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Bloodfire: Book 1

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Colonel John Sheppard closed the last file and tossed it on the desk. He sighed and leaned back on his chair. He'd been reading personnel records for the last three hours; his eyes were starting to itch and he was getting restless. After almost a week stuck under the mountain, he missed the sky. He glared at the ceiling, but unfortunately, X-Vision wasn't among his Gifts, and the rock stayed stubbornly gray and solid.

John stretched out his arms, trying to wake himself up. General O'Neill wanted his preliminary choices and any suggestions he might have by tomorrow's meeting. There were about 200 positions to fill, and as the mission's commander, he was supposed to give his opinion for both the military and civilian ones. He’d tried to get out the civilian selection process, but O'Neill had just smirked and told him that he was sure Dr. Sheppard will be up for the job. Damn the man. Paperwork and bureaucracy were the things about command that he truly hated.

He sighed, and his eyes fell on the file he had set aside at the beginning. It was the only one he had no choice about: Dr. Rodney McKay, the Chief Science Officer. John took the file and re-read the handwritten Post-It note Sam had stuck on the cover:

McKay's an ass, but he's also the best expert in Ancient technology we have.

You may want to invest in a muzzle, though ;)

John smirked. Sam hadn't changed since he last saw her.

John opened the file. The photo showed a man with thinning hair, a fierce expression and amazing blue eyes. The file seemed to confirm Sam's assessment: McKay's IQ was stratospheric, and his list of degrees, doctorates and achievements was huge and awe-inspiring, but the portion of his file dedicated to complaints and grievances was almost three fingers thick. John quickly chastised himself. His own wasn't thin either, and that was considering that his status as Bloodfire had helped him weather out things that would have meant a black mark or a discharge for a mundane.

McKay had been chosen as CSO for the first Atlantis Expedition, after lobbying heavily for it, but he’d stayed behind to help his seriously ill sister, as he was the only compatible donor for the bone marrow transplant she’d needed. That was something John respected and it said a lot about the man.

O'Neill had warned John that now that McKay's sister was healed, nothing short of shackling him down with reinforced titanium chains to a rock deep down in the Mariana Trench will prevent the man from going to Atlantis. Even if that meant hacking the gate, which will piss off Carter, so the General really preferred to prevent it, thank you very much.

John's eyes wandered back to McKay's photo. He'd been informed that McKay had returned from the Antarctic Outpost this morning. Maybe it was time to meet him.

John heard the scientist before he saw him.

"Did you find your degree in a box of cereals or did you just buy it off the University of Stupidland?? Did you think I like to spend my time fixing the mistakes of a bunch of morons?? I should let you use that equation and take yourselves out of the gene pool!"

He followed the voice to a medium-sized lab. Three men and a woman were looking at McKay with varying degrees of anger and fear. One of the men, a short guy with round glasses, seemed about to pee himself, while the taller African-American guy would have incinerated McKay right there if looks could kill. Behind them, a strange contraption about the size of a computer tower made of metal and crystals sat on a long table. A piece seemed to be missing from the top, probably the same crystal McKay was poking the scientists with.

John leaned against the doorframe, crossing his arms over his chest. McKay in full rant was a sight to behold. None of the scientists had time to interject anything, simply because McKay barely stopped to take a breath before following his tirade.

"Did you think that when I order you to do something, I only do it to hear myself talk? No, don't answer that. Have you even bothered to read the report about that thing? I didn't forbid you to activate it before the math has been triple-checked just to annoy you or give myself extra work!" The black guy muttered something John didn't catch. "Yes, Pearse, I do know better because oh, I spend five years studying the damned things while you were destroying your neurons with some black market chemical compound in that poor excuse for a learning institution you attended!"

John smirked. This was the best entertainment he'd seen in a while. He turned his head to look at the whiteboard. While he didn't know what the equation was for, he spotted the calculation error quickly enough. Pushing himself off the doorframe, he walked to the whiteboard, mentally calculating the necessary changes. He grabbed the eraser and deleted the error, taking care not to allow his claws to grate the board. Even sheathed, they could tear the surface to ribbons.

"Hey, what are you doing..." McKay's voice faded out as John began writing. For a moment, as the black marker glided over the whiteboard, he allowed himself to get lost in the world of numbers, one that made sense like nothing else did.

After he finished the corrections, he took a deep breath, capped the pen and turned to McKay, a smirk on his face. For a moment, McKay seemed startled by John's amber Bloodfire eyes, but recovered quickly.

"Who the hell are you?" McKay demanded.

"Colonel John Sheppard, USAF. I think you're on my expedition?"

McKay stared intently at him for a few long seconds. Then, he straightened and turned just enough to glare at the other scientists.

"Get out all of you! If even a flyboy can see the mess you've made, you have no business being here!" he barked at them. The taller man seemed to want to protest, but the other three bodily herded him out the lab. McKay looked back at him, narrowing his eyes. "You and I have much to discuss."

After kicking his colleagues out the lab, McKay closed the door and plopped down on his chair. He looked pointedly at John, then at the chair on the other side of the lab bench and then back at John, and raised an eyebrow. John snorted, sauntered to the chair and sat down on it.

"So, you're the one who has to lead us to Atlantis?" McKay started.

"General O'Neill seems to think so," John grinned.

"Were you trying to impress me with that bit of math? Because I'm not impressed. My 3-year-old niece could have fixed that equation."

"If you say so..." John replied. "But no, I wasn't trying to impress you," John continued before McKay could interject. "Being a Thales is one of my Gifts. Seeing wrong math is like a stabbing in my eyes. Fixing it is akin to a compulsion," he informed the scientist.

McKay stared at him, his lips thinning in a frown, and his hands twitched on a file. Dialing up his hearing a bit, John could hear McKay’s heart beating faster. "You know, it's the first time someone is envious of that particular Gift." McKay's face reddened. "People are usually envious of the Healing, the Sentinel senses or even the claws..."

"I'm the smartest man in the galaxy!" McKay shouted. "Do you have any idea of what I could accomplish with a Gift like that?? But no, the one who gets it is a flyboy who uses it to calculate the best way to make things explode!"

John tried very hard not to laugh at the scientist’s obvious frustration. By McKay’s glare, he wasn't completely successful. McKay opened his mouth to talk, but stopped and closed it again, giving him a vitriolic glare. He grabbed a thick file and smacked it down the bench, glowering at John the whole time. John just relaxed back in his chair.

"O'Neill deigned himself to inform me that you have the final word on all mission personnel, except myself..."

"He told me so, too,” John quipped.

McKay glared harder, if that was possible.

"The SGC and the IOA had been trying to push a bunch of morons at me," McKay informed him, gesturing at the file. "Half of them are not even worth the time I lost reading their sad excuse for files. They even had the gall to add back to the list morons I already rejected the first time around! I sincerely hope your standards are higher than theirs, or we're going to have a problem." McKay narrowed his eyes. "Being a Thales, I do hope your degree is in some real science? Because if you say it’s in the soft sciences, I'll be forced to ruin the credit of all the IOA windbags until they see the light!"

"Relax, McKay," John drawled. "I got a math degree, so leave the credit ratings alone."

"Good, good," McKay relaxed. "So, about this bunch of morons..."

The Bloodfire's gym was on level 20. Unlike other SGC rooms, the walls were made of reinforced concrete padded with a material that was non-conductive as well as fire and water resistant, mostly for the protection of the mundane soldiers who semi-regularly trained with Bloodfires.

One officer was going through his warm up exercises when John entered. He nodded at the man, who nodded back, before throwing down his towel and starting his own warm up routine.

While his body went through the practiced moves, John observed the other officer. Major Evan Lorne was the highest ranked of the Bloodfires O'Neill had asked him to consider for the mission, and would be both his XO and Pride Beta if John chose him. That was the reason he'd wanted to combat test the man alone. He couldn't do this without a Beta he can trust, both in the field and out.

Lorne finished his warm up first and waited for John in the center of the mat, clad only in running shorts. After finishing his own warm up, John also discarded his shirt, keeping his shorts, and padded barefoot to the mat.

"Lorne," he acknowledged the other man, not using his rank since this was a Pride affair, not a military one.

"Sheppard," Lorne nodded respectfully, taking position opposite him. John allowed a partial Aegis to slide over his skin. The organic gelatinous polymer generated under the skin settled and covered his torso, forearms and pelvis, quickly drying into the dermal armor that all Bloodfires possessed. Lorne's Aegis covered only his trunk, leaving the arms free to allow the use of his Blades, three sharp bone spikes on each of his forearms. Neither bothered with leg protection, preferring the freedom of movement. John unsheathed his black claws while taking position, dialing Sentinel hearing and touch a bit above normal.

As a fellow Warrior, Lorne's physical abilities were a match for him, enhanced well above mundane levels. While he didn't possess John's Sentinel abilities, his Shield Gift to generate force fields made him a formidable opponent. Ritual Test Combat only had one rule: the first to break the other’s Aegis won. Everything else was fair play.

They circled each other on the mat. John made the first move, feigning an attack to Lorne's unprotected shoulder, only to pivot over his right foot at the last possible moment, going for the knee instead. Lorne couldn't block the move, but moved with the fall, rolling away from him. John’s dialed up hearing heard the distinctive clack when Lorne's kneecap returned to its place as his Healing took care of the damage John inflicted. Feeling a tingle in his right leg, he looked down to see three parallel nasty cuts being closed by his own Healing. Lorne smirked, and John nodded, acknowledging the hit of Lorne's bone spikes.

For the next several minutes, they traded blows and kicks around the mat. Since speed had always been one of his strongest abilities, John tried to move fast enough to prevent Lorne from generating effective force fields, hitting him in fast, precise blows of his hand and foot claws, while Lorne tried to use them to limit John's movement. John's Sentinel touch gave him some advantage as it allowed him to feel the air displaced by Lorne's fields, but the man was highly creative in its use, so there were a few times when John dodged one just to have his feet or arm trapped in another.

When they finally took a moment to get their breaths back, they both sported a myriad of half-healed cuts, tears and bruises on the skin not protected by the Aegis. John's muscles felt sore with effort and half-healed damage, and he could feel the blood seeping from his lip, split by Lorne's last move. Lorne was not much better, with an eye still half-shut from John's last hit.

It was the best workout John's had in a long time. They were both grinning.

John used the lull to shift his vision to the infrared range and did a quick scan of Lorne's Aegis. The uneven thermal surface of the Aegis gave John clues about its weakest spots. He quickly shifted his sight back when Lorne moved to attack again.

After trading several blows, John used the wall as a springboard to try an attack from above, but Lorne quickly moved to generate a force field to bounce him off. But John intentionally hit the field sideways, making Lorne stumble and slide to the floor in the same movement. Quickly shifting his sight to IR again, he put his strength in a single blow to a crack on Lorne's solar plexus, breaking his Aegis and sending him flying backwards into the padded wall.

John slid to his knees, panting hard but smiling.

"Good move, Alpha," Lorne said, acknowledging both John’s victory and his new status over him.

"Good fight, Beta. Though, when we're not on duty, my name's John."

"Evan."

"Good, Evan. I think you owe me a beer?"

Lorne laughed. "Lead the way, John."

General O'Neill let the last page fall on the table and leaned back on his chair.

"I've never seen a list of scientists catalogued by level of incompetence before," he admitted, bewildered.

"McKay is certainly... unique," John pointed out.

"That's a way to put it," O'Neill snorted. Sitting straighter on the chair, he rested his arms on top of his desk. "Seriously, though. Can you work with him? Being CSO, he's the highest-ranked civilian and basically your second in command on the mission. He can make things difficult for you."

John crossed his arms over his chest and took a moment to answer.

"He's obnoxious, abrasive and blunt... but that also means he's sincere, and his file shows he doesn't even bother playing the politics game. And I find that very refreshing," John answered, giving O'Neill a knowing look. The General nodded. The mundane politics game was one Bloodfires, especially those in military and law enforcement, had to learn to play early, even if they hated it. "Also, unlike other people I’ve known, he can really back up his claims of being the most intelligent man on the galaxy. And watching him berating down the scientists is… very fun, to say the truth," he smiled. "Did you know people around here place bets about it? I heard there’s $700 on the one about how many scientists he's going to make cry this week."

"I try not to know about it," the General answered, dryly. "But Carter has $20 on five."

"Only five?"

"He's distracted by the expedition this week,” O’Neill quipped, making John chuckle.

"OK, let's get back to work," O'Neill ordered, going back to McKay's scientists list. "Most of the ones he wants are from Area 51, but a third of them are not even in the program. They'll have to be thoroughly vetted."

"Yes, I know. He also said something about the IOA pushing morons at him, and I think only one made it to the 'Almost Competent' category. Is it going to be a problem?"

"A little, but nothing that can't be worked out," O'Neill answered, flipping a page. "Basically, the IOA doesn't want the USA monopolizing the expedition. Some are afraid we might not tell them the truth about the fate of the first expedition or what we’ll find there."

"Which is the reason I have military personnel from seven other countries to choose from?"

"Yeah," O'Neill confirmed. "But McKay doesn't care about a minor thing like nationalities and the scientists he wants are from a dozen different countries, so I can sell it to them. As long as they don't see his original list, of course," he added, turning a page to show John one particularly scatting remark from McKay about a scientist being some president's pet.

"Yes, I think it'd better keep that one just between us," John admitted. O'Neill raised an eyebrow in an ironic gesture, and John tried not to laugh.

"Well, I'll get the background checks going with high priority." O'Neill informed John, closing McKay's file. "Now, for the military and Bloodfire contingent... is there anyone you want who's not on the list?"

John straightened in his chair and opened the folder in front of him. "There are a couple of men I've worked with in the field who would be assets to the expedition." He gave O'Neill a resume sheet. "Captain TC Callahan. Army ranger medic. A Bloodfire Healer and Warrior.”

“An unusual combination," O'Neill's commented.

"Yes, Sir, but I've seen him do real miracles on the field. Once, he saved the lives of all his men after disposing single-handedly of the Taliban unit who ambushed them. I know Beckett is an excellent doctor, but he's not field material."

"But if he gets confirmed as CMO, Beckett should sign him off for the medical team," O'Neill warned him.

"I know, and I've already shown Callahan's medical qualifications to him. Beckett says he'll be an 'excellent addition', his words not mine."

"OK. Who else?"

John hesitated a bit before handing the second name to the General.

"Lt. Kyle Donovan. Delta Force," O'Neill opened his mouth to talk but John pressed on. "And a Bloodfire Shadow Warrior."

"What?" O'Neill yelped, straightening in his chair. "I thought the Fawkes were the only Shadow bloodline in the US?"

"Donovan’s mother is a Griffin."

"The original British Shadow bloodline? And they haven't Claimed him?"

"I don't know the full story,” John explained, “but Donovan mentioned his mother had some kind of fallout with her Clan."

O'Neill read the highlights of Donovan's profile, then looked seriously at John.

"You know that Delta Force won't be willing to part with their only Shadow operator, not in a million years, don’t you?"

Sheppard leaned forward, reclining his forearms on the desk. "Sir, we don't know what we're going to find in Pegasus. We don't know what kind of people are out here, or what shape the original expedition would be in. To have someone who can go invisible to get intel... it might make the difference."

O'Neill looked at Donovan's file and then back at John.

"Tell me you wouldn't have wished to have had a Shadow available when the shit hit the fan out here," John pressed.

"That's playing dirty, Sheppard," O'Neill admonished, leaning back on his chair. "I'm probably going have to fight not only the Delta Force's commander, but also the Army's Chief of Staff and SECARMY for him."

"I thought you liked a challenge, General." John sassed.

"You're going to owe me one, Sheppard, a really big one."

"Yes, Sir!"

There was a distinct air of nervousness in the conference room. While they waited for O'Neill, Jackson and Carter to arrive, John watched the other people seated at the table. Besides him, Major Lorne seemed to be calmly reading messages on his phone, but John could see the fluttering of his sleeves as his forearm bone spikes twitched nervously under them. Major Teldy was keeping her hands curved inwards, trying not to show her extended Arachne claws. On the other side of the table, McKay was practically bouncing on his seat while his second, Dr. Alison Porter, was biting her lips while pretending to read. On the other side of McKay, Dr. Beckett seemed to be the only relaxed person in the room, but dialing up his hearing, John could hear his heart beating faster than normal.

John winced when the door opened, the metallic sound of the mechanism uncomfortable for his dialed-up hearing. McKay looked at him quizzically, but John just smiled and leaned back, while dialing down his Sentinel hearing to normal.

General O'Neill took the head seat, with Jackson on his right and Carter sitting beside the archeologist.

"At 10:00 hours, we received a communication from the Daedalus, after they entered subspace communications range..."

"Yes, yes, we know that! What did they find?" McKay interrupted the General.

O'Neill glared at McKay, who glowered back at him challengingly.

"As I was saying," O'Neill continued, emphasizing the last word. "the Daedalus sent us a preliminary report on their findings in Pegasus, which basically amounts to... nothing."

"What?" McKay blurted, almost jumping out the seat and looking at O'Neill like if the General had lost his marbles.

"They didn't find Atlantis, McKay. The planet was empty." Dr. Jackson clarified.

"Did they have the right coordinates?"

"Yes, McKay, they had the right coordinates. The ones you calculated yourself." The General pointed out. McKay tensed, and opened his mouth to reply, but O’Neill beat him to it. "They did, however, find a working Stargate network, and tried dialing Atlantis from an inhabited world. Carter?"

"The Daedalus reports the Pegasus gate connected to Atlantis, but when they tried to send a MALP through, it failed to re-materialize,” Carter informed them. “Hermiod thinks an energy shield was protecting the gate, something akin to our iris. They tried communicating in several frequencies, but though Hermiod assured Colonel Caldwell that the signal was getting through the shield, they received no response."

"That makes absolutely no sense!" McKay grumbled.

"I know, McKay, and they do too. That's why they returned to Atlantis' planet, where Hermiod and Novak spent two days doing a deeper and more thorough scan and found... this." Carter explained to him while she activated the screen on one end of the room to show an image not dissimilar to an echography, only using several colors. John squinted his eyes, trying to make sense of what he was seeing.

"An energy anomaly?" McKay guessed.

"At 3500 feet underwater," Carter informed him.

"and the island of Atlantis disappeared in the depths of the sea..." Sheppard murmured. McKay frowned at him, but John turned to Carter. "Could Atlantis be underwater like in Plato's account?" he asked her.

"There's a strong possibility. It will certainly explain the data." She agreed.

"At 3500 feet? You know the pressure it would have to withstand? The shield it would require..."

"It's something the IOA is highly interested in," O'Neill interrupted McKay’s ramble. “Especially with the threat of the Ori so close to our backyard.”

"We have a go, General?"

"Yes, Colonel, you have a go."

After that, things moved quickly. The Daedalus was in orbit 72 hours later, needing only a tune-up after the intergalactic trip. McKay's chosen scientists began arriving to the mountain within the week. The ones new to the program did a double (or triple) take at the Stargate, but adapted quickly. Callahan also arrived at the mountain, but O'Neill was still fighting the Army's Chief of Staff and SECARMY for Donovan.

After Evan acknowledged John as Alpha, the rest of the Pride formed quickly around him. John thoroughly combat-tested the military Bloodfires, making sure he had a strong Pride with balanced and complementary Gifts. He also made sure the civilian ones could defend themselves, tasting first hand Beckett's clever use of his Healer abilities to temporary incapacitate an enemy that got within touch. The man may hate to fight, but John didn't want to get on his bad side, or that of his mate and wife, Dr. Kate Heightmeyer. That empathic overflow had hurt like a bitch.

McKay grumbled at having a couple of military scientists added to his team. Being a linguist, Lt. Lindsay didn't impress him much, but he accepted that she could be useful. Captain Harris was another matter. McKay caught him tinkering with some Asgard tech he had declared off-bounds, and they got in an argument that could be heard three levels down without Sentinel hearing. Having met Harris before, John bet $30 the man would be coming with them, against the base consensus. Three days later, after McKay grudgingly conceded that the combat engineer knew what he was doing, John collected all the winnings, since he'd been the only one to bet in Harris' favor.

He used some of them to treat O'Neill to a celebratory steak dinner after the General finally got Donovan on the mountain. Fed up by SECARMY's dilatory tactics, O'Neill went directly to the President and then used the Daedalus to transport the Lieutenant to Cheyenne after getting the POTUS' approval. Kyle had a shell-shocked look on his face when John saw him, one that he didn't quite lose for the rest of the day while he was being given the tour around the SGC. At least until TC came and took him away, a six-pack in hand.

Major Davis told Sheppard SECARMY's was livid when he found out. When John relayed that to him, O'Neill just smirked and ordered the priciest steak on the menu.

On departure day, the embarkation room was fully packed, even though most of the civilian staff and the biggest part of their supplies will be going to Pegasus on the Daedalus, which was departing with the ZPM after the Stargate has closed behind them. In the control room, Sheppard was looking at the gate with a fluttery feeling in his stomach.

"You're going to tear your arm to ribbons," O'Neill chastised him. Sheppard looked startled. He had not even noticed he was drumming his claws on his arm, getting them caught on the fabric.

"Sorry, Sir," he apologized, crossing his hands behind his back. O'Neill smirked.

“I was nervous before the Abydos mission, too. Even if…” O’Neill shook his head and looked down at the gate. “It’s OK, as long as you don’t let it control you. It means you care, and that’s something I want in my commanders.”

O'Neill's radio crackled. "Carter?" The General listened intently. "OK. We'll start when you get there." He turned to John. "Carter and McKay got the ZPM installed. We're ready to try. Are you?"

John inhaled deeply and exhaled slowly. "Yes, Sir."

Carter arrived at the Control room almost the same moment McKay burst into the embarkation room, shouting orders to his scientists. Breaking protocol, Carter hugged John. "Take care, John." John awkwardly returned the hug of his old friend.

"You too." Turning to O'Neill, he saluted. "Sir, permission to leave."

"Granted, Colonel."

John all but ran to the gate room. He took his backpack he’d left near the door, and put it on. Lorne passed him his P-90, modified to suit his claws, and John walked to the gate ramp.

"OK, everyone. We're going to try dialling. You all know what to do. The recon team goes first. Afterwards, the rest of you and the red-marked crates. The SGC people will push the blue ones through if they have time. No exceptions. I don't care what's in the crate. If anyone tries to go back for a blue one, I'll kick them out the expedition myself. Remember: we only have a 15-minute window since we are going to need the ZPM's power in Atlantis. You're still on time to back out. Anyone changed their mind?" John asked. Nobody moved. John looked up to the control room and nodded.

The inner ring of the Stargate started spinning.

"Chevron 1, encoded." Sgt. Harriman's voice resounded in the room. The Stargate spun again. "Chevron 2, encoded." Once again, the Stargate spun, a chevron illuminated and Harriman's voice informed them. "Chevron 3, encoded." Then it was four, five and six. The Stargate spun once again. "Chevron 7, encoded." The room was eerily silent, except for the metallic sound of the Stargate spinning. A chevron lit. "Chevron 8, locked."

The Stargate whooshed to life, the vortex's splash of energy shooting from the gate and then returning to it, leaving a blue puddle in its wake.

An SGC technician maneuvered a MALP through the gate. John looked up to the Control room, and saw Carter discussing something with O'Neill, who then nodded. The General leaned forward to activate the comm.

"Atlantis Expedition, you have a go."

John got on the gate ramp first, his weapon ready but his Sentinel senses dialed down below mundane levels to prevent the vortex breaking havoc on them. That was an experience he was not interested in repeating. The rest of the recon team formed behind him, and John signaled them to move.

The trip itself lasted barely a second. Even with his touch dialed down, John could feel a cold shiver running through his body. When they stepped on the other side, the city was dark and silent. The recon team fanned out to check the room, with the flashlights mounted on their weapons as the only light source. John dialed up his senses. Apart from his people and the rumor of water around them, he could not hear anything else. The ceiling was high, and he gave Major Teldy the pre-arranged signal. Passing her P-90 to Captain Vega, Teldy took off her backpack and boots and crawled up the wall at a surprising speed. John hadn’t been around many Bloodfires with Arachne gifts before, but he had to admit they were amazing.

John climbed up the stairs, using his dialed-up senses to check on the space above and trusting his men to cover his back. From the landing, the top level branched out to the left and right. On the left, there was an empty space closed by a circular wall. To the right, John found a spacious area with several consoles, all protected by plastic tarps, and another set of stairs at the back, besides a small walkway that lead to an empty crystal-walled room.

Major Teldy landed besides him so softly that he wouldn't have heard her if his Sentinel hearing wasn't dialed up.

"Report, Major," he ordered.

"There's nothing up here, Sir, and the structure looks solid. No damage that I could detect. The door downstairs and these stairs seem to be the only exits."

John clicked his radio. "Anyone else found anything?" he asked.

"Colonel, I found a pack of Kleenex, unopened, in a corner besides the Stargate. It seems to have been trampled upon," Liutenant Kemp informed.

"You're sure it's Earth-made?"

"It has, umm… Hello Kitty on it, Sir,” Kemp stuttered between the merriment of his teammates.

"Understood, Lieutenant," John acknowledged, trying to keep the amusement out of his voice. On the floor below, Kemp's team mates had no problem teasing the young lieutenant.

"OK. Everyone silent. I'm going to do a sense sweep. Major, could you anchor me, please?"

Major Teldy moved forward, grabbing John's forearm in a strong grip. John closed his eyes and concentrated. The firm touch was his anchor as he dialed up his Sentinel hearing and smell to its maximum and swept the city around him. Discarding the sounds and smells of his team, as well as the soft whooshing of the gate, he worked in a circular pattern as he'd been trained to do. Energy buzzed as it moved through the walls. Water bubbled here and there. The air was stale, with a sharp tang of saltwater. A regular background buzzing that he couldn't identify seemed to enclose the city. Beyond it, he could hear a faint echo that reminded him of a whale song.

There was no sign of any other living creature, human or not.

Dialing down his senses, he shrank his sweep radius until he could hear his team's heartbeats again and opened his eyes.

"Thank you, Major." Teldy just smiled and nodded at him, letting go of his arm. "You can return to your position."

"Yes, Sir," Teldy ran down the stairs, putting on her boots and backpack on before accepting her P-90 back from Vega.

John clicked his radio.

"Stargate Command, this is Sheppard."

"What's the status?" General O'Neill asked through the radio.

"The city seems to be in good condition, but apart from us, there is no one else here. We found a trampled packet of Kleenex, through."

On the other side of the radio, O'Neill chuckled while someone groaned in the background.

"Sir?"

"Old team joke, Colonel. I'll tell you some other time. So, it seems our people arrived at Atlantis, but are no longer here."

"That's my guess, Sir."

"OK, I'm sending your people through."

People started pouring out the gate. McKay was one of the first ones, pushing through scientists and military alike to reach the consoles where John was. He threw the tarps off the consoles, and looked sharply at John when they remained off. "Not my fault, McKay."

While McKay tinkered with the consoles, John kept his eyes on the gate floor, watching his men herd the crates and scientists to the sides to make room for the people and equipment still coming through. As planned, Sgt. Mehra was the last one over, and nodded to John, confirming no one was left behind. A few blue-marked cases rolled in behind her, but then John's radio crackled.

"Atlantis, the 15-minute window is up." O'Neill informed him. "The Daedalus is beaming the remaining cases up. It will rendezvous with you in four days. Telemetry says you’re at the designated coordinates. Don't make another vanishing act on us, OK?"

"We'll be here, Sir."

"Hope so. Good luck."

The Stargate disengaged.

"Let's try to..." John fell silent when a pillar rose out the floor in front of the Stargate. On top of it, a red light blinked over a hand-shaped plate. McKay reached the pillar first and scanned it.

"McKay?" John asked.

"Nothing. It's not giving off any signals."

John extended his hand over the top.

"Wait!" McKay interrupted him. "Are you going to put your hand here? We don't know what it does!"

John looked around pointedly. "It's the only thing that reacted to our presence, McKay. We already know the door doesn't open. I don't see many other options." He placed his hand on the plate, which flashed an amber light for several seconds. Finally, the red light changed to green, and the lights started to switch on around the room, while the pillar descended to its hiding place again.

"The consoles are initializing!" Dr. Branton shouted from above. John and Rodney ran up the stairs. Though the consoles were active, they didn't react to anyone, until John touched them. One screen flared to life, and a single phrase in Ancient rolled in, written in an extra-large font and perfectly centered.

Frowning, John turned around and called out "Lt. Lindsay?"

The long-haired Lieutenant stuck out her head between Major Teldy and Captain Vega, who moved aside to let her pass. "Yes, sir?"

Sheppard pointed at the screen.

"It says, ‘Welcome to Atlantis, Praetor.’"

Chapter Text

"It says, ‘Welcome to Atlantis, Praetor', Sir," Lieutenant Lindsay translated. McKay snorted and Sheppard shot him a glare.

"Please, occupy the cathedra to complete the initialization process" Lieutenant Lindsay added. John whipped around to look puzzledly at her. "It just appeared on the screen, sir," she explained.

John looked at the screen and saw a new phrase under the first one. "What's the cathedra?" he asked.

"In Latin, it was a chair of some office or a throne," Lindsay added.

"The control chair," McKay said.

"I believe it's a good guess, Dr. McKay," the Lieutenant agreed.

"So... any idea where this cathedra is?" Sheppard asked.

"Do I look like Google Maps to you, Colonel?" McKay grumbled, crossing his arms over his chest.

"Well..."

"Colonel!" Lieutenant Kemp called out and John looked down to the gate floor.

"Yes, Lieutenant?"

"The door, Sir. It just opened." Kemp pointed at the gate room door, which had been sealed shut when they arrived.

Sheppard turned to McKay and smiled at him. "Let's follow the yellow brick road!" he quipped.

McKay glared at him and pushed him aside to walk down the stairs. Sheppard just chuckled and followed him down.

"Lorne, Harris, Kemp and Reese, you're with me," he ordered. "Teldy, you're in charge. Don't let anyone leave the gate room until we return."

"Yes, sir," Teldy acknowledged. As they left the room, she turned around and signaled Vega and Mehra to guard the door.

They followed a brown metallic corridor, passing several closed doors. A water column burbled as they passed, startling Kemp.

“Afraid of a little water, Kemp?” Reese teased.

“Fuck you, Brian,” Kemp retorted, which earned him the chuckles of his companions.

After they rounded a corner, a door opened. Reese was the first to enter.

"Clear, sir."

"Everybody inside," Sheppard instructed.

The room was a tight fit with the six of them, but they managed. As the door closed, a dot started blinking on a screen mounted on the back wall. McKay raised an eyebrow. Sheppard extended his index finger and, with exaggerated slowness, pressed on the dot. He smirked at McKay, who just rolled his eyes.

A second later, the door opened again. Though they hadn't felt any movement, the corridor outside was not the one they just left.

"Transporters!" McKay exclaimed. "I wonder if..." McKay moved to exit, but Sheppard stopped him by grabbing his arm. "What?"

"We don't know if the zone is secure, McKay. Stay in the middle." McKay harrumphed but allowed Sheppard to push him back. "Harris, bring the rear. Kemp, Reese, protect McKay. Lorne, cover us," John ordered, glaring at McKay when he tried to protest.

This corridor was dark, illuminated by just a few blue-tinted lights. With his senses dialed-up, John could feel the smooth static of Lorne's force field around them, and the buzz of Reese's Lighting under his skin. John took point and started advancing.

The way was blocked by a door about 200 meters later. When John approached it, a rectangular panel on the right side illuminated. After a quick sense check, John signaled Lorne to drop his shield. Cautiously, John touched the panel, and the door opened to a circular room. In the middle, perched on a dais, stood the control chair.

McKay pushed past John to the chair, taking out his tablet PC. He squatted on the side of the chair and tried to pry open a panel.

"Damn!" McKay cursed when he received a small electric shock. He cradled his singed hand to his chest, looking angrily at the chair.

"Your mom didn't teach you to not put your hand under a lady's skirts, McKay?" John smirked. His men chuckled while McKay shot Sheppard an incinerating glare.

"Let's see what you can do, Colonel," McKay snarled.

John did a cursory sense check as he approached the chair. When he sat down, the chair illuminated with a blue light like the one on the Antarctic outpost, and whirled around.

A moment later, John’s mind sank through a blue light to the core of Atlantis.

Blue. His world was blue.

Electric blue... royal blue... midnight blue... swirls of color chasing each other in circles only to stop for a moment, like formless shapes suspended in mid-air, before starting to swirl again. Flashes of white that seemed to want to coalesce into something, but that dissolved like mist in a hot day before he could make sense of them.

"Stop..." he asked, but they ignored him. "Stop!" he repeated, but the formless shapes kept reforming and racing around him even faster. "Stop!" he yelled.

They did. And then dissolved into each other into a uniform shadow of steel blue.

Seven shapes flashed in white, vaguely rectangular but extremely blurry, as if seen through a white curtain. He tried to focus on them, his eyes moving instinctively under his closed eyelids.

"I don't know what it is," he said. "It's all like a dense cloud."

John felt a tingle traverse his head from forehead to nape. It didn't hurt, but it was uncomfortable. Afterwards, the whole image wavered for a second, like the static of a TV screen, and the color shifted to the shade of the clear sky at noon. The seven shapes started coming into focus, coalescing into seven boxy symbols in a style he recognized: Ancient script.

"I don't understand," he said. "I can't read it."

The symbols disappeared.

John felt another tingle, this time in the left side of his head. The sensation increased until it felt like low-voltage shocks. He hissed, his hands reflexively pressing down on the chair's gel pads. The sensation disappeared as gradually as it started, and John could relax.

The symbols appeared again. This time he could read them:

PRAETOR

"That's what you called me," he thought.

A diagram of a DNA spiral came into view, with the words "Rea bloodline: Positive match," superimposed in Ancient.

"OK, I believe you. Now what?"

A new phrase replaced the diagram:

ARE YOU WILLING TO BECOME THE PRAETOR OF ATLANTIS?

"Well, that depends. What does a Praetor do?"

THE PRAETOR DEFENDS AND PROTECTS ATLANTIS AND THOSE WHO LIVE IN IT, FROM INTERNAL AND EXTERNAL THREATS.

"That seems pretty simple, so what's the catch? What will happen if I choose to not be the Praetor?"

YOU AND ALL THOSE WHO CAME WITH YOU WILL BE FORCED TO LEAVE.

"Why?"

THE PRAETOR IS THE MAIN INTERFACE WITH THE SYSTEM.

OPERATION IS LIMITED WITHOUT A PRAETOR.

"To guarantee the city is not misused or taken by the enemy?" John hypothesized.

THAT IS ONE OF THE REASONS.

"So, I either become your Praetor or you kick us all out."

YES.

"Succinct and to the point," John murmured. "Just tell me one thing. What happened when I sat down?"

MY SYSTEM WAS CALIBRATED FOR THE BRAIN PATTERNS OF MY CREATORS.

THOUGH YOU ARE THEIR DESCENDANT, YOUR BRAIN PATTERNS ARE DIFFERENT AND I HAD TO RE-CALIBRATE MYSELF.

"It's not going to happen again, then?"

THE ISSUE IS FIXED.

"OK. So, what I have to do to become your Praetor?"

RUNNING INITIALIZATION PROCESS.

A new screen flashed in, with a human male silhouette. Once again, John felt that tingling sensation, only this time it was across all his body. Several diagrams flashed in and out quickly. He recognized a brain, an eye and a heart, all accompanied with long series of numbers that probably would make sense to people like Beckett or Callahan, but that he couldn't understand.

BIOLOGICAL DATA GATHERED SUCCESSFULLY.

PLEASE SPEAK YOUR NAME ALOUD.

"John Sheppard."

VOICE IMPRINT SUCCESSFUL.

DATA INCORPORATED TO MATRIX.

IMPRINTING SUCCESSFUL.

John felt a short, sharp burn to the back of his neck, to the left of the spinal column.

"What have you done?" he shouted.

I IMPLANTED A BIOSENSOR THAT WILL MONITOR YOUR VITAL SIGNS AND CAN LOCATE YOU ANYWHERE IN THIS GALAXY.

"It's not nanites, isn't it?"

NO, IT IS A DERMAL IMPRINT. IT CAN BE DISSOLVED, IF YOU WISH.

"Dermal imprint? You tattooed me?"

THE PROCESS IS DIFFERENT, BUT ESSENTIALLY YES.

"Great. Another one," John grumbled. "Now what?"

INITIALIZATION PROCESS FINALIZED.

The white letters disappeared. Instead, John heard a strangely warm modulated voice:

"I am at your service, Praetor John Sheppard of Atlantis."

Disengaging from the deep merging with Atlantis' matrix was like waking up after not having slept enough. His limbs felt heavy and it was like his mind was stuffed with cotton. John blinked up several times while his eyes adapted to the light in the room.

"Colonel, how are you feeling?"

The voice was familiar but it took him a moment to place it. Callahan.

"Water," he croaked. He was not only thirsty, but his mouth felt like sandpaper. Callahan brought a bottle of water to his lips. After a couple of gulps, he managed to take the bottle himself. It was one of the smaller bottles, but he drank it all.

"Colonel, tell me, how are you feeling?" Callahan repeated.

"Like I could sleep 18 hours straight." John sat up, and the chair disengaged.

"No surprise," McKay said. "You've been gone for five hours!"

"Five?" John asked. "It didn't feel that long."

Callahan took his wrist to check his pulse. "McKay's right," he confirmed. "And your pulse and blood pressure had been over what's safe, even for us, for much of that time. Your eyes moved like in REM sleep and your brain activity was over the roof, but you didn't react to us." He let go of John's wrist, and moved to press a hand to his forehead and another to his chest. John could feel the warm and slightly tingling sensation he associated with a Healer's bioscan. "You need to eat; your metabolism has burned calories even faster than normal." He checked Sheppard's eyes. "You don’t seem to... What's that?" he asked, pointing to Sheppard's neck.

"Atlantis called it a dermal imprint that works as a health biosensor and locator," John explained. "Does it look bad?"

"No, it looks like the tattoo of a gate glyph," Callahan answered, examining the mark. "Still a little red, your body needs energy to finish the Healing." Callahan straightened and pinned him with a glare. "You've earned yourself a full checkup, Colonel, and don't think I won't sync Beckett on you if necessary."

John grimaced. It hadn't taken them long to discover that, as gentle as the older Healer can be, he could give an angry bear a run for his money when it came to his patients' health.

"You won't," he whined. "I'm your boss."

"He's my boss, too," Callahan smirked, "and he has the big ass needles."

John groaned. Callahan activated his radio. "Major Teldy, could you get someone to bring an MRE-B for the Colonel, please?"

"Not fajitas," Sheppard asked while pushing away McKay, who was trying, not very tactfully, to get a look at the tattoo.

"Sgt. Mehra is bringing you one, Liuteneant You can assure the Colonel it's not fajitas." Teldy chuckled. "Teldy out."

"MRE-B on its way." Callahan repeated. "Not fajitas."

"As interesting as the Colonel's gastronomic preferences are, could we go back to the main issue here?" McKay scowled, while his right feet tapped the floor like a woodpecker on steroids. "What happened in there, Colonel? We have several systems that have been waking up in the last hours, but they don't obey anyone!"

Sheppard sighed and sagged in the chair, but it did not activate.

"The Atlantis AI recognized me as the city's Praetor, and..." he informed the scientist.

"What? AI? A real, working AI?" McKay interrupted him.

"Yes, McKay, a real one. She said her creator called her Lania."

McKay looked to the screens right and left. "How I can speak to her?"

"You can't, McKay. Not yet."

"Why the hell not?" the scientist demanded.

"If you’d let me explain..."

Sgt. Mehra choose that moment to arrive, an MRE-B on hand. She handed it to Sheppard.

"Chicken with noodles, Sir, already heated," she informed him. "And I thought you'd like more water too," she added, handing him an unopened bottle.

"Good idea. Thank you, Sergeant." Sheppard opened the MRE-B pouch and added the contents of the hot sauce sachet. "How are things in the gate room?" He asked, taking a bite.

"Boring, sir. We distributed MREs two hours ago, and now some people are dozing while a couple of PSP's are making the rounds around those not on guard," she informed him. Behind her, McKay snorted. "The screens lit up a while ago, and the geeks are engrossed in the technical data they're showing, even if they can't interact with them. Was that your doing, Sir?"

"In a way of speaking. Atlantis did it after accepting me as Praetor." John took another spoonful of chicken and vegetables. It tasted better than it usually did. He hadn't realized he was that hungry.

"Which you were going to tell us about, weren't you?" McKay chided.

Sheppard swallowed. "Stay, Sergeant, and you can report this back to Major Teldy and the others," he ordered. "As I was saying, Lania — that's the Atlantis AI, Mehra — accepted me as Praetor. She had to teach me Ancient first, though, so I could understand the rest. She uploaded it directly to my mind or something." McKay opened his mouth but John beat him to it. "She'll have to do that with everyone else too, but that's for later." Sheppard opened the water bottle and swallowed a mouthful. "Anyway, she told me I could set up access levels for everyone with the ATA gene, but not for mundanes, at this moment. As it turns out," he stressed, glaring at McKay who was ready to interrupt again," the Ancients hard-coded some security protocols into her that I can't disable. She can't give mundanes access unless she can monitor them and she can't at her current power levels. Which brings me to the other issue..."

Sheppard leaned his head back against the chair and the headrest illuminated. Above the dais, a holographic representation of Atlantis and its shield appeared, with a ZPM on the side. A few words and several long strings of numbers rolled in around them. McKay approached the display to get a better look while John kept eating. He'd already seen them.

"Wait!" McKay said. "There's only one ZPM and it will reach entropy in 89 hours?"

"That's... about three days?" Reese guessed.

"3.7," McKay replied.

"More like 3.4," John corrected. "Atlantis days are 26 hours long," he added when McKay glared at him.

"It doesn't change the fact that we're screwed," McKay replied, looking back to the screen. "Umm... does it says 'failsafe' here, Colonel?" he asked, pointing a work on the display.

John swallowed before answering. "Yeah. It's set to raise the city one minute before the ZPM reaches entropy."

"Which means that, once we reach the surface, we'll be just an inert heap of metal for at least 24 hours until the Daedalus arrives!"

"Can't you connect the naquadah generators we brought, Dr. McKay?" Major Lorne asked.

"Maybe, but not that quickly. They require adjustments to power Ancient technology and we never used them to power something so big before," McKay explained. "I'll have to check the power grid, calculate the load..."

"Or we can raise the city and save ZPM power," John suggested after swallowing the last bite of his MRE-B. "Maybe even enough to give access to mundanes," he added, smiling pointedly at McKay, who just glared back.

"And you can't say that first, Colonel?" he snarled.

"I was busy," Sheppard answered, pointing to the remains of his meal.

"The Ancients submerged the city for a reason," Lorne’s observed.

"Yes, and we'll talk about that," John winced. "It's a really nasty reason," he added, at Lorne questioning look. "Lania tells me she doesn't detect any danger for us on the surface at the moment, but her long-range sensors don't work while underwater."

"So, we either stay down until the ZPM couldn't power the shield anymore and become sitting ducks on the surface before we have to leave the city, or we rise now and take a chance with possible nasties out there," Mehra summarized.

"Yeah, that's it," Sheppard confirmed. "Personally, I don't like hiding like a scared rabbit. Besides, I think we have better chances on the surface, especially if we can work on connecting the naquadah generators." His eyes gazed around the room, looking at both McKay and his men directly. "We came here for a reason, and between here and the Daedalus, we've got the best we could find. I prefer to bet on us." His gaze stopped on McKay. "What do you say, McKay?"

"Smartest man in two galaxies," he answered, gesturing at himself. "And your combat engineer here isn't half bad either," he added, pointing over his shoulder at Harris.

"Geez, thanks McKay," Harris snorted.

"So, I give us very good odds. I vote for rising." McKay finished.

"Any objections?" Sheppard asked. Everyone shook their heads. "Perfect. Mehra and Reese, return to the gate room and explain everything to them. Tell them also to secure the crates and themselves. We'll rise in 15 minutes," he instructed the sergeants.

"Yes, Sir!" Mehra turned around towards the door. Reese joined her and both ran out the chair room.

Sheppard turned to McKay, who was rubbing his temples. "You ok, McKay?" he inquired.

"Yeah, just a headache," McKay replied. "I'll take a couple of Tylenol later," he added, straightening out. "So, how is this going to work?"

Sheppard activated his radio. "Attention, everyone! We're going to raise the city now.”

"Everyone's ready here, Colonel," Major Teldy informed through the radio.

"Understood, Major. Sheppard out." He looked at his XO. "Lorne?"

"We're ready, Sir."

With a nod, John relaxed back in the chair, closed his eyes, and activated it. A clear blue sky flooded his mind, but, this time, he didn't lose awareness of his surroundings.

"Lania," he called in his mind.

"Yes, Praetor?"

"Prepare for rising," he ordered.

"Initializing rising protocols."

Several screens materialized in John's mind as the systems started relaying information to him. "Project the data for the others, Lania."

"Done, Praetor."

John heard a sharp intake of breath on his right. "Amazing," McKay whispered, too low for anyone but a Sentinel to hear.

In the central tower, a myriad of luminous dots showed him the location of his people, with five more dots on the side where the chair room was. He discarded that with all the data feeds he didn't need and concentrated on the rising protocols.

"Interesting," he heard McKay comment. "The shield not only keeps the ocean away, it also uses the water pressure to help keep the city underwater. Sheppard, we won't be able to rise like this."

John manipulated the shield controls, altering the shield's shape to a more streamlined configuration.

"That’s better," McKay commented. John snorted, but didn't reply. Yet, the fact that he had to do this manually raised a question.

"Lania, the rising protocols had been used before? Has the city ever emerged?"

"No, Praetor," Lania confirmed. "Submerging me was sort of a desperate effort on the part of my creators. My previous Praetor coded the rising protocols, but never used them."

"Fantastic," John thought. "Lania, take over monitoring the structural stress and ZPM output. Warm me immediately of any problems."

"Controls transferred, Praetor."

"OK. Let's take you to the surface."

John activated the seabed grip release. The city shook as the big metallic grips unhooked from the rocky ocean bed for first time in centuries. Once the grips retreated into the city structure, he activated the ballast release protocols, and the city started releasing the water from the tanks at a predetermined velocity. The metal groaned as they gained speed and the whole structure shook, while John concentrated in keeping the city as stable as possible.

After a few long minutes, Atlantis finally pierced the ocean's surface, creating a giant tidal wave around her. The city rocked until the sea evened out again. John activated the surface controls that stabilized the city, and disengaged the shield. All controls flashed green.

"Lania, take over."

"Controls transferred, Praetor."

"Do we have enough energy to activate mundane access?"

New screens flashed on, shoving calculations on power output and energy required. "Only if they don't leave the inner city, Praetor. I can't activate security controls all over the city."

"OK, do it, and give Dr. McKay the maximum access allowed."

"Mundane access activated. Dr. McKay's privileges are set."

"One last thing. Can you run a self-diagnostic? I need to know exactly in what shape you're in and which repairs you need."

"I can, Praetor, but it will take several hours to complete."

"It doesn't matter. Do it."

"Internal diagnostic running."

John pulled himself out the interface. As he opened his eyes, he saw the holographic representation of the city dissolve over his head.

John woke to the smell of fresh brewed coffee. Still bleary-eyed, he took the offered cup and drank deeply. He opened his eyes to a smirking Major Lorne.

"Good morning, Sir," Lorne greeted him. "I thought you'd like a cup before McKay wakes up and monopolizes the pot. We've broken out the good stuff, not that instant crap."

"You're the best XO ever, Lorne," John told him, inhaling deeply the rich aroma rising from the cup.

"I'll remind you when the yearly evaluations hit your desk, Sir," Lorne smirked, sitting down on the air mattress besides Sheppard’s.

John looked around while he finished his cup. The room they've used as a dorm last night was almost empty, though the air mattresses and sleeping bags were still on the floor. McKay and his fellow geeks were the only ones still sleeping.

"So, how are things going?" Sheppard asked.

"We're using the room next door as a temporary mess." Lorne explained. "Staff Sergeant Mahoney and her people have prepared cold cuts sandwiches, fruit and cereals for breakfast. Nothing fancy, but at least is not MREs."

"Thank the Goddess!" John muttered wholeheartedly.

"I hear you!" Lorne chuckled. "Lania prepared us a communal shower room during the night. It's three corridors over that way." Lorne pointed at a corridor that branched out the junction the room’s opened to. "Vega, Mehra and Reese are leading teams that are clearing out the living quarters in this tower. Campbell, Banks and Esposito are on gateroom duty."

"How long you've been awake, Major?"

"Just three hours, Sir."

"Why you didn't wake me up sooner?" John demanded.

"You needed the sleep. Doctor's orders," Lorne stared steadily back at him.

"I think that I'll have to remind Callahan who's the Colonel here," John muttered.

"If I were you, I'll stay away from him, sir. He's convinced Lania to show him the medical facilities and the last time I saw them, he and the other medics were looking gleeful at the possibility of trying out their new toys," Lorne advised with a smirk. "Especially the scanner."

Sheppard groaned. "Anything else?"

"Well, Cadman and Donovan are setting up the armory in a room Lania guided them to. Teldy is supervising the unpacking of the supplies. Oh, and Harris has found you spaceships."

The ship's hatch opened at John's mental command and he stepped in. The small ships' design was sleek and utilitarian, with none of the frills found in the city itself, and John liked it. As soon as he sat on the pilot chair, the HUD came to life. He moved through the screens, checking what the little ship could do: atmospheric flying, deep-space travel, even underwater operation; it fit through the gate, it could also cloak and fire drones. It was much more than he imagined.

These little ships were seriously cool. And they were his. John was grinning while he checked the controls carefully, getting used to them.

"Are you going to fly it or make love to it?" McKay asked from behind him.

Smiling, John turned his head to look at the scientist. "Do I have to choose?"

McKay snorted, walking inside to sit in the copilot's chair. He connected his tablet to an access port on the console. John raised an eyebrow.

"Harris managed to convince Atlantis to let us interface our tech with her," he explained. "Something about you giving him full technical access?" he asked, bitterness coloring his voice.

"I would give you that access if I could, McKay. But the mundane restrictions are hard-coded into Lania..." John apologized.

"Yeah, I know, I know..." McKay interrupted him and sighed. "Sorry, it's not your fault. Just the frustration talking." He typed quickly on his tablet. "So, are we going to fly today or do you need more time alone with her?"

"You want to fly?" John asked, surprised.

McKay looked at him. "I want to know how they work, and a trip around will tell me more than just looking at the specs. And since I don't need to be an Empath to know that you're dying to take it out, it's a win-win situation, isn't it?" McKay asked with a grin.

John was tempted to reply something withering about presumptions, but, really, it will be like shooting himself in the foot since he really wanted to take the ship out for a trek.

"Chop, chop, gateship's waiting!"

"Gateship?"

"It's how the Ancients called them. Or do you prefer porta navis?" McKay retorted.

"Porta navis? A little Puddle Jumper like this? Nah!" John replied and activated his radio. "Control Room, this is Sheppard in Puddle Jumper One."

"I thought they were called gateships?" Chuck asked.

"Nah, too pompous for these little Puddle Jumpers," John answered.

"As you say, Sir," Chuck replied.

"I'm taking Jumper One and McKay out for a trip. Keep an eye on us on the sensors. Teldy, tell Lorne he's in charge while I'm out."

"Yes, sir," Teldy replied.

"Sheppard out."

Sheppard closed the hatch and activated the drive pods. As the ship rose inside the bay's shaft, the exit hatch opened. Once outside, he chose a direction at random. The ship quickly accelerated to Match 2, but they didn't feel it at all. It was the smoothest ride he had ever piloted. John guided the jumper though increasingly complicated maneuvers, while McKay was immersed on the data the jumper was transmitting to his tablet. Sheppard changed their angle and steered the ship out the planet's atmosphere, until they achieved geosynchronous orbit.

The view was spectacular. Under him, Lantea was a deep blue marble, sprinkled with a few landmasses here and there. To the left, the planet's only moon hung up alone, its surface marked by craters of asteroid impacts. Further away, a nebula sparkled with new stars. John adjusted his sight to behold the intricate play of blue, red and orange clouds chasing each other against the big black.

Several minutes later, John turned around and frowned when he noticed McKay still had his nose on the tablet. Swiftly, he pulled it away from the scientist.

"Hey!" McKay protested. "You can't..."

"Look up, McKay! You're supposed to be an astrophysicist and you're missing everything!"

"It's not that..." McKay shut up when he looked out. "OK, maybe you're right," he conceded, leaning forward over the control panel.

After several minutes, John leaned towards McKay without taking his eyes off the view and asked: "Want to see how the jumper behaves underwater?"

John was the last one to arrive to the meeting the next day. Lorne, Teldy, Callahan and Porter smirked at him, making him blush. McKay frowned, looking around the table. John was sure he was about to ask, so he started talking even before he was completely seated.

"OK, let's start. Major Lorne, how are things going?"

"Everyone is settling along. Most people have chosen individual quarters, but a few had chosen to double up. We still have rooms free, but we should start clearing out more space for the people arriving on the Daedalus," Lorne explained.

"Yes, that's a good idea. Major Teldy, could you take care of it?" John asked.

"Yes, Sir. If possible, I'd like to use the same teams who scouted the rooms yesterday. They already know what to look for."

"OK, do that. Anything else, Lorne?"

"Well, Staff Sergeant Mahoney and her people found the mess hall, which has a real kitchen, so we should expect real food today." Everyone looked relieved at that. "About the control room, I'd like to assign Sergeant Campbell, Master Corporal Banks and Corporal Rollins as shift leaders until the rest of our people arrive. They've got the most experience as gate technicians."

"Agreed, Major. Unless you have any other suggestions, McKay?" John asked, looking at the scientist.

"No, no, I agree. At least, with them I won't have to worry about someone breaking the gate."

"Errr... OK," John looked puzzled, but continued. "Implement it, Major. Anything else?"

“We need to set turns for Lania to teach people Ancient on the chair. We’ve had a few misunderstandings since her ability to communicate off the chair is limited and people can’t read the messages she sends out.”

“Yes, you’re right. Make a list and get them all through the chair between today and tomorrow. And add yourself and Teldy at the top of the list. Warn them she’ll give them the locator tattoo too.” John ordered and the Major nodded. “Is that all?”

"Yes, Sir."

"Are there any problems due to the restricted access for mundanes?"

"Not for now. Most of them understand the Ancients are to blame," Lorne said.

"OK." John looked at the right side of the table. "Dr. McKay?"

"I have Esposito and Branton going through the self-diagnostic you asked Lania to do. There are lots of things to check, but they haven’t found anything vital for now. Hewston is cataloguing what we're found so far, which is not that much but I don't want anyone getting blown up or, worse, breaking anything."

"Nice to know your priorities," Lorne muttered. McKay glared at him, but continued.

"The third and fourth floors are labs, so I'll need a couple of your goons to clear them out with Porter and Monroe."

John frowned at him. "You just called highly-trained soldiers goons, McKay?"

"How I should call them? Outstanding examples of military excellence?" McKay retorted.

Sheppard snorted. "Major Lorne, assign a team to escort Dr. McKay's people, please."

"Yes, Sir."

"Anything else, McKay?" John asked. Before answering, McKay swallowed two Tylenol. Sheppard frowned, since it was the third day in a row he’d seen the scientist do that. He looked at Callahan, who mouthed I’ll keep an eye on him.

"I'm going to examine the ZPM room today,” McKay informed him, having not noticed the exchange. “So, you'll have to do without Harris for a few hours since I need his advanced access."

"I'm sure we'll manage," John snarked mildly. "That's all?"

"Since I only have six of my people here, and that's counting your man Harris, there's not much more I can do right now," McKay retorted.

"I'll take that as a yes." John looked down the table. "Captain Callahan?"

"The infirmary is up and running, Sir. We're still cataloguing the medical equipment, but I think we'll have it done by the time Dr. Beckett arrives. On the patient side, we've only had a couple of minor injuries so far. And speaking of, someone owes me a full checkup," the medic grinned.

"I remember, Captain," John replied, stressing the man's rank, but though Callahan smoothed out the smirk, he could still see the merriment in the Captain's gaze. "I'll come by later." Sheppard took down a couple of notes on his own tablet. "Well, now that's taken care of... the other issue: the first expedition."

McKay straightened in his chair. "Did Lania tell you anything about them?"

"Yeah, but not much. She confirmed that they gated there 13 Earth months ago. Since they didn't have a Praetor with them, she forced them to dial out. They didn't go willingly, which probably accounts for the trampled evidence we found. She says a woman, which I believe was Dr. Weir, ordered a man to hack into her."

"Radek," Rodney muttered.

"Probably. But Lania rejected his attempts. So, if we find him..."

"When we find him," McKay corrected.

"When we find him," Sheppard acknowledged, "he'd have some groveling to do for Lania to forgive him," John smirked. "She had to use force fields to push them out of the city."

"Do we know where she sent them to?" Lorne asked.

"Yes. It was a planet known to the Ancients as Athos."

“We need to check if they’re still here!” McKay demanded. “We can use a Jumper…”

“What about the Wraith?” Teldy interrupted him.

John could feel the mood on the room turn somber. Last night, he’d explained to the rest of their expedition what Lania had taught him about the Wraith. Watching the visual explanation on the hologram room helped them believe it. Even worse, Lania confirmed that she could detect hive ship signals on her long-range sensors.

After the Goa’uld and the Ori, no one believed they could find an enemy that could be worse.

Nobody imagined one that would think of them as food.

Later that night, Sheppard could overhear several mundanes praying to their particular incarnation of God, as the Goddess received pleas from some of his own people.

“That’s why we need to find them!” McKay insisted.

“Yes, but I’m not risking our people by going blind.” Sheppard continued before McKay could interject. “We’ll wait for the Daedalus. After 13 months, one or two more days doesn’t matter. The Daedalus can be our air cover when go to Athos to investigate,” John stated, looking directly at McKay, who held his gaze for a few seconds before slumping.

“Yes, you’re right.” McKay looked back up at John. “I’m going to do a thorough check-up on the Puddle Jumpers. I want to make sure they don’t break on us. We’ll need them.”

“Good idea, McKay. Tell me if you need help,” John said. He looked around the table. “Everyone knows what to do. Let’s make sure we’re ready to bring our people home.”

Chapter Text

The Daedalus arrived at noon on their fourth day in Atlantis, carrying the rest of their personnel and supplies. Lania only allowed the ship to land if piloted by one of her people, which was the reason Major Lorne found himself in the ship's pilot chair during landing, with a very pissed off Captain Cooper glaring at him the whole way down, and promising very personal bodily damage if he gave even a scratch to her ship.

Colonel Sheppard was waiting on the pier when the Daedalus' ramp lowered and Colonel Caldwell descended.

"Welcome to Atlantis, Colonel," Sheppard saluted.

"I see you've found our wayward city, Colonel," Caldwell saluted back.

"Well, she's a lady and just wanted to be treated properly," Sheppard quipped.

"And it seems she's quite picky too," Caldwell commented. "I have a rather pissed off pilot, Sheppard."

"I'll try to smooth things out between them," John promised.

"I'll appreciate it," Caldwell stated. "Now, what..."

"Get out off the way! ZPM incoming!" McKay pushed Caldwell to the side, and kept walking rapidly without looking back, followed by a hurried-looking Daedalus' female scientist.

"My apologies, Colonel!" She burbled before rushing after McKay. "Really, Dr. McKay, I think..."

"I know what I'm doing, Novak!" McKay interrupted. "Now, if you want to watch the ZPM in action, stop thinking and follow me!" McKay continued down the pier at a brisk pace, Novak after him. "Harris, with me! Porter, you're in charge of shepherding the minions! Try to make sure they don’t' break anything!" he ordered before disappearing inside the city with Novak and Harris, while Porter glowered at him.

"How the hell did he get into my ship?" Caldwell growled.

"He hacked into the transporter," a calm voice stated behind him.

"How's that possible, Hermiod?" Caldwell asked the Asgard.

"I intend to find out, Colonel," the alien stated, frowning severely. He descended the ramp, typing quickly into a strange-looking tablet. "I do not appreciate his interference with my systems."

"Try not be too hard on him, Hermiod," Sheppard asked. "I need my Chief Scientist."

"I'll make sure to return him to you in working condition, Colonel," Hermiod stated, nodding to both officers before following the same way McKay had taken.

"Why do I think that does not bode well for McKay?" Sheppard asked. Caldwell just snorted.

The next morning, Sheppard walked into the conference room five minutes before the scheduled meeting time.

"Good morning," he greeted, and a chorus of "Good morning, Sir" answered him. He took his seat at the head of the table, nursing his cup of double cappuccino. Majors Lorne and Teldy sat at his right, while Colonel Caldwell and his second, Captain Kleinman, occupied the left side of the table. Dr. Beckett and Dr. Porter sat opposite him, with only one seat left open.

McKay stormed in just as the meeting was about to start, a thunderous scowl on his face. His hair still looked damp and he hadn't shaved, his t-shirt was skewed and the uniform jacket hang up only from one arm. He was carrying an extra-large mug, and some of the coffee sloshed over when he put it down on the table abruptly, alongside his tablet PC. He plopped down on the chair, shrugging to get his arm through the left sleeve of his jacket.

"Forgot to set up the alarm, McKay?" Sheppard smirked.

"No, Colonel, I certainly did not forget," he snarled. "However, the alarm mysteriously reprogrammed itself, and instead of waking me up one hour ago, with the dulcet tones of Vivaldi's Spring, it went off only 15 minutes ago, playing the Ride of the Valkyries at an eardrum-ripping volume!" McKay's voice rose in volume until he practically yelled the last word. At his side, Potter snickered. He breathed deeply a couple of times. "Also, I had to take a detour through the mess hall since it seems that my room has an infestation of invisible mice with a taste for expensive Kona coffee and Belgian chocolate." On the other side of the table, Colonel Caldwell snorted. McKay glowered at him. "Do you happen to know about them, Colonel?"

"No, Doctor, but I'll be sure to keep an eye out for them," Caldwell answered him, pulling his own coffee cup closer. At his side, Captain Kleinman tried to hide his snicker behind his own cup. McKay glared at everyone before taking a long gulp of his coffee and grimacing.

"Well, I'm sure you'll be able to track them down later," Sheppard answered, trying not to laugh. "Let's start. Everyone's aware of the situation. One year ago, the first expedition gated here but Lania forced them to leave, sending them to a planet called Athos. 10.000 years ago, Athos was populated by several nomadic tribes, but we don't know the current situation. McKay?"

"When she opened the gate for the first expedition, Lania gathered some basic data," he typed quickly on his PC and the room's monitor lit up, "which matched what Lania had already divulged: basic Earth-like planet on gravity, atmosphere and climate, with 21 hours-long days and two moons. The air didn't show signs of contaminants or pollution and she didn't detect any kind of electromagnetic signal but the data she pulled from the DHD showed frequent use." He looked around the table. "So, at most, we'd be dealing with a pre-industrial civilization like those we've encountered back in the Milky Way, which shouldn't pose a problem." He typed on his tablet again and the data on the screen changed to a star map with a plotted course. "Athos is in the same galactic sector, so it should take the Daedalus about three hours to reach the planet," he finished, looking at Caldwell.

"Yes, Hermiod agrees with you," Caldwell answered while McKay frowned at the mention of the Asgard. "How do you want to play it, Sheppard?"

John leaned back on his chair. "Two teams, one for recon and another to protect the gate, plus two cloaked Puddle Jumpers as protection. I'll lead the recon team with Lorne and Teldy," he nodded at his XO, "while Captain Vega will take charge of the second. McKay will be with Edison in one of the Jumpers and I'd like to borrow Captain Levine to pilot the other jumper, if you agree."

"I'll tell him to report to you," Caldwell agreed. "You'll be taking all senior officers off the city."

"I know, but Lorne and Teldy's Gifts are especially suited for this type of mission," Sheppard replied, and Caldwell agreed with a nod. "It seems that Athos is three solar hours behind us," Sheppard looked at McKay, who nodded, "so if you can depart within two hours, we can gate to Athos before their noon, which will give us at least six hours to look for our people."

"It's workable," Caldwell agreed.

"Colonel, I'll like for another doctor to accompany you in one of the Jumpers, with an expanded medical kit," Beckett added. "We don't know the state our people would be in."

"Do you have someone in mind?"

"Dr. Adams has extensive field experience in crisis situations," Beckett suggested.

"OK, but, out here, he has to obey my orders," Sheppard indicated.

"It wouldn't be a problem," Beckett assured him.

"OK. Any other questions?" Sheppard asked. "And no, Majors, I won't change my mind about leading the recon team!" he remarked pointedly when Lorne and Teldy tried to intervene.

"It was worth a shot," Lorne shrugged, which earned snorts and snickers around the table.

Sheppard sighed. "Meeting's over!"

The sun filtered between the tree tops when they stepped through the gate to Athos. John’s soldiers fanned out in a protective semi-circle and John could feel the smooth static of Lorne's force field when he arrived. He dialed up his sight and hearing and, discarding his team's heartbeats and the shield's frequency, started scanning the wide forest clearing systematically, walking the perimeter of the Major's force field. The clearing was surrounded by tall spruces and firs and wide-trunk red cedars, surrounded by lush underbrush. A couple of deer-like animals with reddish-brown fur grazed calmly in a nearby glade, while a mottled gray-brown bird, with a passing resemblance to an owl, napped on a gnarled branch. To his right, he could hear some running water, a small stream by the sound of it. On the opposite side of the gate, directly in front of Lorne, there was a carefully cleaned footpath and, close to it, he found an accelerated heartbeat, too loud to belong to any of the animals he'd seen and not belonging to anyone on his team. John walked up to his XO's position.

"Sir?" Lorne asked.

"A heartbeat on the left side of the footpath," Sheppard informed him. "Not sure if it's human." John zoomed on a particularly large red cedar, shifting his vision to infrared, and smiled. "Clever bastard." Lorne looked at him quizzically. "There's someone in that tree, using some kind of ghillie suit. It's cleverly made, but as far as I know, trees don't have thermal signatures… or lungs, for that matter" he smirked. "Shift your shield, Major," he ordered Lorne, dialing his sight back to normal.

Evan closed his eyes and his shield fizzled for a moment. John could feel the energy frequency change as Lorne shifted his shield to allow electromagnetic communications to pass through. Once the shield settled again, John activated his radio.

"Daedalus, this is Sheppard. Do you copy?"

"Yes, Sheppard. We have you located," Caldwell answered through the radio.

"We've got a scout hidden in the forest, though he seems to be alone. Did you find any settlements?" John asked.

"We've spotted only one settlement, three klicks northwest of your position. Looks like big tents, no sign of advanced technology."

"Understood, Daedalus. We're going to proceed."

"We'll be keeping an eye on you. Daedalus out."

"Drop the shield, Major," Sheppard ordered and then turned around. "Clear the gate!" His men quickly moved away to the sides of the Stargate and John activated his radio. "Atlantis, this is Sheppard. Send the Jumpers through but tell them to come cloaked."

"Jumpers on their way, sir," Chuck acknowledged.

A couple of seconds later, the gate vortex rippled twice in quick succession and the breeze created by the Jumpers coming through swept through the clearing. Sheppard followed them by sound while they got into position. Jumper Two, with McKay and Edison, floated over the clearing ahead of them while Jumper Three, piloted by Levine, stood guard over the gate.

"Sheppard to the Jumpers. We've got a camouflaged scout on the left side of the path."

"Yes, we have him in the HUD, sir, " Lieutenant Edison answered. "He seems to be moving."

John zoomed on the red cedar again. "Probably back to the settlement the Daedalus detected, three klicks northwest," he answered, zooming out.

"The Jumper is detecting at least 70 lifesigns there," McKay added. "No signs of technology, though."

"Yes, the Daedalus found the same," Sheppard confirmed. "All right. Jumper Three, you stay here with Vega's team. Protect the gate and our rear."

"Yes, Sir," both Captains Vega and Levine replied in unison.

"Recon Team, you're with me. Jumper Two, follow us but stay behind about 100 meters, so you won't distract my senses," John ordered.

"Yes, yes, understood!" McKay replied. "Are we going or not?"

John rolled his eyes and signaled his men to advance.

The footpath wonded through the forest in a mostly straight line. Sheppard was on point, using his senses to check the way ahead, with Donovan and Reese at his sides and slightly behind. Lorne advanced in the middle, ready to throw his Shield over the team if necessary. Teldy brought the rear, using her Arachne senses to make sure they weren't ambushed from behind. Kemp, Callahan and Mehra completed the Recon Team.

They've been walking for half an hour when Sheppard signaled the team to stop and turned to face them.

"Our scout has decided to stop shadowing us and speed up to the settlement," he informed them. "We're 550 meters away from it. Donovan, shadow up and do a recon. Don't use the radio, just whisper. I'll hear you. Afterwards, find a good position to be our ace up the sleeve."

"Yes, Sir," Kyle acknowledged and breathed deeply. His silver eyes became covered in a metallic film for a second before the organic Shadow polymer began pouring out of his pores, covering his skin and clothes, rendering him completely invisible.

"Wow!" Sgt. Mehra whispered. The expressions on the other's faces matched her appreciation.

Donovan's feet left a few light marks on the soil as he walked into the surrounding forest. John turned up his hearing to follow him, using the red cedar's strong smell to ground himself against a zone out. Kyle's fox-walked through the trees, breathing slowly and evenly, avoiding branches and rocks, silent for anyone without enhanced senses. John used his heartbeat as a beacon to follow his progress, while his Thales' abilities helped him calculate his position and route. He heard him stop for a moment on the verge of the clearing, before starting fox-walking again around the perimeter. The clearing was strangely silent. He could count 73 heartbeats, but only fragments of whispered conversations that didn't make sense to him.

"Everyone seems to be on alert, Sir," Donovan reported. "Several locals are armed with longbows and staffs. All of them are around the biggest tent, on the northwest side, like waiting for something. I've seen a young man entering that tent, and I think he may be our scout from his clothing. I'll try to get closer."

John related Donovan's report to the others and activated his radio. "Edison, position Jumper Two over the clearing, on the path's exit," he ordered, after updating them on the situation. "You're our air cover."

"Yes, Sir," Edison acknowledged. John smiled when he overheard McKay muttering "Longbows!" on the background.

"Teldy, take position on the west side trees. Cover us and prevent anyone from leaving," he ordered the Major.

"Yes, Sir," Teldy acknowledged. After taking out her backpack and boots, which Kemp and Mehra took custody of, she jumped on the closest red cedar, leaping from tree to tree until she disappeared from view.

John zoomed in on Donovan again. "I can't hear all that they're saying, but I got 'Tau'ri', 'P-90s' and 'Stackhouse'," Donovan reported. "Also, I found a good spot. Ready when you are."

Sheppard relayed the information back to the team and the Jumper. "OK, we're rolling in. Weapons ready, but keep them down. We don't engage unless engaged. Kemp, be ready to send an emergency signal to the Daedalus if needed. And remember that bullets ricochet inside Lorne's shield. We don't need blue on blue contact, OK?"

A chorus of "Sir, yes, Sir!" spiced up with smirks and snorts answered him.

"Do you really need to..." McKay started on the radio.

"McKay," Sheppard interrupted him. "I don't need an assessment of me, my men's IQ, or your perceived lack thereof right now, OK?"

"As you wish, Oh Grand General," McKay snarked over the comm before John closed the channel. He pretended not to hear the snickers behind him as he activated his radio. "Sheppard to Daedalus, we're rolling in. Be ready for an emergency beam up on Kemp's signal."

"Transporter's ready," Caldwell answered, "and we have the sensors locked on you."

"Understood. Sheppard's out."

As they approached the clearing, John could see the locals in a rough semicircle around the main tent. He noted Donovan and Teldy's positions, and quietly signaled them to the rest of his team. To his right, he felt the buzz of Reese's Lighting under his skin as he charged up; to his left, he could detect the acrid smell of Mehra's Naga poison pooling in her mouth and behind him, he could feel the static over Lorne's skin, ready to deploy a Shield if needed, and the heat pooling in Callahan's hands, as much able to heal as they were to cause excruciating pain.

As they walked into the clearing, he found himself calculating distances, positions, angles and trajectories, and adding them to their weapons’ and powers’ range, speed and impact. He had at least seven ways to kill them all under a minute before they were three steps in, and he subtly signaled Reese and Mehra to take better positions.

The locals were watching them with expressions ranging from distrust to overt hostility, eyes narrowed, jaws set, muscles tense, crossbows ready but pointed to the ground, staffs on hand. John could hear their accelerated heartbeats, the sharp scent of adrenaline in the air, and the distinctive tang of fear and anger. He stopped his team two meters away from the group.

He cleared his throat to talk, but then the tent's flap opened, and a bronze-skinned woman walked out. Immediately, the others gave way for her. She walked with aplomb and elegance, her long brown hair swayed by the wind. She stopped just slightly inside the circle of her people.

"You know you're not welcome there, Tau'ri," she said.

"Ummm... you've got me at a disadvantage here," Sheppard answered. "You seem to know who we are but we've got no idea of who you are. Maybe you're mistaking us for someone else?"

A taller man who stood to the leader's right side seemed ready to intervene, but she cut him off with a gesture. She pinned John with her dark brown eyes.

"Do you answer to the name of Tau'ri?" she asked.

"Sometimes," John answer cautiously.

"Yet you deny to know us?"

"Well, this is the first time we've set foot here so... I'm sorry, ma’am, I can't say I know you, but I'm sure we can be friends," John smiled.

"What kind of trick do you think you're playing?" The taller man growled. "You wear their uniforms and their weapons! Does she think we're so stupid?"

"Whoa, whoa, calm down, Big Boy!" John tried to placate him. "So, you've met people like us before? Well, that's good, because we are looking for some people we have misplaced..."

"Liar!" the taller man shouted and took a menacing step towards him. John felt the smooth static of Lorne's Shield settling over them just before the man's fist collided with it. The shield bounced off the kinetic energy of the man's movement, throwing him to the ground. Immediately, those armed with longbows pointed their arrows at them. One man stepped in front of their leader, his arrow set on John's heart.

"Stop!" Someone shouted from behind the human wall.

"Jason!" The lead woman turned to him. "You should stay inside!"

John and his team perked up at hearing the Earth-sounding name. Zooming his sight between the locals, John saw a young brown-haired man stumble out of the main tent. He was wearing native clothing, but had U.S. military-issue boots on. He walked with a slight limp, and John was puzzled when he smelled the spicy undertone of his kind on the man.

The younger man reached the lead woman, and put a hand on her arm to steady himself. He looked directly at John and smiled.

"Alpha," he stated, with a relieved tone. "Thank the Goddess!" He turned to the native woman. "They're not Weir's people, Teyla. They're from our homeworld, from Terra." He pointed at John. "He's an Alpha, a leader and protector among my kind." He turned toward her again. "In fact, all of them are of my kind. They won't harm us. Please, tell them to lower their weapons," he pleaded to her.

The lead woman, whom the man had called Teyla, looked searchingly at him for a moment, and then nodded.

"Lower your weapons, now!" she ordered. She was obeyed immediately, despite the distrust still plain in her people’s faces. Sheppard signaled Lorne to lower his Shield and walked towards the younger man.

"Pardon me, Sir, but we were starting to believe nobody would come!"

"There had been some trouble back home... ummm..." The younger man's face finally clicked on John's memory. "Sergeant Markham, isn't it?"

"Yes, Sir!"

"Colonel John Sheppard," he introduced himself. "Major Lorne, Sergeant Reese, Lt. Kemp, Sergeant Mehra and Captain Callahan," he introduced his team, leaving Donovan and Teldy out for now. "Is there anyone else here?"

Markham's face clouded. "Yes, Sir. Sergeant Stackhouse and Lance Corporal Alvez are also here." Markham gave the tent a quick glance. "Do you have a Healer with you, Sir?"

John motioned Callahan over. "Is anyone hurt, Sergeant?" the Captain asked.

"You could say so, Sir." Markham guided John and T.C. back to the tent. Teyla followed them, but the others kept their positions. A sudden shiver told John that Donovan was at his back.

Markham lifted the tent's flap, and signaled them to enter. The rank smell of sickness hit John as he stepped in. Opposite the entry, a man laid on a makeshift bed, his light-brown hair stuck by sweat to his ashen, clammy skin. Markham kneeled at this side.

"Marcus? Can you hear me?" he asked. The sick man opened his eyes and looked at him with a strange mix of pain and love. "Help's here, babe," Jason told him, softly pushing his mate’s sweaty hair away from his forehead.

Callahan knelt beside the man and tried to check him, but a stern-looking older woman caught his hand, giving him a hard look.

"Please, Eira, let him go. He's a Healer of my people. He can help," Jason pleaded with her. The woman looked at Jason and then back at TC, glaring at him. Without saying a word, she let go of Callahan's arm and retreated to the back of the tent. Callahan seized the chance to get closer and put his hands over his patient, closing his eyes. A few moments later, he looked up sharply at Markham.

"He's Sergeant Marcus Stackhouse, isn't he?" he asked.

"Yes, Sir," Markham confirmed.

"He wasn't listed as Bloodfire on his SGC records," Callahan stated. Surprised, John dialed up his smell and yes, under the sick foulness there was the spicy undertone of a Bloodfire.

"He Fired up shortly after we arrived at Pegasus," Markham explained. "He's my True Mate."

"I see," Callahan said, and went back to examining Stackhouse.

Meanwhile, Sheppard addressed the other man in the room.

"Lance Corporal Alex Alvez?" he asked.

"Yes, Sir!" the young man saluted.

"At ease, Corporal," John ordered. "We'll have the full debrief back at base, but can you tell me why the Athosians seem to hate us so much?"

"Well, the story is a bit long, Sir, but it boils down to the fact that the Expedition betrayed their trust, and trust is sacred for them. And afterwards..." Alvez shifted uncomfortably.

"Speak freely, Alvez."

"The Athosians are very respected in Pegasus, Sir. To justify herself, Dr. Weir turned to... questionable methods to put their credibility in doubt." Alvez informed him.

"And I suppose that by 'questionable' you mean dirty, underhanded and outright dishonorable?" Sheppard asked, dryly.

"That about sums it up, Sir," Alvez agreed.

"Shit!" Sheppard muttered.

"More than you can imagine," Alvez added. Sheppard looked at him, and noted the sad smile on the Corporal's face. He sighed. As if their mission wasn't complicated enough...

"Colonel!" Callahan called out. Sheppard turned to him. "We need to get him to Atlantis immediately! I can't help him here; his Healing’s a mess!"

"Atlantis?" Markham looked up in surprise. "The city didn't kick you out?"

"We managed to convince her to let us stay, Sergeant," Sheppard answered, cautiously. He didn't miss Teyla's narrowed eyes, but decided to ignore them. "What do you need, Doc?"

"Just the stretcher. I can't risk drugging him in his state," Callahan replied.

Sheppard exited the tent, walking to where the rest of his team was waiting. Lorne looked questioningly at him, but Sheppard shook his head. He walked up to Kemp's position. "Kemp," he whispered. "Transmit to Jumper Two to go back to that clearing we passed on our way here, decloak and wait for my orders."

The Lieutenant nodded and closed his eyes. Standing just by his side, John could feel the electric spike in Kemp's nervous system as he used his Transductor abilities to send the message directly to the Jumper with his mind. "Done, sir," he reported as he opened his eyes.

"Donovan?" Sheppard asked while he waited. An ice-cold touch on his arm confirmed the Lieutenant's presence. "Fetch Teldy, shadow her up and get into the Jumper as soon as it lands," he ordered in a low voice. "Don't let the Athosians see you." Donovan acknowledged the orders with the pre-accorded two touches on Sheppard's arm. John counted to 30 before he activated his radio.

"Jumper Two, we need immediate medical evac on the Athosian' settlement."

"On our way, Colonel," Lt. Edison replied.

"What's the situation, Colonel?" Dr. Adams asked.

"We found three of our people, but Sergeant Stackhouse is seriously sick, Doctor. He's a Bloodfire now and according to Callahan, his Healing is a mess." Sheppard didn't miss the doctor's sharp intake of breath.

"We should contact Atlantis and let Dr. Beckett know that he needs to have a Bloodfire treatment suite prepared, Colonel," the doctor advised.

"Call Jumper Three and tell them what they have to say, Doctor."

"Immediately, Colonel.”

"I thought your people's Healing could defeat anything, Colonel," McKay interjected, while Adams contacted the other Jumper on the background.

"Well, not everything, but usually you'd be right," Sheppard explained.

"Which means Stackhouse is in real trouble, isn't he?" McKay asked.

"Right on it. You worrying for a goon, McKay?" Sheppard smirked.

"He saved my life once, back at the SGC," McKay admitted, though he sounded reluctant. "He's a good man."

"So I've heard," Sheppard answered as Jumper Two came into view, which caused a stir among the Athosians, who moved to block its way down. He turned to Teyla, who had followed him out. "Miss Teyla, could you tell your people to clear a space for our Jumper to land, please?"

"You're really going to take care of Marcus, Jason and Alex?" she asked, looking directly at him.

"I still don't know the details of what Dr. Weir had done to you, but I can promise you that her actions do not represent our world as a whole, not even the mundanes in it. However, as Bloodfires, other rules bind us. Did my people tell you about Blood Oaths?" he asked.

"They did, and they made one when they came to live with us," she explained. "Unlike your other people, they've kept their word."

"Of course, they did. For us, a Blood oath is sacred. We don't make them lightly," he said, taking his Ka-Bar knife out of its sheath. He turned to Corporal. Alvez, who'd followed him out of the tent. "Alex, tell Jason to come out, please."

The young man's eyes widened for a moment before he complied. As he exited the tent, Markham saw the unsheathed knife, giving Sheppard a tight smile and a nod, as both men joined him.

"Evan, Brian, take your place as witnesses, please," John asked. As the Pride's Beta, Lorne took position at Sheppard's right side, while Reese took the left, as the highest-ranked Bloodfire present after Lorne, since Teldy's presence was still a secret.

"Jason, Alex, Miss Teyla wants reassurance that we'll take care of you before allowing you to leave with us," John explained. "Are you willing to take a Blood Oath for our Pride?" he asked.

"John," Jason answered, as given names were used for Bloodfire business. "I'll be honored to, in my name and that of my mate."

John nodded and looked at Alex, who was still looking at them with wide eyes. Jason slapped his arm.

"Ouch!" he exclaimed. "Umm... yes, yes, I'll take it," he babbled. Jason rolled his eyes at him while John smirked. Jason stood facing the Alpha and John presented his knife, edge up, between them.

"As Alpha of the Atlantis Pride, I pledge my protection to you, Jason Markham, and your mate, Marcus Stackhouse." John intoned the formal oath, resting his left forearm on the knife's edge, allowing it cut the skin. "From this moment on, you're of my Blood: your friends are my friends, your enemies are my enemies; we shall share happiness and sorrow, success and troubles, light and darkness, until the Goddess calls us to Her side or she parts our ways in the world."

Jason also rested his left forearm on the knife's edge, clasping John's hand as he did so. "I, Jason Markham, in my name and that of my mate, Marcus Stackhouse, accept your pledge, Alpha John Sheppard, and make my own: from this moment on, we’re of your Pride and your Blood; your friends are our friends, your enemies are our enemies; we shall share happiness and sorrow, success and troubles, light and darkness, until the Goddess calls us to Her side or she parts our ways in the world."

Carefully, John took away the knife, allowing the two wounds to touch and the blood to mingle for the brief seconds it took their Healing to repair them. Evan came forward, clasping Jason's healed forearm while his new pridemate clasped his.

"As John's Beta, I welcome you to our Pride, our new Blood Brothers," Evan spoke, the formal lines falling easily from his lips. "We'll share your happiness and your sorrow, we'll be at your side through light and darkness, and you'll never be alone as long as there's still one of us walking in this world."

"We will be honored to walk with you, Blood Brother, through light and darkness, happiness and sorrow, until the day the Goddess calls us to her side," Jason answered. Both men let go of each other with a nod, and Jason turned to Alex, who was biting his lips nervously. Jason pulled him in front of John, hugging him one-armed. Alex allowed himself rest against his friend's side for a moment before pulling back and breathing deeply as he turned towards John.

Once again, the Alpha placed the knife between them, reopening the just-healed cut. "As Alpha of the Atlantis Pride, I pledge my protection to you, Alex Alvez. From this moment on, you're of my Blood: your friends are my friends, your enemies are my enemies; we shall share happiness and sorrow, success and troubles, light and darkness, until the Goddess calls us to Her side or she parts our ways in the world."

Alex mirrored his position. Though he was breathing noticeably faster, he managed to complete the oath on the first try. "I, Alex Alvez, accept your pledge, Alpha John Sheppard, and make my own: from this moment on, I'm of your Pride and your Blood; your friends are my friends, your enemies are my enemies; we shall share happiness and sorrow, success and troubles, light and darkness, until the Goddess calls us to Her side or she parts our ways in the world."

John smiled encouragingly at him as they completed the ritual and Lorne once again came forward to complete his part. After it was done, John turned to Teyla.

"Is that enough for you, Miss Teyla?" he asked, respectfully.

The alien woman looked directly at him, as if she was trying to read his soul. It was the same slightly unsettling feeling he got from an Empath's reading, but without the warm sensation that accompanied an actual reading. After a few tense moments, she nodded.

"It is, Colonel Sheppard. Just remember this: I gave my own word to them when we they came to live with us and if I ever suspect you're breaking your oath, I promise you that you will regret it dearly for the rest of your life," she warned him.

"If I break it, you're welcome to kick my ass all the way to the hereafter," John agreed. "With extreme prejudice," he added with a smile that, finally, made Teyla chuckle.

"Move back," she ordered her people. "Let their craft land!"

The Athosians complied, looking more relaxed than when they‘d arrived. The taller man still looked at them narrowly, standing stiffly with his arms crossed, but the others seemed reassured by his oath, according to the bits he was overhearing.

Jumper Two landed cleanly, with its hatch facing them. As it opened, Dr. Adams and Private Walker ran to the tent, carrying the stretcher with them.

"So... everything settled?" McKay asked, joining Sheppard.

"For now, I think so," he answered. "Dr. McKay, this is Teyla... sorry, I didn't get your full name?"

"Teyla Emmagan, daughter of Tagan," she smiled.

"Teyla Emmagan, meet Dr. Rodney McKay, our resident scientific genius," John quipped. Rodney threw him a quick narrow-eyed look.

"Nice to meet you, Miss Emmagan," he greeted her. "You have a very..." Rodney looked around quickly, "nice place here," he finally settled on, with a nervous smile.

"Thank you, Dr. McKay," she smiled.

Dr. Adams and Private Walker exited the tent, carrying the stretcher with Sergeant Stackhouse in it, while Captain Callahan kept one hand over the Sergeant's torso. A quick vision shift to infrared confirmed John's guess that the Healer was using his Gift to keep his patient stable. As they boarded the Jumper with Markham and Alvez, Teyla addressed John again.

"Colonel, would you be so kind to send us word about their progress, please?"

"Sure, but I have a better idea. Why you don't come to Atlantis to see them yourself in, let's say, three days’ time?" Sheppard offered.

Teyla gasped, looking at him incredulously. "You would allow us into the city of the Ancestors?" A murmur rose among her people.

"Well, Lania can be a bit... picky, but I'm sure I can convince her to allow us to invite our new friends for dinner," John grinned. At his side, Rodney snorted, but John ignored him.

"It will be an honor to see the city of the Ancestors, Colonel," Teyla accepted.

"That's settled, then! Just one thing: our gate is protected by a shield, and requires a code, so one of my people will have to come to get you. Don't walk through directly. It'll be... umm... quite fatal."

"Understood, Colonel." Teyla took a step toward him, grasping his forearms and bending her head slightly. John stiffened, looking wide-eyed at Rodney, who only grinned. Hesitantly, he copied the gesture until Teyla rested her forehead against his for a moment, before taking a step back.

"I will see you in three sunrises’ time, Colonel," she smiled. “Fare well.”

Chapter Text

Colonel Sheppard looked through the one-way window to the Bloodfire treatment room. On Dr. Beckett's orders, Lania had quickly repurposed one of the treatment rooms for critical patients for their needs. The room was built to be totally aseptic, with complete air and climate control, and a decontamination energy field at the entrance.

Marcus Stackhouse was resting in one of the room's beds, hooked up to a heart monitor in addition to the Ancient medical monitoring system and an IV drip. He seemed to be sleeping soundly and had a better color than a few hours ago, but he still looked gaunt, his cheekbones protruding visibly under the too pale, blotchy skin. Dr. McKenzie sat at his bedside, with both her hands over Stackhouse's body and her eyes closed in concentration. John didn't need infrared vision to know the Healer was working on their new Pridemate.

Jason Markham was lying on the bed next to his mate, with a temporary hard brace on his lower right leg. The bed had been pushed close and even in sleep, he kept a tight hold on his mate's hand. Luke Alvez was sleeping in the bed besides him, bundled under a heavy blanket. Both looked too lean, without the usual healthy muscle tone of Bloodfires in their prime.

John heard the door of the observation room open and recognized Dr. Beckett's personal smell, a mix of the spicy warm notes of his cologne, medical antiseptics and the distinct spicy undertone of his people. The doctor walked up to his side.

"How are they, Carson?"

"Jason ‘n’ Luke are undernourished, but nothing that some good meals won’t fix. They told me that maintaining our usual high-calorie diet would have eaten up the Athosians resources, so they had to compromise. Jason was limping because his ankle healed at a wrong angle. We had to break it again, but a'm certain it's going to heal well in a few hours. Marcus however..." the doctor broke off, looking at his patient through the one-way mirror.

"The truth, Carson. How bad it is?"

"A've never seen or read about anythin’ like this, John," Carson admitted, looking back at him. "It's like his regenerative system didn’t know if it has to heal or attack him, ‘n’ is doing both by bursts, which in turn has affected his immune system ‘n’ is keeping his body under extreme stress." The doctor sighed. "For now, we can only keep him stable if a Healer is constantly monitoring him ‘n’ blocking the negative reactions. We've set a rotation, but this is only a temporary solution."

"Any ideas?"

"Nae yet. We've spend all night healing the damage ‘n’ stabilizing him. I have my people running full genetic, blood ‘n’ metabolic tests, maybe that'll shed some light."

John took a good look at Carson. His hair was a disheveled mess, his uniform looked rumpled like he had slept in it, and his beard was darker than his usual scruff, with more than a hint of shadows under his eyes that even his Healing couldn’t disguise. "You look like hell." Carson snorted while he tried to pull his shirt straight. "The debrief is still four hours away. Try to rest a bit."

"There's still..."

"Do I need to make it an order?"

"Alpha..."

"Or maybe I should call your mate?" John smirked, his hand moving to the radio.

"No need for that, Alpha," Kate announced behind them. She stood at the door, a very stern and determined look on her face as she scanned her mate.

"I'm leaving him in your very capable hands, Kate" John stated, moving away from the window.

“Thank you, John.”

As he walked out, he’d have sworn Carson whimpered.

The conference room was strangely somber the next morning. While Chuck was finishing setting up the recording equipment, John observed McKay, seated at his right. The man looked haggard, with bloodshot eyes peering over the extra-size coffee cup he was sipping while he rubbed his right temple in slow circles. John threw a worried look at Beckett. The doctor took up his tablet and typed up a quick message that immediately appeared in John's screen.

Headaches getting worse. Bioscan didn’t show the cause. We're waiting for the medical scanner.

Should he be here? John typed back.

No. And he shouldn’t be drinking coffee either. But have a go telling him that.

John grimaced. Moving a mountain might be easier.

Keep me informed, he told Beckett, who just nodded.

"The camera's ready, Colonel" Chuck informed him.

"Thanks, Sergeant." Chuck nodded and sat in a chair behind the camera. "Attention please, we're starting," John added, looking around the table. To his left, Colonel Caldwell sat straighter in his chair, with a half-written notepad before him. Beside Caldwell, Lorne finished his water bottle while Teldy tried to stretch out without being too obvious about it. Sergeant Reese, as ranking NCO, sat further down, looking mildly bored. Opposite him, Dr. Porter closed her laptop and reclined in her chair.

Markham and Alvez sat at the other end of the table. They still looked too lean to him, but their skin had a better tone and their eyes seemed brighter.

"Sergeant, start recording," Sheppard ordered.

"Camera recording, Sir."

"Formal debriefing of Staff Sergeant Jason Markham, USMC, and Lance Corporal Alex Alvez, USMC, regarding the First Atlantis Expedition. Present in the room are Colonel Steven Caldwell, USAF; Major Evan Lorne, USAF; Major Anne Teldy, USMC; Gunnery Sergeant Brian Reese, USMC; Sergeant Chuck Campbell, CAF; Dr. Rodney McKay, Dr. Carson Beckett, Dr. Alison Porter and myself, Colonel John Sheppard, USAF. Sergeant Markham, you may proceed."

"Thank you, Sir." Markham cleared his throat. "As you know, we gated to Atlantis 13 Earth-months ago..."

Atlantis Gate room, 13 months ago.

The city was dark and silent after the wormhole closed. The only ambient light was a pale bluish luminescence coming from several large  windows located around the room, which made the flashlights mounted on their weapons the only viable light source, even with their limited range.

"Sergeant Markham!" Colonel Sumner barked.

"Yes, Sir?" Markham asked as he moved through the men to where Sumner stood.

"Let's see if those senses of yours are good for something.” Markham didn’t need Sentinel senses to hear the smirk in the Colonel’s voice. “Tell me where the heck we are."

Markham gritted his teeth and glared, happy for once that mundanes couldn’t see in the dark. "Yes, sir," he finally answered, reigning in his temper. Walking to the front of the group, he dialed up his sight, but the moving flashlights interfered in his vision, forcing him to dial down. "Colonel, I need the flashlights to stay still."

"Everybody, hold your weapons still!" Sumner grudgingly ordered.

"Thank you, Sir." Markham dialed up his sight again and looked around. "Were in a circular room, with walls at our left and behind the gate, but there's a closed door on our right," he informed him. Behind Sumner, he saw Weir look around anxiously into the darkness. He frowned as he turned around. "In front of us, there's a staircase. The landing branches out to the left to a circular wall. To the right, there are some structures," he zoomed in. "I think they may be consoles, but they're covered up."

"Are there screens?" asked a voice behind him.

"I think so, Dr. Grodin. There are some crystal plates that resemble the outpost's screens, but they're difficult to see."

"Anything else?" Colonel Sumner asked.

"To the right, I see a walkway that seems to lead to an empty crystal-walled room. And I think there are some stairs behind the consoles."

"We need to check those consoles, Colonel," Dr. Weir ordered. "Dr. Grodin, if you may?"

"Markham, Bates, accompany Dr. Grodin upstairs and..." Before Sumner could finish his orders, a single light switched on in front of the Stargate and a pillar rose out the floor, a metallic cylinder with a hand-shaped plate on top. It stopped at waist height, and a red light flickered on. Grodin and Zelenka approached it.

"What is it?" Weir asked her CSO, narrowing her eyes.

"The scans show nothing," the Czech scientist answered in his accented English. "It's not giving off any signals. I think it may be waiting for our input," he suggested. Dr. Weir made a move to approach the plate. "Sergeant Markham is our strongest ATA carrier."

"Yes, of course," she agreed, crossing her arms to cover up the aborted movement.

Markham approached the pillar and placed his hand on the plate. The light flashed amber for several seconds, before switching to red again.

"Sergeant, what happened?"

"I'm not sure, Sir. I got a feeling of... disappointment?" he frowned, unsure.

"Dr. Grodin, try it," Weir ordered.

Peter Grodin repeated Markham's actions, and got the same result. "I'm sorry, but I’m getting the same. It feels like disillusion and... regret?" he wondered, looking at Markham.

"You're talking like the city is alive," Weir chastised them. Markham looked at Grodin, but neither said anything. Weir pushed Grodin aside and placed her hand on the plate, but the light didn't switch to amber. She pressed down on the plate, her expression tightening, but the light remained stubbornly red. She took away her hand jerkily, closing it into a fist as she glared at the pillar. "Miller, Kusanagi, Alvez," she snapped. "Try it."

Lt. Miller made the first attempt, with the same result as Markham and Grodin. He shared a look with them, but didn’t comment. Dr. Kusanagi touched the plate hesitantly. The light seemed to flicker for a bit longer, before finally turning to red again. She looked somewhat between disappointed and relieved as she stepped away. Lance Corporal Alvez looked warily at the pillar, but placed his hand firmly. The result was the same: the light turned to red.

Dr. Weir glowered at them, her expression hard. "Abrams, Corrigan, your turn."

Dr. Abrams put his hand down warily, nearly jumping when the scan activated, and scurried to the back of the group when he got identical results. Dr. Corrigan winced when he stopped at Weir’s side, quickly placing his hand on the plate. He flinched away from her when the light turned red once more, and the other Bloodfires in the group pulled him away to create a protective circle around the Empath.

"We don't have any more ATA-positives," Colonel Sumner pointed out. Weir threw him a flinty look, and turned back without answering him. As she opened her mouth, an amber laser swept through the room, causing an uncomfortable tingling sensation as it passed over them.

"What's this?" Weir demanded.

"I think it's scanning us," Zelenka followed the light with his own scan. "It’s within safe parameters."

As the laser vanished, the pillar descended to its hiding place again. In the top landing, a screen switched on to an angry red as an alarm blared into the gate room. Dr. Grodin ran up the stairs followed by Zelenka, Markham and Sumner. A message in white Ancient script appeared on the screen.

"What does it say, Dr. Burnham?"

"Rea bloodline not identified. Starting eviction protocol," Burnham translated.

"The Stargate is dialing!" someone shouted from below.

Weir ran up the stairs, a thunderous look on her face. Zelenka moved quickly to one of the consoles, throwing the tarp away, but it remained inactive, even as Grodin and Markham touched it.

"We don't have access!"

"Then get it!" she hollered. "Hack it if you have to, but get me control of this city!" Behind her, the Stargate flared to life.

Zelenka crouched down and pried loose a panel under the console. He pulled out an interface from his pack that they’d cobbled together at the outpost. It was a misshaped metal box with a USB port on one side and a crystal connector on the other, with a bastardized mix of Earth, Goa'uld and Ancient technology inside. Zelenka pushed the connector on an empty crystal slot and started typing quickly.

"It's not accepting connection!"

Grodin crouched at his side, a hand on the console, willing it to activate while he read Zelenka's screen over his shoulder. Suddenly, he jumped and pushed Zelenka away just before a surge of electricity ran through the connector and fried Zelenka's tablet. Zelenka looked at him with wide eyes.

"I just got a feeling of... danger," Grodin shrugged.

"Thank you, Peter," Zelenka smiled, squeezing his friend’s hand. Grodin nodded with a smile.

A metallic screech rose from below just before an energy barrier started pressing against them. Zelenka staggered, holding on Grodin for support. Between them, they quickly recovered his equipment as the barrier keep pushing them towards the edge. They collided with Markham and Sumner, who were also being pushed out of the landing.

“What the hell is this, Doctor?” Sumner yelled.

"Force fields," Zelenka gasped, crushed between Grodin and Sumner. On their side, Weir tried to resist, only to stumble down the steps as the implacable force field forced her out. She gasped in pain as she tried to stand, her right ankle doubling under her weight. Colonel Sumner caught her on time, carrying her down the stairs.

On the gate floor, the force field was pushing the expedition and their supplies towards the open Stargate. As the unyielding force field closed on them, they had no option but to step through the wormhole, pulling their equipment with them.

Markham was the last one to leave, pushing Zelenka through as the force field reached the gate.

Jason Markham took a gulp of icy water as the people around the table digested what they have just heard.

"Was there anyone else injured, apart from Dr. Weir?" Sheppard asked.

"A few contusions and scratches, but nothing serious, Sir. Dr. Weir's sprained ankle was the worst of it."

"What happened when you arrived at Athos?"

"Dr. Weir was furious."

"She was spitting fire," Alvez interjected.

"Yes, she was," Markham agreed. "Zelenka and Grodin were taking a brutal dressing down when Teyla and her people appeared. They didn't look pleased, and even less when we pointed our P90s at them." McKay rolled his eyes, but refrained from commenting.

"Dr. Weir looked startled at first, but recovered quickly. She put on her best diplomatic mask and managed to negotiate an agreement with them in record time. The Athosians agreed to allow us to stay for the time being in exchange for medical care and help with the incoming harvest. They told us we could assemble our camp at a meadow on the other side of the grove. They only had one condition: that we didn't set foot in their Old City. They believed that doing so will make the Wraith come." Markham cleared his throat.

 "When Teyla and her people left, Dr. Weir make it clear that she didn't believe a word about the Wraith and used some... uncomplimentary adjectives to describe our hosts."

"Give me an example, Sergeant," Sheppard instructed.

"’Irrational’ and ‘primitive’ were thrown around," Markham admitted.

Sheppard frowned at that. "Understood, Sergeant. Continue."

"We spent the first two days setting up our camp and inventorying the supplies we had. Dr. Weir sent Dr. Cole and a nurse to the Athosian settlement as part of the deal. On the third day, Colonel Sumner sent Sergeant Stackhouse, Lance Corporal Smitty and myself on a reconnaissance mission of the Athosian settlement and the terrain around the Old City."

"The same Old City you were asked not to enter?" Sheppard asked.

"Yes, Sir. Colonel Sumner told us that Dr. Weir wanted to check the city without the Athosians noticing. She wanted to know if there was any technology left or if it was a more suitable place to settle."

"Even at the price of angering your hosts?" Caldwell asked. “Did Colonel Sumner agree with her?

Markham exchanged a side look with Alvez. "The Colonel... rarely disagreed with her," he said, carefully.

"And why was that?" Sheppard asked, pinning him with a sharp look.

"Well, the first two nights on Athos we became... resoundingly aware that Dr. Weir and Colonel Sumner were... involved."

"Romantically?"

"I don't know if I would use that adjective to describe Dr. Weir, Sir, but it was certainly sexual."

"She had him pussy-whipped," Alvez blurted out. Becket choked with the coffee he was sipping, and Porter patted him on the back. Caldwell glared at him and Alvez looked down. "Pardon for the bluntness, Sirs."

Sheppard cleared his throat. "Well, while I don't think this is appropriate language in a debrief, it's certainly... illustrative.” he told him, fighting a grin. At his side, McKay snorted, while Lorne and Teldy shared an amused look. “Anything to add, Sergeant Markham?"

Markham threw a baffled look at his friend before addressing Sheppard again. "Colonel Sumner was proving to be very agreeable to her suggestions, but we didn't exactly find out how much control she had over him until later."

"Understood, Sergeant. You can continue." Sheppard ordered, reclining back in his chair.

"The truth is I can't tell you much about the next few days, Sir, because that night Marcus, Sergeant Stackhouse, Fired up as my mate and we went Nesting."

"I understand, Sergeant. Corporal Alvez?" Sheppard addressed the younger officer. “Could you tell us what happened afterwards?”

"Yes, Sir." Alvez sat straighter in his chair, keeping his eyes focused on Sheppard to avoid Caldwell's glare. "The next day, Dr. Weir wanted Lt. Miller, Dr. Grodin and myself to go to the Old City, and inspect it using our Gifts.” Caldwell took a quick look at his notes. “But Marcus and Jason, I mean, Sergeants Stackhouse and Markham, were Nesting, and... well, we were only a Pack of eight, Sir. If we went, only Drs. Kusanagi, Abrams and Corrigan would be left to protect them. They're good people, but none of them is a Warrior and with more than 90 mundanes around with at least half of them armed..."

"Your protective instincts were working overdrive and didn't allow you to leave," Sheppard finished for him.

"Exactly, Sir. We refused, under the terms of the Covenant. Colonel Sumner backed down but Dr. Weir fli... didn't take it well."

"I can imagine," Sheppard commented dryly.

"Colonel Sumner finally sent Sergeant Bates, Corporal Parker and Lance Corporal Smitty with Drs. Zelenka and Kavanagh for the mission." Alvez explained. Sheppard saw McKay scowl when the second scientist was mentioned, and filed it for later. "About two hours after they left, the Stargate started dialing..."

Athos, 13 months ago

It was mid-afternoon when the gate activated. "We have gate activity," Lt. Ford, who was serving on gate watch duty, reported through the radio.

Colonel Summer clicked his radio. "Take a defensive position," he ordered. "Barroso, Walker, go to the gate! The rest of you, establish a defensive perimeter! Now!" The soldiers on camp moved quickly to follow the orders.

"Colonel, we have an inbound aircraft, and it's fast!" Ford reported. "Two more! Three unknown aircrafts on the air, Sir! Two are en route to the Athosian settlement, but one is heading for you!"

The air was filled with a high-pitched whirring sound as the ships passed over the trees. Several Athosians came running of the forest, yelling  "Wraith! They're Wraith!" just before the ships’ white transport beams dematerialized them right in front of the soldier’s eyes.

"Fire on target!" Sumner ordered, and the air filled with the sound of about three dozen P90 firing simultaneously. Alvez and Miller joined them, but even with their enhanced Warrior hand-eye coordination, they missed. The point-nosed Wraith ship was fast, and started shooting red energy pulses at them as it flew over the camp. Their remaining Packmates were trying to move Markham and Stackhouse to a more protected position, but the Firing was making Stackhouse feverish and uncoordinated, and Markham snarled at anyone who tried to touch his Mate.

"Jordan, fetch the Stinger!" Sumner ordered.

"Yes, Sir!"

"They're on the ground!" someone yelled. Several soldiers turned around and started shooting at the trees, targeting several nebulous white shadows that moved sluggishly between the trunks. In the air, the Wraith ship did a U-turn and flew back, sweeping its way through the camp. Two people disappeared into its beam before Lieutenant Jordan fired the Stinger and the missile took out the ship in a fiery explosion.

The reprieve didn't last. As the remains of the ship rained over the camp, they could hear more people yelling and running through the trees, intermittently illuminated by flashes of white and red light coming from above.

“Ship inbound, Sir!"

Alvez turned around and saw another Wraith ship tracing an arc towards them. The white beam was sweeping a path that led directly to his Packmates, who had stumbled while trying to drag Markham and Stackhouse away from the white shadows. Miller's P90 was their only protection, as they all lacked offensive Gifts.

For a moment, Alvez doubted. The white shadows were closer, but his Warrior instincts pulled him into the ship's direction. Making a snap decision, he ran to his Packmates. Pushing Grodin back at the ground as he tried to get up, he tugged Miller down into the heap of bodies.

"Alvez, what are you..."

Miller's question was cut off as Alvez closed his eyes and activated his Phantom Gift, extending it to pull everyone he touched out of phase with him. But he'd never tried to Phantom out seven people at once before, and he shook with the effort, his heart rate rushing up as he struggled with the extra mass. He was losing his grip on his Packmates when he felt a fresh wave of energy surging from inside him, allowing him to drag them all out of phase as the Wraith beam passed over them.

It hurt like hell. For a long moment, it was like all their now intangible nerves were on fire, scorching through them. As the beam moved away, Alvez let go, and they all became corporeal again. A loud explosion was the last thing he heard before passing out from the strain.

Alvez took a sip of water with a slightly shaking hand while Markham made a subtle sign that all Bloodfires in the room understood. Amping. Dr. Kusanagi.

"How many?" Sheppard asked, grimly.

"They took eleven of us," Markham answered instead, "killed three more and left a dozen injured. They also captured more than two dozen Athosians, and seven more were killed." He paused for a moment. "Of those, three fell to stray bullets from us."

"Holy Goddess!" Becket murmured.

"Do you want to take a break, Corporal?" Sheppard asked.

"I'd prefer to finish this part first, if you don’t mind, Sir."

"As you wish, Corporal. Please continue."

"When I woke up, we were in the Old City. Lieutenant Miller told me that the Athosians had seen our people come running from the direction of the city, and realized we had done. They were livid and made us responsible for the culling. That’s what they call it, culling.” Markham laid a supportive hand on his younger friend's shoulder. Alvez gave him a tight smile.

“They wanted us off their planet, but Dr. Weir refused. Miller said things went downhill fast. Some arrows flew out, and our people retaliated. He said he saw at least two Athosians fall to the bullets. Dr. Weir then ordered everyone to retreat to the city, keeping the Athosians away with our greater firepower."

Alvez breathed deeply before continuing. "The next few days were tense. It was a stalemate. The Athosians couldn’t approach because of our weapons, but we couldn't leave either, and they controlled the gate. We also had to leave most of our supplies behind. There was a potable water well, but food was short."

"I never thought Sumner would be so stupid to allow a civilian to make such an awful tactical decision," Caldwell frowned. "That's not the man I knew."

"You're not the first to say that, Sir." Markham agreed. "Sergeant Bates made a similar comment once, and he'd already served with the Colonel for three years by then."

"What was Dr. Weir’s excuse?" Sheppard inquired.

"We don't know, Sir,” Alvez replied. “They left Lieutenant Miller out from the meetings, and Dr. Weir wasn't inclined to explain herself."

"Lieutenant Miller was the highest ranked officer after Sumner," Lorne remarked.

"Weir didn't care and Colonel Sumner was never too keen about having a Bloodfire as XO. Lieutenant Ford took his place."

"Ford was not even a year out of the academy!"

"But he’s mundane, Sir. Dr. Weir blamed us for failing to get control of Atlantis and for refusing to go to the Old City. She made it known that she didn't trust us." Sheppard clenched his teeth and exchanged an undecipherable look with Lorne.

"Sergeant Stackhouse and myself came out of Nesting two days after the Wraith attack," Markham took over. "The next day, Teyla sent a messenger with a proposal. She offered to give us access to the gate, the address to a habitable but uninhabited planet and safe passage if we left immediately without hurting anyone else. Weir didn't want to take it, but, for once, Colonel Sumner talked her into accepting. Weir also demanded all the supplies we had to leave behind at the camp and Teyla allowed it.” Markham sighed, slumping back on his chair. “Later, after we went to live with them, Teyla told us that she would have agreed to almost anything to get us away from her people."

A tense silence fell over the room. Caldwell scribbled furiously onto his pad. Sheppard’s eyes looked dark, his mouth in a tight line with his extended claws grating into the tabletop. Teldy’s red Arachne eyes blazed in fury and static electricity cracked around Reese, while Lorne was using his hands to force his forearm bone spikes down. Beckett muttered under his breath, and, beside him, Porter held tightly on a slim object that had lost any previous resemblance to a pen. Even McKay looked somber, looking down pensively into his empty coffee cup.

Colonel Sheppard was the first to break the silence. "Sergeant Campbell, stop the recording. I think it would be good for everyone if we take a break now. We'll reconvene here at 1500."

As people filed out the room, Dr. Beckett moved to Colonel Sheppard's side, and signaled Lorne and Teldy to stay too.

"What it is, Doctor?" Sheppard asked after everyone had left and the doors rotated closed.

"We have a problem, Alpha. A big one."

"How big?"

Carson typed on his tablet and showed it to him. "The test results came back. John, Marcus is a Proteus."

John jerked back, looking at him incredulously. “A Nascent Proteus? I thought that was genetically impossible!”

“That’s the problem. His genetics are too clean for a Nascent. If a had seen them without knowing anythin’ about him, I would’ve pegged him as a half-blood.”

“Marcus was an Unfired half-blood, then?” Evan asked.

“Worse. He was a Halted half-blood. The test found traces of FHI in his tissue samples. An’ before you ask,” Carson continued when he saw John open his mouth. “A’ve checked the database. There’s no record of a Halting.”

John looked grim. “How long ago was he dosed?”

“About two years ago. A'm going to need to take a look at his file after.”

“Does this have anything to do with his condition?”

“I need to do more tests, but my instinct says aye.”

John pinned him down with a stern look. “Has any of the mundanes on your team seen these results?”

“Na, na, don’t worry about that.” Carson appeased him. “I had only our people workin’ on the tests ‘n’ I told them to encrypt the results.”

“Won’t they suspect?” Anne asked.

“Nae. Ariel will upload a credibly edited version to the medical database tonight.”

“An unclaimed half-blood Proteus Halted without authorization,” John murmured. “Do you know the shitstorm this is going to be back on Earth? And that’s counting that the mundanes don’t get wind of it!”

Before anyone could answer him, the room’s doors swirled open, and McKay squeezed through even before they finished moving.

“Here it is!” he exclaimed, crouching down the floor and coming up with a small pill bottle clutched in his hand. As he turned around, he looked quizzically at them. “What the heck are you still doing there? They’re serving double chocolate cake today, and I don’t think anyone is going to save you a slice if you don’t hurry! I certainly won’t!” He warned them as he walked very quickly out of the room.

John shook his head in bewilderment and chuckled. “We’ll talk about this later,” he told his people, who were sporting grins themselves.

“McKay!” he yelled as he trotted after the scientist. “If you take the last slice, I swear I’ll tell Lania to make you shower with freezing water for a month!”

Chapter Text

There was a sense of dread in the air when they reconvened in the conference room after lunch. The silence was only broken by the scratch of Caldwell's pen on his notepad and the clicks of the recorder as Chuck checked it. Sheppard was worried about McKay, who was resting his head over his crossed arms on the table, twitching randomly with barely audible hisses.

Alvez and Markham were the last to arrive. Markham walked stiffly, his face set in a careful formal mask as he sat down, but Sheppard could hear his heart beating faster than normal. Alvez sat closer to his friend than before, his eyes darting quickly to Caldwell before looking at Sheppard with a mixture of determination and dread. It didn't surprise John after Beckett had informed him that he'd given them Stackhouse's test results over the break. He gave them a tight smile and a nod, and they seemed to relax infinitesimally.

"Camera's ready, Sir," Chuck informed him. McKay raised his head, looked around the table and pushed himself up until he could lean back on his chair.

"Thank you, Sergeant. You may start recording," Sheppard ordered, trading a very worried look with Beckett.

"Camera recording, Sir."

"Continuation of the formal debriefing of Staff Sergeant Jason Markham, USMC, and Lance Corporal Alex Alvez, USMC, regarding the First Atlantis Expedition, with same personnel present as before. Sergeant Markham, we left it when the First Expedition made a deal to leave Athos. Can you continue, please?"

"Yes, Sir," Markham shifted in his chair, and crossed his hands on the table in front of himself. "The planet Teyla sent us to was in the middle of spring and, by the position of the sun, it was around midday. The gate sat in the middle of a wide field with no structures near, but there was a cobblestone-paved road that started at the DHD and seemed to lead to a formation of low hills on the other side. After everyone had come through, Colonel Sumner decided to send a reconnaissance team. Sergeants Bates and Medina, Corporal Parker, Lance Corporal Alvez, myself and Dr. Corrigan."

Sheppard frowned. "Dr. Corrigan?"

"He said that between my Sentinel senses and Corrigan's empathy we'd be able to detect anyone near. He refused our objections, but allowed Dr. Corrigan to carry the M9 he'd qualified for," Markham explained.

Caldwell took some brief notes on his pad. Sheppard still looked displeased, but ordered, "Understood, Sergeant. Continue."

"About two clicks away from the gate, behind a low hill, we found a small town. It was medieval age or so. The houses were still standing. Cob houses, with thatched roofs, some half rotten, heaps of trash accumulated on the corners. But the thing was that inside the houses, dining tables were still laid out. There were plates with putrefied food and glasses with stale water and some alcoholic drink gone bad. The shops were still open, though their wares were trashed, dirty, molded..." Markham grimaced. "But there was no signs of humans whatsoever, not even human remains, skeletons or anything. Nothing,” he stressed with a cutting hand gesture. “The only lifesigns were rodents and some kind of poultry they later named crazy cocks. "

"It was a fucking ghost town," Alvez muttered.

"Yeah, it was,” Markham confirmed. “It gave us the creeps, true. Some time later, we learnt that the town had been culled by the Wraith two years before," Markham added, taking a gulp of water before continuing. "Dr. Weir was strongly and vocally unsatisfied with our findings, but the Expedition needed a base and the houses were deemed sturdy enough, so we moved in. We spent the first couple of weeks cleaning, fixing things and generally settling down.

Twelve days after we arrived, a group of three men gated in. They were game hunters. It turned out, in the planet lived a deer or elk-like animal called a laph, whose meat and hide were very appreciated in Pegasus. Dr. Weir traded with them the right to hunt three animals in exchange for a list of gate addresses."

"They didn't question your need for them?" Caldwell asked.

"Not really. Dr. Weir told them the gate in our home planet was buried by an avalanche a few centuries ago and that we had only managed to dig it out recently, and that there were only a few addresses in our historical records. In Pegasus, it's a rare situation but not unheard of, so they bought it without much problem."

"And they didn't question your right to the planet?"

"In this galaxy, planets inhabited for more than a year are a question of finders keepers. If you have the people and resources to colonize it, it’s yours. The problem is that most societies don't have the resources for that."

"Understood. Continue, please."

"Well, the laph turned out to be a great resource, and we did well for ourselves on the trade planets. Then Dr. Simpson had the idea of smoking the meat, and it was a hit off world. Someone else also managed to distil a sort of vodka from a local grain we'd traded for, and that was well received too."

McKay snorted. "I bet I know who he was."

"And I think you’d be right," Markham acknowledged with a small smile. "The thing is that, within two months, we were doing well in the resources department. The living conditions had improved too. The technicians and scientists had macgyvered an illumination and battery recharging system, and even a basic Wi-Fi network that didn't rely on Dr. Grodin's Transductor Gift. They were also making other improvements, like electric water pumps. There was a general feeling that we could make it until Earth sent for us." Makrham drank a bit more water. "The morale department, however, was another story."

"How bad was it?" Sheppard inquired.

"Dr. Weir was... beyond frustrated. I mean, there was a lot of frustration going around. We weren't doing what we thought we'd be doing. Well, except the social sciences department. We'd found enough alien societies to keep them happy for a decade, at least." There were some chuckles around the table and another snort from McKay, followed by a wince that made Sheppard frown. "But most people were trying to channel frustration into useful things or side projects. For example, the planet we were on had three moons and I heard there was an ongoing project studying the effects of that. Dr. Weir, however...” he let out a sigh.” Nothing was good enough, everything annoyed her, she had no patience for explanations. She constantly complained about our inability to find ancient tech and she could go from ignoring people to delivering a scathing tongue-lashing in seconds. But the worst was that she played favorites."

"For example?" Sheppard asked.

"Dr. Zelenka was the CSO, but it was Dr. Kavanaugh who had her ear."

"She took advice from that halfwit?" McKay interrupted.

"Yes, Sir.”

"He's that bad?" Sheppard asked McKay.

"He's a narcissistic, self-absorbed suck-it-up moron who believes himself to be God's given answer to science. And yes, I know what you're going to say," he continued as he saw Caldwell opening his mouth to talk, "but, unlike me, he doesn't have the intelligence to back it up! Zelenka, Grodin, Kusanagi, hell, even Abrams or Simpson are ten times better scientists than he is! When I was due to be CSO, I removed him thrice from the list! I even told Weir that I wouldn't go with the Expedition if she kept putting him back!"

"Unfortunately, Dr. Zelenka didn't have the pull you had, Dr. McKay," Markham observed, "and Kavanaugh knew it." McKay crossed his arms, his expression tight.

"Understood, Sergeant," Sheppard said quickly before McKay could go into a rant. As fun as those were, this was not the place. "Continue, please."

"Seven weeks after our arrival, Bates, Medina, Dr. Corrigan, Dr. Johnson and myself were in a trading trip on Belkan when we overhead a conversation..."

Belkan, Pegasus galaxy, 11 months ago.

The tavern was packed and boisterous, and smelled strongly of stale alcohol and frying oil. It wasn't that different from taverns in other trading worlds, except they had good ale, some chicken-like drumsticks in a kind of barbecue sauce that were mouth-watering and spiced potatoes that weren't half bad either. Their existence was a sort of shared secret among the trading teams. What Dr. Weir didn't know she couldn't yell at them about.

After placing their order, they took a seat in a corner booth that allowed them an unobstructed view of both the entrance and the back door. Bates, Medina and Markham took the outer seats, leaving the ones by the wall for Corrigan and Johnson. Markham kept his senses firmly dialed down and moved closer to Corrigan, so the Pack bond, thin as it was, could provide some buffer for the Empath. Johnson also sat close on his other side. Though Mundane, she was a good friend and that helped him too.

"I'm telling you, they rained fire on them!" The exclamation, audible over the buzz of the tavern, caught the attention of the team. The speaker was a heavily-built bearded man seated two tables over and currently shaking a tankard of ale in the direction of his companion.

"Come on! That's exaggerating!" His friend replied, biting into a juicy drumstick.

"No, no! I used to think so too, but I've seen it with my own two eyes!" He affirmed, gulping down half the tankard and slamming it on the table. "Thousands of bright lights rose up from the ground beneath! They were like, like... sticks of yellow fire! And then they fled directly to the village next to my cousin Petra’s!" He added, using his hands to demonstrate it to his friend. "We ran to it and everything was gone! Scorched, I tell you!!"

His friend looked unconvinced. "I've never seen a weapon do that."

The man looked around and bent closer to his companion, forcing Markham to dial up his hearing. "They say they're Ancestor weapons! Petra says the Lord Protector says he's of their blood."

"Bollocks, I say!" His friend replied, taking a swig of his own ale. "The Ancestors were guardians, teachers. Those jerks sound like those batty Genii, if you ask me."

Markham related the last part of the conversation to his teammates.

"Ancestors? The Ancients?" Medina asked.

"The Athosians called the Stargate the Ring of the Ancestors," Johnson said, "and that 'sticks of yellow fire' things sound too close to a drone weapon for my liking."

Bates gave the strangers a calculating look.

"Doctors," he said, turning back to them. "I think it's time for some good old diplomacy."

"Me?" Johnson frowned. "Do I need to remind you I'm an engineer and not a social scientist?"

Bates looked uncomfortable. "Don't take this the wrong way, please, but you're also a woman, and these kinds of people usually react better to women."

"So, you want me to use my feminine wiles on them?" Johnson smirked.

"If you would be so obliging, milady?" Bates smiled with an exaggerated bow.

Johnson chuckled, taking off her uniform jacket and pulling her long copper hair free of its ponytail. "Let's charm their socks off, Ross!"

"Sergeant Bates' intuition proved to be good. With a couple more rounds of ale and a little empathic push, they told us the gate address and everything they knew about the planet." Markham stopped for a moment to collect his thoughts. "When we returned to the Alpha Base with the information, Dr. Weir was... very interested in our findings." At his side, Alvez snorted loudly, but refrained from commenting. "Dr. Weir wanted to gate there immediately, but Colonel Summer preferred to send a recon team first. They had some loud words about it but, next morning, the Colonel ordered us to prepare for the mission."

"She made him sleep on the couch," Alvez blurted out, to the chuckles of the rest of the table.

"Or so we were told," Markham continued seamlessly, fighting a smile. "In the end, Weir only agreed to send our only MALP first. It was still night on the other side, and our MALP almost fell victim to a guard with a battle axe." That information earned him surprised looks and smirks around the table. "After we neutralized the guard, Colonel Sumner ordered me to do a scan for more hostiles and I detected a group of about 50 human heartbeats about three clicks north-northwest, thought the slow heart rate indicated probable sleep, as it turned out to be. There was another group further away, too far for a count. However, alongside them there was a faint buzz that sounded like electricity. Dr. Grodin, our Transductor, confirmed the presence of faint electromagnetic signals. It was enough for Dr. Weir to give the mission a go."

Markham took a sip of water. "Dawn was breaking when we reached our first destination. It was the poorest village we'd seen so far in Pegasus. In fact, I'd say it was one of the poorest I've never seen while at the SGC. Houses were small, rough wood, with coarse linens for doors. There were just very basic farming tools and equipment around. Terrain was dry, dust was everywhere. Everything looked rough, extremely utilitarian, absolutely no frills. Dr. Weir looked disgusted and annoyed."

"As usual," Alvez muttered, which earned him a glare from Caldwell.

"A man came out one of the houses then," Markham continued, hoping to take the heat away from the Corporal. "Around fifty, balding. Clothes were coarse linen and not in a good condition. He was very surprised to see us, but immediately recognized what we were looking for..."

Pegasus galaxy, 11 months ago.

"Oh, you mean the Tower?" The man, who had identified himself as Eldred, asked.

"The Tower?" Dr. Corrigan asked.

"You must come from a distant land indeed if you don't know of it."

"Yes, we really do," Corrigan agreed. "What can you tell us about this... Tower?"

"The Tower protects us, and we give them part of our harvest as tribute in exchange."

"Protection from what?"

"The Wraith, of course," Elfred threw them a baffled look.

"Yeah, of course, of course, what else?" Corrigan concurred, emphatically projecting a bit of friendliness at Elfred, who seemed to relax. "But how exactly do the people in the tower protect you from the Wraith?"

"They have a great weapon capable of annihilating the Wraith ships which descend from the sky."

"With this... weapon we've heard of?"

"Yes. The lights from beneath the Tower swarm the ships, and destroy them," he explained with absolute sureness.

"And you have seen them do so?"

"I have never seen a Wraith ship. They have not come for many generations, but there are times that the Lord Protector sees fit to... demonstrate this power to his people."

"So we've heard," Corrigan commiserated, throwing some empathic sympathy Eldred's way. At his right, Weir frowned. Corrigan continued quickly. "Eldred, we'd really like to meet this Lord Protector."

"That may prove difficult. The Tower is for nobles only."

"And what makes them noble?"

"Blood."

"Oh, I'm sure we can convince them to make an exception for us," Dr. Weir interjected.

Eldred looked from her to Corrigan. He didn't look very convinced, so Corrigan gave him just a bit of empathic push. "Is this tower close by?"

"I will show you the way," Eldred finally agreed, though he still looked doubtful. Elred guided them out of the village, though a field of sparse shoulder-high bushes up and green ferns to a low hill, about five minutes away. "There. That's the Tower."

Further down the valley, amidst a forest of tall spruces and firs, rose a tall metallic tower half-overgrown by vegetation that couldn't disguise the clean lines and sharp angles of its construction. Dr. Weir grinned.

"Elizabeth?" Colonel Sumner asked.

"If that's not Ancient, I'll eat my vest," she said. "Dr. Grodin!"

"Dr. Weir?"

"Electromagnetic signals?"

Grodin closed his eyes and tilted his head. "There's electromagnetic radiation present," he answered after a few moments, "probably an energy source, but it's barely registering. Not electromagnetic signals, though." He opened his eyes. "There are no communications that I can intercept, I'm sorry."

At their side, Eldred looked surprised.

"Is there a problem, Eldred?" Corrigan asked.

"The Lord Protector can see anything that happens in his domain. He always knows what we're doing."

"Grodin?" Dr. Weir frowned.

"Whatever they use, Dr. Weir, it's not currently active."

"Then we better move before it is. Colonel Sumner, we go ahead."

It took them half an hour to reach the Tower, just as the last orange hues of dawn disappeared from the sky. Markham and Alvez neutralized the only two men guarding the door, who wore the same dark uniform with the triband sash as the gate guard, but were only equipped with daggers instead of battle axes. The door slid open as Markham touched it, startling the guards behind it. One was standing just before the door, while the other stood at the bottom of a wide staircase, but none of them were a match for the Earth soldiers, and in a few seconds, they laid unconscious on the floor. Immediately, Markham did a quick scan of the lavishly-decorated circular room, frowning when he took a good look of the staircase and the structural design.

"Is there a problem, Sergeant Markham?" Dr. Weir asked.

"Not exactly, Doctor. It's just that, except for the decor, this looks a lot like what I could see of Atlantis' gate room," Markham informed her before he stopped suddenly in his perusal. In front of the staircase, on a hexagonal dais, stood an Ancient Control Chair. "Well, except for that," he pointed to the chair. "In Atlantis, the gate was there, if I'm not mistaken."

Dr. Weir was looking at the Chair with rapt attention, but Colonel Sumner stopped her when she tried to approach it.

"Markham, are there any hostiles?" he asked.

Markham tilted his head and listened for a moment. "All the heartbeats are three or four floors under us, sir. No one else at this level."

"Good. Secure the room!" He ordered, letting Dr. Weir pass as his soldiers moved to obey his order. She all but ran to the dais, and circled the chair, her fingers lingering on its textured surface, the intricate metalwork and the gel-padded armrests.

"Dr. Grodin!" she called, zeroing on him. "Come and try the Control Chair."

Peter Grodin threw a concerned look Markham's way, since the Sergeant was the Acting Alpha of their little Pack. Jason just nodded. Peter walked to the chair under the hard, disapproving look of Dr. Weir.

Grodin sat on the chair, which immediately illuminated with a blue light. He felt a tingle in his head before a holographic display appeared in front of the Control Chair, showing a list of text written in Ancient. Grodin squinted at it.

"Grodin?"

"I'm sorry, Dr. Weir. My Ancient is quite basic..."

"Dr. Burnham!"

A slender woman with long curly hair pushed between two of the soldiers and dashed to the Chair. "Yes, Dr. Weir?"

Weir pointed to the holographic screen. "Dr. Grodin needs help with the translation, Dr. Burnham."

"Of course, of course..." She looked quickly around the floor, her gaze stopping for a moment on a big ornate chair, but then sighed and crouched down besides the Chair. She and Grodin talked in hushed tones for a couple of minutes before she stood up, pushing her wiry glasses up her nose. "Well, at the top it says, 'Emergency protocols active.' The text in red, we think is 'Master brain inoperative. Neural interface disabled. Access restricted to cathedra ."

"Master brain? Cathedra?"

"A cathedra in Latin was a chair or a throne, so we think it refers to the Control Chair. The other..." Brunham looked quickly at Grodin, then down to the floor. "We're not sure what it means, Dr. Weir."

Weir was scowling, arms crossed tightly in front of her. "What else?"

"Well, then it comes a list of options: Life support, Defense, Shield, Potentia."

"Potentia?" Zelenka perked up. "Show that one." Grodin highlighted it, and the option list was replaced by a schematic diagram and a series of numbers. "It is ZPM!" Zelenka walked closer to the holographic display, pushing his glasses up his nose.

"How much is left?" Weir asked, relaxing a bit.

"About 37%, I think," Zelenka looked over to Burnham, who nodded.

"That's not much," Colonel Sumner interjected.

"It depends on what we use it for," Zelenka noted. "What are those?" he asked, pointing to a list of numbers in the upper right corner, one of which was highlighted in red.

Dr. Burnham squinted at the screen. "It says... 'Usage estimates: Life support accessible areas 192.7 years; Defense, 1744 units; Shield, 12 hours'." That was the one highlighted in red.

"Defense units? Are those drones?" Sumner asked.

Grodin shifted through the options, showing the defense panel. The scheme of a drone was unmistakable. "Yes, Colonel. 1744 drones ready to be launched."

"Well, that's good news." The Colonel agreed.

"Show the life support screen, Grodin," Weir ordered with a frown.

The screen changed to the schematics of a sort of city. Most of it was rendered in a dull grey, with only the central tower illuminated in blue, with a label tag attached to it. Weir shot Burnham a glare.

"Emergency accessible area," she translated, avoiding looked at Weir directly.

"We can only access that part of the city?"

Grodin tried shifting the highlighted area, but a big red label flashed on the screen. "Access denied" Burnham translated without being prompted.

Weir gave a flinty glare at the screen. "Grodin, try to—"

She was interrupted by the sliding sound of a door opening in the back of the room. Three more of these black-uniformed Guards appeared, in front of a group of people dressed in gaudy garments. The military quickly took defensive positions, pointing their P90 at them, but they didn't seem to recognize them as weapons, until one of the guards got too close and a marine fired, the bullets shattering the Guard’s knee. They froze on the spot. An aging, portly, red-faced man pushed through the remaining guards.

"How you dare enter my city! This is treason and you'll pay for it!" he bellowed as he pushed through his guards and climbed the three steps to the main area. "I'm the Lord Protector and I'm the only authority in this land! You don't have—" He froze mid-sentence when he saw Grodin sitting in the Control Chair. "You... you have..." His eyes moved from the active chair to the weapons the expedition carried, and he started to pale.

"I think you aren't the only authority anymore, Lord Protector," Weir smirked.

When Markham interrupted his tale, the screen behind him flared to life, Lania projecting herself into it.

"Praetor, may I ask a question?"

"Ask away," Sheppard allowed.

"Sergeant Markham, is this the address of the city you are referring to?" One of her virtual fingers pointed to the screen next to her, which displayed a seven-symbol gate address.

Markham looked a bit startled, as he wasn't still used to the city's AI, but recovered quickly.

"Yes, it is."

"Thank you, Sergeant." The address was replaced by a city schematic and several information screens. "The urbs navis they found is Ker-Ys, Praetor."

Sheppard straightened in his chair. "Ker-Ys? It's another city-ship like you?"

“City-ship is an acceptable translation for urbs navis, if you wish to use it." Sheppard nodded. "As for your question, Ker-Ys was the first city-ship built by my creators after their arrival at this galaxy. She was built from the same basic matrix as me, but she developed on her own."

"She's your younger sister," Sheppard smirked.

Lania considered the affirmation for a second. "Though we lack any biological relationship, the comparison is essentially correct."

"But she doesn't have a... you?"

"She has. Her first Praetor called her Dahut."

"Then what are these emergence protocols?"

"The emergency protocols were to activate in the case the Artifex was damaged, to provide basic control until it was repaired."

"Artifex... that's you, isn't it?" Sheppard asked, gesturing in the general direction of the screen.

"Yes, Praetor."

"It's what Dr. Burnham called 'Master Brain'?" Alvez guessed.

"Correct, Corporal Alvez." She looked back at Sheppard. "However, Praetor, the situation described here contradicts the last report filed by Ker-Ys Praetor when the council ordered the city evacuated, and also the council's orders."

"In which way?"

"There was no mention of damage to the Artifex in the Praetor's report, or that the emergency protocols were activated." Sheppard's tablet switched on, displaying a document he guessed was the mentioned report. "But even if they had been, the council's orders were to lock down the city, and Ker-Ys last Praetor reported having done so."

"Could the emergency protocols had been activated after they left?"

"Negative, Praetor. Once a city-ship is locked down, only a Praetor's genetic key can unlock it. Ker-Ys should be inaccessible until the arrival of a Praetor."

"What if someone forced their way in?" McKay asked.

"In this extremely improbable scenario, they would only find a... piece of junk, it's the correct idiom, I believe." Several snorts were heard around the table. "Ker-Ys will not react to anyone not of the Praetor bloodline."

"You did," Caldwell pointed out.

"I'm Alpha Urbs, Colonel Caldwell. As the only access point from Terra, I could not reject any connection from it. It was my job to evaluate the presence of a Praetor. Subordinate urbs and installations should not activate until I did."

"But you didn't know Ker-Ys was still active," McKay stressed the point.

"I was unable to access the subspace communication relays while underwater, Dr. McKay, and was forbidden to activate the Stargate to conserve power."

"Subspace communication relays?! Why am I just hearing about those?!"

"You can grill her later, McKay," Sheppard interrupted him. "This is still a debriefing." McKay gave him a nasty glare, but settled back on his chair. "So, Lania, if I understand it correctly, the only possible explanation is that the Praetor lied and Ker-Ys was never locked down."

"Unfortunately, that is the only viable scenario, Praetor."

"And a potentially troubling one," Caldwell added, sharing a look with Sheppard, who just nodded.

"So, the First Expedition took control of Ker-Ys. Is that correct, Sergeant?"

"Yes, Sir, but as Lania said,” Markham threw a quick look to the AI on the screen, “it was just a basic control and extremely limited. Survival-only, I'd say. We had access to several floors on the Central Tower, with living and medical facilities, but the city actively prevented us to access any other part of the city. Even the ZPM room was off-limits."

"Actively?" McKay asked. "How?"

"Force fields, Dr. McKay. They protected everything off-limits."

"And what about the database?"

"The database provided only basic information, gate addresses, foodstuffs, medicines, weather information and such, but not any technological information. The planetary and deep-space sensors were working," Sheppard glared at McKay when he tried to interrupt, but McKay harrumphed back into his chair. "and we could shoot drones and activate the shield to defend ourselves, but that was all."

"That is compliant with the emergency protocols, Praetor."

"Understood." Sheppard leaned back on his chair. "I bet Dr. Weir wasn't happy to hear that."

"No, Sir, she wasn't, but she believed that, with time, we'll be able to hack the city."

"A naive woman," Lania added, with something eerily similar to a snort. Sheppard raised an eyebrow to the AI, who returned to her normal neutral expression. Sheppard shook his head.

"Did they achieve it?" Colonel Caldwell asked.

"Not while we lived with them, Sir," Markham answered. "Afterwards... we mostly have rumors and hearsay. We only know for sure that they can use at least one... I think you called them puddle-jumpers?" Sheppard nodded. "That's all we can confirm, Sir."

"Understood," Sheppard make a mental note on the emergency protocols and subspace communications for later. "OK, what happened afterwards, Sergeant?"

"We found out that, of all the nobles, only the Lord Praetor, his son and his daughter had the ATA gene, thought it was far weaker that our own. Dr. Weir ordered them to be put under house arrest in their rooms. The others were kicked out the city to live in the villages."

"What about the villagers?" Caldwell questioned. "They didn't complain about the changes?"

"No, Sir. In fact, they welcomed it."

"And why was that?" Caldwell frowned.

Markham cleared his throat. "We later discovered that their tributes to the Tower were quite... onerous, as were the demands and restrictions put on them. The villages provided everything under threat of elimination so the nobles on the Tower could live a life of..." Markham stopped for a second. "Debauchery, it's the word, I believe. In contrast, our necessities were... quite affordable to them. Also, our men didn't... take liberties with their women, we didn't go around shooting drones at them just because we could and things like that. Truth be told, they were quite happy with the deal Dr. Weir negotiated with them." Markham looked down. "Also, she looked the other way as far as the former nobles were concerned and they had... several centuries of mistreatment to make up for."

"That sounds like a feudal regime to me," Teldy interjected.

"Basically, it's what it was, Major."

"And too close to some Milky Way precedents with stray officers for me," Caldwell added, sharing a sharp look with Sheppard before writing quickly on his notepad.

"Continue, Sergeant," Sheppard said.

"After we secured control of the Tower, Dr. Weir ordered the expedition to move in, except for a small rotating contingent which remained in the laph planet.”

“Why?”

“Well, the laph had turned out to be too much profitable as trade item, plus Colonel Sumner wanted to use the planet as Alpha Base."

"The first reasonable decision I've heard so far," Caldwell muttered.

Markham looked at Sheppard, who just gestured at him to continue.

"For the expedition in general, the change was very positive. For the Pack, however..."

"Speak freely," Sheppard ordered.

"Dr. Weir put us under guard," Alvez took up the narrative. "She got the Control Chair guarded around the clock and she told Sumner to assign a mundane soldier to every Bloodfire on base. For our security, she said. Since we were the only ones who could interface with the city, she said we had to get 'protected from retaliation'," Alvez didn't signal the invisible quotation marks, but his tone made them evident for everyone, "from the expelled nobles and such."

"But what she really wanted was to control our access to the city's controls," Markham finished for him. "Especially Grodin's. The guard assigned to him had an electromagnetic hand scanner to check up if he used his Transductor Gift without permission."

"That sounds dangerously close to bloodphobia," Sheppard said in a clipped tone.

"Yes, Sir, it does, and several people took their cues from her."

"There where attacks?"

"With Miller, Markham, Corrigan and me, they didn't dare touch us," Alvez explained. "We're Warriors and Corrigan's empathy spooked them. But Kusanagi being a Thales and Abrams a Seker didn't... impress them much."

"Meaning?"

"That I had to intervene several times as Acting Alpha of the Pack to put a stop to some harassments," Markham explained.

"Where the issues addressed?"

"No, Sir. According to Dr. Weir, they were only 'normal disagreements between co-workers'".

"I see. Continue."

"The other problem was... Dr. Keller." Markham tensed when mentioning her name, and looked down on the table. Alvez rolled his chair closer to his friend and squeezed his arm. Markham took a deep breath before continuing. "It started after Marcus, Sergeant Stackhouse, Firing. He was having trouble recovering from it. It took a greater than normal toll on him. Two months later, he still had bouts of fever, dizzying spells, occasional seizures, Healing troubles... and haven't showed any Gift yet. Dr. Cole was trying to help him, without much luck. But one day she warned us that Dr. Keller was... specially interested on his case."

"Dr. Keller was the CMO. What was the problem with her being interesting in the wellbeing of a member of the expedition?" Caldwell asked.

"She wasn't Bloodfire-Licensed," Dr. Beckett explained. "Dr. Cole was the only Bloodfire-Licensed doctor on the expedition."

"I'm sorry, Doctor, but I don't understand the problem," Caldwell replied.

"Bloodfire-Licensed mundane doctors work under, 'n' are bound by, the same laws as Healers. Covenant laws," Beckett added, but Caldwell still looked puzzled.

"It's a matter of trust, Colonel," Sheppard intervened. "Trust that it won't be another Blackburn Falls."

Caldwell paled a bit. "Understood, Colonel."

"Why did Dr. Cole suspect Dr. Keller's interest in Sergeant Stackhouse's case?" Sheppard asked.

"Dr. Cole felt uncomfortable with her questions, she believed they bordered into invasive, the legal definition of it, she said. But she didn't have any specific proof. There had been a couple missing blood samples, her tablet with the test results going missing only to reappear later... things like that. Nothing we could really trace back to Dr. Keller, but enough for her to warn us."

"And that was enough for you?" Caldwell asked.

"Dr. Cole is a Sworn Companion to the Fianna Clan, Colonel. We had no reason to mistrust her."

"That's your Clan, isn't it?" Caldwell asked Beckett.

"Aye, Colonel. Dr. Cole is an old 'n' very dear friend."

"I see," Caldwell scribbled on his pad. "Continue, Sergeant."

"Things were tense, but relatively stable, for a little more than a month. It was early October when... when it happened." He looked directly at Sheppard. "When we came into contact with the Wraith again."

Bassania, Pegasus Galaxy, about 10 months ago

Markham smiled while he watched his mate play with a group of children. The trip to Bassania had made him feel better. The planet was well-known around the galaxy for their sweet and mouth-watering fruits, whose genetic resemblance to some Earth varieties had the botanists thrilled, and their Spring Festival was an occasion to reunite friends and trade partners. The invitation had arrived two days previously, but the lack of any kind of Ancient technology on the planet was the reason Dr. Weir couldn't be bothered to come herself. Finally, it had been Sergeant Bates who had led a haphazard team to the feast, including two of their botanists, Burnham as an anthropologist, Parker, Medina, Stackhouse and Markham. The two of them were added just this morning, upon Dr. Cole's suggestion that a change of air and a good dose of sun would help Stackhouse, especially as their own planet had been suffering from rough weather for two weeks now.

Markham could still feel through their bond the permanent low-level headache that plagued his mate, but this was the most cheerful he's been since their arrival to Pegasus, and it also lifted his own mood. The Bassanians were friendly people, and the Festival was a fun and pretty casual affair, with only one quite tolerable spiritual ritual at midday.

Medina sat beside him, a tankard of ale in his hand and a plate of grilled meat on the other. "Hey, Jason, look at that!" he smirked while pointing to the head table, where Bates was awkwardly trying to fend off the wandering hands of the head woman, a feisty middle-aged widow, without causing a diplomatic incident. They both laughed, completely ignoring the Sergeant's accusing glare, as their radios flared to life.

"Heads up! Unscheduled gate activity," reported Parker, who had volunteered for gate watch duty after meeting the red-headed Bassanian Guardwoman that would be sharing duty with him. "Threat warning red! Tally three bandits, en route to town!" he yelled as the Bassanian alarm started blaring.

"To the refuges!" the Head Woman ordered, while the Guards tried to guide the panicked citizens to safety.

"Cover their retreat!" Bates ordered, pointing his P-90 to the sky. "Markham, position!"

Markham zoomed his Sentinel vision, scanning the sky over the fields of orchards that surrounded the town.

"Bandit 1, one o'clock!" He called. "Bandit 2, 11 o'clock!" He had to zoom in further to find the third dart. Unlike its partners, it was flying in a wide arc around the town, ready to strike from behind. "Bandit 3 is circling the perimeter to attack from 6 o'clock!"

"Shit!" Bates muttered before he started barking orders. "Stackhouse, protect the assets! Medina, Bandit 2! Markham, with me, Bandit 1, but keep an ear on Bandit 3! Light ’em up!"

Four P-90 burst at unison as soon as the Wraith darts were on range. Markham struggled to filter out the racket while keeping his hearing targeted on the high-pitched whirring of the third Dart and vision on the first's engine. The split awareness affected his aim, and the Dart's beam culled a group of Bassanians in front of them.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw his mate push a young boy he had saved onto Dr. Brown's arms as he ran to help Dr. Burnham, stuck under an overturned table. On the other side of the clearing, Medina was forced to take cover under the dais as the Dart's white beam swept through. He and Bates took cover in a narrow alley between two houses. The first dart was making a U-turn to return to them while Markham could hear the third coming closer.

"Bandit 3 incoming, ETA 40 seconds, 6 o'clock!" he informed everyone through the radio.

"Markham, concentrate on Bandit 3! Medina, Bandit 2! I'll take Bandit 1!" Bates ordered.

"Aye, sir!"

Markham did a quick calculation of Bandit 3's incoming trajectory and found a better vantage point. He let go of his P90, allowing it to hang off his shoulder, and ran down the alley. Mid-point, he jumped up to the opposite wall, using it as a springboard to jump up with Warrior's enhanced strength to the flat roof of the two-story house Bates was using as cover. He took position and concentrated both his senses and Warrior's instincts on the Dart coming fast towards them. As soon as it was in weapon's range, he unleashed a storm of bullets towards its engines. With nothing to distract him, this time his bullets hit the target squarely and the Dart's engine exploded, sending it spinning wildly and crashing into a nearby barn, which was immediately engulfed by fire.

He turned quickly towards the others. Bandit 2 swayed in the air, leaking a stream of blue liquid were Medina's bullets had impacted. Bates darted off his protected position to pick up two stray kids before returning to the protection of the alley. Stackhouse had managed to pull the table off Burnham and was helping her stand. Bandit 1's white beam was sweeping its way through the fleeing citizens directly towards them as Burnham's right leg buckled down in pain.

"Marcus!" Markham yelled while pushing a sense of urgency across their bond. Stackhouse turned around just in time to see the white beam that swept them up. As they vanished, the mate bond tore apart and Markham screamed in agony before darkness engulfed him.

Chapter Text

Markham's voice trembled as he finished. Alvez gave his friend a one-armed hug, offering him silent comfort.

The conference room was silent for several long seconds. Even the two mundanes present knew that bond tearing was a grave issue. Beckett squirmed in his seat, and Kate's wave of reassurance to her mate overflowed off their matebond, filling the pridebond with a warm feeling of belonging. The Empath concentrated the warm feeling around Markham for several long seconds as he visibly relaxed. She then allowed it to dissipate into the background with a last mental caress for her mate.

"Jason," John waited until his newest pridemate looked up at him. "You're not alone anymore. Whatever happened, we'll deal with it together."

Jason inhaled deeply. "Thank you, Alpha." He answered, managing a small smile.

"Do you want to continue or should we take a break?"

"Let's continue," Markham answered after a few seconds. "I want this out the way."

"Understood. Continue when you're ready."

"I woke up six hours later in the Tower's... I mean, Ker-Ys, infirmary. My Pack was in the room, and so was Dr. Cole. My matebond was ragged, and it hurt like hell twice over. Dr. Corrigan used his Empathy to dull it as much as he could. It helped, but it was still... sorry, it's difficult to describe."

"Don't worry. I think we all understand it."

"Thank you, Sir," Markham inhaled deeply. "Lt. Miller informed me that Corporal Parker had seen the Stargate's dialing sequence when the Dart left. The database had identified it as an orbital gate."

"Orbital gate?" McKay asked.

"Yes, Dr. McKay," Lania explained. A diagram flared in the second screen, showing a Stargate with four devices attached to it. "In Pegasus, my creators placed several Stargates in orbit around selected planets, equipped with stabilizer power nodes. They do not have a dialing device and they could only be accessed by vehicles equipped with one, like the porta navis... Or puddlejumpers, as Praetor Sheppard called them."

Sheppard smirked at the tone of irritation in the Artifex's voice. "Spacegates... that's cool!" Lania glared at him. "Thank you, Lania."

"Praetor," she saluted before both screens blinked off.

McKay snorted. "Only you could piss off an AI."

"What can I say? It's a natural talent," he smiled, ignoring the snorts around the table. "Sergeant, please continue."

The hint of a smile left Markham's face. "Lt. Miller also informed me that Dr. Weir had specifically forbidden a rescue mission, and that the puddlejumper's bay was put under guard."

"She forbade it?" Sheppard's voice was sharp. "Under which pretense?"

"That we were too valuable to the expedition due to our ATA gene. She even implied that it was selfish of us to put all the expedition at risk for two people," Markham explained in a clipped tone.

The armrest of Sheppard's chair groaned as the metal twisted under the pressure of his fist. "She told you to leave your mate, and Dr. Burnham, in the hands of space vampires who would eat them alive?" Sheppard's voice could have cut steel.

Markham looked at him, the pain still visible on his eyes. "Yes, Sir."

"Holy Goddess!" Beckett muttered, closing his eyes while, at his side, McKay's paled, out of words for once. Dr. Porter's pen crumbled to dust in her hand. Lorne's forearm spikes ripped through his uniform sleeves, and the fury in his eyes equaled the fiery glow of Teldy's red Arachne eyes. Sparks of electricity danced around Reese's hands as he fought to control his Lighting.

"And Colonel Sumner backed that up?" Caldwell asked, his face ashen.

"One hundred percent."

"Then I don't know who he is anymore," he sentenced, slapping his pen on the table. "Certainly not the man I knew."

Sheppard took up a deep breath, and let the air out slowly. He winced at the state of the armrest.

"Since Stackhouse is now resting in our infirmary, I'm correct to assume you ignored her orders?"

"There wasn't another option, Sir, as you well know." Markham confirmed as Sheppard nodded. "We couldn't leave a Packmate behind, or Dr. Burnham..."

A hand shook him awake. "Jason, Jason!"

"Lou? What..?"

"Dress up. We don't have much time," Miller whispered while taking position on the door.

"Time?" Jason muttered, trying to brush off the drags of sleep from his mind. A quick look to the clock told him it was five minutes to midnight.

"We're going after Marcus and Burnham," Lou explained. That woke him up immediately. The Beretta on Miller's hand told him what he needed to know about the nature of the rescue, and he dressed up quickly.

As they stepped through the door, he saw the two soldiers guarding his room unconscious in two of the infirmary beds and Alvez keeping guard on the door.

"Where now?"

"The gateship bay!" They dashed down the corridor, empty at that time of the night.

"What about the guards?" Markham inquired, as they took the stairs two at once.

"Medina and Smitty are on guard tonight and in," Miller consulted his watch as they took down another corridor. "25 seconds, Medina is going to feel so ill that Smitty will have to accompany him to the infirmary."

They stopped in a short corridor parallel to the one leading to the bay, and Jason used his hearing to track Medina and Smitty until they took the stairs down to the infirmary. They jogged the last stretch and, as they turned the corner to the gateship bay, Jason saw Dr. Zelenka waiting for them. "Come on, come on!" he urged them.

"Dr. Zelenka? You're coming?" Jason hurried to the jumper.

"Do you know how Wraith technology work?" he raised an eyebrow. "No? Me, I've been studying what we brought back from Athos. So, yes, I'm coming!"

"Dr. Weir won't..."

"Weir může polib mi prdel!" Zelenka exclaimed. Jason thought it was best to not ask for a translation. As they started to climb the hatch, a voice shouted from the outside.

"Who's here? Medina, Smitty! Where the hell are you?"

They turned around slowly. Sergeant Bates was at the door, looking directly at them.

No one dared move a muscle. The tableau stood frozen for an endless moment until Bates, without saying a word, turned on his heel and waved the door closed.

"He's a good man," Zelenka said.

"Yeah, Doctor, he is." Markham strode into the jumper and straight to the cockpit, finding Dr. Abrams in the pilot seat. "Paul?"

"You need a backup pilot, and Peter couldn't shake off his guards," Abrams said, sliding off the seat so he can take it. "I'm not as good as you two, but hey! I'm a Seker! I'm quite sure I can get you back in one piece! Plus, we're Pack," he shrugged.

Jason smirked. "Thank you, Paul." Abrams patted his shoulder before taking a seat beside him.

Dr. Cole took the seat behind him. "Not a word, Jason," she cut him before he could speak. "We don't know how we're going to find them. You need a doctor. And I can defend myself," She patted the M9 strapped to her leg. Jason held his hands up in silent surrender. Turning to the controls, he ran quickly through the pre-flight check-up.

"Wait! What about the Control Room?"

"During his shift in the Control Room, Corporal Jones provided unequivocal proof that scalding coffee and Ancient crystals do not mix well. Poor Miko had to take the console offline and clean them all out. Long work, it will be," Radek explained, looking exaggeratedly put on. Jason chuckled.

"Let's head out!" Lou ordered. "Ross is projecting confusion and disorientation to everyone else but I don't think he'd be able to keep it up for much longer."

Jason closed the hatch as Lou and Alex took seats in the back. He activated the drive pods and ascended through the shaft, the hatch whirling open as the sensors detected the jumper.

The flight to the Stargate was short and the gateship slid neatly through the wormhole. Once on the other side, Jason cloaked them as he flew down to the planet. As they entered the atmosphere, Jason hissed in pain and the ship lurched when his control wavered for a moment.

"Jason? You're OK?" Lou asked.

He inhaled deeply a few times before answering. "The bond is trying to reassert itself, but the ends are too ragged and Marcus is too far. But he's definitely down there, and alive, blessed Goddess!"

With the help of the ship's sensors, it didn't take them long to find the Wraith ship, a protruding eyesore that dwarfed the surrounding forest. Carefully, he landed the gateship in a small clearing.

The place didn't look welcoming. Dark, heavy clouds covered the sky and a windstorm was raging outside, between the trunks of tall, leafless trees. The Wraith ship loomed in the horizon, its curved, organic shape covered in soil and grown vegetation.

"All right. Paul, Caroline, you stay with the ship. Paul, have it ready to launch immediately. If the HUD detects Wraith, cloak up. If they get close, you fly away like hell, understood?" Abrams reluctantly nodded. Miller turned around. "Dr. Zelenka..." He shut up when he saw Zelenka handle a P90 like an expert.

"I served 24 months in Czechoslovakia's Army, Lieutenant," Zelenka smirked. "By conscription. I qualified with M9 and P90 when joined the SGC. You can check my records."

"I'll take your word for it, Doctor."

"Radek."

"Radek," Lou acknowledged. "OK. You'll come with Jason, Alex and me to the Hive, but stay in the middle, understood?" Zelenka nodded.

The silence in the forest was haunting. No birds chirping. No insects buzzing. No paws skittering over crunching twigs. The wind howling through dry branches and crackling leaves was the only perceptible sound, even for Sentinel hearing. Their four heartbeats, and the other two behind in the gateship, were the only signs of life. The air smelled of decaying vegetation and stagnant water. It gave Jason the chills.

Accessing the Hive was ridiculously easy. The Dart bay hatch was opened and unguarded, no Wraith in sight, and they exchanged questioning looks. They crossed the bay at a run, taking cover on the far wall. While Radek tinkered with the organic controls to open the bay doors, Jason closed his eyes to do a sense scan. Lou clamped his hand on the back of his neck to provide grounding.

Despite the massive size of the Hive, it was relatively silent. Some kind of liquid gurgled through the walls, like blood or sap did in living beings, mixed with the low hum of electric current. About three dozen heartbeats were sparsely spread through the ship, their beating noticeably slower than the average human. Only in two places on the ship could he detect heartbeats with the rhythm and cadence he was used to hearing on humans, but he couldn't tell which group included his mate. Their bond sizzled and cracked, like a radio out of tune, still ragged and rough, and he had to force himself to tune it out.

The bay doors clicked open.

"Jason? Do you have them?" Lou whispered.

"I have human heartbeats on two points of the ship," he answered, dialing his hearing down. "A couple decks up and towards the bow, about 700 meters, there's a cluster of nine people, no Wraith around. The other two are in the deck above this one, about 300 meters towards the center, but there are at least five Wraith with them." He looked down, clutching his P90. "But I can't tell where Marcus is."

Lou squeezed his friend's arm. "Alex, Radek, you get to the cluster of nine. I'd bet that's the jail. Take the life signs detector with you. Once you have them, get them to the gateship immediately. Jason, you and I will get the other two. Don't engage the Wraith unless you don't have any other option." He turned back to Alex. "If you haven't heard from us in 30 micks, you go back to the Tower."

"But—"

"No buts, Alex! Saving people is the first priority."

Alex turned to Jason, who shook his head. "Lou's right. We're here to save lives, otherwise all of this would've been for nothing."

Alex clenched his teeth, but nodded.

"OK. Let's get going."

The Hive's interior didn't resemble any ship they have seen before. It flowed around in no distinguishable pattern, round ceilings supported by angled walls and rib-like pillars, and only illuminated with muted lights embedded into the structure, barely enough for a non-Sentinel to move around. A dense fog covered the ground and curled around their feet as they advanced, the organic material giving in slightly with each step. An indecipherable organic smell permeated every part of it.

Jason felt the matebond frizzle as they got nearer to their destination. "He's here, Lou. The bond's reacting."

"Good," he smiled, as they pushed against the wall at the sound of steps. A burly Wraith with a strange mask walked through, without paying any attention to them. They fox-walked down the corridor and took the left one at the next juncture.

Suddenly, a sharp, incisive pain flooded through the ragged bond into Jason's mind. He fell to his knees, pain radiating through him like his nerves were on fire. His hearing spiked up out of control, turning the heartbeats into resounding drums. Blackness swam in front of his eyes, already blurred with the tears he couldn't prevent escaping. He felt the adrenaline flowing into his system, increasing his heart rate as his energy flowed unchecked through the bond to his mate.

It stopped as suddenly as it started. Jason fell to the floor, painting heavily, a dull ache spreading throughout his body.

"Jason!" Lou knelt at his side, trying to help him stand. "What happened?"

"Marcus... something happened to him and he sucked out energy from me..."

"Shit! Can you stand?"

Jason got slowly into his feet with Lou supporting most of his weight as his Healing worked to increase blood flow to deal with muscle soreness and his metabolism worked to replace the lost energy. He inhaled deeply as he got back on his feet. "Let's go."

They sprinted through the ship, following the threads of Jason's rebuilding bond. As they rounded a corner, they came upon several tall but very narrow windows that overlooked a room dominated by a big food-laden table. And seated on it, was Marcus. Jason pressed against the narrow frames, focusing his senses on his mate.

His heart was beating fast, and he was panting shallowly. His skin looked clammy, with streaks of white on his hair, and his eyes were tightly shut as his hands clawed on the chair's arms. His pain was a sharp blade on Jason's mind.

"Impossible," a strange voice said. "What are you?" The voice belonged to a tall red-haired female, with greyish skin and strange markings on her face. In her right hand, red with Marcus' blood, was a strange, teethed opening. It couldn't be anything but a Wraith. "Are there more like you?" she all but purred, her long nails sliding over Marcus' face in the twisted parody of a caress. Marcus shivered.

Next to her, stood two of these masked, burly Wraith, carrying a sort of long, strange-shaped rifles. In the high-backed chair just in front of Marcus sat the mummified remains of a Bassanian, still wearing their characteristic saffron, blue and red celebration clothes.

"Dear Goddess..." Lou whispered at his side.

A blue, blood-like liquid ran down Jason’s arm, seeping from the piece of window frame he had crushed in his fist.

Another Wraith ran into the room below. Although also seemingly a male, he was unmasked and slimier that the ones they've seen so far, and the tails of a black leather coat brushed his legs as he moved.

"My Queen! We have intruders inside the Hive!" The Queen turned to look at him with narrowed eyes. He froze on the spot.

"How?" she asked.

"We don't know, my Queen, but they've blown up one of the cells and the newly culled are gone." It seemed like Alex and Radek's part of the mission was going well.

"Lock the ship!" She ordered. "I want them caught and if you don't, I'm going to drain you until the last drop instead." The four Wraith walked out the room, as a distinctly paler shade of grey swept over the newest male's skin.

"Jason..." He raised his hand, signaling Lou to be silent. He kept his eyes glued on his mate, counting each breath he took, but allowed his hearing to follow the departing Wraith.

"Now!" he said when they were far enough. They gripped two of the narrow window frames each and pulled with Warrior-enhanced strength, feeling them rip from the wall with a squelching sound as more of that blue liquid was sprayed everywhere. Jumping down into the room, Jason ran to his mate's side.

"Marcus! Marcus! Can you hear me?"

Sluggishly, his mate turned his head to him and opened his eyes, a faint smile sketching itself on his mouth. "Jason... you really here?"

"Yes, babe, I'm here," he pressed a quick kiss onto his lips. "Lou's here too and we're getting you out here."

"Don't think... can move..."

"I'll take you. Until the Goddess calls us to her side and beyond, remember?" He tried an encouraging smile, but was afraid it looked more like a grimace. He took Marcus up in his arms bridal-style, as he was afraid a fireman's carry may induce further damage.

"... love you..." Marcus whispered as he haltingly moved his arms around Jason's neck to help.

Jason turned around and he saw Lou snapping a pendant from the mummified remains. "His family..." Jason nodded. Bassanian oath-pendants were unique to the individual and devotedly kept by the family after their passing. Lou hid it in one of his pockets and moved to protect Jason and Marcus' six as they advanced through the dark, mist-filled corridors with Jason's Sentinel senses as their only guide.

The racketing sound of P90s firing alerted them that their friends were in trouble. Lou moved in front of them as they neared the last corner before the Dart bay, and signaled Jason to stay covered before turning the corner and unleashing hell himself. Jason leaned on the wall, shifting Marcus up to a better position. He counted three human heartbeats in the corridor beyond. All their friends were alive, though he could also smell the sharp metallic tang of blood. Wraith heartbeats were dropping off his hearing one after the other with the bitter coppery smell he already identified as their blue-tinted blood, until the P90's racketing stopped. He pushed off the wall and jogged down the corridor.

Alex was pushing a Wraith's body off a cursing Radek while Lou kept his P90 pointed to the corridor. He ignored the blue blood oozing from the walls and splashed on the floor as he walked.

"Jason! Marcus!" Alex called. "Is he —"

"Alive, for now," Jason cut him off with an apologetic look. "Five more Wraith, half a click that way," he informed Lou.

"Then we better hurry!"

They sprinted through the Dart bay, Alex in front with Radek and Lou covering their six. As they crossed the bay's outer door, Alex was the first to climb down, and reached out for Marcus. After a second's hesitation, Jason shifted Marcus to him so he could climb down himself.

"You're tired," Alex said when he tried to take Marcus' back. "I'm not. I can run faster with him." He saw Jason hesitate and looked at his eyes directly. "Trust me, please." Jason took a deep breath and nodded.

They ran through the forest, this time with Jason in front while Radek and Lou covered the rear. He could hear Wraith behind them, but their running was heavy and relatively slow.

"They're here!" one of the rescued Bassanians yelled as they entered the clearing. The gateship shimmered into view, hatch already down. The Bassanian ran up first, gesturing at them to hurry. As he stepped inside, some of his people got up from one of the benches, allowing Alex to lay Marcus down on it. Lou jumped into the ship half-carrying a wild-haired Radek.

"Take off, now!" Lou ordered.

The drive pods activated and the ship was already airborne before the hatch had finished closing.

"Jason, we need you in the pilot's seat," Lou told him.

"No! I can't -"

"I'll take care of him," Caroline knelt by Marcus' side, stethoscope in hand. "But we need to get him to the Tower as soon as possible, Jason."

Jason looked between her and Marcus, undecided, but finally got up after pressing a quick kiss to his mate's forehead. He and Paul exchanged seats and Jason put the small ship on full throttle upwards as the HUD signaled several Darts flying out the Hive.

"Those damn Darts are fast!" he cursed, putting the ship through several evasive maneuvers. Paul started dialing as soon as the spacegate was on sight. One Dart appeared in front of them and started shooting, but Jason nose-dived and dodged it. As several shots shook their shields, Jason traced an upwards arc and flew them through the gate.

They went through three gates before dialing the Alpha site and then the Tower. The two guards on the gate looked up at them as they flew by. The short flight to the Tower was uneventful and silent. Nobody contacted them. The hatch whirled open when it detected the gateship's approach. Jason's descended the shaft carefully and landed without a hitch. Jason and Paul joined the others at the hatch. Silently, Lou and Jason stood on the front, as the highest ranked officers. Taking a deep breath, Lou hit the lever that released the hatch.

As the hatch descended, Weir, Sumner and a bunch of soldiers started appearing in front of them. The soldiers pointed their weapons at them when they took a step down the hatch.

"You're under arrest," Weir smiled.

"She arrested you?" Sheppard asked, nostrils flaring.

"Yes, Sir. They allowed Dr. Cole to take Marcus... Sgt. Stackhouse to the infirmary, but threw the rest of us in the cell. They did allow the Bassanians to return to their planet, though. They took Dr. Cole in a couple of hours later. "

"What?" Beckett straightened in his seat. "Who was attending Sgt. Stackhouse then?"

"Dr. Cole said Dr. Keller herself took over."

"She isn't licensed!"

"Not officially, no," Markham squirmed in his seat.

"Officially?" Beckett’s eyes narrowed.

"Dr. Cole said that she knew too much. Things only a Bloodfire-licensed doctor should know. But that was before they took her and Dr. Zelenka away. They kept us in the cell for about two weeks, no explanations given, until one day..."

Jason woke up groaning. His headache was only a dull ache, which meant Marcus was sleeping. Thank the Goddess!

An arm was thrown over his waist, belonging to the person currently snoring behind him. A quick sense check confirmed it was Alex.

"You were shivering again."

Lou Miller was seated on the cell's floor a few feet away from him, leaning heavily on the cell bars.

"And I feel like I haven't sleep in a year," Gently, he extricated himself from Alex's embrace, pushing his pillow in his place — which Alex immediately curled around — and pushed himself to sit beside the Lieutenant. "I'm afraid, Lou. If Marcus needs to pull so much energy from me... I don't want to imagine what she's doing to him but I can't stop these images..."

"Blackburn Falls," Lou muttered.

"Yeah." He looked down the floor, trying to expel the nightmarish images from his mind.

A loud thud pulled them out their reverie. The room's door slid open and Medina dragged inside the unfortunate, and currently unconscious, Marine on guard. Miko slid in after him. Lou jumped to his feet while Jason shook Alex awake and Paul scrambled out the cell's only bench.

"What the—"

"We don't have time," Miko interrupted him and clicked her radio. "Ready." After a moment, the force field disengaged and the cell's door slid open.

"What are you doing?" Lou asked while Medina passed them M9s.

"Nurse Pierce came to us," Miko explained instead. "She says Marcus is in very bad shape, and that Dr. Keller is more interested in analyzing and prodding him than in healing him, and that Caroline is kept under lock and guard. So, Peter used the communication system to listen in..." She gulped down, trembling slightly. "He heard Keller tell Weir that if what she found is what she thinks it is, it may be the key they needed and they wouldn't need Keffler's disgusting experiments anymore, but that she needed to do further tests with Marcus."

Jason paled visibly. "I thought O'Neill had dealt with that shit."

"Seems some slime got through," Miko muttered.

"Guys, we don't have time," Medina whispered from his surveillance position on the door. "We need to go, now! Grodin is keeping the sensors switched off but someone is going to notice!"

As they scurried out the cell and towards the door, Jason did a quick sensory check. "Clear!" Medina took point, guiding them to the infirmary through rarely used corridors. Two floors up, Jason grabbed his arm and pulled him back, using the hand sign for 'hostiles ahead'. They walked back to the corner and waited, pressed up against the wall.

"Ricky-"

"Don't," Medina interrupted him. "You guys have saved my ass enough times and what they're doing to Marcus..." Jason squeezed his arm, nodding quickly.

"How's Radek?" Paul asked in a whisper, while two armed Marines walked through the corridor beyond.

"Don't know," Miko said. "Weir has him under lock and key too, and only she and Kavanaugh can enter the room."

"Kavanaugh?"

Jason signaled for them to move.

"Weir has given him Radek's position," Miko explained while they climbed up a set of stairs.

"I'm a dead man," Paul sentenced. "That bastard is going to make me mincemeat." Miko threw him an apologetic look.

At the next juncture, Jason stiffened and signaled them to halt, but relaxed after a moment. Ross peeked around the corner and sighed in relief.

"Come on!" he said. "I pushed them to sleep, but I don't know how long it will take for someone to come looking!"

As they walked into the corridor, they saw the two Marines on guard snoring on the floor, with the door of the infirmary open wide. Jason raced inside, following his senses to his mate’s bedside. He gasped when he saw him. Marcus’ skin looked pale and blotchy, covered in sweat, and his breathing was shallow. He was connected to a heart monitor with an IV dripping down to his arm.

"Marcus? Can you hear me, love?" He caressed his cheek softly.

Marcus's yellowed eyes blinked open, flashing in pain until he recognized him and softened.

"Ja... son..."

"Don't make him talk," Jason turned around quickly, pointing his M90 to the voice's owner. Nurse Pierce stopped short but looked calm. As he lowered the weapon, she walked slowly but firmly to Marcus' bed. "Yesterday, they made him scream for several bloody hours," she fed Marcus an ice chip, "and he's not healing as he should." Jason glared at her when her hand approached the IV. "I'm not a Sworn Companion, Sergeant, but I'm Bloodfire-licensed and I've signed the Agreement. Not that it matters much to those two bitches," She grumbled as she cleaned the skin near the IV's port with an antiseptic solution, before gently pulling the catheter out of Marcus' arm. She applied an ointment over the wound, an antibiotic one as Jason read on the tube, and dressed it with sterile gauze and transparent dressing.

Near them, someone groaned. Jason saw a male nurse lying down in a bed over the aisle, but Ross dashed to his side and pushed him back to sleep before he could fully wake. "A Resistant. Nice," he grumbled while Pierce switched off the heart monitor.

"Marcus?" Jason asked. Marcus opened his eyes with difficulty. "I'm going to carry you out there, OK?" His mate just nodded. Jason pulled the sheet off Marcus' body and carefully lifted him on his arms. Marcus groaned as he curled into his mate's chest.

"He's burning up!"

"He's been running a fever for several days," Nurse Pierce confirmed, as she pushed a bag into Alex's arms. "There are Bloodfire-strength antipyretics and painkillers in the bag," she turned to Jason. "Keep the dressing clean. Change it every 24 hours, clean it and apply the antibiotic ointment. His Healing is not working properly so the more you can do to help it, the better. I've added antiseptics and some general-purpose antibiotics, also glucose pills and protein bars. I've also written a list of instructions. Bland diet the first few days, it'll take him a bit to flush that shit out his system. Understood?" She threw Jason a glare until he nodded, then she turned towards Ross, inhaling deeply "Ready."

"Thank you for everything, Pierce," Jason managed to say, before Ross pushed her to sleep. He took her in his arms as she fell unconscious and carefully laid her down onto a bed.

Miko's tablet pinged. "Change of guard in the gateship bay in three minutes," she informed them. "Peter's going to mess with the transporters. Let's go!" Medina passed a M9 to Ross and another to Paul. The scientist eyed it warily, but finally took it, shaking only slightly.

They moved out the infirmary, and ran through the corridors. Lou and Medina were on point with Alex and Ross on their six, with Miko and Paul covering their sides. They took the stairs two at the time, until Jason stumbled and only Alex’s reflexes prevented his fall.

“Do you want me to carry Marcus?” Alex asked.

Jason shook his head. “Just give me a moment,” he asked, leaning on the wall for support. They hadn't been feeding them properly in the cell, and his body was protesting the effort. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath and reached inside himself, visualizing the switch he’d learned to picture when his Gifts emerged. He turned it on, and a flood of energizing adrenaline rushed through his system: his heartbeat increased, fatigue melted away, and his muscles felt infused with new strength. Adrenal activation had a price, but he’ll pay it later. Pushing away from the wall, he straightened and shifted Marcus to a better position on his arms. “Let’s go!”

They kept moving through back corridors and though they had to stop twice to keep themselves from being noticed, they made it to the bay's corridor in time. As the two soldiers on guard walked to the transporter to greet their replacements, Lou and Alex moved quickly and knocked them out. The bay doors slid open even before they reached them, and one of the gateships was already powered up and ready.

"Stop and put your hands up!" Someone shouted behind them. Lou, Alex and Medina turned quickly, pointing their P90 at the five Marines that were aiming at them. "They shouldn't be here!" Miko hissed just before her tablet flashed red. "Peter's off the system," she muttered, dejectedly.

"You wouldn't believe we'd fell for the same trick twice, wouldn't you?" Corporal Sherman smirked, waving a handheld white noise generator at them. Jason cursed himself for falling for that trick, while Lou's face twisted in disgust. Sherman was one of Sumner's minions, a smarmy snake who'd taken special delight in the Bloodfire's fall from grace, especially Lou's due to the official reprimand he put on his file.

"Markham, take Stackhouse to the gateship," Lt. Lou Miller ordered. "Alvez, Dr. Kusanagi, go with them."

"Don't you dare move!" Sherman snarled, taking a step forward, but Miller and Medina quickly moved to obstruct their view. Behind him, one of the Marines fell to the floor, pushed to sleep by Corrigan, but his partner swung a Zat at the anthropologist before he could do anyone else. Corrigan’s body shook from the discharge, before falling unconscious to the floor.

"Your adventure ends there," Sherman smiled, a cruel light shining in his eyes.

"Don't be so sure," Abrams spoke up. Besides him, the door's control panel lay open. He twirled a crystal around and pushed it back in, and the doors started to slide close.

"No!" Markham shouted.

"Keep Marcus safe!" Lou yelled before the bay doors closed and locked with a metallic click.

"Come on, get on the gateship," Miko told Jason.

"No! We can't leave them there! They—"

"- did this for Marcus!" she interrupted him. "He's the one that matters now! We can't leave him in Keller's clutches and you know the fuck why!"

Jason took a surprised step back. Miko never cursed. Never ever. Though she'd never snarled or glared daggers at him, either. He clutched Marcus closer to him, allowing the unique scent of his mate to calm him down. He inhaled deeply and opened his eyes.

"OK, let's go!"

They walked up the ramp of the still powered up gateship. Jason gently laid Marcus down on one of the benches.

"Ja...son..." Marcus murmured, trying to grab hold of his uniform as he moved away.

"I'm here, beloved," he whispered, combing the sweaty hair off his mate's face. "I'm not going away but I have to fly the gateship out there. Just a few minutes and I'll be back, OK?"

Marcus nodded slightly. "Love... you..."

"Love you too," Jason laid a quick kiss on Marcus' lips, tucking the sheet Miko gave him around his mate.

Sitting on the pilot's chair, he ran a quick pre-flight checkup. "Shit!”

“What’s the problem?” Miko asked.

“The hatch's sensors are offline and it's refusing the ship's commands too!"

"There's an emergency manual release," Miko informed him. "I'll do it."

"Miko, no!" He twirled around, but before he could move, the scientist dove through the narrow space left by the closing hatch and vanished into the darkness of the bay. The hatch closed with a metallic sound that had a final ring to it.

When he tried to get up, Alex pushed him back onto the seat. "Alex..." he snarled.

"Don't belittle their sacrifice, Jason."

"But—"

"You'll do the same if it was one of their mates in Marcus' place." Alex said, looking directly at his eyes. Jason kept the glare for a few moments, but finally slumped back on the pilot seat. Alex was right.

With a shaking hand, he pushed the drive pod’s control and they flared to life. "I'll stay with Marcus," Alex said, squeezing his shoulder in support before moving to sit on the floor before his sick Packmate.

"Now, Jason!" Miko's voice ordered though their radio. "I don't know how much I can keep it open, they're trying to override it!"

The gateship rose up from the bay's floor, and Jason kept it stable as it ascended through the shaft.

"Thank you, Miko," he mumbled.

"Ki wo tsukete, Jason-san."

The short flight to the gate was uneventful. Midway, he felt the effect of the adrenal boost ebbing out and pushed the ship to go faster. The two Marines on guard pointed their P90s up as the gate started dialing, but they didn't pull the trigger. Jason didn’t dare look at them as the gateship slid through the event horizon to emerge in open space.

"Where are we?" Alex asked.

"Orbital gate on... M3R-428," Jason told him between gasps. The adrenaline boost had definitively run out, burning the last dregs of energy he had left, and exhaustion was rushing in. He shook his head to try clear it and concentrated on turning the ship around to face the gate again. "This way they... won't be able... to pull our... destination... from the DHD," he explained while dialing the seven glyph address.

"Where are we going?"

"The only place... they would never... look for us.” The orbital gate flared to life. “Athos."

"They all sacrificed themselves to save Marcus," Markham said, his voice choking, while Alvez squeezed his arm in silent support.

"Do you know what happened to them?" Sheppard asked gently.

"I only managed to speak with someone once, several months later, on Belkan. Sergeant Bates told me that they were alive, but that was the best he could say. He also warned me not to contact anyone else. He said that it was getting impossible to tell friend from foe."

"You know what he was talking about?" Colonel Caldwell asked, not without compassion.

“The Mad Tau’ri,” Alvez muttered.

"The what?" McKay asked.

Alvez squirmed in his seat. “Around here, the Tau’ri soldiers have gotten a reputation for being... unpredictable, Sir. They say that they are easily angered and become violent when they are. Also, they're said to be impossible strong, Sir, and it’s not our people,” Alvez rushed to add. ”It’s the Mundanes.”

“Are you sure?” Sheppard asked.

“As far as we know, none of ours has been seen outside the Tower since we escaped, Sir.”

“Understood. And do you believe it?" Sheppard questioned.

"That day in Belkan," Markham intervened. "I saw Summer punch a hole through a solid brick pillar, Sir. Also, Ford's left eye... it was almost completely black, Sir."

"Are you sure, Sergeant?" Carson asked.

"I zoomed in, Doctor. There was barely a hint of white at the sides. It was like the pupil was covering all the eye."

"What could cause that, Doctor Beckett?" Caldwell asked.

"I don't know, Colonel, but a'm sure it's nothin' good."

Caldwell jotted down a note. “Is there anything else, Lance Corporal?”

“Well, there's a rumor going around Pegasus, Sir.” Alvez bit his lip and looked down to the table for a moment, before addressing the Colonel again. “They say that the Tau'ri are hunting Wraith alive, even offering bounties for them.”

“Live Wraith?” Lorne asked in disbelief. “What for?”

“Nobody knows, Sir.”

"Marvelous," Sheppard muttered under his breath. "Anything else to add?"

"Well, you know most of it already, Sir,” Markham said. “When we arrived at Athos, Teyla's people were wary of us, but she agreed to let us stay after we took a Blood Oath. With time, they warmed up to us. They realized we weren't like Weir. They and the Bassanians... are almost the only friends we’ve got in this galaxy. We helped them as much as we could in exchange, but kept our heads down off world, so no one could report back on us to Weir's people. Everything else, is mostly rumors and hearsay, Sir."

"OK, write a report about it. Add in also any possible allies, hostiles... anything you can remember."

"Yes, Sir."

"Wait!" McKay interrupted. "What about the puddlejumper you stole? Where is it?"

"Hidden on the Athosian's Old City, Dr. McKay."

"In working shape?"

"It was, last time we checked."

"Good!" McKay turned to Sheppard. "Colonel—"

"I'll talk to Teyla about it, McKay," he interrupted him with a grin.

"You’d better," he warned him, but Sheppard frowned at the lack the scientist’s usual snark.

"Does anyone have any more questions?" Sheppard asked, looking around the table.

"I think we've got enough for today," Caldwell answered.

"Understood. Formal debriefing of Staff Sergeant Jason Markham, USMC, and Lance Corporal Alex Alvez, USMC, regarding the First Atlantis Expedition finishes here. Any further information would be added to the written report. Sergeant, you may stop the recording."

"Yes, Sir." Sergeant Campbell got up from his seat, pushed the stopping button on the camera, and started to pick up the equipment as people headed out the conference room.

"But Carson, I have a lot of work to do!" McKay complained, trying to dislodge Dr. Beckett's grip on his arm, with no luck.

"Yer work will still be here after a finish yer checkup!" Beckett replied, his Scottish brogue getting more pronounced, as he pulled a complaining McKay towards the transporter. Sheppard chuckled.

After the room's doors slid close, Lorne reclined on the table next to him, arms crossed.

"You know, I don't think we'll be able to keep that under wraps for long, John," he said, using his given name since it was Pride business.

"Yeah, I know," John sighed.

"Does anyone know apart from us?"

"No one else is Master Kin, but I don't know how far Carson has delved into the archives since he became Prime Healer." John reclined back on his chair, looking at his Beta. "But I've got a feeling we'd have heard about it if he had."

Evan snorted, but sobered quickly. "Something else is bothering you."

John looked at the ceiling and sighed. "I've got a feeling we haven't seen the worst of this yet."

"Instinct or Foreboding?" Evan asked. John looked at him pointedly, eyebrow raised. "Shit!" he swore and John snorted. "Do you think this is part of the prophecy?"

"Since Jackson opened the Stargate, everything seems to be a step towards it," John answered. "According to Silke, at least."

"And who's going to contradict her?"

"Not me, that's for sure! I don't need her crossed at me again!" Evan raised an eyebrow of his own. John smile was a bit sheepish. “Let’s just say being family to the Seer has its downsides,” John added, squirming on his seat while Evan smirked.

"Colonel Sheppard, we have an emergency!" Becket shouted through the radio.

John clicked his on. "What's the problem, Doctor?"

"Dr. McKay has collapsed."

Chapter Text

It hit John like a wall when the infirmary's doors slid open.

First, it was the smell. Bloodfire spice, but with a strange warmth associated that spread through his body, with notes of coffee and chocolate salted with clean sweat. Yet there was also a sharp undertone, one that he knew he’d smelled before and that had felt wrong down to his bones.

His senses zeroed in immediately on Rodney, laying on an infirmary bed. Rodney's increased heartbeat reverberated in his ears in counterpoint to the pants of his irregular breathing, and John could almost taste the sweat on his tongue. His eyes zeroed in on the pain showing in Rodney's blue eyes until Rodney yelled in pain.

John was at his side in a blur. He brusquely pulled a nurse away from Rodney, sending her reeling backwards onto Evan's arms. He grabbed Rodney's hand and brought it to his chest as he bent over him protectively. Something snapped suddenly in place, Rodney’s pain flowing over him for a few interminable seconds.

"John? What are you—?" Carson took a step back when John growled at him, motioning his people to stay away. "John?"

John pulled Rodney against him. "Mine," he growled. "He's mine!"

"Shit!" someone cursed.

"John," Carson called, throwing a nasty look at the swearer. John looked at him without moving from his position. "You have to allow us to help Rodney." John growled. "He's your mate, I understand." He took a careful step towards John. "But he has a neutralizin’ implant in his brain, John, 'n' I need to take it out." Carson turned around his tablet, showing him the result of Rodney's scan.

"A neutralizing implant?" John frowned at the screen, while trying to shield himself from Rodney’s pain. "He got it?"

"I pretty much doubt it was voluntary. Rodney would never do anythin' to endanger his brain."

"Who put it in then?"

"It's not in his medical file. I won't know until I take it out." He took another step forward. "You need to let me take him to surgery. He's sufferin’, John."

"The headaches?"

"The implant fighting the Firin’ process. Please, John."

"I don't... let him go... I can't!" John growled. He closed his eyes, holding Rodney tight. “His pain… in my head…” He gulped and looked back at Carson with a pain-filled gaze. "Help him. Do whatever you have to do, Carson. You have my permission."

"I will, Alpha, I promise."

John flinched when he felt a hand on the back of his neck. With his senses concentrated in Rodney, he hadn't noticed the approach. Immediately, he felt lassitude take him over, his body relaxing, his eyes closing against his will.

"Sleep, Alpha. We'll take care of you both," TC whispered.

It was the last thing John heard before he lost consciousness.

The first thing John noticed when he woke up was the warm body in his arms. He pressed his nose at the juncture between neck and shoulder. Coffee, antiseptic, chocolate, sweat, antibiotic cream, and a hint of Bloodfire spice under it all. None of that wrong smell anymore.

Rodney's breathing was regular and his heart beat strongly under John's hand, a bit faster than normal. His skin was soft and warm against John's own, covered by a thin layer of fresh sweat. 37ºC, John estimated. Still a way to go.

He opened his eyes. Three neat suture points were closing a clean wound on the left side of Rodney's nape, no more than a couple of centimeters wide. Rodney looked a bit pale and still had bags under his eyes, but the haggard look from before was gone. He was wearing only his boxers, as was John, a soft white cotton sheet covering them both from the waist down.

John softly caressed Rodney's scruffy cheek. His mate. Rodney was his True Mate. Rodney was Firing up for him.

It was a surprise and yet not. He'd liked the scientist since the moment he’d met him. Only Rodney's status as a mundane had kept his attraction at bay and, after a fortnight since they met, he'd given up any hope of Rodney Firing up.

But it seemed the Goddess had other ideas. Thankfully.

John tensed when the door slid open and pulled Rodney closer to him as he turned towards his visitors.

Carson and Evan stood just inside the still open door. The doctor clutched a tablet in his hands, while John's Beta was carrying a food tray. John relaxed slightly against the pillows and they walked in. Evan moved to leave the tray at the small table besides the bed, with John's unwavering gaze following him. Evan's heartbeat was a little elevated, but he moved with assurance. He bowed his head at John, deposited the tray silently and retreated to the foot of the bed besides Carson. John could smell turkey sandwiches, bananas and water on the tray and felt his stomach rumble a bit.

The Healer cleared his throat and John shifted his attention to him, though still keeping Evan in his field of vision.

"How are you feeling, Alpha?"

"Fine," he spat, and Carson flinched. John took a deep breath, trying to calm himself. They were his Pridemates. He trusted them. But with his mate firing in his arms, his instincts were screaming at him to get the hell away from them. "Surprised, nervous, elated, but fine," he elaborated. "Rodney?"

"We took out the neutralizing implant without any problems. His brain is not damaged, 'n' he should recover completely," Carson explained, and John felt himself relaxing a bit more. "But he's tired, so I've sent him into a deep sleep. He should sleep a' night."

"Good," John nodded. "Any idea who did this to him?"

Carson shoot Evan a quick look before answering. "The serial number belongs to the set issued to the First Expedition for emergency medical purposes."

John's eyes narrowed. "When?"

"The set was issued on June 22th. Both Dr. Cole and Dr. Keller signed the delivery form." Carson turned his tablet around to show the record to John. "Rodney got the news about his sister on the 26th and left on the 28th. But before that, on the 24th, he was on a mission with SG-7 where he had an accident, a wee one!" he quickly added as John's look hardened. "But he required a few suture points on the back of his head. Dr. Keller took care of it herself, according to Rodney's medical file." He clicked his tablet off. "As CMO, Keller had access to the implants. If I were to guess, I’d say that was when she implanted it."

"Which means she knew what Rodney is."

"So it seems. But I don't know how. There's no record of anybody in his family Firing in the last three centuries."

"Like there's no record of Stackhouse," John commented. Carson nodded, a bit dejected. "Evan," John looked at his Beta and XO. "The high-compression data burst program Rodney was working on? Tell Porter it's now on top of the priority list. "

"Yes, Sir," Evan acknowledged.

"Carson, Rodney's files—"

"I've encoded them for Bloodfire-only reading. Nobody but the Pride knows. We've made up a story about a delayed reaction to you due to his allergy medication for the rest of the expedition."

"OK." John returned his attention to his Beta. "Evan, I entrust the Pride and the expedition to your care. I want them back in pristine condition, OK?"

"On my honor, Alpha," he bowed.

"Lania!" John called, and the AI projected herself on the screen besides the door.

"Praetor."

"Lorne is going to be in charge for the time being."

"Understood. Temporary Praefectus authority assigned." She looked towards Lorne. "Legatus, I'll be waiting for you at the cathedra at your earliest convenience."

"Give me half an hour and I'll be here."

"Understood. Praetor, do I have to assume that Legatus Evan will be handling Ms. Teyla's visit tomorrow as well?"

"You assume correctly, Lania," John smirked at Evan's shocked look.

"Understood, Praetor," she saluted before blinking off.

"Can't we postpone the visit until you come out of Nesting?" Lorne pleaded.

"I'm sorry, Evan, but after what Weir has done I believe we need all the friends we can make as soon as possible."

Lorne sighed. "Understood, Alpha. I'll do my best."

"I’ve no doubt about that." John settled back on the bed. "Now go away. You're making my instincts scream and I need to rest a bit before he wakes up."

It was the sudden movement in his arms that woke him. John startled awake to find Rodney in the middle of a seizure. His limbs were twitching uncontrollably, and he was gulping air quickly. The twitching subsided about 10 seconds later, but to John the time felt longer. Rodney's body relaxed bonelessly afterwards, without waking up. John gently combed a stray lock of hair away from Rodney's clammy forehead and cuddled closer, burying his face in his mate's shoulder. The warm, slightly spicy smell called to him and it took him a moment to realize what was wrong.

Rodney was warm.

Warm, not fever hot.

John sprung up, automatically calculating Rodney’s temperature through his own Sentinel touch. It was just 37ºC, not even a tenth more.

"Lania!" he called. "Tell Carson to haul ass here! Now!"

"He's on his way, Praetor," she informed him almost immediately.

He used his senses to check on Rodney's vitals, until Carson dashed into the room a couple of minutes later.

"He's still only 37ºC!" John told him. "And it's already been three hours!"

Carson knelt beside the bed. "Lania, medscreen!" he ordered. The thin crystal screen over the bed illuminated with a human silhouette and rows of data. "Shite!" He swore, before putting his hands on Rodney’s skin for a bioscan. John's eyes roved over Rodney and Carson quickly, his claws ripping the sheets under his hands and digging into the mattress.

"Carson?" he asked. "What's happening to him?"

It took the Healer a few moments to react. "Lania!" he called. "Do you have any kind of haemodialysis machine?"

“I do not have a haemodialysis machine like those described in the files from Terra, though I do have other technologies that can emulate such processes. What exactly do you wish to do, Magister?

Carson took a calming breath. The linguists had made it their special project to teach Lania English to communicate with mundanes, but not everything correlated directly to the information on Lania’s databanks.

"I need to filter the neutralizin’ drug out of Rodney's system," he explained.

Lania's image fizzled for a moment. "Do you have the molecular model of this drug?"

"Yes!"

"Then the treatment pod should work, Magister."

"Where it is?"

A map of the infirmary appeared besides Lania, with a room highlighted. "Main pod treatment room is located in the V-5 unit, Magister. Should I initialize a pod?"

"Yes, immediately!"

"Treatment pod 01 initializing. It'll be ready in 2 minutes and 29 seconds."

"Thank you, Lania." Carson clicked his radio. "Beckett to McKenzie."

"I thought you were sleeping, Carson," Siobhán replied.

"I was, but Rodney's not evolvin’ as expected," he explained. "I need you to find the molecular model for the Gift Neutralizer, Siobhán. Lania will tell you exactly what she needs. I'll explain later."

"Understood, Carson," she replied, in a much serious tone, before clicking off.

John seized Carson's arm, his unsheathed claws pricking dangerously on the Healer’s skin. "Carson," he growled. "Tell me what's wrong with him!"

Carson sat on the bed, looking directly at him. "The neutralizin’ drug from the implant isn’t breakin’ down as expected, John."

"You said he'd be fine!"

"He should!" Carson sighed. "John, the neutralizin’ implant is designed to be used on fully Fired individuals. Its effects on Unfireds are not documented. Whatever Keller intended... it's unknown territory. I'm clutching at straws, here."

Carson's sleeve ripped under John's claws. "You have to save him, Carson, please. I can't lose him… I can’t…." John pleaded.

"I understand, John, I really do," he sighed, looking down to the silver ring on his left hand. "If it were Kate..." He shook his head at looked back at John. "I'll do everything I can. I promise, Alpha. My word on it."

John just nodded, his lips in a tight line, eyes shining.

Carson turned his head from the medscreen when the door hissed open and he immediately zeroed in on the extra coffee cup Evan carried. The Pride's Beta smirked as he extended the cup to him. Carson took it with both hands and brought it to his nose, inhaling deeply before taking a careful sip. Evan leaned against the doorframe of the treatment unit, amused by his Pridemate's antics.

"That’s a real coffee and nae that bloody tar from the mess," Carson sighed. "Did I tell you that I love our Alpha?"

"Well, he certainly knows how to buy his way into his people's hearts," Evan chuckled, sipping his own coffee. He took a moment to examine John, sitting on a low stool and sleeping on his crossed arms over McKay's treatment pod. His hair was in even more disarray than usual, sticking up in all directions. His black T-shirt was crumpled and untucked and he hadn't even bothered with shoes. Under John’s arms, the treatment pod shone with a soft azure light, with muted white lights sliding through the metallic lattice work, crisscrossing the cover in a repeating pattern that only allowed him to see glimpses of McKay's pale legs.

"You do know that when Rodney learns that the Pride has a private stash of specialty-bought coffee he's going to lay siege to it, don't you?" Evan smirked, signaling the pod with his cup.

"Don't remind me," Carson sighed. "There’s going to be World War III."

Evan smirked. "I didn't expect John would be able sleep with zero sense contact with Rodney."

"I knocked him out." Carson blushed slightly. "He needs it."

"Good idea," Evan smiled, taking a long gulp of his coffee. "Is McKay as bad as he looks or are the blue lights playing tricks on me?" he asked in a sober tone.

"Both, I'm afraid," the doctor sighed, walking to stand at Evan’s side. "The blue lights do make him look paler, but the neutralizer has made more damage than I previously believed."

"How bad is it?"

Carson took a moment to answer. "The Gift Neutralizer is, in the broadest sense, the opposite of the Caller gene. If the Caller gene wakes up the Activator gene, the neutralizer puts it to sleep. By doing so, it inhibits the production of several chemicals necessary for Gift expression and control. In non-self-activating Nascents like Rodney, the mates' pheromones do the job of the Caller.” Carson took a sip of his coffee. “So, right now, John's pheromones are tellin’ Rodney's Activator gene to start the Firin’, but Rodney's blood is saturated with the neutralizer that keeps repressin’ the gene as soon as it activates." Carson sighed and looked at the pod. "The never-ending cycle is puttin’ a tremendous strain on Rodney's body, ‘n’ his body tissues are suffering for it."

"Will he be able to bear the Firing?" Evan looked back at Carson.

"That's the million-dollar question, my friend."

"Will he go into spontaneous Halting?" Evan asked, lowering his voice.

"That's... certainly a possibility." Carson admitted, in the same tone. "It'll depend on how much damage the Neutralizer has done. Neural damage, specially. ‘n’ how much the pod can heal him."

"Shit!" Evan swore. "Carson, if he doesn't survive or Halts, John..."

"I know, Evan, I know..."

"Treatment finished," Lania announced. The pod slid open with a soft hiss as soon as the lights switched off. John knelt at the pod's side, cradling Rodney’s hand between his as he felt the tenuous, primary bond re-establish itself. On the other side, Carson laid his hands flat on Rodney to do a bioscan.

"Carson?" John asked.

The doctor straightened but took a moment to check the readings on the medscreen before answering. "The neutralizer is out his system ‘n’ most tissues are healed," he turned to look at John. "These are the good news. However, there's still a wee bit of neural damage ‘n’ the healed tissues are tender. I don't know how they'll behave with the Firin’."

John laid a soft kiss to Rodney's fingers. "Spontaneous Halting?"

"Still a possibility, I'm sorry."

John swallowed audibly. "What now?"

"We get you both back to the room ‘n’ see if..." An alarm sounded as the medscreen started flashing red. "Lania?"

"Hypertensive crisis, Magister," Lania informed. "Blood pressure is 170/100."

"Damn!" Carson immediately knelt by the pod, positioning his hands on both sides of Rodney's rib cage and closing his eyes. Moments later, he pressed his hands harder and frowned. "I can't decrease it! Somethin’ in Rodney is fighting me!"

"Rapid increase of testosterone levels in blood detected," Lania informed.

"Testosterone?" Carson inhaled sharply and quickly turned at John. "You need to leave, John!"

John growled. "No!"

"Increased testosterone levels means your pheromones are affectin’ him!”

“That’s what they’re supposed to do!”

“Nae like this! Right now, what they’re doin’ is puttin’ his body under stress! You need to leave, John! Now!"

"I can't!" John growled again, squeezing Rodney's hand harder, his heartbeat pulsating against John’s enhanced touch. "Could you leave if it was Kate? On your own free will?" He challenged him, looking him straight in the eyes.

Carson was the first to look away and clicked on his radio. "Security to Pod Treatment Room!"

Two marines arrived moments later. "Dr. Beckett?"

"You need to remove Colonel Sheppard from the room! Immediately!" The two mundane soldiers looked at the doctor puzzledly "His judgement is biologically impaired right now." They still looked unsure. "It's a Bloodfire issue!" He added. That explanation usually worked.

"Sir?"

Not this time, it seemed.

Sheppard growled, his hands clutching the sides of the pod like he was trying to push himself away and pull closer at the same time. The marines looked from the doctor to their CO and back, trying to decide what to do.

"Move away!" Lorne ordered, entering the room at a run, with Callahan and Reese on his heels. Lorne tackled Sheppard, using the surprise and momentum to force him away from the pod while immobilizing his arms. The Colonel turned on him with a snarl, kicking him hard. Lorne grimaced and bit his lip, but withstood the hit, and a moment later Reese had Sheppard's legs immobilized under his weight. Sheppard tried to bite him, but Callahan stopped him, forcefully capturing Sheppard's head and pulling it back.

"Callahan! Now will be a good time" Lorne shouted, while he and Reese had to use all their enhanced Warrior strength to contain their commanding officer.

"I'm trying!" The captain shouted, eyes shut in concentration as Sheppard tried to wriggle out of his hold. He pressed his fingers down harder on Sheppard’s face and suddenly, Sheppard arched off the floor for a second, before falling back unconscious.

John sat cross-legged on the floor of the observation room, his forehead resting against the cold dividing crystal screen. A sheen of fever sweat covered Rodney's sleeping form in the isolation room below, the only external sign that the Firing had finally started.

Rodney was the only thing he could really see. His eyes hadn’t moved away from him since he’d arrived. They couldn’t. Sight was his only real sense contact with his mate. Touch was out of question, smell made impossible by the isolation room’s protocols. He could hear Rodney’s heartbeat through Atlantis' sensors, but it felt hollow, wrong. And with Rodney asleep, their fledgling bond was silent.

The Sentinel in him was screaming.

The Warrior in him wanted to tear the crystal down, take Rodney and run as far away from everything as possible.

The Alpha in him felt ashamed by just thinking of letting his Pride down and by all the things he'd pushed them through. He owed Evan one for that kick.

The man in him just wanted to take his mate in his arms and never let him go.

He’d never felt so out of control in his life. His instincts and mind hijacked by the hormones running rampant in his blood. Instincts and logic at war, betrayed by his own body.

And he had not even kissed Rodney yet.

Like any Bloodfire born in a Clan, he grew up learning about the effects of mattings and the havoc they broke in body and mind. He’d listened to the love stories of legendary True Matings, and the heart-breaking tragedies even normal matings could cause. He'd seen his grandparents, mated for over 50 years and still going strong. He'd also seen his uncle James completely wrecked after his mating imploded.

And he'd seen his father push through life day after day by sheer force of will after losing his True Mate, John's mother.

He'd seen, and he'd learnt, but he had never really understood.

Until now.

The door hissed open and John tensed when he recognized the unique mix of smells that identified Carson. Though his mind knew the Healer had done the right thing, the instinctive part of him still resented Carson for it. Carson approached the dividing crystal but, seeming to sense John’s mood, stayed a few feet away.

"How's it going?" he asked, without taking his eyes away from Rodney.

"The treatment pod lowered the pheromones to a level not-threatenin’ for Rodney's health. The Activator gene is doing its job and he's stable. The fever is risin’ at a normal pace. If he stays like this, I'll allow you both back to the private room in a couple of hours."

"Good."

"John..."

"Not now, Carson, please. I need more time, OK?"

"I'll leave you alone, Alpha."

"Thanks."

The door hissed shut and, once again, Rodney's electronically-distorted heartbeat was the only sound in John's ears.

John replaced the cold compress on Rodney's forehead with a fresh one. While it wouldn’t help lower the Firing fever, it refreshed the skin and made Rodney more comfortable. They've been back in the room for three hours and the last russet rays of sunset filtered through the windows. With a thought, John opened them, allowing the soft sea breeze into the room.

"Nice," Rodney muttered.

"Thought so," John smiled while he cleaned the sweat off Rodney's flushed skin with a fresh towel. "How are you feeling?"

"Like I've been run over by a truck," Rodney groaned, eyes sliding open. He looked down at his chest and back at John. He looked down again and squirmed sluggishly under the blanket. "I'm naked." He looked at John. "Why am I naked? And why..." He palmed his face with his right hand. John grabbed it gently and pulled it away when he tried to dislodge the cold compress. "I'm burning," he stated, a puzzled look on his face.

"You're Firing, Rodney, as my True Mate."

"Wh... What?"

"You're going to be one of us, Rodney. Hey, maybe you'll even get the Thales Gift you wanted," John winked.

"Oh..." His lips traced a slight smile. "That's good, right?"

"Yes, Rodney, that's very, very good," John chuckled.

Rodney's smile became a grin. "Harris won't have more access to Atlantis than me anymore."

John laughed heartily. "Nobody will but me, Rodney, I promise."

"Good," Rodney tried to nod, but it became a grimace. "Though, right now, it sucks galactically."

"Yep, I remember," John nodded sagely while trying to suppress a grin. Rodney glared at him and he chuckled. "Are you up for a drink?"

"Think so," Rodney answered. John twisted open a water bottle, took the cold compress off and helped him to sit up. Rodney drank slowly but steadily. "Thanks," he said, letting himself relax against John's side. They stayed like this for a few moments, before John gently lowered him to the bed, replacing the cold compress.

"Try to sleep a bit more." Rodney nodded. John straightened the bed before sliding under the blanket beside his mate. He gently combed Rodney's hair through his fingers, making Rodney sigh and press against his hand. "You're like a cat," he chuckled. Rodney just hummed in agreement.

With the soft sea breeze caressing his skin, Rodney fell asleep minutes later and John settled to watch over him, while allowing Lania to silently send the latest city updates to him.

In the following hours, John stayed close to his mate, nodding off here and there as the Firing stretched into the night and the next morning.

Rodney seized three times, arms and legs twitching uncontrollably, while the rest of his body was stiff as a board. The seizures lasted only one or two minutes each, and his body relaxed boneless afterwards, but each of them brought the ghost of a spontaneous Halting to the forefront of John’s mind. It kept him awake for hours, his senses monitoring Rodney’s vitals, especially his temperature, almost obsessively.

By his orders, Lania called him every time Rodney woke up, so he could make him drink and keep dehydration at bay. He ate whatever Evan or TC brought, without paying much attention to what it was, and tried to kept Rodney as sweat-free and comfortable as possible as his temperature stayed in the high side of 43ºC for the long hours of the Firing.

Carson didn't come.

Rodney's fever broke around mid-morning of their 8th day in Atlantis, signaling the end of the Firing proper. TC appeared soon later, alerted by Lania, and did a full bioscan under John's steady glare.

"So?" John asked.

"Congratulations," TC smirked. "It's a boy!"

"Callahan!" John snarled as the laughing doctor took a step away from his Alpha's claws.

"Everything seems fine, Alpha," he explained as he sat on the bed. "The Firing has ended neatly, and his body is processing the leftovers as it should. The Healing is already starting the activation process and should hit fully as soon as the remaining Firing hormones are neutralized. Forty minutes to an hour, tops. "

"Damage?"

"Apart from the usual, I can only see the neural damage we already knew. The stress he's been under, however, has been much more than usual. Until Healing finishes its job, he's gotta ache all over, at least double that we did, maybe more." They both grimaced. "And he's gotta have the headache from hell. Also, his reserves are totally depleted. I'm gonna start an IV for fluids and I'll put a special order from the mess." TC laid a hand on John's chest, the tingling feeling of the bioscan running fast through the Alpha’s body. "One for you, too," he added after finishing the scan. "Doctor's orders," he admonished when he saw John was going to protest. John sighed and nodded. "Good, I'm going to get the IV."

TC got up and walked to the door. As it slid open, John called him. "TC?"

"Yes, Alpha?"

"Tell Carson he can come back,” he asked, his eyes closed.

TC smiled. "I will, Alpha."

It wasn't until two hours later that Rodney awoke.

"Welcome back to the land of the living," John smiled, his mate’s presence lighting up in his mind.

"Uhh..." Rodney rubbed his eyes. John took a water bottle, twisted it open and passed it to Rodney, who drank it all up. "John..." He looked at John's bare chest and then his own with a puzzled look.

"Do you remember what I told you the first time you woke up?"

Rodney frowned. "Something about Firing? I'm going to be one of yours? Your True Mate?"

"You already are, Rodney. The Firing's over."

"Oh!" Rodney tried to sit up but aborted the movement with a grimace. "That's why I'm feeling like I've been chomped alive?” He stretched his arms slowly. “Ouch! Even my eyelids hurt!"

John smirked. "Unfortunately, yes. Here, let me..." He helped Rodney move to a seated position, his back supported by pillows. "I'm afraid it's going to suck until your new Healing finishes fixing the damage..."

"Damage? What damage?" Rodney glowered at him.

“Rodney, calm down. Your body has gone through a lot of changes in a very short time and it needs a… tune-up.”

“I’m not a car,” Rodney muttered.

“That's why Healing activates first. You just need to let it do its job," John continued, overlooking the comment and deciding to leave the rest of the story for later. "Which means you need to give it what it needs: WOE!"

"Woe?!" Rodney looked at John like he was doubting his sanity. John ignored the look and jumped out the bed, clothed only in a pair of boxers.

"Yep! Water, Oxygen, Energy," John explained as he took a large tray from a side table and returned to the bed. "It's what Healing needs to work."

John sat at his left, the tray's legs extending automatically as he lowered it onto the bed. As John waved his hand over it, the energy field covering the tray disappeared and the blue light of the base switched off.

"What are those?"

"Stasis trays," John explained. "Lania broke them out specially for you."

"Oh!" Rodney ran his finger over the metallic latticework of the tray. "They seem like a miniature version of the stasis pod in Antarctica, though this is more similar to the Control Chair… What power source do they use?” he asked, trying to lift the tray. “Do they—?"

"Rodney," John interrupted him, taking his hand away from the tray and pushing a fork into it. "Food first. Quizzing Lania can wait."

Rodney's stomach rumbled as he finally noticed the mouth-watering smells coming from the tray. He glared at John's smirk and took up his fork with clear intent, but John used his to sweep away the hash brown Rodney was aiming for. "Protein first, Rodney. It's what your Healing needs most." Rodney glared at him as John happily munched the potato treat. He decisively speared a crisp strip of bacon, his eyes daring John to take it away. John just smiled as he finished the hash brown and took a juicy piece of sausage.

After helping himself to another bacon strip, Rodney took a bread slice and immediately glared at John, pointing his fork to it as he chewed. "Yes, Rodney, it's whole grain." Rodney glared harder. "Sorry, buddy, better get used to it. Healers will chew your head off if they see you anywhere near processed flour, rice or sugar." Rodney's face fell comically, and John fought to keep the smile off his face. "It has something to do with nutrients and absorption rates. You better ask Carson about it." Rodney looked at the bread slice as it it has personally slighted him before using it to stab a fried egg with prejudice. John shifted a hash brown onto Rodney's plate, which he appropriated quickly.

John polished off the scrambled eggs, a plate of sausage and a turkey sandwich, leaving Rodney the stuffed omelet, two cream cheese and ham bagels and the rest of the eggs and bacon. He chose the bowl of yogurt and nuts, pushing the one with berries and chunks of dark chocolate towards Rodney, which finally earned him a real smile from his new mate.

Food finished, Rodney leaned back on the pillows as John took care of the remains of their dinner.

"What happens now?" he asked as John climbed back on the bed and sat cross-legged besides him.

"Now the Healing fixes up your body, then the Aegis activates and finally your personal Gifts start to appear."

"As long it's not Healer," Rodney muttered, "or, worse, Empath!" He shuddered.

John laughed. "Don't worry. Empath is the only Gift that activates before Healing. You're safe."

"What about the... other thing? The...” Rodney coughed, a flush spreading over his face. ”Mating thing? Are you sure about that?"

John shifted closer, taking Rodney's hand between his and looking directly at his mate’s eyes. "I've never been surer of anything in my life, Rodney.” He pressed a kiss to Rodney’s knuckles. “You know… as an unmated Bloodfire, there’s a sort of… hole inside you. Well, turns out mine was Rodney-shaped and you slot into it perfectly.” He smiled, enjoying the blush spreading through Rodney’s face.

"Well, I suppose that explains..." Rodney's blushing intensified and he looked away.

John put a finger under his jaw and gently turned his head back to him. "Explains what, Rodney?"

"I... I..." Rodney cleared his throat. "I... I’d never looked at a man before… that way, you know?” He explained, playing absently with a loose thread of the sheet. “In fact, I had a very definitive type: blonde, smart, female. Carter probably told you..." Rodney shook his head. "And then you came around and I find myself thinking excuses to see you instead of her. That's the true mating thing?"

"In a way," John smiled. "Being True Mates means we're perfectly compatible, down to the biological level."

Rodney's eyes narrowed. "You mean that pheromones bullshit?"

John chuckled. "Yes, that." He suddenly turned serious. "Is it going to be a problem for you, Rodney?"

It took Rodney a moment to answer. John could feel his heartbeat going faster, adding an undercurrent of sharp excitement to Rodney’s changed scent. "No, I don't think so. This... this feels good," he said, turning his hand to intertwine his fingers with John's, unconsciously sending a wave of affection and embarrassment though their nascent bond. "Plus, I know Stanford doesn't give out math doctorates to morons, so you're reasonably smart even if you have the gall to defend that travesty called Back to the Future!"

John laughed, eyes shining with merriment. "Come on! Time travel's cool!"

"Not with a flux capacitor!" Rodney grumbled, but calmed down quickly. "What about you?"

"Rodney, if you'd been a Bloodfire, I'd have tried to seduce you the day we met," John smiled as Rodney's mouth fell open, an unexpected wave of lust crashing over him. "As it was, you were really testing my resolve to not get involved with mundanes. So, yeah, I'm totally on board with the idea."

"Oh!" Rodney blushed again. "That's... that's good," John smirked and Rodney cleared his throat. "So... what's going to happen now with this bonding thing? We need to... complete it now?" Rodney looked down to his fingers intertwined with John's in his lap.

John paused to assess his mate. Rodney’s right leg twitched under the blanket and he was going to make his lower lip bleed if he kept worrying at it like that. A fluttery feeling was leaking through their bond, a mix of quivering nervousness and vibrating elation.

"Rodney, we already have a primary, instinctual bond," Rodney gave him a puzzled look, opening his mouth to ask. Carefully, John send a pulse of love through the bond that made Rodney gasp. "This is it. That's going to hold us for a while. We can wait to complete it until you feel ready for it."

John could feel Rodney prodding the bond on his side, a strong feeling of curiosity travelling across it.

"You... you'll wait? I thought... that wasn't possible?"

"Without a primary bond, it'd be impossible and, well, not everyone can create one. Only Empaths, Healers..." John looked away, rubbing the back of his neck. "Primes..."

Rodney’s eyes widened in surprise. "Prime? You're an Alpha Prime?” John nodded. “You’re blood heir of a Clan Master?"

"Northeast," John admitted.

Rodney’s smile became a grin. "Well, seems I got myself bonded into royalty! Though, if you think about it, it's logical, for the smartest man in two galaxies—"

The rest of the sentence was swallowed by John's lips upon his. John took advantage of the situation to explore his mate's mouth thoroughly, extracting a low moan from Rodney, before retreating slowly, with small nips to Rodney's lower lip.

"Rodney McKay speechless," John chuckled. "That's a sight to behold."

Rodney narrowed his eyes. "Wait until I'm healed. Let's see who leaves who speechless then!"

Chapter Text

Evan rubbed his hands on his trousers again, sneaking another peek at the clock.

"Stop it! You're making me nervous!" Anne chastised him.

"Sorry," He inhaled deeply. "It's just... To allow strangers in with the Alpha so vulnerable..."

"Your instincts are screaming," Anne smiled gently. "So are mine. But Niall and Jeremy are on guard, and Nick is monitoring Lania's sensors. We must trust them to do their job."

"I do, Anne, I do. Really." Evan sighed. "I just wish these things came with an off switch!" Anne snorted and elbowed him playfully before shifting back into full military mode as Colonel Caldwell strode into the room.

"Colonel Caldwell," Lorne saluted. "I wasn't expecting you."

"Don't worry, I'm not here to take over," he assured him, saluting back. "I just want to take a look at our visitors."

"As you wish, Colonel," Lorne agreed and Caldwell took a place behind the handrail as the chevrons started lighting up.

"It's Athos’ address, Major."

"Raise the shield, Campbell." Lorne ordered while the soldiers took positions around the gate.

The shield flowed over the gate as the wormhole established. "Receiving Sergeant Reese's IDC."

"Drop the shield!" Lorde ordered, getting ready at the same time to launch a shield of his own if necessary.

Lance Corporal Alvez stepped through first, followed by two Privates. Teyla walked behind them, helping an old Athosian woman, accompanied by four more of her people. Reese and Mehra closed the group, and Lorne signaled Campbell to shut off the gate.

The fragile-looking old woman looked around slowly, a look of awe on her face, grabbing Teyla's arm to stay upright. "The city of the Ancestors," she whispered reverently. "I never thought I would be privileged to see it." A tear glided down her cheek. "Thank you for bringing me, my dear." she told Teyla warmly, squeezing her arm.

"You do not need to thank me, Charin," Teyla smiled.

Lorne walked up to her. "Ms. Emmagan, welcome to Atlantis."

"We are grateful for this chance, Major Lorne," she smiled. Lorne was surprised that she remembered his name only from the brief introduction three days before. She was an observant woman and he filed that information for later. "I expected—"

"Agh!" One of the Athosians yelled. Electricity crackled around his front pocket for a moment and he quickly removed the long jerkin-like garment he wore, throwing it to the floor. A short column of black smoke came out the pocket and dissolved into the air.

"What was that?"

Lania projected herself into a screen beside the staircase the scientists have installed for that very purpose. "It was a magnetic recording device, Legatus," A schematic appeared on one corner of the screen, showing a boxy device with a reel-to-reel tape system inside. "And it was active. I've disabled it."

Lorne turned to Teyla. "This is how you visit friends?"

Teyla wordlessly exchanged positions so the other woman on the party could help Charin. She walked to the discarded piece of clothing and picked it from the floor. Carefully, she put her right hand inside the pocket and extracted a bronze-colored box with rounded corners, about three fingers wide and as long as her hand.

Teyla inhaled sharply. "The Genii? You've been talking to them, Toran?"

"What if I did?" he answered, his eyes turned hard. "Why is it worse than you talking to them?" he sneered, signaling the Atlanteans with a sharp movement of his arm. "At least they are trying to stop Weir! How can you be willing to talk to them after everything they have done?"

"They are not Weir's people. They are Jason's people, and he, Alex and Marcus had shown us that they are honorable while they have been with us. They have given their word and their people deserve a chance."

Toran snorted. "So you say, but I do not think they are better than Weir's! Look around you! They have just arrived, and they have already seized control of the Sacred City! Weir's people had stolen the Ancestors' artifacts from many worlds and now this! The Ancestors' heritance is for us, not for them! We are their inheritors!"

"I'm afraid that's not true, Mr. Toran," Lania intervened, causing a gasp from the Athosians.

"You are the spirit of the Sacred City," Charin whispered. "Like it was told in the old tales."

Lania looked at her quizzically. "I am the Artifex of Atlantis. I was created by those you call Ancestors to control the city."

"You are her spirit," Charin smiled.

"I suppose I am, in a certain way," Lania conceded after a second. She then looked back at Toran. "Praetor Sheppard and his people have the DNA... the blood," she corrected herself when they frowned, "of my creators in them. None of you do."

"They are forcing you to say that!"

"Toran! Do not disrespect the spirit of the Sacred City!" Charin scolded him.

"None of you understand!" He yelled, and a short knife appeared in his right hand. The soldiers on guard immediately pointed their P-90s at him.

"Drop the knife, now!" Lorne ordered, but before his soldiers could move, Teyla intervened, taking control of his right hand and twisting it back while she kicked his legs from under him, forcing him on his knees. The knife fell to the floor with a loud clank and Alvez immediately took control of it.

"You shame us all, Toran." She let him go and he fell to the floor. She kicked the discarded garment over to him and looked up at one of the women who had accompanied her. "Anika, take him back and tie him to a tree. I will deal with him when we return. If that is acceptable with you, of course." She gave Lorne a questioning glance.

"Lania, is he carrying anything else that could be a danger?" Lorne asked.

"No, Legatus. I don't detect anything but the components of his clothing now."

Lorne turned to Teyla. "As long as the recording device stays here, you're free to deal with him as you wish."

"That is fair," Teyla handed the device to Teldy, while Anika took Toran by the arm and forced him upright. "If you are so kind to dial Athos, please?"

"Do it," Lorne ordered Campbell.

"Yes, Sir."

Teyla and Anika forced Toran back from the gate as Campbell dialed. After the wormhole established, Anika pushed him through without much consideration and Lorne signaled Campbell to shut down the gate.

"I apologize for Toran's actions, Major," Teyla inclined her head. "Please accept my word that Toran's actions do not represent the Athosians as a whole."

"I wish I could just take your word for it, Ms. Emmagan," Lorne said regretfully. "But I'm in charge of the security of over 200 people, including my full Pride. I'm afraid I'm going to need something more than that." He activated his radio. "Dr. Heightmeyer, come to the gate room immediately."

There was tension in the air while they waited for Dr. Heightmeyer’s verdict. She had asked to do the empathic scans in the relative privacy of the conference room and Lorne had sent Mehra and Reese to protect her, preferring to wait outside and not let his troubled feelings affect her. Colonel Caldwell had not intervened, but his incisive looks had made Lorne even more nervous.

The doors of the conference room slid open a couple of minutes later and Kate Heightmeyer walked out. Lorne motioned her into Sheppard's office.

"What are the results?" he asked after Teldy, Caldwell and Alvez walked in.

"It seems none of them were aware of Toran's actions," she explained. "Teyla is angry and disgruntled. Charin and Eira are deeply disappointed, and Halling is really pissed off."

"And their intentions?"

"Teyla feels sincere but guarded. Jason and Alex's word is good for her at this time, but she still doesn't fully trust us."

"Understandable."

Kate nodded. "Eira feels similarly. Charin is deeply awed for being in the city of the Ancestors and troubled by Toran's actions. Teyla told me Charin is the Athosians’ spiritual elder, and her feelings seem in line with that. Halling is the one holding more reserves on us. He doesn't hide his hostility, but for now he's willing to wait and see."

"Are you sure of that?" Caldwell butted in.

Kate took a moment to answer. "I'm as sure as I can be, Colonel. I read feelings, not minds. Halling is angry, but his anger is contained. I didn't feel violence from him, except when I mentioned the Genii."

Behind her, Alvez perked up at that one. "Do you know anything, Lance Corporal?" Lorne asked.

Alvez cleared his throat. "Yes, Sir. Halling's hostility for the Genii is personal. His wife was Genii-born and left him soon after the arrival of the First Expedition, taking their son with her. He hasn't seen him for months and the Genii refuse to tell him where they are. He’s been threatened with being shot on sight if he sets foot in their planet again."

“Wow! Talk about a messy divorce,” Teldy noted.

"And are you sure we can trust the Athosians?" Caldwell threw a quick glance at Kate, who frowned in irritation.

"Yes, Sir. I think Dr. Heightmeyer is right. There's no love lost between Athosians and Genii, not after the last year..." Alvez added.

"Which you are going to write about, in detail, later," Lorne pinned him with a look.

"Of course, Sir!"

Lorne sighed. "Well, overall that's better than I’d feared. Let's hope that's the only problem we find. Thank you, Kate," He projected gratitude into the Pride bond.

"Majors, Corporal," Kate smiled, "Colonel." She added, throwing Caldwell a glare before leaving the room.

Lorne and Teldy exchanged an amused look. "Well, time for take two. Unless you have anything to add, Colonel?"

"Not right now, Major, but keep me updated on the situation."

"Of course, Sir."

Caldwell walked rigidly out the room, barely nodding at Teyla as he walked by her in the control area before descending the stairs at a quick pace and leaving the gate room.

"Let's go!" Lorne motioned Teldy and Alvez to follow him.

"Can we proceed?" Teyla asked.

"Yes, of course. I'm sorry for the trouble, but it was necessary."

"I understand, Major. No hard feelings." Teyla offered him a small smile. "May I enquire why Colonel Sheppard is not here?"

Lorne debated with himself for a moment, but finally decided to go with the truth. "Dr. McKay is Firing up as the Colonel's True Mate. They're Nesting right now and can't be disturbed. But he understands how important this is and he gave me full authority to act on his behalf."

"Those are joyous news indeed. Please, give them my blessings."

"I will, thank you."

"A union in the Sacred City is surely blessed by the Ancestors," Charin said.

"Let's hope so," Lorne added noncommittally.

Eira whispered something to Teyla, who nodded. "Before we proceed, we would wish to see Jason and Marcus, if possible. We are worried about them."

"Of course, that's not a problem. Teldy, you're in charge there." Anne nodded. "Alvez, Mehra, Walker, with me," he ordered as he guided their visitors to the nearest transporter.

The observation room was barely illuminated as they entered. Lorne guided them to the one-way mirror that overlooked the Bloodfire treatment room. Markham was sitting beside his mate's bed, carefully feeding him spoonfuls of thick soup while Dr. de Liencourt was using his Healer Gift to keep his body stabilized.

"Can they see us?" Teyla asked.

"Lania, make the window transparent, please," Lorne ordered. The window shimmered slightly as the lights on the observation room went up.

"Done, Legatus."

The Athosians startled at hearing the disembodied voice, looking around for its source.

"There are no screens in this room," Lorne explained. "Lania communicates through audio only."

"Of course, I should have imagined the spirit could do such a thing," Charin nodded sagely. Lorne decided to leave it at that.

Inside the room, Jason turned around, and waved at them. He said something to Marcus, who smiled and raised his arm a bit to salute.

"I see Jason is no longer limping," Eira stated.

"Yes, that was easy, though Dr. Beckett had to re-break his bones to allow them to heal properly this time."

"Painful, but effective," she nodded. "Marcus looks better but I'm right to think his illness is not so easy to heal?"

"Yes, you're right. It's... quite complicated. They have stabilized him, but a Healer needs to be monitoring him at all times. Dr. Beckett and his team are still searching to fix whatever that bitch did to him." Lorne sighed. "Pardon my language."

Eira negated with her head. "No need to. She is a bitch," she smiled, with an edge to it.

Lorne conceded with a nod. "Dr. de Liencourt would be able to fill you in," he motioned to the doctor currently monitoring Stackhouse.

"We can visit them?" Teyla seemed surprised.

"Yes, of course. They're your friends too. But it'll have to be a short visit. Marcus tires easily."

"Of course, we understand."

"There's a decontaminant energy field at the entrance of the room," Lorne pointed to the door through the window. "Lania uses it to make sure you don't bring in anything that could be of harm to Marcus' debilitated system."

"Will she take our things away?" Halling asked roughly.

"Not, unless she can't sterilize... clean them," Lorne explained at Teyla's puzzled look. "In any case, they'll be returned to you afterwards."

"We understand, Major," Teyla said, cutting Halling's reply with a stern glare.

"Let's go, then," Lorne motioned to them to the door, with Alvez on point. As he took the rear of the group, he signaled Mehra to keep an eye on Halling.

Evan leaned against the wall and sighed tiredly. The Athosians had been on Atlantis barely an hour and things were already screwed. The whole situation could go FUBAR in the blink of an eye and all his Bloodfire instincts were screaming at him to kick the strangers off Atlantis, isolate the mundanes in the farthest part of the city and guard his Alpha's door until Nesting ended, but his orders and duty forbade him to do any of that. He had to settle for doubling the guard at the Nesting room’s door, isolate the wing of the infirmary where it was located and keep the Athosians controlled personally. Lania's regular mental reports on Sheppard and McKay's status helped ease his frizzled nerves, but he knew he won't be able to fully relax until his Alpha and his mate were through.

Their visitors were inside the treatment room, chatting with Markham, Stackhouse and Alvez. He'd allowed them to go in alone, Walker and Mehra keeping guard just inside the door, to give them the illusion of privacy, trusting Lania and his pridemates to warn him of any problems.

"Hey, catch!"

Warrior reflexes moved his arm to catch the object even before he had fully processed the phrase. It was a can of B-Cola.

"I thought sodas were rationed?"

"The ones on the manifest are," T.C. grinned, "but General O'Neill slipped a couple extra unmarked packs."

"You know this, and I don't?" Evan asked as he popped open the can.

T.C. took a long gulp of his own can. "I met Davison in Afghanistan. Saved his hand when a mundane doc wanted to amputate. He keeps me updated," he grinned.

"I think I'm going to have a chat with Staff Sergeant Davison. A long chat," Evan pointed before taking a long gulp. The cold liquid slid refreshingly down his throat, leaving a soft sweet aftertaste. He closed his eyes for a moment, savoring it. "Later. Much later."

T.C. laughed.

The door slid open about ten minutes later. Lorne straightened, passing his empty can to Callahan as their visitors exited the room. Alvez approached him.

"Jason says he didn't sense any deception," he whispered to him.

"Understood." Lorne was impressed Markham had the clarity of mind to use his Sentinel Gifts despite the emotional turmoil. It was a sign they were already feeling part of the Pride. It was one of their core tenets: Pride always comes first.

"It is good to see Marcus in such good spirits, despite the situation," Teyla commented, looking pointedly from Alvez to him with a knowing expression. Lorne just smiled.

"He's Pride. We take care of our own."

"I didn't expect less as they—" Charin started coughing hard, holding into Teyla's arm as her body shook. Blood appeared on the hand she was using to cover her mouth. Callahan immediately stepped in and did a quick bioscan. He narrowed his eyes and gently coaxed her lungs to ease her coughing. Teyla used a handkerchief to gently wipe the blood from her mouth.

"Thank you, dear," Charin smiled at her before turning to look at Callahan. "This thing I felt... it was you?"

"Yes, I'm a Healer," Callahan smiled back. “Captain T.C. Callahan at your service,” he winked.

"You say you're a Healer and yet you carry a weapon that kills." Halling accused.

"I'm both a soldier and a doctor, Mr. Halling. And yes, as a soldier, I've had to kill to protect other people. But, in our planet, both mundane and Bloodfire doctors take an oath to do everything we can for our patients and I've never broken that oath, even with those who may have very much deserved it." Callahan pinned him with a hard look.

Halling opened his mouth to reply, but Charin cut him. "Enough, Halling. This is not the time or place."

"But—"

"But nothing!" Charin reprimanded him. Halling bowed slightly, his mouth set in a straight line.

"Mrs. Charin, I can help you if you allow me."

"I doubt you can heal old age," Charin chuckled.

"It's not just old age. I’m afraid you're sick, Mrs. Charin."

"Can you really heal her?" Teyla asked, a note of hope in her voice.

"Unfortunately, we still don't know how to heal her illness, but we can help her. Slow it down, improve her general health. Give her two, maybe three more years."

Charin gasped. "Some more time to share with my loved ones," she squeezed Teyla's arm. "That would be the best gift anyone ever gave me, Captain."

“T.C., please.”

“That is a… curious name,” Charin noted.

“Well, they’re my initials, in fact.” He made a show of looking around and covering his mouth on the side to whisper to her, without really lowering his voice all that much. “Thomas Charles is the name my parents gave me. But call me just T.C. please,” he sent her an imploring look that made her laugh, and she acknowledged his request with a nod. "Shall we go, then?" He asked, offering her his arm. "With your permission, of course," he added, looking at Lorne.

The Major snorted. "You're free to go, Captain," he agreed, putting an emphasis on the rank. Callahan acknowledged the slight chastisement with a brief nod. Charin linked her arm over Callahan's with a smile.

"I will be accompanying her," Eira took a step forward.

"Of course, Healer Eira. You're welcome to join us." Callahan offered her his other arm. Eira snorted but took it gamely. "I'm going to be the envy of the whole city with two beautiful ladies on my arm!" he winked.

"Oh, my dear!" Charin laughed. "If I were forty years younger..." She patted his arm.

"I bet you left a trail of broken hearts."

Charin's laugh echoed in the hallway as they turned the corner.

"You are being very kind with Charin," Teyla said, with a note of suspicion in her voice.

Lorne sighed. "Ms. Emmagan, I know we still have a long way to go to prove ourselves to you after Weir's wrongdoings, but you have my word we only want to help her. I'm aware that you've seen the worst of our people, but I hope you'll give us a chance to also show you Weir and her people are the exception, not the rule."

Teyla's gaze slid to Alvez behind him and then to Markham and Stackhouse inside the treatment room.

"I think I'm starting to see that, Major."

"Thank you." He sent her a quick smile. "Now, do you want to proceed to the conference room or do you prefer to eat something first?"

"I think a break for dinner will do us all good."

"Perfect! Follow me."

The door slid open almost immediately after the chime sounded and Evan stepped in. John sat up in the bed, the sheets pooling in his lap.

"Congratulations, Alpha!"

"Thank you, Evan," John answered, smiling softly at his sleeping mate. Evan approached the bed and, since it didn't cause a protective reaction from John, he dared to sit at the foot of it.

"How's Rodney?"

"T.C. says everything is going as it should and his Healing is already activating."

"Thank the Goddess!"

"You can say that," John sighed. "If he'd Halted..." he shook his head. "I don't really want to think about it."

"Nobody really wanted to consider it. I heard several of our pridemates prayed to the Goddess on your behalf."

"Thank them for me, will you?"

"Of course."

John adjusted the blankets over Rodney and turned to look at Lorne. "So, how're our visitors doing?"

"I left them at the mess with Anne. Lania told you, didn't she?"

John nodded. "Seems we have another enemy to look out for."

"One more for the list.” He sighed. “Alison has given the device a onceover. Judging by it, she says the Genii are about 40 to 50 years behind Earth, technologically speaking."

"Enough to be dangerous."

"Yep," Lorne nodded. "And it seems the wife of one of our visitors, Halling, was Genii-born and left him taking their son with her, and they’ve threatened to shoot him if he sets foot on their planet again.”

“Which implies some kind of weapons technology.” John twisted open a water bottle and took a long gulp. "We definitely need more intel on the Genii."

"I've already ordered Alvez to write a complete report as soon as possible."

"Good. Try to get Markham on it too, if he can. See if you can to get something about them from Teyla, too."

Evan nodded in acknowledgment. "I'll try, but she's a smart lady. I don't think she's just going to babble everything she knows."

"More reason to get her on our side." John combed his hair with his fingers. "This is becoming more complicate every step we take."

"Foreboding still tingling?"

"Yeah. Almost screaming. I've rarely felt it so strongly."

"That's not good."

"No, that's not good at all."

Everyone was seated at the table when Lorne entered the conference room. A seat for him was left open between Teldy and Caldwell, at the spot Sheppard usually sat. Lorne took it, feeling a bit like an interloper. Teyla was seated opposite him, with Halling and Charin at her sides, and Eira besides Charin. Beckett had informed him that they’ve finished Charin’s treatment for now, though more visits would be necessary in the coming months. Heightmeyer had taken a seat besides Teldy, with Reese at her other side for protection. Alvez sat at Caldwell's other side, shooting nervous glances at the Colonel.

Lorne cleared his throat. "Well, I hope the food was to your liking."

"It was an interesting experience," Teyla smiled. "There were a couple of things I wish we could trade for in the future."

"I hope we can get to that point soon, Ms. Emmagan." At the corner of his eye, he saw Caldwell take some notes on his omnipresent notebook. "I've spoken with Colonel Sheppard and he hopes to see you at your next visit.”

“Tell Colonel Sheppard that I would love to see him and his new mate.”

"I will.” He took a sip of water from his cup. “May I ask what you can tell us about these Genii who gave the device to your companion?"

Teyla reclined on her chair and looked at him directly, until she made him uncomfortable , and then threw him a smile.

"The Genii used to be good trading partners of the Athosians. We believed them to be just farmers, as did others, and were known for the quality of their tava beans." She threw a brief look at Halling, who was rigid beside her and staring at the tabletop like he wanted to drill a hole through it. "The arrival of Weir's people, however, led us to discover that was just a well-crafted lie. The Genii are, in fact, a highly militarized society, bent on recovering the power and influence they had once possessed."

"What kind of power?"

"Once upon a time, many generations ago, the Genii led a Confederacy of several worlds, before the Wraith destroyed them. They were what you would call a superpower, if I understood Jason correctly," she looked at Alvez, who nodded in confirmation.

"I see. And what's their relationship with the First Expedition? Weir's people," he clarified when Teyla frowned. "For us, they are the First Expedition to Atlantis. We are the Second."

Teyla nodded in acknowledgement. "At first, the Genii allied themselves with Weir... the First Expedition, but it did not last long. I do not know the particulars, but they have been enemies for many months, and their skirmishes have often affected others severely."

"I see." Lorne resettled himself on his chair, taking a moment to continue. Beside him, Caldwell turned a new page on his notebook and kept taking notes. "Your companion, Toran, seemed to believe they were working to stop Weir?"

Teyla sighed. "The Genii are trying to sell themselves as the saviors against Weir's people, as the ones who will rescue the Ancestors’ inheritance from the unworthy. Some have believed them."

Halling snorted and crossed his arms over his chest but remained silent.

"Toran mentioned something about that, didn't he?" Teldy intervened.

"Yes, he did." Teyla sat forward, crossing her hands over the table. "There is one thing you need to understand: The Ancestors are revered here. Many of the artifacts they left behind are highly sought relics, often venerated or worshipped in themselves. Yet there are very few Blessed, and their number gets fewer and fewer every generation."

Lorne frowned and looked at Alvez. "Those who can make Ancient technology work, Sir," he clarified, and Lorne nodded.

"Understood. Please, continue."

"I suppose Jason and Alex have already explained to you the case of the Tower?"

"Yes, they said only three people still had the ATA... the ability to control it."

Teyla frowned sharply, and Lorne was sure she was filing that information away. Damn it.

"The few planets which still have some people who still retain that... ability," she looked at him pointedly, "are in the same situation. Many are down to one or two Blessed only. Then your First Expedition came, with several Blessed among them and a firepower nobody had seen before. And they not only took control of the Tower but claimed to have set foot on Atlantis itself."

"The Sacred City of the Ancestors," Charin added.

Lorne and Teldy exchanged a look. "I take it they're not going to like us living there?"

"This city," Teyla signaled with a circular move, as if trying to encompass all of Atlantis, "is for many the ultimate gift, the sacred inheritance left by the Ancestors to their descendants, once they have proven themselves worthy of it."

"There are some who, like me, will believe the words of the Spirit of the Sacred City, but there are others who will refuse to believe." Charin explained. "Many have believed themselves worthy and searched and fought to find the city and demonstrate their claim. I am afraid you are going to have to fight to prove you are the real Chosen."

"Like Weir's mess wasn't enough," Teldy muttered.

"I take it the Genii are among those people?" Lorne asked.

"You think correctly. Though they have lacked the Blessed for many generations, they have always sought the Ancestors’ relics under the guise of piety, and this past year I heard several rumors that they... would not take no for an answer."

"They're stockpiling Ancient technology."

"That is my belief, yes."

"Fantastic," Lorne muttered.

"And what they do not get, your people do!" Halling interjected. "And they are not shy about their methods either!"

Lorne looked quizzically from Halling to Teyla. She sighed.

"I am afraid that Halling is right." Teyla took a sip of the water cup in front of her, exchanging looks with her companions.

"Ms. Emmagan, whatever it is, please tell us. I know we still have a long way to go to prove ourselves to you after Weir's actions, but you have my word we want to fix their wrongdoings and bring them before the justice in our homeworld."

"You promise they will answer for their crimes?"

"Yes, Ms. Emmagan, they’ll be taken before our judges and made to answer for their crimes." Lorne crossed his fingers under the table and fervently hoped politics wouldn't make a liar out of him.

“Then, Major Lorne, there are a few things you should know.”