Rodney led the way up the path from the sea to the cave. "It's really lovely out here," Jeannie said from below him, picking her way with a box of electrical components in her arms.
"Is it? I hadn't really noticed."
Jeannie stopped at the top of the path. She slowly set down the box and then walked over to the structure taking shape in the middle of the cave. "Wow. That's impressive."
The mostly-finished portal wasn't pretty, but then, he wasn't looking to win any art-show awards. Rodney had cobbled it together out of anything he could find in the labs that had the right thaumaturgical properties and would be able to withstand the magical forces it would be subjected to. The result was one part absurdist sculpture and one part junkpile, but it was vaguely ring-shaped. Cables snaked across the cave floor, connecting the portal to an ambient-magic generator and a ring of power circles spaced at regular intervals around the cave, as well as every laptop and piece of monitoring equipment that Rodney had been able to sneak out of the labs. He had promised not to blow up the planet, after all.
Jeannie walked around the room, studying readouts, bending to look at cables. Rodney could see her putting it all together in her mind, click click click, the finished machine taking shape in her brain. He recognized the look because he knew what it felt like when he did it. He'd been poised to explain it to her, but instead, he went back down for another box.
By the time he'd finished hauling up the supplies (by himself, but of course he'd done the rest of it by himself as well) Jeannie had begun to talk: "Why are these two cables spliced when separate cables would provide a more direct energy pathway?" and "Shouldn't this power circle be placed three inches to the left? According to Tesla's Fifth Law ..." and "You need a backup power source here, or you'll completely destabilize the whole thing if this fuse blows ..." It would be really annoying if she weren't right about most of it -- well, okay, that actually made it even more annoying, but the whales had clearly known what they were doing when they pointed him in Jeannie's direction. She might not be able to understand the math at all, but she knew what a finished portal ought to look like, even if it didn't work quite the same as the ones she was used to.
He didn't come up for air from his argument with Jeannie until a fluttering of wings at the mouth of the cave broke up their vociferous back-and-forth over the machine. Rodney was amazed to discover it was already dusk; where had the day gone? The machine was partly disassembled -- thanks to Jeannie's troubleshooting (though of course he'd never admit it) they'd already diagnosed and fixed several major problems with his design.
"Interesting," Ronon said, folding his wings and studying the parts spread out on the floor.
Jeannie made a small squeaky sound.
Rodney waved a hand impatiently between them. "Jeannie, Ronon; Ronon, Jeannie. Why are you here and not out there doing, I don't know, something useful?"
"Teyla thought I should check up on you." Ronon wandered around the cave, peering at the machine from different angles, reaching out a long finger to poke at a cable.
"Check up on me? What do you think I'm doing out here, having a picnic? -- Stop touching things!
Jeannie was following Ronon around the cave, peering at his wings with the same fascination that he was showing for the machine. "Are those real?" she asked.
Ronon fluffed them self-consciously. "Is your hair real?"
"Food," Rodney said loudly. "I'm starving. Stay for dinner, if spellcanned beans are your thing."
"Give me five minutes and we'll have fresh fish," Ronon said, and did a back flip off the edge of the cave.
Jeannie stared after him. "Is that a friend of yours?"
"I guess you could call him that," Rodney admitted, reluctantly, and began rummaging in the crates.
They ate roasted fish and canned beans, sitting at the edge of the cave with their legs dangling. By habit, Rodney checked on the whales; they were around, swimming in the depths on the very edges of his perception.
As was usually the case these days, Ronon looked exhausted and slightly roughed up -- there was a bruise on his cheekbone that Rodney didn't think had been there before. As usual, he didn't bother asking about it. "What's Teyla doing?"
"Keeping out of Woolsey's way, mostly."
"I remember Teyla," Jeannie said, swinging her legs over the edge of the cave. "She was your friend, wasn't she, Mer? The red-haired girl? The two of you used to go swimming and leave me behind."
Ronon cocked an eyebrow. "Mer?"
Rodney had managed to train Teyla out of calling him Meredith many years ago, so Ronon had never heard his real name. "Never mind, looking for Sheppard, much more interesting," he said shortly. "You found anything?"
"The shadow walkers are on the move." Ronon flicked a fishbone over the edge. "Everywhere we go, we hear rumors, stories told in whispers."
"But you haven't found any kind of a -- a base of operations? A homeworld? A top-secret prison? A--" He gulped, and stopped short of saying body.
"McKay," Ronon said, "you do your job, I'll do mine."
He declined their offer to stay the night, and winged off again, vanishing into the dark sky. Rodney shivered a little after he'd gone; only because the wind was getting cold. Still, he felt so much safer when Ronon was there.
Jeannie knelt next to the machine, picked up a small transistor and toyed with it. "You're very determined," she said. "To get your friend back."
"It's an excellent opportunity to try out the portal," Rodney said, but his heart wasn't in it. So easy to be self-assured during the day, on Atlantis -- Dr. Rodney McKay, who didn't need anyone (except for his pod, obviously, which went without saying). It was harder to hide with the truth all around him, like the shadows gathered in the corners of the cave.
Jeannie looked up at him, still playing with the transistor between her graceful fingers. When she spoke again, her voice was cautious, hesitant. "And this person, this Sheppard person -- is just a friend?"
"Uh ... what?" Honestly baffled, he looked away from the dark sky, to her face. What else would Sheppard be? If he was even a friend; Rodney had no idea how Sheppard really felt about him. He'd learned on Earth how readily people -- human-type people -- could pretend to be your friend just to get something out of you. He didn't think Sheppard was capable of that ... but you never really knew, did you?
"Nothing. Never mind." Jeannie pressed her lips together, her eyes shadowed in the spell-lights illuminating the cave. "Oh, Mer, how did you get involved in something like this? Vanishing friends and ... and a war with an enemy you can't even see." She frowned at him, looking, really looking; the directness of her stare made him look away.
"I hate to break it to you, Jeannie, but we don't exactly get to pick and choose how our lives turn out." He meant it to come out brisk and assured, the voice of an older sibling lecturing a younger one. Instead, his voice sounded shaky and small even to himself. Stupid cave acoustics.
"I know," Jeannie said, quietly, and she laid down the transistor and stood up, brushing her hands on her hips. "Well, we have work to do, don't we?"
"You can, uh. Sleep. If you want to."
"Mer." She turned to him, and her face was set, determined. "Work to do."
They worked through the night and into the next day, until the sun lay low across the glittering sea. At times, Rodney found Jeannie more of a hindrance than a help, because she kept making him stop to try to explain one set of equations or another. It frustrated her utterly to try to build a machine when she couldn't understand the math behind it; this was, obviously, not an experience she was familiar with. Rodney didn't want to admit that even he had trouble with it sometimes, and had to go to the whales for explanation.
But after working alone for so long, working in tandem with another scientist, one who could (almost) keep up with him, was its own kind of joy. Caught up on a wave of creative energy, Rodney barely noticed the passage of time until another flutter of wings heralded Ronon's return.
"Brought you this from the cafeteria," he said, setting down a box that turned out to contain sandwiches. Rodney and Jeannie fell on it like starving hyenas.
"That's very considerate of you -- Ronon?" Jeannie smiled at him, stretched and rubbed her eyes. Taking her sandwich, she wandered to the mouth of the cave to stare out at the jewel-bright sky.
"Thing looks just about done," Ronon said, studying the portal.
"That's because it is just about done." Rodney rolled his shoulders, trying to stretch out some of the aches.
"Good," Ronon said, and then, matter-of-factly, in the same breath, "Teyla's missing."
Rodney looked up at him, forgetting to chew until he tried to inhale and nearly choked on the bite of sandwich in his mouth. When he'd stopped coughing, he croaked out, "You lost Teyla?!"
"She didn't show up to our rendezvous." Ronon's eyes were distant and dark with worry.
"Oh great. That's just great." Rodney sat down, suddenly overwhelmed with exhaustion. When was the last time he'd managed a full night's sleep? His eyes felt like they were full of sand.
"Beckett said he thinks they're getting suspicious," Ronon added. "Woolsey's been hanging around the infirmary, asking questions."
"About what?" Rodney crammed the last of the sandwich into his mouth and bent down to fix a scuffed-out corner of one of the power circles.
"You. Wants to know where you are, what you're doing."
"What'd you tell him?"
"Told him I don't know. Don't understand any of what you do."
Rodney glanced up at him, but Ronon's face gave nothing away. "Great," Rodney muttered, tracing the fresh lines of the circle in white chalk. "The wolfpack is closing in on us."
"But we're about ready for a test run, aren't we?" Jeannie asked, wandering back over as she fastidiously brushed the crumbs off her skirt. "I mean, we fixed the power drain and I think we've got the targeting figured out."
"This is Sheppard's life we're talking about here! We don't want to ... to splinch him, or something!"
Jeannie rolled her eyes. "Harry Potter is fantasy, Rodney; there's no such thing as splinching in real life."
"How do you know? No one since the Ancestors has ever built a functional portal, either!"
Jeannie turned to Ronon just as he turned to her, and they shared a perfectly comprehensible look. Rodney glared at them both. "Stop talking about me behind my back!"
"Nobody said anything, McKay."
Rodney heaved a sigh and, muttering, returned to checking the power circles. It was better than thinking about Teyla. They couldn't have taken Teyla. She's too smart, too fast, too strong.
They're alive. They're both alive. There's no other option.
"I think we actually are ready for a test run," Jeannie said, and smiled smugly at him. "No need to thank me. I knew you couldn't have done it without me."
"Certainly I could've. It simply would have taken longer." He gave the power circles one final once-over.
Ronon sighed. Arms crossed, he sat at one side of the cave and watched them go through their portal-opening checklist.
"North cables!" Rodney barked, ticking off items on a tablet computer.
"North cables, green light, sir!" Jeannie bellowed back, and added in a more normal voice, "I'm standing twenty feet away from you, Mer. I can hear you fine."
"This gonna take much longer?" Ronon wanted to know. "Teyla --"
"-- is the First Whale only knows where, and it's not like an extra half hour is going to make the slightest bit of difference if you go flying off looking for her. If this works, we'll get her next." Rodney felt like a jerk, but damn it, it was true. Wherever Teyla was, they had to assume she could handle herself until they could open a portal to her. "South cables!"
"Power circle one!"
"Green! I swear to goodness, Mer, if you don't stop yelling at me like a drill sergeant --"
Somehow they managed to get through the checklist without killing each other. Rodney gently, very gently, added the final line to each of the power circles. Even without magesight, even without checking his instruments as the gauges and digital readouts began to tick upwards, he could feel it -- a tension in the air, like the electricity that heralded an oncoming storm.
"Power is flowing," Jeannie reported. "Mer, should we try for Sheppard or Teyla first?"
Good question. He patted his pockets, turned to Ronon. "Hey, you got anything of Teyla's?"
"What, on me?" Ronon said, startled. "No."
"Sheppard it is, then." Back on Atlantis, near the beginning of this whole thing, he'd slipped into Sheppard's quarters and stripped some coarse black hairs out of the man's hairbrush. They'd been in a small plastic baggie in his pocket ever since. Now he slipped it out and laid it in the middle of the empty circle in front of the portal, then poked two wire leads into the ground at each side of the circle and hooked up his laptop. He could feel the fine hairs on his forearms bristling as the power in the cave ticked up another notch. "Ready?"
"And waiting," Jeannie said impatiently.
"Right." His finger poised over the key that would execute his hastily-written program, throwing open the power conduits and attempting to establish a lock on Sheppard. "Executing ... now."
He tapped the enter key.
For a moment, nothing visible happened; the only change was a sudden spike in the power readings.
"Oh, no --" Then sparks cascaded from the hastily-constructed portal ring, little bolts of lightning chasing each other around the circle. The power readings began to flare wildly.
"Jeannie -- the fourth ring -- I've got the first --"
His fingers flew across the keyboard, manually balancing the power load as the portal sizzled and a sudden beam of blue light stabbed out from it, streaking across the water to be joined by another, and another. Rodney smelled the sharp scent of ozone and, more ominously, burning electrical insulation.
"It's drawing more power than we estimated," Jeannie gasped.
Rodney felt a sick, sharp twist in his stomach -- not just nerves, but the power circles sucking down ambient energy, including their own.
"We've almost got it," he breathed. "Just give it a minute more, let it establish a lock --"
Something in the ring gave a sharp, ominous pop and Rodney smelled smoke.
"I don't understand," Jeannie said, frowning at the readouts. "It won't lock."
"Damn it!" His theories, the whales' theories, couldn't be that wrong. Where had he failed? Rodney was dizzy with the power that the portal was drawing from him, dizzy with anger and dismay.
"Mer!" Jeannie cried, as there was another loud, metallic pop from the ring. "We're losing power containment -- we have to shut it down!"
"Wait! We can make it work --"
"If we don't shut it down now, we'll have no way to dissipate the power!" Jeannie snapped at him. "All this power with nowhere to go --"
The cave reeked of electrical smoke. She was right, and he turned his back on her. "Yeah. Shut it down."
There was a sudden, weird feeling that Rodney could only describe as a rush, like cold wind blowing over and through him, as the residual power was released into the environment. He spun around as the ring gave another loud popping sound and part of it burst into flames.
Jeannie shrieked and grabbed a fire extinguisher; Rodney joined her after a frozen instant, using his jacket to beat out a flaming cable. Even the sad little wad of Sheppard's hair was smoldering. Rodney stomped on it.
"That was ..." Jeannie trailed off. There were smudges of soot on her face and her hair askew. "It's not a total failure, Mer; we know that it's possible, we just got something wrong. Maybe Sheppard, maybe he couldn't ..." Again, she trailed off, her excitement dying.
Rodney didn't answer, too disappointed and furious -- at himself, at Jeannie, and, maybe for the first time in his life, at the whales.
"Mer, we have to face the possibility that maybe it couldn't lock onto your friend because --"
"No," Rodney said sharply.
Ronon had observed the whole thing, staying out of the way and occasionally patting out a spark in his feathers. Now he raised his wings in a mantle over his shoulders. "Sheppard's not dead," he said.
Jeannie threw her hair back, glaring at her brother and Ronon. "I'm sorry to be blunt, but it certainly looks that way, and we've set ourselves back days with all the damage to the portal that we'll have to fix. It was trying to lock, but it just couldn't do it."
"There are other things that could have prevented a portal lock," Rodney snapped. He was a scientist, damn it, and so was she, and picking one hypothesis while discounting all others wasn't a scientific thing to do. It had nothing to do with personal feelings. "Don't make me explain elemental portal theory to you! It could be a -- an error in our calculations, or any number of problems with our technological setup or materials, or maybe someone's put a spell on him to confound tracking --"
He broke off at a sudden burst of alarm from the whales. "Oh, now what?" Rodney snapped -- a measure of his general upset, since he had almost never yelled at his pod.
Someone's coming, the whales informed him, just as Ronon ruffled his wings and looked up sharply, alerting to who knew what subtle clues.
Rodney could see them now, small dark shapes, speeding across the ocean and rapidly growing larger. Oh, crap. Flying carpets.
"How'd they find us?" Ronon demanded, glaring at the McKay siblings. "It's because of that portal thing you just did, isn't it?"
"They certainly could have picked up the magical surge, but they couldn't possibly have gotten here from the city already," Jeannie protested.
Rodney stared out of the cave at the rapidly growing shapes, sweeping unerringly towards the cave. "They didn't have to. They were out here already. The portal just gave them a way to find us." It made an unpleasant kind of sense -- Woolsey obviously knew that Rodney had been up to something on the mainland, so he must have had people out searching. The surge of magic from the portal would have been like a Batsignal to them.
Ronon drew his gun. There was a whine as it powered up.
"Oh, put that away," Rodney said.
Ronon muscled in front of the two scientists, his wings half-spread and arching over them. "They're Wraith," he said simply.
"Hello! Wraith with people wrapped around them! And we don't even know how many are actually possessed and how many are -- uh -- Ronon?" He gave up -- Ronon clearly wasn't listening -- and looked wildly around for something, anything, that he could use to defend himself. Sheppard being Sheppard, there probably were weapons in one of those boxes, but it wasn't like he could ask the Wraith to stop and wait while he rifled through crates of canned goods in search of a P90.
The carpets landed lightly in the mouth of the cave. Rodney was not comforted to see a mixed group of Magic Division goons in their black uniforms, and soldiers with P90s in front of them -- not pointed at anyone, yet, but with the definite impression that they would do so at the slightest provocation. The leading carpet contained both Woolsey and Colonel Sumner, to Rodney's dismay.
Seeing that he had their full attention, Woolsey stepped off his carpet with a slight smile. "Now, now," he said to Ronon. "Let's not do anything foolish."
"You first," Ronon said between his teeth.
"Guys," Jeannie protested, peeking out from under Ronon's pinions. "I'm sure we can settle this like adults."
"Well, isn't this cozy." Woolsey ignored her and peered around the cave, his eyes drifting over the boxes and piles of supplies. Behind him, Sumner was silent and stone-faced, the assault rifle resting against his chest in unspoken threat. "This looks suspiciously like some sort of little terrorist hideout, don't you think?" Woolsey said to him, over his shoulder.
"Terrorist?!" Rodney sputtered, pushing wing-feathers out of his way. "What are you babbling about, you -- you shark?"
Woolsey just smiled that slight, smug smile. "Three people, none of whom are under MD authority or more than very loosely affiliated with this expedition, performing unauthorized magic at the same time as an inexplicable portal shutdown in Atlantis -- fairly incriminating, wouldn't you say?" A hint of irritation crossed his face. "I'd just like to know what you hoped to accomplish."
Rodney stared at him; so did Jeannie. "Portal shutdown?" Rodney said in a small voice.
Woolsey snorted. "Don't play dumb. At least we picked up the energy spike out here at the same time the Atlantis portal collapsed -- oh, yes, we knew you were up to something out here, even if we didn't know exactly what." He nodded to Sumner. "Take them into custody, Colonel."
As Sumner started to step forward, Ronon's muscular arm came up, pointing the gun at his chest. "No further," Ronon said in a low, threatening rumble.
Sumner stopped, his hands tense on the P90 with the weapon half unslung and pointing at the ceiling. Behind him, the soldiers and mages alike were frozen, awaiting instructions. Rodney could hear his own heartbeat in his ears. After a moment, Sumner glanced at Woolsey.
The smug smile widened just a little. "Oh, I'm sorry, I forgot -- you're not a citizen of Earth, are you? We haven't signed any Geneva Conventions or any other treaties here. Colonel, kill the barbarian, and bring the other two."
Jeannie gave an outraged shriek, and Rodney heard his own voice erupt in protest, while Ronon growled, "Try it."
Sumner took another step towards them -- and then turned around, raising his gun to point not at them, but at Woolsey. "I'm sorry, sir," he said calmly. "I cannot ethically carry out that order."
Rodney stopped in mid-squawk, staring so hard he thought his eyes were going to pop out of his head.
"There's something wrong with you, sir," Sumner continued. "I don't know what it is, but I do know that the Richard Woolsey I've served under for over a year would never have given that order. Something's wrong, and it's getting worse. I'm taking control of this expedition, effective now."
"Oh really," Woolsey said.
A huge green ball of magefire slammed into Sumner's chest. Rodney's head snapped around in shock; Woolsey hadn't thrown that. It was two of the other mages, working in perfect synchrony, their faces flat and dead.
The cave exploded into action. Almost superhumanly fast, Ronon fired at one of the mages, and red light danced over his black uniform, as Sumner crumpled in a haze of green-tinted smoke. Rodney lunged for Jeannie with some half-formed idea of throwing her to the floor or something, just as she did the same thing in his direction; they bashed foreheads and went down in an inglorious heap, while P90 fire stuttered above them and someone threw another ball of magefire that blew a chunk out of the side of the cave.
"What are you doing?" Jeannie hissed at Rodney furiously, glaring at him from six inches away with her chin in the dirt.
"What's it look like? Trying to stop you from getting your stupid head blown off!"
Jeannie rolled her eyes. "Oh, great job, Mer!"
Deciding that he didn't feel the least bit responsible if she did get her head blown off, Rodney rolled to the side and ran smack into a polished boot. "Oh crap," he murmured, rolling onto his back and looking up at Woolsey from a decidedly non-superior position.
"I suppose there's really no point in pretending anymore, is there?" Woolsey said, still smiling that creepy smile as he spread out the fingers of his hand above Rodney's head.
The world dissolved in blue fire and white-hot pain. Rodney screamed, dimly aware of his spine arching, his head slamming into the floor of the cave. He heard Jeannie shout something and then she was screaming, too. The next thing he knew, he was blinking up at Woolsey through a prism of pained tears, his throat raw and aching. The whales' worry beat a tattoo against the back of his brain.
"Oh yes, that was quite tasty," Woolsey said in a soft and sated voice, smiling down at him. "I like this body. It knows lots of interesting magic."
Kneeling, he briskly rolled Rodney over and twisted his hands behind his back, binding them painfully tight. Rodney's muscles were still twitching and quivering from the pain-spell; he couldn't do more than feebly try to jerk away as Woolsey yanked him to his feet, and then his entire concentration was taken up with stumbling across the cave floor and trying not to pitch onto his face. I'm fine, I'm fine, he thought blearily at the whales, which was obviously quite inaccurate, but they were giving him a headache.
Little one, we felt your pain! What is happening?
The idea of trying to explain the situation to the whales made his headache worse. "Uh," he managed intelligently, and then almost bit his tongue when Woolsey shoved him onto a parked carpet.
"Jeannie..." he rasped, and then raised his head just in time to see one of the soldiers flinging her down onto the carpet next to him. Her hands were tied like his, but she was twitching feebly. Looking around, he saw two soldiers and one mage lying on the ground, still and twisted. There was no sign of Ronon.
Seeing him looking around, Woolsey smiled. It wasn't a nice smile. "Your friend was shot and dumped in the ocean; he won't be helping you."
Rage and an unexpected, tearing grief made Rodney temporarily forget his own discomfort.
We have him, little one, the whales said unexpectedly. We do not think he will die.
Which was a far cry from "He's fine", but Rodney still slumped in relief. And the Wraith didn't seem to know about the whales -- which was one advantage they hadn't lost.
Thank you, he thought at them.
Woolsey knelt on the carpet behind him, and it jolted as it lifted into the air. Rodney had a brief, crazy thought of trying to jump off, but then he caught a glimpse of the dizzying drop to the ocean and decided that wouldn't be a good idea. The whales couldn't scrape him back together if he splattered himself all over the surface of the water.
Below him, a gray set of flukes flashed briefly before vanishing again. The whales were following ... for all the good that would do.
Woolsey leaned forward until the side of his face brushed Rodney's -- not at all a pleasant feeling -- so that he could speak without the wind snatching his words away. "It's nice that we ran into each other, Dr. McKay. We have plans for you."