John was also dreaming, of blue sky, and of flying a giant dragonfly with tattered sailcloth wings far above the City's spires while she called out to him from below.
He shivered when the wind grew too cold and turned over in his sleep. Something had changed.
Beside his bed, by the open window, a twist of ivy crept over him and brushed across his hair, calming him. Nothing would threaten him here, the City promised. All would be well.
When the City first rose, John hardly knew what he done, only that he wasn't alone anymore, that he wouldn't be alone ever again.
That was before people started flocking to her, called by her tame magic, by her safe borders, the divide of ocean crossed only by sailboats and the single bridge she extended when needed.
Now, John rested his arms on the balcony railing and stared down at the busy folk harvesting and planting crops, making arts and crafts, and boxing wares for Trading Day, and smiled, content.
Taffa stooped from above and sailed to an elegant stop on John's padded shoulder. "Something's up," she chirped, ruffling her wings before settling them. "The seagulls are making a racket."
"I'm sure it's nothing," John said, slowly stroking his finger over her head, glad when she let him. For a kestrel, Taffa was indulgent with humans, especially John. He stopped when she flicked a tail feather at him.
"What does the City say?" Taffa couldn't hear the City, and like most creatures on Atlantis, she came to John for the latest news.
"The City is sleepy," he said. The City murmured something at him. "Oh, and she wants Gabe to stop starting nests in her cornices."
"Hee-hee!" Taffa chirped with laughter. "Gulls are stupid. He thinks I won't find the eggs there."
"Do me a solid and tell Teyla I'm bringing a couple of pieces to Trading Day."
"Can I see what you're making now?"
"Sure." John reached down slowly to stop Taffa from digging in with her sharp, sharp claws, and pulled the plastic from one of his sculptures. "This one isn't done yet. It has to dry slowly."
"Who's that?" Taffa hopped over and peered down into the statue's face. "He looks worried."
"I don't know." John drew a finger down the shoulder of the statue. Both hands were held out, palms up. "I dreamed about him. He was yelling at me."
Taffa fluffed her feathers. "I can scratch him for you."
"No, that's okay," John said, laughing. "Thanks, Taffa."
"Fine. But if he's a problem, don't say Taffa didn't offer." She launched herself abruptly into flight, making John wince.
"Bye," John called, watching enviously as she soared away.
Rodney cursed as he climbed the broken pavement off Fisherman's Wharf. In the distance, he would sometimes see the hazy outline of a great City through the dense fog; then the tall spires disappeared as if they never were, as if the city were just an annoyingly inconsistent mirage.
"Well, that's just impossible," he said out loud. Another man led the way before him, Radek Zelenka, fellow traveler and scientist of some small renown. Radek looked over his shoulder and made a quiet, scoffing sound.
"And yet, we see it happening before our very eyes."
"It's illogical, irrational, and irritating!" Rodney said.
"But it exists nonetheless. Or doesn't." Zelenka had an impish grin and rampant, flyaway hair. The face paint was hardly necessary, Rodney thought, to impart his wild ways, but Radek thought it would keep some of the more aggressive creatures at bay.
"The farther up the coastline you take us, Radek, the farther the City recedes, and would you look at these blisters!" Rodney pulled off his sneaker and displayed his wounded foot.
Radek peered at it. "Terrible. Yes, terrible, I see! Perhaps if you took the lead?"
"I'm awful at rock climbing. You're the one who said he had experience."
Radek's eyebrows rose. "I would hardly call this rock climbing. Hills? Bumps in the road?" He continued over Rodney's grumbled protest. "In any event, the old woman was quite explicit, Rodney. She said you had to lead us to the City or we would never reach it."
"Oh, for crying out loud." Rodney dragged his shoe back on and clambered to his feet. If his scramble was a bit undignified, Radek was kind enough not to mention it.
"Now," Rodney said, pointing grandly to the great City rising from the mist as he trudged ahead. "Thataway, if you please."
"Aye, aye, Captain," Radek said, and followed behind.
They found the bridge ten minutes later.
John used strong vines of ivy—though it wasn't real ivy, since ivy didn't obligingly pull you up like an elevator cable—as transportation more often than not; the transporters were a little unreliable and transported some people to random places in the City, although oddly, never anyone with a mobility problem. The City refused to explain the problem or how to fix it. She seemed almost amused that humans wanted fixed points to their travels.
Anyway, John had once seen a movie about a man who swung from vines and he thought it looked pretty cool. John's technique was a little less flashy, though. He didn't just grab another vine mid-swing, for example; he used his carabiners for that.
"Hey, John," Evan said as John slid down to his level.
"Hey, Evan. What're you painting today?" Instead of the usual palette, Evan had surrounded himself with buckets and buckets of paint. "Oh, hey, Ronon," John said, as Ronon walked in with two more buckets and lined them up on top of the others. All of them had varying shades of green on the sides. "That's a lot of green paint."
"Yeah," Ronon said. "Some of them are dried out, though. I should have checked."
"Ronon and I are starting a new project," Evan said proudly. "We've decided to paint a mural on the wall of the City. Well, it's mainly Ronon's vision, I'm just helping."
"Whoa, really?" John blinked at the cans. "You'll need some more paint then."
"Sure will," Ronon said.
"I'll keep an eye out for you when I'm scavenging today."
"That'd be great," Ronon said. "Give you the usual rate."
John gave a nod goodbye and pushed off again. The descent was faster here where the ivy grew lush and thick and he didn't have to be as careful. The City would tell him, anyway, if any of the lianas were rotted. She took care of him.
At the base of the tower was the large field that kept the inhabitants of the City fed. Elizabeth was in one of the distant rows with Aiden. Carson was in the herb garden, frowning over a patch of herbs, when John detached his harness and walked over to him.
"What's up, Carson?"
"Well, the sign clearly says Thymus vulgaris but this is rosemary if I've ever seen it."
"Hmm. Well, look," John said, and dug his toes in the dirt to expose the flash of white he found. "Rosmarinus officinalis. Someone must've seen the sign was missing and written up a new one wrong."
"So, where's our patch of thyme?"
"You'll have to ask Elizabeth that," John said. "I kill most plants by looking at them. The vines are the only ones that like me."
Carson grimaced at him. "That's because you like them back. A little too much, if you ask me. You'll break your fool neck one of these days."
"And you'll be there to say, 'I told you so.'"
"I do hope I am."
The City murmured something privately to John about a strange boat at the pier. John said, "Well, I'm off to Frisk. Anything you need?"
"Some small pruning shears, if you find 'em. Mine have given up the ghost. The spring is shot."
"You could show them to Ronon. He might be able to forge you a new spring."
"I'll do that."
"But I'll keep an eye out just in case."
"Thanks, lad," Carson said, patting him on the shoulder. "And don't forget to put on some shoes before you leave the City!"
John waved him off and walked through the rows of plantings and then around the orchard at the base of the tower until he reached the South Pier. There were no strangers there, though, just a small rowboat knocking gently back and forth in one of the small docks.
Shrugging, John pulled his rubber zodiac from its berth and tested her battery. The charge was good—the City fed her solar power down to the charging station and would let him know if there was a problem, but John never pushed off from the pier without knowing he had a way to haul his goods back. It was a long walk back via the bridge.
And as much as he hated leaving, as much as she hated for him to go, he was the one who did the most scavenging in Frisk. The others, except for maybe Carson, who regularly left to doctor up the people over there, couldn't stand the mainland any longer.
With the shattered remnants of the Golden Gate Bridge looming next to him, John could understand why.
Frisk used to be a beautiful city. John could see that as he buzzed around the tip of Aquatic Park and cruised toward the ruins of the old Hyde Street Pier where he liked to put in—there was an old ship half sunk in the harbor there, and crow angels danced in the air around the torn sails, picking apart the cloth for their cloudy nests high in the forest of the Presidio. The crow angels, made of metal bits scavenged from parked cars and mirrored glass, shone in the sun as they swooped and flew in tight circles above his head while he tied off. Their nests hung in the tops of the trees like giant Q-Tips; inside, John knew the baby crow angels would be singing to each other in the crackling language of car radios.
The crow angels were only one sign of the civil war's quantum magic. Here came a pack of floating surveillance cameras that had broken free of their moorings and now gathered together to roam the streets, their glaring lenses shuttering ominously at John. They were pretty creepy but harmless, and John carried a broomstick with him to shove them away when they got too pushy.
The broomstick was useful for other things too, like using it to punt himself along on his skateboard. It also doubled as a probe when he went stirring through old junk piles—when the nuke hit SoCal it shook that old fault loose at last, and the tsunami that hit Frisk had flattened a hell of a lot of the city and swept the rest into big, glittering, junk heaps.
Those heaps were still an amazing gold mine for scavengers like John. As long as he didn't dig too deep.
"That you, Johnny?"
John skidded to a stop and raised a gloved hand to One-Eyed Jack, who was camped out in front of a broken-down oyster shack. John wasn't sure why they called him One-Eye, since the old coot had two keen brown eyes he used to glare at anyone who passed by. "Yeah, Jack. Thought I'd hit the wharf today."
Jack spat on the ground. "Better watch out for those gill-snakes. Caught a couple of them trying to take down Lady Mara. Had to beat 'em off with m'crowbar." Jack shook the iron bar to illustrate.
"Good for you, Jack."
"Everyone should have a crowbar," Jack said. "You got one?" He frowned at John.
"Nope. Got my broomstick, though."
"Uh-huh." Jack pursed his lips.
"Well, see you 'round, Jack." John pushed off.
"Not if the Feelies getcha!" Jack yelled at his back, and John shuddered. The Feelies were the worst. He hoped he didn't run into them today.
The pile he'd been working on appeared to have moved; or maybe the streets had shifted again. They did that sometimes when the fog was too thick and pink like it had been last night. A sign, Simpson called it, and she'd locked her door and started playing her fiddle extra loud. "To keep away the whales," she'd said the last time it happened.
No sign of whales today, though, just some lazy harbor seals resting on the pier. One of them politely asked John for some fish as he skated by. "Sorry," John said. "Maybe on the way back."
"Be careful," the seal said. "Gill-snakes lurkin'."
"Yeah, thanks," John said. He wondered what the gill-snakes were doing out of their southern burrows this early in the season. Something must have spooked them.
He found his pile soon enough, marked with the Jolly Roger T-shirt he'd found at a semi-intact tourist shop. He'd wrapped the shirt around a stick and made a flag of it to warn off any other scavengers in the neighborhood, not that he'd seen anyone this far north the last year or so. Not since the Vague Plague had scared most folks out of Frisk except for the staunch few. John had been through his bout of the Vagues and was immune now, but he still worried about Teyla's crew and kept trying to convince her and Halling to bring them all onto the City. They were having none of it and said they preferred the mainland's magic to the City's. But Teyla's crew kept south of Lombard out of respect for Elizabeth and her open-door policy on orphans.
Speaking of which, here was a perfectly decent stroller just hanging out in the pile. A little dirty and sun-damaged, but in good enough shape to satisfy Carson. And it would double as a basket for more of John's scavenging. John also dug up some opalescent glass for one of Chuck's mosaic projects, and a real find—some matching hubcaps for a 1993 Honda Civic Coupe for Aiden, although why the guy would want to restore a cheesy car like that, John would never get.
He threw his skateboard in the stroller and walked uphill. There was a hardware store around here he hadn’t picked completely clean, and it might very well have green paint. Sure enough, John lucked out in the basement where it was cool and dark; plenty of the paint was still moving in the cans, although he carried up some thinner, too, just in case. He also put in polymer sheets for Simpson, three boxes of washers and grommets for Miko's robot project, some plastic kids games, and a putty knife for himself. He ended up having to put the paint in a shopping cart and then he had to push both the cart and the baby stroller at the same time; he was really glad no one was watching. No garden shears, though. Carson would be disappointed.
"How do you do? I want to do, too!"
John groaned. A sneetch had found him. They were all over the place in the Marina. Some kid must have passed through an imagine cloud and accidentally made a bunch of them.
"I'm doing a little scavenging," John said. "I'll be leaving soon."
"But where did you get such marvelous things?" the sneetch said. "Shiny, they are, so shiny they sing!"
"They're hubcaps," John said. "Look, there's one on that car right there; just go ahead and take it."
"But yours are much better." The sneetch sniffed, poking its long yellow nose in the air. "See? In the middle, there's a letter."
"No, they're not," John said. Damn it. The grass was always greener with sneetches. "That one is much shinier," John said helplessly. "And look, it has two letters on it! V and W—" He tried to keep walking.
"But yours are more round than the one that I found!"
"How can they be rounder? They're all hubcaps!"
The sneetch gave him a reproachful look and then went over to the VW bus and tried to pull off the hubcap.
"It's stuck! Please help me!" The sneetch raised its hands, letting its three fingers dangle. "I can't get it free!"
John sighed. "I'll help you get it off. But then I have to get back to work."
The sneetch's big, round eyes filled with tears. "But it is so big, and I am so small. I will have to crawl, and crawl, and crawl."
John sighed. "Where's your home? Maybe I can drop it off later."
"Later is too late! I must get it to my mate!"
John stared at its big, green, teary eyes for about a second and a half and then dropped his head in defeat. "Okay." He squatted down to pry off the VW's hubcap then added it to his cart. "Where to?"
The sneetch danced happily in front of him, its hairy, floppy feet slapping the ground, and then it scurried down the street toward Ghirardelli Square.
"It isn't too far! We have a streetcar.
"Each night my mate wishes, as they wash the dishes
"For a light to beam, like the moon in a dream
"Through the window so dark. They fear the dread squark
"The squark with his teeth, and his claws that do reach
"But with this new thing, so shiny and bling
"I will make them a lamp, put it up with a clamp
"And with a bright candle, set on a small handle
"The whole thing will glow and the light will just grow
"And scare off the squark and the lingering dark
"Making happy my mate. Now isn't that great?"
"Yeah, great," John said, puffing as he pushed both the cart with paint cans and the baby stroller up the incline toward the streetcar in the distance. "Is that your place?"
The sneetch nodded, practically jumping now.
John put his head down and kept pushing. One block, then two, the one, wacky wheel on the cart giving him an annoyance headache, until finally they were at the streetcar. He waited while the sneetch snatched the VW hubcap away and jogged off to present its prize to its mate, the two of them sing-songing in rhyme back and forth.
John yelled, "Hey sneetches, hey guys, just so you know—I'm going to leave now; I really must go." Damn it. Now they had him doing it.
"Go, go!" the sneetches sang, "and with our thank yous! Our happiest wishes! For this is great news!"
"Okay..." John said. "Glad to help." He pushed his way along Beach Street and then pulled his skateboard out of the cart.
"Alley-oop," he said under his breath, and nudged the cart down the incline, the stroller trailing behind him. It was a disaster waiting to happen, he knew it, trying to control the cart, stroller, and skateboard all at once. But in the meantime, it was a glorious ride down the gradually curving path, and he whooped and hollered as the salt breeze kicked the hair off his forehead and he passed the lone seagull that had taken up residence in Mariner's Park. Two merpeople stuck their heads above the water and babbled in Mermish at him, but he didn't have a free hand to wave at them, and anyway, he was losing control fast thanks to the wacky wheel—the cart wanted to veer off the smooth path and into the grass.
He dragged to a precarious stop just as the stroller tried to trip him up from the side, and he popped the board back into the cart to stroll the rest of the way down the incline, a little shaky with his bad knee. Sometimes he forgot he couldn’t do the things he used to do; although, he was pretty sure the City was helping him heal in some way.
But he should’ve been paying more attention to the sidewalk and less to his musings; he looked down a moment too late and stepped right onto a monkey square. Holland stared at him with accusing eyes while the based burned around them. "You shot me, you fucker," and John pushed at the cart trying to get out of it, but his commanding officer ranted at him over the radio, “You held back on exfil to rescue a no-good Red? He chose his side, mister. That’s two million dollars’ worth of flying equipment we could have lost thanks to you!” The men in the back of the chopper moaned in pain while the medics worked them over. Holland hadn’t spoken a word since John shoved him on board, and John feared the worst. His hands on the controls were sticky with Deke's blood, and the warning was coming out over the radio, now: take emergency evasive action. But the air turned wavy and the creature that was Dex waved its gigantic claw and just batted the plane in front of them, and the hot burn of shrapnel shredded the side of the cockpit—
John gasped as he was dragged forward and off the monkey square. God damn it. He hated memory curses worst of all. He’d almost rather be zapped with gills or a tail for a day, even if Evan said it hurt like a son of a bitch when they fell off.
Teyla gave him a sympathetic look, her hand still grasping his arm to steady him.
"Teyla! Thanks for the rescue." John pulled away and quickly swiped his eyes.
"You're welcome, John. Are you all right?"
"Yeah, yeah. Fine. Hate those things. Lucky you happened by or I would have been stuck a lot longer."
Her lips twisted wryly. "It wasn't luck; a mer came to our boat to inform us you were trapped."
"Oh. Nice of them." John turned toward the shore. He wasn't sure, but he thought he saw a face glimmering underwater by the pier. He waved just in case and saw a pale hand rise from the water before disappearing with a splash. "Thanks for coming out." John shivered.
"Take this," she said, pushing a plaid bundle at him. John unfolded it; it was a soft flannel shirt. Teyla's crew specialized in manufacturing textiles for trade, so they always had great clothing supplies. How they made them, whether with old-fashioned machines or simply manifesting them, John never questioned, but their clothes were always soft, sturdy, and the colors really even.
"Thanks," he said again. "What do I owe you?"
She cocked her head. "We'll be at Trading Day for a recharge. Perhaps some of those antibiotics Carson likes to cook up?"
"Wow, has it been a month already?"
Teyla grinned. "You have been lost in your projects. I've barely seen you lately. Come, let's have a drink on the boat. We'll tow your raft."
"Just let me grab my stuff."
"A good haul," she said, helping him by pushing the baby stroller. "Is that...green paint?"
"Yeah. Ronon and Lorne have a project going."
"I will be curious to see it. And your latest," she said.
"Thanks," John said as they pushed toward the dock. "Hey, do you happen to have any gardening shears to trade? I've got some great kids games here."
"I can't believe we have to wait in a line," Rodney said. "Like we're average, everyday vagabonds and not the most important scientists to ever visit this city. That guy up there says he's from Japan! Of all places. I mean. How did he get here? I ask you. Did he fly?" Rodney scoffed.
"Now, Rodney. You act like you've never heard of a sailing ship."
"Well. It sounds incredibly dangerous. And how, may I ask, did this riffraff manage to find this place so easily when we had to do research with anthropologists and then talk to every wild-haired mystic this side of the Rocky Mountains!"
"Perhaps they also have a reason for being here," Radek said, looking placid wearing the multi-colored straw hat he'd traded some homemade candy for on the pier, while Rodney itched and sweated under the heat of the sun. For some reason the heavy fog bank that had shrouded the city had magically disappeared by the time they'd reached the pier and finished rowing their way out here, only to find they'd missed the City extending her bridge by just a few hours and were stuck at the end of a ridiculously long line.
"It's just infuriating, is all I'm saying," Rodney said, still fuming as he shifted from foot to foot.
"I had noticed."
"And my feet hurt. And this salt-water itch is so strong it's almost painful." He wiped his face on his Coldplay T-shirt, grimacing when it failed to absorb any moisture whatsoever. When he'd told Walter he was leaving, all his favorite clothing disappeared in the laundry and got replaced by old band T-shirts and cheap tourist clothing. How utterly petty. "Not to mention I'm getting wind-burn."
"So you've mentioned, once or twice," Radek said peacefully, the infuriating so-and-so.
Finally, finally the line started moving forward again. Rodney could see a man in a white smock taking people's blood and giving shots of some kind. Sweet Christ, was he experimenting on people?
"There you go, lass. We've had success beating back TB once again, now that we opened another lab."
Well, that didn't sound so bad.
"Next?" the man said. "And who might you be?"
"Dr. Rodney McKay, PhD, PhD," Rodney said. "I'm an important scientist."
"I see. I didn't realize anyone was giving out doctorates any longer." The man removed his glove and offered a hand. "Medic Carson Beckett at your service."
"Yes, well. This is Dr. Radek Zelenka. He also dabbles in the sciences."
Radek huffed. "Dabbles, he says. I co-authored two scientific papers with this man."
Beckett raised an eyebrow. "Well, it's nice to meet both you gentlemen. What is your business here in the City?"
"I need to see Weir," Radek said, interrupting Rodney before he could get a single word out. Suddenly, the mild-mannered scientist sounded steely and domineering. "It's an urgent matter."
"Oh?" Beckett eyed him then nodded. "First we'll need to get you tested. Don't want any nasties to piggyback their way into the City with you." He pulled Radek into a curtained off area. Rodney shifted on his feet impatiently and then went back to working on his Velenti equations.
Eventually, Radek came out rubbing his shoulder. "That man has a very big needle. I'm off to see Weir."
"I'll catch up to you after Beckett gets through with me."
Beckett pulled back the curtain. Rodney shelved his apprehension and stepped in.
"Please sit down and give me your full name."
"Dr. Rodney Penobscot McKay, PhD, PhD."
Beckett scribbled on his clipboard. "Answer yes or no for each. Have you ever tested positive for tuberculosis?"
"Have you been out of the country in the last two weeks?"
"Have you ever experienced the feelies?"
"I don't even know what that is."
"How about the heebie-jeebies?"
"Are you sure you're a medical doctor?"
Beckett sighed. "Please answer."
"Are you now or have you ever been infected with what some call the Vague Plague, the vagues, or the yawns?"
"I have no idea what you're talking about."
"Please give me your arm." Becket snapped on a pair of gloves and pulled out a needle and some test tubes.
Rodney rolled up his sleeve with a wince. "Please use this vein right here. The others are too faint to see and you'll just embarrass yourself poking all day."
"Sure." Beckett stabbed him smoothly and then took far too much of Rodney's precious bodily fluids and did various tests, injecting blue and purple liquids into the vials and then shaking them before staring and grunting and checking things off. Then he proceeded to poke Rodney in the neck and stare into his eyes and throat and ears, and held a glowing blue light over his head while counting off seconds on his watch.
Finally, he put down his pen and smiled.
"All right. You've obviously had a close encounter with a dead zone recently, but it's had no lasting effect on you that I can determine. You're free to enter the City on a visitor's pass. Do you have anything to trade that you want to declare for customs?" Beckett handed a Rodney a sticker with his name on it and gestured him out of the cubicle.
Rodney tried to hang back, but Beckett was pushy for a medic. "Customs? But I don't want to visit! I want to become a citizen."
"Oh. Well, that's not for me to decide. You'll have to speak to Elizabeth and the Major."
"I'm pretty sure I told you not to call me that," a voice said, and a tall man waving a pair of garden clippers strolled up to them.
"I'm sorry, John," Beckett said.
"Are you Weir?" Rodney said. "Because—"
The newcomer shook his head. "Not on a dare. You'll find Elizabeth Weir tending to the corn. I'm John. Sheppard," he added after a beat.
"John Sheppard," Rodney said warily. "And you get to decide who stays and who goes?"
John scratched his chest with the clippers. "More like I consult with the City and Elizabeth."
"You talk to a city," Rodney said flatly.
"Yup," John said. "Why not? You've probably seen stranger."
Rodney didn't want to talk about growing up in the Compound, or why he was such a babe in the woods when it came to the effects of the Unreality Bomb. Anyway, one caveat of he and Radek leaving was they not mention the Compound or their security grid to anyone outside, on pain of death. Just because Rodney was sick and tired of living under the Faraday defense shielding that protected them all from the quantum effects didn't mean he could risk the others.
"I've seen some things," Rodney said. His journey with Zelenka across the wasteland between here and Colorado had been a living nightmare of creatures woken from the pits of the human subconscious. Thankfully, after more than forty years, the very worst of the quantum effects had dissipated. He couldn't imagine how terrible it must have been to have seen it at its strongest. "I've seen things you can't imagine."
"Have you," John said dryly. He tilted his head, his mouth moving slightly as he looked over Rodney's head.
"C'mon, let's go talk to Elizabeth," John said abruptly, handing the clippers to the medic, who thanked him profusely for what seemed like a simple thing. John waved him off with a grin and turned back to Rodney. "If she's cool with it, the City says it's fine."
"Just like that?"
"Just like that." John jerked his head toward the large domed area, and Rodney followed.
He saw countless individuals grubbing in the soil, and others stacking cartons of fruits and vegetables onto golf cart-type vehicles that people then drove off into the open portals of the City. Rodney saw a tray of bruised or slightly green apples that made his mouth water—he couldn't remember the last time he'd had fresh fruit. The trade the Compound received was all frozen, dried, or canned fare.
John saw him staring and commented, "For tonight's apple pie," and Rodney's stomach suddenly turned into a vast cavern, with stalactites, stalagmites, bats, and everything. He stared incredulously as the golf cart, filled with boxes of various kind of fruit and green vegetables and, oh God, potatoes and carrots, hummed by them and toward another door, presumably to go to directly to the kitchen.
"C'mon," John said, and this time Rodney followed him with haste, his eyes on Sheppard's slim hips. He enjoyed the dip of Sheppard's waist into his muscular back perhaps a little too much and almost missed the implications of all the industrious farming going on.
"Where did all this dirt come from, anyway? We're on the ocean."
Sheppard barely paused. "Atlantis provided it when we asked. We do truck in some special top soil for particular crops when we need it. The dome regulates the sunshine and keeps out the salt spray. Solar powers the fans. The City monitors it all."
"The City is starting to sound like a supreme goddess or something."
John turned his head and gave Rodney a sardonic look.
"What? Really?" Rodney was aghast.
"What do you call a benevolent being who provides your every need?" John said. "I mean, basically, yeah." He trotted to avoid getting creamed by a golf cart, leaving Rodney to wait impatiently for the cart to pass before dashing to catch up. He found Sheppard already chatting with a brown-haired woman in a red T-shirt and cargo pants. Her faded baseball cap proclaimed her a Giants fan. Her hands were deeply stained with soil. She brushed them off as she spoke.
"...just finished talking to Dr. Zelenka, who has requested monitored access to the City's computer system for medical reasons. Carson will assist him. I believe that's his travel companion, Dr. McKay."
"Huh, okay. What did Zelenka offer in trade?"
"Systems repairs. Knowledge. Training."
"What about McKay?"
John turned to Rodney and waved him over. "He hasn't said. So, Dr. McKay, what's your craft, and what do you offer in trade for occupancy?"
"My...my craft? I'm a scientist!"
They stared at him blankly for a moment before John said, "Yeah, and? I mean, what can you offer in terms of skills? No one lives in the City without offering either talent, labor, or skill, unless they're disabled, of course."
"And children under the age of sixteen have no need of offering anything before they've chosen a trade, but they do chores," Elizabeth said.
"Well, I'm not a child, but I do have a doctorate in structural engineering," Rodney said, somewhat stung. "I'm sure I can put my paltry skills to work somewhere."
Elizabeth raised her eyebrows. "One would hope. Well, Dr. Zelenka has evinced an interest in repairing some of the City's systems. We have a work list of issues. Perhaps you'd like to join him?"
That little weasel had gotten in before him. "That would be fine," Rodney said shortly. "I'm somewhat familiar with this type of technology."
"Really? How's that, exactly?" Sheppard sounded less than friendly, and Rodney backpedaled a little.
"Well, insomuch as Dr. Zelenka and I were discussing certain theories as to the City's possible origins." He'd studied as much as he'd been able to dig up on the classified files about the Ancients and their technology, including the purported expedition to a lost city of the Ancients before the war, not that paper records made finding things easy, either on his allergies or his patience.
"Uh-huh." John shared a look with Elizabeth and said, "We'll put you on the day shift. If you follow me, I'll show you to some open quarters in tower twelve."
"Thank you. And, regarding meals, if you don't mind my asking—"
"The lunch bell rings at noon."
John dropped the noisy scientist off in the last empty room on L18 in the community tower and then grabbed the transporter right next door to go to his own quarters. He had no explanation for why he'd given McKay and his buddy such a primo location, other than John had dreamed about him and wanted to keep an eye on the guy in case the dream turned out to be a warning.
The City held the opinion John's interest was more personal than that, and alluded to the care he'd taken forming the statue's shoulders and hindquarters.
John told the City to stuff her opinion somewhere dark and damp.
He sorted the spoils from his trip, which young Aiden had transported to John's rooms in exchange for the hubcaps. John pulled the rest of the items out of the shopping cart and found an extra Etch-A-Sketch slipped along the side that he definitely hadn't grabbed. A gift from one of the sneetches, maybe. He put it aside to give to one of the kids, and pushed the shopping cart to the balcony, then tapped some strong lianas with his request. They wrapped around the cart, and John took a spare and rode down three levels.
The cart was a good, sturdy one, hardly rusty at all, and as John pushed it to Ronon and Evan's studio, he thought about keeping it to transfer goods. But only if he could fix the wacky wheel.
"Delivery!" John said, knocking on the door frame.
"No way!" Evan said, taking a gander at John's haul. "That's much better than we expected." He grabbed the end of the cart and pulled it inside. "C'mon in, Major."
"John," he said, under his breath.
"Ronon, you gotta see this. The major found us ten cans." Evan picked one up and shook it. "I think they're still good."
"Hell, yeah. I wasn't about to carry a bunch of dried up crap." John helped lift them out of the cart and stack them by the wall. "All in varying shades of green, all water-based acrylic. I brought you some mineral spirits as well."
"Awesome," Ronon said, striding in to peer at the cans and check out the colors. "Terrific load. Thanks a lot, John."
John grinned. "So...call it four hours—"
"Deal." They shook on it, and John grinned. Three hours of Ronon's help in the studio was a sweet deal for ten gallons of paint. Ronon had the skills and experience to help him like no one else. "I'll let you know when."
"Looking forward to seeing your big green thing," he added, and Ronon chuckled and slapped him on the back. John rocked forward. "Later," he coughed out, and pushed his empty cart out the door. He left it up in his quarters just in time for the lunch bell.
Grodin had really outdone himself today—the vegetable lasagna was so good, John went back for seconds, and he found himself beating out McKay for the last piece of apple pie. McKay looked so crestfallen, John almost offered to split it with him, but then he remembered his dream.
The man with the bad teeth sneered, "Did you bring it?" and McKay handed him Taffa, her feathers bloody and limp. John's heart pounded with rage.
"Snooze you lose," John said, dragging the plate onto his tray. "There are butter cookies, though."
"Weren't you starving this morning?"
"Yes, and I'd think you'd have a little compassion..."
John rolled his eyes and passed McKay a plateful of butter cookies.
Happily digging into his seconds, John ignored McKay's latest diatribe, which was about having to share a bathroom with Radek Zelenka, who apparently didn't believe in wearing a towel after getting out of the shower. John closed his eyes and relished the tomato sauce, which was amazing. It really was a good day, all except for the little trip down memory lane. He noticed McKay's other empty dishes and rolled his eyes.
"You already had a piece of pie," John said, talking over the newest rant about how—
"...The quantum effects continued to sporadically affect microprocessors on a base level, interfering with binary flip flop and yes, I already had a piece of pie, Major." McKay brushed some crumbs from his lips. "But maybe another piece would help me explain why my computer miraculously works without flaw while on your City but nowhere else."
"You have a computer?" John was impressed. Computers were the first to go after reality did. Atlantis had many consoles, but they connected to her mainframe. There weren't any personal computers on the City except what people scavenged and fiddled with in their spare time.
"Yes, of course. I built it myself." Rodney puffed up proudly. "With internal shielding on the processor to limit the number of failures, and further error correction to recover from the remaining issues. Still, it was unreliable at best before I stepped onto the City. Any explanations?"
John shrugged. "The City has her own rules."
Rodney narrowed his eyes and stuffed another cookie in his mouth.
John smirked down at his pie. "Hey, does that mean you have Doom?"
"What the hell is that?"
"Never mind. Old video game."
"Hmmm. Gosh, no, I'm sorry." Rodney widened his eyes. "I was trying to advance scientific knowledge, not waste my brain in childish pursuits."
John clutched his heart, mock wounded. "See if I let you join the ping-pong tournament."
"This is the face of deep disappointment." Rodney pointed and pouted.
Grinning, John finished off his last bite of pie with a flourish, then dumped his dirty dishes on his tray and got up. "Later, McKay."
"Wait, Major—is there any chance I can get some time with the City's systems later?"
"Uh, no." John didn't even have to check with his cohorts. "You just got here, McKay. Let us get to know you a little, first."
Rodney scowled down at his tray. "I'm a very nice person. Just ask Radek."
"You mean the guy who refused to bunk with you because he said you leave piles of stinky towels under your bed?"
"That's a vicious lie!"
John laughed. Feeling like the day was looking up, he went to join Ronon and Evan in the dishwashing brigade.
"You here for the free chips, too?" Ronon was stacking plates in the miracle washer. Evan was pulling them out the other side, spiffy clean and ready for stacking. John got started scraping bits of food into the compactor that the City used to create fertilizer. The stuff popped out the other end in perfect little composted cubes, waiting to be trundled out to their field.
Without Atlantis, they'd all have starved years ago.
"Nothing can beat Simpson's Salty Chips," John said. "I'd live off 'em, but I'm not sure you guys would put up with my farts."
"I dunno; maybe we could use your farts to gas up Ford's car." Ronon flashed a grin. Aiden's car was kind of a running joke. John felt a little bad for the kid.
"How's the mural coming along?"
Evan set a stack of plates onto the shelf a little too roughly. John raised his eyebrows.
Ronon said, "We've kind of reached an impasse."
"Maybe a difference of opinion would be a better way to put it."
"Someone doesn't understand integrity of vision," Evan muttered.
"And someone forgot whose idea this was to start with," Ronon said, then flipped on the washer, which hummed to a start.
"Well," John said, biting his lip. "If you want a neutral third party, I'd be happy to take a look." He really hoped they'd tell him to fuck off though.
"That might be all right," Evan said grudgingly, and Ronon shrugged. "We should be able to work it out like usual."
"All right. Let me know." John finished with the last dish. The lunch crowd seemed to be cleared out, so he handed off the stack to Evan and wiped down the counter. "Going for a run. I'll be seeing you."
John had just finished brushing his teeth that night and was standing by the window when Taffa landed on his shoulder and pecked a hair from his head.
"Hey, watch it!"
She kleed with glee and rubbed her cheek against his to look from his viewpoint, a trick she enjoyed. "What are you seeing? I don't see it."
"I'm not looking at anything."
"Ah-ah! You are listening with her. What does she hear?"
John's face got hot. "She's listening to the two scientists to see if they're a danger. They want to get into the City's systems. The talky one says he can do it whether we want them to or not. The curly haired one—"
"His hair would make a good nest," Taffa said wistfully.
"...Says they should wait until we give permission."
"Good. Let's peck the talky one until he yells."
John chuckled. "The City says we should wait and see. She says he's very smart and just young and impetuous."
"What is that? Is it good to eat?" Taffa preferred worms, but John didn't kid himself she wouldn't happily eat dead human if she was desperate. Taffa was a creature who believed firmly in survival.
"It means he's like a fledgling who leaps before he's sure of his wings."
"Ah-ah-ah." Taffa seemed to ponder that before chirping. "Foolish fledgling. We will watch him." She hopped off onto John's window sill.
"That we will." John ignored the City's amusement in his interest. It wasn't stalking. For one thing, all new inhabitants were warned about the cameras in the common areas. It was for their own safety: they didn't really know what to look out for. They thought because they'd found the mystical Atlantis they were entirely safe from all creatures or imagine clouds or monkey squares, which wasn't true. The City tried to keep herself clean, but waves of particles still swept in undetected at times, and the inhabitants had set up a complex series of symbols to mark off the different kinds of warnings for various zones. Also, the City itself wasn't devoid of its own dangers or technologies long grown hazardous through disuse or poor maintenance or simply because they never were safe to begin with.
"It's for their own good," John said under his breath. "Someone has to look out for everybody." He closed his eyes and saw the community lounge through the City's fixed eye. McKay and Zelenka were bent over Rodney's laptop and examining a blueprint of Atlantis. It wasn't exactly accurate, and John hadn't the slightest idea where they had acquired it.
They murmured to each other about some of the differences, superficial ones they'd encountered so far, and John itched to touch the screen and point out more. Also, the way McKay leaned over the screen, his shoulders hunching, muscles tight, made John want to—
The City's laughter rippled through his mind.
"It's been way too long since I got laid, that's all." John said, opening his eyes. That dark-haired gal from Teyla's group, what was her name? Chaya. Chaya stole some pricey goods from Teyla and got found out. They kicked her out of the group, but not before Teyla laid down a serious beating on the woman. Fortunately, John's thing with her was one night only, and Teyla didn't question his judgment. Too much. "I have the worst taste," he said, and Atlantis hummed a question. "It's just—this Rodney guy is probably going to betray me and kill Taffa. Or, if my dream isn't literal, then steal my girl? Who knows?" He closed his eyes and tuned back in.
"I need to get access to the City's database," Rodney said, sounding frustrated. "I'm wasting time. I'll have to find a console and break in."
"That seems ill-advised."
The City agreed.
"I don't care about your advice or about these socialist farmers. They're sitting on a font of knowledge we would have creamed over at the Compound. Technology works here and they aren't even using it!"
"Not so. They keep a database of medical knowledge and manufacture medicine. Elizabeth has promised me Carson Beckett will guide me through a search for cures for Analisa," Radek said. "Perhaps the Major will do the same to help you?"
"I seriously doubt it. Sheppard's a weird one. Do you think he might be an actual Ancient? Is that why...?"
"Who's he calling weird?" John muttered. Not that he should be surprised. "And what's an Ancient?"
The City reminded John the Alterans were also called the Ancients, who apparently created the original Atlantis, the real one.
"Right. But how did they get blueprints of the real Atlantis? How did they even know about it?" John closed his eyes again.
"...and the way he slinks around barefoot. Not to mention I observed him getting intimate with the plant life. And I think he's the one responsible for the talking trash cans that tell you how to compost."
"No, that is the children. They can create things with their thoughts thanks to the quantum shift zones."
"Right...but the Major talks to the bird on his shoulder."
"I think you have been observing the Major a little too closely," Radek said, sounding amused.
"I'm looking out for us," Rodney said primly. "He's obviously an important figure."
"Beckett implied the Major was alive during the war."
"That's not possible. Unless he really is an Ancient."
Radek made a so-so gesture. "Outside the Compound, a lot seems possible we had not anticipated."
"Nonsense. In any event, I'm going to talk to him. We need access! Sooner, rather than later."
"I suggest sleep, first," Radek said, yawning. "Or he will be very cranky when you wake him."
"Fine. I suppose the morning is soon enough." The two of them walked out of view toward their quarters.
The City closed off the feed and pushed John toward his own bed.
"Yeah. I guess I'll deal with him tomorrow. G'night, Atlantis."
A vine dragged his blanket over his shoulder, and he fell asleep.
It was firing day, so Ronon stopped by to help John load the kiln. The big pieces went in first, and Ronon frowned when he saw the one of McKay. His arms were now holding a dead bird.
"This is one of the new scientist guys. And that's Taffa."
"Yeah. I had a weird dream before they showed up."
"Or a bad apple turnover."
Ronon hummed and helped him carefully place the shelf. When it was secure, they started loading the smaller items: bowls, mugs, a vase for Elizabeth, who said she wanted to start putting flowers in her office. John thought it was a waste of planting space, but he had the City to provide his window with fresh flowers. Last in went a series of plates for the cafeteria, all made from the same mold. They were getting in new people daily. The City was growing. John would feel proud, but it was mostly Elizabeth and Carson's doing.
"You willing to make some bathroom stuff for me and Evan?"
"You mean like toothbrush cup, soap dish, like that?"
"Of course, man. No charge. Just let me know what you want, how you want 'em."
They finished loading, and John sealed the door with a satisfying swing of the metal arm, then turned it on. The City would monitor it for him—she monitored all the electronics, especially anything that might be a danger to the inhabitants.
"Good luck with the firing," Ronon said.
"Thanks. Come on," John said, slapping Ronon on the arm. "Let's go grab a bite."
The mess was hopping this morning, ringing with the voices of kids and the fosters trying to corral them. They'd just managed to calm the kids down when a colorful flock of tiny winged horses fluttered in and tried to steal the kids' pancakes. The fosters took it as a teaching opportunity to get the kids to handle the pests, and John and Ronon managed to sneak in and get their breakfasts before the second group descended on the serving tables. They weren't so lucky at the coffee dispensers, though, and had to wait in line with trays in hand.
"I'm dying," John said, sniffing his pancakes. "Skipped dinner."
"That was stupid."
They grabbed their coffees and sat down at some free spots. John jostled elbows with Grodin, who must've finished prep and was getting to eat his own food for a change.
"Smells great, Pete. Thanks for the chow."
"No worries. Better eat it while it's hot. Or before a Pegasus gets it."
John had just raised his first, perfect forkful of pancake, butter, and syrup to his lips, when a fidgeting shadow appeared above him.
John stuffed the bite in his mouth and closed his eyes happily as he chewed slowly. Pancakes really were the best.
"Mmm?" John gestured toward his mouth with his fork.
"I'm sorry to interrupt your breakfast, but this really is important."
It really wasn't. Not enough to stop John from following the first bite with a second one before he'd even finished swallowing.
Rodney made a sound a lot like Taffa did when Gabe stole her sardine.
John tucked the bite into his cheek. "Make an appointment with my secretary," he mumbled, and Ronon snorted a laugh.
"Ha oh-very-ha," Rodney said. "I'm sure the dire necessities of my life are a joke to you."
"I'm free this afternoon, McKay. Stop by then."
Rodney grimaced and stomped away.
"That was mean." Ronon sounded delighted.
"He was ruining my pancakes."
"And he killed Taffa in your dreams."
"That too." John didn't use to believe in prophecy, but that was Before. Before the bomb. Before reality took a steep nosedive and kaijū ruled the Earth. Before his friends turned into beasts and he napped for forty years.
Gabe dropped John a message from Teyla while he was working on Ronon's pieces. John thanked him with a piece of jerky and then had to give Taffa a couple of grasshoppers to appease her jealousy.
"What does it say?" Taffa, always so curious, made a great spy but was a terrible gossip.
John rolled the note back up and tossed it in the ashes of his raku trashcan. "It says there's rumors of a new group in the East; the leader calls himself Colonel Maybourne. He's got an army and he's gathering more. Teyla wanted me to know." John looked down at his hands. The clay had stained his fingers reddish brown. He walked over to the sink and scrubbed his hands clean with the brush and the special soap he kept there, then went to stand at the window.
Taffa hopped up to the sill and cocked her head. "What are you going to do?"
"Nothing, for now."
John was feeding the mogwai when McKay practically walked into them. They scattered at McKay's footsteps, Gizmo chattering his complaints as they pattered away. John meant to feed them sooner but he got cornered by a bunch of pogles who wanted to tell him the longest, most boring fucking story in the world about a king of spades who couldn't find his queen of hearts. John barely escaped without dislocating his jaw yawning. Maybe he'd sic the pogles on Rodney if he got too ambitious. The asshole didn't belong down here below C level in the command tower.
"Hey, there, McKay," John said, popping up next to him.
"Oh, um, hi, Major. I must've gotten a little lost."
"Lost. Right. That must be why you're way out of the common areas. Let me just get you back to where you belong, huh?"
"Yes, yes. You do that." Rodney came along meekly, his back bowed under John's hand.
"So, you wanted to talk earlier at breakfast? I was going to track you down after my chores."
"Right! Well, perhaps now isn't the best time after all."
John smiled to himself. "Here we are, though. Might as well take advantage, right?"
"Right." Rodney bit his lip. "I've been hoping to ask you a favor?"
"What kind of favor?" John guided Rodney into the transporter.
"I thought the transporters didn't work?"
"They work okay. Most of the time." John smiled when Atlantis immediately transported them to the community tower on the West Pier.
The doors opened, and Rodney let out a surprised sound. "We're back."
"Fascinating. You have to let me look at the schematics—"
"What was it you wanted to ask me?" John showed him back to his quarters and waved open the door. The guy had made a mess of the place in just a few days. John was almost afraid to sit down.
Rodney paced back and forth. "The technology here is just amazing. Don't get me wrong: thanks to me, the compound where I grew up is also making tremendous progress in restoring us to the level of technology we'd reached fifty years ago. Can you imagine it? Not scraping by growing your own peas and making things by hand, but having large scale farms, industrial manufacturing, microprocessors that fire properly—"
"I can, yeah," John said.
"That's right," Rodney said skeptically. "I've heard rumors."
"I don't care if you believe them. But yeah. I can imagine industrial technology, sure."
"Sure, right. Anyway, so maybe you'd understand why I'd like full access to your database. I need to get my people back to this level of advancement at our Compound." His hands fluttered excitedly in the air. "Just imagine the wonders we can achieve—"
McKay jerked to a stop, his mouth gaping. "What?"
"No, the City isn't granting access to her database."
"You say she isn't—she decides?" Rodney asked incredulously.
"Kind of a mutual thing, but we're in agreement, yeah."
"Just like that." Rodney's mouth slanted into a furiously thin line.
"Just like that." John nodded, and Rodney's face turned beet red.
"You would condemn the lives of people you don't even know—" Rodney bit his mouth shut, and John tilted his head.
"Condemn? Who's being condemned?"
John crossed his arms. "So, possibly there's more to the story?"
"And this isn't just about the wonders of recreating the Industrial Age?"
"You knew." Rodney deflated.
"That you're probably after some kind of a weapon? Yeah, this isn't the first time someone's come looking for the City's secrets, McKay. Fortunately, you're kind of bad at it."
"Then you're not going to help me help Jeannie." Rodney turned away, but not before John saw the glint of tears in his eyes.
"My idiotic sister." Rodney slumped down onto his rumpled bed. "She left our compound—fell in love with an itinerant teacher, can you believe it? Ridiculous. He convinced her to travel around teaching school children with him. Then two months ago the teacher came back without her, saying the colony in Oakland where they'd been teaching was overrun by a paramilitary group. Jeannie got herself hired as one of the nannies. The group is led by this weasel—"
"I don't get it. What do you think the City can do to help with that?"
"Seriously? Major, I think I know more about Atlantis than you do. This city is a weapon. Don't you know that?"
John backed away. "The City is a sanctuary, not a weapon. And you aren't welcome here any longer."
"No! No, no, please. I won't make trouble. I won't be a problem. Don't throw me out, okay?" Rodney held up pleading hands, his eyes big and blue.
The City withheld her judgment. John stared at him for a long moment, undecided. "Fine. Just...stop talking about weapons." John rubbed his arms, fighting goosebumps.
"No weapons. All right."
"Fine. Later, McKay."
John left quickly. Only later did he wonder why it felt like a retreat.
It was John's turn to join the harvest, and the day was filled with mindless, backbreaking work. Luckily, he got assigned to hauling crates along with Aiden and Laura, who were a fun crew. Aiden gave John shit about his farmer's tan—foolishly, he'd decided to wear a tank top—and Laura took pity on him and offered him some of Carson's sunblock. It smelled disgustingly like lavender but would save him from the worst of the sunburn. He tanned fast, anyway, and by the end of the rotation his tan would even out.
John saw Rodney and Radek out there, too, both in sunhats and slathered with more sunblock. Elizabeth had assigned them to carrot pulling and they were arguing about something or other as they moved down the row. Once or twice they both looked John's way, their argument getting more heated, and John would have loved to hear what they were talking about, but he wasn't assigned to carrots.
All the kids ran up and down the rows with water bottles all day, but still, by sundown, everyone was parched and exhausted and high on the exertion and sore muscles, and they all stumbled to the mess for iced tea and macaroni and cheese by the bowlful.
"What's with the new guys?" Laura asked. "You kept checking on them all day. Something to look out for?"
"No. I mean, maybe, yeah. Not Zelenka, I don't think. He's here for a cure for his sister. She has Graves. The other guy, McKay, told me he wanted a weapon."
"Oh, yeah?" Laura's face tightened, and Aiden shifted closer.
"I already talked to him. This won't be like Todd."
"Uh-uh," Aiden said. "'Cause I'll be watching."
"That's good," Laura said. "My gunpowder is reserved for my fireworks."
"And they're damned good, too," John said.
Christ. Perfect timing. John raised his head and grimaced. "Rodney, Radek. This is Laura and Aiden."
Everyone said hi all around, except for Aiden, who glared with dark eyes at Rodney. Aiden had been hit the hardest by the incident with Todd and was the slowest to recover. If it weren't for the device the City had shown Carson, Aiden might have lost his sight in one eye.
"Pull up a bench," John said, hoping they would sit down without a fuss.
No such luck. "We were hoping we'd get a chance to talk to you, Major."
"He prefers 'John,'" Aiden said, which was hilarious. He'd never once called him John since they'd met.
"Right. John," Rodney said.
"I'm trying to get some carbs down," John said. "Try me after dinner."
"All right." They moved to another table.
"What was that about?" Laura asked.
"He's got a sister in a bad situation."
"We all came from bad situations," Aiden said. "That doesn't mean shit."
"Hey, hey, now." John put his hand on Aiden's arm, and he relaxed a little. "Nothing's going to happen. The City is safe."
"And you don't have to go off scavenging ever again. I made you that promise."
"Right. Thanks, Major."
"Hey, no problem. Now, enjoy your macaroni. We damn well earned it today."
"Ain't that the truth."
John picked up his fork and hissed a little when his tank top rubbed against his fresh sunburn. He moved the shoulder strap and grimaced, playing it up a little when Aiden laughed at him, loud and long.
He really should have reapplied the sunblock.
The City dreamed and Johnny dreamed with it. The man in the green uniform played his pipe and all the tiny white mice came tumbling and squirming to his feet, their noses and ears pink and trembling. The green man played his pipe and they followed him away, away, and John shook with rage but his hands were bound.
Some tendrils of vines came and tugged the sheets away from his hands. A gentle wind rose with the smell of pink honeysuckles that drove away the stink of fear piss and the sounds of sobbing.
John turned over and fell into a sweet dream of blue eyes and soft, pink skin.
There were clowns living in the City. Rodney was beginning to question his desire to continue this farce. But he'd mentioned to Radek that morning that he'd seen a second clown staring at him from the balcony above when he stepped out to take in the view, and Radek informed him he was probably imagining things, or it was likely another art installation—the City seemed to have an inordinate number of artists in residence. But Rodney knew the truth. He was being stalked by clowns.
Or maybe the City had sent the clowns after him? That was another possibility he hadn't considered. Living on a sapient city must have certain drawbacks, stalker clowns among them.
Rodney had just decided to report the incidents to the resident sheriff-cum-Major when it happened yet again, this time as he was transporting. He'd turned after he'd placed his hand on the map, the doors were just closing, and as he looked up, a clown ran toward him, pom-poms swaying on its overlarge shirt.
Rodney gasped and squeaked, and then the doors shut, the transporter flashed, and he was in another part of the City. Safe. And terrified out of his brilliant mind.
This had to stop.
He immediately touched the map for the grid by the Major's quarters, but instead of taking him there, the transporter opened the doors back on the West Pier's community tower.
There was no clown in sight, but Rodney wasn't taking any chances. He pressed the map again, hoping to end up in the central tower where he'd been told the Major lived. No dice. Again. No luck. Finally, on the third try, it worked. Rodney stared skyward and gave silent thanks to the City for giving him a shot.
"Major?" Rodney tapped on the door timidly, then more firmly. "John? May I speak to you?" Rodney sighed, then said quietly, "It's about...I keep seeing...clowns."
The door opened so quickly, Rodney's heart jumped.
"Did you say 'clowns'?" The major's eyebrows wrinkled like a demented badger's.
"Yes...clowns. One ran at me as I was transporting."
"Holy crap." Sheppard grabbed him and pulled him inside. "Tell me everything."
"I...you believe me?"
"I believe you. When did you start seeing them?"
"The first time was down, uh. In the central tower. Shortly before I ran into you, actually. I thought I saw it through one of those water bubble columns. Leering at me. It honked its nose." Rodney shivered.
"In the central tower? Damn it! Okay, this is key: are you coulrophobic. Scared of clowns?" John bit his lip.
"I'm...yes, okay? Yes."
Sheppard grabbed him by the arm and started tugging him toward the door. "I need to know exactly where you saw the first clown. We have to go mark off the edges of this new imagine cloud so no one else steps into it. And then you have to go see Heightmeyer for hypnosis."
"Hypno—what the hell?"
"You have to get those clowns out of your head and off my City."
Sheppard made a detour to pick up a small, handheld device made of translucent plastic and with a small LCD screen. Rodney itched to get his hands on it, even more so when he saw the two white dots that were obviously symbols of life forms.
They reached the approximate area where Rodney saw the first clown and started slowly backtracking Rodney's path with the device held up before them.
"There!" John said, pointing to the field of orange glowing on the screen. "Do you see it?"
"Obviously," Rodney said.
"Wasn't talking to you," John said. "Stay back." He pulled a can of spray paint out of the leg pocket of his pants and approached the area, shaking the can as he went. Then he slowly sprayed a series of bright red Xs around the area, finishing by connecting them in a loop and spraying warnings leading up on either approach.
"There," he said with satisfaction. "That should do it. Let's get you to Heightmeyer."
"You actually believe she can...oh, God. Don't turn around."
"What?" Sheppard froze, the paint can still held up in one hand. "It's behind me, isn't it?"
"You don't want to know," Rodney said. The clown's jagged, steel teeth were surrounded by painted red lips that were cracked through, like they were bleeding.
"Rodney, look at me." John dropped the can and grabbed his elbows, his eyes boring into Rodney's. "Think about blue skies, Rodney. Think happy thoughts."
Killer clown? What killer clown. Rodney closed his eyes and tried to think about blue skies, about apple turnovers, about the perfect equation.
When he opened them, the clown was gone. Rodney gasped in relief, and John stared at him, looking angry but also a little impressed.
"So...Heightmeyer?" Rodney said weakly.
"Right the hell now."
So, apparently Rodney was a big doofus because he should have consulted a hypnotist the moment he had his first manifestation. He was lucky he'd been able to derez the clown, which the therapist, Heightmeyer, told him was an impressive feat of focus; but manifestations could kill—they could kill others as easily as they could kill Rodney.
But how could he have known that? He grew up in a Faraday cage in a top-secret bunker more than a mile underground for crying out loud. Not that he could tell anyone that. The metaphysics of manifestations were fascinating, though. The part of his brain that was affected by the cloud's quantum effects had fixated on his greatest phobia, using the energy from his fear to manifest the clowns. Heightmeyer was a lot more understanding of his ignorance and told him curing the phobia would remove the energy and the clowns would dissipate.
They talked about the hypnosis before she eased him through a relaxation exercise and then put him under. He slipped away before he realized it was happening. When he opened his eyes again he felt more peaceful than he had since he left the Compound.
"Tell me, Rodney, how do you feel about clowns?"
"I've never seen one in real life, but I've heard they were funny."
Heightmeyer nodded. "That's what I've heard, too." She folded her hands together. "Please stop by and see me again anytime you wish to."
"We're done already?"
Rodney blinked. "Oh. Okay." He rose slowly from his chair. He still felt sleepy but weirdly energized at the same time. Maybe he'd go have a science-off with Radek. "Thanks," he said, and left. He wandered back to the community tower and got something to nibble on before going back to his quarters and knocking on Radek's adjoining door.
"What? I am busy. Having breakthrough on the steady-state equations."
"SINOD? Really? I thought we decided the quantum bomb didn't affect hydrodynamics. It's the wrong conceptual path..."
"You have your theory, I have mine," Radek said stubbornly.
"Fine, fine. Tell me about it," Rodney said, and pushed his way into Radek's quarters for a science-off.
Elizabeth stood up in the mess at breakfast and tapped her empty coffee mug with her clipboard. Everyone hushed up, and Sheppard offered her a fresh cup, which she accepted with a sweet smile. Rodney wondered idly if there was something going there and was surprised by the pang of disappointment he felt.
"People, just some announcements and reminders. First of all, welcome to some new folks that have come in since last trading day. Please stand and let people say hello as I introduce you. Ms. Emily Holmes and her daughter, Shania." Elizabeth paused briefly. "Mr. Tomislav Mataušek. Mx. Kata Saito. Dr. Radek Zelenka. Dr. Rodney McKay. Ms. Ah Lam Kim. And adoptee Duke. Please join me in welcoming them all to our community."
There was a general outflow of welcoming, and then Elizabeth said, "As a reminder to newcomers, please read the handbooks on appropriate behavior and rules. They are stacked in the community lounge in the West tower, L15. But there's one rule in particular I'd like to remind you all of. Any heretofore unmarked imagine cloud, monkey square, dead zone, vague area, or other infectious encroachment you discover must immediately be brought to the attention of the security team, the major, or directly to me. Without exception. These represent an immediate threat to the members of the community."
Rodney felt his face heat, and he looked down at his plate and started shoveling in his scrambled eggs. Upon waking, he'd remembered more about his ordeal the day before, how he'd been scared by something and gone running to John, who'd marked the edges of the field and made him visit Heightmeyer, and was a little peeved he hadn't done it sooner.
"Thank you all for your attention, and welcome, newcomers! Tomorrow is Trading Day! May you all have a prosperous trade."
"She is very nice," Radek said, nudging Rodney with his elbow. "She said my name very well. So many people mangle it."
"And she has a powerful presence."
"I wonder if she is single."
"Oh, for God's sake. We're not in a children's schoolroom, Radek. Go ask her."
Radek sniffed. "Maybe I will."
"Uh-huh." Rodney went back to contemplating his home fries. The last ones looked pretty well burnt.
"So!" Someone bumped into the bench next to him. Someone tall and burly and just a bit too aggressive for Rodney's tastes. "You're the guy who grew up in a cave."
Rodney groaned and covered his face. "Kind of."
"Name's Ronon," the guy said, sticking out a big hand.
"Rodney." Rodney shook and retrieved his valuable digits as quickly as possible.
"So, what's that like?"
"Well, pretty nice, for the most part. No imaginary creatures, no death by land sharks." Rodney shuddered. That had been a pretty gruesome thing to come across on their travels.
"Mmmm. Land sharks are good eating."
"Oh my God, you're kidding, right?"
"Nope." Ronon reached over and stole the buttermilk biscuit Rodney had been saving for last.
"Thanks." Ronon grinned and heaved himself up. "Nice to meet you, Rodney. See you around."
"What the hell?" He turned to Radek, who was grinning down into his coffee. "Can you believe that?"
"Nice to see you making new friends."
"I beg your pardon; I'm very friendly."
"Oh, yes. Very."
Rodney grabbed Radek's biscuit, ignoring Radek's squawk.
"Oh, like you didn't see that coming."
Trading Day was both John's favorite and a royal pain in the ass. The City itself went on lockdown as soon as all the goods were transported out onto the South Pier. Then, after the tables were set up and the City extended the bridge, John put Taffa, Gabe, and all their friends to work scouting for people breaking the lazy pattern of shoppers and traders.
"Any sneaky sneakers, ah-ah," Taffa said. "Any no-good slipping sideways scufflers."
"Those are the ones," John said. "You peg 'em and you spread the word, you tell me and Ronon's team."
"Taffa sees best."
"You sure do." John risked a knuckle under her chin, stroking the soft down, and she flapped and preened, giving him an affectionate rub of the cheek. "Be careful, Taffa. Look, don't peck."
"No pecking," Taffa said wistfully, and launched herself in the air.
John already had his goods down by his table, so it was just a matter of setting them out and pricing them. Citybucks were only tendered inside the City, so Trading Day was the day to cash in with City goods. The only exceptions were Teyla's crew, who accepted Citybucks for their own goods as well. The City used very cool holographic ink to create her tender; so far, no one had been able to come close to counterfeiting it. John counted them lucky every Trading Day that no fake bills popped up.
"Huh?" John looked up from pricing a set of bowls.
"That's my face! That's me. How rude." Rodney put his hands on his hips, his face set in scowl.
"Sure, it kinda looks like you," John said. "Except I made it way before you showed up."
"Weird. It looks exactly like me." Rodney asked, sounded squeamish, "Why is he holding a dead bird?"
"That's Taffa, a friend of mine. It's from a dream I had."
Rodney stared at him a long moment, his eyes going soft. "Well. Sounds more like a nightmare."
"Yeah." John looked back down and finished pricing the set. "Are you looking for something in particular?"
"I need a cup for my bedside. I get thirsty at night."
"I've got cups. You want a handle or what?"
"Thanks. I guarantee I'll spill all over myself otherwise."
John laughed a little and plucked a good lightweight mug from his crate, a blue-gray one. He might be a little taken with Rodney's eyes.
"Oh, that's very...really quite nice. How much is it?"
"I don't really have anything to trade."
"You can trade me three hours' work for it. That's a good approximation."
"Three hours of my invaluable time! Doing what?"
John grinned slyly, and Rodney blushed. Pretty hard, from what John could tell. Even his ears turned red.
"Yeah, no. I respect the work," John said. "But that wasn't where I was going."
"No, of course not, of course," Rodney muttered, and John felt bad.
"I mean, I'd ask you out first," John said, and then felt his own face heat.
"Anyway," John said forcefully, "we were talking about labor. Mental labor," John stressed. "You can help Elizabeth with the software. We could use some help with setting up a better database to track crew rotations."
"Oh! Yes, of course. That sounds ideal."
"Right." John rubbed a hand over the back of his neck. "Anyway, I've got to finish setting up for my customers. Enjoy your mug."
"Yes, thank you. Thanks." Rodney backed away a step and then turned, almost tripping over his own feet. John felt a sudden stab of fondness that surprised him. Is that you? he asked the City, but she denied it with great amusement, and John blushed again, groaning to himself.
McKay? Seriously? Well, hell.
Teyla approached John toward the end of the day.
"Did you get your medicine?" he asked her. "I made a trade with Carson for it."
"Of course. Carson was helpful as always."
"That's awesome, T," John said as he put his unsold goods in his crate. "Let me get you the batteries I promised."
They walked together toward the storage facility next to the freight transporter. "How've you been, Teyla? How's Halling? He hasn't been to the City in a while."
"He's been taking care of Jinto. The boy broke his leg climbing an unstable scavenge pile."
"That kid." John shook his head. "Anything I can do?"
"You have already done it. Jinto developed a cough, and the consult and antibiotics Carson provided will do the trick, I'm sure." She smiled gratefully.
"I'm glad. Tell the kid to be patient. I've been there." John approached the storage unit and placed his hand on the sensor. The door slid open, revealing a stash of more select goods that belonged to the City—batteries, cartons of pencils and pens, reams of paper, crates manufactured by the City. John took Teyla's cash and dropped it into the kitty and placed three fully-charged batteries in a crate before handing it to Teyla, who handled the weight with ease.
"I will drop the dead batteries by the charging station," she said.
"I know you're good for it."
"Did you get the message I sent with Gabe?"
John leaned against the doorway. "Yeah. Anything new?"
"Just more of the same. Maybourne's scouts are on the Bay Bridge. They've been seen mapping out the hidden dead zones and imagine clouds. There are many; such thin material over water acts as a collector. And their scouts don't have the scanners you gave us, so they are losing personnel in the process."
"Jesus. That's ugly."
Teyla shook her head, her brown eyes gleaming with anger. "They are fanatics, John. Maybourne is a cult leader."
John crossed his arms. "I don't know what you expect me to do with this. I've offered you sanctuary plenty of times—"
"I'm not giving up my home to these people."
"I know you've been through terrible times, John."
John shook his head and turned away. "That's saying something."
"I won't say I understand, because I wasn't there. But terrible times might be coming again."
"You can't ask me to—"
"I'm not asking you." She laid a hand, small and strong, on his arm. "I'm telling you there might not be a choice."
He nodded tightly, giving her hand a squeeze, then left Teyla with her batteries and went back to his table. He'd sold all his large pieces except one: the Rodney and Taffa statue. Somehow, John wasn't surprised. He was a little tempted to chuck it over the side and into the ocean. He had some cups and bowls left that fit in a single crate. He'd come back for the statue after he dropped off his other unsold pieces and recycled his spare crates.
When John returned from his tasks, though, he discovered the statue was gone.
Radek gave the connecting door a knock and came in. "Carson has manufactured the medication Analisa requires."
"Then I suppose you're leaving me," Rodney said.
"Only for a short time," Radek said. "I intend to convince her to return with me. The treatment is not a cure, and there may be side-effects. Now that I have seen this place, I think she would be happy here. I think we both could be."
"That's...good. I'd miss you," Rodney admitted.
Radek removed his glasses and swiped at them with the bottom of his shirt. "I would miss you too, you obnoxious cretin."
"Oh, very nice!" Rodney replied, and Radek chuckled. "Will you make it back to the Compound without me all right?"
"I think so. Aiden has offered to trade me a car in exchange for my assistance in fixing his beloved 'Honda Civic,' which he has been unable to repair despite his best efforts. If I can get it running, he will give me a classic 'crappy American car,' which has the best chance of running out there, since it uses nothing but internal combustion and electricity, no computer chips. He also has a map of helpful communities where I might acquire fuel in trade for fresh produce."
"Do you need any help with the Civic?"
"That's very kind," Radek said. "But if I can get a particle accelerator to almost work despite quantum mechanics being on the fritz, I think I can fix a classic automobile."
Two days later, Radek returned, his eyes wild and his hair throwing a Bolshevik revolution. He clutched a torque wrench so tightly his knuckles were entirely bloodless.
"So, need a hand?" Rodney said, and Radek nodded wordlessly, sweat dampening his brow.
Of course, it turned out there was a gremlin hiding in the engine block, so that was a problem. Rodney shouldn't have been surprised at this point, yet he was too busy yelling curses to make sense of anything at all. Radek made the sign of the cross multiple times and started praying.
Then Sheppard showed up and shot the gremlin with a squirt gun filled with some sort of yellow liquid. The gremlin hissed, steam rising from its fur, and scrambled out of the engine.
"Get the hell out of here, Spike. You know you're not allowed in engineering."
Spike screeched something, and the Major held up the squirt gun, making the gremlin skitter away and down the hallway. There was a loud crash and clatter, and then the hollow sound of something clattering through a conduit. Rodney shivered as he realized that was how it got around—through the air ducts.
"What was in the gun?"
"Sorry about that," John said. "The gremlins are kind of like a really bad security system. They know better than to come up to the community level or engineering, but sometimes they get attracted to the grease in the auto shop."
"Well, yeah. They like greasy things. Also, electrical stuff."
"Not a good idea to combine the two," Radek said faintly.
"Right." John lounged back a little, jutting out his hip. "How goes the classic car revival?"
"We were really making progress until the toothy thing attacked us," Rodney snapped.
"Aw, c'mon. Spike wouldn't hurt a fly. Well, he'd eat a fly, but who likes flies?" John grinned charmingly. Rodney tried to ignore the melting sensation in his solar plexus.
"We're almost done. The intermittent problem has been explained now, at least. We were about to double-check the distributor caps when we were assaulted, so we'll do that now. Then Aiden can come take a look at his Civic."
"He'll be pretty psyched," John said. "He's been working on this puppy for a while." Bending over, John picked up a hubcap and gave it a polish with his sleeve.
Rodney yanked it out of his hands. "Pretty shinies last, Major. First, let's get it functional."
"Right." John smiled for some reason. "Well, I'll leave you guys to it."
"Wait, Major," Radek said. "If you don't mind, we could use your assistance in a few minutes to lower the chassis after we've completed our tests."
Rodney gave Radek a narrow look, but Radek avoided his eyes, a sly smile on his lips.
"Sure thing," John said, and hoisted himself up on the work bench, his muscular thighs spreading as he made himself comfortable. Rodney cursed to himself and turned back to checking the distributor caps, and found a loose one almost immediately, and then another. Stripe had been playing a little game with them, for sure, because Rodney had put in the new distributor yesterday. Finally, with all the caps properly attached, he gestured for Radek to give her a rev, and sure enough, the Civic purred like a happy kitten.
"See? Nothing mystical involved, unless you include the creature that shouldn't exist," Rodney said, patting Radek on the back. Radek shook his head and muttered something less than complimentary. Rodney just brushed it off; he knew Radek loved him like a younger brother.
"All done?" John said as Rodney closed the hood.
"Just some finishing touches." Rodney bent down and pressed on the first of the four hub caps, using his flathead as a shim. It slid on neat as can be, and he moved to pick up the next one, only to have it handed to him by Sheppard.
"Uh, thanks," Rodney said.
"No problem." John looked a little flushed for some reason, but it was a little warm in the shop. Rodney bent over and snapped on the second hubcap then stood up and arched his back with a groan. It had been a while since he spent this much time on mechanics.
"Here." John practically shoved the third hubcap at him.
"Hold your horses, I'll get to it." Rodney took it, frowning.
Radek snorted a laugh where he was sitting on the chair with his feet up on the table.
"Oh, laugh it up, Laz-E-Boy. You owe me big for this," Rodney said as he shoved on the third one.
"You do this so I will return to you eventually. This is how much you love me."
John looked between them, his eyebrows raised.
Rodney shook his head. "No, no. We're not—he's having you on."
"Yeah, okay." John gave him the last hubcap and Rodney took his time popping it on, making sure the edges were even.
"You need any help with that, McKay?" John sounded weird.
"Almost...done." Rodney straightened and turned. "Now we can get it down."
"Right. I'm not sure what Radek meant, though. It's a hydraulic lift," John said, walking over to the opposite side.
"Oh, is it?" Radek deadpanned, and Rodney glared laser beams at him.
"Yeah. You just push the button. Everyone's limbs clear?"
"All clear here," Rodney said.
"Clear," Radek said, grinning toothily.
"Here goes." The jack slowly started lowering. Rodney couldn't get over the free use of advanced technology on Atlantis. The way the inhabitants just took it for granted, how they foraged for old tech and then brought it to the City and it came back to life under their hands. He was incredibly jealous, especially since he knew once he'd gotten what he came for, he'd never be welcome back.
It was also why he had to keep his hands off the major, no matter how nice his chest looked in that black T-shirt of his. How many did he have, anyway? Where was he getting them, when everyone else had to wear tourist's clothes and band T-shirts from the 2000s? No one found monochrome T-shirts any longer.
"Say, Major, where did you find your T-shirt?"
"Teyla's crew sells them. Didn't you see them at their table?"
"No, I didn't. Of course, I don't have any Citybucks to squander as yet."
"Keep doing great work like this and you will," John said, his voice full of approval, and Rodney had to duck his head guiltily. He turned directly into Radek's knowing gaze.
"You think I don't know you, Rodney McKay?" Radek whispered. "But I have been your friend since we were in grade school and you first stole Sam Carter's plans for a crystal component circuit board."
"I did not! We were brainstorming over lunch. She had no right to go off and write them down as her own."
Rodney turned, sharing a sheepish look with Radek.
"The car is down. You want me to get Aiden over here?"
"Um, yes, please?"
John looked momentarily skyward and then blinked. "He'll be down in a second."
"What?" Rodney said. "What did you just—did you communicate with him telepathically?"
"No! Of course, not." John looked baffled. "Aiden is on the security crew. He has a radio—it's a small communication device—"
"I know what a radio is, Major!"
"Okay, well, I just told the City to notify him. Simple."
"You're always in direct communication with the City? Always?" Rodney's stomach sank.
"Of course. I can locate anyone I need to on the City, instantly." John gave him a speculative look. "Why?"
"Oh, nothing. You know me and technology. I'm purely fascinated."
Aiden chose that moment to come rushing in and saved Rodney from having to hurl himself head first into the barrel of used engine oil.
"Is it true? You got her working?"
"We got it working, yes," Radek said. "A car is not a woman."
"Much respect, but it depends on the car, Dr. Zelenka," Aiden said, and ran his hand over the hood of the Civic. "This is my grandfather's car. My dad told me stories all about it, how gramps met my grandmother and took her for drives in it, how he took such perfect care of it. My dad spent years trying to fix it up out in the world and never managed to get it to run again. So, when I found the City, I decided to get help hauling this baby all the way back here. Everyone made fun of me because the engine has a computer and we know how well that goes."
John looked a little embarrassed.
"But you guys did it!"
"Well, it really wasn't that difficult. A little bit of reprogramming, a fresh bit of solder..." Rodney tried to be humble. He wasn't succeeding very well from Radek's expression.
"Would you like to start it up?" Radek said. He held out the keys.
Aiden grabbed them with a wide grin of pure delight and bounded for the driver's side door. John stepped up, looking equally gleeful, and Rodney shook his head at the childish antics. A moment later, the sound of the engine revving filled the shop with a deep growl.
"That's the performance upgrade you're hearing!" Aiden yelled out the window. "Pops went for a turbo kit when he did the full rebuild."
"Awesome!" John opened the passenger door and started talking superchargers with Aiden. Rodney and Radek shared a look and then departed to get away from the engine noise.
"Another satisfied customer," Radek said as he washed his hands in the shop sink. Rodney leaned against the wall and waited his turn.
"So, this means you're taking your American jalopy and hitting the road?"
"Very soon, yes. Analisa needs her medication."
"Promise me you'll be careful. It's dangerous out there, Radek. You know why."
"I know. I will head south first and avoid Oakland altogether."
"Good, good." Rodney patted him on the shoulder, incidentally getting engine grease all over his shirt.
"You are a true friend," Radek said, rolling his eyes. "Promise me you will not do something stupid. This is a good place. These are good people."
"It's been weeks without progress, Radek! I have to at least try to rescue them."
"Then I wish you all the luck in the world, my friend."
John was dreaming about sinking between a pair of creamy ass cheeks when something poked him in the shoulder, hard.
"You'll get your turn, Mara," John mumbled.
The City laughed, and the poking finger turned into the tip of a vine scratching at his neck.
"Damn it, what?"
John was instantly given the image of Rodney lying on his back under one of the consoles in the jumper bay. He appeared to be connecting his computer to it with an optical cable. Apparently, the lack of cameras had given him the idea there was no surveillance in the area, not realizing the jumpers themselves had 360-degree video.
Groaning, John rolled out of bed and pulled on a pair of pants. "Keep him busy until I get there, all right?"
The City flashed him humorous images of the useless data she was forcing McKay to sift through—lavatory specs, bird bath designs, aspects of wall sconces—although Rodney obviously was testing her skills, at the rate he was flipping through the screens. The City broadcast her approval and pleasure as John jogged up the steps to the jumper bay.
"Hiya," John said, coming to a halt at Rodney's feet and giving them a nudge with his boot.
Rodney cleared his throat. "Uh...just doing some maintenance, here," he said in a deep, hoarse voice. "Move along."
"You move along," John said. "You're in my spot."
"Shit. Major? Is that you?"
"In the flesh and wide awake, thanks to you. Come out of there or I'll drag you out."
"Just let me disconnect—whoa! No need to get physical!"
John dropped Rodney's feet and stared down at his anxious face. "Care to tell me what you were up to under there? Besides maintenance, of course."
Rodney climbed to his feet and dusted himself off. His T-shirt today read "Virginia is for Lovers" with a big red heart for the 'o'. John hid his amusement under a scowl.
"I think you know very well," Rodney said, crossing his arms. "Your refusal to help me rescue my sister has led me to extreme measures."
"Rescue? What makes you even think she needs rescuing? You said yourself she got a job as a nanny."
"She only got the job to stay close to my niece, Madison!" Rodney crossed his arms. "The men who took the colony wanted the children for something nefarious."
"You didn't tell me there was a kid involved! You just said she got in with them."
"Oh, well." Rodney bit his lip. "I don't always get things out in the most coherent fashion."
"You think? This puts a different spin on it. I think we should do a little scouting of our own."
"Without any weapons? That's crazy talk."
John grinned. "There's more than one way to spy."
Rodney stared in amazement as Sheppard negotiated with a couple of birds.
"Taffa wants a bucket of mice. Gabe says he wants the small fish with the red gills."
"A half bucket each," John said to her. "Don't be greedy. You're sure you know where to go?" He held up the map again. "Over the water, where the gray bridge meets the land, then southeast to the lake that looks like a mouse."
Rodney shook his head in disbelief. "Are you sure—?"
"The lake does look like a big mouse, ah-ah-ah," Taffa laughed. "And look for the fence with many small ones inside."
"Good, great. You got it, Taffa. Be careful of the men in green. Don't let them see you. Don't let them point guns at you. Fly away."
"Taffa is too fast. Maybe Gabe is too slow."
Gabe squawked indignantly. Apparently, the seagull didn't say much, but what he did, was with feeling.
John gave the bird a last stroke on her breast, and then she flew off, Gabe close behind her.
"You have...interesting friends," Rodney said.
"They're good friends." John shot him a fierce look. "Saved my life when I first got to Frisk. I was starving to death, and they found me food."
"Really? I mean. Wow."
John fidgeted with some message tubes stacked by the window before turning around to face him. "How are you settling in? I guess you miss your friend."
"It's fine. I like working with Elizabeth." Rodney tried a smile. "She has an interesting sense of humor."
John brightened. "She's a hoot. I guess that means you have some bucks to spend now."
"Yeah, I have a little."
"Cool. We should get you some stuff for your place. I'll show you who's got what. Anything you need?"
"You're...that's really nice of you."
John pushed away the compliment with one hand. "Just a neighborly thing."
Rodney mentioned a couple of items: a new towel since his old faithful was getting ragged; some books to read, "If anyone in this benighted place has good taste in Sci-Fi"; toothpaste that didn't burn his mouth with cinnamon. "I don't know what Zelenka was thinking, buying that stuff. Give me a hint of mint any old day."
John just nodded and smiled amiably at Rodney's rants and took him from neighbor to neighbor. Not one but two incredibly fluffy towels were acquired, also mild, minty toothpaste, and Rodney borrowed a series of books from Ronon about a cranky cyborg. Ronon made Rodney sign them out and everything.
"Two weeks," Ronon said. "And then I come after you. And no drinking liquids near them."
"All right, all right."
John carried the towels and toothpaste, so Rodney tucked the books under his arm and they went back to John's suite to wait for the scouts.
"You know, you can just go back to your quarters," John said. "I'll give you a copy of the report."
"No, thanks." It wasn't that Rodney didn't trust the man. He just didn't trust anyone when it came to Jeannie. And maybe that was why he'd lost her to begin with, but it was too late to worry about that, now. Rodney didn't believe in regrets. He would find her, and he'd fix this.
"What's that look for?" John said.
"Just—I screwed up once. I don't want to screw up again."
"I know that feeling," John said under his breath. He avoided Rodney's questioning look and picked up one of the books to start browsing. After a while he started chuckling, and Rodney picked up another and started reading.
A few hours later, Taffa and Gabe returned.
"Men in green. Little ones!"
"Bad! Bad!" The two birds were so alarmed they spoke over each other in relating what they'd seen. Rodney sat like a lump, his blood getting colder with every word.
When they were done with their report, John turned to Rodney and said, "Let me talk to Elizabeth."
"So, what? You can do nothing some more? I'm sorry, but I need to go. I need to at least try something—"
"Just...trust me, okay?" He put his hand on Rodney's wrist. "Let me at least talk to her first."
"Fine. I'll wait." But for how long, Rodney carefully didn't say.
"Why do I get the feeling you've been avoiding me lately?" Elizabeth said over the rim of her coffee cup.
"Hey, I'm here, aren't I?" John spread innocent hands and lounged back as much as he could in the uncomfortable chairs she kept in front of her desk. He was pretty sure she did that on purpose to keep people on edge, but John determinedly hooked his shoulder blades over the back and stretched his feet out. Ow.
"And? You owe me a couple of weeks' worth of news."
"You're not going to like it."
"When do I like anything?" She smiled ironically.
"You like me."
"Stop stalling, John."
So, he told her about Maybourne and the invasion of the Oakland colony, and how he'd sent Taffa and Gabe on a couple of missions over the past few days to gather seeing-eye reports on the activity of the fenced-in areas filled with small children and minders, and the soldiers in green. As he told her the details the scouts had gathered, Elizabeth paled so badly her freckles stood out.
"Dear God. We have to notify Sausalito, Richmond—have you told Berkeley?"
"I've already sent Gabe and friends all over."
"Maybourne's people are coming across the bridge?"
"Yeah. It won't be safe in Frisk for much longer."
"We'll have to—"
"Also, the reason McKay is here is because his sister and kid are two of the victims, and he was looking for a weapon to get them back."
"What? Damn it! I like him. Not to mention he's great with computers."
"Yeah." John looked down and pulled a thread from his wrist band.
"You like him, too." When John didn't respond, she added, "Maybe we can talk to him."
"I already did, Liz."
Elizabeth set her cup down. "Don't let this get messy, Major."
John sighed. "You know I won't. We need to act with Maybourne, anyway. Sooner rather than later. But I can't..." He raised his hands helplessly. "I can't go to war. But maybe I can...steal?"
Elizabeth raised her head, her eyes gleaming.
Elizabeth called a community meeting, and told everyone about Maybourne and the threat in the East, and told them all their children needed to be kept safe and secure, so no scavenging trips right now for anyone fifteen and under.
"For some, children are a tempting commodity; for us, they are a precious resource we must protect. Thanks to our scouts, we've learned the children Maybourne has taken are being used for their superior imagine power. From the reports, this Maybourne has put the children he kidnapped to work creating for him, keeping them fenced in imagine clouds and forcing them to manifest weapons for him." Elizabeth's mouth was a grim line. "The children all have beloved 'handlers' that are used as leverage against them. The handlers are punished if the children don't produce. Children who still fail to produce are taken away. We don't know where to, but it can't be somewhere good.
"We here in the City have always opened our doors to the orphaned, the lost, the ones who have fallen victim to the chaos that Unreality brought to us. The people who dropped those bombs thought they'd be bringing peace and an end to the Civil War. Instead, they brought an end to everything stable in our world, and we've been fighting to reclaim it ever since. Now it is up to us to decide: do we continue to fight for the helpless, for the ones who can't yet protect themselves? Or do we remain here, safe in the bubble we've created? Do we allow such an atrocity to continue mere miles from our front door? It's up to us to decide."
Elizabeth gestured to the three large ceramic bowls they used for voting. "Take a black chip and a white chip. If you want the City to undertake a stealth mission to rescue these children, drop a white chip in the slotted bowl. If you vote no, drop a black chip. The City will be monitoring the vote. Thank you."
Elizabeth and John both walked out so that no one would think they were trying to influence anyone, but John caught Rodney's gaze on the way out, saw his tremulous gratitude, and had to drop his eyes. If John had his way, he would hide. He would hide and never leave the City, never go out there and have to risk hurting someone ever again.
But he didn't have a choice anymore.
"It looks like the community is for the raid," John said. They wouldn't even have to count the chips, although Bates would insist on it for protocol. But the sea of salt versus the sprinkle of pepper spoke volumes.
"What's the plan?" Aiden asked.
"The City has an idea. We use the transporter. If we can lay repeaters between the City and the Oakland compound, we can plant transponders on the children and the City can transport them here directly."
"Uh, not to state the obvious, or anything, but who is going to plant transponders on so many kids without alerting the guards? And how?"
"I've got a plan for that, too. I just need you and the rest of the security team to get the repeaters planted. Here, the City gave me a map." John put the printouts on the table and showed them the locations. "The only problem is one of them is on the Bay Bridge."
"Are you shitting me?" Bates said, his voice rising. "That's an invitation to die right there."
"Taffa will help! Taffa flies. Taffa sees."
Taffa startled, and John bit his lower lip and offered her an apologetic hand. She bit it once and flipped her wings a few times before settling.
"No, Taffa. It's too dangerous. I'll put down the last repeater."
"I want you safe."
Taffa cocked her head and then hopped up onto the window sill and flew away.
"She's a wild creature, John," Bates said. "Can't tell her what to do. Not really."
"I know. I just...I want her safe."
"Let's talk about this map. I don't recognize these features."
"Not surprising. It's way out of date." John turned his copy and peered closer.
"So, let's figure it out."
Rodney cornered John as he was leaving the mess that night. He'd been surrounded by his security team going over maps and plans as they ate dinner, so John wasn't surprised Rodney waited to approach him. But John kind of wished he'd remembered to sneak out through the kitchen.
"What is it? Kind of busy."
"I want to join the team."
"Yeah, that's not happening." John pushed by him and started toward the transporter.
"You can't leave me behind. That's my sister and niece!"
John spun around and pointed. "That's exactly why I'm leaving you behind. You're too invested. Besides, who said the team's going to the compound?"
"What?" Rodney goggled at him.
"Look." John shook his head. "I'm sorry. I know you're worried about them. If you show me a picture of them, I'll make sure they get tagged, all right?"
"I only have a picture of Jeannie." Rodney bit his lip and dug into his pocket. The picture was a hand drawn but very realistic rendering of a young woman with curly hair. From her sharp cheekbones and intelligent eyes, she was obviously Rodney's sister.
John handed the picture back. "We're going to bring them all back. All the kids, all the minders. That's the plan."
Rodney carefully returned the drawing to his pocket. "What is the plan, exactly?"
"That's need to know." John clasped Rodney's shoulder. "But it's a good plan, all right? Definitely Operation Not Too Shabby, if I do say so myself."
"Oh, that's a tremendous relief to me, seriously." Rodney brushed his hand off. "I still want to come. I'd be an invaluable resource."
"You'd be a pain in my nuts, like you're being right now." John couldn't help but smile a little at Rodney's scowl. "It's going to be all right. I promise. I'll bring them here and you can give them both hell for making you worry."
"She's all I've got, you know. I might be angry at her for leaving with that charlatan, but that doesn't mean I wanted her kidnapped."
"She'll be fine. But only if you let me go pick up the transponders and repeaters from manufacturing."
"Right. Right. Off you go."
John clapped Rodney on one broad shoulder and walked away. The City enquired as to when John was going to do something about that, and John told her, politely, to fuck off.
In the auto shop, John gave the box of repeaters to Bates and the instructions to the team on how to set and activate them. They were crystal based, as were the radios John had distributed, which shared a group channel and a private one with the city that only John could access. He'd need it once he was out of touch with her.
"Is everyone clear on the plan?"
"Set the repeaters, activate, wait for the signal, retrieve the last one first and activate our own transponders."
"Good. See you on the other side."
John gave the team a head start to make their way across to Frisk and begin setting repeaters. After Collins checked in at the half-way mark, John set out for the central tower and the most recent imagine cloud he'd marked with Rodney's help. It was fresh as could be, the paint still shiny and slightly smelly. John shivered a little as he approached it. The City reminded him he'd done this before; that she existed solely because of his proven ability to handle imagines.
"I know. It's just been a while. And I don't want to make anything...bad. There's a lot of bad shit in my head." John stepped closer, and looked over at the entry to the balcony, checking the size. Plenty big.
The City told him, somewhat caustically, she was more than capable of handling anything he could throw at her. Also, his experiences had given him the ability to raise her in the first place, and his pain the power to do so.
"Yeah. I know, sweetheart. I wouldn't have it any other way." John took a deep breath and stepped past the marking, focusing with all his might on wings. Just wings. Not heavy, feathery wings, but light as air dragonfly wings, like in his dream. Four of them, large and clear and strong. A moment later, easy as that, he felt them moving slightly behind him, and he took a step forward, swaying when they caught the air.
John laughed incredulously. "Wings." Looking up, he could see the top two just behind him and overhead, opalescent, beautiful. "Well, let's see if this works."
Tucking them close behind him, he walked out onto the balcony and tried to flap them. They immediately began vibrating with the sound of fluttering paper, flapping way faster than Taffa's, more like a hummingbird's. John feet came off the ground and he hovered in the air, a delighted laugh leaving him.
"Oh, man, this is unbelievable." He'd forgotten how astounding it could be to change things with a thought. He'd let himself forget, he'd wanted to, because the rest of it sucked so badly. But this part was incredible, so amazing, it almost made it worth it.
He let his wings take him higher, swooping a little, forward and back, getting the hang of it, learning to trust them, before returning to the deck and picking up his bag. He fastened the strap tightly around his waist with the pack to the back, and then he stood up on the balcony railing and activated his radio.
"You hear me, Atlantis?"
Acknowledged, John. The mechanical voice, crackling and alien, weirded him out a little, but he needed to stay in touch.
"Here goes nothing," he said, and launched.
It had been too long since John flew. Too long since the sky was below and above, a calming breath of blue.
Frisk was a beautiful tragedy from above, the great tsunami having created a perfect circle of destruction plainly visible from a distance. The Bay Bridge had survived, a miracle of construction. Hovering over it now in the early dusk and distracted by his zone detector, John almost flew right into a deadly trap.
"Way to go, John, you stupid ass," he hissed at himself as he dodged the nearly invisible wires someone had put up to snag scouting birds. One of his wings got clipped and he almost went down, but a quick imagining put his wing right again, and he set down lightly on the middle of the bridge. Taffa would have been killed for sure, with her straight and fast flight path, and John's heart beat fast as he ran lightly to the side and tucked the repeater in place. He took off again quickly, this time by dropping directly toward the water, with none of Maybourne's men the wiser.
"Close fucking call," John said to himself, and keyed his radio. "Bridge repeater has been set. I repeat, bridge repeater has been set. Do you copy, B?"
"Copy, J. That was fast!"
"We've got a small problem, though. The last repeater has a glitch. It won't complete initialization."
"What? You're kidding me." Damn it. He should have given everyone dupes. "What's the plan?"
"A pal of yours is talking us through a fix."
John took a deep breath. Rodney, thank God. "That's good to hear. What's the ETA?"
"John? Can you hear me?"
"No names on channel, R."
"Oh, sorry. Uh, I'm just talking B. through the last manual steps. It took me a little while to reverse engineer the code so I could provide the—"
John smiled to himself. "That's terrific, R. Thanks mucho."
"Ready for the next step," Bates cut in.
"Right, right." Rodney talked Bates through the final steps while John listened in, more than a little amazed.
I should have thought to provide duplicates, The City said on their private channel.
"Looks like Rodney's got it," John said proudly.
"I'm up!" Bates said. "This means we've completed all repeater placements and are waiting on your signal, J. Over."
"Copy that. I'm on mission."
"Good luck," Rodney said. "Bring them all back."
John swallowed. "Copy that. Going radio silent."
The radio gave two clicks in acknowledgment. John whispered on the City channel, "Wish me luck, sweetheart."
The detector vibrated in his hand.
John waited a few more minutes until full dark and then dropped behind a stand of trees near the edge of the compound. He saw a soldier in badly mocked-up fatigues stroll past the fence and step into the larger compound building and then John used the detector to fly right up to the edge of the imagine cloud. It had seeped past the fenced-in corner of the children's work area to the gravel beyond—eventually, it would drift so far, they'd have to move the fence to accommodate it.
None of the children were there now, of course. It was a good guess they weren't allowed any playtime in the imagine cloud, just hard work. But that was super; John had plans for it of his own.
He stepped into the edge of the cloud and concentrated. His wings disappeared, and a doorway appeared in the fence. John opened it and walked through, closing it behind him. Then he knelt down and yanked his pack around to pull open the bag of transponders and scatter them on the ground.
A passel of mogwai appeared out of thin air with a scattering of muffled 'pops,' and John held up a hand to quiet their surprised murmurings.
"Over in that shed, there's a scared kid or person who wants to be your friend."
The mogwai meeped happily.
"Take one of these—" John held up a transponder, "...grab a kid's hand, and push the button."
The mogwai chirped their assent and scuttled away with the transponders to disappear under the uneven edge of the shed wall. John crept over and bent an ear. There was no sound from the sleeping, snoring shed full of children or the minders. He had imagined a peaceful exit, and that's what he was getting. He eased open the door to see kids flashing out of existence by the handful. A minder with curly, red-blond hair stirred awake, her eyes widening when she saw John, and he hustled to her side, putting his finger over his lips.
She turned her head just as the little girl next to her disappeared with a flash, and she flailed upright to take a swing at him.
"Sorry, Jeannie." John slapped a transponder in her open hand and stabbed the button before leaning back. The startled, furious expression on her face was priceless.
Unfortunately, the sound had stirred some of the other minders, and John motioned to the remaining mogwai to help him get them transported quickly as well. One awoke with a startled sound before disappearing with the last mogwai.
John's luck had run out.
"Please, people, the children are safe," he said, and managed to tag another sleepy minder and send her on her way with a flash before the next one shouted and tried to hit him with a brick. "Hey! I'm trying to rescue you, here."
"Oh yeah? Who are you?" She swung the brick like a pro, and John dodged back, grabbing another transponder from his pack. He only had a few left.
"I'm the one taking the kids to where they won't be tortured into working, how's that?" John managed to duck her next swing and jammed the transponder into her pocket.
"What the hell is that?" she asked, and reached for it. She disappeared in a flash a moment later.
Two left. One was sitting on her cot staring with big eyes. She held out her hand, and John tossed a transponder to her. She disappeared a moment later.
The other managed to dodge past him and yank open a drawer to pull out a gun.
"Where did you send them?" Her long, blond hair had come loose from its tie, and she blew it away from her face.
"Somewhere safe." John's fingers shook on the transponder he was holding.
"Tell me or I'll kill you."
John pressed the button.
He was suddenly surrounded by crying children, chirping mogwai, and wrestling bodies. John tapped his radio. "Mission accomplished. Get back here ASAP. Over."
John lent a hand by grabbing the nearest flying body, only to discover it was his favorite brick layer, who tried to take his head off with her bare hands. He managed to get her in a wrist lock and took her down to the ground.
"Someone get me some restraints." Somehow, they hadn't anticipated any of the minders wouldn't want to be rescued. Not too bright. "And please, everyone, I want code silence as of this moment."
Suddenly the only noise going on was a couple of crying kids and the one shouting woman.
"Get me a blindfold and wrist restraints for this one."
"Yes, Ma—yes, sir," Tully said, then winced. He'd only been on the security crew a short time and it showed.
"Everyone who doesn't have a purpose here, leave immediately," John said, and a whole shit ton of people skedaddled. "You two: get a blindfold on her and take her down to twenty-two. No talking, to each other or to the minder. We'll return her to her friends ASAP." When she heard that, the woman he was restraining stopped struggling.
After Tully and Kim removed the woman, the mogwai had a much easier time soothing the littlest kids, and everyone stopped crying. Every available foster was there and doing their best to explain what was going on to both the kids and the minders, but it was a pretty confusing scene until Grodin and a couple of pals showed up with ice cream for everyone.
Then John knew things were going to be all right.
A few minutes later, Rodney burst into the room, yelled "Jeannie! Madison!" and then there was more crying and yelling, but it was the happy kind, and Rodney kept hugging them and pulling back and brushing tears from his eyes and then hugging them, and John felt pretty good about that.
"You did good," Elizabeth said, joining him. "No injuries except maybe a bruise or two on the one minder. Carson gave her some ice packs. The kids are more surprised than scared. They calmed right down thanks to the mogwai."
"Mogwai are good like that." A couple of them had started singing that eerie song of theirs, and the kids were sitting, rapt, eyes wide, oblivious to Carson's attention as he checked them out. "I'm going to go get cleaned up," John said. "Debrief later."
"All right. Good job, as I said."
"Thanks." John made a hasty exit and practically leaped out the nearest balcony onto a waiting liana. It curled around him and swung him up and around to the top of the tower, dropping him onto an open deck. John lay on his back and Atlantis obliged him by turning on the heaters until he no longer was shaking.
He'd been okay until the gun. When the blonde minder pointed the gun at him, all he could see was Deke. "I can't let you leave, John. Don't make me shoot you."
Gizmo appeared with a quiet trill, followed by a couple more of the City's mogwai. They nestled around John, making approving noises about the warmth. He gathered them a little closer with his arms and listened to their song until the sun came up.
Rodney waited until a decent hour to go knocking on Sheppard's door, but there was no response despite the late hour. He tried again, a little louder, and heard a muffled thump and then a groan.
"Who is it? Go'way."
"Major? It's Rodney. McKay." Rodney winced.
The doors slid open and Sheppard peered at him with puffy eyes, his hair sticking up every which way. He was wearing a faded black T-shirt and a pair of Air Force sweatpants that had definitely seen better days, if the giant tear in the knee was any indication.
The Major had a knobby knee cap and bent pinky toes. Somehow, Rodney found that endearing.
When he lifted his eyes again, John cocked his head and raised one eyebrow in amusement. "Do I pass muster?"
"Not really. You look like you drank a pint of Radek's moonshine last night and didn't wait for him to filter it first."
John made a face. "Wait—is that why he wanted me to scavenge some activated carbon?"
"Duh." Rodney pushed past Sheppard and into his quarters, ignoring his half-yawned "Hey!"
"I didn't drink anything. This is an imagine hangover," John said, shuffling past him to collapse on his bed. "I manifested, like, a ton of things yesterday."
"Manifested?" John tilted his head, his hair making a spikey black nebula on his pillow. "Like you and the clowns? But the more you do it, the more energy it takes."
"You can manifest things on purpose?"
"Yeah, like, a ton of mogwai, those little furry guys? And, uh..." John threw an arm over his face. "Wings. So I could fly over there."
"You flew. To the compound."
John nodded, his eyes still covered.
"Extraordinary," Rodney said breathlessly, and John dropped his arm to stare at him, looking shocked. "Can you teach me?" To be able to manifest anything he needed. What an amazing thing.
"No, I—I don't even do it unless it's really important." John looked away. "Most adults can't do it because only fear has enough juice to feed manifestations from them."
"Yeah, uh, anyway, last night I manifested a bunch of stuff and that takes a huge amount of energy, and I didn't eat anything afterward, so..."
"Why didn't you?" Rodney sat next to his leg and tried to ignore how good John smelled or how much Rodney wanted to lie down next to him and do wonderful things to him. It had been way too long since Rodney'd had a boyfriend. A quickie blowjob from Siler while on maintenance duty did not count. Not that Siler didn't give excellent blowjobs. "Why are you still in bed?"
"I...the last minder had a gun." John grabbed the end of his Hudson blanket and tugged at it until Rodney shifted to release it. Then he pulled it over his shoulder. "I don't like 'em."
"Crap." Rodney straightened out more of the blanket and dropped it over John, who thanked him with a nod. "Listen, I dropped by to thank you for saving Jeannie and Madison—"
"I didn't—it was all of us, and for all of them."
"Shut up. Do you want me to bring you something to eat?"
John blinked slowly, smiling. "Yeah, okay. Thanks, Rodney."
"Good. See? That wasn't so hard."
Rodney was almost at the door before something hit him in the back and fell to the floor. It was a rolled-up black T-shirt.
Rodney tucked it in his back pocket with a grin.
"Why does it have to be you?" Elizabeth said as John checked over the old Silverado.
"Because I'm the one that kidnapped her," John said, pretty reasonably, he thought. "She didn't ask to come with me. In fact, she used a brick to make it pretty clear she was against the idea, but she wasn't in full possession of the facts and there wasn't the time to fill her in. And now, Linda has stated she wants to return to the compound." He gave the nut another turn and then wiped his hands and went over to the open driver's seat. "Let's see how she goes."
"A truck is not a woman," Elizabeth said, and John smiled.
"Nah, she's just a female truck. Which means she's damned tough." John turned the key and smiled when she started up quietly. The conversion from gas to electric in all their old vehicles had been a sometimes-bumpy road, but the Silverado was one of their early successes. She ran reliably and smoothly for 60 miles on her six batteries. A quick hop to North Beach would be a piece of cake. John consulted the map of known hot zones and stuck it back into his pocket.
"All right. Let's go talk to her," he said, and Elizabeth nodded. They walked back to quarters where the prisoner was being held.
"You're sure you wish to return to Maybourne's camp?"
"Call him Colonel Maybourne," Linda, the brick layer said, putting down the book she was reading.
Elizabeth gave John a telling look. "Then is that a yes?"
"Yes," Linda said. "I never wanted this to begin with. You didn't ask me."
"I apologize for that," John said. "I'm sorry. I should have asked you."
She looked slightly mollified. "Well, I'm sorry I hit you with a brick."
"No problem. We're going to take you to Maybourne's scouts. They're hanging out in San Francisco, in North Beach."
"Can't you just do what you did with the magic? Drop me back in camp?"
"Sorry. It only goes one way. But I've got a nice soft mattress in the back of a truck. You'll have a smooth ride."
"And a helper will be there to make sure nothing accidentally happens to your blindfold," Elizabeth added, smiling when Linda's mouth went sour.
The drop off went pretty smoothly. Ronon rode in the back and kept an eye on Linda. They drove around a while to confuse her, going south for a way, and then up to circle around to North Beach. Taffa flew above and dropped down to chirp at John when they drew close to the scouts' location. John pulled up.
"Men in green ahead. In the grass! Big square of grass."
"Thanks, Taffa." John gave her a strip of jerky and sent her on her way. He got out and dropped the tailgate. Ronon was already removing Linda's blindfold, so John reached over and grabbed the bag from the back.
"Maybourne's scouts are a couple of blocks up ahead in Washington Square Park. Here," John said, handing her the bag. "Some provisions, in case you need them on your trip back or while you wait."
She took the bag with an expression of surprise.
"Also," John ducked his head, "the book you were reading is in there in case you get bored. I'm sorry for the trouble and the fright I caused you. I had good intentions, but I know that doesn't count for much."
"You took the kids," she said, but she her voice held no anger.
Ronon spoke up. "I think you know they're going to be happier not working for Maybourne, otherwise, you would have pretended to be grateful and infiltrated us."
Linda shrugged and looked away. "My girlfriend is a true believer. And I can't leave without her."
"Sorry. That sucks." Ronon patted her shoulder. He turned and closed up the tailgate.
"Good luck," John said. Together, he and Ronon got in the truck and set off, intentionally heading south instead of back toward the City.
"What do you think?" John asked.
"I think her first loyalty is to her girl. I think if she found out anything about us, she'll tell."
"We'd better hope she didn't, then."
It took a couple of weeks for Jeannie and Madison to start to recover from the whole kidnapping thing, which Rodney understood, but he kind of wished there was more he could do other than bring them tea and sit around feeling useless.
Heightmeyer and her ilk seemed to be doing a pretty good job in helping the children understand there was nothing they could have done differently than they had. The kids were physically uninjured, although there were twelve children from the colony unaccounted for, and according to Jeannie, all the other adults were either dead or had fled the original invasion. It would be a difficult task finding them to reunite them, but Elizabeth had assured them they had contacts who would spread the word.
"How's she doing today?" Rodney asked as he brought yet another cup of tea. Jeannie accepted it with a tired frown.
"Better. She wants to go visit the other kids. She's gotten used to living in a pack, I guess."
"That appears to be how all the children live here—in a group, with a passel of fosters taking care of them all. It seems to take a huge amount of stress off the parenting thing."
"Hmmm." Jeannie sipped her tea.
"The Major is going to stop by later to meet you. He's the tall fellow with the ridiculous hair."
"I think I tried to slug that guy in the balls."
"Well, I'm not saying he isn't a bit of a bastard." Rodney smiled. "Pretty high-handed of him, rescuing you like that."
"Exactly." She grinned brightly, and Rodney's heart ached at the thinness of her face, the bruises under her eyes.
"You need some more rest, I bet. I'll just let you—"
"Shut up and sit down. Tell me if you ever manage to disprove Jenkins' bullshit theory on wormhole physics."
"Well, as a matter of fact..."
And if Jeannie didn't bother to ask about stupid Kaleb, Rodney would count that as a win.
Sheppard showed up a few hours later with fluffy towels and a stuffed doll shaped like a gremlin. Rodney took it with a questioning look, and John shrugged.
"We give 'em to all the kids so they know the gremlins are our friends. They're part of the city."
"When they're not destroying transmissions," Rodney groused, handing the stuffed animal to Madison, who made a delighted noise and hugged it tightly.
"Look, mommy! It's my own pet monster!"
"Yes, sweetheart. Say thank you."
"You're welcome, Madison. Remember, if you see a gremlin, tell him to get stuffed."
Jeannie stroked Madison's bright hair. "Go on and play, now." Madison ran off to the other room, her gremlin dangling from one hand.
Jeannie gave John a grateful look. "Thank you, Major."
"Call me John. And it's nothing." He put the towels down on the bed.
"Not just for the gifts, you pea brain," Jeannie said, sounding exasperated.
John shook his head. "I had to do something, or I think your brother was going to turn the city into a bomb."
"I—preposterous!" Rodney crossed his arms. "Well, possibly," he amended.
"See?" John gave Jeannie a grin, lopsided and a little too charming for Rodney's tastes.
"That's my sister," Rodney said, poking him in the shoulder. "And she's somewhat married."
"Excuse me, more than a little."
"Oh, please. Where is your precious Kaleb? Back at the Compound, quaking in his booties."
"As if you would have done anything different in his place."
"Um." John backed away. "I'll just see myself out."
"Don't you dare." Rodney stepped forward. "We have a date."
John licked his lower lip. "We do?"
"We do. Well, that is, if you want," Rodney said, backpedaling frantically. "Uh, I might be making an assumption, whereby I thought we had somewhat of an understanding, based on you giving me your T-shirt, and taking me shopping, and staring at my ass—"
"McKay!" John gave Jeannie a wide-eyed look, and she laughed. "Rodney, yes. We have a date."
"Oh my God, you two are adorable."
"Shut up, Jeannie!"
"Seriously. They should make one of those old-time reels about you."
"We watched reel-to-reel films in the Compound sometimes," Rodney said, "and don't get distracted, Sheppard! You're taking me on a date."
"Oh, now I'm taking you? I thought you invited me," John said, suddenly looking a lot more complacent. Rodney was tempted to kiss the smug right off his lips, except his sister was watching, and he hadn't kissed a boy in front of her since she caught him with Dirby Kent in the AV closet when he was twelve, hence the sly reference to old-time reels. The wench.
"Yes. You owe me for radio support."
"Right. I owe you." John smiled, his eyes shining. "You won big."
"Of course, if you'd let me go with the team to begin with..."
John rolled his eyes. "Fine. Dinner on me. Not at the mess. I'll pay for fresh catch from Chuck and grill you some seafood myself. Sound good?"
"Oh, well, that sounds..."
"Delicious," Jeannie said breathlessly.
"Not for you," Rodney said. "Go take another nap. I'll have a foster come and take Mads to her next session."
"And I'll bring you some leftovers," John promised with a wink.
"Ah-ah!" Rodney turned him and pushed him out the door.
"Sweet Mary, that is some tasty cod," Rodney said. "I don't know how I survived before this." He was never, ever going back to the Compound's idea of an MRE, that was for sure.
"What did you guys eat at the Compound?" John asked innocently.
Rodney hesitated. "We traded with the locals, who farm and raise livestock, but the food came to us dried, frozen, or jarred."
John made a face.
"You guys are pretty spoiled, here," Rodney said.
Casting him an uncertain look, John said, "Now you are, too."
"I guess I am." Rodney smiled, liking the way John's eyes lit up in response.
"I mean, if you and your sister plan to stick around."
"Are you kidding? Of course."
"All righty then." John's smile went full blown, and he reached over to tentatively run two fingers over the back of Rodney's hand.
Rodney felt a shiver and turned his hand over to clasp John's.
"So, can I get access to the City's database, now?"
"Ha, you know you're still on the restricted list for that stunt you pulled." John pulled his hand away and frowned. "Wait a minute. Is that what this is about?"
"What? No." Rodney frowned. "You still don't trust me."
"Should I?" John leaned back and crossed his arms. Rodney stared helplessly at his biceps, pissed off beyond belief.
"Um, yes? Jeannie and Mads are safe, now. I'm sorry for the spying, but I was worried about them!"
"But you're still all about the City's database. And I notice you still haven't told me thing one about your real home."
Fair point. Rodney chewed his cheek. "Those aren't my secrets to tell. Anyway, I'm not going back for a while. I haven't begun to explore how the City's crystal technology differs from our pale excursions into the same, not to mention why do microprocessors work in this City of yours? It's mind-boggling, truly. And Jeannie has no desire to leave, believe me. Her first love was a Commodore 64."
"Well, anyway, what about you?" Rodney raised his chin.
"Yes?" Rodney waved his hands. "Imaginary wings? Creatures appearing at your beck and call? Not to mention: where did this entire city come from, to begin with?"
"Not my secret to tell," John returned narrowly.
"Fine, be that way." Rodney threw his napkin down. "Thanks for dinner."
"You're welcome." John bit his lower lip.
Rodney got up to leave. "See you around, I guess." So much for getting laid.
John took out his frustrations on the wheel. Not a good idea. White clay spattered everywhere.
"Boats," Gabe croaked over his shoulder. "Boats."
"That's all he says." Taffa fluffed her wings. "He talks about big boats. In the big water."
John reached for another ball of clay and slapped it down on the wheel. "Halling's boats? Chuck's?"
"New boats. Bigger boats," Gabe squawked, and actually jumped down into John's quarters, landing on his wedging table.
"Okay, hey. Thanks for the news," John said cautiously. Gabe was a pretty big gull, and if he decided to flap his wings in here, John could kiss a month's worth of production goodbye. "Want some fish?"
John wiped off his hands and went to his fridge to grab the bucket of anchovies that Chuck kept him stocked up with. "Here you go." John scattered a handful on the window sill, and Gabe hopped up to snarf them down before Taffa could get at them.
Taffa just tilted her head in amusement from her perch next to John's guitar. "Whose boats, ah?"
"I don't know. Guess you'll have to scout them out."
"Jerky. And crickets! On top."
"Oh, we're a gourmand now. Okay, I'll get you some."
"Good. Crickets! Be back soon." She jumped up to the sill and was off. John watched her go, envious as always, before he went back to his work.
Boats. Whose boats? There were few folks around who had the skills to run sailing boats and keep them afloat. Halling's crew did shipping for Teyla's people up and down the coast. There was Captain Caldwell in Sausalito, but he stayed in the North Bay. He sold fresh catch down by the wharf every couple of weeks. Then there was Chuck and his small fleet of trawlers and shrimp boats. But ships? The biggest ships were Halling's, and Gabe was familiar with all of them because Halling fed the gulls as payment for messaging services.
John was throwing some big serving bowls, still chewing over the news, when Evan appeared at his open door.
"Hey. Big unveiling is tomorrow. Are you gonna come?"
"Hell, yeah. Wouldn't miss it." The big, parachute-covered mural was a source of fascination for the entire community. Only Evan and Ronon knew what was under the stitched-together veil.
"Cool. Tell your new guy." Evan flashed a grin and was gone.
"My—what? He's not my guy!" John yelled at the empty doorway. "I wish," John said more quietly. "Great, now I'm talking to myself."
"Shit!" John jerked and totally messed up the lip of his bowl. He set it even again and stopped the wheel. "Radek. I didn't know you were back."
"Yes, indeed. I brought my sister by to say hello."
"Hello." John got up and wiped his hands off. "C'mon in. Can I offer you guys some tea?"
"Thank you, Major." Radek put his hand on his sister's elbow, ushering her in before him. She was a pale young woman, shorter than Radek, with long, blond hair and brilliant blue eyes.
"Hi, I'm John." John offered his hand, and she took it with a nervous smile.
"Analisa. Or Lisa."
"Welcome to Atlantis, Lisa." John poured two cups of tea from the City's boiling water tap and handed them to his guests.
Lisa looked at her cup, with its abstract depiction of a mer, and smiled. "You make such lovely things."
"Thanks a lot. So, how was your trip?" It was damned dangerous out there; less so, if you had a vehicle and a reliable map charting the danger zones and friendly colonies, but those changed often enough that even John didn't range too far afield if he could avoid it.
"It was...an adventure," Radek said. "But thanks to the map and the vehicle Aiden traded me, I was able to make the trip home in just two days. Analisa showed fast improvement." He gave her a hand a squeeze. "So much so, that she wanted to come to the City almost immediately. I had to convince her to stay a few more days to recover a little more."
"I will sleep when I'm dead, Dede. This place has so many wonders to explore."
"Oh, great, another scientist," John said weakly.
Lisa and Radek laughed.
"I take it Rodney has been giving you grief," Radek said. "Never mind him. Sometimes his intellectual curiosity outstrips his social instincts."
"You don't say."
"He is a good man at heart, though, and a better friend I've never met," Radek said, voice filled with sincerity.
"Good to know." The City gave John a nudge, and he told her his hearing was just fine, thanks.
"So, you two intend to stay, then?
Radek and Lisa exchanged a look. "If you will have us?" Lisa said.
Radek added, "Carson has said he will continue to treat Lisa for her condition."
The City gave her nod of approval, and John said, "Of course. You know it's part of our mandate to provide medicine to those who need it."
Radek smiled and removed his glasses to dab at his eyes. "Yes, I know. You are quite remarkable."
"The City, then."
"Yeah. She is, isn't she?"
The City laughed at him.
A passel of laughing kids ran past his doorway and down the corridor, chased by a flock of top hats striped black and yellow like bees. Radek, Lisa, and John went out to follow the ruckus. The hats buzzed as they flew loop de loops to land on a particular child's head. As soon as a kid got hatted, they sat down, apparently out of the game.
John leaned over the railing with the other two to watch. He wished he had more time to foster. He wished he didn't worry he'd teach them something wrong, something that didn't belong in this lighter, happier present.
"See?" Radek said to his sister. "I told you this is a wondrous place."
Lisa laughed and said something softly John couldn't quite catch, but it made Radek laugh in return. The two of them reached for each other's hands.
The two children remaining dodged back and forth, trying to tempt the hats to come down and get the other player, until finally the kids clutched onto each other, laughing too hard to run. John laughed himself as the hats drifted down to land gently on their heads, declaring them both the winners.
All the children cheered.
John put his tray down across from Rodney before he thought it through, and then their last conversation hung in the air like a bad stink while John tried to eat lunch.
"How's Jeannie and Madison?" John finally mumbled through a mouthful of spinach.
"They're fine. Jeannie is splitting her time between foster lessons and maintenance crew."
"Oh, she joined the crew." John shouldn't be surprised.
"Yes." Rodney sounded miffed, probably because the maintenance crew had level two access to the City's systems, and Rodney was still on the prohibited list thanks to his two documented violations.
"You only have to wait a year," John said, getting a little steamed. "I mean, are consequences not a thing where you come from? Does everyone just chuck the rules and then get to go on their merry way without repercussions?"
"My family's life was at stake!"
John did a slow head turn to where Jeannie and Madison were sitting at the kids' table, giggling into their grilled cheese.
"Point," Rodney said sullenly.
John sighed. "Look, Rodney, I'll talk to Elizabeth and see if she'll be willing to drop it to six months for extenuating circumstances."
"Really?" Rodney said tremulously, his big eyes staring up hopefully.
Jesus, John really was a sucker for the guy. "Yeah. Now eat your spinach."
"Gah. I hate spinach."
"It's good for you."
Rodney picked up a scant forkful and gingerly put it in his mouth. John grinned.
"Major, I'm sorry to interrupt your lunch, but there's a mer wanting to speak with you."
"Oh, yeah? Whereabouts?"
"Okay, thanks, Collins. Grab some chicken and a bowl of fruit and take it out to them. I'll be there as soon as I finish up." John started to eat a little faster.
Rodney gave him a fish-eyed look. "So, you're the bird-whisperer, the mer-talker, and the mogwai-summoner. And you complain about me keeping secrets."
John wiped his mouth and gathered his empty dishes. "Come with me to talk to the mer," he said impulsively.
The mer at the dock was his old friend, Rogelio, the same guy who'd saved him from the monkey square in Mariner's park. He was just enjoying the last of his fruit as John hopped down from the pier onto the landing step. John gasped curses as the cold water of the bay hit his legs and he sat down on the step and clasped arms with Rogelio.
"Rogelio. Allow me to introduce my friend, Rodney."
"Rodney. Fair weather and easy winds."
"Ah, um, same to you."
"How goes the family, Rogelio?"
"Very well! I have taken in three new fry; they are kicking strong." Rogelio put a hand on his belly.
"Congrats! That's terrific."
Rogelio frowned. "But I am saddened to bring you dark tidings. There are large ships moving in the bay. They are gathering along the port and bringing much stink, killing the sea life."
"Shit. Who the hell are they? Have you heard from Teyla's crew?" Teyla's people owned the ports. They might be in danger of getting pushed out.
"Halling's sailing boats fled before the fleet of stink ships."
"Then we might have Teyla's people docking here soon," John said. "I'll let Elizabeth know. What about your people? Do they need any help evacuating the area?"
Rogelio shook his head and took John's arm. "Thank you, my friend. The redds have all been harvested this season. The menfolk have all traveled to the spawning grounds out by the island. It is safe there, for now. But we will need a new nesting ground of good clear water and clean gravel if these stink boats are here to stay."
John bit his lip grimly. "We'll see about that. Thanks for the warning, Rogelio. Give my best to your wife and husband."
Rogelio patted his arm and with a wave to Rodney, sank beneath the water.
"Well, that was interesting—" Rodney started and then stumbled forward, his arms out. John slipped on the step trying to reach for him, and a single, piercing cry sounded from the sky.
John froze and watched, heart in his throat, as Taffa plummeted into Rodney's arms.
It was John's nightmare.
Taffa's chest was covered in blood, the end of a crossbow bolt embedded in her torso. Rodney held her up, his expression dismayed and concerned, and John tripped and scrambled up onto the pier until he could get close enough to see she was still alive, still breathing, her heartbeat fluttering with the trembling of her wings.
"Taffa see," she croaked. "They come. The men in green. The men in green." She closed her eyes.
Rodney gently handed her to John, and John took off running toward the City.
The men in green.
Biro looked up at him calmly. "Back off, John."
"I just don't want her to be afraid."
"As much as she's conscious, considering how doped up I've got her, she knows you're here. Now give me room to work." Biro's hands were gentle as she turned Taffa beneath the scanner. "See? It's not so bad. The bolt scraped her breast bone and jammed in her pelvic bone. It's the strongest bone she has. No fracture, just a chip."
"But she bled so much."
"It looked like a lot, but the bolt missed her major arteries. She's going to be all right." Lindsay muttered something as she slipped the bolt out. "Came right back out. Let's get this sanitized then sealed up." The Ancient device hummed, and Lindsay sighed with satisfaction. "Done."
"That's it?" John stared in disbelief as Lindsay cleaned off Taffa's feathers with some sort of disinfectant.
"Nothing to it. This is much better than the old suturing route." Lindsay gently put Taffa on her good side and adjusted a pillow next to her so she wouldn't roll over. "Let her sleep. If she wakes up in pain, give her three of these drops every six hours." She handed John one of his own hand-made bottles.
"Lindsay," John said hoarsely. "I can't thank you enough. Anything you want. Anything, you just name it."
Lindsay smiled and patted his arm. "Don't be an idiot. Taffa is our girl."
Teyla and Halling showed up with a representative from each boat on Teyla's crew, asking for temporary docking on the City and getting it. An emergency community meeting was called to discuss the threat of the stink boats, as Rogelio called them. According to Teyla, they were already on their way here.
The meeting did not start smoothly. But for once, John didn't have a grip on things and he didn't care.
Ronon paced. "We can't just sit here waiting for Maybourne's men to attack this place."
"We don't even know it's Maybourne," John said weakly.
Rodney made a sound. "Taffa said the 'the men in green.'"
John conceded the point with a nod.
Bates said, "You think it's a coincidence we robbed the man of his weapon makers and a few weeks later, we're under assault? We have to look into producing defenses!"
John ground his teeth and looked at Elizabeth, dismayed to see her wavering.
Rodney waves his hands, gathering John's attention. "The City is a haven! You don't know how bad it is out there," he said. "It's an absolute nightmare." Radek nodded his head in agreement.
"I have no—you're telling me I have no idea?" John tried to hold onto his temper.
"You really don't! This place is paradise. But Radek and I walked here! From Colorado! It's...sharks that walk on land, snakes that talk and hypnotize you into wanting to be eaten, patches of ground that will turn you into a brainless monkey—"
"Right. Try living through the bomb and what happened after. Try walking here from ground zero."
"That's—that's a rumor. That can't possibly be true." Rodney looked around, looked at Elizabeth, who raised her eyebrows, and then at Ronon, who nodded, his arms crossed.
"Why do you think everyone calls him 'Major'?" Evan said. "He was in the military when there was one."
"Come talk to me," John said evenly, "when the feelies make the skin bubble away from your flesh. For hours. And your best friend turns into a kaijū and tramples all your other friends to death in front of you. And you walk into a time bubble one second and when you walk out, forty years have passed, everyone you ever knew is dead, and the entire fucking world has gone to shit. Oh, and the clothes rot off your body and you have to walk buck ass naked through Death Valley."
Rodney visibly gulped.
John looked around at everyone's expressions and pulled back. "Sorry. We're...off track."
Ronon said gently, "John, this city means a lot to a lot of people."
"And it would be meaningless if we turned into a bunch of killers." John turned to Rodney. "I'd rather be dead."
Rodney stared back wordlessly.
"So many people depend on this place for hope," Teyla said. "John, you can't believe it would be better to let it be destroyed rather than fight for it."
"You have no idea," John said. "You can't know. It was civil war; it was good friends, neighbors fighting and killing each other, brothers, sisters, best friends—it didn't matter. We had our side, they had theirs. And then the president has his bright idea, and the few ass-kissing scientists he's got on his payroll back him up and make the bomb that would fix everything, would make everyone see his side of things." John laughed bitterly. "Except instead of fixing reality to his liking, it broke reality for everyone."
"We know our history, John," Elizabeth said.
"But you can't. Not if you're considering recreating it."
"But to protect the City. To protect Atlantis," Evan said, and everyone started arguing back and forth, their voices rising in discord.
The City informed John, somewhat caustically, that she could protect herself.
"She says she can protect herself!" John said.
Silence fell. Everyone stared at him.
"She can. Hasn't she proven it? Hasn't she produced what we've needed over and over? From crates to soil to boats to batteries to medicines? Hasn't she protected us from the worst of what's out there? Remember the Stay Puft that was threatening to trample the City and instead decided to take that sharp left and tripped right into the boilers at Ghirardelli? How come he decided to do that? Who turned on the damned boilers in a collapsed building that had no gas supply?"
Elizabeth looked thoughtful.
Ronon just looked nostalgic. "We had fudge for days."
Rodney said, "It's true that I've seen the City do a lot of impossible things. Are you saying she has her own defenses? Something we haven't seen?"
"I'm saying," John said, smiling for the support, "there's more going on here than we know. And maybe we can trust a little in the City that's been protecting us all this time. Maybe she deserves that, instead of us turning into the kind of people who wouldn't be welcome here anymore."
The murmurs of agreement started in low, then started to grow.
"So, what is the plan, then?" Elizabeth said, and John began to relax.
"Well, I can't take credit. She came up with it, see..."
Taffa was gone, safe with the other evacuees. John missed her with a keenness he hadn't expected. Gabe kept him company instead, his head cocked as he smelled the night air, while John borrowed the City's eyes and ears to watch over the eastern approach.
All was quiet. All was dark. The gentle wash of the waves against the side of the pier was the only sound.
Gabe made an interrogative caw.
"Yeah. I smell them, too." Stink boats, Rogelio called them. John got it, now. Whatever Maybourne's people were using to power the boats had a powerful odor, even if they were virtually silent in motion. John lifted his hand to his tap his radio. "They're coming. Everyone, take your positions. And remember, no violence."
Ronon grumbled something, and John grinned and tapped on the private channel. "Rodney, you there?"
"Yes, I'm here. This is the stupidest plan known to man, I just want you to know."
"Thanks for the pep talk. Are you ready?"
"Yes, I'm ready. And I hate you."
"Copy that. Going silent."
John flicked to silent before Rodney could reply, grinning to himself when Rodney clicked at him furiously a few moments later. Then John jumped out the window and grabbed the nearest vine, swinging quietly along the tower to wait in the shadows by the East Pier. Laura, Aiden, Ronon, Evan, and Teyla joined him and huddled beside him, their gear in hand, all clad in slick, rubbery wetsuits.
He heard the creak of the boats and the groaned huff of exertion before he saw the shadowed hulks of the stink boats looming in the darkness as they approached the longest of the City's piers.
"Now," John whispered, clicking the signal into his radio, and they all fanned out and eased quietly into the slip. John treaded water for a few moments until Rogelio grasped his hand and pulled him along, faster than John could swim, rocketing him alongside the hull of one of the stink boats into position at its stern. They waited there, arm in arm, while the men in green all disembarked and crept across the landing and into the conveniently open doors of the City's cargo entrance.
John's skin crawled with the City's distaste while he waited until the last of the figures entered and then briefly keyed on his radio. "Everyone, commence underwater work."
A series of clicks greeted his order, and then John took Rogelio's arm and let himself be hauled underwater to the keel of the boat, where John planted the charges Laura had carefully prepared. Enough to penetrate the hull, no more. Enough to sink the stink boats down, down deep where eventually, after the mers had helped them remove all the toxic stuff, they'd make a nice home for the fishes.
John smiled at the thought, and then wrapped Rogelio's arm around his waist and let himself fly underwater and to safety. Behind him, the explosives all went off with a barely-felt series of crackles, like popcorn on the fire.
By the time Rogelio dropped him over by the City's bay side, the stink ships nearest to him were already listing in the water, with a few soldiers in green hollering and running offboard.
"All that work," Laura murmured after everyone surfaced. "What a waste of good gunpowder."
"Tragic," John drawled, sharing a grin with her. "Thank you, Rogelio, Alia, Shar," he said, and waving to the other merpeople. John tapped his radio. "Rodney, how does it look?"
"According to the City, all of them went off," Rodney said. "They're sinking rapidly."
John relayed the news, and Laura and Aiden high-fived.
"On to phase two, then," John said.
"Please be careful," Rodney said in his ear.
"You be careful," John replied.
"No, you be—you know what, why don't we both try not to get killed? How's that?"
"Good plan. Over." John turned to Teyla. "I'm counting on you to help keep me under control. I don't know if I can—"
Teyla clasped his elbows, bringing him close. "I'm here, John." She tilted her head, and he leaned his forehead against hers. "I won't let you fall."
"Thank you," he said hoarsely. He raised his head and turned to everyone else. "Make yourself scarce guys. This is going to get hairy." They all looked at him. "Um, guys? Scram. Beat it. Take a hike."
"We're not going anywhere, John," Aiden said.
John stared at him. "You called me 'John.'"
"Yup. Now, c'mon. Make some magic."
John shook his head and walked over to the marked off imagine cloud he'd picked out. It was one of the largest ones in the City, and the markings on it had moved so many times they looked like a ghost trail wandering across the landing. John went and stood directly in the center and closed his eyes.
He saw Maybourne's people, the men and women in green, creeping through the City's hallways. The City was having fun with them, subtly curving the hallways but never offering them a full turn, forcing them into an endless circle around the East Tower. They were growing frustrated, and one had stopped and tried to tear at the wall with his knife. A few more were turning back the way they came. The one with the knife pulled out a side arm and fired. The ricochet hit him in the arm and he grabbed it, yelling.
It was time to do something before someone got seriously hurt.
John shook his head and sent in the clowns. Tall ones, short ones, skinny ones, wide ones, they appeared out of the walls and startled the soldiers in green. Clowns with blood leaking from their eyes. Clowns with razor sharp nails and daggers on their big clown shoes.
The soldiers fired their automatics but the clowns just laughed, "Aha-ha! Ah-hee-hee! Ho-ho-ho!" and came at them, making the soldiers holler and grab onto each other, staggering back.
John grimaced and more clowns appeared. Clowns that ran and burst into thousands of tiny spider clowns with snake fangs and furry legs, that scurried up the soldiers' boots and poorly made khaki pants and under their uniform blouses until they screamed with fright.
Holy shit, John was creeping himself out, but he was getting to the soldiers a lot more, because they were running from the snake clowns, from the stilt clowns with their long scythes that looked really, really sharp.
Some of the soldiers, though, didn't run, tried to stand their ground, and that's where the Teletubbies came in.
"Eh! Oh!" the Teletubbies said as they marched, two by two by two and unstoppable, down the corridor, and right into the soldiers in green. The soldiers tried to push back, but the Teletubbies kept coming, babbling and pushing, pushing and babbling their nonsense. The soldiers fired their guns, and the Teletubbies rubbed their big round Tele-bellies and laughed and laughed, "Eh-oh! Eh-oh!" and pushed and pushed, and the soldiers came popping out of the corridor and back onto the landing like corks from a bottle.
"Good!" Rodney said in John's ear. "Now deploy the gremlins."
"I'm...trying," John said. His brain was starting to hurt.
"Oh, crap! Are you running out of juice? I'm coming down there. Maybe I can rig something."
"Don't...what? No, Rodney. Stay up there!" John called out to the gremlins, to all the gremlins that lived in the City's damp, dank places, in her conduits and Jefferies tubes. He called out to them. He promised engine grease and three-week-old popcorn and three-week-old popcorn covered in engine grease. He promised them beer and jawbreakers and candy corn and bad 1980s music.
And they crawled out of bowels of the city and stormed the soldiers while giggling maniacally, giggling even harder when the soldiers in green started firing at them. They jumped on the soldier's backs and bit their ears and pulled on their hair and laughed and laughed and the soldiers tried to throw them off. But the gremlins chased them, riding them like steeds, south toward the bridge, south and away from their sunken boats. The soldiers ran across the bridge and away from the City that terrified them.
But it wasn't over. Some of the soldiers flung off the gremlins and started firing their weapons, firing and firing, and the gremlins started disappearing with pop after pop into the quantum realm. John was tiring where he watched from the shadow of the tower. His head ached so hard he could barely see.
He slumped down, and Teyla spoke on the radio.
"John, look! Ronon and Evan!"
John shaded his eyes and looked up. Ronon and Evan had come out at the top of the command tower and were releasing the parachute silks on either side of the balcony railing. The silk drifted down, and their giant mural was revealed for everyone to see.
It was glorious, a gorgeous green woman hundreds of feet tall, the City herself as John might have imagined her, smiling brightly, one hand raised in welcome to anyone coming from the south, tired, lost, broken, alone. A smile of greeting for anyone needing sanctuary.
The remaining soldiers looked up and shook their rifles in anger, some of them trying to fire way up at Ronon and Evan, who disappeared back inside.
But then the painting moved, her finger wagging at the soldiers in disapproval, her smile so sad.
The rest of the soldiers broke then, throwing down their weapons and running toward the bridge. John smiled and finally staggered off the imagine cloud and toward his friends, who were waiting by the entryway back into the City.
"Not all of them are going," Ronon warned.
John frowned. Ronon was right. A few of the soldiers had stayed, forming a core around a single figure, who raised his arms and gestured angrily.
"Holy shit, that's him, isn't it?"
"Rodney! What the hell are you doing here," John said, pulling the idiot behind him.
"That's Maybourne! He's the bastard that took Jeannie."
"Just...please, stay there," John said, and strode forward. He felt the City inside him saying words of reassurance. All would be well. Overhead, he saw a strange glitter and looked up. The crow angels were circling overhead, singing their static song. John hadn't called them, but they'd come anyway.
"Stop where you are," Maybourne said. "Or my men will shoot."
"No!" Rodney suddenly stood next to him.
"Rodney, please!" But then Ronon was somehow next to him as well, and Teyla, Evan, Laura, and Aiden, all crowding around him. And just behind Maybourne and his cronies, a river of yellow flooded the bridge and approached the landing to the City. A swarm of sneetches, thundering by the thousands.
John started grinning. He thought he saw a flash of gray in the flood of yellow, but Maybourne distracted him.
"How the hell are you doing that?" Maybourne said, pointing up at the Crows. "You're not a child. You're not dying."
John kept smiling. "Well, there was this huge bomb, you see. You might have heard about it. It fucked with my brain on a quantum level."
Maybourne gaped then snapped at one of his soldiers. "I need him. Take him." He laughed. "Who needs a passel of cranky kids when we'll have a powerhouse like you?"
"Boss, behind us!" a blonde soldier said. John recognized her with a twinge of sadness.
Maybourne spun around. "Oh, for God's sake! I take it back. Shoot him!" he yelled, but the sneetches trampled over the soldiers, voices chanting:
"We do not like guns; they're sad and un-fun!
"They make a big boom that's gloomy and doomy.
"It's better to play or go jump in the hay,
"And if you don't behave we'll send you to Bombay!"
All of them, all the soldiers in green pointing their weapons, were swept up and carried off by sneetches, all except for Maybourne, who staggered through the waves of yellow bodies and then started struggling to get his sidearm out of his holster.
"I will kill you," Maybourne said to John. "This is all happening because of you."
"You're wrong about that," John said, and the City sent him her agreement. The City would go on. Even if John were killed, the City would care for his people, for Rodney and Jeannie, for the children.
Maybourne finally fumbled his sidearm out and stumbled forward to point it shakily at John.
Ronon growled his fury. John was surprised when Rodney said, "Now listen here, you stupid asshole!" and started to step in front of him. John pulled him back. It was time for this to end.
But just as John stepped forward, someone crept up behind Maybourne and clonked him on the head. Maybourne fell to the ground without a sound.
"Jack?" John said in disbelief.
One-eyed Jack spat down on Maybourne and brandished his crowbar. "Told you. Never go anywhere without it."
"Oh, thank God," Rodney said.
"What the hell, Jack!" John jogged up and looked down at Maybourne. There was no blood. He had a goose egg starting on his balding head, but his pulse was moving in his throat. "That's not fighting fair."
Jack shot him a narrow look. "He ain't nothing but a dirty gill-snake. No fighting fair with his kind."
John's friends laughed. Teyla went up to Jack and gave him a warm hug.
John shook his head. "Well, someone please restrain him and chuck his sidearm into recycling, thanks. The City will know what to do with it."
"Then it's over," Rodney said disbelievingly. "Nobody's dead."
"Nobody's dead," Ronon said, "but I bet a few of them pissed themselves." John agreed as he watched the stragglers running off in the distance.
"Sometimes a little fear is a useful lesson," Teyla said, looking up at the mural of the Green Lady and bowing when she winked. "I hope word of this lesson spreads."
"Somehow, I think it might," Laura said, and her grin was as wide as the Lady's.
"Hey," Rodney said, tapping nervously on John's doorway. John looked up from his spinning wheel thing and gave Rodney a warm smile, so Rodney shook out his ya-yas and went on in.
He'd been waiting for the major to return from airlifting Maybourne to Alaska; while he was gone, the City spent days celebrating with too much booze and fun times, and after running into Evan and Ronon making out half-naked in the hallway, twice, John's quarters felt like an island of quiet in comparison. Now that Rodney knew a little more about John's past, it made much more sense that John liked to live so isolated, in this high tower of the City, with nothing but the company of a bunch of vines trailing through his window and a kestrel sleeping in a cat bed. And a City in his brain, of course—Rodney couldn't forget that part.
"So," Rodney said, taking a stool next to John's work table and watching, more than a little fascinated, as John's big hands worked the spinning clay up and down, into a tower and then back down into a disk, then back up again. It was somewhat hypnotic and more than a little sensual. Rodney cleared his throat. "Sorry to interrupt you."
"No, it's okay," John said, sounding a little out of it. "Just, it's been a crazy couple of days, so I wanted to take a break and do something quiet, you know?"
"Yeah, sure. I get that way when I'm coding, actually. Totally engrossed."
"Yeah? Sounds cool."
"Right now, I'm working on an application that will randomize the weeding crew so no one person has to do it more than once every two months."
"Now that sounds like a really important application," John said, the corner of his mouth lifting enticingly. "Almost like you have a personal investment in solving the problem."
"I'm not overly fond of weeding," Rodney said. "Or anything involving dirt, for that matter."
John chuckled. He mopped up with a sponge and stopped the wheel, then arched his back and stretched, making Rodney's breath halt momentarily.
Apparently oblivious, John stood up and went to wash his hands in the sink. "How's Jeannie and the kid?"
"They're uh, doing good. Madison has skipped some levels and joined an older group of kids in her lessons."
"She's a smarty pants," John said.
John turned and gave Rodney a smirk. "Just like you."
"Well, of course." Rodney rubbed his palms on his pants. John's bare feet, the hair on his muscular arms, the way his ridiculous hair stuck every which way including to itself, thanks to the spatters of clay in it, were all conspiring to distract the words right out of Rodney's head. "She takes after me."
John came over and leaned against the table next to him. "Is she also stupidly brave?" John poked his finger into Rodney's shoulder. "Does she walk into a gunfight to save a friend with no weapon but her big mouth?"
"I..." Rodney felt his face heat. "I don't know her that well."
John shook his head. "Don't be a goof."
"You've been avoiding me," Rodney blurted. "Now you're being nice."
"I—yeah. A little." John rubbed his hands together. They were still stained white with clay. "I wasn't sure what you thought."
"What? Because you wouldn't fight? Or because you'd been altered on a quantum level by the Unreality Bomb."
John blinked. "Either? Both? Or maybe because I'd been a little bit of a dick in not trusting you with the whole story."
"Well." Rodney looked away. "I didn't trust you, either. Obviously, I can't tell you all about where I came from—the Compound required an oath of discretion. But now I feel like I have divided loyalties."
"So, you do feel...something?"
John licked his lip. Rodney stared.
"Yes, I feel something," Rodney said. "If that's—"
"Gonna kiss you, all right?" John said, his voice husky.
"Oh, thank God. I've been wanting you to ever since you first saved me from that clown."
"Ah! Don't mention clowns when I'm about to kiss you." John leaned over and, God, his lips were really, really soft and clung just so. Damn it, he was a fantastic kisser. This was completely unfair; Rodney's chest was getting hot, his dick growing hard just from the tip of John's tongue flicking into his mouth.
Rodney pulled back, his face warm. "You're impossibly good at that. Are you using your secret powers?"
John let out a surprised snort. "No! What?"
"Now is the time when you shut up," John said, pulling him up and tugging him toward the bed. "Pretty sure."
"I'm pretty sure I never shut up, so don't get your hopes up," Rodney said breathlessly as John pushed him down and crawled between his legs. He smelled like that sage soap everyone used, and a chalky smell Rodney assumed was from the clay, and when he ground his hips against Rodney's on the bed, Rodney almost came on the spot. "God, you feel really good."
"You do, too," John said, sneaking his hands under Rodney to grab his ass.
"I'm not joking." John squeezed his ass and groaned as he shoved his hard cock against Rodney's. "You have no idea how long it's been for me."
"Tell me about it." Rodney hauled him down for another kiss, and John gave it to him, fucking Rodney's mouth, and then reaching between them, trying to shove his hand into Rodney's slacks. Rodney had been embarrassed putting them on before coming over, with the garish shamrocks all over them, but apparently, they worked fine for John, who had a big grin on his face as he worked the zipper down.
"What?" Rodney said.
"Nothing. Tell you later," John said, and then he had a grip on Rodney's cock, and Rodney didn't care. John's dry hand was smooth and strong as hell, and the way he worked Rodney's foreskin just below the head was a dead guarantee Rodney was going to come really soon.
"Jesus, that feels good." Rodney bit his lower lip and tried to hang on. He wanted to enjoy this while he could.
"Just give it up for me," John said. "We can make it last longer next time." He licked his palm and really started going at it, pumping Rodney's cock and leaning over to nibble at the spot under Rodney's jaw he'd somehow zeroed in on. How he'd figured out it was Rodney's hot spot was something they'd have to discuss, because if the man wasn't a magician, he for sure was a mind reader.
"Oh, God," Rodney said, when John's teeth scraped, and his hand squeezed just right. "You're-you're really good, that's good, faster, God, I'm—"
"Yeah, Rodney," John said, his voice low and cracking, "come for me, sweetheart," and Rodney came, shaking from the intensity, whimpering in the back of his throat. John kissed the spot he'd been nibbling on, his hand slowing to gentle him through it.
"Don't stop," Rodney said, reaching down to squeeze harder. It had been way too long.
"So hot," John said, looking down at Rodney, then flashed him a grin as he pulled his hand away and wiped it on his shirt.
"Yuck." Rodney changed his mind a moment later when John pulled his T-shirt off and tossed it. "Better," he amended.
"C'mon, you too," John said, squirming out of his jeans. His cock popped free—the idiot was going commando—and Rodney swallowed. That was a lot of cock. A lot of gorgeous, meaty cock. Rodney wanted to suck it.
"Can I suck you? Are you clean? You're clean, right?"
"Yeah, I'm clean. Yeah, you can suck me," John said, his voice low and throaty with need, and Rodney grinned and shimmied downward, deliberately licking his lips. John groaned, and Rodney smiled and ran his tongue over John's nipples, over his sternum, and scraped his teeth over the edge of John's ribcage. "Jesus, Rodney," John said, flipping over onto his back.
"This is a nice little treasure trail you got going," Rodney said and flicked his tongue back and forth along it.
John just grunted and shoved impatiently at Rodney's shoulder.
"Ha. You think? You fell victim to one of the classic blunders, my friend, the most famous of which is making me come first."
"Oh, my God, you read that book? The Princess Bride?"
Rodney raised his head. "It's a reel. One of my favorites. 'Never go against a Sicilian when death is on the line!'" He grinned at John, who gave him a lopsided grin.
"Or coming either, I guess."
"Right," Rodney said, and he gripped John's cock and slurped on the head, getting it nice and slick.
"Fuck, Rodney," John said, drawing it out. "Your mouth is amazing."
"You better believe it," Rodney said, raising his eyes when he felt John's hand gently drifting through his hair. John looked down at him, his mouth soft but his eyes staring intently, watching Rodney suck him. If Rodney hadn't just come, he'd be hard again in a second. He hollowed his cheeks and sucked, fluttering his tongue against the shaft of John's tasty cock. John bit his lip and spread his legs to give Rodney a little more room.
"You want a finger?" Rodney said.
"Yeah," John said, sounding breathless, so Rodney gave it to him, slick with spit and pre-cum, fucking in smooth, and John's eyes rolled back. His hips started jerking gently in counterpoint, not shoving into Rodney's mouth, but a gentle rocking, as he made soft plaintive sounds that made Rodney want to come again.
Rodney raised his mouth for a second. "What are you thinking about? What do you want?"
"Oh, God." John's hand tightened on his shoulder. "You, I'm thinking about you. About sinking into your pretty ass and fucking you and fucking you. I'm thinking about your mouth." Rodney took him a little deeper. "Like that, Jesus, yeah, yeah. Rodney. Rodney!" John arched his back and came in Rodney's mouth. Lights blossomed above them, tiny, multicolored stars falling to splash harmlessly to the bed around them as John trembled and clenched under Rodney's hands. Finally, John relaxed, and the lightshow stopped.
Rodney pulled away to grin. "Well, I've always said I'm like magic in the bedroom."
John hit him with a pillow.
Taffa said she missed the sky, so John took her and Rodney up to the top deck of the command tower. The stars were out in full, barely touched by the few lone glitters of the City's lights. John set Taffa on the strut of a lamp, and she fluffed out her wings and alertly took in the view.
"Pretty sky! Taffa fly soon."
"Soon, yeah, Taffa. Biro says two more weeks." John gave her a quick stroke with the back of his finger, glad she allowed it, so glad she was still with him.
He sat down next to Rodney and put the sack of beer between them. They both dangled their feet through the balcony railing and leaned back.
"She's out there somewhere," John said quietly, pointing up at the stars. "The City told me the real Atlantis is in the Pegasus Galaxy, and that when I reached the pier, starving, sunburned, more than a little out of my mind from everything that happened, she heard me calling from wherever she is, and she manifested herself here from the power I gave her. She rose from the sea like a dream come true."
"Incredible. She really is another Atlantis. Because, you know..." Rodney paused and took a deep breath. "I read in the records at the Compound that there was an expedition to the real Atlantis back, oh, fifty years or so ago. Less than a year before the war, in fact."
"Huh." John sipped his beer. "I wonder what happened to the expedition."
"Nobody knows. When the war came, our ability to connect to that Atlantis was lost. Maybe the City can try."
"Maybe, yeah." John shrugged. "The City's Atlantis' sister, I guess. If they were connected, they would know each other. But at the moment she manifested, she became herself, from the way she explains it."
"They could possibly connect," Rodney said slowly. "The City has a gate. I saw it in the meeting room. That big ring in the back."
John raised his eyebrows. "The coat hanger?"
Rodney made a face. "I can't even express to you how utterly sacrilegious—"
John laughed. It was so easy to get a rise out of him. "She says there's already an Earth gate."
"Oh. Of course." Rodney scratched his head. "I can't believe she talks to you."
John shrugged. "Not really 'talks.' The thoughts are just there."
"Can she talk to me...? Whoa! Okay, that's freaky. But cool. Very cool. Hi, Atlantis. Nice to, um, meet you. I'm Rodney." He frowned at John. "Why is she laughing at me?"
"Because you're introducing yourself as if she doesn't already know you, dumbass."
"Oh, right. Well, anyway, nice to chat with you. Anything you can tell me about why microprocessors function here but not outside of your walls?" Rodney closed his eyes and promptly fell over into John.
John waited, enjoying the soft, lax weight of Rodney leaning against him while he drank his beer. Katie's microbrewing skills were really improving. He'd have to get more from this batch. He tilted the bottle up to look at the label. It read, CityBrew: Hoppy Ending. Jesus, no one in this place should be allowed to name things.
He was almost done with his beer when Rodney stirred and sat up. "Holy crap. I just got a brain dump of the City's quantum shielding technology."
"Nice." John pulled out another couple of brews and offered one to Rodney.
"Thanks." Rodney cracked it open and chugged at least a third of it. "What a rush, gaining such knowledge. Thank you, Atlantis."
"It means she trusts you," John said, smiling quietly to himself.
"Oh. Oh! I see." It was hard to tell in the moonlight, but John could swear Rodney was blushing. "Maybe I should admit I took that statue you made of me and hid it under the pier. I didn't want anyone to buy it."
John raised his eyebrows. "Huh. Jerk." Rodney winced. "Well, in spite of that, I trust you, too," John said, linking his pinky with Rodney's resting on his thigh.
"I, um. I'm glad. Because I—" Rodney straightened. "I trust you, and I care about you, too. You decrepit old geezer."
"I'm a what now?"
"You heard me. You're going on eighty! In fact, you're robbing the cradle, here." Rodney looked smug. "And me, with my pert, firm bod. You know, I'm quite the catch where I’m from." He puffed up his chest.
John gave him his best sardonic look.
Rodney cleared his throat. "Of course, I live here now."
John gave Rodney's pinky a squeeze. "And you're with me."
"Yes, I am. I am?"
"Well, yeah. I care about you, too, so..." John pulled him in, loving the way Rodney responded so helplessly, his neck arching, his mouth opening for John's kisses. After a nice long while, John released him and offered up his bottle for a toast, and they clinked them together. "Here's to making magic," John said.
"In bed!" Rodney smirked.
John manifested a pillow and smacked Rodney on the head.
"Hey! No fair!"
June 3, 2019
San Francisco, CA