"Why is it called a Jolly Roger?" asked Ronon, slumped in the co-pilot's seat and obviously bored.
John was too busy navigating the asteroid field to give the question serious consideration. Besides, he didn't remember and it wasn't like he could look it up. "It just is."
John was keeping all his attention on the console and the ship's heads-up display, so he couldn't look over at Ronon to see the cynical eyebrow lift he was pretty sure was being directed at him. Ronon said, "We painted it on the ship and you don't know what it is."
"I know what it is," John corrected patiently. "I just don't know why it's called that." He remembered knowing it once, probably in fourth grade, years ago and a galaxy away. Just another lost thing. "You remember the story behind every weird tradition in the whole history of Sateda?"
Before Ronon could claim that he did and prove it by making up a bunch of crap, Teyla ducked into the cockpit. She said, "It is enough that it is an Earth tradition that fits our situation, like the Athosian broken bantos rods painted beside it." She leaned on the back of John's pilot's chair. "All is ready in the jumper. How much longer?"
"Five minutes, plus or minus." From the HUD's sensor picture of the field, John had the asteroid all picked out, a nice big one with lots of hollows and pointy parts, where he could land the Vengeance of Athos out of sight and sensor reach of the Genii stronghold that lay only a little further into the field. John, Teyla, and Ronon would make the rest of the trip in the cloaked jumper.
The Vengeance was an Athosian hybrid, an old cargo ship, augmented with Ancient sensors, weapons, comm system, and other extras. John had suggested naming it Millennium Falcon or The Black Pearl, but had been voted down on both counts. They had three other Athosian cargo ships back at their temporary base, without Ancient augmentations, but just the one jumper, now tucked carefully into Vengeance's hold. "Anything on the comm?"
"Nothing of note." Teyla sounded grimly disgusted. "They speak of the last Hoffan ship they captured, and what they did to the crew and passengers before killing them."
John heard Ronon growl under his breath. Satedans had a rough reputation, but also very strict rules against harming non-combatants, almost as strict as the Athosians. The Vengeance avoided passenger ships, only taking cargo vessels with shipments of food, goods they could sell, or technology they needed to survive. Their last quarry had been a Manarian ship, and when John and Teyla had cut through the hatch, the captain had actually collapsed in relief at the sight of them, saying, "Thank the Ancestors, I thought you were Genii!"
They always left the crews alive, unless they were Genii. Everybody, including the Athosians back at home base, had all agreed that it was okay to kill Genii.
Her voice thoughtful, Teyla added, "They also speak of the new ship that has been preying on their vessels, though not its name or what planet it comes from. I think they know as little of it as we do."
"Well, we're a little busy right now. Hopefully it'll stick to blowing up Genii for a while." All they had been able to find out about the new ship was that it was big, apparently had a fast hyperdrive and powerful weapons, and the Genii had pissed it off somehow. It had taken a couple of Genii raiding vessels that John had had his eye on. John had been hoping to find out more, just to see if the newcomer looked like it was going to be a threat to the Athosians, but for now he filed it under "worry about later." The HUD showed him they were drawing near the asteroid and he told Teyla, "Hey, tell the kids we're ready."
She squeezed his shoulder in acknowledgement and left the cockpit. Ronon grunted, unfolded himself from the co-pilot's seat, and followed her.
John brought Vengeance in close to the big asteroid. Cliffs, etched in gray against the darkness of space, rose outside the viewport. He landed at the bottom of a shadowy crater, the Ancient terrain sensors helping to guide him down. The Ancient cloak they had tried to install didn't work so great on the bigger cargo ship, which was the second reason John wanted to go in with just the jumper. The first reason was that he wanted to risk as few people as possible on this mission. He had wanted to do it alone, but Ronon and Teyla had vetoed that and the whole problem with organizing your pirate band under traditional Athosian articles with only a nominal chain of command was that he couldn't order them to stay behind. Well, he had actually ordered them, it just hadn't worked.
John was shutting down the primary engines when Zoe stepped into the cockpit.
"Ready to go off and kill some bad guys?" she asked. She was tall, dark-skinned, and gorgeous. She wore Athosian leathers and two pistols that bore a striking resemblance to H&K VP70Zs.
"We'll be back in time for dinner," John promised, switching the ship over to standby. "With guests." He hoped.
Leaning over to check the status screen on the non-Ancient part of the console, Zoe didn't comment on that bit of optimism. They had found her in the ruins of the Ancient city on the planet the Athosians called Sere, a name which translated roughly into "danger here." But Teyla and Halling had agreed it was the best place to look for the crystals they needed to keep the ships running.
Zoe had been living in the ruins, injured, starving, and exhausted, but still heavily armed and not willing to trust when John and Teyla had tried to talk her into coming out. But the Athosians knew how to coax dangerous feral people out of hiding -- god knew they had done it enough by now, first with John and then with Ronon. They had left Zoe a pack with food, blankets, and medical supplies, and gone back to trying to dig something useful out of the ruin.
She had watched them for a week. Then one night they were sitting around the campfire, with Teyla, Halling, and Selana all trying to translate an Ancient tablet and John wishing he had taken more liberal arts courses. Zoe had walked into their camp, right up next to the cookfire, and said, "Are those real eggs?"
Zoe wouldn't say where she was from, but John knew that it was Earth. Her accent, her weapons, and the Cantonese words that slipped into her vocabulary occasionally were evidence enough of that. But he also knew that it wasn't his Earth. She had never heard of the Trust, the Orii, or the Goa'uld, and there were too many other things she didn't know, words, places, and technology she didn't recognize. "Are you lost?" Halling had asked her when she had come to them. "We would be glad to take you back to your home."
"You can't get there from here," was all she had told him.
John pushed to his feet, stretching to ease the kinks in his back, feeling his scars ache. Even with the extra help from the Ancient tech, navigating the field hadn't been easy. The Genii always came from the other directions, where there was fewer debris. He said, "If we're not back in ten hours, head for base camp."
"I'll think on it." Zoe leaned an elbow on the co-pilot's seat, casual and dangerous. The only sign of worry was the faint crease in her brow. "You sure you want to do this?"
"Sure." If their intel was right, it would be worth the risk. Worth everything. He drew his knife and put it against his left palm, trying to find a spot that wasn't already scarred. "Need anything while I'm out? Ammo? A couple of pounds of sugar?"
Zoe sighed at the old running joke. "Kolya's head, if it's handy." She watched him, shaking her head as John slid the knife across his palm. "There's got to be a better way."
"Yeah." John leaned down to flatten his hand against the console, leaving a bloody print, feeling the ATA's faint answering pulse under his skin. He was the only one with the Ancient gene and this was the only way they could find to let Zoe and the other Athosians run the ship's auxiliary Ancient tech while he was gone. It would last up to twelve hours.
It might have made more sense for John to stay behind, but this wouldn't work on the jumper, and the jumper was their only way in. The Vengeance could still fly without her Ancient tech, just not as fast or as strong. He said, "We'll figure something out eventually. It'll be okay."
Zoe's expression was dry. "You keep saying that." She handed him a piece of the fine cloth the Athosians used for bandages, already cut to the right size. Like Teyla, Zoe thought of everything. As John wrapped it around his hand, her gaze turned serious. She said, "You take care. If I have to go in there after you three, I'm not taking kindly to it."
Even after this long in friendly company, John still couldn't handle open concern without running. He just said, "She's all yours," and ran, stepping out of the cockpit and making his way through the cramped compartments to the stern. Unlike the smooth gray of the jumper, the old cargo ship was dented and worn, its copper-colored walls ridged with supporting stanchions.
John was certain there was a better way to make the Ancient tech work for people who didn't have the gene, but that knowledge had died with Janet Fraiser, bare minutes after they had escaped through the supergate to Pegasus. Only their jumper had made it through, with John, Janet, and Ford aboard. John hadn't known Janet long enough to miss her personally; she was just another person he hadn't been able to save, a friend he had never had a chance to get to know, someone who could have saved lives and made this whole thing much easier if she had lived. Ford, he missed like hell.
He reached the crowded hold area where the jumper was waiting, its ramp already open. Teyla and Ronon were checking their weapons and loading their pockets with extra ammo. The rest of the crew, all Athosians, were standing around watching glumly. There were more women than men; the Athosians who tended to want to stay behind to repair the ships, farm, and raise the kids tended to be men, and the ones who wanted to go out pirating tended to be women. Teyla had said the same had been true when they had been peaceful traders, before the Genii attacks.
Everyone was dressed in leather, in the post-holocaust Beyond Thunderdome style, including John. His old BDUs had fallen apart a long time ago, and he was wearing soft black leather pants and boots, and a knitted long-sleeved shirt. His belt and thigh holster, the 9mm, and the two P90s, one of which Teyla carried, were some of the few surviving relics from Earth. The Athosian gunsmiths had helped jury-rig a brass-catcher for the P-90, so they could use the cartridge casings to make replacement ammo.
Teyla was saying, "If we do not return by the appointed time, you will follow your orders and return to Halling at our base camp. Is that understood?"
Everybody grudgingly admitted that it was understood. They also looked really worried. This was probably a good moment for an inspirational speech, but John sucked at that. He fixed a look on Deona, Selana, and Adrat, the most experienced crew members. "You put the ship's safety first. If anything happens to it, I'm going to be pissed off."
That wasn't a threat John made very often, and from their expressions it was effective. They nodded solemnly, though Deona said, "We will not forget our responsibilities. But we will not forget vengeance."
Vengeance with responsibility, John thought. That was about as Athosian as it got. "Just don't get caught."
The Genii stronghold was at the edge of the debris field, past the largest asteroids.
At this distance the stronghold looked like a lot of junk, collected in a giant elliptical shape. It was actually an Ancient wreck, a warship with its bridge blasted out of existence but with enough power and hull integrity to make it livable. The smaller Genii raiders were attached all over it like parasites. It killed John that the Genii had found the ship first, even wrecked as it was. The op he would have liked most to run involved taking it and scraping the Genii raiders off like barnacles, but they just didn't have the firepower.
John brought the cloaked jumper in close, closer still, weaving it between the Genii raiders, ghosting past the sensor dishes and gunports of the bigger ships. The cloak made the jumper effectively invisible, but that didn't mean something couldn't run into them. Teyla sat tensely, holding her breath, and Ronon leaned on the back of her chair, teeth unconsciously bared at the near proximity of so many Genii.
They made it to the hull of the Ancient ship, barely pitted even though it was thousands of years old. Sliding just above its surface, the first bay doors they found were huge, easily big enough for the Vengeance of Athos and a couple sister ships of similar size. "Now, that's not going to work," John said thoughtfully, studying the HUD.
"Yes, the Genii would surely notice the power drain, even if they were so blind as not to see them open." Teyla sat forward, pointing up at the HUD. "There. Those doors are considerably smaller. Perhaps a lock meant for a single jumper?"
"Yeah, I think that's it." John guided the jumper further down the curve of the hull, to the smaller hatch. It had a better placement, out of the direct line-of-sight of any of the docked Genii ships. He lined the jumper up carefully, and said, "Everybody cross your fingers. If this doesn't work, we're going to be back in time for lunch." John really didn't want to go back empty-handed.
He sent the open command with the comm, and through the ATA he felt the jumper's gentle request for the larger ship to let it in. After a long breathless moment, the hatch started to cycle. John let his breath out and exchanged a relieved look with Teyla. Ronon gave John a congratulatory thump on the shoulder and headed for the rear compartment.
The bay inside was only a little larger than the Vengeance's hold, conveniently sized for a single jumper. The power seemed to be on but the lights were only at half-strength.
John docked the jumper and got the bay to cooperate by closing its outer doors and re-pressurizing. In the jumper's rear compartment, he pulled on a dark leather jacket with deep pockets for ammo, the Athosian-made smoke grenades, the life-signs detector, and the jumper's remote. He picked up the P90 and Teyla hit the ramp release, and they were on their way.
Once through the inner lock and into the access corridor of the ship, John saw the walls were blue-white, cool and smooth under the half-strength lights, marked only by occasional bands of silver. The air was stale, heavy with the smell of burned plastic and wire, as if someone had tried unsuccessfully to make repairs.
In the next corridor, they killed two crewmen and hid them in a maintenance shaft. Both wore the brown Nazi-like uniforms, meaning they were actual Genii and not recruits from one of Kolya's conquered planets. The life-signs detector said this part of the ship wasn't well-populated, which made sense. The Ancient gene was rare in Pegasus and Kolya hadn't been able to find anyone with a strong enough expression of it to make the fancier ATA work. Well, John corrected, Kolya had been able to find one person; he just hadn't been able to keep him.
John found the first computer terminal up the corridor. Ronon and Teyla kept watch while he used the hunt and peck method on the oddly arranged keyboard. The Genii had their own system patched in, but in a half-assed way, and it was weirdly reminiscent of the TRS-80 John had had as a kid. It was also just as useful. Probably won't even play Pong, he thought in disgust. Giving in, he put his scarred hand on the console's unused access plate and asked it nicely where the brig might be.
There was a heartbeat of sluggish surprise from the ATA, then a holographic image flashed into life in midair above the console, showing a schematic of the ship. It rotated, giving John a highlighted pathway right down through the decks, with a little blinking star at the right spot. Right. Anybody in there? The schematic changed to a sensor map of the target deck, giving John a more detailed map of the cell area itself. One cell had two occupants, with two other life-signs standing just outside it. That has to be it. Kolya wouldn't keep detainees from his own crews in the Ancient ship; mostly he just tossed them out the airlock.
"Thanks," John whispered, and the map winked out, the console going dark. "Got it," he told Teyla and Ronon. "This way."
One eye on the life-signs detector, John led the way down the corridor. Ronon automatically dropped back to take their six, asking, "Who do we think these people are? Suderians?"
"Could be." Though from what John had heard, there weren't many Suderian survivors. But a couple of their scientists could have managed to get offworld. "Maybe Daganians."
Ronon grinned suddenly. "What if we don't like them?"
Teyla smiled, and said, mock-sternly, "You will overcome your dislike."
They made it down two levels to the detention area, the life-signs detector preventing any surprise encounters. They took out two guards in the foyer that opened into the brig, then moved quietly down the corridor toward the occupied cell.
At the corner, John risked a peek. It was a good-sized compartment, with the cell at the back sealed an Ancient forcefield across the wide doorway. Inside the cell were two people, both about John's age. One was a tall woman with short blond hair, and there was something about the way she moved, strong and determined, that reminded John of Teyla and Zoe and the other Athosian women. The other one was a man with brown hair just about to start receding and a glare that was simultaneously angry and nervous. They were pacing, and arguing, ignoring the Genii guards. Both were dressed in dark green pants and jackets that could have passed for BDUs.
As John watched, the first Genii guard turned toward the cell, lifting his weapon significantly. The second guard was distracted too, giving his prisoners a bored grimace. The first guard said, "If you two don't be quiet--"
"You'll do what, imprison us some more?" the man shouted. "This hellhole doesn't even have a toilet!"
The woman waved an arm in frustration, indicating her companion. "You've got my sympathy; I've been trying to shut him up for years," she told the guard.
Okay, that was weird, John thought. They sounded like they were from Earth. It had to be his imagination. You picked a lousy time to go crazy, John. He caught Ronon's eye, nodded slightly.
John whipped around the corner, smashed the first guard in the head with the butt of his P-90. Ronon hit the second guard an instant later, snapping his neck. Both Genii struck the ground like unstrung puppets.
The prisoners stared, startled. "My God, you people are violent," the man said, lifting his chin and looking affronted. "What is this, a coup? You don't have enough innocent bystanders to kill so you're making do with each other?"
Ronon snorted derisively, and John jerked his head, telling him to keep an eye on the corridor. Ronon dropped back as Teyla stepped up to the forcefield. "We are not Genii," she said, her jaw tight at the unintentional insult. "I am Teyla Emmagan. We are Athosians, of the ship Vengeance of Athos. We have an offer for you."
The woman moved closer to the field, eyeing Teyla warily. "What kind of offer?" Jesus, John thought, snap out of it. He kept trying to see their clothes as BDUs with the insignia removed.
Teyla countered with, "You are scientists, familiar with the technology of the Ancestors?"
That was the important point. Though since they had come all this way, John figured they would still rescue them even if the intel was wrong and these two weren't scientists.
"We are." The woman hesitated, looking from Teyla to John, the wariness turning to puzzled disbelief. "I'm Samantha Carter, that's Rodney McKay. Where'd you get the P90s?"
It was John's turn to stare as shock washed over him in a cold wave. He felt like he had been punched in the gut. This is not happening. "You're from Earth."
"How do you--" McKay stared, then pointed accusingly at him. "You're from Earth!"
John was aware of Teyla's gaze, startled and concerned, of Ronon shifting uneasily at his post in the corridor. His throat closed up and for a moment he just couldn't react.
Carter stepped closer to the field, her expression caught between incredulous and intrigued. "Who are you? How did you get here?"
John shook off the shock, putting it aside for later. His voice came out harsh and angry as he said, "That doesn't matter. You want out of here?"
McKay's eyes narrowed, and he exchanged a look with Carter. He said, "You're pirates."
John had thought that was obvious. "Well, yeah."
McKay waved a hand disparagingly. "So here we are, captured by pirates, and you want us to come with you so we can be captured by yet more pirates? That's not exactly a step up."
"We do not keep people by force." Teyla's face was hard. "You would be part of our crew, entitled to a share of our profit, our protection, and food and supplies wherever we make our camp. And most importantly you would be free to leave us, whenever you wished."
McKay lifted his chin, stubborn and unimpressed. "Oh, like we believe that."
John set his jaw. "Look, I don't know if you noticed yet, but the Genii aren't exactly nice people. If you think that Kolya is going to win you over with flowers and candy, you're wrong. Do you know what a Wraith is?"
Watching him carefully, Carter said, "An alien. They fought a war with the Ancients until both species were destroyed."
It surprised John that she knew that much, though he didn't let it show on his face. To most people in Pegasus, the Wraith were just bogeymen. So they really are Ancient tech experts. Ancient tech experts from Earth. Freak out about it later. "There's a few left around. Kolya has some. They can take your life force, eat you inside out, inch by inch. That's how he persuades people to work for him."
"How do you--" McKay cut himself off, suddenly uncomfortable. John knew something had shown on his face, something he sure as hell hadn't meant to reveal, and he cursed himself, wondering where his self-control had gone.
Carter threw a look at McKay, saying, "We don't have a choice, Rodney."
"Yes, yes, I know that, fine." McKay folded his arms. "If they kill us, it's definitely your fault."
Carter rolled her eyes and told Teyla, "We'll come with you."
Teyla nodded sharply. "You will not regret your choice."
Distracted, John didn't think to step to the wall console, he just thought, closing his eyes briefly in concentration. The ATA field in the room responded and the cell's forcefield fizzled off.
He opened his eyes to see Carter and McKay staring at him. Again. "You're from Earth, and you have the Ancient gene," McKay said, sounding pissed off.
Fuck, John thought. They had to know it sometime, that was the whole point of this, getting scientists to help them make the Ancient tech work. But he already felt exposed to the bone, and this didn't help. He just said, "Whatever. Come on."
The clock was ticking and they only had so long now before one of the dead crewmen was missed or a radio check-in to the brig went unanswered. But when they left the brig and reached the transporter/elevator, the life-signs detector showed a sudden influx of blips, congregating on the decks above them.
"This isn't good," John muttered, studying the screen.
Jittering with nervous energy, McKay snapped, "No kidding, Captain Blood."
"That's Major Blood," John snapped back automatically, then thought, okay, mistake. He wasn't used to guarding what he said; with the others it didn't matter.
Carter just glanced at him, sharp and thoughtful. But McKay demanded, "You were a major? In what?"
John gritted his teeth. "What does it matter?"
Maybe some of John's impulse to just kill him rather than answer his question got across, because McKay backed down. He folded his arms, lifting his chin. "It doesn't. I'm just trying to make polite conversation."
"You are not very good at it," Teyla told him, her voice dry.
"Tell me about it," Carter said wearily.
"There's more coming in," Ronon said, pointedly dragging everybody's attention back to the matter at hand. "If they know we're down here, why aren't they heading this way?"
He was right. John took long strides back to a computer terminal in the corridor wall, activating it and going straight into the ATA interface. Ronon stood back to watch the corridor while the others gathered around him. The schematic popped up in response to John's urgent thought, diagramming the new life-signs all over the ship. McKay jumped a little as it appeared, staring incredulously. He said, "How do you know how to do that? Who are you?"
His voice an annoyed growl, Ronon answered, "He's Sheppard, I'm Dex. Now shut up."
John ignored the byplay. He could see the big bay they had avoided was now occupied, that a Genii ship must have docked in it. The life-signs were gathering just a deck above this one, in a large area that might be a conference room. But the signs weren't staying put, they were wandering in and out, up and down the connected corridors. "What the hell are they doing, having a party?"
Carter frowned suddenly. "Oh, wait. Kolya said something--"
"--about meeting some people, by which he meant showing us off to his cronies," McKay finished grimly. "This must be it."
John winced. "Crap." Kolya wanted to show his prisoners off, demonstrate his power to his allies by proving that he now had someone to make his Ancient tech work.
"You could have mentioned it earlier," Teyla pointed out with some acerbity.
"Well he didn't say when he was having the party," McKay told her in exasperation. "He didn't exactly give us an engraved dinner invitation."
"It was more like we were going to be the dessert," Carter said, studying the schematic intently. "Where are we trying to get to, exactly?"
John knew she was the one to watch. McKay was noisy and aggressive, but something about Carter made him suspect she was military. From the way Teyla was watching Carter, she thought so too. He let the schematic highlight the smaller jumper bay and said, "Our ship, here." The corridor accessing the bay was clear, but the nearest transporter on that deck was too close to where people were entering for Kolya's little get-together.
"Can we get up there from another point and reach it from the other direction?" Carter asked immediately. "Is that a transporter or just an elevator?"
"It is a transporter, though the Genii do not seem to know of that function," Teyla said. "We have only known them to use them as elevators."
John couldn't see any other option. "We'll go here," He picked out a transporter on the far end of the jumper bay's deck, "and work our way back around."
Rodney was beginning to think they were out of the frying pan and into the blast furnace. "How do we know they aren't tracking us?" he whispered, grimacing as he flattened himself against the corridor wall. They had just had to duck yet another group of Genii, apparently wandering the ship sight-seeing. Carter and Teyla Emmagan were huddled behind another wall on the other side of the cross-corridor. "They could have life-signs detectors too."
He didn't know what to think about Sheppard. He had heard the stories about Athosian pirates, and if someone had asked him what he thought one would look like, he would have picked Emmagan out of a line-up. Hot woman, terrifyingly self-possessed, heavily armed, dressed in leather, check. Dex, the cave man with all the knives and hair, also met expectations. Sheppard, an Earth human with the Ancient gene so strong that even the half-fried computers on this dying ship did tricks for him, didn't fit. Neither did the fact that he was probably military, with pretty boy looks and spiky hair and something burning him up inside. It was so obvious that even Rodney had noticed it, and that was saying something.
Sheppard threw him an acid look. "The Genii don't have anybody with the Ancient gene strong enough to initialize the internal sensors or use a detector."
Rodney rolled his eyes. "How the hell was I supposed to know that?" he pointed out.
"You could ask." Sheppard had a very sarcastic drawl.
"I did ask!" Rodney put as much outrage as possible into his whisper.
"And I answered you." Seriously, Rodney had no idea how four words could get across that much sarcastic disdain.
"Then why are we arguing?" Rodney snarled.
Sheppard glared. "I don't know!"
Dex ducked back around the corner. "Clear."
"Thank God," Sheppard muttered, and they were moving again.
They made it through another two corridors, past smooth blue-white walls gleaming in the low light, silver stanchions, devices Rodney didn't recognize that there was no time to examine. They had to stop again when the life-signs detector showed a large group of people ahead. Rodney was sweating in the cool air, and this whole escape felt highly improbable.
Sheppard sent Dex to scout ahead, and in a few moments he came back to report, "That corridor turns into a balcony, going across a big meeting room. It's high enough that we can cross it without them seeing us." He shrugged. "It's the closest way."
Sheppard and Emmagan looked at each other, appearing to share a moment of telepathic communication. Then Sheppard said, "Let's go."
After only a few more turns, they reached the room Dex had described. The corridor turned into a gallery, fortunately with a solid silver rail up to waist-height, and above that decorative metal slats in fan-shaped patterns. Sheppard and Emmagan started across first, Rodney following with Carter and Dex behind him.
As they moved, noisy conversation from below covered any sound from their footsteps. Rodney risked an uneasy glance through the fan slats. The group in the room below was a mixed bag of men and women in the brown Genii uniforms, mercenaries in the leather outfits reminiscent of a bad SF movie, and a few people wearing robes or more ordinary clothes that might be business standard wear on other planets. But there was also a large group wearing what could only be described as 18th century farmer costumes. Except the people wearing them were just as heavily armed as the others. The contrast was a little...psychotic.
All right, that's just freakish and disturbing. "What's with the Amish get-up?" he asked, keeping his voice low. "Does anybody else find it incredibly creepy?"
"It's not just you," Carter muttered from behind him.
"They are Genii leaders, from their homeworld," Emmagan explained.
Then Carter whispered, "What the-- Oh."
"What?" Rodney looked again. He stopped, Carter bumping into him.
Below, at the front of the room, a man he easily recognized as Kolya stood with some of his guards. He was wearing a leather coat straight out of an Italian western. But that wasn't what had caught Carter's attention.
The nearest door was open, and more men were dragging in a tall figure, heavily chained. It had dead white hair, blue skin, alien distorted features. It snarled and the entire room cringed back. Kolya laughed.
Rodney felt his skin crawl. He had seen Wraith in holograms and images in the Ancient database. Somehow none of it had prepared him for the reality. Below the Wraith jerked its head up, fighting the chains, sniffing the air. It knows we're up here, he thought suddenly, sick. It knows where every human in this room is.
Ahead, Sheppard had stopped too, frozen like a statue. Emmagan grabbed his arm and spoke urgently, too low for Rodney to hear. Sheppard twitched and started to move again. Carter gave Rodney a shove and he jerked himself into motion, following hurriedly.
They had reached the opposite doorway when shouting from below made Rodney freeze again. He heard Kolya yelling something about the prisoners, then Dex shoved Rodney through the doorway.
"Move, come on," Sheppard snapped, and they were running down a corridor.
"They know we're gone," Carter said, a little breathless. "Dammit."
"Kolya must have sent for us." Hurrying to keep up, Rodney followed that thought to its logical conclusion. He stared at her, appalled. "He brought that thing into the room and he sent for us!"
Carter grimaced in agreement. "Your timing couldn't be better," she told Teyla.
Sheppard jolted to a sudden halt, holding up a fist. Carter, Emmagan, and Dex stopped immediately. Rodney tripped and stumbled into the wall. Sheppard said, "Timing could have been a little better." He was frowning at the life-signs detector. "They're spreading out, they're between us and the jumper."
"Can you activate the quarantine?" Rodney demanded. "Don't tell me you won't stoop to that because there's some freakish reason involving the pirate code?"
That got Sheppard's attention. He looked sharply at Rodney. "Quarantine?"
"Pirate code?" Dex repeated. His expression suggested that Rodney could not have sounded more insane if he had suddenly slapped on a clown hat and started singing an aria.
Ignoring him, Rodney said, "What, you don't know about the quarantine?"
Carter explained in a rush, "Activating it will close all the interior hatches. The protocols will let an Ancient gene carrier through, but anyone else would have to open the wall consoles and pull the crystals -- would the Genii know how to do that?"
"Yes." Emmagan gave her a tight nod. "They raid many Ancestor sites, they would know how to force the doors. But it would take them time."
Sheppard hesitated. "I don't know how to turn on the quarantine. It's not in the regular system?"
"It's an upper level protocol." Trying to sound reasonable and persuasive, Carter said, "Find a terminal and we'll show you how to activate it."
Rodney was past reasonable and persuasive and into hysterical rage. Sheppard was staring at the wall, biting his lip, and Rodney wanted to see that as stubborn stupidity. But he remembered the smiling traders and how fast an ostensibly friendly conversation about Ancient artifacts had turned into a kidnapping, how they had dragged him and Carter off to the Genii, knowing they were handing them over to a life of servitude, with or without bonus torture. He knew what Sheppard was afraid of. He said furiously, "You think we'd try to hand you over to Kolya in exchange for our freedom? We're not idiots, he'd never let us go!"
Dex and Emmagan turned as one, glaring at him with grim suspicion. The expression in Sheppard's eyes went from undecided to an icy opacity that Rodney knew was way more dangerous than the open anger of the other two. Carter shook her head at the ceiling and said, "God, Rodney."
All right, maybe he had spelled that out a little too clearly. He added rapidly, "Besides, we're not the kind of people who would do something like that! You let us out of that cell, and you say you'll let us go if we help you, and so far we have no reason not to believe you, though of course if we did--"
"Rodney!" Carter said in exasperation. She turned to the others. "We want out of here, you want to take us out of here. Let us help you do that."
A shout from somewhere up the corridor decided the matter. In an even reasonable tone that somehow conveyed pure murderous intent, Sheppard said, "All right. But if you screw us, you're not going to live to see Kolya."
Rodney believed him.
John's nerves were jumping and he kept thinking he could smell Wraith. The quarantine thing had worked like Carter said it would, shutting all the interior hatches, but opening them one by one when John touched the wall console. He just hoped the Genii didn't have an Ancient gene carrier strong enough to trigger the doors. And no Genii had intercepted them yet, so Carter and McKay hadn't sent some kind of message through the system to Kolya.
He hoped. And he hoped none of the Genii figured out where they were heading fast enough to stop them.
If Kolya caught them, it would be like Ford all over again, only with Ronon and Teyla the ones tortured to get John's cooperation.
Finally they reached the access corridor to the jumper bay. John put his hand on the console, hoping this wasn't the one door that would refuse to respond. Despite his generally crappy luck, it started to slide open just like the rest had. "This is it," Teyla told McKay and Carter in relief. "Our ship is--"
Ronon spun around, jerking his weapon up, pointing it toward the interior door across the corridor, directly opposite the hatch into the bay. "Genii," he said.
A second later John heard it too -- someone was cracking open the wall console on the other side of that doorway.
"We didn't do it!" McKay said frantically. "That wasn't us! We--"
"I know that," John interrupted. The bay hatch was slowly opening, stretching his nerves to the breaking point. "They're not stupid, they're checking all the small ship bays." The Genii had just gotten lucky.
The bay hatch opened just as the Genii got their door to slide reluctantly upward. John jerked up the P90, and he and Teyla sprayed the Genii at the door with a sustained burst. The Genii dropped, others falling back.
"Go, go!" John triggered the jumper's remote, and Ronon shoved Carter and McKay through into the bay. More Genii appeared in the doorway and John and Teyla fired again, driving them back. John motioned Teyla to go, then bolted through the hatch after her, hitting the wall console to close it.
The jumper's ramp was opening smoothly and McKay shouted, sounding outraged, "You have a gateship? How did you get a--"
"Get aboard!" John yelled.
Everybody scrambled up the ramp. The jumper was already powering up around him as John reached the cockpit, dropping into the pilot's seat. Ronon hit the switch to close the ramp and John waited, tight knots of tension forming all over his body, for the jumper to pressurize and send the command to open the outer bay doors.
Something was trying to override them, probably whoever was outside the inner hatch, trying to pry it open. But the old warship decided to listen to the jumper instead, and the outer doors started to cycle apart. The bay's interior hatch slid open a little and John caught a glimpse of stunned faces just as he hit the cloak. The jumper rose and dropped backward out of the bay, into clean space.
Genii ships buzzed around, looking for something to shoot at, but John guided the cloaked jumper around and through them, right past their sensor ports. "Oh my God," McKay muttered, and Ronon dragged him out of the cockpit.
"Sheppard." The voice came from the comm system. It was Kolya. "Sheppard, I know it's you. Did you miss me? I knew you'd come back."
"Do not answer him," Teyla said from behind John.
"I know. He wants to fix our position with the comm," John said. He set their heading for the asteroid and the Vengeance of Athos, thinking, it's always going to be me, Kolya. Right to the end.
McKay had made covetous noises about the jumper all the way back. If John hadn't been the only one with the Ancient gene, he would have been tempted to chain it up once they landed safely in Vengeance's hold.
The Vengeance had already lifted off the asteroid by the time John and the others reached the bridge. Zoe was in the pilot's chair with Adrat in the shotgun seat. As John stepped up behind her, she said, "We ready to leave?"
John nodded. "Get us out of here. The neighborhood's getting crowded."
The course was already plotted. Zoe took the ship up and out of the larger debris field. John watched the HUD, seeing the Genii were too far behind them and too slow. The sensors picked up a few distant bursts from weapons and a lot of yelling on the comm as the Vengeance slid smoothly into hyper.
Everybody breathed out in relief. Zoe turned her seat around, lifting a brow inquiringly. "I take it things went well?"
"Mostly." John glanced around. McKay and Carter had followed them up to the bridge, and were looking around curiously. Ronon had dropped into the chair at the sensor suite, stretching his long legs out, and Teyla was standing at the hatch with Selana.
John started to introduce the newcomers to Zoe and the others, when McKay said suddenly, "Why the hell are there bloody handprints on the console?" He pointed, glaring around at them all, suspicious and appalled. "You people believe the ATA is activated by some sort of human sacrifice? What the hell is--"
For God's sake, John thought wearily. "It's the only way to keep our Ancient tech working when I'm not here." He held up his scarred hand.
"That's barbaric!" McKay recoiled in horror, then he stepped closer, suddenly interested. "Does it actually work?"
John gave him the fake smile that had helped drive some of his toughest COs to sputtering rage. "No, I'm a masochist and they're enablers."
McKay folded his arms, and said witheringly, "Yes, I know, but does it actually work?"
Teyla rolled her eyes, and made her voice polite and firm. "Selana, show our guests to the common room, where they may rest."
"This way," Selana said, in a tone that didn't permit argument. Carter took McKay's arm and dragged him after her.
Zoe looked up at John. "Can I kill him?"
"Dibs," Ronon said.
John dropped into the chair at the comm console, suddenly aware of just how tired he was. Tension made every muscle in his body ache. He tilted his head back to squint narrowly at Ronon. "You can't call dibs after she asks."
Ronon snorted. "Stupid rule."
Teyla gave them all a tired but indulgent smile. "After they help us with our systems, they will probably wish to leave."
John could hope.
Everybody else drifted off to clean up, but John stayed in the cockpit, avoiding their guests. But after a while three different people came by to tell him dinner was ready, it was actually Telan's watch, and John had fiddled with everything he could fiddle with while the ship was in flight. And he was hungry. He gave in and went down the length of the ship to the common room.
It was a slightly larger compartment, metal walls softened by a couple of colorful Athosian wall-hangings. Everyone off-duty was sitting down to dinner, either at the round tables or on the furs and woolly goat pelts draping the bench seats and the floor.
John dropped onto a bench at the far side of the room from where Deona was ushering McKay and Carter into seats. Itasa brought John a plate and sat next to him, eyeing their guests suspiciously. John was glad he wasn't the only one.
Dinner was baked toba root with gravy and cora greens. John had stopped craving junk food a while back, but he still found the Athosian food dull. Zoe loved it, but then she said where she came from they had usually been too poor to afford fresh vegetables and fruit.
John had been hoping nobody would talk to him, but apparently his ability to project an aura of "leave me the hell alone" was broken today. McKay took the offered seat at a table and immediately asked him, "Do you have coffee?" John stared at him and he added, "Just thought I'd ask. What, didn't you bring anything from Earth?"
Ignoring him, Teyla smiled, determinedly polite, and asked Carter, "Where did you come from?"
"A planet called Earth, in the Milky Way," Carter said. Her ironic glance at John suggested she knew that they had heard of it before. "We came here on a ship with some others, but we were separated from them."
"It is a terrible thing to be separated from your people," Calena, Itasa's twin sister, said, then she turned pale with realization. She turned to John, Ronon, and Zoe. "I am sorry."
Ronon shrugged, but flicked a brief smile at her. Zoe's smile was more rueful. "It's all right." She fixed an ironic gaze on McKay. "It's not like you were praising rope in the house of the hanged."
"Speaking of which--" McKay leaned forward, staring hard at John. "Can we please talk about the gigantic elephant in the room?"
"No," Ronon said, around a mouthful of toba root.
Ignoring him, McKay continued, "Where did you come from, Sheppard?"
Why the hell not, John thought. He kept his expression laconic, and deliberately echoed Carter, "A planet called Earth, in the Milky Way." He added, "I came here on a ship, with two other people. One bled out on the way to Pegasus, Kolya killed the other because he didn't have the Ancient gene." He deliberately ate another bite of toba root. "Happy?"
McKay frowned. "Not really."
"So how did you end up with Kolya?" John countered.
McKay began, "Well, as you saw, we weren't with him--"
Carter interrupted, "We were on a planet called Denabi, at a big trading market, looking for Ancient artifacts. We were told to go to a certain trader who had a good collection. Well, he did. He also knocked us out with some kind of stunweapon and when we woke up, we were prisoners on a Genii ship." Her expression was resigned. "Somehow I have the feeling we're not the first people to fall for this."
Teyla nodded, watching Carter with some sympathy. "It is a common Genii trap. Kolya is constantly searching for travelers who study the Ancients." She tilted her head inquiringly. "Was that where you were separated from your people?"
"It was earlier," McKay said, brisk and abrupt. A guilty wince briefly crossed Carter's face and she poked at her food. John wondered if the rest of their group was dead. Then McKay asked him, "So how did you become a pirate?"
Zoe's eyes narrowed in annoyance. "What about you," she asked McKay deliberately, obviously trying to get the spotlight off John. "How did you learn all this Ancient technology?"
Except that Zoe had miscalculated, forgetting that not everybody was as reticent about their past as they were. McKay immediately launched into a complete description of his education and career, with a litany of place-names like MIT, Caltech, Area 51, and Siberia. John got up to take his plate to the galley and fled through the maintenance passage back up toward the bridge. He stopped in the small bay where there was a port looking out on the starfield, distorted and streaked by the hyperspace drive. He just leaned on the bulkhead and stared out at it.
He knew McKay wasn't puffing up those credentials, he was the real thing, and so was Carter. They had real Ancient tech experts, finally, after all this time; John should be ecstatic. Well, he would have been ecstatic, if they had been Suderians.
Maybe he just wasn't ready for all the baggage that came with memories of Earth. Capping off his career disaster by being caught up in the Trust raids, and having to fight his way into the escape plan since Sumner was so damn sure that John would go over to the other side at the first opportunity. Then the stunned horror when John and Ford had realized that their jumper was the only ship to make it through the supergate. Burying Janet on an alien planet, under a sky with three moons.
Their first alien contact had been on a planet with a big market, like the one on Denabi that Carter had described. They had been lucky, and it had gone well, and for a while they had gone from stargate to stargate, partly making a living as traders, partly just exploring. Each alien planet was like a revelation, terrifying and fascinating. Then the Genii had found them.
After John had escaped from Kolya, he had been crazy, hell-bent on killing Genii wherever he found them, and feeling like something damaged that just needed to be thrown away. Teyla and Halling and the others had brought him back from that, and he owed them everything. So get over it and make nice with the Ancient tech experts you risked everybody's lives to find, he told himself, disgusted at his own weakness.
John didn't know how long he had been there when Teyla's footsteps on the metal deck brought him back to awareness. She stepped into the bay, leaning against the other side of the port. John stirred, asking, "Everything okay?"
"They are settling in." She added with some irony, "They seem like good people, though Dr. McKay is very inquisitive. I hope we can come to trust them." She hesitated, watching him. "Is it very difficult for you, having them here?"
John leaned his forehead against the cold metal. "Once we get them to fix the cloak for us, show us how some of the other stuff works, they can leave. We'll give them the gate addresses for the Keran Reach, that'll get them out of Kolya's territory."
Teyla smiled ruefully. "That did not answer my question."
"No, yeah, it doesn't matter." He admitted, "It's just...weird." He knew Teyla didn't get it, exactly. He knew if she was in his situation and suddenly ran into two Athosian survivors, she would have welcomed them with open arms, not tried to strategize a way to give them the bum's rush out of her life as quickly as possible. But one of the things he liked most about Teyla was that she didn't have to share your feelings to understand.
She just shook her head and said, "Go and get some rest. We will keep watch."
"Yeah," John agreed reluctantly. "You too. Don't stay up all night."
"I will not." She smiled gently, and he went back to the crew quarters, several tiny compartments with stacked bunks joined by a single corridor. The lights were turned low and most of the off-duty crew had already turned in. John ducked under several curtains of laundry -- just because Athosian women could kick ass didn't mean they didn't like silky things and lacy tops -- making his way to the little room where Ronon was draped across a top bunk like a sleeping lion. He opened one eye in a suspicious squint when John came in, grunted an acknowledgement, and went back to sleep. John didn't bother to undress, just took off his boots and coiled his gunbelt up beside his pillow. He lay down in the scent of clean wool and incense, wide awake, listening to the others' deep breathing and Ronon's quiet snores.
"What are we going to do?" Rodney hissed, pacing their quarters. It was a small cabin, with two bunks and a miniscule attached bath smaller than a closet, but even he had to admit it wasn't that unpleasant. Someone had painted abstract designs on the metal walls, and there was a knitted rug on the deck and afghans on the beds.
"Rodney." Sam, stretched out on the lower bunk, eyed him with a certain degree of impatience. "This morning I woke up in a twelve by twelve cell, with you, and no bathroom facilities. Now I've had a dinner that tasted like turnips in rice pudding, we have a place to sleep with clean bedding, a shower, I've been loaned clean underwear, and no one's even holding a gun on me. I'm not going to do anything at the moment."
"So we're just going to sit here on this flying commune of lesbian separatist pirates and do nothing?" Rodney grimaced, waving a hand in frustration. "He's the strongest Ancient gene carrier we've ever seen. Stronger than O'Neill."
"I know. And we do nothing." Carter rubbed her eyes tiredly. "For now."
The Athosians moved their base camp at random, but John had to admit that he was fond of this particular planet. The stargate was in a valley with lush tropical vegetation, surrounding a ruined Ancient site with white stone pillars. There was a round section of grassy field in the center, with the remnants of a few shallow fountains, probably the remains of a park. It made a good spot for the Athosians to put up their tent-huts, for the open cooking fires they still preferred, and for John to play football with the kids.
The Vengeance of Athos was currently resting on one of the ruin's big open platforms, having its engines worked over. John was sitting on the deck in the hold, updating the ammo inventory on one of their little datapads, while Teyla and some of the others worked to sort out their latest stolen cargo. They were separating it into things they could use and things to sell, always a tough job because the Athosians tended to collect stuff like magpies. "You don't need five bales of whatever the hell that is," John told Teyla, partly amused and partly exasperated.
"But it could prove useful," Teyla protested, running her hands over the silky fabric.
Then Halling leaned in through the inner hatch. "John, the ATA has failed again. Could you...?"
John sighed, and pushed to his feet. "Sure."
Teyla looked up, frowning. "Again?"
Halling made a helpless gesture. "Perhaps our new friends will be able to tell us why."
John followed Halling back up through the ship toward the bridge area. Most of the systems were shut down, making the compartments and accessways strangely quiet; John always thought the ship just felt wrong once it had been landed on a planet and partially powered down. Wrong as in empty, dead, and vulnerable.
But it was necessary, and he knew it was helping. McKay and Carter had gotten the Vengeance's Ancient cloak to work, and fixed a dozen chronic problems on the other three ships. John thought they had more than paid back the effort of rescuing them, and kept expecting them to ask to leave. He was of two minds about that: he knew how dangerous Pegasus could be. Safety meant numbers, and McKay and Carter would be safer with the Athosians. But having them here was still uncomfortable for him. If it was permanent, you'd get used to them, he told himself. Maybe he needed to just suck it up and get over it.
When John reached the cockpit he heard McKay saying, "That doesn't make sense, he's just back in the cargo area, right? It shouldn't fail at that range."
Half the consoles were open, tools and sensors and electronic innards strewn everywhere. Carter, Selana, and McKay were sitting in the middle of it; John wasn't sure where Halling had fit in, unless he had been perched on top of the console.
Selana shook her head, studying the schematic on her datapad. "We believe something is fundamentally wrong with our connections between the Ancestors' technology and our own. It fails intermittently, and we have not been able to trace the errors."
"We've been lucky," John admitted, edging his way past them to the pilot's console. "It's never failed at a critical moment."
"Never during a battle?" Carter asked, frowning.
"Well, yeah, but not a critical moment during a battle." John drew his knife and put the tip against the heel of his hand.
He saw Carter wince. She said, "There's got to be a better way."
"That's what everybody says." John put his hand against the access plate, feeling the Ancient tech warm to life again.
McKay snorted. "Yes, but this is barbaric."
John couldn't let that one pass. "The Genii had a guy with the gene, from some backwater planet where the Ancients had a city once. They had him strapped to a table with half a dozen tubes in him gradually siphoning off his blood. That's barbaric." He looked at McKay deliberately. "This is just inconvenient. Now, are we done?"
Carter looked up, her mouth set in a sympathetic line. "We're done."
John climbed out of the cockpit, and made it almost to the lounge area before McKay caught up with him. Ducking under one of the Athosian hangings, he said, "Sheppard!"
John stopped, reluctantly. "What?"
McKay looked around, as if checking to see who was listening. Nobody was; this part of the ship was deserted, with everyone working either in the cockpit or the hold, or outside. McKay lowered his voice from its usual carrying tone, and said, "Why do you do this for these people?"
John considered pretending not to know what "this" meant, but decided he would rather argue than obfuscate. He said pointedly, "I'm one of these people, McKay."
McKay waved a hand in frustration. "But that was just because there was no other choice, right?"
That...was a weird question. "There were other choices. I like it here." John couldn't quite figure what this was about. "What's it matter to you?"
McKay stepped back, folding his arms and lifting his chin. "Nothing. I just wondered."
Fine, John didn't have time to deal with this. Keeping his voice just even enough to make it a threat, he said, "Wonder about something else," and walked away down the corridor.
Dammit, Rodney thought with a grimace. That went well. He was starting to think Carter might be the tiniest bit right about his crappy interpersonal skills.
"You should not push him so hard," Teyla said, from the hatchway.
Rodney flinched guiltily, trying to remember just what it was he had said. Nothing too incriminating, or Sheppard would still be in here, probably punching him. He tried to bluff it out. "Oh, and why is that?"
Teyla stepped into the lounge. She didn't look angry, at least. "I know that your world is lost to you, and I understand something of what that is like. Because of the Genii, we will never be able to return to Athos, though we were lucky in that many of our people escaped to accompany us."
That caught Rodney by surprise. "Okay, well...yes. It's partly that." Rodney had heard about Athos, but for some reason he hadn't thought to compare it to their own situation. Earth was taken over by the Trust, Athos had been bombed and rendered uninhabitable by the Genii. All right, so maybe they did have that in common.
She added, "I know that having found another refugee from your world, you do not wish to be parted from him."
Rodney could hardly tell her he was more interested in not being parted from Sheppard's powerful expression of the Ancient gene. But...maybe it wasn't only that. He had trouble reconciling crazy Sheppard the Genii-killing pirate with the Sheppard that he saw here in camp. The one that played half-assed games of football with the kids, who got up before dawn to go running, and wandered around barefoot and unshaven in the evening. The one the Athosians seemed to think was fragile. Frustrated, he asked her honestly, "Why doesn't he want to talk about Earth? What the hell happened there?"
Teyla shook her head, her mouth tightening as she considered the question. For a moment he didn't think she was going to answer, then she said reluctantly, "I do not think it is Earth. I think he does not want to talk about any part of the past." She hesitated again. "You know the Genii killed his friend. They also used one of their captive Wraith to torture John, allowing it to feed on him, and then forcing it to return what it had taken."
Rodney felt sick. He had seen some of the Ancient material on the Wraith, the descriptions of the war, the hellish way the Wraith had used the human populations of Pegasus as cattle. "How did he get away?"
"He persuaded the Wraith to help him, and they escaped together."
"That's...somehow not entirely a surprise." Rodney hesitated, struck by an unpleasant thought. Sheppard also had the air of a man who collected strays. "It's not still around here somewhere, is it, because--"
Teyla gave him a look, as if he had implied their camp had a vermin problem. "No. Once they had escaped, he killed it."
"Oh." Rodney shifted uneasily. "That was efficient of him."
"It asked him to, because it was one of the last of its kind. It did not wish to be alone." Teyla lifted a brow at him, as if no more needed to be said.
Watching her walk away, Rodney thought that she was right, there wasn't anything else to say. Sheppard wanted to be here, with these people. No amount of talk was going to change that. That's what I was afraid of, he thought, wincing.
John ran into Zoe in the corridor, coming in with a basket of Charin's homemade medicines to re-stock the ship's tiny sick bay. She stopped John, frowning, and took his hand to look at the new cut. "The ATA failed again? Even with you in the hold all day?"
John admitted it with a shrug. "We were due for another fluctuation."
She shook her head, resigned. "It's getting worse, isn't it?"
John nodded. Selana had a chart to keep track of the inexplicable failures. The percentages weren't promising. "It's lucky we found Carter and McKay."
"I hate to say we were due some luck." Zoe shifted the basket onto her hip. "Nothing chases it away faster."
John started to step past her, then found himself hesitating. "Do you trust them?"
Zoe leaned back against the bulkhead, giving the question serious consideration. John placed a lot of value on her judgment. Even in the time she had been with them, it was apparent that her ability to keep her head in a crisis was almost preternatural. He didn't think he could survive being thrown into another universe or dimension or whatever it was that had happened to her, at least not the way she had, just picking up and going on with her life. Finally, she said, "I want to trust them. The thing about this tech is that it's so easy to use and learn. Then it breaks down--"
"And you're looking at a box of pretty crystals and air, with no idea what the hell to do." John rubbed his eyes. It was an ongoing nightmare; they just didn't know enough about this technology. "Yeah."
"That's about it," Zoe agreed. She shrugged. "We haven't given them reason not to trust us." She added, with more than a tinge of grim resignation, "But then, some people don't need reason."
That one, John knew all too well.
It was three days later, and John was sitting at the fire outside Halling's tent with most of the others. Insects were singing in the trees past the ruin, and twilight was darkening the sky to purple-gray. People were gathered in family groups around the various tents, and the kids were playing noisily, a last burst of energy before they had to wind down for sleep. Dinner that night was tuttle root soup, which weirdly, John was starting to develop a taste for.
"We must think of a good target to test our new cloaking ability," Teyla was saying. "The first time we will have a great advantage of surprise."
John nodded, poking absently at the rooty bits with his spoon. "They'll think it's the cloaked jumper. While they're looking for it, we can bring the Vengeance in."
"Are we going for goods, or damage?" Zoe asked, watching John thoughtfully, as if she already knew he had an idea.
"Both?" Ronon suggested. He was sitting to one side of the fire, sharpening his sword. He had already finished his meal, tending to eat with the efficiency of someone used to starving and scrounging for years.
"I think there's two possibilities," John said, looking up. "The stronghold in the asteroid field, or their homeworld."
Everybody got quiet for a long moment. Halling said, "The homeworld supplies their ships and the stronghold. Cutting them off would greatly curtail their activities."
Teyla's eyes were on the fire, her face lost in thought. "But if we destroyed the stronghold, we could take control of the Ancestors' warship."
John wanted that warship, even damaged as it was, with a bone-deep need.
Halling nodded slowly. "With the help of our new friends, we could learn much from it."
"Do they want to join up with us for certain?" Zoe asked, and it was hard to tell from her tone whether she thought it was a good thing or not. "Because somehow that's not the impression I got."
"I have spoken with them about it," Halling told her. "I have said we will be happy to take them to a destination of their choosing, or to give them gate addresses to planets that are safe from the Genii. But they have said they wish to stay for now."
Teyla shook her head. "Being with us does give them an opportunity to work with the Ancestors' technology that they may not be able to find anywhere else."
"They're coming," Ronon said quietly.
John looked to see McKay storming up along the path from the landing platforms, waving his arms, Carter following at a more normal speed. This was a fairly common performance at mealtimes. When McKay reached the fire, John said, automatically, "Don't panic, we saved you some."
"No, that's not it! I--" McKay stopped, switching from frantic to pleased and self-conscious in a heartbeat. "Oh, you did? Thanks." Then he switched back to frantic. "We've been working on something, a new interface for the ATA--"
Halling sat up, putting aside his bowl. "This will stop the intermittent failures?" he asked hopefully. The intermittent failures were the bane of Halling's life.
McKay waved that off. "No, it just means you won't need Sheppard anymore."
Halling stared. John blinked. Teyla shook her head. Ronon and Zoe exchanged a look.
Carter said quickly, "Uh, he didn't mean it like that. Rodney, explain a little further."
"What?" Distracted, McKay looked around, seeming to realize what he had said. "Oh. No, no, I meant you won't need the ritual blood sacrifice to keep the ATA active. We have a substitute that isn't physically painful."
"They are not ritual blood sacrifices," Teyla said with annoyance.
Everybody looked at John again. If McKay was right... John said, slowly, "Okay, what is it?"
McKay sat down on a camp stool. "The Ancient Technology Activation is a field, constantly broadcast by the devices that use it. Originally we know it was a protective measure, a safeguard against the Wraith stealing and using the Ancients' weapons and defensive devices like the cloak and personal shields--"
Carter interrupted, "We still don't understand everything about the way it works, but because your ship's cloak was installed with a mix of Ancient and Athosian technology, its ATA is fluctuating, and it keeps losing the initialization data it collects whenever it comes into contact with you or your DNA."
McKay finished, "This will boost the ATA's transmissions. You'll have to wear it somewhere on your body, but it's small, and will be less inconvenient than repeated self-mutilation." He gestured at John, impatient and elated. "Well? Do you want to test it or not?"
Everybody looked at John. Biting his lip, he considered it a moment, but if this was true... He couldn't see a downside here. "Yeah, let's try it."
John had been thinking they meant something more the size of a life-signs detector, but it turned out to be tiny, barely the size of a watch battery. They ran tests that night, and McKay and Carter spent the next day tweaking it, and they discovered that John did have to wear it against his skin.
But the long and the short of it was, it worked.
They had a party the next night, a real one, with Halling breaking out the homemade wine. They built a big bonfire up on one of the Ancient foundations, a tall platform that gave a good view of the ruin and the valley beyond. The sky was clear and full of stars, the night was just cool enough to make the fire comfortable, and John was feeling reasonably content. He was stretched out on his side, looking out at the ruin, with Teyla, Zoe, Ronon, Halling, Selana, McKay and Carter, and a dozen or so Athosians from the Vengeance's crew gathered around, talking and laughing. John had to admit that the "blood sacrifice" method had had its drawbacks, and he was relieved to see the end of it. It had always felt like a desperate stop-gap measure, a sign of how badly things could go wrong.
Everybody had had more than a few drinks, and it was around that point that McKay suddenly turned to John and asked, "How did you escape from Earth?"
John looked up to see all the Athosians watching him worriedly. Zoe was keeping her expression perfectly noncommittal, though Ronon looked a little edgy, which probably meant that he was curious too, but not much liking McKay's method of asking. But John sighed, and thought, why the hell not? After the transmitter, maybe he owed McKay an answer. "I was at McMurdo when it was overrun by the Trust. We didn't-- I didn't know about the stargate base up there before then. But the Trust tested everybody, found I had something called the Ancient gene, and I got locked up with the other gate personnel, as an alien." It was weird how that memory still stung, of being told he wasn't human. "A Colonel named Sumner was planning a breakout. There were two BC303s up there, they were going to steal them, head for the Pegasus supergate. I didn't know any of the details."
McKay gestured impatiently, slopping wine out of his cup. "But you're a pilot, and you have the Ancient gene, and they were running to Pegasus. Didn't they understand that--"
John interrupted, "I have -- had -- a bad record. Sumner knew about it. He decided I wasn't worth taking a chance on and he told me I wasn't getting a slot on either ship. Do you know what the Trust did to Ancient gene carriers?"
"Yes," Carter said, and there was something under her quiet voice that told John that she did know, that maybe she had seen it.
"What did they do?" Teyla asked softly. John had never told her this part. He had never told anybody this part.
McKay answered for him. "They dissect them." He sounded sick.
John wanted to get through the rest of the story. "They broke out, and a young lieutenant named Ford let me out of my cell anyway. I headed for the hangars, figuring if I couldn't find something to fly out in, I'd just walk out."
"Of Antarctica?" Carter lifted her brows.
"Yeah. It wasn't an ideal solution." John hadn't wanted to die, but he had known it would be better than being recaptured. "But their plan went to hell, and people were getting cut off from the ships. I ran into Ford again, and this time he had a doctor with him, named Janet. She was wounded." Out of the corner of his eye he thought he saw Carter move, almost flinch, but when John looked up at her, her face was blank. "She was important, and Sumner had sent Ford specifically to get her. She was a xenobiologist, she knew all about the gene, and besides the fact that they needed every medical doctor they could get, Sumner knew she'd come in handy once they got to Pegasus. Ford said if I helped them, Sumner would have to take me along. I thought he was being optimistic, but what the hell. We made it to the launch bays, but we were still cut off from the BC303s. There was a jumper there. I didn't know what it was, but Janet said I might be able to fly it, so we took it. That's pretty much it."
McKay cleared his throat. "What happened to the others?"
"Both BC303s got blown up before they reached the supergate. Janet..." This part still hurt. John didn't know if things would have gone better, been different, if Janet had lived. But he thought maybe he and Ford might have been more careful if they had had somebody else depending on them. "We didn't think she was badly wounded, we thought she was going to be okay. But all the running, must have...torn something loose. We tried everything in the medical kit, but... When we got to Pegasus, it was just me and Ford."
Nobody said anything for a while, lost in their own thoughts, their own memories of losses. Then McKay cleared his throat. "I have a suggestion. For a mission." He threw a look at Carter, who was watching him with a trace of wariness. "We know the location of an Ancient site. The last time we were there, it had intact crystals."
John sat up. "Seriously?"
McKay gave him a look. "No, I thought I'd just get your hopes up for nothing. Yes, I'm serious. We could give you the coordinates, and we could check it out. It's not particularly dangerous, as far as we could tell, but you have the cloak now, so...it would make a nice test run." He stared at Carter, and said pointedly. "Right?"
Carter blinked rapidly, then pressed her lips together. She finally said, "It's worth a shot, yes."
John thought maybe she had wanted to hold the location in reserve, as a bargaining point in case their new allies tried to turn on her and McKay. She didn't know them all too well yet, and that kind of insurance was only sensible. He looked at the others. "Well?"
"New crystals would certainly be useful," Teyla said, with a seasoned trader's reserve. Selana ruined it by practically bouncing with happiness.
"It would aid our other endeavors," Halling agreed, and John knew he was thinking about the Genii homeworld. Or what could possibly become the ex-Genii homeworld, if they played their cards right.
Ronon shrugged, eyeing McKay thoughtfully. "If he's telling the truth, sure."
Zoe frowned a moment, then gave John a measured nod. "We need the supplies."
John agreed, this was an opportunity they couldn't pass up. "Okay," he said. "We can take the Vengeance out tomorrow."
And everybody had another drink.
Later, in the privacy of the tent they had been assigned, Rodney was a little drunk and trying to get ready for bed. The place was a little stuffy and redolent of alien goatskin and incense, but other than that it was warm, dry, and comfortable.
Behind him, Carter tugged the doorflap into place and said quietly, "What are you doing, Rodney? We agreed that we were going to fix as many of their systems as we could, then leave and contact them again later."
"They need the crystals." Rodney lifted his chin stubbornly. "You know we could make much more extensive repairs--"
"Yeah, I know." She watched him with an unflattering degree of suspicion. "Is that it?"
"Of course that's it," he said, and almost believed it himself.
The planet didn't have a name on their charts, but it had a gate address, which let Carter and McKay locate it and figure out the hyperdrive coordinates. It turned out to be near the edge of their usual territory, which John thought was a good sign. It meant it was that much less likely that the Genii or any other scavengers would have gotten there first.
"How did you find this place?" John asked Carter, when he saw her in the galley. He was waiting for the crew to finish the last of the launch preparations, and she had taken a break from her calculations.
"It was on a list of gate addresses we found at another Ancient site," she told him. John was going to leave it at that and not ask any more questions. He knew she had been working most of the night to fine-tune their hyperdrive; the bowl of porridge she was eating while standing up in the galley was probably the first break she had taken in hours. But she added, "And about that...I'd really like to talk to you, and Teyla, when you have a chance. Maybe after this mission."
It was still odd to John's ears, that she called their hunts and scavenging expeditions "missions" like he did. The others had picked up the habit from him, but it sounded more natural when she did it. He had thought she had been military from the first, and this was just something else to add to the evidence. He asked, "Is this about you guys leaving? Because you're not prisoners, so whenever you're ready to go--" It occurred to him suddenly what the problem might be, and he added, "And if you need supplies, trade goods, whatever, I'm pretty sure we owe you a lot."
She shook her head, smiling. "That's not a problem. Halling already offered us payment, and gave us a list of gate addresses, we can get back to where we need to go with that." She poked at a lump in the porridge, her expression turning serious. "It's just...I know we'd like to stay in touch. I think we can help each other, and--"
Halling's voice came over the all ship com, saying, "John, we are ready to start the launch sequence," and in all the subsequent activity, they didn't get a chance to finish the conversation.
John was in the cockpit on their second day out, with Teyla keeping him company. McKay had suggested that they make this a real shakedown cruise, and drop out of hyper a few times to test the cloak and the other systems. John was waiting for the all-clear to take them back into hyper; so far everything was working fine. He was wearing the ATA booster in a leather band around his wrist, and if it worked as well as the cloak, then John's hand might actually heal up.
They were listening to the inner-ship comm, where Rodney and Carter were in the engine compartment bickering over the fine-tuning they were doing. Teyla said hesitantly, "They know so much. Do you think we might ask them about...Zoe's situation? That if we took them to Sere that they might be able to understand the portal that brought her here?"
"I don't know. If anybody could..." To be able to give Zoe the chance to go home... John didn't know if she would take it or not, but she might be the only one among them who still had a home to go to. "We should ask her first. It's not like she'd have to make up her mind right away."
Teyla lifted a brow. "By 'we should ask her' you mean that I should ask her."
John nodded. "Well, yeah."
Then over the comm, John heard Carter say, "Rodney, that's all we can do right now. What are you waiting for?"
"Nothing, nothing," Rodney replied hurriedly. "Fine, let's go. Sheppard, take us back into hyper."
They were about half a day from the planet's projected location and John was sitting in the galley, trying to decide if he really wanted mashed toba root for lunch. Then Rodney walked in, plopped down into the chair across from him, and demanded, "What do you miss most about Earth?"
John stifled his first knee-jerk response. You talked about it first. If you didn't want to keep talking about it, you shouldn't have answered him back at base camp when he asked you how you escaped. This was a far more innocuous question than that one and there was no reason Rodney shouldn't ask it. And John was a little surprised to find he knew the answer. "Music. The Athosians recorded their music, but not as much as we did. And most of that got left behind on Athos. They sing, they have instruments, but...you can't just listen in private, whenever you want."
Rodney nodded. "We brought MP3s when we--" He stopped abruptly. "I mean, we did-- We had--"
"I always wanted to learn to play the guitar," John said, to put him out of his misery. Rodney obviously didn't want to talk about the group he had come to Pegasus with. John was beginning to wonder if it wasn't that their group was dead, but that Rodney and Carter had been kicked out of it.
He could see why Rodney wouldn't get along with a band of military refugees. He would have fit in better with somebody like Sumner; John had to admit Sumner had seemed able to deal with the eccentric scientists under his command, even if he thought John was a waste of oxygen. But Carter's company was easy and uncomplicated. She got along with everybody, and the little Athosian girls were drawn to her like they were drawn to Teyla and Zoe, ready to imprint on her like little baby birds. If Rodney had been kicked out for some reason, he could see Carter going with him; for all the bickering, they seemed to actually like each other.
And he thought they must have been kicked out, or decided to leave on their own. Otherwise he couldn't think why they wouldn't have tried to re-join their group as soon as Halling had told them they were free to go.
Rodney eyed him a moment. "How did you end up with the Athosians, anyway?"
John shook his head. After he had escaped from Kolya, he had been in the jumper, scavenging and looking for Genii to kill. He had been exploring an Ancient site when he had stumbled on a group of Genii attacking an Athosian camp, and John hadn't been able to resist. He had killed a lot of Genii but had been shot in the leg; the Athosians had found him trying to crawl back to the cloaked jumper.
They had had no idea the jumper was there, and John hadn't told them. They had taken John into their ship and left the planet, going to one of their base camps on another world. He hadn't believed their reassurances; he had been half-crazy since the escape and now he was out of his head with fever and sickness from the wound. If he hadn't been so weak, he would have been desperately dangerous. But the Athosians were careful and patient and persistent; by the point John was starting to be able to hobble around, he was less like a trapped wounded animal and more like a person they could actually talk to. They had been telling him all along that he could leave as soon as he was able to, and he was actually almost starting to believe them.
Then two traders had come through the stargate to visit the camp. They were informants who supplied information about the Genii to the Athosians, and while sitting in Teyla's tent, they had recognized John from one of the times Kolya had dragged him out in front of a crowd for a demonstration. One of the traders had complimented Teyla on finally acquiring the Ancient gene for the Athosians. And John had gone nuts and tried to escape. He had almost made it to the stargate before Halling and the others had hauled him back.
The trader had claimed later that he had thought John was Teyla's new lover, because he was sleeping in her tent, and had been trying to compliment them both, not imply she had bought him or was planning to sell him, but the damage had already been done. The Athosians had decided there was only one thing to be done, and they had taken John to the stargate, given him food and weapons, and let him go. He had gated back to the planet where the jumper had been left behind, and then waited in it for the Athosians to come after him. They hadn't. So after thinking about it for a couple of weeks, he had taken the jumper back to them.
Rodney was still watching him impatiently. John just smiled and said, "I ran into them, decided to join up."
Rodney nodded, as if satisfied with that explanation, but he said, "You know, before the Trust, if the right people on Earth had known you had the Ancient gene, you could have had some very interesting assignments. Important assignments. Working with Ancient technology, going offworld--"
John lifted a brow. "I'm doing that now."
"Well, yes, but--"
"I had a bad record, McKay. I doubt whether any of the secret government space agencies would have crossed the street for me."
"You'd be surprised." Rodney eyed him thoughtfully. "If you could do something like that, work for a secret government space agency, wouldn't you--"
"No," John said, trying to inject a note of complete finality. It had been hard enough watching his whole world fold like a house of cards, he didn't want to play "what if" games about it. "What was your favorite movie?" he asked, as an attempt at distraction, and that worked. They argued about Back to the Future for the whole rest of the watch.
When they arrived, the planet was exactly as promised. Scans said it was uninhabited, the Ancient site a large rambling collection of stone ruins in what was now a desert, the shattered buildings almost completely covered by windblown sand. The stargate, standing up on a giant plinth, was the most visible feature.
John could see why it had been ignored by the Genii and any other scavengers. It looked desolate and empty, as if nothing could possibly be left behind but sand and more sand.
But when they had landed Vengeance of Athos and made their way to the ruin, Carter led them through the tumbled stones to a big square plaque set into the side of a sunken plinth. "It's actually a door. It leads down into the underground section of the installation."
"Once we dig it out again," Rodney said, but it was just grumbling by habit. He seemed a little nervous, scanning the ruin anxiously as John and the others started to shovel sand away from the doorway.
"What are you looking for?" John asked him finally, trying to shake the sand out of his hair. The wind was cold and dry, smelling of nothing but stone and dust. "There's nothing here." They had scanned the ruin itself from upper atmosphere for life-signs and found nothing, and Ronon was posted up on the vantage point of the plinth, keeping watch.
"Oh, nothing." Rodney turned away, fussing with his scanner. "Just generic disassociated terror of alien planets."
Finally they got the door cleared, and Rodney hit the combination on the hidden keypad. It slid open, revealing a dark corridor leading deep into the underground bunker. Cool air flowed out, stale and dusty.
"This is wonderful." Her eyes shining with excitement, Teyla turned to Carter. "How did you discover it?"
Carter smiled. "A friend of ours found it. He's really good at this kind of thing."
John noticed she hadn't spoken in the past tense. More support for his theory that they had actually been asked to leave their group.
John left Ronon on guard outside, and they followed the passage into a dark maze of rooms and corridors, walled in copper and bronze, full of goodies. Carter led them straight through to an unexcavated room that held still intact consoles, each filled with spare crystals and other parts they could use for the ships. John helped them set up the battery lamps, then left Teyla with the main group to keep watch, and he and Zoe went back to check out the other rooms. The life-signs detector said the place was empty, but John wanted to take a look himself.
The other rooms hadn't been looted, but methodically stripped, the remnants of damaged equipment and consoles left neatly stacked or set aside. Flashing her light over the collection, Zoe commented wryly, "The Genii haven't been here, that's certain."
"Yeah." John brushed at a chalk mark on the wall, a series of letters and numbers in English. Whoever had been through here had not only been neat and careful, they had had a system for cataloging their finds. McKay and Carter's group must have included more scientists, more Ancient experts. Probably why they could spare two, he thought ruefully. "What do you think of asking Carter and Rodney to stay on permanently?"
Zoe was silent for a moment, then said, "I'm not sure it's a good idea."
John turned to face her, a little taken aback. "Seriously?"
She nodded. "It ain't personal. I like Carter, I can handle McKay. But everybody else -- you, Ronon, Teyla, Halling, the girls, the kids, all the Athosians -- I know why they're here, I know everything about you all that I need to know. Those two, all I have are guesses. And guesses aren't good enough."
"Huh." John turned that over. He could see what she meant, but he wasn't sure he agreed.
When they returned to the others, Teyla was standing guard in the doorway. "It goes well so far," she told them. "I do not think we will have to stay here very long."
Carter, Selana, and Halling were deep inside a console, carefully taking it apart. Rodney was across the room, equipment spread out around him, working on a device set into the wall. It looked like he had connected it to a portable power cell to try to get it working again. He still looked twitchy, and John walked over to him. "You okay?" John asked.
Rodney looked up, startled. "What? Oh, yes, fine, just uh... How long were we planning to stay here?"
John shrugged. "Until you're done. Why?"
Rodney stuck his head back into the device, tinkering with the insides again. "I thought we might check out the rest of the ruin. There could be another underground area."
From across the room, Carter looked up from the crystal she was examining. She frowned. "You think so? I thought we decided this place was pretty much played out except for these rooms."
"Well yes, we did," Rodney said impatiently. "I just think while we're here we shouldn't rush."
John was about to agree, when a screen blinked to life on the device. Rodney sat up, staring hard at it, then slumped in relief. "Finally!" he said.
"What is it?" John asked, squinting at the screen.
Carter had pushed to her feet, staring warily. "Rodney... What are you doing?"
Rodney looked up at John with an earnest expression. He said, "It's for your own good."
And then the room dissolved.
John felt his ears pop and then he was standing in a large metal-walled room, the hold of a spaceship, surrounded by people in black and gray uniforms. His body was still frozen from the transport beam, but he could see McKay was crouched beside him and Carter was a few steps away.
The temporary paralysis abruptly released and John started to jerk the P-90 up to fire. But something hit him with the force of a truck and he collapsed to the deck instead, everything fading to black.
"So where the hell have you been?" Jack tried again. He had gotten Sam and McKay into his office as the nearest place they could talk in private. The rest of the crew was practically nuts with relief at finding them after all this time and he hadn't been able to get a word in. Not that being in private was doing any good. For a month he had been looking for them frantically, and now he couldn't even get one of them to answer a damn question. "Who's that we beamed up with you?" He had had the guy taken to the medical bay to recover from the stun, with orders to keep him restrained, but from what he was getting from Carter and McKay, he wasn't one of the pirates who had captured them.
"You put a sublight signal in the cloak array!" Sam yelled at McKay, ignoring Jack's questions. "You betrayed them!"
"It wasn't a betrayal, it was a..." McKay waved his arms. "Okay, it was a betrayal!"
Yeah, this was pretty much all that Jack had been getting in the hold area, too. "I thought you were captured by pirates," he said.
"Yes, but not these pirates," Sam told him. She turned back to McKay to yell, "How could you do this to Sheppard?"
"It's for his own good!" McKay yelled back.
Sam nearly growled in frustration. "You don't know that. I thought we discussed this, I thought we decided that we'd tell them who we were and give them the option of allying with us or not."
McKay lifted his chin, implacably stubborn. "I couldn't take the chance they'd say no! We need Sheppard's gene."
Sam gritted her teeth. "Rodney!"
That's it, Jack thought in exasperation. "Shut up!" he yelled. "Now one of you -- not you, McKay -- tell me what the hell happened. Now."
John woke without moving, keeping his eyes shut, making his breathing stay calm though he couldn't do anything about his pounding heart. He knew he was lying on a medical gurney, with his wrists strapped. He thought for a long surreal moment that he was still with the Genii, that his escape and living with the Athosians had been a dream.
It seemed crazy and unreal, that he would luck into something like that, finding people who cared about him all the way out here. But he didn't usually dream in that much detail, or with such a logical progression of events. Then he remembered Rodney, and Carter, and just how fucking stupid he had been. That ATA booster. That was a transmitter. You let them put a fucking transmitter on you, John.
He could hear people talking somewhere nearby, and the beep of medical equipment, and underneath it all the distant hum of engines. The recycled air smelled antiseptic. He didn't think anyone was standing over him.
He opened his eyes to see he was in a small compartment, the walls covered with advanced medical equipment. His clothes were gone and he was wearing standard white medical scrubs, and there was a small bandage on his forearm, probably covering a needle mark. That was another unpleasant blast from the past. These people could be the Trust. The prisoners with the Ancient gene had been treated like experimental animals.
But John didn't think they had done anything yet, except take blood for analysis. He turned his head, craning his neck to see there was a hatchway open to another larger room. He couldn't see anyone but he could hear voices, a woman, then a man speaking in a Scottish accent. That was weird to hear, familiar and strange all at once.
After a few moments, it sounded as if the people in the next compartment had left. John thought about waiting for another opportunity, but he was already sweating from panic, he couldn't conceal that, or what these monitors were showing about his heart rate and breathing. If someone walked in, they would put him out again and next time he might wake up in a locked cell. Or worse. If they just wanted the gene, they could get that from his blood, and they never needed to let him wake up again.
And if that wasn't all they wanted, he couldn't let them use him as a hostage against the Athosians.
He pulled experimentally at the straps, startled to realize they were tight fabric, not a heavier material. His ankles weren't even individually tied; there was just one strap across his shins. Gritting his teeth, he put all his effort into working his right hand free.
He lost some skin but he finally pulled his wrist out of the strap. Moving fast, he unbuckled the strap on his other wrist, then pulled the IV out.
And something started to beep, loud and insistent. Crap, crap, that's it. He yanked his legs free and swung off the gurney, and grabbed the first blunt object to hand, a portable monitor unit. He stepped to the wall beside the door just as a uniformed guard lunged inside.
John slammed the metal box into the guard's head, sending him to his knees. Another blow knocked him over and John dropped the unit, leaning down to snatch the man's pistol out of his holster.
He clicked the safety off and ducked outside the door, just as a woman in a white medical coat ran up. She bounced off his chest and he grabbed her, spun her around and put the gun to her head.
Because this compartment was empty, but the hatch across the room was open to an area that was fucking full of people.
The ones who weren't wearing scrubs or medical coats were wearing BDUs, an almost random collection of them, some ragged and stained. The medical personnel scrambled away, leaving two guys in black BDUs, one a big muscular black guy with an incongruous gold emblem on his forehead.
The first guy said, "Hey, just be calm. I'm Colonel Mitchell, and we're from Earth, we're refugees just like you."
John rasped, "Not just like me. I never kidnapped anybody." But he sort of believed it. They didn't look like the Trust.
"Yeah, the kidnapping," Mitchell said, watching him warily. "I don't have any information on that right now, but we're not going to hurt you."
Right, they had set all this up and grabbed him for no reason. John wasn't buying that one. "Then let me walk out of here, and I'll let her go."
"We're in orbit. You're not going to get away," Mitchell said.
The lousy thing was, he was right. John wasn't going to shoot this woman, and he wasn't getting out of this. And I'm not spending the rest of my life strapped to a table bleeding into a jar every time they need another shot of the Ancient gene. He shoved the woman away and jerked the gun up to his own head.
Then he was face down on the deck. He knew he had gotten a shot off; his ears were still ringing from it. But he didn't hurt, except for his nose, from slamming into the metal deck. He knew they had managed to hit him with a stun blast before he could shoot himself, his last chance for escape. You got away from this twice, he reminded himself, once from the Trust and once from the Genii, and what were the odds of that? Third time's the charm, John. Then somebody kicked the gun out of his nerveless fingers, and that was the last thing he knew.
Jack had gotten most of the story by this point and he knew it couldn't end well. "So these people rescued you from the Genii, asked you to help fix their ship in return, and in fact already told you you could leave, and offered you trade goods and stargate addresses. So to pay them back you jimmied their cloak to broadcast a signal to us and set it up so that when we locked on your locator implants, we'd also grab one of their leaders?"
McKay nodded, like nothing Jack had said sounded crazy. "Sheppard is from Earth. He belongs with us."
Sam dropped into a chair wearily. "As a prisoner?"
McKay snapped, "Of course not. This is what's best for him. He will come to realize that."
Sam shook her head. "God, of course he won't. Rodney, did you even listen at all when he was telling us what happened to him?"
From what Carter had said, Jack knew Sheppard had been captured by the Genii for his Ancient gene. And that apparently all the rumors they had heard about how Genii used Ancient gene carriers were true, and probably not anywhere as grim as the reality. And Jack was seeing any chance of an alliance with these people circling the drain, because McKay hadn't been prepared to take no for an answer. He rubbed his eyes. "McKay--"
McKay persisted, "He has a stronger expression of the Ancient gene than you do, General. Look, there was no way he was going to agree to leave the Athosians and come with us." He folded his arms stubbornly. "This was the only way."
Sam stared at the ceiling in helpless exasperation. "You don't know that. You didn't give us a chance to find out."
Jack's headset beeped for attention and he keyed it on. "This is O'Neill." He listened for a moment, then winced. "Goddamnit. All right, I'm coming down there."
Sam read his expression and sat up straight. "What?"
Jack told her, "Sheppard nearly got out of the medical bay, and just tried to shoot himself."
McKay's face went white.
The next time John woke two Marines were dragging him up off another gurney. His head was swimming, he was sick from the second stun, his hands were bound in front of him with a plastic handcuff strip.
They were hauling him down a corridor before his head started to clear. Then behind him he heard McKay's voice, though he didn't catch the words. Someone else replied, "Well now whose fault is that, McKay?"
Rage blotted out John's vision for a moment and he jerked free of the Marines and tried to lunge back to kill McKay. Mitchell yelled, "Whoa, Teal'c, grab him!" and somebody caught him around the waist and hauled him back.
Teal'c turned out to be the big guy with the gold forehead thingy and he dragged John down the corridor, impervious to all John's fighting and kicking.
They turned into another large compartment, with consoles back against one wall. A Marine stepped up to him with a knife, and John kept his face blank. He knew they wouldn't kill him, he wasn't that lucky, but all the guy did was cut the handcuff strip away.
Teal'c let John go and John stumbled, his legs still shaky from the stun. Everybody backed away and John found himself facing an older man with short gray hair, wearing a battered set of black BDUs. He held up a little device, a life-signs detector like the ones John had found stored in the jumper. John thought, this is it. This was the part where they tried to force him to turn things on, he knew how that went. Then the guy said, "I've got the Ancient gene," and in his hand the detector's little screen lit up.
John knew he was staring, wide-eyed. He had never seen anybody else do that before. The gene-carriers the Genii had managed to find had never had it strongly enough to use a detector.
The guy continued deliberately, "Bringing you here, that was a mistake. We're sending you back."
Sending me back? John thought, Back where?
Then the room dissolved.
The sudden difference in pressure, air, light almost sent John to his knees. He staggered and stayed upright. He was standing in dusty sand, under a late afternoon sun, cold wind whipping through his clothes, cold sand and sharp pebbles underfoot. He pivoted, seeing rock formations in the distance, vaguely familiar. He was back down on the planet. Somewhere on the planet. He wasn't sure where the ruin was, or the stargate. "This is new," he said aloud. Maybe they thought that being abandoned in this empty desert for a night or two would make him more amenable to persuasion. Hah. I've been abandoned in worse places than this. Maybe he could walk to the stargate, if he could figure out which way it was. He took a step and fell down, going to his hands and knees.
About a hundred yards away something shimmered, like a mirage forming out of the dust and light. A big mirage, glittering as it turned solid... Uh oh. John flashed on invisible alien monsters and Forbidden Planet, and started to scramble back. Then the mirage solidified into the Vengeance of Athos.
Okay, I am hallucinating, John thought, as the hatch started to open. They couldn't still be here, that would be crazy. Ronon jumped down without waiting for the ramp to lower, running toward John.
His pounding steps kicked up dust, John could hear his harsh breathing. Crap, this is real. John shoved to his feet, staggering back. "Ronon, get back, it's a trap!" It had to be a trap.
Ronon slid to a halt. "They sent us a signal, told us where you'd be."
John kept backing away, stumbling over a rock. "Yeah, because it's a trap! You need to get out--"
Ronon shook his head in frustration, drew his gun and fired.
John came back to himself, lying on his side on a quilt on the floor of the sick bay, his head in someone's lap, warm under a couple of blankets. The others were sitting on the floor around him, talking about the cloak and transmitters and scans. He felt heavy and warm and relaxed, and at first he had no memory of getting here. Then he remembered Ronon. He said, "Hey, Ronon shot me."
Someone squeezed John's ankle through the blanket. Ronon's voice said, "You've got long legs. I didn't want to have to chase you."
Halling said slowly, "It could have been their plan from the beginning. If they spread the word among our sources of intelligence, knowing we would be eager to take experts in the Ancestors' technology away from Kolya..."
Zoe said, "It means we can't trust any of our informants. If they're feeding us false information--"
John's memory of the last few hours was starting to return. From what the others were saying, they thought it had been a trick from the beginning. And maybe it had. John had known McKay wanted something, but he had thought that it was friendship and the protection that came with it, the best coin worth having in Pegasus. "I'm so stupid," John said aloud.
Fingers stroked through his hair, and Teyla's voice corrected, "We are so stupid. We were suspicious, but of all the wrong things."
John tried to sit up, but his body was still numb. He managed, "Did you check for--"
"We used the Ancient scanner," Teyla said. "There are no foreign objects in your body."
Halling's face appeared, as he leaned over to get eye level with him. "John, did they hurt you?"
John blinked at him. They had to see he wasn't hurt, past the bruises and the effect of the multiple stun blasts. Except you could be hurt in a lot of ways that didn't leave marks. "No."
There was a collective breath of relief.
Selana asked, "John, do you know these names? Zoe, what were they?"
John turned his head to squint at Zoe. She was holding the scrub shirt he had been wearing. He realized they had taken the scrubs off him, that he was wearing a pair of lightweight pants and a shirt that was way too big for him.
Zoe read the English printing stamped on the inside hem of the scrubs. "S.G.C? Daedalus?"
That just confirmed what John had seen on the ship. "The letters could mean anything. Daedalus, that's their ship's name. An Earth ship. I think it was a BC303. Some of the crew still had uniforms."
Zoe frowned, smoothing a hand over the shirt. "That doesn't tell us much. We knew they were from your Earth."
"Trying to figure out why they did this? Some people don't need a reason," John reminded her.
She grimaced, shaking her head.
Teyla stroked his hair again, and John realized his voice had cracked. She asked, "Did they say why they let you go?"
"No." John tried to make his sluggish brain work. "There was a guy, the leader, maybe. He had the Ancient gene. They didn't need me for that." McKay and Carter had never mentioned any names, and maybe that should have been a clue. There was no reason not to talk about the dead, plenty of reason not to mention the living. "The cloak? There's a transmitter?"
"Not as such." That was Halling's voice, weary and depressed. "But it emits a resonance, a frequency that does not match our scans of the jumper's cloak. We think that was how they tracked us to the planet."
"God." John felt sick. They had had such grand plans, the Genii homeworld, the asteroid field base, the Ancient ship. And they were busted back to minor annoyance, just like that. John remembered he and Teyla, thinking that their new friends might even know enough to be able to offer Zoe a chance to go home. That was another twist in the gut. Maybe that was why the Daedalus had let John go, just to underline the humiliation. And there could be anything buried in the Vengeance of Athos, time bombs, booby traps, more ways to trace their location. And they know where we live. "Base camp? Is there..."
"We sent a message," Teyla answered. "The others have left, and we have ordered them not to tell us their location, or contact us. If we-- When we have made sure the ship is safe, and that we are not followed, we will leave them word at one of the message drops."
"There is too much we don't know," Selana said quietly. "We did not know about the frequency emitted by the shield until it was too late. No matter how carefully we look, I fear the next trap will not reveal itself until we are already caught."
We can't go home, John thought. "Fuck this." He shoved himself upright. "They want to show us we're helpless, that they can reel us in whenever they want. That works both ways."
Teyla tilted her head thoughtfully, her eyes turning predatory. "We can summon them whenever we wish."
"Yeah. We need a new ship." And now John knew where they could get one.
The Vengeance of Athos had landed on an uninhabited planet, in a barren desert useful only for its stargate. Outside the bulkheads, the wind whipped dust over the hull, and two figures stood near the DHD, ready to dial the gate.
John was watching the cockpit on a screen in the aft communications compartment. On the small screen, Ronon was being unwillingly prodded into the pilot's seat. Ronon growled, "Why does it have to be me?"
John rolled his eyes. He wasn't sure whether the core of Ronon's objection was the appearance of betrayal, or that he thought his acting skills weren't up to it, or both. On the screen, Teyla came into frame, reaching past Ronon to adjust the controls on the console. She said, not patiently, "Because Kolya has seen glimpses of you, but will have no notion of who you are, or how close you are to us. He will only know you are not Athosian."
John clicked on the comm to add, "And because I say so."
Ronon slumped into the chair, and sulked threateningly, which was pretty much the look they were going for.
John and Teyla had debated this, trying to decide between Ronon and Zoe, right up until the last moment. But in the end they had decided that Zoe's cool competence might make Kolya wary, where Ronon would look and sound more like the kind of man Kolya would expect, the kind he could manipulate. The fact that Ronon wasn't manipulable wasn't something Kolya would find out until it was far too late. If the plan worked.
Zoe stepped into the compartment and took the seat next to John, the cracked leather creaking. "Deona's dialing the gate."
"Good." They were going to send the transmission through the wormhole, then lift off before the Genii could dial back. John kept his attention on the screen, where Teyla was setting up the communications console for the transmission. He meant to ask Zoe something else, but what came out was, "Do you ever want to go back to your world?"
Zoe's brows lifted in surprise, either at the question or at the fact that it was John asking it. He was even more reluctant to ask personal questions than he was to answer them. But after a moment, she said, slowly, "Not the world, so much, as the people. I wonder what they're up to, if they're well. But I left them because I lost someone, and it sent me out of my head, and I'd become more harm than help to them." A little ruefully, she admitted, "Didn't intend to come quite so far." She thought about it for a long moment, then shook her head. "I'm not sure if anything would be different, if I went back now."
John could understand that.
Teyla slipped into the compartment, stepping past them to take the other chair. "We are ready."
They watched as Ronon opened the comm channel, and said into the pick-up, "I need to talk to Kolya. I've got information for him."
"I've tried to tell you all," Zelenka said. "Rodney is terrible, evil man." He frowned at his cards. "Pass."
"Will you shut up?" Rodney said in exasperation. They were in the Daedalus' galley playing bridge. Or rather Zelenka, Carter, Daniel Jackson, and Teal'c were playing bridge, Rodney was pacing and shouting, to the point where the other off-duty crew and scientists had all left the tables in the main compartment and were huddled in the smaller lounge down the corridor. Rodney had noticed he was having this effect a lot lately. He added, pointedly, "As I've told you people before, I was going to explain to him that I only did it because I thought he would be better off with us."
Jackson, not looking up from his hand, lifted a skeptical brow. "You were going to explain this while you were standing outside the cell he was locked in?"
Rodney gritted his teeth. "It was a misunderstanding."
Carter just said, "Two no trump." Rodney suspected she was no longer speaking to him.
"Misunderstanding. There's a word that covers a multitude of sins." Jackson studied his cards. "Pass."
"Yes," Zelenka seconded, carefully rearranging his hand. "This Sheppard misunderstood the fact that he was expected to submit meekly to Rodney's unprovoked attack."
Jackson eyed him. "You have issues, don't you?"
"I have a subscription," Zelenka admitted.
Still pacing, Rodney rounded on him. "Oh, what's that supposed to mean?"
His eyes on his hand, Teal'c said, calmly, "It means that if you spoke to me the way you speak to him, I would put you through that bulkhead." He added, "Four no trump."
Rodney shouted, "This is why I wanted some new people!"
Carter rolled her eyes. Jackson propped his chin on his hand, and said, as if honestly curious, "And you thought you'd get them by kidnapping? That seemed rational to you?"
Rodney rubbed his temple. "Look, we're going to get this straightened out, as soon as O'Neill agrees to go to their system." O'Neill had decided to wait ten days before attempting to approach the Athosians' base camp, hoping to give them time to cool down. Rodney had grudgingly agreed that waiting a while was probably a good idea.
Some of the crew thought that they shouldn't try to contact the Athosians at all, that they should wait for the Athosians to contact them. Rodney had been arguing against this and found an unexpected ally in O'Neill. But then O'Neill was the only one who could initialize the higher-level Ancient technology, the only one who could use the weapons chair. It had occurred to Rodney that O'Neill might want a back-up as much as Rodney did. "Once they see the supplies and resources we can offer them, they'll get over it."
Jackson looked at Carter. "You think so, Sam?"
"I wish I thought so," she said, glumly, and threw her cards down.
Rodney folded his arms and lifted his chin. "When this works out, you people will owe me an apology."
Teal'c lifted a brow, watching Rodney skeptically. "What would you like to wager on that?"
But when they came out of hyperdrive in the system where the Athosians had their base camp and sent a transmission asking for a meeting, there was no response. O'Neill ordered the Daedalus into orbit around the planet, and Mitchell did a flyover in an F-302. He found the camp evacuated, so they beamed a team down to investigate.
It was a cool clear day, the sun gleaming off the white stone of the Ancient ruin that surrounded the camp area. Standing in the remains of what had been the thriving little Athosian village, Rodney felt terrible.
The place looked like a hurricane had hit it. Most of the tent-huts were gone, but some had been left behind, with a lot of other things. Shoved out of the way or just left where they had fallen were pottery, rugs, painted hangings, carved furniture and toys, even some of the heavy fur bedcovers. Just about everything that had made the place seem homey and comfortable. He asked, thickly, "There was an attack?"
Surveying the scene grimly, Teal'c said, "There is no sign of blast impacts, or gunfire. The tracks suggest the inhabitants left both through the stargate and in the ships that lifted off from the platforms of the ruin. They left in haste, taking only the most necessary supplies, because they believed they would come under attack at any moment."
Carter nodded, looking around wearily. "They had their kids here, and the older people. They must not have wanted to take any chances."
"They thought we were coming after them." Rodney winced. That part was obvious. "Why? Why would they think that?"
Carter sighed. "We lied to them, we set a tracer beacon in their cloak, used the ATA transmitter we gave Sheppard to capture him. Even though we let him go, it must have looked like we were trying to prove that we had complete control over them, that we could do anything we wanted."
Teal'c clarified, "By 'we,' she is indicating 'you.'" With his boot, he pushed at a sack that had been dropped on the path. It fell open, showing that it was full of dried fruit. The Athosians had fled so quickly that they hadn't bothered to take all their food supplies. "They know nothing of us," he said. "The only way to prove to them that we are not as the Genii is by our actions, and I do not think we will have that opportunity."
Carter made a helpless gesture, and asked Rodney, "How would you feel if they had done this to us?"
Angry, terrified, Rodney admitted reluctantly. He had known what he was doing would make Sheppard and the Athosians angry, at least for a while, but he somehow hadn't realized it would also make them afraid. And the haste with which this camp had been evacuated spoke strongly of fear.
He had tried to tell himself that Sheppard's attempt to shoot himself in the head rather than live in what he had thought would be captivity was just PTSD. But the other Athosians had reacted the same way, willing to leave most of their possessions and vital supplies behind, because they thought they were about to be wiped out or taken captive. He said, "This was not what I meant to..." Teal'c's concentrated stare defeated his last attempt to avoid the real issue. Rodney flung his arms in the air. "All right, fine! You're right, it's my fault!"
O'Neill walked past, trailed by Mitchell and Jackson. He didn't look angry; anger Rodney could have handled. He just looked tired. And all he said was, "We're leaving."
But when they beamed back up to the Daedalus, Harriman was on the comm system, saying, "General O'Neill? We're receiving that signal from the Athosian ship. They must be using their cloak again, and it's broadcasting their location."
Everybody gathered on the bridge, staring at the screens. As Harriman and Novak explained the readings, Jack's first thought was that it was too good to be true.
Sam apparently agreed. She said, "This doesn't make sense. The Athosians must have found the booby trap signal Rodney installed in the cloak's energy signature."
"It wasn't a booby trap!" McKay insisted.
Ignoring him, Daniel said, "But what if they didn't find it?"
"No, they would have found it." Sam folded her arms, frowning. "They would have known that something gave you their location, and the systems Rodney and I worked on were the first things they would check."
Mitchell shook his head, looking worried. "Or what if they're in trouble, and had to use the cloak, even knowing it was going to tell us where they were."
"Or it is a trap," Teal'c added.
"Maybe." Jack had to admit that all the possibilities were likely, especially the last one.
When he had had a chance to look at the sensor images of the Athosian ship, the Jolly Roger painted on the side had been a pointed reminder of home. And a pointed reminder that there was another Earth-human survivor in Pegasus, someone that Jack hadn't brought here personally.
After Jack had let Sheppard go, Beckett had showed them his medical scans, saying, "The poor lad has an absolutely brilliant expression of the Ancient gene, and it's from a completely different line of descent than you or I or anyone else in our group, General. I've never had any idea this line even existed. This could be the key we've been missing."
"And he was stationed at McMurdo?" That was what Jack couldn't get over. Sheppard had practically been within spitting distance of the Ancient outpost, of the weapons chair. And he had almost managed to bring them Janet Fraiser, though at least now they knew what had happened to her. "How the hell did we miss this guy?"
"However it happened, it's a damn shame," Beckett continued. "The evidence of recent physical trauma, extreme physical trauma..." He winced sympathetically. "He's lucky to be alive."
Now Jack thought about leaving it alone. That would be the easy way out. Except they owed the Athosians for the loss of their camp, and they owed them a working cloak that wasn't booby trapped. That was the deal the Athosians had made with McKay and Carter, and McKay had reneged on his part of it.
And Jack had no intention of leaving Sheppard behind again. He said, "Whatever, we're going to check it out."
Teal'c gave him that look. "Even if it is a trap?"
Jack gave it right back. "Especially if it's a trap."
The Vengeance was drifting in an uninhabited system, cloaked and waiting silently, when a Genii cruiser came out of hyper. It passed through the system, scanning unsuccessfully, then moved off to skulk in the shadow of the outermost planet's moon.
Watching the screens from the cockpit, John identified the ship by its energy signature, and felt a rush of pure homicidal fury. This was one of the top ships of the Genii fleet. He pushed the emotion down, conquered the urge to fire the weapons. John had come to take a ship to replace the trap-riddled Vengeance, not just blow up another Genii cruiser. He said, "They're early. I guess they don't trust Ronon."
Ronon, sitting behind John at the comm suite, just snorted derisively. "They're right about that."
The Genii were coming to the rendezvous point because they thought Ronon was betraying John. Ronon's transmission to Kolya had included the information that the Daedalus was actually a new Athosian ship, and that John was aboard. There had also been a lot of stuff about how Ronon was going to get paid for his betrayal, which Teyla and Zoe had worked out very carefully for verisimilitude's sake, even though none of it really mattered.
From the other chair, Teyla gave John a thoughtful look. "If the Daedalus is allied with the Genii, this may become a trap for us."
"At least then we'll know," John said. But if this worked like it was meant to, the Genii would attack the Daedalus. John intended to let them fight it out and take the survivor.
He didn't care who it was.
A few days later, they were sitting in the galley, eating fried toba root chips, and John was starting to worry. They had known it would take time for the cloak's signal to reach the Daedalus, but he hadn't thought it would take this long. And they were starting to run short on food. Before coming here to bait the trap, they had been reluctant to hit any of their regular supply ports; McKay and Carter had had too many chances to find out what they were, and John didn't want to walk into another trap. They had resupplied by sending parties through the stargates to some of the big trading markets, but with no cargo to trade, they hadn't been able to afford much. The Genii had to be getting restless, too. If this doesn't work... He didn't know what they were going to do.
Then the comm system buzzed to life and Deona's voice shouted excitedly. "They are here! Everyone, come quickly!"
John beat Ronon to the cockpit by a length, dropping into the pilot's seat.
Teyla, Ronon, Zoe, Halling, Selana and everybody else who could cram into the cockpit gathered behind him. On the longrange screens he could see that the Daedalus had come out of hyper and was moving further into the system. The Genii ship had already left its concealment and was moving toward it. "Here we go," Zoe murmured.
"This is probably going to take a while," John said, slumping down in the seat and trying to make himself relax. A long nerve-wracking while, since he didn't expect either ship would go down easy. "So--"
Then the Genii ship fired a weapon, a weird energy pulse that the sensors didn't recognize.
John sat bolt upright. "What the hell was that?"
"A new weapon." Halling stepped to the console, looking over Selana's shoulder as she frantically scanned the sensor data. "It has disrupted their drive, their weapons, shields." He looked up, worried. "If they had used it on one of our ships, we would be helpless."
Teyla looked out the viewport. "Is the Earth ship helpless?"
Selana gave her a sharp nod. "Yes. The Genii ship is moving in to board them."
Urgently, Teyla turned to John. "We cannot let the Genii have this new weapon! Every ship they encountered would be powerless against them."
Halling nodded sharply. "We must take the Genii ship."
"Right," John said. "We'll let the Genii do the work for us, then we'll take the Daedalus too. Boarding party to the jumper."
The Genii cruiser had had to open its bay doors to extend the umbilical used to board another ship; a design flaw they were going to regret.
The cloaked jumper slid into the open bay, passing through the energy shield that held in the atmosphere. Within moments the jumper had landed in the bay, and they were out and through the hatch into the ship's inner corridor. Taking point, John shot the first three Genii to run at them, then checked the life-signs detector. "Looks like they didn't leave many crew aboard," he told Teyla.
"That was foolish," she said, and pegged the next Genii to come around the corner.
They went through the corridors straight up to the bridge, meeting little resistance. Ronon and Zoe took out the three Genii on the bridge, then Selana and Itasa ran to man the stations. John sent Zoe and Ronon and their group to secure the rest of the ship. He wanted to make sure that was done before they followed the Genii boarding parties over to the Daedalus. And the more time he gave the Genii over there, the less resistance there would be when the Athosians followed them to take the Earth ship. Then Selana shouted, "John!"
He turned back to see her hitting the controls urgently, and the screen fizzled into a sensor schematic. Another ship was approaching their position, a Genii ship. That was to be expected, and for a heartbeat he didn't see what the problem was. The Genii newcomer wouldn't know the other Genii ship it was going to assist had been boarded by Athosians until it was too late.
Then John realized he could see something he shouldn't be seeing on these screens: the sensor signature of the Vengeance. Oh hell no, he thought in horror. Not now. John had left his blood for the ATA, and the cloak should have had a good twelve hours without him, but they had never managed to fix that intermittent failure.
Itasa said, "Another Genii ship comes, and the Vengeance has lost its cloak!"
John lunged for the weapons station, hit the control to bring up the firing screen -- and nothing happened. "The controls are locked-- Halling!"
Halling flung himself down, ripping a panel off the console as Selana and Itasa worked frantically over the main controls. They won't be in time, John thought, watching the shapes on the sensor screen. Vengeance was moving, but not fast enough to get out of range before the incoming Genii ship destroyed it. He heard Teyla make a choked noise, but he couldn't look at her. All the platitudes about revenge being a lousy idea should have come to mind, but all he could think was You're an idiot, John.
Then energy bursts struck one of the shapes, but it wasn't the Vengeance under fire, it was the incoming Genii ship. Selana looked up from the console, as Halling pushed to his feet. Incredulous with hope, Teyla said, "Who is firing? The Daedalus?"
Selana nodded anxiously. "Yes, a powerful weapon, not Ancient--"
"The rail gun," John said, just as the Genii ship dissolved into debris. "They must have gotten it working again." Vengeance would be destroyed next, but John was helpless to stop it; even if Halling could unlock this weapons console, they couldn't fire on the Daedalus from this angle.
But as the Vengeance turned to flee out of range, the Daedalus didn't fire on it.
"They could have destroyed it," Teyla said, looking to John. "They must realize by now that we led them into this trap."
Yeah, they could have, and they hadn't. John shook his head. He didn't get it.
Teyla was still watching him. "We have our new ship, and the new Genii weapon. And we have our revenge."
So John should leave the Daedalus to its fate, let them have a fighting chance against the Genii boarding parties. She's right. "Get those controls unlocked, and cast off."
"John, we are receiving a transmission." Selana looked up, her face hard with tension. "It is Daedalus, they are trying to contact the Vengeance."
Teyla frowned. "Open the channel."
"This is Daniel Jackson, aboard the Daedalus, to the Athosian ship, please come in!"
Teyla threw a startled look at John, and said, "We are receiving you. What do you have to say to us?"
"You have to help us."
Teyla arched a brow. "I do not have to do anything," she said, pointedly.
"There are hundreds of civilians, scientists, support personnel, their families, children, Jaffa and human, that depend on this ship--"
He's lying. John interrupted, "There's no way you could have gotten that many people through the supergate on one BC303--"
As if knowing his time was limited, Jackson spoke rapidly, "We didn't come through the supergate. We evacuated as many people as we could through the stargate from Earth to the Alpha site. When the Trust followed us, we used the gate on that planet to escape to a stargate in Pegasus, and before you say that's impossible, it is. But the gate we connected to is not an ordinary stargate, it was inside an intact Ancient site and designed to connect across galaxies. The Daedalus-- This ship has an Asgard hyperdrive, it's capable of the trip between galaxies, and followed us here. It's a long story, and I don't have a lot of time here--" The words ended in a burst of static.
"He is cut off," Selana said. She turned to face them, bewildered. "John, can it be true?"
Everybody was looking at him. He wanted to say no, he wanted to say it was a lie. But Jackson's story was too complicated to make up in a hurry.
At the Antarctic base John had heard rumors about aliens called Asgard. And Jaffa were the aliens who had rebelled and turned on the Goa'uld; why mention them in a lie? He said, reluctantly, "It could be true."
"Our quarrel is not with children," Itasa said, watching John worriedly.
Selana added, "They are fighting Genii. We do not have to ally with them--"
Teyla and Halling were just staring at him. John thought, Oh, the hell with it. He said, "Fine. Let's go save the damn Daedalus."
The last time John had been aboard the Daedalus, he hadn't been able to take in much of his surroundings. Now, as he slipped through the lock into the BC-303 with Teyla, Zoe, Ronon, and half a dozen other Athosians, the first thing that struck him was the size of the corridors. They weren't as wide as those of the derelict Ancient warship, but they were close, and everything seemed far more familiar. The lighting, the polished look of everything was also strange; John had never seen a human-built ship that wasn't small, half-assed, and jury-rigged. But back on Earth, while he had known about the BC-303s, he had never actually seen the inside of one.
Now the lights were fluctuating and the air smelled of ozone, and John felt vibrations travel through the deck, the signs of the ongoing battle for the ship. After being hit by the new Genii weapon, the Daedalus's systems must be badly damaged.
Beside him, Teyla whispered, "I see why you wanted this ship. And why we must keep it from the Genii."
"Yeah." John reminded himself they weren't here to sightsee. Kill Genii now, think later. "Come on."
They ghosted silently through the corridors, following the sound of gunfire. The Genii hadn't been expecting anybody to come up on their six, and hadn't left any rearguard. John wasn't expecting anybody to come up on his six either, but he had left Halling and half the boarding party to hold the Genii ship, and had left two Athosians to guard the umbilical hatch behind them.
Life signs detectors gave them an advantage and they turned off the main corridor to find six Genii trying to cut through a hatch into a compartment marked "Sick Bay." They shot the Genii and left the compartment behind, pushing forward to the main battle.
The din of gunfire grew louder. In the lead, John crept up to a corner and took a cautious peek around. Ahead was a junction of three corridors, being fought over by Genii in brown uniforms and Daedalus crew in green and black BDUs. It was full of smoke and confusion, shouts and cries of pain.
The Daedalus crew was in the corridor on the far side of the junction. The blast hatch was partially closed, and they were using it as cover. But the Genii had portable shields, big metal devices like riot shields, proof against projectile and energy weapons, and they were gradually pressing forward. And completely vulnerable from behind.
John jerked his head, telling Ronon, Teyla, and the others to take this side. Then he bolted across to the opposite corner, Zoe right behind him. Once they were in position, John gave the signal, and they opened fire.
The Genii dropped, caught utterly by surprise. A Genii with captain's insignia turned, but John shot him in the chest before he could lift his shield.
John thought, That's it. He was done with good deeds for the day. They had taken care of what had to be most of the Genii boarding party, the Daedalus's crew could handle any others. It was time to go.
Then the Genii captain staggered back, fumbling something out of the front of his jacket. "You won't get our ship, filthy--"
"Whatever," John said, thinking it was an empty threat. Then he saw the guy was holding a remote. Oh, crap. It had to be a remote to activate a self-destruct-- Somebody shouted and John and Zoe both fired together. Bursts of fire came from every direction, catching the captain in a crossfire. He collapsed to the deck in a bloody heap, the remote rolling out of his hand.
"Got him," Zoe muttered. "That was close--"
John had a really bad feeling about this, and he thought he had seen the guy squeeze the remote. "No, I think he..." He felt the faint tremor travel through the deck and his gut went cold. "Hell." The tremor hadn't been from within the Daedalus, but from the outside, from the Genii ship still locked to it. "Fall back, fall back," he shouted. He darted forward to grab the remote; if there were any more self-destruct commands to activate, he couldn't let the Daedalus crew get their hands on it.
For an instant John was completely exposed and he was half-expecting to catch a bullet. But somebody on the other side of the barrier yelled, "Hold your fire!" and nobody shot him. He snatched up the little device, then bolted back down the corridor, following the others.
Once they were around a couple of corners, Teyla slid to a halt and hit her radio, saying urgently, "Halling, come in! Halling, are you there?"
No answer, but static filled the channel and the signal might not be getting through. "Back to the ship," John said. He just hoped it was still there.
They fell back to the lock in order, and nobody said anything, though John could see the tension etched on all their faces.
The two Athosians were still at the hatch, white-faced and anxious. Madera was on the radio, trying to get someone from inside the Genii ship to answer. Lena said, "The umbilical is still connected, but the hatch on the Genii ship has no port, and we couldn't see if the ship is still there. I did not want to risk cycling it--"
"No, you did right," John said. If the Genii ship had a hull breach, cycling the hatch might blow the umbilical. He checked the life-signs detector, hoping the range was long enough to show life-signs in the other ship. The screen lit and John swore under his breath. A big group of blips was heading through the Daedalus's corridors straight for this hatch.
Teyla craned her neck to see the screen, and winced. "We will be at their mercy."
Then the radios crackled and Halling's voice came in over the static. "John, Teyla, are you receiving me? You are clear to come aboard."
"Yes, we hear you!" Teyla said in relief. John hurriedly motioned for the others to start down the umbilical. John meant to cover this hatch, so nobody could cut off the umbilical while the others were in it. Ronon stopped to wait with him, ignoring John's imperative gesture to get moving. John didn't have time to force the issue; he could hear voices and movement in the next corridor. The Daedalus crew was nearly on top of them.
Over the radio, John heard Teyla ask, "Halling, what happened? We saw the Genii captain activate a remote--"
"A self-destruct," Halling reported grimly. "We are all alive, only because Selena had discovered a self-destruct program running on the main computer system and managed to partially disengage it. But there was a smaller explosion in the engine room."
Crap, John thought. He hit his radio to ask, "Damage?"
Halling answered, "We are not sure yet. But for the moment, the propulsion systems are down and we are trapped here."
Zoe interrupted, "John, we're clear, get out of there!"
As John backed through the hatch with Ronon, he could hear movement right around the corner, but no one came after them. He hit the lock cycle on the hatch and he and Ronon ran down the umbilical to the temporary safety of the Genii ship.
They were on the bridge of their captured but damaged Genii ship, taking stock of their situation. John sat on the edge of the useless command console, cradling his P90, his feet in the captain's chair. Everyone looked weary and tense, and Halling was taking a brief break from working on the sublight drive. The air system was hissing, and smelled faintly of ozone, though life support was working. So far the Daedalus hadn't made any attempt to board them, though they had no idea how long that would last.
Earlier, when they had first gotten aboard, Itasa had excitedly reported a comm contact from Vengeance of Athos. "They are safe, but the cloak will still not work," she reported, one hand pressed to her headset. "They wish to know if they should come to our assistance."
"No, tell them to stand off." John had breathed a little easier, just knowing the Athosian ship was okay. "The Daedalus still has its rail gun."
Teyla nodded agreement. "Vengeance cannot risk docking with us, not yet. If another Genii ship arrives, Vengeance is our only defense."
Itasa passed on the order, but Calena said, "The Daedalus did not shoot at our ship earlier, when they had the chance."
"They needed our help then," Zoe said, her even voice not quite concealing her tension. "Now we're all that's standing between them and having their ship to themselves again."
Since then they hadn't done much but damage assessment, and trying to think what the hell they were going to do if the Daedalus crew forced the lock, or attached a bomb to the hull, or any of the other dozen things they might do.
Halling leaned back against a console and wiped his hands on his smoke-stained jacket. "I wish I had better news, but it will take us almost twenty hours to effect the repair."
"Are we going to have twenty hours?" Ronon asked bluntly.
John kept his expression matter-of-fact. "Yeah, well, that's a good question."
Teyla shook her head, her expression weary. "I admit, I do not understand these people. They trap us, then show unexpected mercy, then ask for our help. I have no idea what they will do next."
Everybody looked at John. He shrugged one shoulder, uncomfortable. "Your guess is as good as mine."
"I can't imagine they'll just sit still while we make repairs," Zoe said, frustrated. "This is their best chance to get us out of their way for good."
"That is right," Halling said. "If they can be rid of us--"
The comm beeped for attention again and Itasa listened for a moment, frowning. She looked up at John and Teyla, startled. "It is the Daedalus. They wish to speak to our leaders."
John had been half-expecting the Daedalus to contact them, he just had no idea what they were going to say. He hoped it wasn't "surrender or else." He exchanged a look with Teyla, and she nodded to Itasa, saying quietly, "Open the channel."
Before Teyla could speak, the voice at the other end said, "Hey there. Am I talking to the Athosian pirates?"
John was a little startled to recognize the voice. It was the older guy, the one with the Ancient gene, who had seemed to be the leader. John said, warily, "Uh, yeah."
There was a brief silence. Then the voice said, "Parlay."
Okay, I heard that wrong, John thought. The others looked baffled. John said, "Excuse me?"
"I want a parlay. You know. A pirate parlay."
Okay, I didn't hear that wrong. Warily, John pointed out, "That's from a movie."
"Hey, it was a well-researched movie."
John bit his lip. I can't believe I'm having this conversation. "They made that part up."
Halling, Zoe, and Teyla all had near-identical expressions of confusion. Ronon looked pissed and confused. John shook his head, making a helpless gesture and silently mouthed the words, "It's an Earth thing." Common sense said it was a trick, said not to listen to the guy. But John was already half-seduced by the sheer crazy audacity of this approach. He tried, "Are you serious?"
"I'm always serious." This was said in a tone that somehow made it crystal clear the speaker was, actually, seldom serious. In direct contradiction, he added, "Look, we're both stuck here for now. It'll be easier for us to fix our ships if we're not shooting at each other. Personally, I don't see any reason why we should be shooting at each other."
John could still see a reason, and he still had no idea... He just had no idea. Trying for clarification, he said, "Except how you sent McKay and Carter to trap us."
"Oh come on. I'd send Carter to trap somebody, but I sure as hell wouldn't send McKay. They got captured and sold to the Genii, just like they said. The rest was McKay's idea. He's not a bad guy, just...poorly socialized."
"Poorly socialized? I never heard it called that before." But John was remembering something, the moment when he had been beamed up to the Daedalus. Carter had been caught still crouched over the console she had been working on, her face blank with surprise. While McKay had been edgy from the moment they had arrived on the planet, she had been calm and normal the whole time. That could have been just acting, but she hadn't been particularly helpful when McKay had wanted to delay their departure, either.
If it had been a trick from the beginning, if McKay and Carter had been bait, Carter would have known what was coming. So it could be true, McKay could have decided on his own to take John prisoner. So...it was a personal betrayal. John was pretty sure that didn't make him feel any better about it. He asked the guy, "Why'd you let me go?"
"I let you go because I don't hold people against their will. From what I hear from Carter, we have that in common." After a moment he added, "So? Where are we on the not shooting each other scenario?"
John nodded to Itasa. She switched off the comm and he looked at the others. Ronon said, "He sounds crazy."
Zoe lifted her brows. "Well, we're crazy desperate. Maybe we have more in common than we think."
Resigned, Teyla said, "We have no real choice, John. We must trust them, or fight to the death."
"Right." John wasn't keen on the fighting to the death thing, either. And hopefully it wouldn't take the whole twenty hours to fix the engines. He opened the channel again and said, "You've got a deal."
John was sitting on the floor in the engineering compartment, watching Selana, Halling, Itasa, and Adrat dig into the innards of panels and consoles. They had been working for several hours straight, and were already weary and slowing down. John felt helpless; there wasn't much John could help with besides the grunt work, and there were plenty of people to do that.
Then his radio activated, and Ronon's voice said, "We've got somebody at the hatch. Wants to come in and talk to you."
John sat up. Ronon and several others were stationed at the umbilical, guarding it in case the Daedalus broke their deal. And John had been expecting something like this. "McKay or Carter?"
"Neither," Ronon answered, "It's a new guy. He's alone, says he's unarmed, and that we can search him before he comes through the lock."
John bit his lip, considering it. He didn't like the idea, but he couldn't get around the fact that their two ships were locked together; they had to deal with each other. And he could hear a lot people holding their breath over the radio. "Teyla, Zoe, meet me up there."
John was waiting in the boarding compartment, flanked by Teyla and Zoe, when their visitor stepped through the hatch. He wasn't anybody John had seen before, a young guy with short brown hair and glasses, dressed in a black t-shirt and green BDUs that had seen heavy use. Ronon and Calena had searched him out in the umbilical, confirming that he was unarmed. The only thing he had brought with him was a small tablet computer, which he had obligingly turned on to prove that it wasn't a bomb and then handed over to Calena.
He looked from Zoe to Teyla to John, and blinked, as if making a thoughtful assessment. "Uh, hi. I'm Dr. Daniel Jackson. I believe we spoke on the radio?"
It was a weirdly normal thing to say, like the guy had come over about a used car, or something. John almost had a flashback to when he had sold his surfboards during his brief leave before McMurdo. Watching Jackson coldly, Teyla said, "Yes. I am Teyla Emmagan. Was anything you told us true?"
Jackson winced and scratched the back of his head. "Yes, actually, it is true, though I understand why you'd feel some doubt. I brought that--" he nodded toward the tablet Calena held. "The hard drive has documentary footage, of our evacuation from Earth's stargate to the Alpha site, then from the Alpha site to the gate we arrived at in Pegasus. And the Daedalus' arrival, when it finally caught up with us a few months later. I hope that will answer some of your questions."
John kept his eyes on Jackson, not looking toward the tablet, keeping up an facade of laconic indifference. He was burning with curiosity.
Teyla eyed Jackson, her face still cold. "If McKay was not ordered to do so, why did he deceive us, and steal one of our number?"
Jackson sighed and rubbed his forehead, as if he had been hoping they wouldn't ask that. "Oh, the answer to that is...psychologically complicated."
Zoe lifted a brow. "He's crazy?"
"No, he's just impatient." Jackson looked directly at John. "For what it's worth, he knew we wouldn't harm you, and he thought it was the only chance to talk you into joining us. I think he genuinely believed that you belonged with us."
Yeah, sure, John thought, pissed off suddenly for reasons he couldn't even articulate. There was a sincerity in Jackson's face and voice that made it even worse. "Uh huh. Right up until you tested my gene and decided it wasn't worth your time. Thanks, Dr. Jackson, we'll take a look at your home movies in our spare time." He jerked his head at Ronon, who took Jackson's arm and turned him back toward the lock.
Jackson didn't resist. "Just watch the video," he said as he stepped through the hatch. "Please. You'll understand when you see it."
So, the Daedalus crew wasn't lying about the Ancient site.
Everybody who wasn't busy with the repairs were all glued to various screens around the Genii ship's bridge, watching the video files Jackson had brought them. Itasa called out, "John, you must see this!"
"I'm watching it." John was slumped in a chair in the back, behind the supercargo's station, watching the tiny screen there in relative privacy. He didn't know what to think. He knew what he felt: pure envy.
The video showed a city of stained glass and copper metal, all air and light. Atlantis, an intact Ancient city. John had to admit to himself that there was no way the Daedalus could have faked this, not without a lot of advance planning. There were multiple views inside and out, balconies, piers extending out into a limitless ocean. Jumpers, a dozen or more, stored in racks in a tall circular bay. A stargate inside a giant multi-level room that looked like an Arts and Crafts cathedral. And there were people, Earth and Jaffa, military and civilians, men and women and kids.
According to the video, the Earth's stargate agency was called the SGC, and right after the Ori war, it had discovered the existence of Atlantis, somewhere in the Pegasus galaxy. They had figured out that Atlantis' gate could be dialed all the way from the Milky Way. A scientific expedition had been preparing to leave to explore it when the Trust uprising had hit.
Like Jackson had told them, the SGC had evacuated to Earth's Alpha site, with all their personnel and their families, everybody who could get to the stargate in time, including the Atlantis expedition members. Then O'Neill had stolen the Daedalus and taken it out of orbit. Apparently Sumner's group in Antarctica had been meant to follow them, but had been caught by the Trust before they could leave. Then the Trust had tried to attack the Alpha site, so all the refugees, including the Jaffa living there, had taken the chance and decamped to Atlantis. The Daedalus had made the long trip between galaxies without using the supergate, and the Trust ships hadn't been able to follow it.
Looking at the videos of the city, the fleet of jumpers, the zippy little F302 fighters the Daedalus carried, John had never felt so bitter in his life. He remembered what McKay had said about secret government space agencies, and what would have happened if the right people on Earth had known that John had the Ancient gene. But you screwed yourself, John. He could never have been a part of this; they would have looked at his record and kicked him to the curb. Nobody handed a spaceship to a guy who couldn't follow orders. The hell with that. He hadn't needed a secret government space agency to give him a spaceship.
He thought, Yeah, John, you stole all your spaceships, and shut the video off.
Not long later, the Daedalus crew handed something else through the hatch. It was a printed medical report of an analysis of John's Ancient gene.
Up on the bridge, John looked over it, with Teyla reading over his shoulder. Some of it went into detail about genetics and biochemistry that John didn't follow, but the summary had a lot of exclamation points and the upshot of it seemed to be that John's gene was hot stuff. He said, "They could have faked this."
Teyla lifted a brow, in the way he knew meant by the ancestors, he's stubborn. "Of course they could have. But much of what they have already told us is supported by the films."
"So?" John knew he sounded like a pissed-off twelve-year-old. That was mostly because he felt like a pissed-off twelve-year-old.
She said deliberately, "So they are your people. They may be more your people than anyone you have ever lived with, here or on Earth. It is just that you have never met them before." She watched him for a thoughtful moment. "I think you should talk to them."
John gritted his teeth and managed not to toss the report across the bridge. The others were watching him, and he kept his expression laconic. He had had one eye on the clock for a while and knew they were only about six hours from finishing the repairs. All he needed to do was stall until they could leave. "I don't see what it would accomplish."
Teyla folded her arms. "If we allied with them, we could break the Genii's power."
He slumped in the chair. "Yeah, I know, but they aren't going to want to ally with us, Teyla." If this was the same group Sumner's people had been part of, there was no way they would want to make a real alliance with Athosian pirates. He thought the most they would do was try to get John to join them. In which case he would go from being a guy with a controlling interest in a little space armada to the guy who stood around in labs and turned stuff on and that nobody trusted to do anything else because he was a crazy ex-pirate. That would be pointless.
Teyla frowned, obviously disappointed. "You do not think so?"
"No, I don't," he told her.
The next blow came only about three hours from completing the repairs.
Teyla took the comm call from the Daedalus, because John was down in the engine room trying to hurry things up by pacing and staring at Halling and Selana. By the time he got back up to the bridge, Teyla had signed off. She told him, "They have asked us to come aboard to talk. They say they wish to speak of an alliance."
John said, "Yeah, well, that's crap." Teyla lifted a brow. Everybody was staring at him, even Ronon. "Oh, come on! You have to be kidding me, you're not going to fall for this, are you?"
Teyla said, pointedly, "John, the repairs are almost complete, and you and I, and Zoe and Ronon cannot help with the work that is left. I do not see how listening to what they have to say to us could hurt."
John tried, "They could take us hostage."
Teyla was unimpressed. "Halling has repaired our weapons. And while our ships are locked together, it is impossible to raise the shields on either, so we already hold each other hostage." She pressed her lips together. "I think you will regret not taking this opportunity."
John was pretty sure that he would regret a lot of things before this was over.
There was some discussion, which John tried to willfully obstruct and delay as much as possible. But it ended up with him, Teyla, Zoe, and Ronon making their way through the umbilical again to the Daedalus' hatch.
They had agreed to sidearms only, nothing heavier, and John felt naked without the P-90. He was wearing his knife inside his leather jacket, but that wasn't much consolation.
A solemn sergeant met them at the hatch with a couple of Marines, and led them through the wide corridors.
Crewmembers came to hatchways and corridor junctions to watch them pass. All the curious eyes made John jumpy. It wasn't surprising; the crew must have heard the stories about Athosian pirates and didn't want to pass up the chance to see some close up. John kept his expression under control, hiding how self-conscious he was. He was glad he had taken time earlier to clean up a little in the Genii captain's bathroom, washing the blood off from the boarding battle. He told himself the people watching didn't see an ex-Air Force major, they saw a pirate in black leather.
The sergeant led them to a conference room, easily twice the size of Vengeance's galley. Jackson was waiting there with the older leader guy, Mitchell, and Teal'c, the big guy with the gold emblem on his forehead, who John now realized must be a Jaffa.
Jackson said, "Ah, hello, Major Sheppard. This is General Jack O'Neill, and I believe you've met Teal'c and Colonel Cameron Mitchell."
"Briefly," John said, not making any effort to hide the irony. Then he realized that by responding he had trapped himself into introducing the others. He said, "This is Teyla Emmagan, Zoe Washburne, and Ronon Dex."
Teal'c inclined his head politely, and Mitchell nodded. General O'Neill said, "Pleased to meet ya," as if there was nothing the least bit unusual about being introduced to Athosian pirates in another galaxy, and John thought, Oh yeah, that's the 'parlay' guy. And he's a general, great.
John had always had trouble with authority figures, but he had thought Sumner's crap about not taking John on the escape ship was just to keep him in line. He hadn't realized Sumner was serious until later, and it had been something of a shock that he had still considered himself as owing allegiance to people who had already written him off.
John just didn't know how to deal with an authority figure who was apparently taking advice in how to handle this situation from Pirates of the Caribbean. Or who didn't care if John thought he was taking advice from Pirates of the Caribbean. Whichever, John was intrigued in spite of himself.
Hearing Zoe's name, Jackson lifted his brows in surprise. He said to her, "So you're from Earth also."
"No," Zoe answered, completely deadpan.
Jackson blinked. "Okay."
The others seemed nonplused. "There are Washburnes in Pegasus too?" Mitchell said, tentatively. "It's just... The family that lived down the road from where I grew up was named--"
John interrupted, "It's a long story."
Everybody stood there for a moment. John was still mostly expecting to get stunned or gassed or something; he was having that kind of day. Then O'Neill clapped his hands together briskly. "So, let's talk."
They took seats at the table, awkwardly on the Daedalus side and warily on the Athosian.
"What did you wish to speak of?" Teyla said, her expression giving nothing away.
O'Neill smiled at her. "It looks to me like we've both got a problem with the Genii."
So they talked. Or at least Teyla, O'Neill, and Jackson talked, with Zoe, Teal'c and Mitchell occasionally contributing, and Ronon watching suspiciously. Watching O'Neill pretend to be startled by objects that had been on the table since they sat down, John thought, this guy is dangerous.. It helped to know that he was probably the guy who had masterminded the massive escape from Earth, right under the Trust's nose. O'Neill made people underestimate him, forced them to operate on his terms. For God's sake, he said 'parlay' and here we are doing it, John thought, disgusted with himself. I don't even know how the hell that happened.
John also didn't know how the hell it happened when, barely half an hour into the conversation, they were suddenly making tentative plans not only to team up against the Genii, the Athosians were getting offered space in Atlantis, and a landing site for their ships on the planet's mainland.
It was hitting John that he could have started with the ultimate clean slate here. It wasn't like they could look his record up. Except he had told McKay and Carter too much all ready. And he had tried to off himself in the Daedalus' sick bay, which had seemed like a great idea at the time.
If the Athosians joined up with the SGC, and it didn't work for John, then he was alone again. So he might as well leave now, and skip the awkward middle part.
Teyla and O'Neill were working out the last details, and Teyla said, "I do not know anything about your command structure, but I know John can explain--"
John interrupted, "I'm not included in the deal. I'll be leaving." If he did it now, it would be official, and there was no way anybody would argue with him.
Teyla stared at him. Zoe said, incredulously, "What?"
"You heard me. I'll take the jumper." John added to O'Neill, "It's not like you need it."
Her voice flat, Teyla said, "You will not."
That hurt. Stung, John said tightly, "It's my jumper, I brought it with me when I joined up."
Teyla rolled her eyes. "You are not taking the jumper because you are not leaving," she clarified, looking at him like he was insane.
"Yes, I am." Okay, maybe they would argue with him.
"The hell you are." Zoe looked exasperated. "What brought this on?"
"Nothing." John wished it sounded less like he was getting a divorce from Teyla and Zoe. "I'm doing what I have to do."
Zoe slapped the table and said something in Chinese that John suspected was not complimentary to him or men in general. O'Neill shook his head, squinting at her. "Are you sure you're not from Earth? Because--"
"John, we will discuss this later," Teyla said, gritting her teeth.
The just wait till I get you home tone just made John dig his heels in. For God's sakes, his last divorce had been easier. Of course, the papers had been served when he was still in transit back from Afghanistan, and he had already been thrown out of the house by the time he had gotten home, so it wasn't like there had been any chance to argue about it. "No, we won't. I'm leaving, that's final."
"What about me?" Ronon demanded.
O'Neill cleared his throat. Everybody stared at him expectantly. He said, "Look, I don't mean to break up..." He waggled his fingers vaguely. "...anybody's thing, here, and..." He hesitated, then turned to Jackson. "Okay, I got nothing. A little help?"
"Right." Jackson turned to John. "Ah, could we, or I, possibly speak to you alone?"
"No," John said, in chorus with Teyla and Zoe.
Frowning, O'Neill tapped the table. He said, "We need Liz in on this."
"Comm's still down, sir," Mitchell said.
"Yeah, I know that." O'Neill sighed and turned to John. "Can you tell us what the problem is?"
Jackson added, more devastatingly, "Do you know what the problem is?"
Mitchell winced. "Daniel, that's not a great idea--"
"There's no problem," John said, pushing to his feet. "The Athosians need this alliance, but I'm not an Athosian." He told Teyla, "You'll have access to scientists, and the Ancient gene. You don't need me."
Teal'c watched them, his brow furrowed. "Surely it is not necessary to make this decision immediately."
O'Neill added, "Yeah, let's not be hasty--"
Ignoring them, Teyla stood, telling John, "You are one of us. If you do not believe this alliance is for the best, then we will not accept it."
"That's my thought also," Zoe said.
Okay, that wasn't fair. John said, "No, you need this, your people need this--"
Teyla made an exasperated gesture. "You are one of my people, John."
"Hey, hey!" O'Neill waved at them. "You're backing each other into corners! Let's not make any decisions we'll regret!"
There was that word 'regret' again. John started to reply, when the lights flickered. The background hum of engines and power systems stuttered, and suddenly everybody was standing.
"What's that?" Ronon said, suspicious.
Mitchell shook his head, frowning. "Power fluctuations. They're working on our engines and power systems, trying to tune them so that new Genii weapon doesn't affect us."
"You think? I don't." O'Neill had his head cocked, as if listening to something.
"Nor do I," Teal'c said.
"It is none of our doing," Teyla said, eyeing them.
Still distracted, O'Neill waved a hand. "Nah, I didn't think--" A distant crash echoed, as if something had hit the hull somewhere. That's not good, John thought. It might just be debris though; there should be a lot floating in this area from the destroyed Genii ship.
O'Neill winced, one hand going to his radio. "Yeah, that was no power fluctuation. We've got to check this out. Teal'c, stay with them."
O'Neill, Jackson, and Mitchell hurried out, leaving John and the others standing uncertainly. It was just them, Teal'c, and two Marine guards on the door. The unresolved argument seemed to hover in the air. Then Teal'c gave them a polite nod, crossed the room and stood in front of some data screens, as if engrossed in the information flowing across them.
Teyla lowered her voice and said to John, "Tell me why you do not wish to ally with these people."
John folded his arms, looking away. This hadn't gone at all the way he had expected it would; of course, he had made the decision in under a second and possibly had not exactly thought it through. "I'm not saying you shouldn't do it. You're right, you can break the Genii with them. I'm saying it'll be easier for you without me."
Teyla sighed. "John, it was obvious from the beginning that no matter how effective an alliance between our groups would be, their real interest was in you."
"What?" John snorted derisively. "Yeah, they'd like to have access to my gene, but they don't need it--"
"It has nothing to do with your gene. You are one of their people, the only other one of their people who escaped to this galaxy. Of course they want you with them."
Zoe and Ronon were watching him like this was obvious to everybody but John. He said, "You just think that because you're an Athosian."
Teyla gritted her teeth. "John--"
John's radio crackled, and he heard unfamiliar voices. "Hold it." Then he heard some familiar codes, and realized he was picking up Genii radio traffic. Crap. "Are you getting this?" he whispered to the others.
Teyla nodded sharply, one hand pressed to her headset. "Genii. Another ship must have entered the system."
Teal'c turned, coming back to stand near them, listening to his own radio. He looked pissed. He said, "Our shielding should prevent that. These signals must come from near by."
"How'd they get so close without anybody knowing?" Ronon demanded.
"They had that new weapon," Zoe said, frowning as she listened. "Maybe they've got a shiny new cloak too."
"We need to--" Then John recognized a voice.
Kolya was here, on the Daedalus.
John met Teyla's gaze. He didn't need to say, "It's him." He didn't need to say anything. Her eyes had gone flat and predatory. Zoe said, "I can't believe he came himself."
Ronon shook his head grimly. "He wants Sheppard."
The door slid open and Carter strode in; she was wearing a tac vest and had a P-90 slung over her shoulder. "Teal'c, you're with me. We've been boarded. Don't use the radios, we think they're listening in to our comm."
Teyla said, "Ronon must go back to the ship and warn our crew. They may try to board us also."
"You're right." Carter nodded to the guards, and Ronon bolted out, running down the corridor. "The rest of you should stay put--"
Teyla stepped toward Carter. "We wish to help you."
Carter flicked a look over them, and whatever she saw must have convinced her. "This way."
Carter led them down a main corridor toward the stern of the ship. "They're hitting us from two points, up toward the bow and back here in the engine level, using what we think are shielded shuttles, something like jumpers but not as effective. General O'Neill is handling the incursion up at the bridge level and Mitchell is taking the F302s out to hit their shuttles from the outside."
They turned into a smaller compartment, filled with Marines and techs. One of them turned to Carter. "Colonel--" the guy threw a startled look at John and the others, but continued, "I've got a video feed from the shield compartment."
Carter nodded. "Put it on the screen."
The big screen flickered to life, showing a view of McKay and half a dozen other civilians, men and women in the Daedalus' science team uniforms, in a large room with lots of panels and consoles. They were facing Kolya and five Genii crewmen. One of the Genii had grabbed a civilian, a small guy with glasses and fluffy brown hair. The Genii had a gun jammed to his head. Carter grimaced. "Not good. We can get in through the upper deck, but we can't get a shot off without hitting some of our people."
"You've got stunners?" John asked. He figured they had the same Goa'uld weapons as the Trust.
"They are too slow," Teal'c said. "And only one of us can go through the upper deck hatch at a time. The Genii would have more time than necessary to kill their hostages or secure a more defensible position."
John had an idea. A terrible idea, but hell, Kolya. "We need to get them moving, get them chasing something. Like me."
"What?" Carter turned to look at him. "You want to use yourself as bait."
"John--" That was Teyla and Zoe, practically in chorus.
"I should do it," Ronon interrupted. "I'm faster than you."
"Yeah, but Kolya doesn't know you like he knows me," John told him. "He wants me, and I think he'll do something stupid to get me."
He could tell Teyla wanted to object, but she said, "I suspect you are right. We have long known that Kolya is obsessed with finding you. It is a great weakness in his thinking."
Zoe grimaced in agreement. "It helps that Kolya's a maniac."
Teal'c lifted a brow, giving them a nod of approval. "If the Genii were distracted, and moved away from the hostages, we would have the opportunity to force the hatch on this level."
Carter asked John, "Are you certain about this?"
John resisted the urge to say 'dead sure.' "Yes, I am."
Carter took a sharp breath. "Good. Let's do it."
"Careful," Zoe said, in an almost voiceless whisper.
John nodded and carefully eased down through the maintenance hatch.
It let him out onto a narrow gallery bridge, looking down on the shield compartment below. He eased forward, then dropped down to stay below the level of the railing, risking a look down into the bay below. The voices were clearly audible:
McKay was saying, "Look, I told you, the Athosians are dead. They tried to board this ship, there was a huge battle, and we killed them all. Well, not me personally, but in general we--"
Kolya sounded confident, amused. "You killed them all, even Sheppard? Knowing he was a valuable commodity?"
John gritted his teeth at that voice.
"Yes, well, he wouldn't surrender, so that was that," McKay said briskly, folding his arms and lifting his chin.
Kolya's smile was indulgent. "Then where are the bodies?"
McKay tried to bluff it out. "We threw them out the airlock. As you do." The other hostages nodded. John had to admit that it looked pretty damn unconvincing.
Kolya apparently thought so too. "I'm afraid I don't believe you."
McKay tried to look unconcerned. "That's not my problem."
"Yes, it is." Kolya's smile went hard. "Because I'm going to start killing your companions if you don't tell me the truth." One of the Genii soldiers still had the short scientist with the fuzzy brown hair and glasses. The Genii shoved his gun a little harder into the smaller man's head, forcing a gasp of pain out of him. Kolya added, "Starting with him."
"No! No, look, you want an Ancient tech expert, right?" McKay sounded desperate. "You can take me."
"Dr. McKay, I intend to take all of you."
There's a cue if I ever heard one, John thought. He stood up. "Now I thought you said I was the only one."
Kolya spun around, staring. Then he smiled. "Sheppard. I knew you were alive."
John ducked behind the railing again and bolted down the walkway, through the hatch into the next compartment. The idea was to get Kolya distracted enough so the Marines could come through the hatch below and retrieve the hostages. That was their idea, anyway. John's idea was that he was going to distract Kolya by killing the bastard.
The next compartment was a maze of tall consoles and big pylons with glowing readouts. Carter had shown John a schematic so he had some idea of the layout. Behind him he heard the Genii climbing the stairs up to the catwalk and pounding down it. John went over the railing, landing on the deck, then darted into cover behind a pylon.
He heard the Genii dropping over the railing to this level, and counted the impacts. Four. Kolya had to be one of them, which meant there were only two Genii left with the hostages.
And that gave John an idea. There was another passage from this compartment back into the one with the hostages, a small maintenance slot buried back in the corner behind a bank of equipment. Carter had pointed it out on the schematic, as something the Genii were unlikely to notice. John could slip back through into the other compartment, take out the Genii there-- And Kolya might break and run back to his shuttle, knowing the tables had turned and he no longer had the upper hand.
John hesitated, torn between the desire -- the need -- to kill Kolya, and the fact that there were Genii in that other room holding guns on civilians. And one of those civilians was McKay, who had lied his ass off and told Kolya that John was dead.
God damn it, John thought, and slipped soundlessly back through the pylons, finding the narrow passage in the back corner of the compartment.
He eased through it, having to duck to get under the tubes nearly blocking the narrow space. He paused at the doorway, sneaking a look into the compartment. Bingo, he thought. The two Genii had their backs to him. One still held the little scientist, a gun jammed into his head. McKay and the other hostages were gathered a short distance away, backed up against the bulkhead.
John whipped through the doorway, grabbed the Genii holding the hostage, getting one arm around his throat and grabbing his gunhand with the other. The hostage twisted free with a yelp, scrambling forward. The other Genii turned toward them in horrified surprise, and John squeezed down on his Genii's gunhand. The gun went off, the second Genii fell.
McKay yelled, "Behind you!"
John shoved the Genii away and turned just as somebody tackled him. He landed hard on his back, a heavy weight atop him, and lost his grip on the Genii's gun.
It was Kolya pinning him down, and there was a gun jammed into John's ribs. The rest of the world went away, and John only dimly heard crashing and shouts, more people streaming into the room.
Through gritted teeth, John said, "Did you miss me?"
"Terribly," Kolya replied, "I've been looking for you everywhere." He lifted his head to shout at someone, "Back away, or I'll kill him! We're leaving your ship, and we're taking him with us!"
John thought, You've got that wrong. He couldn't reach his holstered gun, but his hand was pinned against his chest, where his knife was still tucked into his jacket. He jerked his knee up, Kolya reeled back, and John pulled the knife out. He whipped it across Kolya's throat, and heard a gun go off.
There was a confusing moment where John was lying on the deck, watching Kolya slump over, bleeding. John tried to sit up, and realized the lower half of his body was numb. Then pain hit him in a rush, taking his breath, taking his senses, and blackness closed in.
Teyla pushed her way into the medical compartment, desperate to see what they were doing. When she and Zoe and the Daedalus crew had forced their way through the hatch, she had not been in time to see John kill Kolya, or the last shot that Kolya had fired, hitting John. But the aftermath and been bad enough, before the crewmen had rushed John to their sick bay.
She caught a glimpse of John on a table, his skin pale, his shirt ripped open, blood everywhere, staining the white of the table's padding. The doctors closed in again, and she saw nothing. She stepped back aware she was in the way. "Will he be all right?" she demanded.
"We'll do our best, love," a doctor said. But then he turned to O'Neill, standing on the other side of the compartment. "General, there's not much more we can do here."
Teyla's breath caught. If the Daedalus' medical equipment could not help, she knew Vengeance's would be useless, and the captured Genii ship's sick bay was even more primitive. She swallowed in a dry throat. "If we could get him to Taldis, there is a hospital there, but our hyperdrive is damaged--" They weren't listening to her. O'Neill was staring at the wall. She controlled her anger and said tightly, "If you will not help us, tell me now, so we may take him and do what we can."
But O'Neill turned to her. "You've got a jumper; is it here?"
Teyla nodded, uncertain. "Yes, aboard Vengeance." The Daedalus couldn't want it; they had so many of their own already. "John is the only one of us who can fly it."
O'Neill turned to one of the men in the doorway. "There's a gate in this system?"
"Yes, sir. On the fourth planet. The pilots are still out in the F302s, would you like me to recall--"
"Nah, I'll fly it." O'Neill waved a hand. "Tell Carter she's in command. Beckett, get ready, you're coming with us."
"Where are we going?" Teyla asked. She had belatedly realized that O'Neill hadn't been ignoring her, he had been calculating the quickest method of travel.
O'Neill said, "Atlantis."
The first thing John was aware of was that he felt like crap. That came and went, at first accompanied by other people yelling, then by beeping medical equipment.
He opened his eyes at one point, and saw Teyla leaning over him. He knew they weren't on the Vengeance; he couldn't hear the engines. And Teyla looked terrible, or as terrible as a woman that beautiful could look; her brow was furrowed with worry and the skin under her eyes looked bruised, as if she had been awake for days. He knew that was bad. He said, "You should be with the ship," and his voice came out as a barely audible whisper.
She bit her lip, and tried to smile. "You should be quiet."
That was all he remembered of that conversation.
After a time he knew he was in a bed, because it was soft and warm. There still weren't any engines, just ocean waves, somewhere distant, and the air was cool and conditioned, but fresh, as if it had been recently acquainted with the surface of a planet. John figured he was dead. It was nicer than he had been expecting.
Except his left side really hurt, right under his rib cage, sending painful twinges through his whole body whenever he took a deep breath. Breath. You're not dead.
He opened his eyes a slit. The room was big, the walls copper-colored, figured into square plates with elaborate designs, and full of hospital equipment. He heard someone move near him, and managed to turn his head. Zoe sat on a chair beside the bed, reading a book. It looked like an Earth book, an old one with a battered library binding. "Hey," John said, and his voice came out as a whisper.
Zoe looked up, startled, then smiled. "You're back."
Sort of, John thought. "How long was I gone?"
"Three days. You were hurt pretty bad."
Hurt. He remembered what had happened. "I killed Kolya." He felt pretty damn good about that, actually.
"You did." She gave him a firm nod. "When you get better, we're going to have a party."
"I'll hold you to that." He cleared his throat cautiously, trying not to do anything that would move any of the muscles below his collarbone. "Where are the others?"
"Teyla was with you the whole time, the rest of us got here yesterday. Vengeance and our Genii prize set down on one of the big piers over the water."
John was slowly putting two and two together. "This is Atlantis."
"It is that."
His brow furrowed. "They let us come here?"
"O'Neill flew your jumper through a gate, to get you here in time, so their doctors could fix you up."
This was all very surreal. "Why are they being so nice to me?"
Zoe gave him a look. "I don't know. All you did was kill Kolya and save their ship."
Yeah, but John hadn't expected them to be grateful for it. "Did they ask for anything?"
"No. Now rest."
That wasn't a bad idea. John closed his eyes, and the world faded out again for a while.
When John walked out on the balcony for the first time, barefoot and wearing medical scrubs, he saw the view of the towers and piers, opening out toward the limitless sea, and he fell in love.
He had been walking for a couple of days, carefully watched by Teyla or Zoe or Ronon or Halling or one or more of the other Athosians, but this was the first time Dr. Beckett had let him roam free the twenty feet out the door of the infirmary to the balcony. John looked at the view, felt the sea wind in his hair, and the breath caught in his throat. It was like the derelict Ancient warship, only a thousand times stronger. He wanted this place like he had never wanted anything before. And it was like it wanted him back.
The doors slid open behind him, and he glanced over his shoulder, expecting Teyla or Zoe. But it was General O'Neill.
O'Neill wandered out to lean on the railing, somehow giving the impression that he had ended up here completely by accident. John watched him suspiciously, but the first thing O'Neill said was, "This isn't where I expected to retire."
John considered that. It sounded unlikely. "You're retiring?"
O'Neill shrugged. "Sure. I'm looking for some part time help first, though. Somebody who has an Ancient gene strong enough to run the weapons chair." He gave John a deeply significant eyebrow tilt.
At least he wasn't beating around the bush. John tried not to, but had to ask, "What's the weapons chair?"
"It's an interface to the city's defenses. You can raise shields, fire weapons." O'Neill squinted up at the clear blue sky. "Lift off and take her into hyperspace."
John eyed him warily. "Seriously?"
"Sure. The scientists go nuts if you try it, though." O'Neill sighed. "Look, you've been in lousy situations. I've been in lousy situations, too. And we've all seen a lot of good people who have lost everything." He shrugged again. "All I'm saying is, just think about giving it a try. You might like it here."
"I'll think about it." John was startled to realize this approach was working on him.
O'Neill wandered off, and John stood for a while, looking out at the sea.
Then he heard someone else come out on the balcony, and this time he looked back to see McKay. McKay hesitated. "Ah, hello. It's me."
John wasn't sure if this was a good thing or not. "I know."
"I would have come sooner, but apparently there was some sort of restraining order in place." He cleared his throat. "I owe you an apology."
John turned, leaning back against the railing, and folded his arms. This should be interesting.
"So, I apologize." McKay lifted his chin stubbornly. "And frankly, I think you overreacted."
Or not so interesting. John pushed off from the railing and started for the door.
McKay grimaced. "Okay, okay, fine! I apologize for plotting your kidnapping, and planting the transmitters on your ship, and causing the Athosians to leave their camp. And, yes, all right, when you lay it all out like that in just so many words, it does sound a little insane. And while I have had assistants who threatened to commit suicide, nobody ever actually tried to shoot himself in the head because of my actions, so I feel very bad about that." He admitted, "Carter had this plan that after we managed to rejoin the others, we would contact you again, and talk about an alliance, but I'd seen how suspicious you all were, and I didn't think you'd respond..." He finished weakly, "I hate it when she's right." He waved his arms. "Oh come on, say something!"
What John wanted to say was I knew you were prying information out of me but I thought it was because you wanted to be friends but he was damn tired of his inner bitter twelve-year-old. And if he couldn't say that, there wasn't much else he could say. He shrugged and said, "I accept your apology."
McKay frowned. "I was hoping for something a little more than that."
John stared at him incredulously.
McKay rolled his eyes. "Okay, that didn't come out right. I meant, you know, a little more closure. Some indication that you don't think I'm--"
"Psychotic?" John asked, half seriously.
McKay glared. "Oh come on!"
John thought about it, and finally said, "That was good, when you told Kolya that you'd killed us and tossed us out the airlock. If he was less crazy, it might have worked."
"Thank you." McKay hesitated again. "If you don't mind, Zelenka -- he was the one the Genii had-- " He made a gun pointing to head gesture. "-- and Kusanagi and some of the others wanted to visit you. They're very grateful about not being shot or carried off by Kolya, and they have a gift they want to give you."
"A gift?" John frowned. "I don't need to be paid--"
McKay gave him the eye roll again. "It's a data device with our collection of media files. Movies, TV."
"Oh." That...was unbelievably tempting, and John couldn't resist. "Okay."
So that evening, John ended up in a lounge near the infirmary, watching Pirates of the Caribbean with Ronon, Zoe, Teyla, Halling, a dozen other fascinated Athosians, and McKay and several scientists and techs. It was weird, but John thought he could get used to it. Afterward, Dr. Beckett shooed out McKay and the scientists, and the Athosians headed back to the Vengeance, leaving John sitting around on the couches with Teyla, Zoe, Ronon, and Halling. The lounge had floor to ceiling windows facing a view of the city, and at night the lights of the Ancient towers glowed like stars.
Standing at the window, Zoe asked, "Was your Earth like this?"
"No," John said automatically, but he knew that wasn't quite fair. "Well, parts of it were beautiful."
"This place is a wonder," Teyla said, smiling. "I have seen many ruins left by the Ancestors, and they all have some traces of left of what they once were. But there was nothing that prepared me for this."
John managed a nod of agreement. He didn't think he could talk about the city's effect on him without embarrassing himself.
Halling said, a little cautiously, "We have spoken about this among ourselves, and come to the conclusion that if you are truly uncomfortable with these people, we will leave, and make our alliance one of distant acquaintances only. But there is still several days before the doctors say you will be ready to leave their care, so this is not something that must be decided immediately."
John cleared his throat. "Okay." He still had all the same concerns, nothing on that score had really changed. But Kolya was dead, and he hadn't realized until now just how much the threat of falling into Genii hands again had been weighing on him. Now that was gone, and here was this city, with all its endless possibilities.
Watching him closely, Teyla lifted her brows. "Okay, we will not decide immediately, or okay..."
John said, "Okay, let's stay and give it a shot." And it felt right.