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Blame the Apocalypse

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They stuck to the coastline, because the zombies—infected humans—instinctively avoided the ocean, what with the way saltwater made them dissolve. John had seen it happen and it wasn't pretty, not that anything about zombies was very pretty. Sam said it had something to do with the virus and necrosis and how salt was pretty much anathema to the mutant bacteria that was all that was holding their flesh together, but John's brain switched off when she got into the details, because as long as it worked.

A headshot worked. Salt water worked. Vala had Sam's adapted Super Soaker strapped to her chest with the extra tank on her hip. She also had a zat—two shots disabled enough for the third to disintegrate.

John had a P-90, two Glocks, and a hand-held water gun. If he got them in the eyes fast enough they just shuffled around uselessly. Carter was similarly equipped, with the addition of some sort of a plasma cannon with a high yield that was good for group dispersal. John was hugely jealous of it, but she just gave him an ironic look when he offered to take it off her hands.

"Rest here or go on past the next hill?" Sam asked. John looked over at Vala, who had grit and who knew what else creased in her hairline, exhaustion drawing down her usually chipper expression.

John shrugged. "Looks like a good position. All clear from here to the road, except for that dune we can make a shelter behind."

Sam nodded and with a weary smile started tramping down to the beach.

They were walking now. They'd been making good headway, traveling north along the coast in a stolen Humvee, when the road forced them inland too far away from the ocean and they ran into an ambush some high-functioning zombie must have set up before brain-rot set in. A roadblock of cars had pushed them off onto the shoulder and into soft dune, then over what looked like boardwalk but was actually a pit trap. The Hummer went down and they all scrambled out with their gear, not much the worse for the crash, but suddenly fighting against a crowd of hostiles.

The zombies weren't ready for them, though—for Sam's wicked plasma fire, protecting their flank, or for Vala's suppression spray from the Super Soaker, sending a half-dozen of them reeling back, or for John's precision shooting, head shot after head shot, bandanna and sunglasses protecting him from splatter.

It was hard to remember they were once just people.

It was over within minutes. But after that, they kept to walking, hugging the coastline.

"We should look into getting some dirt bikes," John said after they'd built a little driftwood shelter, Sam set the motion sensors, and they'd eaten some grub. It was ebb tide, and they were close to the water, the waves a comforting sound. Through the branches, John could see past the dune, a straight shot to the road, not that any zombies would risk coming this close to the water.

"You ride?" Sam sounded surprised and pleased.

"Oh, hell, yeah."

"What'd you have?"

"2000 Triumph Thunderbird."

"Awesome. A return to the classic."

"Yeah. She was a lot of chrome. How about you?"

"A Harley. '95 Softail Fat Boy."

"You rode a 'Fat Boy'?" Vala sounded intrigued.


"He was a sweet ride."

Vala laughed and snuggled down into her sleeping bag. "I prefer my men lean," she said, drawing her hand down John's chest to leave it lingering on his waist. John looked helplessly over at Sam on his other side, but she just smirked at him, a dimple creasing her cheek.

It hadn't always been this way, of course. At first it was all, "Yes, Colonel. No, Colonel. After you, Colonel." And Vala had laughed at them, because nobody was in anybody's chain of command anymore—hadn't been for a while. And after three or four times of stripping down for each other and washing off zombie guts and checking for bite marks or open wounds or virus sign, it seemed stupid to hang onto formality.

And then there was the enormity of what they were seeing. Whole towns emptied and blackened. Purged. Fires had started and were never put out. People were converted and followed their mindless instinct. A whole country, maybe even a world, destroyed.

John had seen it before, but never here. Never at home. He wasn't sure how to deal, except to keep on keeping on. And the way they were with each other now helped, somehow.

As long as the ladies weren't complaining, he sure as hell wasn't.

The origin of the plague, Sam had speculated, had been the Ori, but John had his doubts. The saltwater thing made him think of Michael for some reason. Maybe it had come through the Gate, although that would mean the Mountain was probably toast.

He didn't want to think so. He wanted to think once they hit San Jose Airport and stole a chopper, they could make it to Colorado Springs and find their people, somehow whole and healthy.

The night wind picked up and whistled through the shelter, pattering sand against their sleeping bags. Vala made a sound and squirmed closer, and John automatically put his arm around her, ducking his head to nuzzle her hair, salty from her ocean bath.

"Hey," he said, and when she looked up, her eyes big and luminous, he kissed her, feeling Sam leaning warm at his back, her breasts pressing against him. A tiny, hysterical voice deep in his mind excused himself to McKay—It was the apocalypse, buddy. We couldn't help ourselves—but then all thought was washed away when Vala's deft fingers pulled at the drawstrings of his sweats and curled around his dick; when Sam's calloused palms slid under his shirt and up his back, pushing the material up and over his head so he had to stop kissing Vala long enough to duck himself free. Then two pairs of hands were shoving him onto his back.

"You guys are pretty pushy," he said breathlessly, but he knew that already. He kind of loved that about them both, these strong, beautiful women, and he was pretty sure they'd be the death of him long before the zombies were, as he watched them grin at each other, toothy and mischievous, before they leaned across him to kiss, blond meeting dark, and he dropped his head back with a groan.

"Gorgeous," he said, watching Sam's lips tugging at Vala's, Vala's tongue flicking into Sam's mouth. "Christ."

"You have a cut," Sam said, brushing her thumb over Vala's eyebrow. "You'd better wear the eye protectors tomorrow."

"Yes, doctor, sir!" Vala said, long suffering, "may we please proceed with the sex, now?" She dropped her chin to John's chest and swiveled her head to look at him plaintively. "I'm very tired, John. I think I can only manage two orgasms tonight."

John's dick twitched. The death of him. Seriously.

He managed it somehow, though, with Sam locked around his hips, Vala riding his mouth, her hands clutching the stake posts of the shelter. He'd complained a little about being smothered—"Oh, please. The warriors of Kalhari can hold their breath for ten minutes in their underwater battles, John."—but not seriously. Vala tasted like ocean, and he couldn't get enough of her, making his tongue soft and heavy against the underside of her clit until she gasped and moaned and clenched her thighs around him. Sam was playing with her breasts, pinching her little nipples while she rolled her hips around John's cock, and it was no fair, because Sam was teasing him, too—it was surprising to him what a tease Sam was in bed, always dragging things out until he thought his balls would bust.

After Vala came the second time, she crawled away like a limber monkey, still almost kicking Sam in the face.

"Thanks," Sam said, rocking back and nearly making John come with the added pressure to his balls. He gasped and held on while Vala nuzzled up behind him, her breast rubbing against his shoulder, her breath blowing cool in his ear. He shivered.

Sam started rocking again, slow and steady, and John moved his hips to join her, pretty sure he couldn't hold on much longer, but wanting to give her what she needed. She was making these low, breathy sounds, almost unvoiced moans that were sending sparks right down into his dick. He couldn't believe this was Sam, brilliant, flawless, controlled, now breathless, sweating, her too-short hair matted with salt from the ocean, her eyes gleaming in the moonlight as she leaned over to kiss him, her tongue soft and warm in his mouth.

"Sam," he groaned, and thrust harder, fighting against her rhythm a little, making her gasp. He dropped his hand from her shoulder to briefly cup her breast, thumbing her nipple, then slid his fingers down to where they were joined. With Vala supporting some of his weight, it was easy to lean back to make room to fork his fingers around his cock, pressing against her intimately with each stroke.

Sam made a high pitched, "Oh," then said, "keep doing that, yeah," which he was only too happy to, watching her face as her eyes shuttered closed and her mouth dropped open. She seemed to stop breathing, and then he felt her flutter around him, delicate and strong, and he slowed, still moving gently as she came.

"God," she said, opening her eyes.

"I think we should keep him, yeah?" said Vala, nipping at the tip of John's ear.

"You, uh, too sensitive?" John said, making a practice thrust, because, God, he was dying here. Sam just laughed and pulled him over completely so he was on top of her, and he groaned gratefully and started moving again, trying to ignore Vala, who was clambering onto his back, trying to slow him down.

"Vala," he growled.

She started kissing his shoulders, his spine, her weight pinning his hips.

"Go keep watch for zombies or something."

"Oh, you know Sam set up the motion detectors for that, silly. I have much better things to do." Then her weight lifted off him, and he gratefully started to move again, looking down at Sam's laughing eyes.

The first, surprising stroke of Vala's fingers between his ass cheeks caught him completely off-guard, and he let out a startled yelp and froze.

"Keep going, John."


"Yes, precisely," Vala said, and her slippery finger rubbed over his asshole. "Unless you have any real objections."

"Uh." It felt kind of terrific, actually. "No. Except where in the hell did you get...?" They were about an apocalypse away from convenience stores.

"Where do you think, Colonel fly boy?" Vala asked, her throaty whisper right in his ear.

Oh. That was about the sexiest damned thing John had ever heard of, and he groaned and started thrusting again, because he was going to come soon whether he wanted to or not. Sam was giggling outright now; he leaned down to kiss her smile, but before he could, Vala's finger slipped inside him, so slick and strange and exciting, pressing and stroking, and he gasped, tucking his face against Sam's neck, and started to come. He could feel himself clenching around Vala's finger as he shot into the rubber, and he jammed his hips hard against Sam, whispering, "Sorry, sorry," hoping he wasn't bruising her too badly, because he was out of control, losing his mind.

When he tried to lift his head he found Sam was petting his hair, making soothing sounds. Vala had disappeared, but he heard her outside by the surf singing that crazy song of hers from T'hala, the one with eighty-one rounds that got longer and longer with each round.

John gave Sam a quick kiss then pulled out, keeping a firm hand on the bottom of the rubber, and rolled to his back with a groan. "Wow."

Vala returned a moment later and dropped an ice-cold, damp scrap of cloth on his stomach.

"Jesus Christ!"

"Is that all the thanks I get?" She knelt down beside him, her hands on her hips, looking like some crazed, nude pixie in the moonlight.

John grabbed her and hauled her down for a kiss. She was grinning when he let her up.

"Better," she said, then she took back the cloth and, to his embarrassment, matter-of-factly peeled off the used condom and started cleaning him up.

Then they all dressed again and packed up before crawling into their sleeping bags; they never knew when an emergency would have them hitting the road.

The morning saw them just north of Monterey searching for a motorcycle dealership.


"Watch your step."

"I wasn't going to—"

"Were so." John shoved her a little with his elbow; Vala might be slight of frame, but she was all muscle and gave as good as she got, shoving him back and sticking her foot between his so they both had to spin, grabbing onto each other to keep their balance.

"You guys! Seriously. Don't fall in the zombie guts."

"We weren't gonna!"


"Best idea ever," Sam said over the short-wave radio.

"Hell, yeah." They'd discussed dirt bikes over street, but ultimately decided that teaching Vala how to ride would be a bad idea at this point; in a dangerous situation she might stall out at a critical moment, leaving her trapped, whereas if she rode behind one of them, she could fire while the others drove. So they'd taken one street and one dirt bike; the dirt bike could be used for scouting over difficult terrain. Sam was on a Rebel with Vala riding tucked behind her, and John was on a CRF, but they planned to switch off, since riding a dirt bike for distance got tiring. So far they were cruising, sticking to the highway and then ducking off onto side streets whenever it veered away from the ocean.

They'd seen no one, just empty, staring houses, and that was pretty freaky, but they were making great time. The big problem would be when they had to cut inland toward the airport, which they'd have to do as soon as they hit Santa Cruz. Then it was thirty-five miles straight across zombie-rich territory.

"You seeing what I'm seeing?"

"Sure am." Sam had pilot's eyes as well.

"What? What is it? I can't see over you, tall person," Vala said.

"We got a road block way up ahead," John said. "Let's cut off here before we get near it. I'll scout around and see if there's an ambush waiting."

They pulled off down a side road and John took off, wending his way down a sandy running path, keeping close to the buildings, until finally he stopped and pushed up his face shield. He pulled out his scope and checked out the neighborhood, not liking what he saw.

He booked back the way he came.

"Not zombies," he reported over the radio. "Greeting committee. I think they've got a Lord of the Flies thing going on here. Actually, looked more like something straight out of The Road Warrior."

"Oh, you've got to be kidding me. We're in the middle of a national emergency and some guy takes it as an excuse to set himself up as a tin-pot dictator?"

"I've found humans don't really need an excuse to be less than civilized," Vala observed. "In any event, what are we going to do?"

"Well, according to the map, they've got a pretty good pinch point here. There's nothing but forest, no roads, really. We could try to force the bikes up the mountain, but I'm not so sure the cruiser could take it."



Vala smirked. "We could pretend to ride away, sort of, but then sneak back and push the bikes past them under cover of darkness." She shrugged. "We have John's life signs detector, not that we've found it useful with zombies, but it could be for this."

"Wait a minute. How do you know about my LSD?" John said indignantly, glaring at Vala.

"You brought Ancient tech out of the Mountain?" Sam said indignantly, glaring at John.

"I might have gone through your pack," Vala told him, shrugging. "Sorry."

"Rodney was worried about the Trust," John said to Sam. "Sorry."

"Wait. That's why you came with us to L.A?" She shook her head. "Never mind, we'll talk about this later. So, we've got the LSD. We'll go back to the road, turn around, ride off...then when we get around the corner we'll shut down and wait until nightfall. Actually, maybe we should just ditch the bikes and pick up new ones north of here. Maybe in Santa Cruz."

"Sounds like a plan. We're only four miles out. We'll check the yellow pages at a gas station."


The plan worked, except when it really didn't. They snuck through after nightfall, the LSD making it easy to avoid the various patrols. The road warriors were a gang of foul-smelling, unhealthy-looking losers. There was no way they could have fallen so far in such a short period of time. They must've already been on the downhill slide and ended up congregating in this town after the plague hit. Maybe they were a biker gang or something.

John didn't want to know. He just wanted to get his team through as quickly and quietly as possible. And he would have, too, if the zombies hadn't shown up.

The northern edge of town was taken up by a huge golf course, a wide spread of green that would leave them too exposed in the moonlight, so they headed away from the ocean to trail along the eastern edge. The LSD was clear, but Sam must've caught something because she raised her fist. An instant later John heard it, too: the faint susurration of shuffling footsteps, lots of them. The people of the town had finally attracted unwanted attention. Or maybe the zombies were patrolling the sea's borders.

"Fuck. What do we do?"

John was about to say they should head for the ocean when the first zombie broke from the trees, followed by bunches more, their arms outstretched. Vala lifted her Super Soaker, Sam her plasma gun. The zombies started their eerie moaning.

John's LSD started pinging.

"Shit." They couldn't leave zombies here to infect other humans, even if they were rotten humans. "C'mon, let's burn 'em." John lifted his gun and started firing.

Vala let out a cry and started spraying from the right, and Sam charged left to hit them with her plasma. She burned a nice, wide swath, and the zombies accommodated her by tumbling backward, spreading the plasma fire onto their brethren. John pulled up his P-90 and went on automatic, mowing the front line down so Vala could triple-zat the wounded while he took head shots at the zombies further back.

By the time the first of the road warrior gang showed up, they'd offed at least forty zombies, and the few remaining were tripping and crawling over the burning bodies of their pals trying to get to them. John and Vala turned with their weapons on the road warriors while Sam took pot shots at the last of the zombies.

"Back off," John said, a fresh clip already seated in his P-90. The one thing he had plenty of was ammo.

"Aw," a big, gap-toothed guy, apparently the leader, held up his hands and said, "Why you wanna be so mean? We're here to help."

"Sure you are. And I'll help you see what your guts look like if you don't turn around and walk away." Behind him, John heard Sam finishing up and racking her plasma gun.

"That's pretty tough talk when you're three against twenty-five."

"But I'm not aiming at them." John lifted his P-90 and sighted along it. "I'm aiming at you."

The guy gaped at him.

"Sam, get over here and explain to this asshole what a plasma gun can do." John checked the LSD to make sure no one was flanking them.

"Happy to, John. You see, Mr. Asshole, sir, a plasma cannon uses high energy ionized gas as a weapon, essentially spreading something like napalm—are you familiar with napalm?—but at approximately one hundred times the heat in a compressed, directed flow from the nozzle—" she patted the part in question "—toward the target. A five second burst can vaporize up to ten targets at once." She grinned cheekily. "I hope that serves to clarify?"

Gap-toothed nodded. Vala stifled a giggle.

"Excellent. Well, you'll just be moving on, then, I guess."

His pals were already backing away quickly, John was grimly satisfied to see. Within a few minutes, they were alone in the clearing.

"Oh, that was fun!" Vala said, clapping her hands. "I'm so glad you had that little speech prepared for the boys down in Los Angeles."

Sam's smile dropped away. John felt himself grow cold, as well. The A.F. base down in L.A. was most likely gone. Hell, if he hadn't dragged Sam and Vala out to Santa Barbara after the meeting, the three of them would probably be zombies as well.

"Let's go," John said, and the two of them nodded.


They all stripped and checked their own chests, their underarms, between their fingers and toes. Then John took the flashlight from his P-90 and gave it to Vala to run it around the back of Sam's hairline then behind her ears, over her back. He looked under her chin, saw goosebumps rise on her skin as Vala split the cheeks of her ass, and he ran a soothing palm over her flanks.

She spread her legs automatically and he parted the folds of her pussy, looking carefully for any sign of the fucked up virus, the small spirals of red and purple that looked like dizzy Mandlebrot's. When he was finished he planted a small kiss on her, looking up to see her smiling down. Then they both turned to Vala.

When it was his turn, he felt the same balanced dread and denial he always felt. He couldn't be infected; no, he easily could. If he was, he'd walk out into the ocean and eat his gun, let the tide carry him.

Behind him, Sam scratched through his hairline, went over his back, spread the cheeks of his ass, the flicker of the flashlight dancing across the sand. She gave him the 'all okay' pat.

He felt Vala's fingers lifting his balls, stretching the skin, and he widened his stance to give her room. He looked down to see her give him a reassuring smile, and then she nuzzled her cheek against his lax cock.


They camped out on the beach again in another tiny shelter, this time with their sleeping bags zipped together, huddled against the cooler night. By noon they were in Santa Cruz and they'd found another motorcycle dealership, but the closest had Italian bikes only.

"Oh, how sad," Sam said, raising her eyebrows.

"Yeah, it's a tragedy," John agreed. "Guess we'll have to get a pair of Ducatis."

"Or Moto Guzzis."

They ended up with one of each.

The ride up 17 was fucked, and not in a good way. John had never liked that particular highway, anyway, when he was young and stupid and would ride out from Stanford for weekend surfing. It was narrow and curvy and banked poorly in places, and at night the headlights of opposing traffic would reflect in his visor, making it even more dangerous.

Right now, though, during daylight, that wasn't the problem. The problem was they were lane-splitting through bumper-to-bumper abandoned vehicles and maneuvering around fender benders, with the chance at any moment a zombie hand would grab them off their slow-moving bikes. It was nerve-wracking, and they kept talking over their radios, giving warnings of upcoming hazards, keeping each other alert.

John had Vala behind him this time, and she kept squeezing his waist reassuringly, her Super Soaker at the ready. John was riding point, since he had Vala as back-up, and Sam could pull up beside him and let loose with plasma if it came down to it. They had a plan, and they were all on trigger alert.

It was just hard to keep it up for mile after mile of twisted, obstacle-rich road.

Finally, they broke free and onto good old 880, wide and free, easy as Gran Turismo to cut around the occasional stall.

"We're maybe five miles out," Sam said into his ear.

"Thank the lords," Vala said, and Sam made a noise.

"Not those lords," Vala added, acid in her voice, and John thought it was as good a time as any to start singing Good Times, Bad Times from Led Zeppelin's Mothership, making them both groan.


They buzzed up and down along the fence for twenty minutes before finding a hangar with police choppers.

"We could keep looking, see if the army's got anything out here."

"Nah. One of these should do. It's a lightweight, so we'll have to stop and refuel once. Somewhere in Utah."

"There's an airport in Bryce Canyon."

John squinted at her. "I won't ask."

"Better not." Sam gave him a chipmunk grin, and that was when he fell, seriously fell, looking at her dirty face and smiling eyes. It wasn't just her beauty and her smarts, or that she'd back him up with a plasma gun. It was that she'd been through the wars, same as Vala—he hadn't a clue how many before Sam became his CO, or what had happened after—and with all the shit that was going down she could offer him that smile and yet another miracle.

"Hey, uh, guys? Zombies?" Vala said in his ear, and they hustled off their bikes and through a gap in the fence.


It didn't matter if it was the apocalypse or if zombies were after them or if two beautiful women were clamoring in his ear, he didn't skimp on pre-flight, especially with a strange bird.

"How long is this going to take?" Vala asked, fiddling with her headset. Sam already had hers on and was checking the radio to see if she could get anyone at all on any of the bands.

"Hold your horses, little lady."

"I only ask because, well, there's the risk of zombies, of course, but also, I'm bored. And hungry. Also, what are horses and why should I hold them?"

"Vala, you know very well what horses are," Sam said. "Don't tease John."

"Well, I do believe he's hung like one."

John barked a laugh.

"Vala! Not helping." Sam turned toward him. "John, I can't raise anyone."

"Shit. Well, I guess that means I don't have to file a flight plan." He slid the manual back into the pocket. "Look, range on this bird is what I thought. Cruising speed is 138 miles per hour. We'll refuel in Bryce and be in Colorado Springs by tonight." He twisted around and nodded back at Vala, who for once was looking serious. "You ready?"

"I'm ready. I'm...I find I'm quite glad you convinced me not to go shopping that day, John." She made a face. "Even if the surfing didn't quite work out."

"Yeah. Me, too. It's been a trip."

She reached out, and he let her take his hand, not surprised when she brought it up to her face and kissed his palm. He liked that about Vala, her unabashed willingness to touch him, ignoring the roadblocks he put up. He squeezed her hand.

"Uh, guys? Zombies?"

"Right." John cleared his throat and turned back to the controls. "Oh." There were zombies in airport uniforms shuffling down the airstrip and heading right toward them. "Zombies! Fuck." He switched the main battery on, pushed the throttle forward, put ten seconds on the starter fuel pump, and looked up again.

The lead zombies were about twenty feet away, their pale, vacuous faces and milky eyeballs gleaming in the sunlight.

His eyes dropped down to the fuel pump and he juiced her a little bit before hitting the rotor. The whine started up, and Sam gave him a relieved look.

He gave her a thumbs up and put his hand on the stick, flicking the zombies a little mocking salute as lifted them up and into the skies.


Bryce Canyon was a ghost town. If any of them had any hope this thing hadn't spread beyond California, it was dashed as they traveled over the darkening landscape. They crept around the abandoned airport, Sam rigging something to power the fuel pump, from what John could tell, using batteries and chewing gum wrappers, and they crept out again.


"I want you to know whatever we find, I'm glad of the journey," Sam said softly in the crackle of his headset.

"Don't talk like that. You know those guys. They can handle anything," John said, not even wanting to think of it, of Cheyenne being as dark and empty or worse—blackened and burned as the rest of what they'd seen. And God, Rodney, and Jack O'Neill, and Daniel Jackson, and Teal'c—John couldn't stand thinking about it, the weight of loss starting to bear down on him.

Just now, at the end, it seemed, he could allow himself feel it all, finally.

A cold hand crept over his wrist on the stick, and he put his other hand over Sam's, trying to warm her.

Eventually, though, she slipped away, lost in her own thoughts, and he let her go. When he next looked over, she'd fallen asleep.


Flying by instrument got boring after a while, and flying by instrument when none of the usual towers were around to talk to got boring and tense and a little eerie, as well. They were getting low on fuel, too, so John spent a lot of time calculating and re-calculating. It would really suck to have to set down and hoof it the last forty miles or so, but there was no way after all this he would risk them in a crash.

Finally, though, they were within radio range, or at least he hoped they were. He flicked off the feeds to Vala's and Sam's, not wanting to get their hopes up. He'd let them sleep through it. What with the engine noise and their headphones on, they shouldn't even hear his attempt.

Maybe the Mountain didn't have their power up, but it was worth a try.

"Cheyenne Mountain, this is Colonel John Sheppard, on carrier N408DC, authentication code alpha-echo-romeo-eight-seven-niner. Please come in. Over."

After a moment he adjusted the squelch and tried again.

"Cheyenne Mountain, this is Colonel John Sheppard, authentication code alpha-echo-romeo-eight-seven-niner. Please come in. Over."

The response nearly blew his eardrums. "Colonel Sheppard, this Cheyenne Mountain base. We copy! I'm notifying command. It's...good to hear your voice. Over."

John's grin almost swallowed his radio mic. He fixed the volume and flipped on Sam and Vala's feeds. "It's good to be heard, Cheyenne. I have two passengers here who needed a ride home from L.A. Over." Sam shot up in her seat and grabbed his shoulder, and Vala clutched them both from behind.

"That's even better news, Colonel. Carrier N408DC is cleared to come in the back door. Over."

"Is that you, Walter?"

"Colonel Carter! Yes, it is, sir. Over."

"You're late, Carter," another voice drawled.

"I'm sorry, sir. It won't happen again." Sam's voice was choked.

"Is it true? Sheppard is alive?" a frantic voice said in the background—McKay's—and John's hand squeezed on the stick so hard he almost put them into a dive.

"Yeah, it's me, Rodney. Couldn't ruin my record, could I?"

"We ran into a bit of a snag, Jack," Vala said. "But no trouble, really."

"Vala, I'll be...danged." O'Neill sounded rough. "Well, come on home now, kids. We'll keep the porch light on."

"Will do, sir. Over and out." John said, cutting his mic out. "You know this back door he's talking about?"

"Yeah." Sam scrubbed at her nose. "There's a hatch up top near the landing platform. They'll probably put the landing lights on for us, and I'm guessing they'll have a welcoming committee as well."

"As long as they're armed," John said, grinning, and with Sam and Vala both chattering joyfully in his ears, he followed the dials until the Mountain loomed, heavy and dark against the stars.

But just near the top, a circle of light flickered for a moment and then shone bright, guiding them home.