The corridors outside the gate room were packed with tall, sealed crates on wheeled pallets, some of them so large they would barely fit through the circumference of the stargate. Navigating around them was an adventure, complicated by the automated conveyor belt that had been custom built and installed to move the massive amount of supplies through the stargate as rapidly as possible. It ran down the center of the corridor and made a turn through the doorway into the gate room. Two technicians were completing the connection. Once the last bits were in place, a press of a button would start the pallets rolling on the conveyor belt into the gate room, up the ramp and through the open stargate to Atlantis. In a feat of forethought, someone had even considered that the pallets had to be handled on the far side of the wormhole. The conveyor belt would unfold through the wormhole and roll the pallets forward on the far side.
It would only take a few men to roll the pallets off to the side, but even with them, Rodney predicted a traffic jam at the far side. At least the crates were heavy-duty and the pallets had bumpers, though, so most of the goods would survive unscathed.
Of course it was all in the way of Rodney's far more important work.
Two airmen dodged around Rodney and the three others with him, nimbly leaping to the other side of the conveyor track and then back, with mumbled sirs and ma'ams. Show-offs. Behind him, Miko squeaked in dismay and juggled her laptop. Markov muttered under her breath. The Russian curse made Rodney smile to himself. Zelenka added a comment on the airmen's parentage in Czech. If Rodney's native language hadn't been English, he'd have added something himself; all of them had been forced to deal with the SGC's charming xenophobia since they arrived, even if they hadn't been treated to an explicit 'dirty foreigner' insult. It made him wonder how the Program ever succeeded in gaining allies through out the Milky Way… Oh, wait, they were so much better at garnering new enemies. He could guess why.
No wonder the Pegasans had taken Atlantis back from the Expedition and forced this four-way treaty down the IOA's throat. The gossip Rodney had picked up, mostly from listening to talk in the mess hall, all blamed it on the traitor, Sheppard, but it seemed pretty obvious the other two Pegasus super powers weren't going to let the Genii Empire get a leg up on them by standing aside and letting them have unlimited access to Atlantis.
If he'd gone with the Expedition in 2004, he would have found some way to stop the allied Union/Coalition invasion of the city. Sam Carter hadn't; he thought that made it pretty obvious she wasn't up to the job of Chief Scientist. Rodney honestly couldn't comprehend the sort of idiocy that left her in charge a year later and denied him the chance to study the Ancient technology in situ. She'd blackballed him, which was just petty; it wasn't like he'd actually groped her that time, he'd stumbled.
He doesn't think about the other reasons she hated him. It hadn't been his fault. They acted like he'd wanted the Jaffa to die and that hadn't been it at all. They'd fried the Russian DHD with the energy backwash of opening an event horizon to nowhere — that hadn't been his idea, Carter got it from a Goa'uld — and no one blamed her. The forty-eight hour limit hadn't been the reason Teal'c died, Rodney'd been right that he was the energy in the buffer and not a binary imprint. No one remembered that part. No, it was always that Rodney had come from Area 51, that Simmons had recruited him, like he'd been working for the Goa'uld. Thinking about it just made him bitter.
Rodney opened his mouth to start yelling at someone — anyone, since he despised all of the sycophantic second rate brown-nosers populating the SGC — about the obvious, idiotic changes that had been made to the ZPM interface. Not that it would do any good. No one here listened to him, not since Carter blamed him for what happened. Even though it was her half-assed bypass of the DHD safety protocols that created the problem in the first place.
He squeezed around another grunt — a female soldier this time and Rodney made sure none of him came in contact with her — and into the gate room.
"Radek. Go up to the control room. I'll need you to watch the monitors after I've fixed whatever they've messed up this time."
Zelenka peeled off without comment.
Rodney hated failing, so he didn't think about it or why Carter really never wanted to see him. What came through the stargate had just barely been Teal'c and died soon after. Without the control crystal in place to mediate formation Teal'c's pattern had been lethally disrupted by the backwash of energy from the wormhole. She still blamed Rodney for her part in it as well as his.
He'd done the math and proved otherwise: if he hadn't, it wouldn't have been Siberia for him; he'd have been fired and blackballed.
But Rodney McKay was still at fault because he told them the truth and everyone hated that, because everyone was stupider than him. Jealousy, pure and simple.
Especially whoever had been messing with this delicate equipment. It would serve them right if he let them blow up the stargate. Idiots. He had expected to have to recalibrate everything to take into account the differing charge on the ZPM they were using and integrate the extra power from the Russian naquadria generators. He'd hadn't expected he would have to rebuild the entire assembly by hand. Some of the parts had to be hand fabricated in a machine shop, which had meant losing Zelenka's help on the reprogramming. Markov spent more time shmoozing with the SGC bigwigs than she did on the integration project, though she'd deigned to show up today. Most days lately Rodney had only had Miko working directly with him.
Constantly stopping and starting so the stargate could cycle for the continuing SGC mission schedule complicated their work too. He didn't see why, when they were dealing with something as rare as a ZPM or expensive and dangerous as naquadria generators, operations couldn't be shut down for a week. The corridors were full of crates, it was an unsafe work environment anyway.
When he'd mentioned that, General Landry had looked at him like Rodney was shit on his shoe and declared that would trap gate teams with nowhere to go. Which was patently absurd. The stargate had failed on other occasions; that was why the Alpha Site had been established. Rodney didn't even bother telling Landry he'd meant shutting down as in not sending gate teams out in the first place, not marooning them. Landry, that flatulent gasbag, wouldn't have believed him anyway.
Rodney growled as he strode past the SFs stationed at the blast doors leading into the gate room itself. He and Miko and Zelenka had installed the new power conduits that led directly from the ZPM to the stargate the day before. The naquadria generators were in the next room, hooked up in series, ready to take over maintaining the wormhole once it had been opened to Pegasus. They could cycle them as one exhausted its fuel and keep the gate open longer than the traditional thirty-eight minute window without draining the ZPM. It was a work of genius, but was Rodney receiving any gratitude or acknowledgment for it? Of course not.
No, he received an email from Bill Lee, complaining that the new set up hadn't been up and running for their test dial of the nine chevron address Jackson had found in the Atlantis database. Had anyone mentioned that to Rodney before? No, or he would have told them that a nine chevron address would require an order of power more and very likely drain the ZPM, if they could get it to lock on in the first place. They were lucky the dial-out had failed. Rodney had fired an email back at Lee explaining all that. The nine chevron address was back-burnered for the moment.
Did anyone apologize for not consulting Rodney in the first place?
"Hah," he muttered under his breath.
No, what he got was morons who insisted on 'checking' his work, as if they could comprehend even the tiniest, dumbed-down initial fraction of it. As if he were some slob with a high school education and a wrench — no disrespect to the eminently competent Sgt. Siler — not the foremost expert in wormhole physics and Ancient technology alive, with multiple PhDs and more intelligence in his toenail trimmings than the collected brains of everyone in the Pentagon.
Which meant he had to double check everything he'd done to ascertain it hadn't been tampered with over night.
He had enemies at the SGC. Many of them would be more than willing to engineer a disaster just to make Rodney look bad and curry favor with Samantha Carter.
It wasn't paranoia. They really were out to get him. They'd sent him to Siberia, then Antarctica. They couldn't send him any farther away than that without sending him off-world and Carter had nixed any chance he ever had at that. Not that he'd wanted to go off-world; what could he accomplish in some ruin or mud thatch village full of drooling Goa'uld worshipers? He was a man of science, with a keen appreciation of civilization's finer amenities. It annoyed him to be denied the choice, that was all.
At least Markov understood covering your ass and the million and one ways so-called colleagues and smaller minds could find to stab a brilliant man in the back. She inspected the Russian-manufactured naquadria generators each day and had threatened anyone who touched them with or without authorization with being fed to the Moscow Circus bears. If anyone had asked, Rodney would have told them she would do it, too. She'd put Rodney in his place a couple of times the first six months of his tenure in Siberia, before he'd come to the conclusion that the best way to spite the SGC would be to design a better generator for the Russians than Carter's Mark 1s. They'd had an excellent working relationship since.
Rodney paused just short of the metal grate ramp. The stargate loomed, dominating the room, amazing and magnificent not for its age or the potential power locked in the naquadah that made it up — though Rodney acknowledged both were pretty impressive too, he'd like to see anything built by a lowest-bidder corporation still functioning reliably after twenty years, never mind over ten thousand — but for the brilliance of the science that underlay its function. He had to admire it every time he stepped into the gate room.
Markov stopped beside him and tilted her head up too.
Miko ran into Rodney from the back. "So sorry," she whispered. She always whispered in the gate room. She whispered in the chair room in Antarctica. After over two years, Rodney had given up on persuading her to speak up. Or look up from her feet most of the time. Luckily, she was small and he was solid; he barely noticed when she ran into him.
One of the techs working on the conveyor track dropped a wrench and hissed, "Fucking piece of fucking goddamn worthless fucking shit!"
"What'd you hit?"
"My motherfucking thumb."
"Shut up with all the fucking fuckings, Mike, or one of the officers will fucking hear."
"They're not fucking officers, they're fucking civilians and I don't give a fucking fuck, I think I fucking broke it. Fuck."
Markov chuckled and Miko edged around Rodney as if to get a little further away from the two airmen.
"Don't be such a pussy. Look, can we just finish this fucking thing? Then we can go up to the infirmary and get one of the nurses to look at it."
Rodney suppressed a grin.
"Never mind," he said to Miko. "Let's just finish this."
He dodged around the side of the ramp and headed back to the power couplings and conduits connecting the SGC dialing computer to the stargate. Much of the important equipment was hidden back there, though most people never looked past the stargate to the nuts and bolts. They saw a big stone ring, which it wasn't. A stargate was primarily made of naquadah with trinium alloy and crystals beneath the stone facing the Goa'uld had placed over it.
Huh. It didn't look like anyone had messed with yesterday's work for once. If they had, it wasn't obvious. Zelenka would have to check the coding on the program for insertions, but Rodney thought he could have it done in an hour if he wasn't interrupted. It wouldn't need all three of them working in the gate room either.
"Svetlana," he said, "go up to the mess hall and get me some coffee and a muffin. Blueberry if they have — no, wait. Chocolate. That's less likely to be poisoned with citrus."
Miracle of miracles, his toolbox was still where he'd left it the day before when SG-13 had radioed they were coming in hot and the SFs had bundled Rodney and Miko out of the gate room before the iris was opened.
"Miko. Go check that the main power coupling from the ZPM is still shut down."
He knelt next to the conduit cover, then glanced up when he realized Markov was still in the room. "Well? Chop chop."
Markov gave him a sour look.
"The Russian Federation doesn't employ me to act as your coffee maid," she observed.
Rodney rolled his eyes. "I know you're going to spend an hour chattering with the Russian gate team that returned yesterday. This way if anyone asks what you're doing, you can tell them. Besides, I'm hungry and there's nothing for you to do in here, since the generators are all ready."
"Ah, then I will take my time," she said and headed away.
"Don't forget," Rodney shouted after her, "Chocolate."
The speakers from the control room overlooking the gate room crackled to life and Zelenka commented, "I don't think he's flexible enough to do that."
Markov's laughter floated in the air behind her.
Rodney opened the conduit cover and set it aside, then frowned and glanced back to where he'd set it. That dull, gray painted box hadn't been clamped there the day before. It was about the size of an external hard drive and unmarked.
"What the fucking hell is this?" he snarled at no one. It offended him by even existing. How was it attached anyway? Rodney shuffled over on aching knees to take a closer look. "Miko, go ahead and hook up the generators to the ZPM feed."
Someone — some drooling, microcephalic SGC baboon — had placed the box on the stargate itself. Rodney couldn't see what was holding it in place, but he did notice a tap going into the wiring that led from the elegant hydraulic system that opened and closed the trinium iris. Rodney frowned harder as he traced the wire back to the box.
Closer examination showed a screw holding the box's metal cover in place. Rodney peered at it. Someone hadn't wanted just anyone with a screwdriver to open it up.
"Miko, handed me the 1mm torx."
"I am almost finished here, Dr. McKay."
"Unless you are using the torx, hand it over," Rodney snapped. He held out his hand, palm open, without looking away from the mysterious box. The screwdriver-like tool, with its star-shaped head, slapped into his hand hard enough to sting. Miko had her own ways of conveying annoyance.
"Thank you," Rodney told her sarcastically and began opening the box carefully. His nerves were making him twitchy. Something felt wrong about this.
"Rodney, what are you doing?" Zelenka asked from the control room.
"Someone's attached something to the iris mechanism," Rodney said.
He lifted the cover off.
"Dr. Zelenka, the connection is complete," Miko announced. "If you could run a check on it?"
"Doing so now, Dr. Kusanagi."
Rodney couldn't shift his eyes from the contents the cover had revealed. "Oh, no," he whispered.
"All systems are operating as predicted," Zelenka reported.
Rodney barely heard.
There was a detonator, a circuit board, and a shaped-charge, all hooked up to the control room connection to the iris. Rodney traced his gaze of the nest of wires. Black insulation on all of them. He thought some were decoys. Whoever had put it together had meant to keep anyone from disarming it, at least not quickly. There were magnets holding it to the stargate and, oh, that wasn't good. If the magnets were disengaged that would trip an anti-tampering measure and set off the detonator.
"Fuck," Rodney breathed out. "Fuck, fuck, fuck. Fucking fuck. Fucking hell."
"Dr. McKay?" Miko asked and bent over his shoulder to see what he was seeing. "Oh."
"Get out of here," Rodney ordered her.
"It is a bomb."
"Yes, and I'd guess it's going to go off the next time — "
The stargate began turning. The alarm for an unscheduled activation wasn't earsplitting in the gate room, but it still made Rodney jerk. He looked up with wide eyes as his brain put it all together. In a few seconds, once the wormhole was established and the energy splash subsided, the iris would cycle closed automatically. Only this time, when the electrical signal from the control room rushed to the actuators, it would divert instead to the bomb and trigger it.
Rodney scrambled to his feet, grabbed Miko's elbow and bolted for the blast door. The SFs on guard duty were already aiming their weapons at forming wormhole.
"Radek!" Rodney yelled. "Don't close the iris, there's a bomb hooked up to it." Oh, God. He was going to die. That thing was attached to the stargate. The stargate made mostly of naquadah and if it precipitated a naquadah reaction… well, there wouldn't be a Stargate Command under Cheyenne Mountain afterward. The caverns housing NORAD would be history as well. Instead there would be a immense crater. Of course, if the chain reaction took out the naquadria reactors next door and the ZPM… Rodney cringed at the thought. Colorado and a large portion of the Rockies from Canada to Mexico would be vaporized. The localized force of such an explosion could easily affect the Earth's axle tilt and rotation. The ecological effects would be unimaginable.
Not that he'd be around to notice and that was what really concerned him at the moment.
"Receiving IDC from SG-19," the gate technician in the control room announced over the intercom. The alarms went on, but the iris didn't engage. Seconds later two men and two women rushed through the event horizon.
"Okay, that was too close for comfort," the tall woman officer announced. Her uniform name tag identified her as Teldy.
"Who the hell's comfortable, Major?" one of the two men asked. Blood was matted to the side of his head.
"Come on, Duotti," the shorter woman, a sergeant, said. "Let's go get checked out."
"What's going on?" Major Teldy asked as she came down the ramp. The sergeant guided the wounded man past Rodney and Miko, who were plastered to the wall in the corridor to make room between themselves and the huge crate waiting to go to Atlantis and currently blocking most of the space.
"Bomb," one of the SFs commented.
The second man, just behind Teldy, hesitated. "Where?"
The SF looked over to Rodney.
"It's attached to the stargate, low, on the left side," Rodney told him. "Magnets and it's been tamper-proofed."
"Joey, think you can — ?" Teldy asked.
"Let me at it," Joey replied. He linked his fingers together and cracked his knuckles.
"Are you insane?" Rodney demanded. "You need to get a bomb expert in here to disarm it."
"You'd better get out of here in case Joey screws it up," Teldy told him.
Rodney stared at her in stunned disbelief. "You're insane," he declared. "Come on, Miko. Before they get us killed with them."
She didn't have to like his favoritism toward ex-members of SG-1, however, when she thought they were interfering her work.
"I really have a problem accepting that Major Carter's personal bias should affect who I choose as part of my staff," Elizabeth replied. Rodney was a difficult man. She'd had experience with him over the last two years, far more than Samantha Carter ever had, and despite his social failures she recognized that he was as brilliant as he believed he was. Denying herself and the expedition that sharp mind and what Rodney could discover on Atlantis because he wasn't likable was ridiculous. It didn't speak well to Major Carter's professionalism, either.
In her humble opinion, Elizabeth finished in her own thoughts, with a hidden smile.
"Nonetheless," General Landry said. "Major Carter has reiterated her previous declaration, that she will resign the Air Force and her position as Chief Scientific Officer if Dr. McKay is permitted to join the Expedition."
"The Embassy is not the Expedition," Elizabeth pointed out politely. The Embassy, in fact, would supersede the Expedition's authority. She wanted Rodney as her scientific adviser because he was the one man who wouldn't be intimidated by Major Carter's previous achievements. In addition, she wanted the rest of his team from Antarctica because the SGC had front loaded the First Expedition with Americans, freezing out numerous more-qualified scientists from other countries, even when they had appropriate clearances. Her Embassy would represent Earth, not just the parochial interests of the US.
"McKay's not a team player," O'Neill insisted.
Elizabeth folded her hands and refrained from pointing out the Rodney McKay had succeeded in working with the scientists at Area 51, in Siberia, and now ran a multinational research team in Antarctica. His reputation at the SGC was unjustified, though she would never argue that he was a nice man.
"I rather think Major Carter is the one who is exhibiting that characteristic," she said. She'd read all the reports. She knew what had happened and Rodney certainly hadn't won any friends, but he also wasn't the villain of the piece. As far as she could tell, Teal'c had been doomed. Both Carter and Rodney had done everything they could to save him; it simply hadn't been possible. Carter was still letting her grief dictate her choices.
"He would be a walking disaster," Landry added. "Believe me, Ambassador. You don't want him." The condescension in his voice — she could almost hear the 'little lady' — couldn't be missed.
O'Neill winced but wisely remained silent.
"I think I'm a better judge of diplomatic civilities, what and who will be acceptable as part of my staff than either of you gentlemen," Elizabeth said in a frosty tone. "You don't actually have the authority to block my choice."
Landry leaned forward over the shining conference table. "Maybe not technically, Ambassador, but I think we all know that you aren't going to throw away your appointment over retaining McKay. He cost you a chance to go with the First Expedition, didn't he?"
"I'd say Major Carter's intransigence and the strings pulled for her did that," Elizabeth snapped, sparing a glare for O'Neill too.
"He's not going," O'Neill said. He made another face, one implying he was tasting something bad. His hand came up as she opened her mouth and went on, "He's not going off-world. I've got a shrink who will testify that he isn't mentally stable enough if necessary, but the fact is, without Carter around, we need someone like him here." Unstated, but clear, was the determination to protect his friends from a living, breathing reminder of their loss. Ironic, considering O'Neill had tolerated Jonas Quinn in Daniel Jackson's place, unless he believed that that had contributed to the dissolution of SG-1. Maybe that was it. Carter and Jackson had jumped at the chance to leave for Pegasus, certainly.
Elizabeth pressed her lips together. Bias she could fight, cold pragmatism wouldn't be shifted so easily. She would need to find Camille Wray. The IOA human resources representative would know who O'Neill's psychiatrist was. She'd need to talk with the President as well, but only after she'd mustered every argument possible and pulled a few strings of her own.
She didn't say she hadn't given up. O'Neill probably realized it, but if not, she certainly had no intention of warning him.
"Next on the agenda," she said, "is the matter of former Major Sheppard — "
"Should have had him shot," Landry muttered.
Elizabeth pinched the bridge of her nose. This was the attitude she could expect from Col. Sumner. For an instant she contemplated some horsetrading: she'd give up on Rodney and they'd replace Sumner with someone a little less rigidly hardline. She was going to have to deal with Maj—Mr. Sheppard in his guise as Union liaison. If he picked up on the hostility the military felt toward him — and how could he miss it, when he'd been part of that very culture — he wouldn't trust them and likely would communicate that distrust to the Union Hives.
It was small, first of all. Upon consideration, Rodney admitted that made sense. Whoever had placed it there had done so surreptitiously, so it had to be small enough to carry into the gate room unnoticed.
If he wasn't mistaken — and he wasn't — it was strictly of Earth manufacture. All of it, including the explosive, which had to mean something, if he could only figure it out. Since it was small enough to smuggle in (or possibly the explosive had actually been obtained from the SGC's own armory), it couldn't do any serious damage to the stargate. Rodney calculated that if it were C4, the bomb wouldn't generate enough force to break the reinforced glass separating the gate room from the control room. Not from where it had been placed.
So if it wasn't meant to blow up the stargate or kill many people, what did the bomb accomplish? Not terrorism, since the classified lid on the program meant no one outside the SGC and its maker would ever know about it. Whoever had made it had been moderately clever. They'd saved space by using the iris mechanism to trigger the bomb rather than mess with a timer and batteries. The iris would inevitably be closed at least once a day, if only to test its proper function, providing a loose but absolute time frame in which the bomb would be triggered.
Was there anything about the date? Rodney couldn't remember if it was the week or the weekend up top. Working in Antarctica, buried beneath the blue ice where every day looked the same under the artificial lights had made dates and even time mostly meaningless. Rodney and his people worked until they had to rest, then got back to it, without holidays. Truthfully, he never had paid much attention to calendars.
He was missing something obvious.
On the other hand, he was feeling significantly better about the odds of his personal survival, even if Joey the not-bomb-tech triggered the bomb, since it was small and he and Miko were further and further away from it with every hurried step. Though a certain part of him maintained that death by runaway naquadah reaction or the explosion of a ZPM was fittingly impressive for a man of his intellectual stature and expertise. Provided anyone was left alive afterward, however, he suspected his name would be lost among the many others caused by a disaster of that magnitude.
He hadn't won his Nobel yet, in any case.
What was that little bomb meant to do?
Rodney scowled as he had to flatten himself against crate as a squad of airmen carrying bomb disposal tools and armor double-timed toward the gate room. His elbow hit the corner and he clutched at, wondering whether the bone had cracked. Careless cretins.
"Are you all right, Dr. McKay?" Miko asked.
"No doubt I'll suffer crippling pain the rest of my life," Rodney replied.
She just blinked at him from behind those coke-bottle glasses. Sometimes, Rodney had the feeling Miko was mocking him, but he'd never been able to isolate any evidence.
"Whatever," he muttered.
His thoughts turned to the little bomb again. It couldn't have been meant to harm the stargate, wasn't positioned to harm anyone, except himself or one of his team unlucky enough to be standing close by when the iris was closed…
Rodney snapped his fingers, ignoring the shooting pain in his elbow. Cracked. Those oafs had made him crack the bone, but despite the agony he had figured it out!
Someone had meant to kill him. It was obvious. Threatened by the prospect of Rodney's brilliance showing them up now that he was back at the SGC, one of his so-called colleagues had attempted murder.
Something had to be done. Rodney's life was in danger. He turned around and headed back toward Landry's office and the conference room where he knew Elizabeth Weir was working on General Landry and General O'Neill.
The sound of the bomb going off stopped him in his tracks. Without thinking it out, Rodney turned and ran back to the gate room.
He sat up and ran a shaking hand over his face, unsure what had brought him awake in the first place. A sound? Scent? The SGC used air scrubbers on the lower levels, but it still stank all the time to John's enhanced senses, just as the corridors were too bright and dead to the touch. He hadn't noticed the lack of life in Atlantis, during the months of the occupation, but then Atlantis wasn't dead: it responded to John's ATA gene much like the hives responded to the wraith and their hybrids. He hadn't felt trapped until he stepped through the stargate onto Earth again.
At least with Teyla and the drones, and Todd, always Todd, he wasn't completely isolated in his own head. A thin thread of hive sense bound them together at all times, though it wasn't as all encompassing as in the hive since Teyla was of Athos Hive, not First.
A glance found Todd where he'd known eie'd be, sitting still in the chair by the table, hands folded on eis lap, eyes open and watching the door into the John's VIP quarters. The SGC had given Todd eis own quarters, but Todd ignored them and stationed emself to guard John in his quarters — and watch him lest he find some escape, John sometimes thought. Todd breathed slowly, sunk into near hibernation to save energy. Eie hadn't fed since arriving on Earth and wouldn't until they returned to Atlantis.
Todd turned eis head and met John's gaze. The lights were turned down, but Todd's pupils — slit like a cat's, like John's — were still narrowed. Eie blinked slowly, predator lazy.
"What — " John started to ask.
The alarm blaring through the corridors interrupted him.
"An attack?" Todd speculated.
John shrugged and left the bed. He dressed first, then used the toilet, a reversal of his usual routine. A glimpse of himself in the mirror made him stop with a wince. It wasn't that he didn't still look like John Sheppard; the wraith tattoos that ran up one side of his neck and jaw to curl around the orbit of his eye didn't change his features. Those features, though, threw him because they were a decade too young. That… erasure… bothered John more than the cat-pupils, the short, dark claws or the blue tint to his skin that darkened along his sides and back. It still startled him as much as it had the first time he saw himself in an Atlantis mirror; he knew some people thought he'd sold out for the promise of the fountain of youth. If he had, it would have been a devil's bargain. What price perpetual youth, without a withering portrait in the attic? Only another's life, blood on his hands, stranger forever in a strange land, where he got to keep his name but he'd already lost himself. Fuck. He turned away, ignoring his five o'clock shadow, the pallor and darkness of heat differentials under his skin that his changed eyes saw, and the cold in his bones that no one could see.
He pushed aside his unease and, after a moment's thought, began packing everything he'd brought or acquired. Pants, shirts, underwear, socks, toothbrush, odds and ends, all went into the pack neatly, stowed away while Todd watched without comment. He started to tell Todd to pack up eis stuff, then remembered eie hadn't brought any personal belongings through the stargate. He filled the second pack with electronics he'd bought online.
The last zip and buckle closed, John left both packs on the bed and headed for the courtesy telephone. It wouldn't dial out of the Mountain, but he wanted news from SGC security anyway.
The floor rocked under his boots and the Mountain groaned to a distance-muffled boom.
"That didn't sound good," John commented.
Todd got to eis feet.
The phone at the security station rang but no one picked up. John replaced the handset and frowned at it thoughtfully. Instinct insisted they get out before they were trapped.
"We should join the Athos Hive Consul and her drones," Todd stated.
John considered it and nodded agreement. Teyla Emmagan had done most of the negotiating for the Union, while John advised and interpreted what the humans of Earth meant and expected as opposed to what the words would seem to mean. He liked her, though she and the four hybrid humans who accompanied her often seemed more alien than Todd did. Safety in numbers anyway. He and Todd were less likely to suffer some 'accident' with more witnesses around them, too. The SGC's airmen and marines were all professionals, but they were also human, and Todd freaked them out even without the stories the Genii diplomats were telling about the Wraith.
Todd walked fluidly to the door and opened it. John followed em out into the corridor. The Mountain jolted again. He'd expected to see a security force but the station was deserted. Footsteps from the other direction made him turn.
A baby-faced airman John recognized from previous encounters trotted up to them.
"Sirs," he said. He was faking calm. The faking part alarmed John; he wanted to know what he wasn't being told.
"Can you tell us what's going on, Hoskey?" John asked.
"If you could just come with me, sirs, someone else will explain, I'm sure." Hoskey looked spooked under his nervous smile. He had proved himself a talker before. John bet he could get the truth from him in a minute or two.
"Come on, Hoskey. Just clue me in."
"General Landry's evacuating all diplomatic and non-military personnel, sirs," Hoskey said. He called Todd sir, which amused John, though he wasn't interested in explaining why. Hoskey was so green he probably called the women officers sir too. "They're dialing Atlantis now."
"Who's attacking?" John asked. He dodged back into his quarters, grabbed his long coat and shrugged it on, then his pack. Todd never took eis coat off. Eie flicked long white hair back and shouldered the second pack filled with stuff John had purchased with an eye to entertaining himself when he wasn't liaising. The Genii Empire and Coalition worlds all had entertainment of course, but the Union didn't. Spending the rest of his life in a hive or hanging around Atlantis alone when he wasn't explaining the Wraith to the Earth humans and Earth ways to Wraith was a mind-numbing prospect. He'd invested in a couple of high-end laptops and other electronics, price no object, since he was going to be officially dead in a few weeks. Use it or lose it; he had nothing to save for and his family… well, they didn't need money from him or anything else, or he wouldn't have gone to Renus in the first place.
"Don't know, sirs. Security on the surface reported energy weapons."
Which had ruled out a national or terrorist attack on the United States with NORAD as a target.
"Zats?" John asked. "Staff weapons?" The Goa'uld weapons were more dangerous than Wraith stunners; made to wound and kill. Wraith wanted their prey live, mostly, though hives, cruisers, and darts all carried heavier weaponry meant to do material damage.
"No one's said, sir."
"I don't know," Hoskey blurted. "but they've already penetrated the NORAD levels."
"Jaffa," Todd said. "These are the genetically engineered warrior species used by the… Goa'uld?" Todd's voice did strange things to the word. Eie wasn't used to it.
"Yes," John confirmed. He'd never seen a Jaffa in person, but he'd read up on them when he'd been brought into the Program to join the Atlantis Expedition.
"They have an immature Goa'uld symbiote."
"Which accelerates their healing speed," Todd finished and John realized eie wanted to feed on a Jaffa, to taste the different viand of the paired lives. Hoskey didn't get it, but John got a glimpse through the hive sense: Todd wasn't particularly hungry, but eie was curious.
John didn't let his distaste show. Todd had fed from him out of necessity, John had made the offer for the same reason, but he wondered: would Todd have done it anyway, if he'd known John had the ATA gene?
No way to know now and too late to change anything if he could know.
Maybe… he didn't really want to know.
"Explosion," O'Neill said tersely to Elizabeth. "Small, but — "
"What!?" Landry roared. "Who the hell authorized that? No, do not let anyone else go back in — then get him out — Already? Make sure he gets here ASAP. Get me a report from the control room too." He slammed the phone down, looked at the ceiling and released a deep breath, then faced O'Neill and Elizabeth.
"Well?" O'Neill demanded.
"A bomb just went off in the gate room." He held up his hand. "Apparently, McKay spotted it, then Lt. Duotti decided to play bomb disposal tech and triggered it instead. Report is the stargate is fine, Duotti's on his way to the infirmary, and McKay's been in again and is on his way here."
"Not much of a bomb," O'Neill observed as the door slammed open and Rodney McKay barreled in. His face was smeared with soot and blackened cobwebs were caught in his hair. Elizabeth thought the dark stain on his pants might be blood. An airman followed him, grabbing at his arm, but subsided to wait at the door when Landry waved him off.
"It didn't need to be, to do exactly what it was meant to do," Rodney snapped. His hands moved convulsively, then he folded his arms and closed his fingers into fists.
"And what was that?" O'Neill asked softly.
Rodney didn't hesitate. "The iris mechanism is wrecked — "
"That iris is made out of a trinium alloy that can withstand the energy wash of a forming wormhole," Landry objected.
Rodney waved his hand dismissively. "Yes, yes, blah blah, whatever. It does you no good if the hydraulic system that opens and closes it is trashed."
"Can we still dial the gate?" O'Neill asked.
A slender sergeant trotted into the room, carrying a small laptop. He looked uneasy as he whipped off a salute to the two generals.
"No," the sergeant said. A tag on his uniform identified him as Riley.
Rodney wheeled on him, glaring, and the sergeant rushed to add, "Some kind of feedback from the way the bomb was wired into the mechanism; we need to reset the system."
"Fix it," O'Neill snapped.
He set the laptop down on the conference table in front of Landry. "Sir, we need your authorization codes… "
Landry began typing. "Where's Walter?"
"Sir, he was knocked out."
"Is he in the infirmary — "
"No, sir, he's working with Dr. Zelenka to reboot the dialing computer."
"Sergeant," O'Neill said. "Riley, right?"
"Get back to the control room, get that dialing computer fixed and dial the gate. I don't care where you dial, just establish a wormhole, right now and keep it open," O'Neill ordered.
Riley looked confused and glanced to Landry, who frowned at O'Neill. "Jack — "
"Hank, there's only one reason to sabotage the iris."
Landry went pale. "Sergeant, go dial the gate as soon as possible."
"Dial where, sir?"
"It doesn't matter, damn it," O'Neill snapped. "We need to keep anyone from dialing in until that iris is functional again."
He turned back to Rodney, who was nodding, wide-eyed, but silent. Riley scooped up the laptop and double-timed out of the conference room. "Did you get that ZPM hooked up?"
"Yes. The generators are ready too," Rodney said. "We didn't have time to run a test dial, but with the new design I pioneered in Siberia, it should be possible to keep the stargate open almost indefinitely — "
"Just do it," O'Neill interrupted. His gaze moved past Elizabeth, then snapped back to her. "Dial Atlantis."
Landry was on the phone again. "Control room," he ordered. "Walter? Good. Once the computer is up, initiate the Atlantis dialing protocol immediately. Yes. Riley's on his way now. What… " Landry's grip on the handset tightened and his expression went grimmer. "Yes."
Alarms began wailing through the facility. Elizabeth winced and Rodney jerked.
"Prepare for a Wildfire Scenario. I want extra security sent to the gate room and the adjoining corridors," Landry went on. "Do we have an ETA?" He listened another moment. "I'm on my way now."
Landry set the phone back into its cradle.
"Deep space sensors are tracking a ship headed for Earth," he stated. "It looks like a ha'tak."
Elizabeth inhaled silently. That could not be a coincidence. "I could talk to whoever — "
"No," Landry interrupted.
"Ambassador," O'Neill said, "if you would go get the Pegasus people and get them down to the gate room, I think it would be a good idea to get them out of the Mountain."
Elizabeth got to her feet. She was confused by the urgency O'Neill obviously felt, but respected that he'd intuited something from Rodney's report that she hadn't.
"Of course," she said.
He nodded to her, paused as he looked at Rodney, and then nodded again. "McKay. Go with her."
"What — ?"
"Go with her to Atlantis. Get your other people and get out," O'Neill clarified. He swung back to Landry and said, "Hank, tell them to start pushing those supplies through the stargate as soon as it connects. The damn stuff is in the way."
Rodney trailed Elizabeth out of the conference room.
"He thinks the SGC is about to be attacked," Rodney said, his voice full of disbelief.
A boom shook the entire Mountain above them.
"Rodney, stay with me," Elizabeth said and started for the VIP quarters as quickly as she could without appearing panicked. If the embassy personnel from the Pegasus powers were harmed or killed, the entire Pax Atlantica might fall apart.
"Major, go through and brief Col. Sumner. IDC has already been transmitted. The Atlantis shield should be down. We're sending through the supplies and everyone we can round up."
"Brief him on what, sir?" Lorne asked helplessly. He'd been in an office two levels up, mapping out the practice run for the trip through to Atlantis when the Mountain began shaking and alarms went off. He only had his pack and weapon and radio because he had been debating exactly what to carry on his person through the stargate and what to ship in a footlocker. Sgt. Siler had shown up and told him to get to the gate room ASAP.
"Earth is under attack. Jaffa are trying to fight their way in from the surface and we have a sabotaged iris. We'll keep the gate open as long as our power holds out to prevent the enemy from dialing in," O'Neill summarized. "Now move!"
A rumbly hum alerted Lorne to dodge out of the way a crate trundling forward and up the ramp to the stargate.
"Yes sir," he said, snapped off a quick salute and sprinted up the ramp to the side of the crate and conveyor track. The crate disappeared through the stargate with a slurp, and then Lorne stepped through.
Stepping through the stargate usually meant a quick blue roller coaster ride, something more mental than not, and possibly just in the head, because all their equipment insisted it was instantaneous and you weren't whole enough to be conscious. Lorne thought the experience confirmed there was more to awareness than the meat that hosted it, but kept his opinions to himself. The Pegasus vets he'd quizzed said the stargates there were faster than the ones in the Milky Way, and one had confided quietly that the wormholes 'felt' green.
If Lorne expected anything different from what he'd experienced before, it was that 'green' effect, not silver and black and icy-cold.
He didn't expect to be launched out of the stargate and narrowly miss a crate and fall on his knees on a metal deck in the dark, with frost chilling his fingers and white on his MP5. He rolled to his feet and out of the way as another crate sent the ones already through the stargate rolling toward him.
"Shit," he breathed. He flicked the light on the top of his weapon on and played it around the echoing black chamber he found himself in. It sure as hell wasn't Atlantis. He'd seen the pictures of its gate room; it was all stained glass and ocean light. This sure as hell wasn't anywhere near as pretty and never had been. He'd bet his boots he wasn't anywhere in the Milky Way either.
Another crate rumbled through the wormhole.
Lorne reached up and activated his radio. "SGC, this is Major Lorne. Something's wrong. I'm not in Atlantis. Over."
What looked like emergency lights were coming on along the floor. They didn't penetrate the heavy shadows, but at least they indicated something was working wherever he had ended up. Lorne spotted two sets of stairs leading up to a balcony on a second level and round doorways that looked like hatches below and on the sides of the warehouse-like space. Metal everywhere, dark, and more alarmingly, streaked with red rust. The discoloration and darkness hid any details, but the space felt industrial to Lorne.
"Sitrep, Major. Over." O'Neill's voice, tense and taciturn. Lorne thought he heard an explosion in the background; he definitely heard someone else yelling.
"I'm in a large room obviously designed to house the stargate, with emergency lights coming on," Lorne reported. "It's all metal, there're what look like hatches, and… " he flicked the light past, then back, and squinted at the stains on the wall, realizing they were more than that, " …Ancient writing on the walls. Everything's in bad shape. The air's not so good and it's cold as hell."
"Major, we can't afford to shut the stargate down and dial again. Where ever you are, we're evaccing everyone we can," O'Neill said. "You're in charge, got that? Over."
"Got it, sir. Over," Lorne replied. What the hell? he thought. Wasn't there anyone senior to him…? Shit. "How bad is it?" he blurted without thinking.
Static answered him briefly, then O'Neill spoke again. "One ha'tak in orbit. We're trying to get someone with the gene down to the Antarctic base. DC and Beijing are gone. Satellites are down; communications with them. Jaffa on the ground; our people are holding them on the upper levels for the moment. When we can't, we'll set the self-destruct and bury the gate. Take care of our people, Major, but don't trust all of them. Someone blew the iris here. Over."
"Yes sir," Lorne replied. He understood what O'Neill hadn't said: that taking out the stargate would isolate Earth again. Make it too expensive to occupy without the access the stargates offered. Give the rest of the world a chance to fight back or hold out until the Daedalus or the Prometheus returned and could take out the ha'tak. "Over."
Whatever happened, the world as Lorne had known it was over too. He wouldn't think of his family; O'Neill hadn't mentioned San Francisco among the targets hit. It gutted him to think of his nieces and nephews dead or under Goa'uld rule.
Realizing that someone in the SGC might have been responsible for that made Lorne burn with a deep fury that nothing would ever ease. Someone who might come through with the people stumbling through the gate right now.
Not only could he not trust any of them, he could not afford to let anyone else take over command from him. If he did, that person could be the traitor.
Lorne winced inside, then raised his voice to direct the first soldiers and civilians coming through on either side of the steady stream of crates still rumbling through. "Watch out! Airman Atienza. Grab a squad and start wheeling the crates out of the way. We'll organize them later."
"Cam, I'm busy here."
"General Landry's orders. He wants you evacced through the stargate."
"Not while I still have wounded to treat," Carolyn snapped at him. "I don't care what my father told you." She headed for the sinks to wash up and put on another set of gloves as two more wounded limped in. A quick visual survey of her infirmary showed her the nurses and orderlies were all busy and she knew Warner was in the OR. "Damn it. Lt. Ford," she called to the young officer who had been getting a final physical before leaving the SGC and the Marine Corps and stuck around to help out when the alarms went off, "can you get them to separate tables?"
Ford, who had been hovering out of the way, moved to the wounded's aid.
Cam grabbed her wrist and Carolyn jerked it loose. "Don't you dare, Cam Mitchell," she told him in a low voice. "This is my job. I am not abandoning my patients."
The sound of gunfire echoed from down the halls. The Mountain had stopped shaking; Carolyn figured whoever had been bombarding it had quit once their own people had made their way inside.
"Jaffa don't care if you're a doctor, Carolyn," Cam yelled.
"Keep your voice down," she snapped back. She started for the sink again.
Cam said quietly, "I'm really sorry about this — " as he pulled her around and slugged her. Carolyn would've gone down if he hadn't been holding onto her arm again. Her vision grayed out and she struggled to stay conscious. She was too dazed to fight as Cam whipped his belt off and used it to tie her hands behind her, then slung her over his shoulder fireman-style. Blood rushed to her head and somewhere along the way she threw up on his heels. There was yelling and Cam's voice, saying, "Take care of her, Ford," as she was slung into another pair of arms unceremoniously and then flying through a wormhole and out the other side, landing on her side hard enough to yell.
Which she did as Lt. Ford solicitously dragged her to her feet and freed Carolyn's hands from the belt.
"Cam Mitchell, you sonovabitch!"
She looked forward to the latter herself.
They paused as Ambassador Weir knocked on the door to the Coalition representative's quarters. Teyla listened as Weir explained to Larrin Traveller and Ronon Dex that the installation was under attack and the Ring had been opened to Atlantis so that they could return there.
Weir apologized for the lack of warning or chance to bring their belongings, promising they would be sent later.
Larrin brushed the apology off.
"We didn't bring anything we couldn't afford to lose."
The Travellers, out of all of the humans in the Coalition, were most like the humans of the Union hives. Life in space made them pragmatic and fast to react. Teyla understood them better than she did some of the humans living and farming on Athos and the other provider planets.
Dex disappeared back into the room and returned with gun belts, holsters, and two of the energy pistols the Travellers used. He strapped one on and handed the other to Larrin.
Weir made a fluttering movement with one hand and her lips thinned in disapproval but she said nothing. Her gaze skittered to and away from the guns. Teyla wondered if she realized the Genii were all carrying concealed weaponry as well. As she and her drones were.
"We'll alert the Representative next," she said.
"Eie is with Sheppard," Teyla told her. She knew Sheppard called the Hunter by a human name, Todd, and the eiee deigned to answer to it, but no one had offered that indulgence to the Earth people. The Hunter had been introduced simply as the Wraith Representative, there to observe and emphasize that the Union was a partnership of both wraith and humans, while Teyla handled the negotiations. Athos Hive was second only to the First Hive and Teyla had led the bargaining between the Union and the Coalition since her father's death, as well as any talks with non-aligned worlds such as Sateda had been. The Hunter had only observed while she took the lead, eis approval silent but present through the hive sense.
Their silence in regard to each other had unsettled the Earth humans, as had the four drones, who were also nameless by the standards of these people. Within Athos Hive, all were known, through scent, genetics and the hive sense, a gestalt rather than a model or symbol of self. Vocalizations were a poor second in comparison with the communication of the hive. Teyla pitied the crippled humans who were not part of the Union.
Their horror of Sheppard's acceptance into the First Hive mystified her.
The SGC had 'given' the hive-kin quarters on a different level from everyone born in Pegasus. The eiee had simply gone to Sheppard's quarters with him and rested there. The Earth humans had tried voicing objections. Teyla had serenely explained that no hive-kin were left alone and any further attempts to isolate Sheppard would be regarded as an attack against them and the Union. Hive sense would have kept them connected over a greater distance than a single level, but she saw no reason to explain that, and allowing the insult would have only encouraged further misunderstandings of what her people would tolerate.
The Earth humans were too eager to trade for Wraith weaponry — weaponry their enemies in their own galaxy had no defenses against — to antagonize the Union. The Union had provided the potentia used to re-establish contact between Atlantis and Earth and, in truth, the Union held strongest sway in the city.
Weir turned to the young warrior-caste with her. "Airman, we — "
"Ma'am, you and the others should get to the gate room now," the airman interrupted nervously. "Airman Hoskey's already gone to get Mr. Sheppard and the Wraith. They'll join you soon."
Weir frowned at him, then nodded. "I see," she murmured then switched her attention from the airman. "If you'll all just follow me, then?"
"Who is attacking?" Ladon Radim asked. He and the other Genii walked with Ronon Dex and Larrin Traveller between them and Teyla and her drones — just as the Coalition of Independent Worlds insulated the Genii Empire from the Union.
Teyla suppressed a bitter smile. Of course the Genii wished to know who the Earth humans' enemy was. They had lied to convince the Earth people to ally with them against both the Coalition and the Union. Now that their lies had been revealed and all four powers would share in the discoveries of Atlantis, they looked to find a new ally to use against them all.
The Genii did not believe that the enemy of their enemy was a friend; the Genii had no friends and only allies of convenience.
When those allies became inconvenient… then the Genii had no more qualms than a hungry iratus, as the proud Satedans had learned to their sorrow.
But Radim's question was still a good one, and she waited with lifted eyebrows for the Ambassador's reply.
"Jaffa," Weir said. "A Goa'uld System Lord. Please, if you would all follow me."
"Parasites," Dex commented meaningfully. His gaze rested on the Genii when he spoke.
"We've never bowed to the Wraith," Sora snapped at him.
"Sora," Tyrus snapped. "Enough." To Weir, he added with an ingratiating smile, "Please, Ambassador. Continue."
The tallest of Teyla's drones turned back and listened, before quietly telling Teyla, "This one suggests retreat deeper into the nest."
Teyla stroked his cheek with the back of her fingers. She had to reach up, for this drone was both taller and older than most, with long hair threaded gray. He had served as her security since her first negotiation on one of Athos' secondary provider planets. Time and experience had made him more observant and reflective than the majority of drones. She thought that once they returned to the hive, she would petition one of the Athos eiee to share viand with him, rather than lose all he had learned and become to age and premature death.
"This one is wise," she murmured to him in the old Athosian dialect that survived among the humans aboard Athos Hive, even while it had changed into unrecognizability upon Athos and the other provider planets over ten thousand years.
"Please, ma'am, we need to hurry," the youthful airman insisted to the Ambassador.
"Hoskey — "
"Just stay behind me, sirs," Hoskey said softly.
John lifted his hands in frustration. He didn't have a weapon; nor did Todd. They were diplomats. On Earth, diplomats didn't go armed. Next time someone tried to convince him to go along with that he was laughing in their face. Next time, he was shooting them in the face.
The gunfire was definitely getting closer, which meant the energy weapons were getting closer, and leaving aside that the attacking Jaffa weren't likely to honor diplomatic immunity, he wasn't entirely sure some of the SGC people wouldn't take the opportunity to frag him.
"I think we need to take a different route," he said.
"This is the fastest way to the elevator banks, sir," Hoskey insisted. He had an MP5 in his arms and his knuckles were white. Hoskey was a nice kid, but he was out of his depth. The SGC's buried citadel should have been impenetrable. The attack had shaken Hoskey's world view as hard as whatever weapon had hit up top. John knew asking for his sidearm would be useless. Hoskey was going to stick with the orders he'd been given, no thinking outside the box, no arming the freak.
He could smell the ozone burn that went with energy discharges and, more disturbingly, a wisp of smoke. Hoskey paused as the gunfire died away. He ducked his head around the corner. "I don't see anyone," Hoskey reported. He stepped into the corridor.
The blast spun Hoskey, so that he fell face up with a hole burned through his chest. John grabbed his legs and pulled him back under to check for a pulse anyway then helped himself to Hoskey's MP5 and Beretta, along with the single spare clip the kid had carried. Heavy footsteps marched down the corridor toward their intersection.
John angled a glance back to Todd. He didn't offer his partner the Beretta, but only because Todd's hands were too big and the claws at the end of each finger were likely to catch in the trigger guard. Wraith weapons were equally difficult for human hands; they were manufactured in proportion to their average user.
"Can you do that mental voodoo thing?" he asked while checking the safety on the MP5. "Like we did on Atlantis?" Except he would be using bullets instead of stun charges.
Todd frowned, but replied, "Of course."
John shuddered as wispy white things flickered at the edge of his vision and around the corner. He knew they were telepathic phantasms and could do no harm, but Todd was pushing a visceral terror with them. He heard a Jaffa yell and the discharge of a staff weapon hit a wall, leaving a burnt crater in the concrete. Anyone seeing those wraith projections would be convinced that they would die if one of them touched him. He'd been on the receiving end once and never wanted to experience it again.
John ducked low and around the corner with Todd behind him. The Jaffa were screaming now, trying to shoot the phantoms that were among them and hitting each other. John sighted down the barrel of the MP5 and began taking them out with head shots. Todd loped past him as he dropped the last of them and bent over one of the still breathing wounded.
The gurgle from the Jaffa managed to convey the atavistic horror that went with seeing a feeding hand descend on his chest. John scooped up zats and a couple of staff weapons — if Jaffa in armored gauntlets could use them, Todd could too — and anything else that looked useful while Todd drained his victim and moved on.
He told himself he didn't care anyway. They'd killed Hoskey and the kid had been about the only person in the SGC who hadn't treated John like a leper. He wasn't sure Hoskey actually knew what had happened to him, but he had to have heard some of the scuttlebutt about the traitor who sold Atlantis out to the Wraith. If he had, he'd never given it away by word or action.
"Waste not, want not," John muttered to himself, using the humor to distance himself from the situation. The worst part was the traitorous voice in the back of his head pointing out that Todd might share the viand with John later. He missed Todd touching him, the give and take, the perfect release, the perfect belonging, but eie hadn't fed since they arrived on Earth to complete the treaty negotiations. The Union delegation hadn't brought any grubs through the stargate with them, so eie'd been conserving eis energy and had no viand to spare for pleasure.
He handed over a staff weapon when Todd rose to eis feet. Eie had no trouble discerning how to operate it.
"Time to get down to the stargate," John said. He knew Teyla and the drones were on their way through the hive sense; no need to worry about them. The relief made him grin, as did the rush of energy Todd felt, transmitted through their kin-bond. Todd felt good; it made John feel good. No worries; they could fight their way through any Jaffa and John wouldn't be troubled by old loyalties shooting the Goa'uld's soldiers the way he had when he lead the Union assault on Atlantis.
The Jaffa didn't hesitate.
Neither did John or Todd. It was a beautiful relief, to have no doubts, to move and fight with Todd at his back and an enemy at his front he didn't sympathize with at all.
A piece of flying concrete knocked loose by a ricochet sliced open his arm, but John ignored it and the blood that dripped from his elbow, along with the various bruises he'd given himself taking cover. It wasn't flying, but the adrenaline rush and the tang of pain were familiar friends, really.
He wished he knew the layout of the SGC better, but he'd only passed through it on the way to Atlantis, and the months since returning with the Union delegation hadn't offered him any chances to explore. They were three levels up from the gate room, though, and had to get to the emergency stairwells; the elevators had shut down along with the power. Only dim red emergency lights remained on in the corridors.
The pitch of the alarm had changed to an urgent whoop that kept speeding up as the facility counted down to self-destruct.
He went around the corner fast — faster than before the nasce — and brought the zat up, nearly snapping off a shot before he realized he was facing down a middle-aged scientist going bald on top and clutching a naquadah generator in his arms. Three more folks in white lab coats were behind him, with a female lieutenant covering their retreat. She spun and brought up her weapon to aim at John.
Instead of trying to persuade Lt. James, he caught Todd's calm, yellow gaze and nodded. They moved as one. John was faster and stronger than he'd been; Todd was faster and stronger than him. Neither of them were afraid of getting hurt. He hadn't asked for the nasce, wouldn't have wanted it, but for all his anger at the changes it had made in him, John did enjoy the benefits of hybridization.
A zat blast tingled and barely slowed him down as he and Todd blitzed the Jaffa. Once they were in the group, where no one could fire without risking hitting their own, it became a hand to hand fight. He got the feeling the Jaffa were used to being stronger than humans. They had no idea how to take on Todd, who flung one of them into a wall hard enough John heard bones crack.
A knife skidded over his ribs; he retaliated by twisting and snapping his elbow up into the Jaffa's nose, driving cartilage up into the brain. The snake in the Jaffa's gut might provide a hell of an immune system, but it couldn't do anything about that.
John was snarling under his breath. Up close to the Jaffa, they smelled wrong in a way that triggered an instinctive desire to kill. He grabbed the knife from the falling Jaffa's hand, spun, and pushed it through another one's armor where it was thin along the side. The point broke, but John forced the jagged end through until the knife was hilt deep.
Gunfire added to the chaos and another Jaffa dropped. James had put a bullet through his head from the end of the corridor.
John ducked as a fifth Jaffa swung a staff weapon at his head like a baseball bat. Todd caught this one by the neck and snapped it like a terrier with a rat, before dropping the body to the floor.
The Jaffa were all down.
James trotted toward them, the Russian woman with John's spare Beretta behind her. The scientists came behind them, staring with white-rimmed eyes at the bodies strewn on the floor. An immature goa'uld slithered out from under the armor of a dead Jaffa and one of the scientists shrieked as it made for him. The Russian brought the Beretta up and blew the snake's head off its neck.
"Nice," John commented. The Jaffa smelled even stronger dead. Unless it was the dead symbiote. Either way, he wanted to get away from the stench. "Everyone, you'll want to stay back in case any more of those things are looking for a new home."
"God, that's… " James muttered. She jittered a little in place, trying to look at John and Todd and the Jaffa bodies all at the same time. Frightened of Todd, maybe of John too, he couldn't tell, scent wasn't enough without hive sense to supplement it. Definitely frightened of the Goa'uld; the reek spiked when her gaze rested on the dead snake.
John shrugged and winced as the knife wound splintered pain through his side. He almost staggered. Living through the nasce hadn't made pain any less than before, that was for sure. Blood slithered sickening warm under his palm and through his fingers when he tried to clamp the wound shut with his hand.
"You need a doctor," James said.
"We all need to get out of here," Lee said. "Now."
John realized the alarm had become a frantic shriek. "Yeah," he muttered. "Let's go — "
"Oh, my God," Lee blurted, "what is it doing?"
John turned unsteadily. Todd knelt by one of the Jaffa John had zatted during their first rush. Eie ripped the armor away from the man's chest carelessly, then crushed eis feeding hand over one pectoral. The Jaffa arched, screaming into consciousness, as his body withered into decrepitude.
"Feeding," John said.
"It's killing him," James protested.
"What do you think your bullets do?" John snapped at her to hide his own unease. "Just go, we'll be right behind you." He just needed to pull himself together for minute. He wasn't going anywhere without Todd, anyway.
The Russian gave John a nod, but James and the others all fled to the stairwell without thanks or any other acknowledgment. John told himself to save the bitterness. He hadn't expected any thing better.
Todd drained the other unconscious Jaffa efficiently. Eie left the husk and stalked over to John, who backed up until his shoulders hit the wall.
Todd's hand pulled his away from the knife wound.
"I can sense your pain," eie said.
John's breath caught. "We can do this la — "
Todd lifted eis hand — dripping with John's blood — from his side to his breast bone. One claw curled into the hollow of his throat. Instinctively, John arched his neck back, baring it to em.
The viand flooded into him, cold and hot and roaring with life, energy to repair the knife wound and all the other damage. John felt his flesh knit together. He gasped as the normal itch of healing became another fire in his side. The agony and strain were enough to derail all his normal reactions. He needed to scream, but his breath caught in his throat so that he couldn't.
Todd caught him as he slumped afterward, holding John close for a breath, letting John rest his face against the dark leather covering eis shoulder. The emergency lights were flickering faster than John's speeding heartbeat, though, so he gathered himself together and pushed away.
John grinned despite himself. He felt great, like he could take on a whole squad of Jaffa by himself and unarmed. It was the feeding enzyme swimming through his system, even though his body had processed the viand already to heal itself. He laughed to himself as he ran next to Todd for the stairwell.
He'd be high for hours.
He hoped they'd run into some more Jaffa.
Elizabeth thought that was obvious. They certainly weren't in Atlantis. She wiped at her foul tasting mouth and surreptitiously spat.
Rodney guided her away from the rumbling crates that turned the huge room they occupied into a maze. She couldn't see much. Looming shadows and groups of shouting soldiers pushing the wheeled pallets into basic order, intermixed with clutches of civilians milling aimlessly. Flashes of frightened eyes that seemed to expect Elizabeth to have some answer to what had just happened. She'd already lost her diplomatic charges in the chaos.
"The bomb must have damaged the dialing computer," Rodney went on. "It scrambled the input… "
Rodney kept pulling her through the crowd and Elizabeth felt a brief gratitude for his bulk, the breadth of his shoulders, the force of him that made everyone else scramble out of the way. She would have been buffeted and lost otherwise.
"Nine chevrons," someone said in the darkness, harsh and frightened. "I saw the gate light up nine chevrons."
"Nine?" Rodney's voice ratcheted high.
"What the hell does that mean?" another voice demanded.
"That we're a long, long way from where we meant to be," Rodney murmured quietly next to Elizabeth. They reached an empty space beyond the crush of crates and panicking people. He still held her arm as if to steady her. "Will you be all right? I've got to… " He didn't finish and she didn't have the energy to question him.
"Yes," she answered. The terrible chill she'd been subject to was fading; their surroundings weren't more than slightly chilly, but her teeth still wanted to chatter. She was grateful for the darkness that had hidden her from notice as she was sick. Deep breaths, she told herself, keep it together. She'd take this moment to think about what she needed to do next.
The dialing computer — that duct tape and spit monstrosity of Carter's design — had somehow defaulted to a previous command and dialed the nine chevron address Jackson had found in Atlantis' database. Normally it would simply have failed, but with the ZPM and the naquadria generators on-line it had succeeded in forming the wormhole.
Rodney imagined Jackson would sell a kidney to have a chance to see where the nine chevrons had brought them. As an archaeologist, something even older than Atlantis would be Jackson's Holy Grail.
He touched the cool metal of a bulkhead and suppressed his own gleeful grin, feeling a manic satisfaction. Those bastards had denied him Atlantis and any chance to go off world, but here he was, on an Ancient spaceship. They were probably farther from Earth than Atlantis was.
Rodney couldn't wait to discover how many galaxies this ship had visited and to discover its secrets. The Ancients had built something that could travel between galaxies and remain functional for tens of thousands of years. He wanted to learn everything about this ship, everything they had known, and more.
He found another set of stairs. Emergency lights were on along the floor and where the walls met the ceiling. The air was unpleasantly thin and smelled of iron, but the rust stains running down the metal walls alarmed Rodney more. They had to be relatively recent — in terms of this ship's existence — though they still might be older than any human civilization of Earth.
The stairs took him up and Rodney kept exploring until one hatchway opened and he found himself staring through a wall of floor-to-ceiling ports into space. Stars dopplered into red streaks at the limits of his vision and the ship spread out forward of the view. Rodney walked forward and gaped. The ship's basic shape was one of a gracefully curved arrowhead, but from where Rodney stood he could look down at a city's worth of buildings and installations covering it, domes and cubes and towers. There were landing pads and docks, ports, hatches, and sensor dishes; those he could recognize, but other shapes were inexplicable.
A glance down showed that he stood in a chamber near the top of a massive ziggurat, each step at least one story high, the terraced tops littered with equipment he could spend a lifetime deconstructing.
It was utterly magnificent and Rodney could have stood and looked, finding new sources of fascination everywhere, if he hadn't spotted the plumes of ice crystals venting from a hole torn through a distant building.
The thin air took on another meaning as he parsed what he was seeing. The gases in the ship's atmosphere were freezing as they leaked out into the vacuum of space.
Rodney looked once more and turned away, trotting because running would make him look like he was panicking — he wasn't panicking, he just didn't want to die when all the air ran out, thank you very much — back toward the gate chamber.
He arrived, spotting the DHD from his new angle, and pushed and shoved his way up to where Elizabeth and Lorne were standing.
"Ma'am," a young marine said. He had an interesting lilt to his speech; in other circumstances Elizabeth would have tried to discern where he came from without asking him. "I'm Corporal Greer."
"Corporal," she acknowledged.
"Major Lorne would like you to join him."
"Is Major Lorne in charge?" She supposed he would be, since the weren't in Atlantis and Colonel Sumner wasn't here to take over unless someone higher ranking than Lorne had evacuated through the stargate despite not being part of the official second wave; she'd already encountered several scientists from the SGC's labs.
She caught Wray's arm in her hand. "Camille, please come with me."
"That's what General O'Neill said, ma'am," Greer replied. He guided her and Wray to one of the stairways and up to a second level, where a railing allowed observation of the vast gate room. An electric lantern had been hooked to the metal railing, spilling a circle of cool light around them and downward toward the foot of the stairs.
Lorne nodded to her without interrupting giving orders on his radio. Elizabeth took the opportunity to look out and try to pick out who was there. She located the Union negotiator, her attendants, along with the Coalition's representative, her big bodyguard, and the three Genii, mostly because of the space around them. She couldn't find Rodney among the clutches of frightened people clinging to the sides of the room.
Crates continued rumbling through the stargate, with dribs and drabs of people squeezing through on either side of them. The military were directing the new arrivals now while others pushed the pallets of crates aside to make room for more.
She spotted Dr. Zelenka, the blue of the event horizon reflecting from his glasses, and Miko Kusanagi beside him.
Lorne joined her at the railing.
"Any idea where we are?" he asked.
"No," Elizabeth replied. "But Dr. Zelenka was in the control room. Perhaps he might have some answers. Or Rodney, he was with me, but I don't see him — "
Lorne held up his hand and frowned as his radio squawked. Elizabeth recognized O'Neill's voice and listened closely.
"Yes sir, I've got the Ambassador with me. How long?" Lorne said. He looked at Elizabeth as O'Neill's reply came from the radio, tinny and attenuated: "Ten minutes, Major, and the whole thing's going up. Take care of your people. You may be all that's left. I'm sending Riley through with the Genesis back-ups."
The Genesis back-ups were a mirror of the SGC's data banks, digitized copies of almost everything from the Library of Congress, and a pitiful attempt to preserve the cultures and knowledge of Earth in the face of destruction. The plan had been for key people to be evacuated through the stargate to the Alpha Site, along with everything they would need to rebuild civilization — as the SGC knew it — including the collected knowledge of Earth. It had been an impossible plan from the first, one that made Elizabeth wish to cry when she thought of the art and the music and the architecture that the back-ups didn't include.
"Yes sir," Lorne said. He sounded choked, no doubt felt the same. Elizabeth did. Wherever they were, once the Earth stargate was gone, there would be no help coming after them and little chance of finding a way back there. If there was anything left of Earth to return to… She bit her lip and swallowed against the sorrow that rose up at that realization.
"This can't be happening," Wray whispered from beside Elizabeth. "Sharon… Sharon's in DC. She's… "
Elizabeth took her hand and held on tightly. Did it make her a terrible person that she mourned the loss of the Louvre more than her ex? She and Simon hadn't parted on good terms, but he wasn't a bad man. She hadn't wanted him dead…
Two more soldiers came through, women, carrying metal-sided cases, then the slender Air Force sergeant Elizabeth remembered from the conference room, Riley, carrying two more. Behind him, several white-coated scientists stumbled through the wormhole. She recognized Bill Lee among them and Svetlana Markov, who had a pistol in one hand.
Rodney squeezed in between her and Lorne. He faced Lorne and grabbed his arm. "We're on a spaceship and we have to do something or we're all going to die a miserable, painful death."
"Four minutes until the SGC self-destructs," Lorne replied. He rolled his eyes at Rodney, pulled away, and said, "I think it can wait that long, McKay."
Rodney twitched and looked even more alarmed, before twisting away from them and shoving his way back down through the crowd trying to come up the stairs. "Typical military moron," he muttered as he went, before cursing everyone in his way.
Below, two Russian gate team soldiers ran through the gate, then an Air Force lieutenant, John Sheppard and the wraith, both armed and, in Sheppard's case, bloody. The feral grin on his face made more than one soldier back down as he and the wraith strode through the milling civilians.
Another crate pushed through the stargate. Then Carson Beckett, supporting a man with a bandage around his head and one arm in a sling, followed by a slim nurse guiding another wounded man, Peter Grodin, and a red-haired man with a gate team patch. Elizabeth couldn't make out the name on the tag on his uniform shirt.
Beside her, Lorne spoke into his radio.
"Sir, you still have time. Come through — "
"Think I'll stick around here," O'Neill said. "You know how it is, forgot to pack my spare skivvies or toothbrush."
"Sir, I'm just a major. We need — "
"You weren't picked to go Atlantis as Sumner's XO for your sweet nature. You can do the job."
"A few symbols," Markov admitted, then gasped as he brought several screens to life and she correctly interpreted what they were showing. "We are on a ship."
"Obviously," Rodney snarled. "Try to keep up. The wormhole is still open and the SGC is about to set up a nuke which may or may not trigger a runaway naquadria reaction in our generators and overload the ZPM." He scrolled through screen after screen looking for what he needed. There had to be some kind of failsafe or shut off, damn it, the Ancients weren't that stupid… Were they?
Markov sucked in her breath and shot a frightened look toward the blue puddle of light in the circle of the gate.
"Right, right, so if you could help me work here," Rodney said, "otherwise when the self-destruct triggers it will send a blast through the open wormhole that will fry us all to black ash."
Wait, wait, he flipped back to a previous screen, a schematic that mirrored the unlabeled controls on the DHD before him. There, that was it. He could feel the seconds counting down.
Rodney reached around the side of the console and found the hand-sized panel. He pressed it in, but when he looked up, the stargate was still open.
"Come on," he snapped at it and pressed again. With a soundless release, the panel engaged a second time, sinking deeper, and the wormhole blinked out abruptly, shearing a last crate in two and plunging the echoing chamber into near darkness.
Rodney clutched the DHD and sucked in deep breath, ignoring the yelling and screaming that followed, then began trying to discover where the ship's bridge or command center was. They need to shut off the sections that were venting atmosphere.
He was bent close, peering at another schematic, when Lorne grabbed his shoulder and jerked him away. "McKay," Lorne snarled at him, "what the hell did you do!?"
"I shut down the wormhole before we all died along with the SGC, you brain-dead thug!" Rodney yelled back at him. "I have no intention of ever standing in the same room as a wormhole open to a nuclear explosion!"
"Don't you ever pull something like that again without consulting me," Lorne shouted.
"You'd rather we all died while I tried to convince you something had to be done, I suppose," Rodney snapped back. "Fine, you might like to know that I'm trying to find a way to close off whatever parts of this ship are losing oxygen before that kills us. Maybe you think I should set up a PowerPoint presentation and a mini-lecture on what being on a ship in space with holes in it means. I'm sure we'll have lots of time for me to dumb it down to your sub-cretin level of understanding."
Lorne's set features would have had Rodney cowering away from the blows that were surely about to come, if he hadn't been frightened out of his mind by the more important prospect of dying very soon.
"So get out of my way and let me work," he said quietly and shrugged off Lorne's grip on his arm to return to the DHD. He pointed at a nexus deep under the ziggurat and said to Markov, "This looks like the control center."
She looked and nodded. "Yes, I agree."
Lorne whistled. "Greer and, uh, Masoko," he ordered, "you go with Dr. McKay and Dr. Markov and keep them safe."
Rodney blinked at Lorne for a second then headed for the airlock, trailing Markov and his new guard dogs.