According to Rodney, there's a powerful energy source on M4L-019. John watches as his expression turns mulish when faced with Teyla's wry smile and Ronon's teasing remarks about the validity of that statement and to be fair, they've all heard it a hundred times before. With an air of the mightily wounded, Rodney leans back in his chair, arms crossed, lips a tight line on his face, and finally John takes the bait. "Okay, what makes M4L so special?"
Rodney's face lights up. "You remember that Elizabeth gave us – well, not our Elizabeth, yes, ours, but alternate timeline Elizabeth –" He stabs a finger onto the screen of his tablet, and at the other end of the conference, room, the presentation viewscreen lights up with a magnified list of planet addresses, spaced out like a weird telephone book. After each address is a pithy notation, things like too hot to fathom living and sikikla orchards, bloom in cold season and humongous fanged salamanders.
"We already went to all of those addresses," John says. So sue him, John likes watching Rodney, affronted, when he thinks his brainpower's being questioned. The expansive gestures and spluttering are happening less frequently, though, and John kind of misses it, even though he knows it's a good thing, that Rodney's mellowing, that he's been assimilated onto the team.
When Rodney favors him with a sour look, John grins back, unabashed.
"As I was saying, when scanning in the list of addresses that she saved for us," and here he throws an apologetic look up the table at Elizabeth, who's watching Rodney with faint amusement, and sometimes John forgets that she's known Rodney longer than he has, "Radek may have noticed something about the addresses that I, I just fhadn't seen yet. I would have, of course," he says, settling a heavy look on everyone.
The list up on the screen blurs for a moment and then zeroes in on a particular section, then one address, and then it's blown up so large that they can all see the slash between the Ancient letters and numbers isn't just a mark.
"Are those..." Elizabeth starts to ask, and Rodney interrupts, his tone jubilant. "Yes! The breaks are composed of microscopic numbers, presumably containing information on these addresses that's stored in the information itself. It's actually quite a good system."
"That's wonderful," Elizabeth says. "An amazing breakthrough."
"Of course, it's not like this on every single one," Rodney says.
"Crap," John says. "Okay, how many of them have the special designation?"
"Just the ones from Elizabeth, actually," Rodney says. "So... a handful. And we're not sure that we're interpreting the numbers correctly, either, but we've been treating them like a code."
Ronon nods. "Unofficial communications between our squadrons used a logical arithmetical key, dependent on the time of writing and other variables."
"So you could help Rodney and Radek break the code," Elizabeth says.
"No," Ronon says, then notes the look on Elizabeth's face and softens his tone. "The written structures are completely different."
"It would be like trying to sound out cuneiform just by eyeballing it," Rodney adds. "The phonemes alone – well, it wouldn't translate."
"Oh," Elizabeth says, deflated. She chuckles. "So much for math being the universal language."
It's impossible not to respond to Teyla's laughter, and John winks at her. She's been more spontaneous lately, and he thinks it's related to the addition of Ronon on their team.
"So, M4L?" John prompts.
"Right!" Spinning his chair around, Rodney types for a few seconds, and some complicated equations pop up on the viewscreen. "This is where we are now. If you're truly interested how we got there, get Radek to explain it to you. He does well with small words." Jibe happily delivered, Rodney continues. "For this particular application, the makeup of the code resolves itself into what we can assume is a traditional gate address, and it's not present anywhere else in the database. I think we're looking at one that's been purged for whatever reason."
"I can think of a few," John says. "Like humongous fanged salamanders."
"But the address of that planet is still in the database," Teyla pipes in, shooting John a smug look, and Rodney nods.
"Exactly, so whatever's on M4L has to be a million times worse, or better, depending on how you want to interpret the code that she left for us," Rodney says. "Something must have happened for the Ancients to erase it, but it can't be that horrible if Elizabeth's sending us there."
"If that's even what this code means," John says. "I mean, maybe there's some other reason that she left us with that information."
"She included it on a paper with gate addresses for ZPMs!" Rodney exclaims. "How hard is it to make that jump?"
"So what's the bottom line?" Elizabeth asks. She's pursing her lips, a look that John associates with indecision: she'd love to give the go-ahead, but she feels uninformed.
"We need to check out this address," Rodney says. "If not ZPMs, then probably a massive power source. Weapons to defeat the Wraith. Blueprints to unlocking more of Atlantis' mysteries. Endless possibilities."
Elizabeth nods. "John, what do you think?"
Pretending to consider the question, John furrows his brow and stares up at the screen. Rodney's in his peripheral vision, eyes wide and pleading, and as the silence stretches out another beat, Rodney's eyes narrow and John knows he's overplayed it. He clears his throat.
"Well," he says. "I guess what it really comes down to is... how much do you trust yourself, Elizabeth?"
John's been off-duty for an hour when the doorbell chimes once, the equivalent of a warning signal, and then the door slides open and Rodney strolls into John's room. By now, John knows that Rodney's not one for waiting, even – especially – after having walked in on him in various states of undress, and he doesn't waste any time now, slipping his hands up under John's arms and around his chest, hugging him from behind.
John never knows where to put his hands during Rodney's turnaround hugs, but it's worth it to hear the contented sigh from over his shoulder.
"Oh, well-played, Sheppard. Well. Played." Rodney's voice is a hot whisper in John's ear, and John shivers. Rodney chuckles, low and dirty.
"You knew I wouldn't turn you down," John wants to say, but that's giving away too much. "I thought it could be fun," he says instead, aiming for nonchalance.
Rodney snorts, his derision clear. "Fun," he says, fingers creeping up under the hemline of John's shirt. "I can think of a thousand things off the top of my head that we could do together that could be fun. Unsurprisingly, gating to an address derived from an algorithm and sheer desire, one that even the Ancients avoided, didn't make the list."
"'Massive power source, weapons, blueprints, endless possibilities,'" John quotes, sucking in his stomach as Rodney's fingers skim over his abdomen.
"All to whet Elizabeth's appetite," Rodney says. "For all I know, the planet's dust."
"Unh," John says as Rodney tugs at one of his nipples, rolling it between his fingers. "No," he croaks. "I don't believe you. You wouldn't get so worked up about a dead-end."
"Who's the one getting worked up here, hmm?" Rodney asks, and John figures out what to do with his hands, reaching up and back to grab Rodney's head, pulling him close enough for a sloppy kiss.
The edge of Rodney's thumbnail scrapes against John's nipple, and he breaks away from the kiss, groaning, arching back against the warm bulk of Rodney's body.
"That's right," Rodney says, cajoling. He repeats the motion, nail grazing across John's skin, and then does it again, and John's breathless, fumbling open the button on his pants. He's about to grab Rodney's hand and drag it down to his dick when Rodney says, thoughtfully, "I wonder why alternate Elizabeth didn't just tell us about the planet, or, better yet, the code. If it is a code. It has to be a code."
"Really? Right now?" John asks, getting his pants undone and shoving his hand into his boxers.
"I can multitask," Rodney says, licking at John's neck, swirling his tongue over the sensitive skin near John's shoulder. It's embarrassing how the lightest touch there makes him shiver. John tilts his head to give Rodney better access.
"Maybe she just forgot, I mean, it had been thousands of years." He's got John's nipple pinched between two fingers, and he pushes at the waistband of John's pants with his other hand. "Get these down."
It would be simple enough to step on his pants leg and pull them down, but wriggling lets John squirm against the hard line of Rodney's cock pushed tight to his ass, and he's sure as hell not going to be the only one about to be rendered monosyllabic with lust. "Maybe she didn't know it was there; maybe it was a message from that other guy, Janus," John suggests, and Rodney hums in contemplation.
"Why wouldn't he have told her about the message, then?" Rodney asks, rubbing John's cock, fingers outlining the head through his boxers. "He knew the plan, knew the score. He knew that the city would be inhabited again, and by people with the ability to work Ancient technology. If he'd wanted to send us there, he could have told her."
"Enough of this," John says, twisting out of Rodney's arms. It's not fair that Rodney's not only still talking but actually making sense. He pulls off Rodney's t-shirt and then his own, running his hands down Rodney's sides and around his back.
"What?" Rodney asks. "I can't just stop thinking whenever I feel like it, it takes more than a little slap and tickle to really –"
John presses a finger to Rodney's mouth. "Rodney," he says, smirking. "I want to be able to see you when I kiss you, okay."
"Oh," Rodney says, rocking back on his heels. He sounds pleased. "Well, yes, of course. Carry on."
"Your Majesty," John murmurs, leaning in. He groans when Rodney fists his hands in John's hair, holding him in place while they fall into a long, slow kiss. John's hands shake as he paws at Rodney's pants, and he breaks away from the kiss long enough to glance down quickly, yanking down the zipper. With a hiss of triumph, he palms Rodney's ass, squeezing, pulling their bodies together.
"Oh, god," Rodney says, the words muffled against John's shoulder. He loops one arm around John's neck, the other around his back, and holds tight as John rocks them together. Slowly, with little tugs and nudges, their clothing falls away, pants and boxers pooling around their ankles. It's easy to step out of them, and then John dips his head down, sucking hard on the skin below Rodney's collarbone, and when Rodney breathes out, "John," he shifts back, taking both of their cocks in one hand and stroking, loving the sound of Rodney crying out in pleasure.
John kisses his way up Rodney's throat, biting his Adam's apple gently, and licking along his jawline, the buzz of stubble prickling on John's tongue. Rodney's mouth is open for him; John knows Rodney expects a punishing kiss, so John kisses him gently, a string of soft, tiny kisses along Rodney's upper lip.
"Oh," Rodney breathes out, and he shivers underneath John's hands. "You are just..."
"Mmm?" John asks, resting his forehead against Rodney's. Loosening his grip, he turns his wrist so the heads of their cocks bump and slide, his thumb skimming over and between them.
Rodney gasps, says, "Yes, like that," and thrusts into the circle of John's fist.
John can't concentrate on any one thing: there's the warmth of Rodney's palm on the back of his neck; there's Rodney's hot, wet mouth on John's throat. There's the feel of the muscles in Rodney's ass flexing as he pushes his dick against John's, and the noises he's making, and the way he's saying John's name.
"Oh, god," John says, and then, "More, right there," and Rodney wraps his fingers around John's hand, around both of their cocks, and squeezes, rhythmically. John's pushing forward and Rodney's pushing forward and then Rodney kisses him, biting and then sucking on John's bottom lip. John tears his mouth away, crying out, only to come back a moment later to kiss Rodney, kiss him wildly as he comes, hot and wet in their hands. Supporting Rodney with one arm, John jerks him off in short, strong strokes, waiting until Rodney's eyes squinch shut before letting go, sinking to his knees and sucking in Rodney's cock.
"Jesus, fuck," Rodney says, and he's coming in John's mouth, and John swallows, gulps it down, licking and nuzzling Rodney's cock until Rodney says, "Enough, enough."
They stumble backwards toward the bed, falling sideways onto the covers. John stretches out, watching Rodney through half-closed eyes, smiling when Rodney kisses John's forehead.
"Maybe she knew that I'd figure it out, anyway," Rodney says.
"Fine, okay," Rodney says. "You're right. I am excited."
"I know," John says. "I like it."
"That's 'cause you like me," Rodney declares. "Sorry, it's all the dopamine flooding my brain right now."
John smiles. "I do," he says. "It's just, you know. I can't hold your hand in the mess or anything."
"The only time I'd expect that is if you were keeping me from eating something that could kill me," Rodney says, reaching over John. "I've got some, um, there we go." He drops a few tissues on John's stomach. "Are you staying?"
"No," John says, wiping up. "I shouldn't."
"Okay," Rodney says, rolling over and swinging his legs over the side of the bed. "I'm going to take a shower."
"Maybe I could stay a little longer," John says.
Dialing M4L-019 is an exercise in stops and starts; the sixth glyph rotates twice before locking below its chevron, and everyone in the gate room is bound by tense apprehension as the seventh one falters, quivering, and then finally illuminates in the correct space. They send in a MALP to make sure there's a sustainable atmosphere and to suss out any immediately unwelcoming inhabitants.
There's a DHD only yards from the gate, there are good oxygen and gravity levels, and not a single life sign registers on the probe. The data returns show that Rodney was right about the energy source, anyway, with something massive churning away underground that makes the MALP practically bounce back through the wormhole. Ronon's eyebrows twitch up, and he exchanges a sharp, inquisitive look with John. Based on that information, they're definitely a go, but just because everything looks okay doesn't mean that John's about to let Rodney stomp on in, no matter how excited he is about the mission.
The excitement wanes after they've been hiking for a couple of miles through a rocky forest, the trees tall but thin, lean-looking, as though they'd all survived a great drought. Above their heads, the foliage is sparse, but it's still decent cover from the hot sun. On point, Ronon is as alert as ever, and as usual, Rodney's focused on the energy readings. It's Teyla's attention that's wanders; John watches her studying the patches of purple flowers they're passing by, her forehead creased in thought.
It's likely that no one has walked through these woods in centuries, and John feels less like an explorer and more like he's trespassing, as though he's mucking up something pristine.
Ronon steers them around a couple of pools of stagnant water, their surfaces covered by what looks like an iridescent gloss. John scuffs a few clumps of fallen leaves into one of the ponds, and a curtain of beetles lifts off the water, wings clicking, and dissipates into the air above them.
Rodney yelps, backing away and raising his tablet computer like a shield. Ronon's reliably unperturbed, saying only, "Not unexpected," and walks on, ignoring Rodney's bleat of objection.
"Very much unexpected, as a matter of opinion!" Rodney snaps, chin jutting out in defiance.
"If you stand really still, they probably won't attack you," Ronon throws back, and Teyla lays a hand on Rodney's arm.
"He is joking, see, they are already gone," she says, right as John says, "He's kidding, Rodney, chill."
"Excuse me for having the presence of mind to defend myself when bugs the size of my hand fly in my face!" Rodney says. He shivers. "Ugh."
The forest ends at the base of a valley, with meadows of waving, lime-green grass in front of them. There's a heap of dirt that looks promising to the left side, and on the right is a series of increasingly steep hills made purple by the flowers blooming at their bases.
"Still no life signs, right?" John asks.
Rodney consults the LSD. "Nope," he says. "I want to go that way." He points at the dirt mound.
They approach it cautiously, as any planet with insects might have other beasts, too, and maybe ones that like to sleep in abandoned structures, but when they get within a hundred yards of what now looks like a hard-packed dirt wall, it's obvious that this place has a built-in creature deterrent. The ground thrums beneath their feet. Tiny clods of earth jump and tumble over John's boots; Rodney's grinning gleefully, already edging toward a wide gap in the wall.
"Okay," John says. "We'll take the vibrations. You guys take the mountains. Just a couple," he tacks on, knowing Ronon would deliberately misinterpret his words and disappear for hours on a scouting trip. "See if there's anything past them, and hey, buddy system."
Teyla gives John a look that suggests he's brain-damaged. "With open radio contact, yes, Colonel."
John snags the loop on the back of Rodney's tac vest as he's inching past, holding tight while he and Teyla determine the next check-in time and then rolling his eyes at Ronon's cheesy double thumbs up of confirmation. Even with Rodney grumbling and straining forward like a determined bloodhound on the end of a leash, he waits until Teyla and Ronon have covered half a field before releasing his grip.
Rodney spins around and glares, so John cuts off any rendition of "I'm not your dog!" that's working its way out by saying, firmly, "Behind me," and raises his gun, flicking on the flashlight.
The crack in the wall is actually a deep gash, maybe ten yards long, which leads them into another meadow. This one has the same lime-green grass, only the blades have fronds at the ends, like tiny fingers or antennae. At the far end of this meadow is a stone archway, and Rodney makes a happy noise and picks up the pace. The vibrations haven't increased in strength as far as John can tell, though he's already annoyed by the constant low-grade reverberation.
Up close, they discover that the archway leads into a space carved out of the mountain.
"Like Mount Rushmore!" Rodney says. "Well, except. Less of a sculpture. More of a... um..."
John nods. "More of a source of ultimate cosmic power!" He snickers, picturing the blue genie from the Aladdin cartoon they'd watched recently at the wildly popular Athosian Kids' Choice movie night.
"Wow," Rodney says. "Get a grip on your inner Disney princess, Sheppard."
"Yet you knew the reference, Jasmine," John retorts.
Rodney's mouth falls open. "Yet you knew her name!"
"Let's drop it," John says. He gestures with his P90. "Look, stairs!"
The stairway narrows and then ends at the foot of a cool, dark tunnel, and Rodney stays close enough to step on the backs of John's boots a couple of times as they work their way down it.
Sweeping the flashlight beam up to the ceiling and down the walls reveals familiar-looking granite, which John finds cheerful, as though they're not poking around an abandoned planet somewhere in a largely unexplored, hostile galaxy.
However, it's nearly soundless inside of the mountain, which negates the comforting sight of the granite. "Creepy," John whispers, looking back at Rodney, who's nose-to-screen studying the glowing green numbers.
"Why could we feel tremors outside and not in here?" Rodney muses, directing the question at his tablet and ignoring John.
The tunnel ends at a door with scratch marks near the handle, gouges and several pale broken bits of – something unsavory. John makes a face.
"Ewwww, are those fingernails?" Rodney asks from over John's shoulder. "Something wanted in. This is probably the place," he concludes, and John pushes at the door with his foot, surprised when it gives, swinging inward.
They're faced with another staircase, this one with wider steps and thin strips of faint, glowing light on either side that remind John of the dimly lit aisles on a red-eye flight. The lightstrips brighten as they venture further down, rendering the flashlight on the end of John's P90 useless, but he keeps the gun raised, just in case.
Beside him, Rodney says, "Ooooh."
Slowing down, John asks, "Good ooh?"
"Maybe," Rodney replies. "Look at the walls."
John's been so busy staring straight ahead into the darkness that he's been ignoring the walls, which pulse gently with light. They've left the granite behind. John examines something that looks like a jagged mess of calcite, shaded with yellows.
"This is like the Crystal Cave!" Rodney says, reaching for the lumpy surface.
Dropping his gun to his chest, John grabs Rodney's wrist. "Don't touch it," he says, swallowing hard against an inexplicable feeling of warning tickling the base of his throat.
"I wasn't going to," Rodney says, sounding hurt. John knows damn well that Rodney was going to if he hadn't intervened, but he doesn't address it, instead asking, "Crystal Cave?"
"Really? You've never – well, of course you haven't," Rodney says. "Although there is this incredible new invention called the internet, perhaps you've heard of it in passing? Or ever picked up a book? No?"
"Since when do you read geology texts?" John asks, raising an eyebrow.
"Since when do I – oh, haha," Rodney says. "The word you're straining for is speleology, the study of caves, but it doesn't matter because it's not a 'geology' thing so much as a thing of interest, of which I have many, and they're varied, a varied variety of interesting interests!"
John chokes back a guffaw, but after catching a glimpse of the sheepish expression on Rodney's face in the pale, pulsating light, he lets the laughter out. "'Varied variety?'" he asks, mimicking Rodney's much-abused air quotes.
Rodney laughs. "Interesting interests!"
"Of which you have many," John says.
Rodney laughs again. "Yes, of which I have many." His mouth curves into an inviting smile. "I wonder if you can consider a person an interest and not be considered a stalker?"
"You have any outstanding restraining orders I should know about?" John asks. "Am I going to find you camped outside on my balcony with a pair of binoculars?"
"Pffft," Rodney says. "If I want to see you, all I have to do is ask." Whatever emotion he sees on John's face, whatever John's not quick enough to hide, makes Rodney's eyes widen briefly and he sounds almost shy when he asks, "Right?"
John freezes up, and he replies with the first deflective answer to pop into his head. "You got it, buddy." He hates how fake his voice sounds, but he doesn't know how to take it back.
Rodney hears it too, and he blinks a few times, looking away. When he meets John's gaze again, there's a shuttered expression in his eyes that cuts John out. Glancing down at his tablet, Rodney says, "Good, good," in the same kind of glib tone that John's just used. "How much farther do you think we have to go?"
"Won't know until we get there," John replies. "Ready?"
After a brief, uneasy silence, Rodney's picks up the conversation, informing John that the Crystal Cave is a limestone cave in Ohio filled with large celestine crystals.
"You're right about the walls," John says, sounding as awkward as he feels, but Rodney appears not to notice, continuing on about the world's largest known geode, and in the next breath transitioning into a more familiar conversation pattern: the complaint.
"This is like back-to-back sessions on a StairMaster," he says.
"Going up'll be worse," John says. "No, I won't carry you."
Rodney moans dramatically. "Torture!"
The staircase ends just as the lemony light of the walls morph into a light green, the color of unfurled buds on trees. It's like watching a trippy lights show as the green sweeps past them and spreads, revealing a long, large room that's approximately the size of the Atlantis gate room, with long crystalline stalactites hanging from a ceiling that's just as high.
"Hello!" Rodney yells, his voice shockingly loud, and John absolutely does not flinch in surprise.
"Give me a stroke," he mutters, and Rodney makes commiserating noises and taps on his tablet.
In the center of the room stands a grandiose stone pedestal topped off with one of those reflective balls that people stick on stands and put on their lawns, only it's a lot bigger and an opaque milky white.
Rodney circles the ball, which looks like a funky round coffee table, with the bottom half embedded in the stone. "I'm going to have to touch it now, Colonel, don't freak out," he says, and John scrunches up his face in reply, noting that they're back to titles. Why couldn't he have just said yes, and any time you want.
There's a gritty, beige substance on the ground that looks like roughly ground barley. Using his boot, he sweeps away a space on one side of the stand that's large enough for Rodney to kneel on, and Rodney shoots him a strange look but crouches down. John watches while Rodney fumbles over all sides of the pedestal, presumably looking for a control panel, but comes up empty-handed. Nothing jumps out of the ball and attacks them. The ceiling doesn't turn red or shriek out an alarm.
"Hm," Rodney says, making himself comfortable on the floor, unzipping pockets on his vest and extracting – well, whatever tools he uses to figure stuff out. John leaves him to it, strolling around the cavern's perimeter.
At the far end, an area about the size of a whiteboard has been sanded away on the wall, leaving behind a smooth, gleaming surface marred by dark pictographs that look as though they've been burned into the crystal. The symbols suggest that at one time, a bunch of people wearing tall headdresses crammed into this room and worshiped a big-ass ray of light, or a torrent of water, or some other thing that shot out of their outstretched hands and connected with the sky.
There's another set of pictographs on the third wall, and he studies them, following a progression from just a few people with joined limbs – arms? wiggly headbands? - all the way to a mass of people, all linked to the next person in line. They remind John of the strings of cut-out paper dolls that had decorated the officers' canteen around Christmastime, that last year in Afghanistan, and he deliberately forces the thought from his mind.
Behind him, he hears unintelligible mutterings, and then Rodney releases one long, frustrated sigh. From experience, John knows not to interrupt just yet. Any offers of help will be rejected, so he'll wait a few minutes and then reappear by Rodney's side. He turns around in time to see Rodney hoisting himself up, leg crooked at an awkward angle, and then his knee buckles. Lurching forward, Rodney slaps a hand onto the ball.
Hurrying over, John reaches Rodney's side right as the ball glows, the milky white bits swirling around inside. Wide-eyed, Rodney looks at him and says, "Oh, shit."
The ball glitters, the strength of its shine increasing, and there's an ominous rumbling from the ceiling. John grabs the front vee of Rodney's vest and pulls.
Rodney's body moves, leaning toward John, but his hand does not.
John yanks harder, throwing his weight forward, and Rodney cries out in pain. Letting go, John pitches off to the side, off-balance and blinded by the glare. Seconds later, he's regained his footing, but the bright light has already dispelled, the rumbling noise ceased, and Rodney's still standing, looking like Rodney, without any missing appendages, and there's no blood or visible scrapes or cuts.
Tapping his earbud, John tries to raise Teyla or Ronon, but the radio hisses static. The doorway's intact and green light still flutters in the outer hallway, but there's no way he's leaving unless Rodney's next to him.
"Sitrep," he says reflexively.
Rodney looks terrified.
"What the hell were you thinking, touching it!" John yells, suddenly terrified, too.
"I didn't mean to!" Rodney yells right back. "Oh right, because this morning I thought, let's be sure to get stuck to an unidentified object on an unknown planet in the dark depths of a cave today. Excellent, can't wait!"
"Okay, okay," John says, running his hand up his forehead and through his hair. His heart thunders hard in his chest. "Are you okay?"
"I can't move my hand," Rodney says, and they both look to where it's splayed open on the surface of the ball.
"Can you move your fingers?" John asks, and Rodney tries, and then he says, "No."
John's mind races, thinking of ways to disassemble the stand, if they could separate the ball from the stone, how to take the whole thing back to Atlantis, contacting Teyla, sending for more help, if Beckett can come right away, and where to find something for Rodney to sit on, because he's shaky and looks like he might throw up. "Does it hurt?"
"Yes," Rodney says promptly, and then, "No. Not really. It tingles. It's kind of cold. It feels –" His mouth opens and closes. "Feels –" His eyes glaze over.
"McKay!" John yells.
Head snapping up, Rodney stares at John. "When there existed only darkness and sparks of light, two great giants waged a war in the sky. The first giant wore garments made of seedlings, and was revered for its benevolence. The second giant had trappings made of cinder and was known for its madness. The giants competed to see who would be the first to create a world. The mad giant prevailed, bringing to life a vast, yellow desert with temperatures so high they could not be sustained. The world melted and became the sun."
Rodney gasps, his body convulsing, and John doesn't care if he shouldn't touch him. He grabs hold of Rodney, pulling him into a hug, and Rodney blows out a harsh breath and whispers, "Sheppard," into John's ear.
"Thank god," John says, tightening his hold.
"What the hell was that?" Rodney asks.
"You're asking the wrong person," John says. "Hey, your hand."
Rodney's hand is no longer attached to the scary ball.
"Pack up your stuff, we're getting the hell out of here," John says.
"All packed, let's go," Rodney says. He burrows four fingers under John's utility belt. "I'm ready."
John surveys the room one more time, but it looks exactly the same as it did when they arrived, and they leave without experiencing any more weirdness.
Rodney's heaving in gasps of air by the time they get to the entrance of the cliff, but he doesn't complain or even talk until there's a meadow between them and the carved entryway. John steers them toward the gap in the dirt wall, working on raising Teyla or Ronon on the radio.
"The ground's still," Rodney says. "Why isn't it moving?" He whips out his tablet and goes back to work.
Teyla finally answers. "Colonel, we are fine. We've seen," and then her voice is lost for a moment. "We have found a..." The radio crackles, wiping out her words. "...of interest."
"Didn't catch that, Teyla, say again," John says.
"...to a better spot. One minute, Colonel," Teyla replies. "Ronon's headed up."
Soon after, Ronon says, "Sheppard."
"We're coming to you," John says. "What've you got?"
"Did you feel something like an earthquake a little while ago?" Rodney butts in.
"No," Ronon says. "Meet us at the ridge."
There's a note of something uncontrolled in Ronon's voice. "What's up?" John asks. He'd rather get Rodney back to Atlantis and into Beckett's care. They can come back later.
Ronon says, enunciating, "Sheppard, trust me, you want to see this."
"Okay," John says, exchanging a puzzled look with Rodney. "We're headed your way right now."
When they crest the peak, John's vision blacks out for a split second, as though he'd passed out on his feet for the briefest moment, and from beside him, Rodney says, "Oh my god," and John can only echo the thought. Grabbing Rodney's arm, John jerks him down, so they're both on their bellies against the rock.
"Holy shit," Rodney whispers, and he looks a little gray around the edges, which is exactly how John feels; Rodney's thumbing in commands to the life signs detector and John's gripping his gun tight enough that his fingers hurt.
"We're almost to you," Ronon says on the radio, and John's looking for them immediately.
"It says no life signs, well, besides us," Rodney says. "Lying piece of junk!"
"We have seen no one," Teyla says from a few feet away. John remembers to breathe. "And I sense nothing."
Then Ronon's casting a shadow over them, and John clambers up, and stares.
It's a graveyard, maybe, or a parking lot: a deep valley, encompassing an enormous stretch of land, with only blue-gray dots of mountains visible at the other end, and it's filled with cruisers and hive ships and darts, maybe fifteen hives that he can see, double that for cruisers, and darts scattered like dandelions in an unkempt backyard.
"Museum?" Rodney asks, gaping. "Spare parts? Jiffy Lube?"
The ships are in various states of decomposition. Some look like they've been crippled during a firefight, with chunks missing and ragged edges. A few of the hives are cut nearly in half, and some are skeletal structures that look as though they'd crumble to the touch.
"And no life signs," John repeats.
Rodney confirms it. "Within the scope of the LSD, no. Beyond that, I can't say."
John turns to Teyla. "And no spidey senses."
Teyla shakes her head. "In hibernation, maybe. But Dr. McKay said not even... not even humans."
"No reason for them to stick around if there's nothing to eat," Ronon says, glowering.
"We'll have to come back," John says. "There's no way we'll be able to get into that valley before our check-in with Atlantis, and who knows what's further out."
"I say we light the whole place up right now," Ronon spits out, his hands curling into fists.
"Absolutely not!" Rodney says, his mouth round with horror. "This is a goldmine of Wraith tech. Some of these ships look like prototypes."
"If there is anything out there, it would be best not to let them know that we're here," Teyla says.
"She's got you there. Like I said, we'll come back. Rodney, wipe off that drool," John says, but it's hard for him to tear his eyes away from the canyon, too.
They have to leave, though it feels like he's showing his back to the enemy, as if he's tucking tail and trying to make a graceful exit. On that level, he gets why it's hard for Ronon, but there's a lot to take into account here. They still have to figure out what the hell happened in that cave; Elizabeth-in-stasis had a lot of faith in people she barely knew, and John's determined to make sure that trust wasn't misplaced.
"So I'll stay," Ronon says.
John shakes his head. "Forget it. End of discussion."
Ronon's eyes narrow, but he takes point unasked, and they work their way back to the gate.
As they're walking, Teyla listens attentively to the retelling of their cave adventure, glancing at Rodney every few minutes after John mentions the folkloric tale that Rodney had spouted.
"The walls glowed?" Teyla asks.
John nods. "Yeah, does that mean anything to you?"
"Nothing significant," she says. "I know of a people who use a combination of light and caves for growing crops more quickly than they would in the fields, but I believe there's some application of heat, as well."
"Hydroponics," John says. "This room looked more like a meeting hall, someplace they could gather for a celebration, maybe? Or to hide during a culling?"
"It was really far down for a celebration spot," Rodney says. "Tell her about the pictographs."
John tries his best to describe them, but Teyla shakes her head. "It's too difficult to know for sure. Dr. McKay, can you tell me what you talked about during the –" She gestures fluidly. "During the possession?"
Rodney scoffs. "It was hardly a possession. You've noticed that the ground is no longer shaking beneath our feet, so presumably the sphere was some kind of giant on-off button. There was probably some residual energy left over from the last person who'd flipped the switch and then left it running for thousands of years."
"You truly believe it's that simple?" Teyla asks.
"I do. I bet it was only an imprint. It's possible that it liked me because of my ATA gene, or it could have happened to anyone, although probably it recognized my much, much higher than average intelligence." Rodney smiles as though struck by an amusing thought, and John's drawn to him, loves watching Rodney when his interest's piqued. "For which I commend it. I'm sure it's temporary. It'll fade quickly, if it hasn't already, or maybe you'll get to listen to me spout Aesop's fables around the dinner table tonight."
"Aesop?" Teyla asks, and then shakes her head. "Never mind. I'm more interested in the content of what you did say, Dr. McKay, than what you might not say in the future."
"Why? Oh, do you think that – I can't believe I didn't think of that!" Rodney says, his face lighting up with excitement. "Colonel, whoever these people were, whoever recorded that information and left that imprint, they could have lived here hundreds of thousands of years ago. It could have been a people that predated the existence of the Wraith, or it could have been people who worshiped the Wraith, or worked for them, even for an earlier evolutionary incarnation."
"So there could be something in the imprint that could identify new information or weaknesses of the Wraith," John says.
Rodney glares at him. "Isn't that what I just said? I hope the imprint's not too temporary! How can I trigger another history lesson?"
They're almost to the gate, from where Ronon's giving John the all-clear signal.
"You might think about what it was you said during the last one, and see if that focuses your mind on receiving another," Teyla suggests.
Stepping up to the DHD, Rodney starts the dialing sequence. "Okay, yes, good," Rodney says. "Um, it was something about once upon a time, blah blah blah, two giants warred with each other, one was good, one was bad. The bad giant created a desert that melted and became the sun."
There's a pregnant pause, and then Rodney swears. "Damn. Well, once we're back to –"
Ronon moves the fastest, catching Rodney as he keels sideways and bracing him up as he talks.
"Keep dialing," John instructs Teyla, and he helps get Rodney steadied. "Get a medical team to the gate room."
Rodney's covering his ears with both hands. "She was cast out. She sank to the ocean floor. She didn't know where to go, but she had to keep walking. Ghosts with sharp teeth surrounded her, biting and tearing away her skin. Her body was devoured and only her bones remained. She was nothing but a skeleton. She left the sea and walked on land. The wind passed through her; it could not touch her. The land was hers. She would rule it."
"Ghosts with sharp teeth," Ronon says, looking at John over Rodney's bent head. "Sound familiar?"
"Later," John says. Later they'll hash it out. Right now, he wants to see Beckett's familiar face, wants to hear physician-backed words of reassurance and the way to do that is to get Rodney under the scanner, pinpoint the problem and fix it.
The wormhole whooshes open, and John gets them moving.
Rodney's rushed off to the infirmary as soon as they're through the gate. After the quickest debrief on record, Teyla catches John's eye, leading Ronon off to the practice room to work off some of his frustration. Ronon's going to be pissed that John's not letting him join the two teams of Marines flying back to M4L-019, but John doesn't have the patience to reason with him right now. Elizabeth rounds up a pack of scientists headed up by Dr. Zelenka. They listen attentively to John's brief, and then rush off to gather their equipment. He meets up with his guys separately, gives airspace coordinates to Major Lorne and Lieutenant Donovan, and describes the graveyard in the face of their unease. He doesn't blame them, it's too difficult to picture, and they could be gearing up for a fight.
"Use the life signs detectors in your HUDs," he says. "You'll get a much better range than from any of the handhelds. I want several flyovers, I want confirmation that the entire place is completely abandoned, and I want a check-in from the air before you even think about landing. If you receive permission to land, everyone stays together; you step back and let the scientists get what they need for photos and samples, above-ground only." John stresses this last part. "Understood?"
Twelve voices shout in unison. "Yes, sir!"
"Good." John checks his watch. "I'll expect to hear from you soon."
Against doctor's orders – "But I can see that means damn well nothing to you lot," Carson gripes – John, Teyla, Ronon and Elizabeth cram into Rodney's corner of the infirmary, where Rodney's confined to bed rest and doing his utmost to make Carson regret that decision.
"Your sedative should kick in any minute now," Carson tells Rodney blithely. "Now stop whining."
"Sedative! You can't just knock me out. Did you really give me a..." Rodney trails off. "A... huh." He wiggles his fingers, scratches his nose, then looks up at everyone. "What?"
John wants to wrap his arms around Rodney and hold tight, so instead, he crosses his arms and stares at Carson. "Okay, what do we know?"
"Nothing different about his health or body as far as I can tell; his brain's in perfect condition too," Carson says, ignoring Rodney's happy hum of agreement. "There's a slight fluctuation in his EEG scan, but still well within normal range. More troubling is the pain he's experiencing during these episodes. Rodney, do you know what you're saying when you're giving voice to – to the – to them. The stories."
Rodney nods. "Yes, and I don't feel possessed or anything. I'm just passing along a message."
"In that case," Carson says, "I think that Rodney's theory of an imprint is correct, but I believe that what we're dealing with is a psychic imprint."
Rodney blows a raspberry. "Ppfffffrt."
Everyone looks down at him, and John arches one eyebrow in question.
"Psychic... supernatural... mumbo jumbo," Rodney says, laughing quietly. "Next you'll be telling me I have paranormal abilities."
They all look back to Carson.
"No, no, nothing like that," Carson says. "You didn't respond to any of the baseline tests for mental telepathy or telekinesis."
Elizabeth asks, "What's a psychic imprint?"
Carson clears his throat. "A psychic imprint, then, is an echo of an emotion, an emotional memory of an event. The natural environment acts almost like a sponge, recording and playing back that energy. More than likely, you two stumbled into a place that witnessed a great tragedy, and the sphere that you described somehow trapped the emotional energy sourced by its witnesses."
"Can it hurt him?" Teyla asks, and Rodney stirs, then scowls at Carson.
"I like my brain the way it is," Rodney says, a stringent note in his voice despite the sedative's effects. "I need my brain. Hell, you all need my brain."
"Calm down," Carson says. "It's a remote chance that your brain's affected, and we'll run tests again tomorrow."
"So it's like something horrible happened and someone took a picture of it and stuck that picture onto McKay," Ronon says, and Carson looks at him with surprise.
"Yes, that's an excellent way of putting it," Carson replies. "A psychic imprint is only a form of energy."
"That was a lot of energy, though, Doc," John says. "The ground was shaking."
"At the risk of sounding like I'm telling ghost stories," Carson says, "some people possess the ability to leave behind a psychic energy signature on objects, subjects, or even locations. It's directly related to psychometry, sometimes called an astral echo."
"An astral echo," John repeats, trying to keep the disbelief from his voice but failing, given the look on Teyla's face.
"Two years ago would you have believed that space vampires existed?" Rodney asks.
"Point," John concedes.
"I'd wager that Teyla is familiar with something called an empathic imprint, or an empathic echo," Carson says. "Someone with this faculty can, theoretically, imbue a place or a thing with empathic energy, so that anyone coming in contact with that place or object would have a particular emotion or emotional state imposed upon them."
Teyla nods. "Those types of imprints can last for a long time."
"Aye, and because Rodney's not experiencing any strong surges of emotion with his imprint, just the energy signature itself, I'm inclined to think it was a random occurrence. It should wear off relatively quickly, and shouldn't have any lasting consequences.
"Of course, this is a different galaxy, so there may be a different set of rules," he adds.
"Of course," John says, deadpan.
"Before we lose Rodney to unconsciousness, give me a run-down of these episodes," Elizabeth says.
"The first one was about – creation, I think," Rodney says.
Teyla nods. "You had said it told the tale of celestial giants waging war and then creating a sun."
"And the second?" Elizabeth asks.
"My head hurt more during that one," Rodney admits. "It was something about water and fish."
"It was more than that," Ronon says. "You talked about a girl who sank to the ocean floor and was eaten alive by ghosts with sharp teeth. She walked out of the water a skeleton and went on to rule the land."
"So, a clue about the social hierarchy, perhaps a matriarchy?" Elizabeth suggests.
"Possibly it's signifying the beginnings of a ruling lineage," Teyla says.
"The episodes do seem disjointed," Rodney says. "Like there's more to say, but I'm only getting bits and pieces."
Carson rubs his chin. "That would fit in with the idea of an astral echo."
"McKay, you should record yourself," Ronon says. "You said your head hurt more during the second one, so if you have a third, you might not even remember it."
"Terrific!" Carson exclaims. "I have just the thing, too, these little sticky buttons that you can put right onto your clothes."
"Do you often use surveillance equipment in your line of work, Doctor?" Teyla asks with light humor.
"We use them for monitoring purposes," Carson explains. "You gave them to me, Rodney, said you had no use for them."
"You want me to bug myself," Rodney says.
John smirks at him. "You can't escape them today."
"Fine," Rodney mutters.
"All right, I think that wraps this up for now," Elizabeth says. "We'll meet again when the teams return. Rodney, feel better." She gives a little wave and leaves.
"Teams?" Ronon asks.
Ignoring the look of betrayal on Ronon's face, John taps his earbud. "Major Lorne, you have a go." Addressing Ronon and Teyla, he says, "You two, get some rest. We have a lot to cover tomorrow. I mean it, Ronon. Run it off if you have to." He pokes Rodney's shin through the thin hospital blanket. "Don't go anywhere."
Rodney's lying back with his eyes closed. He waves at John as though he's conducting an orchestra.
John follows everyone out, making sure that Ronon's headed to the residential section, and then he turns his attention to Carson, who's jotting notes in Rodney's chart. "How long will he have to stay here?"
Carson waves at John much like Rodney had, replying, "Oh, he can leave now, Colonel. He'd probably rest easier in his own bed."
"You didn't really sedate him," John says, amused.
"No, I did," Carson replies. "With a dose I'd feel comfortable giving to a child." He smiles, fiddling with his pen. "He only needed a bit of a cushion. Physically, he's fine, and that we can tell, the imprint's not affecting his memory or personality. Let him know to radio in if he has another episode."
"Can do. I'll keep an eye on him," John promises.
"Colonel," Carson says. "Don't forget the bug." He hands John a small blue dot. "Affix it to a shoulder, on the outside of his clothes and push once to activate. It'll record voice, pulse rate and brain activity, for approximately thirty hours."
"Gotcha," John says, then goes to rouse Rodney.
Rodney's quarters are along a direct route from the infirmary, with only two transporters and two hallways in between, something John appreciates as he's herding Rodney to his room; for whatever reason, Rodney wants to run his hand along the walls as they walk. After Rodney argues with Dr. Collins over who has the right of way, the doped-up invalid or the half-witted radiobiologist, John lets it drop that Rodney's sedative wasn't exactly an elephant tranquilizer.
"Thank god," Rodney says, sounding relieved. "I was afraid I'd built up a tolerance."
He keeps to the middle of the hall after that, at John's side, and occasionally the backs of their hands brush together.
John leaves Rodney at his door. "You, shower," he says. "I'll grab some sandwiches from the mess, and then I'll be back to tuck you in." He grins at the look on Rodney's face.
"What am I, five? Will you read me a bedtime story?" Rodney says. "If Sergeant Poulsen's on duty, bring back some of that iced tea she makes, too."
"Maybe," John says. "If you remember to put on your footie pajamas."
Rodney sneers at him, but there's a smile layered underneath it, and John keeps that in mind as he jogs down the hallway.
Later, they're spooned up in Rodney's bed, clean, warm, and fed. John's watching the steady, comforting rise and fall of Rodney's chest, and then Rodney rolls over and catches him at it.
"What?" Rodney demands.
It's obviously been a long day, because John can't seem to control his mouth. "I would have brought that whole damn ball back to Atlantis if it hadn't let you go."
"Really," Rodney says. "And how did you plan on accomplishing that?"
"I don't know," John answers. "But I would have figured it out. I wouldn't have left you there."
Rodney sits up, putting one hand on John's chest. "Not that I don't appreciate the sentiment, because believe me, I do," he says, "but if you'll recall, the radios were out. If you had to leave to one, find help, and two, rescue me, I would have managed."
Slowly, John shakes his head. "Nope," he says. "Teyla and Ronon would've found us eventually."
Rodney leans forward and kisses John. "Very funny."
"'M serious," John says. Having someone to come home to is new for him, and with Rodney it feels as though John's made the right decision, but that doesn't mean it's anything like love. He has to be firm on this point, and not reveal too much, because then Rodney will make the smart decision and end it. John knows this, yet he keeps talking. "We could have camped out there and waited for the Daedalus, or blown the whole thing up, or you'd have come up with something."
"You are serious," Rodney says, gaping.
"As a heart attack," John quips, but he's guessing that his smile doesn't quite reach his eyes.
"I – I thought that we're, you know," Rodney slides his hand up John's chest. "Taking it slow. Having fun." He sounds hesitant, a little crease of a frown on his forehead.
"Absolutely," John says. "Totally having fun." This time he forces the smile into his eyes, and it's a huge relief when Rodney buys it.
"Oh," Rodney says, and that single word is imbued with an emotion that John can't place. "Okay. Well, good." He sinks back down to the bed.
"Good," John says. "I have to get up to the control room for the check-in. Don't forget to turn on your bug." He kisses Rodney's temple. "I'll pick you up for breakfast."
"Mmhmm," Rodney hums, sounding distracted. He smacks his palm against the dot on his shoulder, and then John makes good on his promise of tucking Rodney in.
The teams arrive back on Atlantis sometime during the middle of the night. John vaguely remembers receiving the radio call, but his instructions are easy to recall: AARs before they go off-duty; collected data passed along to fourth shift; Lorne's presence at the morning staff meeting.
John's awake before the sun rises, and he finds Ronon skulking outside his door, so they get going on their morning run. Ronon's cooled off some, although John knows they could run a thousand miles and the tension in Ronon's body would still be there. It's selfish, but John would rather have a tense Ronon watching his back than a lax one.
The first half-mile is always the hardest for John, when the familiar aches twinge their way through his body. Every time, it's hitting that first plateau that reminds John why he loves this ritual. If all he's concentrating on is the thud of feet and the steady push of breath, then another part of his mind unlocks. The running becomes secondary, and sometimes he'll find answers – strategies, efficiencies, theories and infrequently, a revelation.
There's something from his conversation last night with Rodney that's just out of reach, and his mind ricochets off it like there's a raised shield, so John leaves it alone, focusing instead on the sound of Ronon's little grunts of exertion on their rhythm.
After shaving, John takes a fast shower, most of it spent with both hands on his cock, pretending Rodney's there with him and they're jerking him off together. That fantasy works a little too well, leaving John satiated, feeling boneless, and rinsing come off his fingers under the spray of hot water.
Ten minutes later, John waves his hand over the sensor at Rodney's door, surprised to find him already up and dressed, sitting at his desk and going over the uploaded data from M4L-019.
"Tell me that you slept," John says.
Rodney looks up. "I slept."
"Anything recorded?" John asks, avoiding asking how long Rodney had slept, because there's concern and then there's acting like a mother hen.
"No," Rodney says, already drawn back into the information on his monitor. "These readings are amazing."
John holds out his hand. "Food first. I'm starving."
Reluctantly, Rodney tears his attention from the computer, but when he greets John, it's with a kiss, and it's the first time he's done that. John licks his lips and blurts out, "The bug's off, right?"
Rodney looks disappointed. "Yeah, don't worry. You're still my little secret." He sounds bitter, and he turns away, grabbing a laptop from his desk and tucking it under his arm.
"That is not what I meant," John says.
Rodney raises his eyebrows just enough to convey that whatever John's answer is, it won't be good enough.
John sighs. "Rodney, you know I can't – it doesn't have anything to do with you. It's reflexive."
"You're ashamed," Rodney says, and it's not a question.
"No! No," John says. "Never of you."
Rodney's blunt approach to a topic that John would rather ignore forces the truth from him, and it's practically painless, so John supposes he should be thankful for that, especially when Rodney smiles at him like they've conquered something together.
John rubs at the side of his neck. "Breakfast?"
"And, there's your tell. Fine. I've turned the bug back on, Colonel," he says, brushing past John. He's lifting a hand to the door's sensor when he falls to his knees, dropping the laptop. John's crouching on the floor in the space of his next breath, a tight grip on Rodney's elbow, holding him as he shakes.
"When she was very hungry, she dulled the terrible pain with scraps of hide, but they did not ease her suffering. She continued to grow, despite this cruelty, and the giants only laughed. Every fourth passage across the sky, the mad giant turned away. The other reached out and gave her a great strength. It touched her hand and showed her the path. Her mind opened. She could feed. She grew strong enough to create more in her image."
Rodney's body spasms and he moans in pain.
"I'm calling Beckett." John's about to tap his radio when Rodney says, "No, wait. Just... wait. Wait."
They sit quietly for a few minutes. Rodney slumps further down, his head resting on John's thigh.
"What was that? That felt different," Rodney says, swiping a hand over his eyes.
"Different how?" John asks.
"How should I know?" Rodney grumps. "Just different." Reaching out, he fumbles for his laptop.
"What, what are you –" John says, exasperated.
Interrupting, Rodney says, "Okay, like something was rifling through my thoughts. Like I was giving something away in order to say what I did."
John's mouth goes dry. Maybe the imprint isn't so harmless.
"I need something to eat," Rodney says. "And then we have a meeting."
"This is basically the only time ever that you aren't demanding to go to the infirmary," John says. "It's weirding me out."
"It's for the greater good," Rodney says, sitting up and opening the laptop.
John snorts out a laugh. "I'm beginning to think you are possessed."
"I mean it," Rodney says. "If there's some information in this imprint that might help us in the war, then I'm all for it. I'm not thrilled it imprinted on me, but in the long run, if it means I'm less likely to die horribly at the hands of a –" he cuts off. "Wait. What do you think I was talking about, during that last episode?"
"I don't know," John replies, his mind still spinning with the possibilities that it's more than an imprint. It's a virus, an infestation, it's nesting in Rodney's brain, it's a parasite or a worm.
"Colonel," Rodney says. He snaps his fingers in front of John's face as though trying to break him out of a fugue state. "Forget what you're thinking."
"You don't know what I'm thinking," John protests.
"Yes, I do," Rodney says, smiling. "So forget it. Focus on what was said." He opens a blank document and affixes the bug-dot next to the touchpad, then presses it twice. Words appear on the page as though he'd typed them, and John leans in for a closer look.
"Did you give all of those bugs to Beckett? Because whoa, cool," John says.
"I'll find you some more," Rodney says. "I think we can assume it's a female protagonist. So far the episodes have covered creation and the beginnings of a matriarchy, and then we come to this one, which I think refers to some kind of life cycle. She's starving, but she keeps growing. She discovers she's strong, her mind open to everything around her, and then she feeds."
"The giants are metaphors," John says. "They're more mythical than anything."
Rodney nods, eyes skimming through the passage again. "What happens before she's able to feed?"
John reads it out loud. "'It touched her hand and showed her the path. She could feed.'"
"Oh my god," Rodney says. "Look, the data that came back, look at this." He pulls up a graph and then splits the screen, showing sheets printed with hundreds of linked hexagons in a honeycomb pattern. "While the power switch was on, it hid all of this, and after that first episode, I didn't even think to do a deep-ground survey, but look, this is at something like 1/4000th; to scale, and it's all underground. Alternate Elizabeth gave us a gate address to a planet that is riddled with catacombs. There's a Wraith ship graveyard. Pictographs showing beings linked by their heads. Folklore about a girl who feeds with her hand."
John shakes his head. "No way."
"Yes way!" Rodney says. "It makes sense. You know it does."
"Okay, but we already went to the Wraith homeworld, remember? Well, you weren't there the first time. Ford, Teyla, and I were, though," John says. "And then when we all went back, the ship was gone. Oh. There was only one ship."
"Yes, yes," Rodney says impatiently. "I don't think that was a homeworld. It was just a resting place, for hibernation." He takes a deep breath, glancing sideways at John, "Actually, I don't think the Wraith have been to their homeworld in approximately ten thousand years. I don't think they know where it is."
The next couple of hours pass by as though someone's stabbing the fast-forward button on John's life. Making a pit stop in the central spire. Meeting Teyla and Ronon at their usual table in the mess. Taking turns catching them up in between gulps of coffee and forkfuls of berry-oat sludge. The first part of the staff meeting, where they plow through the collected data concerning the underground cells. It all goes by in one big blur, screeching to a stop when Radek adds that neither of the two rooms they explored had power.
"Whoa," John says, infuriated, at the same time that Rodney shrieks, "What?"
"It was a kind of accident," Radek hurries to say.
"It was definitely an accident," Lorne says, turning an earnest expression on John.
"There is a good chance that the off switch Rodney threw did more than he realized," Radek says. "At the time, I mean."
"Explain," John bites out.
Under the table, Rodney's leg bounces an angry jig.
"So, is possible that the gigantic energy output was, in effect, holding up the ceiling. By the time we arrived back at the planet, there were holes everywhere," Radek says. "Is also possible that even if Rodney had not touched it, it could well have overloaded by itself, causing internal cave-ins. You were lucky to be in stable space."
Lorne picks up the narrative. "Parker was not so lucky, he fell into one and twisted his ankle. We had to go down to pull him out, and Dr. Zelenka convinced me to let him help."
"Why didn't you include that in your return check?" John asks, trying to keep his voice level.
"I did, sir," Lorne says. "You took him off-duty until Dr. Beckett clears him."
"He means why didn't you mention the holes, you idiot!" Rodney shouts.
"Rodney!" Elizabeth says, sounding scandalized, as though that's the worst thing Rodney's ever said in a staff meeting.
"Dismissed," John says curtly.
Lorne flushes, gathers his papers and stands up. "Yes, sir. Sorry, sir."
As soon as Lorne has left the room, Rodney turns to Elizabeth, demanding, "Do you have any idea what this means?" He points at Radek. "What percentage had collapsed when you left?"
Radek gestures, rocking his hand back and forth. "Maybe... five percent."
"So the whole area will be rubble within a week," Rodney says. "If there's anything we want, we'll have to get it now, or we'll be picking through tons of wreckage."
"Yes, that is it," Radek says.
"Great, just great," Rodney snaps. "Send me your projections. Also, I want you and Carson to go through these readings. I'm emailing the file right now."
"Rodney?" Elizabeth leans forward, steepling her fingers.
"It's material from the monitoring bug that Carson gave me," Rodney says. "I had another episode earlier, and it felt, well, I can't say what, but something felt different."
"Why didn't you radio it in?" Carson asks, glaring at Rodney, and then John.
John shrugs. "He asked me not to."
Carson's mouth falls open. "Because I'm only his doctor, and don't deserve to know what's going on, is that it?"
"We had too much to do," Rodney says. "Oh, stop giving me that look. This was more important."
"Wow, something more important than your brain, McKay?" Ronon drawls.
"Really, you missed your calling as a stand-up comedian," Rodney says. "Let's recap, shall we?"
John listens, but he's heard all of this before, so he watches each reaction to Rodney's theory. Elizabeth and Teyla both look contemplative; Carson's still vibrating with frustration, but he pays attention; Radek's eyes get wider as Rodney continues; Ronon appears bored, but under the surface he's interested.
"So, all good reasons why the imprint is shades of Wraith ethnology, and earlier this morning, Sheppard and I visited the holo-room," Rodney concludes. He types for a few seconds and a block of text shows up on the viewscreen behind Elizabeth.
Teyla reads it. "'Then one day our people stepped foot upon a dark world where a terrible enemy slept. Never before had we encountered beings with powers that rivaled our own.'"
"Straight from our hologram's mouth," Rodney says. "Ancient database. Same thing."
"Hm," Elizabeth says, looking at the words on the screen. "That would explain why the address wasn't in the database, and it's likely why I sent you there."
"Ronon," Teyla says. "I have been thinking about the flowers we saw, spread out in the woods, and on the hills."
"The purple ones," Ronon says.
Teyla nods. "They sparked something in my memory, but I couldn't place it until now. I believe they are called amaiesta, though I haven't seen them for quite some time."
"Okay, and," John says.
"They're a warning," Ronon says.
Rodney looks baffled. "What does that even mean?"
"It means we are not the only humans to have visited that planet," Teyla says. "Traditionally, amaiesta are seeded on planets that the Wraith occupy, or cull. It's a visual warning for travelers coming through the Ring."
"How interesting," Elizabeth says.
Teyla raises an eyebrow. "How quaint?"
"No, I –" Elizabeth stammers. "That came out wrong. It's really a perfect method, nothing to cover up or tear down, and bridging all dialects."
"There are a few others," Ronon says. "I figured you already knew. Like for welcome trade, or for really dangerous climates or creatures, places you don't want to spend the night."
"Now that's interesting," John says. "We could have avoided those damn salamanders."
"Tangents about Johnny Appleseed aside," Rodney says, "we need to get back to M4L. Some of those ships have to be prototypes, from when the Wraith were still mastering and perfecting their organic technology."
"It would be worth it to get down into a few of the honeycomb rooms, too," Elizabeth says.
John looks at her, surprised.
Elizabeth leans back in her chair. "Normally I wouldn't suggest it, but this is the Wraith we're talking about. If we can glean any information about them – their technology, how they reproduce, hive ship schematics – it could be extremely valuable."
"It seems safe enough," Teyla says. "The planet is uninhabited, and Dr. McKay believes they are not even aware of its existence."
"On that note," Carson says, looking up from his laptop. John assumes that he and Radek have been conferring over Rodney's bug data. "I'm not sure that's entirely true."
Shoving his chair back, Rodney strides around the table and leans over Carson's shoulder, studying the laptop's screen. "What in the world are you talking about, of course they – huh."
"What?" Elizabeth asks, and then Chuck's voice sounds over the PA system.
"Dr. Weir and Colonel Sheppard, please report to the control room. Dr. Weir, Colonel Sheppard, to the control room."
Elizabeth taps her radio. "On our way."
"I'll be right there," Rodney says, waving them away.
"Is your name Dr. Weir?" John says, rolling his eyes.
He follows Elizabeth up to the control hub, where Chuck's standing next to the scanning monitor, twisting his fingers together.
"What's up?" Elizabeth asks.
"It's the sensors, ma'am," Chuck says. "They've picked up four hive ships bearing down on our location."
Stricken, Elizabeth stares at the monitor. "Four?"
"How far away are they?" John asks. "Long-range, that's what, a few weeks?"
"They're on the short-range, Colonel," Chuck replies. "I'd guess that they were in hyperspace and following a path past our planet, but for some reason they've dropped out."
"What's the time frame?" Elizabeth asks, still transfixed by the images moving on the screen.
"A couple of days, maybe," Chuck says.
"Staff meeting just turned into something else entirely," John says. "I'll recall the teams, if you want to shut down gate travel."
"I do," Elizabeth says. "We need Radek up here; we'll need more information."
They're back to the conference room within fifteen minutes.
"Change of plans," John says. "We've got something more pressing than M4L – four hives, coming straight for us."
The round-eyed looks from Radek, Rodney, and Carson would be comedic if not for the circumstances.
"Actually," Radek says, looking at Rodney and then back to John, "we thought that might happen."
"I need a drink," Elizabeth says, staring down into her coffee mug. "A real one."
John nods. "Make mine a double."
"Okay people, from the top," Rodney says. "Let M4L be the Wraith homeworld. We've already gone over the reasons why it probably is, so working under that assumption, here's a question. Why don't they seem to know about it?"
"Well," Carson says. "It seems likely that –"
"They don't know about it because it's not a part of their current genetic memory!" Rodney exclaims. "Their planet is seriously old; they lived there long before their technology advanced to the point where living on ships full-time was even a possibility."
"Okay, but I still know to be wary of saber-toothed cats," John says. "They haven't been around for millions of years."
"Big cats with big teeth? I'll take you to a planet that has 'em," Ronon says. "Fur's waterproof, worth a lot in trade."
"Gentlemen," Elizabeth says, gesturing at Rodney, who's standing by the viewscreen, his arms crossed and tapping his foot.
"We're listening," John says. "Later," he mouths at Ronon.
"Remember what Carson told us about psychic imprints?" Rodney asks. "Something big, bad, and traumatic happened on that planet, and whatever evolutionary incarnation of Wraith that existed at that point in time purposefully forgot about it. All that's left is a vague inkling. Got it?"
Elizabeth says, "Go back to the inkling."
"Okay, look, in theory, you and I think that we know how to create fire without using matches, but since we don't have to do it, we selectively ignore the whole notion," Rodney says. "The Wraith know that at one point, they had a homeworld, but they don't know where it is, and it doesn't bother them that they don't know where it is."
"Take a breath, Rodney," John says, needling him. There's something satisfying about getting under Rodney's skin when he's in teaching mode, and maybe it's because there are so few people who can.
"What kind of traumatic event?" Ronon asks.
"I don't know precisely," Rodney says. "But I think it had to do with the Lanteans. The hologram said that the Lanteans were the ones who discovered the planet. 'A dark world,'" he quotes. "If our world was at war with the Wraith planet..."
"We'd try to destroy it," John says, finishing the sentence. "That would be the smartest strategic move, with bonus psychological repercussions."
Rodney points at John. "Bingo."
"It's possible that the Lanteans attempted to administer a kind of self-destruct, only it backfired, or maybe only worked on select areas," Radek says.
"A lot of the greenery was fresh," Ronon adds. He looks at John. "You noticed the trees, Sheppard. Like everything was recovering."
"Yeah, okay," John says. "How does all of this correlate to the hive ships on our radar?"
"It has to do with energy, and with these little episodes I've been having," Rodney says, ticking the items off on his fingers. "I told you there was massive power on this planet, and I wasn't wrong. It's too bad we can't actually do anything with it."
"I don't understand," Teyla says.
"The Lanteans reported that the Wraith had powers that rivaled their own," Rodney says. "There's no way of knowing exactly what they were capable of, but given what we've seen of their ships, I feel comfortable saying that they had figured out a way to compress energy.
"There's a way – well, several ways – to store energy generated at one time for use at another time. One of the most well-known ways involves, wait for it, limestone caves." Rodney smirks at John. "Geology of a sort, who knew. Anyway, somehow they were able to use the sphere as a conductor for a lot of energy, which in turn contained the imprint."
"So the Wraith wanted to, what, keep a record of their cultural history?" John asks. "They don't seem like the sentimental type."
"Ah," Rodney says, nodding. "Generally I agree with you, but in this case, they were preserving a record that likely includes things like advancements in technology, ship diagrams, important data, et cetera."
"What race doesn't yearn to know more about its beginnings?" Teyla asks. "Even if they are not what we might consider softhearted, history is important to any sentient species."
"So are weapons design and war strategies," Ronon says. "I'd like to see those."
"You're basically saying that the types of information that we store in the Ancient database could be in that imprint," Elizabeth says.
"Yes," Rodney replies. "But as much as it pains me to say, I don't have the right brain for it."
"The problem is that the imprint was not designed for a human brain," Carson says. "The types of synaptic connections firing in Rodney's head are suited to a race that uses telepathy as its primary form of communication."
"You said it wasn't affecting his brain," John says, reminded of his earlier thoughts of a virus loose inside Rodney's head.
"Well," Carson hedges. "Yes and no."
"So which is it?" John asks. "That seems like an important distinction." It pisses him off that Beckett's acting so blasé about something that could potentially hurt Rodney.
"It's not life or death, Colonel," Rodney interjects, his voice soft.
John wants to crawl under the table. He can't believe he's being so obvious.
Radek clears his throat. "We've looked over most of the data compiled by the monitoring bug. The bigger problem is that since Rodney's brain is missing the psychic link, it's producing side effects such as the episodes that he's been experiencing."
"His brain keeps trying to process the information from the imprint, and it's coming out in dribs and drabs of oral history." Carson throws a sympathetic look at Rodney. "No wonder your head's been hurting; the imprint's attempting to force connections where there are none."
"I'm still not seeing the relation of the episodes to the approaching hives," Elizabeth says.
"Each time Rodney has an episode, his brain is acting like a beacon and calling the Wraith home," Radek says. "Home to wherever he is."
John stares at Radek, then swings his attention to Rodney, who looks unhappy. "You're joking."
"Colonel, I wish I was," Radek says, adjusting his glasses.
"How is that even possible?" Teyla asks. "Surely if the imprint has not found Dr. McKay's brain a suitable match, it would fade away."
"Unfortunately not. We observed a significant spike in the electrical activity in Rodney's brain during his last episode, much higher than normal," Carson says.
"Higher than what should be possible," Radek adds.
"Explain," Elizabeth says, then raises one finger. "Without getting too technical."
Radek grimaces. "He's a radio transmitter."
"Not technical enough!" Rodney says. "Look, every time one of the billions of neurons in my brain sends a message – and as you would imagine, it's happening almost constantly – it generates a small electrical charge. It's been proven that electrical fields influence brain activity; Carson theorized that when I touched the sphere, I absorbed some of its energy. My brain's charges, plus the sphere's, combined with the imprint's latent energy, are all broadcasting a signal. This wouldn't necessarily be a problem except that when the imprint tries to force a connection to the nonexistent psychic network, well. It's painful."
"Oh," Teyla says.
"Additionally, in these circumstances, the energy signature struggles to make itself larger, to boost the signal," Radek explains. "It will cycle until – until there's no brain activity at all."
"How do we fix it?" Elizabeth asks.
"We do have a couple of advantages," Rodney says. "I can easily divert their attention from Atlantis by gating someplace else. They'll follow me."
"And we know where we are going," Teyla says. "That is, we know the planet's location."
"Yes," Rodney says. "We can get there before the Wraith, although we'd need to be quick. Their tracking technology is advanced."
John holds eye contact with Rodney, willing him not to look at Ronon.
"I imagine they've got a good lock on my, um, beacon," Rodney finishes. "And M4L is in this quadrant."
"So the closer that you are to the planet, the stronger the signal will be," John says. There's an answer here, he just has to concentrate.
"Yes, but the more pain he'll be in, too," Carson says, sounding concerned.
"What will break the connection?" Teyla asks.
"Extinguishing the main source of power, the sphere," Radek answers. "In theory."
"So McKay didn't turn it off," Ronon says.
"It transferred some of its energy to him, probably diverting resources from maintaining the catacombs," Radek says. "But it is still very powerful."
"The Wraith coming toward us think they're being recalled to their homeworld," Rodney says. "It's a fundamental genetic urge. There's no deterring them."
"Four hives," Elizabeth says. "That's at least forty thousand Wraith."
"Add in cruisers and darts," Ronon says.
Elizabeth shakes her head. "They're not going to buy the cloak this time around. What are we going to do?"
It's silent in the conference room for a few moments, and then John stands up. "Okay," he says. "I have a plan."
"I hate your plan," Rodney says.
Rodney's sprawled out facedown on John's bed, his words muffled by the pillow. Ripping open a condom packet, John puts it on, tugging on his balls as he smooths the latex into place. He kneels between Rodney's legs, sitting back on his heels.
"I know," John replies, kneading the backs of Rodney's bare thighs.
"I liked my plan better," Rodney says, sounding petulant.
"Your plan had no resolution," John says. He pushes his hands up the sides of Rodney's thighs, over his lower back, and down across Rodney's ass.
"So?" Rodney counters. "At least my plan wasn't horribly dangerous."
John laughs. "Your plan involved sneaking up on and then capturing a Wraith, transporting it to M4L, dragging it down into the crystal cave and attempting to transfer the imprint – without any idea of how to do that – and all the while in excruciating pain."
Rodney shifts on the bed. "Ronon said he'd get me a Wraith."
Looking down at Rodney, John says, "Is your lip – is that a pout?"
"No," Rodney says, sucking in his lower lip.
"Liar," John says, leaning forward and biting Rodney's ass cheek, listening to Rodney groan.
"Your plan is so messy," Rodney whines. "I know you think it's dangerous too, or else you'd let me come with you."
"I'm not letting anyone go who isn't trained to handle explosives," John says. "Except Ronon," he adds, cutting off further dissent. "The day you match him on the shooting range, we'll talk."
"Fine," Rodney says. "You'd better leave your comm open."
"Of course," John says. "You'll be with Teyla in the jumper, like we discussed."
John flips open the cap on the bottle of lube and slicks up two fingers. "Now, did you want to fuck or did you want to yak some more?"
Without waiting for an answer, he pushes his fingers inside of Rodney, in a smooth motion that makes Rodney gasp and say, "Oh, fuck."
"Yeah, that's my choice too," John says, smug, and he widens his stance, pulling his fingers out and twisting them on the slide back in. Leaning forward, he presses a kiss to the small of Rodney's back, sucking at the smooth skin there and then tonguing it.
Rodney shudders, rocking against John's hand.
"I like that," John says, licking his way down until he can rest his head on Rodney's ass and watch his fingers moving in and out of Rodney's body.
"I like it too, but you know what I'd like more?" Rodney asks, clumsily patting the top of John's head.
"Cock?" John asks, teasing, and then adds another finger on the next thrust.
"You... oh," Rodney says, panting. "I was going to say to turn over, but never mind, I'm good."
John laughs. Pushing his fingers all the way in, he holds them there, rubbing his thumb over Rodney's balls until Rodney tugs on John's hair.
"Okay, okay," John says. He sits up, pulling his fingers out and wiping them on the condom, but when Rodney moves to roll over, John stops him halfway, grabbing Rodney's knee and lifting his leg up so his heel rests on John's shoulder.
He kisses Rodney's calf, holding it in place and watching the flush of arousal on Rodney's neck spreading to his chest.
"This okay?" John asks, and Rodney says, "Yes, of course, John," his tone chiding and affectionate, and John's throat feels thick with tenderness.
He'd thought it would be a desperate, hard fuck, his worry for Rodney spilling into their bed. Now John wants to show Rodney everything he's thinking but can't say, since it's stuff that Rodney already said he doesn't want to know. John agreed to take it slow, so it's much too soon for passionate declarations in words, if he even knew how to do that right.
"John?" Rodney asks.
"Sorry," John says. He shuffles closer, stroking the head of his cock over Rodney's asshole, up and down, until Rodney reaches down and grabs hold of John's thigh.
John smiles. "Greedy."
"Making me wait!" Rodney says, but he's smiling too, and John has to look away before he says something stupid. He focuses on pushing in slowly, watching as his cock opens Rodney up, fills him up. Rodney's balls press against John's abdomen; John holds onto Rodney's knee, hitching him closer.
"Unh, yeah," Rodney says, pushing his hips up to meet John's shallow thrusts, and John's losing control already, kneeling up and leaning in, reaching down to clutch at Rodney's thigh, securing him so that John can move faster, go deeper.
"You feel," John says, breathing heavily, and then, "So good," and Rodney props himself up on one elbow and runs his hand up John's body from thigh to nipple. "Oh, god," John says, and he thrusts faster, relishing the sight of Rodney slumping down onto the bed, eyes closed, his mouth opening around a moan.
"Yeah, yeah," Rodney whispers, looking like there's nothing he's better at than taking John's cock, and John has to look away again, instead touching Rodney's stomach, caressing his sides and then wrapping his fingers around Rodney's cock and stroking it. It's still not enough, so John chases Rodney down, pushing both of his hands behind Rodney's neck and kissing him, wanting all of him, every way John can get it.
Rodney's hands slide down John's back until he's cupping John's ass, squeezing and pulling him deeper inside, and John groans into Rodney's mouth. They grind against each other in a slow, rolling loop of motion, Rodney's hips tilted up, writhing underneath John.
John's skin feels hot everywhere and sweat prickles across his back. Turning his head, Rodney breaks their kiss, gasping, and John lips at Rodney's earlobe, sucking on it and then kissing his ear. John's grunting with each thrust now, and he pushes his fists into the bed for leverage, rearing back, his knees protesting the sudden shift in position. He reaches out for Rodney's hands, pulling him up, jostling and rearranging their legs until Rodney's seated in John's lap, and when Rodney pushes at John's chest, he lets himself fall back.
"I'm going to, um," Rodney says, staring at John, a high color to his cheeks, his mouth swollen from kissing. He raises up, and then sinks back down, holding John's gaze.
"Rodney, yeah, please," John says, desperate for it, hips bucking up, his hands clutching at Rodney's thighs.
John thrusts up every time that Rodney comes down until he's so close to coming that he can't move, doesn't want to, never wants this to end. Rodney shifts lower, rocking his hips, bracing himself with one hand on John's chest. His head's thrown back, his hand moving on his cock, and John wants in on that. Licking his fingers, he closes them around the head of Rodney's dick, and Rodney shoves forward, gasping out, "Oh my god, John, yes, that," and then, "Don't stop," and finally, "Oh, I'm coming," and John says, "Come, come on."
"Oh, fuck," Rodney says, his face twisted as though he's in pain, and then he's pulling his cock away from John's hand, stroking it roughly, and he comes on John's chest. "Ohhhh, fuck," he says again, and then he topples forward, licking at John's mouth.
Opening his mouth for Rodney's tongue, John grabs Rodney's ass and squeezes it, pulling his cheeks apart, fingers trailing down to touch where Rodney's asshole stretches around John's cock. John's heartbeat roars in his ears. "Up, up, move up," he says, frantic, and Rodney kneels up, moving to straddle John's chest.
Tearing the rubber off, his cock throbbing, John sucks at Rodney's dick as he jerks himself off, rubbing the head of his cock between Rodney's ass cheeks. "God, fuck, Rodney," he grits out, and then he's coming, wetness on his fingers and maybe on Rodney's back, too, from the way that Rodney groans.
Rodney rolls to his side and John follows, wrapping Rodney up in a hug. He's murmuring against Rodney's shoulder, making happy noises, unaware that he's forming words until Rodney says, "John, yes, me too, you know that right," stroking his hands down John's shoulders, petting him, and John's words echo back to him: "Mine, you're mine, mine, I only want you."
John lands the puddle jumper near the gate on M4L-019. Three more jumpers land in front of him in a fan formation, and John taps his radio.
"Five minute check, set to go on my mark. Donovan, we'll be coming to you."
Donovan replies, "Copy that, Colonel. See you in five."
Turning to Ronon, who's lounging in the passenger seat, John asks, "Ready?"
"Oh yeah," Ronon says, a dangerous glint in his eyes.
Opening the bulkhead doors, he and Ronon crowd into the doorway, watching as Carson and Teyla unload the equipment that Carson had packed. They'd torn out one side of the padded benches to fit in a gurney and a special, highly stable IV stand.
"For the record, I strenuously object to this plan," Rodney says, unbuckling the front straps on his tac vest.
"We know, McKay," Ronon says, but he doesn't sound annoyed.
"However, seeing as how there aren't any other alternatives on the table," Rodney says, hopping up onto the gurney. "I'll make do."
"That's the spirit," John says. He checks the harness clip on his P90 for the hundredth time, and then he can't find another reason to stay. "Don't forget to cloak as soon as we leave. Carson, give it an hour, tops, and then get moving, even if you haven't heard from me. I programmed the coordinates, but you'll still need to steer."
"Thank you, Colonel," Carson says. "How ever would I have managed." He attaches two bags of saline to the IV pole, then connects the tubing.
"I figured you'd have your hands full, so it's one less thing to worry about," John says.
Predictably, Carson wilts. "That's very thoughtful of you."
"Plus, this is my favorite jumper," John says. "I don't want to have to tow it back to Atlantis."
"Funny," Carson says. "Why don't you worry about your part of this mission, and I'll watch over mine." He looks at Rodney, who's rolling his shirtsleeve up to his elbow.
"C'mon, Sheppard," Ronon says, and he hits the button to open the rear hatch. "See you guys later."
"Be safe, John, Ronon," Teyla says, and Carson adds his well wishes. He's cleaning Rodney's arm with an alcohol swab and the smell stings John's nose.
Rodney looks up at John. His eyes are already glassy from the painkiller that Carson had administered on Atlantis. "What if something goes wrong?"
"Not gonna happen, buddy," John says. "You're in good hands."
"What's been going right since we went into that stupid cave," Rodney says, and John looks at him steadily until Rodney says, "Oh. Okay."
"Okay," John says. He squeezes Rodney's shoulder, and then he's out the door.
It takes just under three hours to set all of the charges.
John pockets the detonation control unit, rounds up his guys, and radios Teyla. "How's it going?"
"We are well, Colonel. Dr. McKay has been restless, but his pain appears to be under control, and Dr. Beckett is keeping a close eye on the approaching hives, with an ETA of one hour, sixteen minutes." Teyla lowers her voice. "Are you nearly finished?"
"What's wrong?" John asks.
"I only wondered because Dr. McKay has been asking for you," Teyla says. "I want to give him an estimate."
"Not long, maybe twenty minutes," John says. "We're halfway down the graveyard."
"Very well," Teyla says. "I will let him know."
They arrive back at the lime-green meadow outside the carved entryway that he and Rodney had gone through only days earlier. Minutes later, Lorne's team pounds through the doorway. They're all out of breath, which John can appreciate – the mile or so of stairs is no joke.
"Colonel, that ball you told us about, it's growing," Lorne says, panting.
"Growing," John repeats.
"Yeah, it started changing shape," Lorne says. "Went from round to –" he gestures, moving his hands like an air traffic controller, "like, a column, as though it was building up to something," and John's reminded of the pictographs on the wall.
"Did you get everything set?" Ronon asks.
Lorne nods. "All squared away."
"That's what I like to hear. You're headed back to Atlantis," John says. "Last trip through the gate, keep it open and then dial back, as many times as you can. Shield up."
"Yes, sir," Lorne says, firing off a salute. "Call us from the road."
A day in a jumper with four other people and a space-hogging gurney is not John's idea of a good time. He's played six games of chess with Rodney, and some kind of card game with Ronon that requires a minimum of forty-two rounds and involves Ronon slapping John's hands a lot. Finally he plugs in his headphones and drowses.
The five of them celebrated, briefly, but the real bash is back on Atlantis. They still have several hours to spend together, the jumper floating in orbit, before John will risk going back down to the planet. He's praying that the gate's still standing, otherwise they'll be in for a long trek across the solar system, hoping for a ride from the Daedalus partway.
Carson's busy with research, skimming through a thick textbook with tiny print that hurts John's eyes to look at, and he's really not that interested in genetic sequencing, anyway. Teyla's either asleep or doing a great job of faking it, curled up under a blanket on the gurney. Ronon's going through what looks like a sanchin kata in the space between the hatch door and the portable card table where Carson's spread out his work.
Closing the bulkhead door, John flops into his seat and brings up the jumper's recorded digital imaging of the destruction on M4L.
"Again?" Rodney asks, looking up from his laptop.
"Oh yeah," John says, keying it so that the first image of ships covers half of the window display. He'll never get sick of watching the hives blink out of existence, one by one, or the heat signatures expanding and encompassing the area around them.
The honeycomb structures underground had imploded on schedule, sinking ships and then trapping them in the earth. Fire had ripped through the graveyard, turning acres of land into an inferno within minutes.
"I still can't believe you didn't save at least one of the prototypes," Rodney says.
"We grabbed some samples," John says. "You're welcome."
"Prototypes!" Rodney exclaims. "There had better be enough material for extensive testing."
"Four hives, Rodney," John says, still amazed that they pulled it off. "Ka-boom."
The explosions were spectacular. The mountain blew a little early, but the blast still caught the last hive as it landed. The rest of the honeycomb rooms beneath the ships gave way when the power sphere shut off for good. The hives were too big to make a straight liftoff, and an eruption of fire from the middle of the meadow shot straight through one of them, hitting two cruisers, which in turn exploded, raining down fire onto ground troops and commanders.
The worst part was watching as Rodney twisted against his restraints, howling in pain and drumming his heels on the gurney. When the mountain went up in flames, Rodney's body jackknifed as though he was having a seizure, bending so far forward that Ronon and John held him down while his limbs shook. The tubing in Rodney's IV kept slipping out of Carson's hands, and John had wanted to punch Carson in the face, hard. Whatever was in that needle of his had worked, though, and Rodney passed out and slept for fourteen hours.
"Four hives," Rodney says, and he smiles at John, reaching out across the space between their chairs. John reaches back, holding onto Rodney's hand and tugging on his arm, inviting him over.
Rodney brings his laptop and hands it to John. "I was looking over the bug data starting before we left Atlantis."
"Find anything?" John asks, and it feels good that he can sound careless about it, now. Radek had been correct – when the sphere died, so did the imprint.
"Yes, actually," Rodney says. "I had another episode right after Carson dosed me. I don't even remember it." He hits a few keys and the document shows up on the main display screen.
John reads the words to Rodney. "'The hunger roared inside, and many of her progeny fell victims to it, but she could not take them all. The Halo beckoned. She needed a disguise, and so adorned herself with the shells of her children. World after world was empty, and her mind was silent.
They were easy to trick. They followed blindly. There is a great world waiting for you, herd. Come and roam it.'"
"Wow," Rodney says.
"Creepy," John says, nodding.
"Not where I was going with that," Rodney says, and John turns to find Rodney staring right at him, an intense look on his face.
"What?" John asks, nervous.
Rodney leans down and kisses John, running his fingers through John's hair and pulling him close. It's a gentle kiss, and John's momentarily surprised at how easy it is to kiss Rodney back, and then he smiles against Rodney's mouth.
The gate on M4L-019 still stands. It's scorched and battered, and the DHD console is missing, but when Rodney dials Atlantis, there's a stable wormhole.
"Oh thank god," Carson says.
Ronon surveys the wreckage outside and nods, satisfied, at John.
"It's a start," John says, waiting for their IDC to go through.
"It's a great start," Rodney says. "We can come back in a week and scavenge. Well, maybe we should give it a month, just to let the dust settle."
"You want to come back here?" Teyla asks. "What if other Wraith picked up your beacon?"
Ronon says, “One of the ships could have sent out a distress signal.”
"We'll bring the Daedalus?" Rodney says. "Or we could put a satellite above the planet, and monitor its activity."
"Can we discuss this back on Atlantis?" John asks.
"Yes, yes," Rodney says. "I am looking forward to the party in my honor."
Ronon snorts. "What?"
"It was my plan that went off without a hitch," John says.
"It was my brain that started it all," Rodney counters.
"Yeah, exactly," John says, firming his grip on the controls.
"IDC received and confirmed," Rodney says. "We're good."
"So let's blow this popsicle stand," John says, and he thinks, go, go, go.