehow), if she'll get enough time to study this place. (Or if it's just going to be off to the next serial disaster, because that's basically her entire life.)

It's weirdly empty in here without Dani. Even when she hadn't been talking, she'd been breathing and taking up space and being maybe (probably) the only other living human being on Planet Asshole, and now that she's gone Merry realizes she misses the company. That's damned funny (in a totally unfunny way), because once upon a time, when the world was new and Meredith Rebecca McKay was the youngest graduate student at MIT (even the professors called her l'enfant terrible, and she'd been kind of proud of it), she'd been absolutely fucking positive that she worked best alone—without any goddamn idiot morons to bother her and make her lose her train of thought and then stick her with all the heavy lifting anyway.

She huffs out an annoyed breath, even though it's hard to decide what she's annoyed by (other than, oh, the entire past two days or so).

But that was before AR-1 and a hundred or a thousand incidents of reciprocal ass-saving (seriatim) and Shep telling her she didn't ever need to thank him because he knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that she'd do the same for him if (when) the opportunity arose, and anyway he thought she was even better than him at blowing shit up, Q.E. fucking D.

She hopes to god (or who the fuck ever) that it's the middle of the night on Atlantis and no one's even thought about dialing the Gate, because she likes to think that Ronon and Shep and Teyla and Dr. Weir and Radek (who's sometimes useful as a sounding board for ideas when he isn't fucking babbling), and even the rest of the people there are all still alive.

She knows as soon as she has that thought that it's a bad road to go down (like maybe the worst possible fucking road she could possibly go down), so she takes a deep breath and turns (resolutely) back to her panel. Takes the little piece of metal out of her pocket—it's the most awkward tool ever, but it'll do in a pinch—and goes back to prying the panel off the wall.

#

Dani doesn't come back, and doesn't come back, and doesn't come back, and usually when the Bad Guys take someone away for that long, they're probably not coming back ever. (Merry blew up a solar system once by accident. This time, she vows, it will be deliberate, and god help anyone who gets in her way.)

But first: jailbreak. The longer she sits here, the longer the goddamned Toaster is running (the more Gates are blowing up in Pegasus and Merry really doesn't fucking want to think about that) so it's time to saddle up and ride, podnuh. (There are words and phrases she only knows thanks to one Colonel John Sheppard, repository and chief disbursing agent of all American pop-culture) She's just getting started when the door slides open and one of the Assholes shoves Dani roughly into the room.

Dani stumbles forward like a broken toy or some kind of zombie (the slow kind of zombie, not the fast kind) and falls to her knees and doesn't move. Her eyes are wide and blank, and suddenly Merry understands what Shep means when he talks about the 'thousand-yard stare'. (It's a mystery she's suddenly discovering that she didn't actually want solved, along with, oh, every other disambiguation of human behavior ever.)

The Asshole, of course, just turns and walks away and the door goes "clunk" behind him. Merry stuffs the piece of metal back into her pocket and goes to kneel beside Dani, who doesn't even seem to notice she's there. "Hey." She touches Dani on the shoulder carefully, hesitantly, half-expecting to feel something waxen and cold and dead (and if she never touches another dead body as long as she fucking lives, it's going to be too goddamned soon.) But Dani's warm and alive, even if there are tiny invisible tremors running through her body (not shaking so much as vibrating, which is Bad). "Hey," Merry says again. "You okay?" It's a fucking stupid question (because Merry knows the answer to it already), but it's the question you're supposed to ask under these circumstances, so she asks it.

Dani looks up like she's just now remembered that Merry exists. "I'm all right," she says dutifully, and Merry's pretty sure she says that because that's what you're supposed to answer when someone asks the question she just did if you're not actually bleeding out at the time.

"Uh huh." ('Ask me no more questions and I'll tell you no more lies.' Shep sings that song when he's cleaning weapons down in the Armory or doing something else mindless, and Merry's sure she will never get it out of her head until the end of Time or maybe longer.) Merry shifts position so she's sitting on the floor beside Dani. Shoulder to shoulder. That's what you do for your teammates.

"They were Asgard," Dani says, and her voice has no expression in it. She sounds as dead as she looks, and Merry is trying (hard, and not all that successfully) not to let it scare the everliving fuck out of her.

"I didn't see that coming," Merry says with theatrical cheer, because (really) she didn't. She thinks she'll just carry on calling them the Assholes, because aren't the Asgard supposed to be the good guys? (It's the Asgard hyperdrive that allows Earth to make its so-called supply runs to Atlantis, after all.)

"A faction that broke off from the Asgard in the Milky Way and came here a long time ago. Before Atlantis was abandoned. Before the Wraith war. Thousands of years ago." (Dani's the only person Merry knows who talks in footnotes and index references.) "They're the ones inside those suits. It's been them all along." (Okay, some of this doesn't make any particular sense, but Merry's used to that by now.)

"Armored Asgard Assholes," Merry says, trying it out. (Pretty good fit, actually.) "Huh. So. They going to shut down the Janus Device?" Another question Merry's pretty sure she already knows the (craptastic) answer to, and she's not sure if she's asking because she's hoping for another answer or because Dani sounds like she might need to talk (and when the hell did Merry McKay start worrying about shit like that, anyway?)

"No," Dani says, looking at the floor instead of looking at Merry.

And suddenly all the anger Merry's been sitting on for the last however the fuck many hours comes boiling up. Anger at Janus. Anger at the fucking Janus Device. Anger at the Assholes for whatever the fuck they did to Dani. Anger at basically the entire goddamn universe, present company excepted. And it feels a hell of a lot better than being scared.

"Then I don't give a shit if they're the Asgard or the Ancients or God Himself in all His fucking Glory. As long as that thing is running, millions of people could die. Will die. Probably are dying. Fuck the Assholes. We're getting out of here, and then I'm taking the Janus Device and stuffing it up their Asgard Asshole asses in pieces!" Dani blinks at her dazedly. Merry stands up and hauls her to her feet. "This is an Ancient facility, and Merry McKay knows a thing or two about Ancient facilities!" Merry announces.

She pulls the panel the rest of the way off the wall and throws it on the floor. It makes a resounding clang and Dani jumps and Merry hopes she hasn't just attracted the attention of the Assholes (and this is why Shep is always on your ass about your temper, girl genius).

"You know it has been clinically proven that referring to yourself in the third person is a sign of mental instability, right?" Dani asks at last. Her voice trembles and wavers, but it's an enormous goddamn relief to hear her sounding like herself again.

Merry grins at her over her shoulder. The cabling inside the wall—just like she thought—is easily accessible, and it looks very familiar. She teases two cables out of the tangle and touches them together. They spark, and she snickers, and then the energy discharge arcs straight into her left hand. "Motherfucking son of a bitch," she mutters between gritted teeth.

The door slides open. Dani looks at her, clearly impressed.

"Don't look at me like that," Merry says. She waves her hand in the air as she waits for the burning tingling numbness in it to recede, and then takes Dani's arm in case she needs to drag her into the hallway. "It was easy. I've done it on Atlantis at least a dozen times. Jesus. All I did was blow the fire monitoring fuse. The system went dead; it figured there was a fire and when it detected life signs in the room, it unlocked the door for safety."

"Our doors are always open," Dani says, as if that's an answer.

#

They get to the doorway (the corridor's deserted), and Dani stops. She knows something. She knows she does. Something that will help. Something she heard when she was talking to the Asgard leader. What? "We still can't escape," Dani points out.

"Of course not," Merry says. "We've got to shut down the device."

"How?" Dani asks. (It's in the back of her mind, she knows it is, but poking at it will just make it vanish.)

"We need to get back to the room we were in," Merry says. "That's the device control room."

There's still nobody in sight. They make their way out into the hall cautiously—or as cautiously as two women having an animated conversation in normal voices can. Merry seems to know where she's going (reasonable, since apparently she's studied Ancient architecture along with Ancient mathematics and if Janus built this facility it's kind of the crème de la Anciens). "You don't think the control room is crawling with soldiers?"

"Diversion," Merry answers. "We blow something up."

Where is everyone? (The woods are lovely, dark and deep.)

"So why, if there was a massive explosion, would people go running toward it?" Dani asks reasonably. (The Asgard wouldn't. The Asgard, these Asgard, are cowards, so cowardly they're willing to drown Pegasus in blood and fire rather than risk a fight with the Wraith...)

"Because that's what people do!" Merry says heatedly. "Explosion diversion is the very cornerstone of diversions!"

"What if the people aren't people?" (She almost has it. So close. What is it?) They round one corner, then another. The Asgard were watching them closely when they were in the control room, but apparently they—

(This.) In another second she'll have it, but then Merry speaks and the moment is lost.

"Like what? End tables? Just because you can turn a tautology inside out doesn't mean—"

There's a door straight ahead, just before the corridor makes a sharp left. It opens as they approach it.

There are two Armored Assholes standing in the doorway.

(No. Wait.)

Merry cries out sharply (it isn't fear; it's rage) and turns to run. Dani grabs her, scrabbling at arm and back and clothing, and Merry stumbles, pushing at her, until they crash together into the corridor wall, clutching each other.

"Suits!" Dani cries. "Just empty suits!"

These Asgard are cowards. These Asgard won't risk confrontation. These Asgard settled on a toxic hellworld in order to hide. These Asgard turned on the Janus Device in order to make sure they'd be safe. They wouldn't all come. They wouldn't take that kind of risk. She and Merry have seen four of them, maybe five, no more. The others are back on Hellworld waiting for the "All Clear."

And these have gone to tell them the good news. She's certain of it now. That's why the leader summoned her for that sparkling chat. It was a farewell performance. They're gone now.

(They left the two of them to die here. Slowly. "You gotta shoot your own dog when the time comes, Jackson. Only right." Cam's voice, in memory.)

"What dog?" Merry demands, and Dani realizes she's been saying some or all of this out loud.

"They're cowards," Dani says. "They left us to die."

"What if they didn't?" Merry says.

Dani looks back toward the open door, the waiting suits of armor. She lets go of Merry and steps back. The suits don't move. "You know," she says slowly, "from what I could tell, the inner suit forms around whoever's in it."

The suits don't look like Asgard tech. That's the other thing that's been nagging at her all along. Something they found? Something they stole? Doesn't matter. All that matters is that the armor isn't built to Asgard size and for Asgard bodies.

"One size fits all," Merry says slowly, beginning to smile.

#

Merry figures out how to get the suits powered up and open. The helmets come off, and the torsos and legs open up. Dani helps her lay the suits face-down on the floor. They strip down to their underwear (Merry folds everything neatly, just as if she plans to come back for it) and they squirm carefully into them (working their way into the arms and the gauntlets is the hardest part). The suits close around them with a hissing whining noise, and from there it's just a matter of rolling over and sitting up.

Merry hands her a helmet, picks up her own, settles it into place.

"Hey, cool!" The expressionless modulated voice is still, somehow, Merry's. "I am definitely keeping this!"

Dani slips on her own helmet. Holographs and readouts appear in her vision, tiny racing glyphs she can almost decipher. She looks toward Merry: in the display Merry's armor is outlined in green. Merry gets to her feet, and reaches down to Dani.

"Let's go kick some Asshole Ass!" Merry says.

But they don't.

#

As Dani suspected, Merry finds the device control room easily. Either door locking is an executive function, or the complex has been programmed to open any door for someone wearing armor: the doors open at their approach, revealing three suits of armor standing at the consoles.

In the helmets' display, there is no outline around any of them.

They shoot them anyway (the weapons are an element of the armor). The suits fall like ninepins as the door to the control room closes.

Dani takes off her helmet (she can breathe fine in there, but she still doesn't like it) and looks around. "How long to pull the plug?" she asks, while deep inside, a little voice is screaming: this is too easy, this is too easy...

"Five minutes. Less." Merry pulls off her own helmet and walks over to the main console. She sets it down and reaches for the controls, glancing up at the display. "Oh, come on!" she cries. "They've encrypted access to this workstation. Bastards."

"But you can—"

"And they've taken the control key! The Toaster—the thing they stole from Janus's lab in the first place—it's not the Device—it never was—it's the control key, and it's gone!"

And the machine's still running, and the Asgard are gone. She and Merry turned it on, and now no power in Pegasus can turn it off again. (The Fairy Mill will grind forever at the bottom of the sea: Aarne-Thompson type 565, the Magic Mill, and why in the name of all that's holy didn't she just shoot herself back in Washington instead of arranging a nice Atlantean vacation?)

The bodycount would've been lower.

"Can't we just power down the entire facility?" she asks. (Someone has to. Jack always asked stupid questions, but not because he was stupid. Because someone had to ask them so the bright kids would start thinking.)

"We can't do much more than turn the lights off and on without the control key," Merry says bleakly.

"That isn't good enough," Dani says. Not her words. Nothing she would ever say. Jack's words. General Hammond's words. Even Cam's words. Failure is not an option. Find a way.

Merry stares at her expressionlessly for a long moment. "You said these suits were designed to protect the wearer from harsh environments, right?"

"Yes," Dani answers. "That's what the Asshole said. The armor protects them from the toxic environment of their homeworld."

"Then I have a really bad idea," Merry says. "Not just bad. Terrible. World-class terrible. So terrible it's really...bad."

She looks toward the window in the lab beyond which the antenna array and the emitter are giving off a hellish blue light. For the first time Dani realizes it isn't just a window. It's a window in a door.

They walk over to it and look through. The light from the emitter is almost blinding, and the antennae aren't just giving off the occasional strike of lightning now: it's so constant that it's striking the walls and the floor as well as the emitter array.

"Radiation in there would be pretty extreme, not to mention those electrical discharges look pretty unfriendly," Dani says mildly.

"Yeah, but the array has a control crystal," Merry says. "Pull it manually..."

"Okay," Dani says. "Tell me what I have to do."

"You?" Merry demands. "You can't even read Ancient!"

"Tell me what to do," Dani repeats.

"It's going to kill whoever goes in there!" Merry says. (Yeah, she's managed to figure that out for herself, thanks.)

"Fifty-fifty chance?"

"I'd say thirty-seventy and I'm the one who turned it on and it's my job to turn it off again. It's my dog. You said so."

"I lied," Dani says instantly. She turns, grabbing Merry by the shoulders. Metal clanks on metal. "Merry. Listen to me. Your job is to live. You're important—more important than you know. You've cracked Ancient. You understand the math. Atlantis needs you."

"It's gone," Merry says roughly.

"No!" Dani says. "Not gone. It isn't. Even if— Even if their Gate blew up, even if the city sank, there are survivors. I know there are. And offworld teams. And all the civilizations you've discovered: friends, allies. You'll find a way out of here—build a spaceship, build a distress beacon, a Stargate, I don't know—and you'll find them. Bring them together. Help them rebuild. You have to survive. You have to."

She'd tell Merry everything now—Disclosure, the IOA, secret plots and hidden directives and how many betrayals can dance on the head of a pin—but it would take too damned long. What she knows beyond the telling is that Humanity doesn't care about unanswerable questions—history, precedent, the meaning of life. It cares about surviving, growing, building. Things Merry can do. Discover. Teach. Build. Maybe Humanity is a moron and maybe not, but if one of them has to die here, Dani knows which of them is expendable.

"Atlantis needs you," Dani repeats. "You have to live."

#

It's just like Merry has always said: the fluffybunny sciences are only good for rotting the brain. She turned on the Device, she's responsible for the end of everything, and now the kid is saying she's too precious to risk? What the fuck does it matter?

"We're marooned here, in case you haven't noticed," Merry snarls. "We're both going to be dead of dehydration in, like, five days, nobody's coming for us, and we won't last five minutes on the surface."

"If it's water ice out there, you can collect it and melt it," Dani answers. "That will give you at least a month."

"And then what am I supposed to do? Eat your remains? Ugh! You don't get to get out of the hard stuff by dying, you idiotic...idiot. There's a thirty percent chance that whoever goes in there will survive, and I'm the one who knows how that thing works, and so you can—"

"Fine. We'll go together."

"Because that makes so much more sense?" Merry screams at the top of her lungs.

"Tick tock," Dani answers inexorably. "Time's a-wasting."

#

They put on their helmets again. Turns out the controls for the door have been hiding in plain sight all along.

"We should...crawl," Merry says, her hand poised over the controls. "Lightning always strikes the highest point."

They kneel down. Merry reaches up to the controls. There are so many things Dani wants to tell her (does the box for Elizabeth even matter now?) but they're out of time.

The doors whoosh open and they crawl, squirming along on their bellies (Dani wonders where and when Merry learned this valuable life skill: the IOA certainly didn't send her to SERE School before she left Earth: in the original mission plan, the scientists were supposed to stay in Atlantis. Safe. (Ha.) Their HUDs are projecting grids and scrolling endless displays that Dani supposes would be useful to someone, but right now she'd settle for a good old-fashioned SGC dosimeter and maybe a Beretta with a full clip. Here inside the chamber it's beautiful and terrible—Dani knows (informed consumer) that you don't really feel radiation, only its effects, and those aren't immediate (unless you're so thoroughly fried that the chemical processes that drive your heartbeat just stop; these and other lessons of Chernobyl). Since she and Merry aren't already functionally dead, it looks like they'll survive at least long enough to pull the plug.

Above them, the lightning arches and strikes, again and again. The sizzling booming sound of it deafens, and beneath that noise Dani imagines she can feel a faint thrumming heartbeat that's the machine itself. She imagines falling into hyperspace as if it were a giant pothole: which way would you fall? Down? Up? Sideways?

At least the room isn't very big. They reach the emitter quickly. Merry reaches up, flailing a little, scrabbling at the access panel on the front of the emitter, trying to open it while staying as low as possible. Finally it comes loose.

"I'm going to have to sit up," Merry says. The armor's default setting seems to be to emulate normal speech: it broadcasts (apparently) to any other suit in range.

"You can reach the crystals from there," Dani says, grateful (small mercies) for the fact the suit systems will strip all emotion from her voice.

"Yes, thank you, I'm aware of that," Merry says. "But there's the trifling fact that if I don't pull the right one the antennae explodes and I'm not really sure what that will do to the array."

"Okay. Right. Sorry. Do it."

Lightning naturally seeks the highest point.

Dani thinks of bargains, and sacrifices, and the greatest good for the greatest number. "You know nothing at all, nor do you take into account that it is expedient for you that one man die for the people, and that the whole nation not perish." Honor and duty. Love and betrayal. What is right and what is fair and at the end of the day (someone said once: who?) all that matters is getting the job done.

"Kneel before your god!"

And Dani gets to her feet.

#

"Dani!"

Merry's in the process of getting to her knees, eyes squinted half-shut at the thought of the lightning and wondering how much it will hurt, when she sees movement behind her.

Dani's on her feet.

"I knew I couldn't trust you!" Merry screams as Dani raises her hands above her head. The lightning reaches for her as if it's alive. There's no obscenity foul enough for this: Merry growls, low in her throat, as she turns back to the emitter. The crystals stand edge-on, as if they're in some celestial toast-rack, and the dancing lights in her faceplate hover on the edge of actually being useful: resistance and capacity and load conveyed in the simplest of universal languages.

And she reaches out, and plucks the keystone, and the entire house of cards topples.

#

It's dark in the chamber now. The antennae and the emitter are cold and dark. And Dani is lying on the floor where she fell, and all Merry can do is stumble and crawl to her, and lift her carefully, and pull off her helmet.

"Don't," Dani whispers. "Hurts."

"It's okay, it's okay, it's okay, you're going to be all right, just—" She doesn't know what's supposed to come next. She pulls off her own helmet and sets it aside. "It's okay," she repeats. (It's cold in here.)

"Morning," Dani gasps out. "Morning always..." She closes her eyes, and for a moment Merry's sure she's dead. (Never should have trusted her, should have stunned her out in the control room; never should have let her come along.) "...always..." Dani whispers. Her eyelashes flutter as she tries to open her eyes and fails. "Elizabeth...you have to..."

"Yes, yes, yes," Merry says. "It's fine. It's going to be fine. Fine, fine, fine." (Why is it so cold in here?)

(Nothing to do about it now. Just lie down.)

(Ronon?)

She stretches herself out on the floor beside Dani. The emitter chamber's really a pretty color if you take the time to look. It's quiet here, and the armor is actually comfortable.

Plenty of time to sit and have a think. (Okay. So what shall we think about?)

She's never really given much thought to dying, other than to make the occasional joke about probably blowing herself up in her lab if the goddamned Wraith didn't get there first. But now, with Dani lying still beside her (still, but still breathing, and Merry can't decide if she's glad of it or not), she can't help wondering what death is going to be like. Will she even know she's dead, or will it just be like going to sleep when you're so exhausted you can't see straight and then never waking up again?

She's not sure if it's imagination or if it's radiation poisoning (which they both undoubtedly have after this pleasant little jaunt, Asshole Armor or no Asshole Armor) or if the facility really is getting steadily (quickly) colder. When they shut down Janus's Subspace Doomsday Badly-Engineered Idiot Machine, all the energy that suddenly had nowhere to go might have bled back into the conduits and overloaded the facility's power distribution systems. God knows it's dark enough in here (just a couple of tiny lights glowing up in a far corner near the ceiling, and what's that all about?) that the whole goddamn place might be running on emergency power. She wonders how long it will last. The only way to know would be to get up and find a control panel, and that would mean leaving Dani alone (leaving aside the question of whether Merry can make it more than two steps in any direction without falling down, something that is actually really fucking doubtful.)

She takes Dani's hand. It's not very comforting with their armor between them, but she guesses it's better than nothing. "We don't leave anyone behind," she says quietly, even though Dani is probably well beyond hearing anything at all.

The quiet's almost unbearable, broken only by Dani's ragged breathing and the creaks and ticks of thousands of tons of cooling metal as it settles. Merry hurts and she's cold and she's been tired for what feels like forever. She wonders—irrelevantly—how long she's been awake (aside from the fucking stun naps which totally don't count).

She wonders which they'll die of: radiation poisoning or hypothermia. She hopes it's hypothermia. Ronon says that's not a bad way to go. At the end you even start to feel warm (though how the hell would he know, since he's never died of it?)

"I hope they find that goddamned box of tea," she says aloud. Babbling, just like Shep and Keller and Radek Goddamned Zelenka who's going to be running Physics and Engineering Division now that she's dead (and isn't that a fucking scary thought?) "You should have given it to her before you dragged me off to find the Secret Janus Cave, idiot. Okay, you couldn't know you were going to get our asses kidnapped, although let me tell you, Ancient stuff is almost always trouble, but if that box was so goddamned fucking important that you had to keep bringing it up, over and over and over..." Her cheeks feel sticky. Not hot, because it's so cold in here: just wet and icky. (And if they hadn't found Janus's lab, and hadn't been there when the Assholes came, would none of this have happened at all, or would it just have happened and not have been fixed?) "I hate you," Merry says. "You're a bad influence. You're making me cry. See? That's how much I hate you. Fluffybunny. Moron. Bitch."

What exactly the hell it was that was so important and so secret that Dani had to hide it in a fucking box of fancy tea (of all the stupid places) and bring it 320 million light years to deliver it to Elizabeth Weir in person? (There's such a thing as an encrypted databurst for God's sake. Even anthropologists must know about them.) Merry knows it isn't just tea in the Mystery Box. Even Danielle Jackson, The Woman Who Didn't Open The Stargate All By Herself would not get this obsessed about just tea.

But Merry guesses she's going to have to let that be someone else's problem now. (She hopes someone tells Jean-Paul about her being dead someday—maybe Shep, because he's good at making everybody sound all noble and heroic when he talks to their families. She just doesn't want Jean-Paul spending the rest of his life wondering what happened to her, that's all. It's not like she wants him to be proud of her or anything like that.) (She should have sent more Christmas cards. Should have answered his emails once in awhile.)

She turns her head, even though it hurts like motherfucking hell to do it. In the faint light, Dani looks pretty peaceful.

"Yeah," Merry whispers. "I think you've got the right idea. Think I'll join you in that nap."

She takes a deep breath, and closes her eyes, and breathes out, and the darkness comes.

#

"Over here—I found them! They're both still alive."

(Apparently you can have dreams in the afterlife.)

"Someone tell Daedalus we need a fucking medical team, right now." That's Shep. He sounds pretty upset. Someone should tell him to get a handle on his temper.

(Someone's poking her and yelling at her and it hurts like a bitch and that's not fair. Dreams aren't supposed to hurt. Maybe this is Hell?) (So not fair. There ought to be a Statute of Limitations on religion. She hasn't been to church since she was twelve.)

#

(After some indeterminate amount of time, Hell gets brighter. Bright enough to hurt her eyes. She tells whoever's poking at her to fuck the fuck off (at least she thinks she does). Who the fucking fuck cares about being polite to the fucking Devil?)

They ask her about Dr. Jackson. The voice sounds familiar but she can't place it. She supposes it doesn't matter. Devils are tricky. She tells them she hopes Dani went to Heaven. She tells them she hopes Dr. Weir got her fucking box of tea.

(Sister Mary Patrick had been right all along about Heaven and Hell and all that bullshit and Merry finds that it really pisses her off.)

#

"Easy, Doc." Ronon's voice. That's a new low, even for hell. She opens her eyes, in case it's really him, but all she can see is a confused bright blur.

"Fuck off." (Still dreaming? Maybe she's just taking a really long time to die. Can't do anything right.)

(Then something stabs her in the arm and she yells and a wave of warmth courses through her. Then there's nothing at all and at least she's not dreaming anymore.)

#

Everyone here is convinced that Specialist Ronon Dex is the living, breathing, embodiment of patience (stillness is one of those skills that keeps you alive Out There), but the truth is, he's never much liked waiting. And he's especially never liked waiting in hospitals. (Too many bad memories there, even Before.)

At least this time he isn't doing it alone. Teyla's sitting cross-legged on the floor, scrolling through some document on a tablet. Sheppard has his boots off and is stretched out on a gurney snoring faintly. (Finally.) Ronon knows Sheppard hasn't gotten any more sleep than the rest of them (and most of the city), and he'd been hurt in the blast when the Gate overloaded—and then, because Sheppard was Sheppard, insisted on leading the mission to retrieve Doc and little Dr. Jackson, despite what Weir said. (If they'd been even half an hour later, they'd've been too late. Ronon's seen his share of the dying. He knows what Death looks like.)

But while he waits for Doc to wake up, he can't help wondering what happened, because when AR-1 found them, Doc and Dr. Jackson were lying in the wreckage holding hands. Doc squalled like a wet cat (Sheppard's phrase; Ronon's seen enough 'Internet Cat Videos' to understand what he means now) when the medics separated them. (Maybe Dr. Jackson would have too, if she'd been conscious.)

"They are in good hands, Ronon," Teyla says, looking up. "And we all know how strong Dr. McKay is."

Ronon sighs and leans his head back against the wall.

Finally Dr. Keller (she hates being called that; says she'd rather be on what the Ancestors call a 'first-name basis', but she can't control what Ronon calls her in his head) emerges from wherever they're working on Doc. She waves Ronon back into his chair before he has a chance to get all the way to his feet. Ronon studies her for information even as he prods Sheppard awake.

"Huh? What?" Sheppard sits up, rubbing his eyes with one hand and reaching for his boots with the other, and sucks in a hissing breath when the movement strains the stitches in his back.

"We got to them in time, thanks to you three," Keller says, smiling tiredly.

"Zelenka found them," Ronon points out. Doc's always been a stickler for credit where credit is due.

Keller smiles. "And we're lucky he did. The armor they were wearing seems to have protected them from the worst of the damage, although we've had to treat them both for radiation exposure. Thank God for the Ancient medical database; the Ancients had apparently seen this type of injury before. Dr. McKay should be good to go in a few days, though Carson and I want her on light duty for a week or two. I'll confirm that with Elizabeth."

"And what of Dr. Jackson?" Teyla asks. "Is she also well?"

Keller makes a face and sighs gustily. "Whatever happened to them out there, she got the worst of it, but I'm pretty sure she'll make a full recovery given time. Major Lorne wasn't kidding when he said SG-1 was as tough as it came."

Ronon closes his eyes for a moment in relief, though he's not sure why.

"When can we see McKay?" Sheppard asks, pushy as always.

"Tomorrow," Keller says firmly. "She's sleeping, which is what you ought to be doing, Colonel. You have an untreated concussion and a hundred and twenty-five stitches in your back. I should know, because I put them there."

"She is right, you know," Teyla says, getting gracefully to her feet and taking Sheppard's arm. "There is nothing we can do here, and you also need rest."

"All right, all right, I'm going, I'm going," Sheppard grumbles, and adds: "Is there any way I can get breakfast first?"

Keller laughs and Teyla smiles. Teyla tucks her arm through Sheppard's and leads him in the direction of the Commissary. Ronon follows.

"Oh, and one more thing—" Keller calls after them. "Do any of you know anything about a box of tea?"

#

The box of tea is right where he'd thrown it when they were attacked, an enigma deferred. Ronon picks it up and hefts it thoughtfully, and then he takes it, unopened, to Doctor Weir.

#

The light that seeps beneath her lashes is dim and blue-tinged. The bed beneath her is soft, even if the blanket covering her is entirely too thin. The air smells of disinfectant and, more faintly, of ocean.

Home, that smell says to the part of her brain that eternally keeps watch. Safe.

Atlantis.

She opens her eyes cautiously. She's in the Infirmary. Someone's drawn the curtains around her bed.

"I'm not dead." She doesn't realize she's said it aloud until the weight at the foot of her bed shifts. Ronon.

"Doc," he says. His voice is rough. He strokes the hair back from her forehead tenderly. He looks like he hasn't showered or shaved—much less slept—in several days.

She blinks hard. She's not going to cry. She's not. Crying is stupid.

"Dani," she says, as memory comes rushing back. Oh god, Dani.

"Going to live," Ronon says, and leans down to kiss her on the forehead. She feels color rise to her cheeks and thinks about slapping him, but she's pretty sure she's too goddamned happy to see him (and too tired to make the attempt). "You both are."

"Thank God," Merry murmurs softly. "Jesus Christ. Fuck. Thank God." And now she is crying, for really real this time (goddamn it). Ronon doesn't say anything. He just takes a tissue from the box beside the bed and blots the hot tears from her cheeks while she tries to pretend she doesn't notice.

"There's this box of tea," she says, when she feels like she's got some fucking semblance of grownup-type control over her voice. "Dani brought it. It's for Dr. Weir—"

"I know," he says. And she could swear he sounds almost … guilty? "I took it to her." There's a couple of beats of silence while Ronon strokes a few wayward strands of hair out of her face. "What happened out there?"

"I don't even know where to start," she says, and laughs even though nothing's really funny. But she tells him about Janus's lab and the Assholes and the Device and Wraith subspace bands and the Stargates (and how that was all her fault because she'd turned the fucking thing on, but they'd been threatening to kill Dani and all she knew at the time was that the unforeseen side effects were unforeseen, so it had seemed like the lesser of two evils) and about how the Assholes had turned out to be Asgard (only bad-guy Asgard, not good-guy Asgard) and how she and Dani broke out of what the Assholes were using as a holding cell and decided their only choice was to shut down the Device by pulling the control crystals even though they knew they were probably both going to die, but it was the right thing (the only thing) to do, and how Dani had some moronic idea about how if Merry lived she could save Atlantis, and that Dani tricked her and kept the lightning from hitting her so she could do it (so she could fix what she'd broken, and she knows she'll never know the butcher's bill from this little visit to Planet Asshole, and she doesn't know whether to wish she could). She talks until she's exhausted and her voice is hoarse and she wonders if she's even making sense (she knows she usually doesn't but people talk too much in the first place and most of what they say is blah, blah, blah anyway), but Ronon doesn't interrupt her, other than to give her a few sips of water through a straw.

(She wonders why she's telling him all this. She certainly isn't going to tell Dr. Weir any of it. But Dani and her tea and Janus and his humblebragging and the Asshole Asgard and it all comes back to the same thing: delivering the information, finding it, saving it, is more important than surviving.)

And when she's all talked out and exhausted, Ronon tells her that Radek managed to trace the Toaster's subspace signal after the Assholes took them. Once the chaos settled after the Atlantis Gate blew up (apparently Radek saved the day by erecting a shield; the Gate was vaporized and the Control Room was slagged, but nobody died), they'd followed the signal to M6H-987.

"I think I'm just going to keep calling it Planet Asshole," she says, and Ronon chuckles. "I also think I owe Radek a really nice letter of commendation to go in his file."

Ronon folds his fingers carefully around hers and smiles at her. "What I think," he says, "is that I'm not letting you out of my sight ever again. You get in way too much trouble when I do."

And that should annoy her, but it doesn't.

#

A couple of days later, Carson and Jen let Merry out of the Infirmary (with stern instructions to take it easy and Ronon to enforce them). Some people throw what Shep calls a "Get Well Party" for her (she was so not consulted) with Cheetos and popcorn and Snickers bars and some other kinds of chocolate too and some of the liquor from Dani's the giant duffle bag, and there's even ice cream. It's just people she knows, like Radek and Lorne and Cadman and Kusagi and Carson and a few other people, and everyone gets drunk (except maybe Teyla), and it doesn't entirely suck. Shep sings stupid pop songs out of tune and Merry and Radek get into an argument about quantum entanglement and time travel and Ronon kisses Merry in front of everyone. (It takes all of her self-control not to punch him.) "Don't worry," he murmurs in her ear afterward, "they're all so drunk they won't remember."

"I'm going to remember," she grumbles. He just grins.

The next afternoon (since she's still not allowed to go back to work) she sits out on the East Pier and writes a long letter to Jean-Paul. There are a lot of things she can't tell him, but there also are a lot of things she can. She tells him that she misses him. She tells him she's doing work she loves—theoretical physics and engineering and a lot of it's classified right now, but maybe he'll read about it someday—and that she's been thinking a lot about the nature of spacetime. She tells him she works with some great people, but she really wishes she could sit down and argue with him about all of this, because that's where she's always gotten her best insights. She tells him that she's met someone. A fellow scholar. She tells Jean-Paul she thinks she might be in love.

A couple of days after that, Daedalus brings them one of the Stargates from the defunct Gatebridge so they can get up and running again. Radek offers to argue with Keller and Beckett so that Merry can supervise the installation herself, but she just shrugs. "You kept the city from getting blown all to hell when the Gate overloaded, and then you tracked one teeny-tiny infinitesimal faint subspace signal back to Planet Asshole. I'm pretty sure you can handle it, Radek. You aren't a complete idiot."

He looks at her like she's grown a second head. (It's worth it for that alone.)

She goes to visit Dani every day, of course, even though Dani doesn't do much more than sleep at first. It's actually kind of soothing to just sit there in a chair beside Dani's bed and hold her hand and watch her breathe.

She thinks about a lot of things. That Dani didn't believe Colonel Simmons, that she dug until she proved Merry had been set up, that none of them actually hated her (no matter what it looked like at the time). That's been a cornerstone of her beliefs for so long that it's hard to parse now. Does it make a difference or not? She isn't sure.

What she's sure of is this: Dani won't let them be forgotten, her and Catherine and Shaw and Mitch and Jenny; The women who opened the Stargate. (And men, and okay, Dani, others Jesus Christ. She is never going to be free of that still small voice of idiocy. Never.) All the people who are (usually forgotten) when the fireworks start. That won't happen. Dani won't let it. (There's an expression Shep uses, one of his many idiot non-sequiters: steal their thunder. She's not sure what it means—who'd want thunder in the first place?—but she thinks maybe it applies here. For whatever the fuck that's worth.)

Odd to think of having a place in the history books, getting what she's wanted all her life at a point in her life where it doesn't seem...quite as important. (Life is very badly organized: she's always known that.)

So she sits in the Infirmary and thinks, and stays until the nurses kick her out, and comes back as soon as they'll let her back in. She says it's not like she has anything better to do. The nurses at least pretend to believe her. Sometimes Ronon comes too, but mostly it's just her.

When Dani's actually awake, Merry finds the most ridiculous mission reports that AR-1 has ever filed and reads them aloud to her (telling her the things that didn't make it into the reports, too). Dani laughs, even though it hurts. Merry apologizes and says she'll stop. Dani takes her hand and smiles at her and tells her to keep reading.

"I'm glad you're still alive," Dani says one afternoon.

"Yeah," Merry says. "Me too. You." She takes Dani's hand and squeezes it hard, and Dani squeezes her hand back and it's like they're each trying to reassure themselves the other is real. (It's the closest they come to talking about what happened on Planet Asshole, ever.)

When Merry isn't spending time with Dani, she's working on a way to keep the fucking Assholes out of the city if they make a return visit (still alive, still out there, still going to be a pain in somebody's ass, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end, amen). It turns out not to be that hard a problem to solve, once she has the sensor logs and can work out how they got through in the first place. (Clever, guys, but not that clever, and fuck you all for all eternity.) Ronon reminds her she's supposed to be taking it easy. She tells him that if she doesn't have something to do she's going to lose her fucking mind. (She's not lying.) He backs off. She gets the shield recalibrated. Life goes (more or less; this is Atlantis after all) back to normal.

And finally the day comes (three weeks after it got here, and it seems as if it's been both longer and shorter this time) for Daedalus to do its about-turn and go back to Earth. Dani's going with it, and Merry supposes that makes sense; she's still pretty busted up and there are a lot more specialists on Earth than there are on Atlantis. (Merry thinks she'll feel better knowing that Dani has a bunch of nice doctors in the Secure Wing of the Air Force hospital in the Springs looking after her; those guys know their shit.) Besides, Dani's people probably want her back. (Even if SG-1 doesn't exist any more, Merry will bet a pound of coffee they'll all come running. That's what friends do. That's what family does.)

Dani's sitting up in bed staring mournfully at a fruit cup when Merry comes in.

"You look a lot better," Merry says, and sits down on the edge of the bed. And it's not polite bullshit small talk lying, because Dani actually looks mostly alive now, and that's a huge improvement over a two weeks ago.

Dani makes a wry face at her. "Everything hurts," she says. "It'll even hurt to eat this fruit cup."

"Then don't eat it," Merry says, plucking it out of Dani's hand and slurping down the contents. "You're going to have three weeks on Daedalus to eat processed food in plastic containers."

"I'm going home," Dani says. Merry isn't sure how to interpret her expression.

Merry runs her hand through her hair uncomfortably. Goodbyes suck, and she's never been any fucking good at them. "If it were up to me," she says, "we'd keep you here. We could use a linguist who knows her head from her ass."

Dani smiles a little. "If it were up to me, I'd stay. But it's not." She sounds sad. (Merry would really take it kindly if the universe would arrange things so people only felt one thing at a time. It's confusing the way it is now, being happy and sad at the same time, or scared and mad, or all the other stupid makes-no-sense combinations. Feelings suck.)

"I wrote a letter to my brother since you said you'd take one to him," Merry says. She has no idea what the fuck else to say. She pulls the crumpled envelope out of her pocket and drops it on the bed. "Here. Also Dr. Weir said to remind you she came to see you, in case you forgot or something." (These and other incomprehensible messages. Merry is never going to understand the soft sciences. Never.)

"I remember," Dani says quietly. "She said the tea was very stimulating." And then she smiles and her eyes fill with tears and Merry has no idea what to do. None. But Dani shakes her head and holds out her arms. Merry isn't much of a hugger (actually she's not a hugger at all, and most people who try it are asking to get hit), but this is Dani. So she leans over and Dani leans up, and they hug.

"I'll write," Dani says against Merry's shoulder.

"I'll probably be too busy to write back," Merry says, halfway between curt and apologetic. She's thinking of all the systems that were damaged when the Gate exploded and all the stuff in Janus's lab that still needs to be tested and inventoried, and inevitably something else is going to break, explode, or develop sentience at the least-convenient moment. (This is Atlantis.)

"That's okay," Dani says, and her voice is smiling. "I'll write anyway."

#

It's late. Long past sunset. Long past second shift. Just a third watch skeleton crew awake to keep an eye on the city's systems. Making sure there's someone to sound the alarm if disaster comes knocking in the middle of the night, as it so often does. Daedalus left this morning, so the watch crew is even smaller than it's been for the last few weeks: no one has to worry about station-keeping and ship-to-ground communications now.

Elizabeth Weir knows she should go to bed. Should come down from her office, from her sanctum sanctorum, and walk under the stars and drink a cup of tea and leave tomorrow's problems for tomorrow. It's a lesson she learned around more negotiating tables than she cares to count.

But she can't tear herself away from the words on the computer screen, from the problem Dr. Danielle Alexandria Jackson brought her, hidden carefully in a box of tea. (The box had a false bottom. It hadn't taken long to find it. When she'd lifted out the tray of teabags, a handful of flash drives had tumbled onto her desk like jewels from some pirate's treasure trove.)

Flash drives and hidden compartments and messages hidden in plain sight are the tools of the spy, not the scientist or explorer or reluctant commando. Tools she shouldn't have, but Dani Jackson is (Elizabeth has always known it) Jack O'Neill's creature, and Elizabeth Weir knows better than most who Jack O'Neill belonged to once upon a time.

Get in deep enough in the right (or maybe wrong) parts of the State Department and you'll hear the name Henrietta Lange. (мадам зима, the Russians called her. Madame Winter.) Hetty Lange is the person you call for when diplomacy's failed and the only choices left are bad ones. Jack (Elizabeth knows: having once been in command of the SGC has its uses) learned his first lessons at her knee. Long before the Stargate, young Captain O'Neill and Ms. Hetty Lange and Ms. Jenny Shepard (some else Elizabeth knows from her Washington days; absent friends) and a Marine sergeant named Leroy Jethro Gibbs spent five years together somewhere in Europe (East Side, West Side, all around the town). She doesn't have the clearance (even now) to know what it was they did there, but when the Air Force cut him free from Hetty's apron strings Jack went straight into black ops, so Elizabeth can make a pretty good guess.

And now (all things considered) she can't help wondering how many of Madame Winter's lessons Jack passed on to the people under his command. At least some of them (clearly), and that's probably a damned good thing. There's been rot running through the SGC and the IOA from the very beginning. Harry Maybourne. Colonel Makepeace. Colonel Kennedy. The NID. The Trust. (Even CIA, not that that's a surprise.) Contracts between Farrow-Marshall and the U.S. government, and God only knows what else. She thinks of Frank Simmons and what he did to Merry McKay and has to grit her teeth against the surge of anger (Merry doesn't know she knows: Jack made sure she did).

And apparently none of it is over. Maybe it hasn't even begun yet.

It's taken her two long weeks of staring at lines of closely-spaced text on a laptop totally isolated from the Atlantis network to do a first-pass read-through of the files Dani brought her. They're many and various: internal IOA documents, communications between member nations' representatives, a few items—identifiers redacted—that might have come from Homeworld or NID or somewhere even darker and more secret. Two documents in Czech. Five in Chinese. (The Russians don't seem to be involved in any of this. Elizabeth isn't sure if that makes her feel better or worse.) All in all, a pretty tidy précis, organized for ease of interpretation. Elizabeth wonders—irrelevantly—if CIA ever tried to recruit Dani Jackson as an analyst. If they didn't, they should have. She also wonders when Dani took up hacking, because some of these documents aren't readily available even to someone with her clearance level. (If she didn't do it herself, Elizabeth hopes the people who did it for her are worthy of her trust.)

The picture those documents paint gives Elizabeth cold chills.

The curtain is going up on Disclosure in eight months (that much Elizabeth already knows, though she's sworn to secrecy; not even John Sheppard can be taken into her confidence). It's going to be a three-ring circus (that much she can guess). Dani Jackson is going to be the ringmaster. (Harmless civilian, at least on the outside: it makes sense. It's a choice Elizabeth might make herself.)

And the documents Dani brought say that Atlantis is supposed to be one of the main attractions. The City of the Ancients, presented with a flourish to the waiting nations of Earth like a rented pony at a child's birthday party. She can imagine the narrative: a treasure from a far galaxy, discovered by the brave men and women of the Atlantis Mission...and brought home to Earth to delight and dazzle. Never mind that taking Atlantis from Pegasus will leave Pegasus defenseless against the Wraith, the Asurans, others they probably have yet to meet. Never mind that taking Atlantis from Pegasus will doom millions—if not billions—to death. It's clear from the documents that the people making the decision have considered those facts and don't particularly care. Pegasus is 320 million light years from the Milky Way, and since the Wraith don't have intergalactic travel, what happens here doesn't matter.

What's this about? Counting coup? (If so, who's counting?) Making Earth safe from all the threats that are undoubtedly still out there, even after the Ori war? (She thinks of the Lucians. There are probably others.) Looting the storehouse of the Ancients for weapons to use in more Earthly wars? (The Goa'uld did something like that. The destruction was unimaginable.) She wonders if she'll ever know, and she supposes that from Atlantis's perspective, the reasons don't really matter.

The IOA, of course, hopes that the soldiers and scientists of the Atlantis Mission will want to come back. Back to friends and family and celebrations and medal ceremonies and all the comforts of Earth that they've been missing. (Elizabeth had wondered, literally for years, how the IOA could manage to accurately and meticulously calculate the nutrition and ammunition requirements for Atlantis and yet somehow manage to keep shorting them on coffee every single damn time. Suddenly it all makes sense.)

But if the Lanteans won't come willingly, city and all, there are contingency plans.

Detailed contingency plans.

There's a file on Merry McKay's brother. Jean-Paul McKay is a physics teacher in Quebec. (There's a picture. He looks a lot like her.) There's no similar file on John Sheppard, but the documents explain the reason for that too.

Elizabeth stands up from her chair, opens her credenza, retrieves a bottle of Scotch old enough to cast a ballot. (Another present from Dr. Jackson, who probably thought she'd need it.) She pours a careful two fingers' worth into a glass and takes a swallow. Lets out a slow breath.

She knows Dani must have thought Jack didn't know about any of this. Otherwise Dani wouldn't have had to come up with such a complicated ruse to get here. Wouldn't have hidden her warning and all her proofs in a box of tea that almost didn't make it to its intended recipient.

Either that, or she thinks Jack is in on the IOA's plans.

And that would be a horrible thing to contemplate, except that Elizabeth is pretty damned sure it isn't true. Mostly because Jack O'Neill was, is, and ever shall be Madame Winter's creature, and as such, Elizabeth is willing to bet her life (is just about to bet her life, all their lives, their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor) that there's very little that goes on in his demesne that Jack O'Neill doesn't know about.

If Jack was actually complicit in what the IOA is planning, Dani would never have been allowed to leave Earth. (He would have known what she'd done and what she'd found; Elizabeth is sure of it, even though—apparently—Dani's managed to snow the entire IOA.) But deniability has always been Hetty Lange's watchword, and, judging by what Elizabeth has seen of SG-1 (which is plenty), it's also Jack O'Neill's.

Dani needed Homeworld's permission and assistance to go to Atlantis to search for Janus's laboratory. The head of Homeworld gave her both (let her come to Pegasus with all its attendant—and well known to Homeworld—dangers) less than a year before the curtain is supposed to go up on Disclosure. Look at it from one angle, and it doesn't make any sense at all.

But from another, it makes all the sense in the world.

And suddenly it's as if Jack O'Neill has leaned over to whisper in her ear: You've got a choice to make, Lizzie.

I know, Elizabeth answers silently.

320 million light years is a hell of a long supply line. (One of Dani's crates held seeds along with its other treasures.) It's twelve weeks until Daedalus comes back again.

At least they have time.

#