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The Taste of Apples

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Part I: No Joy


The first breath after stepping through the gate always seemed deeper, stranger, something foreign flooding into the lungs. It wasn't anything anyone admitted to out loud, but they all felt it sometimes, that they were all so far from home and the very air was wrong.

The second breath usually came easier.

Usually.

Sheppard pulled alien air deep into him, fighting the urge to hold his breath instead.

The atmosphere of MX9-M41 wrapped around them like a wet blanket, clammy wool warm, mold musty and thick on the back of the tongue, heavy with moisture that immediately began soaking them to the skin.

Teyla and Ford fanned out automatically. McKay brought out a hand held scanner and began quartering back and forth, searching for energy readings. Sheppard stayed with him, one hand resting on the butt of his P90 out of habit born from experience.

Moisture already beaded on Sheppard's black aviator glasses. It darkened McKay's head and dripped from the tips of Teyla's hair. Ford wiped his palm against his already damp BDUs uselessly.

McKay grimaced and swiped his fingers over the active read out.

"Anything?" Sheppard asked. He slipped off the glasses and tucked them into a pocket on his vest while squinting against the opalescent light that reached through the thick cloud cover.

"Many things, I'm sure, Major," McKay snapped back. He frowned at the scanner before shrugging. "Or, really, not much. There's a small energy spike," he pointed, "that way."

Sheppard's eyebrow rose. "Thataway?"

"Yes, Major, thataway," McKay said, sounding peeved.

"Precise directions there, Doctor McKay."

"Let‘s just do this so I can get back my lab and oh, a few unimportant tasks there, like saving the city." McKay rocked back on his heels, smiling to himself. "Again."

Ford ducked his head, hiding a smile.

"Major?" McKay prompted.

Sheppard narrowed his eyes. His hair was plastered to his head already. Sticky sweat gathered under his arms and down his back under the weight of his flak vest and pack. Getting off of MX9-M41 sounded good to him.

"I'm ready to go," McKay declared, insufferably pleased with himself for wrong-footing Sheppard.

'I'll get you,' Sheppard mouthed at him. "Then, by all means, let's go," he said aloud. He looked around and grimaced. "It is worth checking this out, right?"

McKay wiped his forehead. "It will be if we find a fully or even half charged ZPM."

"Okay." Sheppard tried to shrug his pack into a more comfortable position and said, "Let's move out."

"Sir, maybe we ought take a navigational fix first?" Ford suggested quietly.

Sheppard's eyebrow rose. You too, Ford?

"Lieutenant?"

Ford backpedaled quickly. "I mean, just look at this place." He waved at the dull vista stretching in every direction from the Stargate.

The gate stood at the center of a vast, pale plain. Unvariegated, light brown-gray, it was dotted at regular intervals by unnervingly identical columns of some charcoal brown material. In the distance, a white plume of steam rose from a natural geyser.

"If it's like this everywhere, once we're out of sight of it, I wouldn't bet anyone could find their way back to the gate, sir," Ford said.

Sheppard's lips twitched as he suppressed a smile. Nice save, he thought.

McKay rolled his eyes. "We can always use the scanner to find the Stargate. It's probably the most powerful energy reading on this benighted planet. Can we just get on with it? There's mold growing on us already."

"Teyla?"

"It would be wise to be cautious," she said. "I know nothing of this world."

Sheppard nodded to Ford to go ahead.

"There's nothing to know," McKay muttered. '"It's the most boring world we've ever set foot on."

"Excuse me for not consulting the Michelin Guide to the Pegasus Galaxy and only planning missions to the four star planets," Sheppard replied. A half smile lifted his mouth and his eyes glinted.

"No," McKay said immediately. He frowned exaggeratedly. "I demand my money back."

"I can't believe an allegedly brilliant man like yourself didn't read the fine print, Doctor: no returns."

"We'll see about that once I find a fully charged ZPM."

"So, Rodney, what was that direction you told us about?" Sheppard asked. As usual, a little snap and snarl with the irascible scientist had improved his mood. He liked the sarcasm and bitter wit McKay brought to every situation, even the insults and complaints. McKay simply let fly with the internal monologue most people censored. "Thataway?"

He turned a slow circle, thinking the utter sameness did disturb a person.

They had no shadows, no stars or sun to guide them, in the half light of the day.

McKay checked his scanner again and started forward. Sheppard accompanied him, stepping off the metal apron the Stargate sat upon and onto the pallid, almost smooth appearing earth. The soles of McKay's boots sank into it immediately. So did Sheppard's.

"Teyla," he commanded, "take point. Ford, you have our six."

Teyla nodded silently and moved ahead of them with long, easy strides.

"Ugh," Ford commented a moment later.

Sheppard turned and walked backwards, trusting McKay to warn him of anything in their path. He looked inquiringly at Ford, who was glowering at his boots.

Maybe finding their way back to the gate wouldn't have been a problem anyway. Their boots left sunken, dark tracks that showed no signs of disappearing soon.

"Ford?"

"It's spooshy," Ford said. "The ground, sir."

"Spooshy?" McKay echoed. "Don't get too technical there, Lieutenant. It's some sort of ground cover. Like ice plant, only… not." He donned gloves, crouched and scooped a sample into a vial. It was actually a semi-transparent mat of thin, hair-like growths. Pressure bruised the almost fleshy sprouts; they had a high moisture content apparently and broke easily under his fingers.

"What would you call it, Rodney?" Sheppard asked. "Because I'm favoring 'smooshed', myself."

McKay studied the damp, sap-like stains on his gloves. He shrugged, carefully stripped off the gloves and slipped them into a containment bag that sealed and went into a pocket. Dr. Fayruz had lectured him repeatedly on proper protocol in alien environments, but he was still an astrophysicist, not a xenobiologist, and he forgot half the time. The rest of the team tended to be cavalier too: Sheppard and Ford were military and Teyla was just used to waltzing through the Stargate on trade missions for her people. They all tried, but if they'd followed all of Ghulzur Fayruz' precautions, they'd never have stepped through the Stargate at all.

"Gummy?"

"Gooshy," Ford said immediately.

Sheppard faced forward again, catching up to walk parallel to McKay in three strides.

"Gooey," he said.

"Yucky."

"Pasty," McKay offered fast.

Ahead of them, Teyla laughed quietly.

"Slimy."

"Squishy."

"Muddy."

"You're the Marine, Ford," Sheppard corrected. "You should know this is not muddy. Even an Air Force airhead knows mud is sticky and up to your knees."

"Exactly how does a flyboy know mud?" McKay asked. "Aren't you supposed to be above that?" He looked at Sheppard expectantly. "What exactly were you doing down in the dirt?"

Sheppard smiled his open, easy going smile, the one he used to hide things.

"Survival school."

"Hmph. You must have been at the bottom of your class."

Sheppard shrugged. He'd been in the middle, just where he always tried to be, putting in just enough effort to keep from drawing attention through failure. The only thing he'd ever let himself noticeably excel at had been flying.

Their course brought them slowly closer to one of the tree-like growths that speckled the plain at unnervingly even intervals. The flat expanse they traversed had fooled the eye, the sheer size of the growths making them seem closer than they were.

An hour passed, punctuated by McKay's complaints about walking everywhere when they could have flown the jumper. His feet hurt. His pack was too heavy. The flak vest Sheppard insisted he wear under his gear vest on off-world missions chafed. The weird, low light glare was giving him a headache. His blood sugar was getting low - that got him a power bar from Sheppard, because he didn't want his favorite scientist keeling over from a hypoglycemic reaction. He proffered it with an indulgent expression, but he‘d got the Beckett lecture the first time he proposed taking McKay off planet; he knew he had to take McKay seriously about that. Thus Sheppard had taken to carrying a couple extra just for McKay— not that he admitted it.

The growths didn't resemble trees when approached. There were no limbs or leaves , just a charcoal-brown column the girth of a thousand year old sequoia spiking into the misty sky. Absolutely no sign of chlorophyll or anything equivalent to it.

The ground around it showed the first difference they'd seen since leaving the Stargate. Dust piled in little, cinnamon drifts in a circle around the towering monolith. It boiled up in puffs under their boots, adhering to the sticky goo smearing the soles and uppers.

The surface was uneven. At first it looked like bark, but a second look revealed an almost fleshy texture. It was honeycombed with hollows ranging from the size of heads to boulders. The edges were faintly darker and fine enough that they seemed to breathe and flutter. The same brown dust clung to them.

McKay stuck his hand out.

"Don't do that," Sheppard snapped. "Don't touch it."

McKay snatched his hand back and glared. "What? I'm five years old? Have you ever seen anything like this, Major? I'm the scientist here. Please, stick to polishing your guns and let me do my job."

Sheppard shrugged and said, "Could be acid or poisonous, you know. Those could even be mouths or have some sort of creature living in them like nests. Like you said, I've never seen anything like it. Be my guest though, since you're the smartest man in the galaxy. I'm sure I'm wrong."

"Mouths?" McKay squeaked. He danced back from the monolith, arms wavering, looking horrified. "Mouths?" He eyed the monolith with a good deal more suspicion, but straightened his shoulders after a moment. "Of course, you're wrong, Major."

Sheppard eyed him, noting McKay hadn't approached too close again. "If you say so."

Ford tipped his head up, dark eyes squinting even under the bill of his cap.

"You know," he said, "This thing reminds me of a mushroom."

"A mushroom," McKay repeated scornfully. "It's four storeys tall and wider than a Buick. What have you been smoking, Lieutenant? Please leave the xenobotany to the professionals."

"Isn't that soft science, McKay?" Sheppard interjected.

"Uhm, but have you seen Dr. Selig? He'll break me into little tiny pieces if I don't bring back samples for him. Nina Mizaki is even worse. Lock her in a room with a Wraith and she'd probably suck the life out it," McKay said.

He accompanied his words with pulling out gloves and sample vials. "Do something useful, Major. Hold these."

Sheppard took the vials.

McKay carefully tore a chunk of gray-brown material off the monolith, dropping it into the open vial Sheppard proffered helpfully. A cloud of the brown dust flew up and settled on him. He blew out a loud breath, sending the still hovering stuff onto Sheppard.

Sheppard choked and coughed. "Oh, great, thanks, Rodney."

McKay ignored him.

"There's something hard underneath this, which makes sense because anything this size would require a support system to keep from collapsing under its own weight," McKay said. He bounced on his heels a little. "Gravity feels approximately the same as Earth and Atlantis. Do you suppose the Ancients only established gates in orbit or on planets within a narrow gravitic spectrum? No use putting one in the gravity well of a gas giant or something unless there was something there they wanted. Even with their technology a high gravity planet would be hell to work on."

"McKay, can we save the speculation for when we get back to Atlantis? We still have to hike to wherever your energy reading is and back."

McKay examined the area where he'd taken the sample.

"I need something to pry some of this loose."

Sheppard unsheathed the combat knife he carried at the back of his belt and offered it. McKay's Adam's apple bobbed as he took it, eyes locked on the dull gleam of the blade. He took it tentatively, clearly steeling himself to do so.

Sheppard raised an eyebrow, wondering if he hadn't just made McKay flashback to being tortured with a similar blade. He hadn't acted bothered by knives before, but that could have been bravado.

"Well, I suppose this will do," McKay said. He set the knife point to the spot where he'd taken the first sample and began prying.

Nothing happened.

"Come on, McKay."

"This material is harder than it looks!" McKay complained. He pried harder. Tendons strained in his neck.

A small chunk cracked off, flying past Ford's shoulder to fall on the pale ground. The sound that accompanied it was the distinct crunch of a bug under a boot. McKay stumbled back and Sheppard steadied him with one hand.

"Wow."

Sheppard arched his eyebrows, smiling. "Wow?"

"Okay, okay, I wasn't expecting that," McKay admitted.

He gestured carelessly, forgetting the knife still in his hand. Sheppard dodged away.

"Ah, you want to hand that back, Rodney?"

"What?" McKay looked at the knife in his hand. "Oh. Here." He held it out.

Sheppard took it back, wiped the brown dust on it off on the leg of his BDUs and slid it back into the sheath.

McKay fished up the sample from the ground. He studied it, turning it in his hands. "This looks a little like chitin," he said thoughtfully.

Sheppard checked it out over his shoulder. "Bug shells?"

"That would be acetylglucosamine. This could just as likely be chitosan, a polymer composed of pure glucosamine. Presuming, of course, that this planet boasts anything like glucoaminoglycans in the first place. I said it looked like chitin."

McKay sounded annoyed, as usual, frowning down at the sample.

Sheppard held out the sample vial.

McKay dropped the sample inside, sealed and then stashed it with the other vial in his vest.

"Major, we should all drink some water," Teyla said. "It would be easy to become dehydrated, despite the moisture in the air."

"Like spending too long in a sauna."

"Please, save me from the image of you in nothing but a towel, Major," McKay said, rolling his eyes. He'd stripped off his gloves with a snap and was unconsciously massaging his arm where Kolya had used a knife on him months before.

"Now you're just trying to hurt my feelings."

Ford snickered.

"Get over yourself, Major."

"Look, let's just do what Teyla said and then keep moving."

Sheppard suited his actions to his words, taking a drink from his canteen, then walking away.

McKay waited a beat then called out.

"Wrong direction."

Sheppard elaborately pulled out his binoculars and peered around. Once they were returned to their case, he waved at McKay.

"Lead on, Rodney."

McKay checked his scanner and started out.

"I just want you to know that if I get foot root because my socks are wet, I expect someone to carry me back to the gate."

"If we find a charged ZPM, I'll carry you piggyback," Sheppard promised.

"No brains, but strong backs. I knew you grunts had to be good for something."

Ford sneezed.

"Dust," he said.

Some of it had settled on all of them, even Teyla. She scrubbed her hand over her bicep thoughtlessly. "I shall be very happy to return to Atlantis and bathe," she admitted.

The three men looked at each other. McKay started to open his mouth. Sheppard started to smile, while Ford mimed 'no, no, no.'

Teyla turned back to them. "Are we waiting for something?"

"Nothing, Teyla," Sheppard said, now grinning.

"Nothing at all," McKay agreed. He pulled out the scanner and pointed out their course.

Ford just ducked his head.

Teyla took point.

McKay waited an extra moment to mutter quietly, "I'd just like to take this moment to express my sheer admiration for what she can do for a pair of BDUs."

"Doctor McKay, that could be construed as sexual harassment."

"This from the Captain Kirk of the Pegasus Galaxy."

They started after her.

"At least let me be Han Solo. Now there was a pilot."

"Just as long as you're not making me Darth Vader."

"Nah," Sheppard said. He bumped his shoulder into McKay's. "You can be C3-PO."

"Oh, thanks ever so much."

Another hour passed before they sighted a difference along the horizon.

Teyla paused.

"Major."

Sheppard scanned with his binoculars again.

"Well?" demanded McKay. "Can we get on with this?"

"Buildings," Sheppard said. He focused on the shapes in the distance. They were the same pale, grayish shade as the ground, only distinguished by the blurred right angles and height from their surroundings. He kept watching, looking for any movement.

McKay fine tuned his scanner's readings.

"Whatever it is, it's there," he said.

"Doesn't look like anyone is home," Sheppard commented.

"No life signs," McKay agreed.

"Good."

They still approached cautiously, each of them except for McKay with their hands on their P90s, ready for trouble. Nothing stirred. The only sounds were the rustle and scrape of canvas and webbing over their clothing, the soft suck of their boots on the strange ground cover, and the distant roar and whoosh of one of the geysers they'd seen dotting the landscape.

The blurred outlines were explained when they saw the ground cover had spread over the buildings, few of which were still intact.

"It's Ancient architecture," McKay declared.

"Oh, you can tell?"

"Yes, Major, I can, as could anyone who used their eyes and a brain," came the peevish reply. "The angles and motifs are the same as we see all over Atlantis. I expect more from you than the mildly retarded five year old act, Major. Pay attention."

Sheppard tapped his fingers on the trigger guard of the P90. "I am paying attention, McKay. I'm paying attention to watching for someone to pop up and point something nasty at us, since that seems to be the preferred meet and greet protocol here in the Pegasus Galaxy."

McKay was intent on his scanner, trying to discover which building housed the energy signature they'd tracked. He waved a hand in Sheppard's direction as though brushing off a fly.

"Right, right, whatever. It's in there." He pointed at low building that looked to have been mostly intact before being grown over.

"So how do we get inside, oh great McKay?"

"How about, 'Open Sesame'?"

Sheppard snorted and concentrated, trying to feel the interface that his ATA gene made possible with most Ancient technology.

The Ancients built to last. The door slid open quietly, accompanied by the suck and plop of bits of overgrowth dropping away from it.

"Cool."

"See, it still has power."

"Doesn't mean it has a ZPM."

McKay started for the door. Sheppard trailed him, bemused as always when the technology recognized his gene and lit the interior for him.

"Ford," he called over his shoulder, "You and Teyla keep watch out here. If we're not out before that, we'll check in by radio every hour on the hour."

"Yes sir."

Ford nodded and settled in a parade position as first Doctor McKay and then the Major's crow-dark head disappeared into the building. Teyla took a position that let her watch Ford's blind spot. They both found the silence oppressive, but any attempt at conversation even worse: their voices sounded too loud in the pervasive stillness.

Inside, the building lacked Atlantis' grace and stained glass, but the walls and the floors were familiar in color and material. McKay was right. The decorations shared the same motifs as well.

Their boots left wet prints on the faded red floor, the first to pass there in ten thousand years if the building dated to the same period as Atlantis itself. The air felt stale and warm, but some kind of circulation system had to be in operation. If it had been sealed without one, they would have been choking already.

McKay was like a hound dog on a scent, following the readings on his scanner down a series of corridors.

Sheppard kept throwing looks over his shoulder, just because he felt he should, though there had been no sign of anything–animal, vegetable or mineral–hostile since they came through the gate. It was making him nervous.

"I don't know, does this all seem like it's just a little bit too easy?" he said.

"What, in a 'It's quiet, too quiet' kind of way?"

Sheppard looked sheepish. "Yeah."

"You're paranoid, Major."

"That's what the military specializes in."

"Then you've succeeded beyond your wildest dreams. Even with you leading us, statistically we shouldn't always encounter disaster and doom."

"I thought you were Mr. Gloom and Doom."

"I was until now," McKay said. His voice skipped a third, rising. He waved at what he'd seen. Sheppard followed the gesture. "Look at that. Look at that!"

They turned and faced each other, eyes meeting, disbelief and excitement in their expressions.

It was a ZPM. A ZPM just sitting there on what looked like a lab work table as though to taunt them.

McKay darted forward, a broad grin stretching over his face. "Look at you, you beautiful thing," he crooned as though besotted.

Sheppard laughed.

"I'll start the wedding invitations as soon as we get back," he said.

"What?" McKay frowned at him, bewildered. "Wedding?"

"You and the ZPM. It's true love."

McKay gave him a narrowed eyed look. One hand rested possessively on the ZPM.

"You've finally cracked under the pressure, haven't you?"

Sheppard shook his head, still smiling, something too tight loosening inside him. With a full power ZPM they could power Atlantis's shields and defenses, bring the lost city to full life for the first time since they'd found it. With a full power… Reality crashed back down.

"Can you see if it's any good?" he asked.

Anything this easy…wasn't.

McKay's look of happiness faded somewhat.

"Yes. Give me a few minutes."

He began looking over some of the equipment in the room with them, taking a reading on his scanner after activating several controls, then returning to the ZPM and comparing what he saw with something else. A pinched frown replaced the open delight of a few moments before. Sheppard knew the answer before McKay turned back to him.

"It's mostly depleted. Probably switched out for a fresh one in the installation's security shield—which has failed— and brought back here," McKay theorized. "There's nothing left here but a minor back-up system operating off a geothermal tap."

"Damn," Sheppard said softly, the coil in his gut pulling tight again. After the one moment of sheer relief, it felt worse. "Damn."

His eyes met McKay's again and saw the same things reflected there. For one moment they'd thought they'd had it, the key to saving Atlantis at least, if not stopping the Wraith, and the feeling of loss was nearly unbearable. All he could do was look away. Neither of them was ready to admit to despair.

McKay's mouth, always expressive, twisted into sneer.

"Too easy, right, Major?"

"Yeah." He dug his fingers through his hair, making him look even more like a ruffled crow. "Yeah, well, who wants easy? We're taking it back with us anyway, right?"

McKay shrugged out of his pack and slipped the depleted ZPM into it. His hands were deft and sure on it.

"Of course. It still holds about a quarter charge. We can at least power up a few more systems. That will take some strain off the naquadah generators and keep those incompetent lackwits masquerading as engineers from blowing us all up next time they're serviced."

His movements sharp and jerky with frustration, McKay stripped off his vest and flak vest and down to his blue shirt. His jacket went into the pack on top of the ZPM. His hands lingered before he zipped it closed and shrugged back into his gear.

Sheppard decided the scientist had the right idea and stripped down to his black T-shirt. He left his vest hanging open, settled his pack back into place and picked up his P90 from the table.

McKay was just staring at the table where the ZPM had sat.

Sheppard checked the time.

"Ten minutes until Ford expects a check-in. You want to poke around in here?"

McKay twitched. He looked around the room. "No," he said. "No, let's just get back to the gate." A wealth of weariness colored his tone.

Tiredly, Sheppard sing-songed, "If it weren't for bad luck, I'd have no luck at all."

McKay looked at him in disgust.

"Hee Haw? Why is this my life?"

Sheppard's mouth curled upward at one corner.

"It's got to be karma, Rodney. You must have been a bad, bad boy."

"You need to get Heightmeyer to shrink your head, Major."

Sheppard shook his head. "There are just so many ways I could come back on that, I can't choose."

McKay snorted.

They emerged into the shadowless half-light and Sheppard shook his head at Ford's look of inquiry.

"No joy in Mudville," he said.

"There was no ZPM?" Teyla asked.

"We found it, but it's too depleted to do us any real good," McKay explained.

The long hike back to the Stargate stretched through the rest of the afternoon. None of them felt up to talking much in the wake of their disappointment and the silences were long.

They trudged up to the gate in a loose diamond formation, Teyla still in the lead.

"Dial up Atlantis," Sheppard told McKay.

He made a last turn, surveying the unremarkable plain with its distant geysers and strange monoliths. Nothing had changed. Their return tracks were still dark marks in a line toward the horizon, but the ground cover had already erased the signs from their arrival. They had nothing worthwhile to show for the expedition. In a few more hours, it would be like they'd never stepped foot on MX9-M41.

The gate activated with a whoosh, boiling out from the ring for a brief, dangerous moment before the event horizon settled into the deceptive illusion of a brilliant, watery surface suspended within the gate.

Ford activated his IDC.

Their radios crackled to life. "AR-1, this is Atlantis . What is your situation?"

Sheppard activated his radio and responded.

"No luck and we're ready to come back."

"You're all right?"

"There's no one here to shoot at us," Sheppard said. "No one even twisted an ankle."

"Come ahead, AR-1."

"Roger. We're coming through now. Sheppard, out."

He clicked off his radio and followed as McKay, then Ford and Teyla stepped through the gate. One last deep breath, the taste of wool and yeast at the back of his tongue. Sheppard breathed out and walked into the wormhole without looking back.

~~~~~

Elizabeth Weir stood with her arms crossed and watched all four of the team walk out of the wormhole into the gate room unharmed for once. It had become a habit to stand at the observation balcony and greet the teams whenever they returned, even when they weren't under fire or wounded. Today they looked merely tired and wet, hair plastered to their heads and shoulders slumped.

She studied them, taking advantage of a moment when they were unguarded to evaluate the expedition's first team. She could see they were wearing at the edges. Everyone was stressed but these were people out at the sharp edge with every mission. They had a lean and hungry look, like tired predators that had failed at a hunt. Teyla and Ford looked best, but they were younger and carried less responsibility. Even their bones were closer to the skin than ever before. Rodney had thinned down to muscle and feverish eyes, and John Sheppard, always thin, looked—when his masks dropped—gaunt and weary.

The moment passed, the players moved, and the roles were firmly taken up again: Ford grinned cheerfully, Teyla's posture straightened, while Rodney raised his voice in neurotic complaint and John gleefully sniped at him. The afterimage lingered only in Elizabeth's eyes.

Elizabeth leaned over the balcony railing. "Welcome back."

John raised his eyes to her and gave a minute headshake, even as he spoke.

"And so we bid farewell to the planet of wet socks. Which was pretty much a bust, except for the no one trying to kill us part."

"I liked that part," Ford agreed.

"Oh, I think we all did."

"But it did smell like one of Carson's beloved sheep," McKay commented.

"It was uncomfortable," Teyla said.

Elizabeth relaxed, despite the stab of disappointment. She forced a smile. "It's good to have you all back."

"Yes, ma'am," Ford called up to her.

Rodney had already shrugged out of his pack. Teyla was squeezing moisture out of her hair. Sheppard caught Rodney's pack and held it as the scientist unzipped it.

"We did find a depleted ZPM," Rodney said. He pulled the device out of his pack . "If we ever find out how to charge them, it will be useful. We can study it at least. I need to get it down to my lab and test my theory—"

"As soon as you're cleared by Dr. Beckett and debrief, Dr. McKay," Elizabeth directed.

John mock saluted. "Yes, ma'am," he mimicked Ford.

Rodney's expression set in petulance and he protested, "I'm fine and I need to make sure Radek hasn't let one of those incompetent refugees from a Caribbean diploma mill you've saddled me with mess with my experiments again. Let the Major tell you all about hiking over hill and dale. I have important work to do. There's simply no time to waste catering to the Scottish quack's desire to completely exsanguinate me."

John set his hand on Rodney's shoulder. "Let's get it over with. For once, no one's going to get stuck in the infirmary. We'll be in and out in less time than it takes to make Elizabeth angry."

Elizabeth raised her eyebrows at that, but John just smiled carelessly.

Rodney shook John's hand away in annoyance. "Fine."

John shivered in reaction to the temperature contrast between MX9-M41 and the gate room. Sea air constantly cooled Atlantis and energy conservation kept them from adjusting the environmental controls. Instead you wore sweaters and jackets. Standing around in wet clothes was unpleasant and uncomfortable.

Rodney gave a tentative cough. "I'm probably going to get pneumonia."

John rolled his eyes and Ford covered a grin. Rodney could be frighteningly predictable.

"I expect you in the conference room twenty minutes after Dr. Beckett tells me you're all cleared," Elizabeth said. "Get some dry clothes on, please."

Teyla gave her a grateful smile as the four of them left the gate room. Rodney still clutched the depleted ZPM in his hands, while John carried his pack.

"You're not going to get pneumonia, Rodney."

"It's perfectly possible. My lungs are delicate— "

"No germ would want to put up with you."

She heard Rodney's voice rise querulously. "Do you actually think about anything that falls out of your mouth or is your brain completely disconnected from it?"

Elizabeth returned to her office, relieved that they were all home in one piece. The details of the mission could wait a while.


Part II: To Sleep


Downtime between off world missions translated into work in other forms. Rodney retreated into the lab with Radek Zelenka and the depleted ZPM. Teyla went to the mainland and her people, her responsibilities there. Ford accompanied scientists exploring previously unopened parts of the city, while Sheppard split his time between handling the military contingent and prepping for everything from the team's next mission to having to go in as back up for AR-2, which had gone out the day after AR-1 returned. Sheppard consulted with Weir and Bates, dragged Rodney out of the lab to eat and sleep, and practiced the hand-to-hand that he'd never thought he'd need as an Air Force officer. Sleep kept dropping down the list of priorities.

Downtime was the mess hall and trying not to think too much about what you were eating, what they'd got from the Menerians and a couple other low tech planets. None of it ever tasted right.

Downtime was staring at the dim ceiling of an austere room at night, with a head that raced with too many thoughts and no solutions, adrenaline burning uselessly in your veins, instead of sleeping.

Downtime was the security team finding one of the biologists hanging from a makeshift noose in his rooms.

Downtime was wandering through a ghost city that welcomed John Sheppard like its last, lost son and hid a hundred secrets behind its doors. Atlantis floated like a flower on the water, relying on its new inhabitants to protect it when they had nothing.

Downtime was time running out.

Sheppard blamed the dreams he had when he did sleep on downtime. He knew better. Off planet, he never slept deep enough to dream.

He didn't know if he looked as bad as the others, with their bruised eyes, but he was grateful to shoulder his pack and prepare to stride through the Stargate. It had been a long week, waiting for Stackhouse and his team to return. Now it was their turn again. For those few moments in the gate room, they could all hold onto the hope that this mission would be the one that afforded all the answers they needed, that they could even find what they needed.

He needed that, because underneath he was bone deep exhausted. Elizabeth had probably seen at the mission brief, she was an observant woman, but she was stretched close to the breaking point herself. Sheppard had sprawled in his chair and sniped at Rodney in a friendly fashion, daring her to speak, to stand the team down when they had no time, not when it wouldn't do any of them any good. She hadn't.

The stained glass windows cast jeweled light over the gate room floor under their boots. Patterns mixed with the design etched into it, changing with the hours. It was deliberate, Sheppard realized, like everything in the city.

Ford had a power bar in his hand, nibbling it nervously. He looked embarrassed when he caught Sheppard's eyes on him and mumbled around a mouthful, "What? I'm hungry, okay?"

Teyla fidgeted with her newly cut hair.

Rodney popped the clip out of his side arm, cleared the barrel with casual expertise, reloaded, checked the safety and slid it into his holster. No one commented on the incongruity of the scientist playing soldier. No one walked through the gate unarmed.

Sheppard counted down, a clock in his head running as the gate dialed.

The chevrons lit consecutively, the gate initialized and energy poured out of the ring into the room briefly before the wormhole stabilized. The gate shimmered blue before them. Sheppard thought of fairy rings and magic pools and almost heard Rodney's scorn for the conceit in his head. He smiled to himself.

"AR-1, you have a go."

Sheppard nodded.

"Good luck," someone called out.

Sheppard looked back, then shrugged. All the things that could go wrong, just with the wormhole, raced through his thoughts. He took a deep breath.

Rodney said, "All right, kids, we're off to see the wizard," and strode forward as Ford whined, "Am I getting combat pay for this?" before stuffing the last bite of his powerbar in his mouth and following.

When had those two switched roles?

Sheppard lengthened his stride. The event horizon rippled and closed around him, soundless as always.

Teyla went last and tossed off a mock salute.

One of the techs said, "They're picking up each other's habits."

~~~~~

MX9-M48 smelled like dry grass.

Despite himself, part of Sheppard relaxed because the planet felt more like Earth than anywhere he'd been since reaching the Pegasus Galaxy.

The wormhole collapsed behind them.

Ford looked around. A white flash of teeth lit his face

"I feel like I should be singing 'America the Beautiful', " he remarked.

Sheppard understood what he meant.

The planet's Stargate stood on the top of a hill in the midst of a rolling plain. Sepia light gilded the ring. Its shadow stretched black over the long grass as the sun settled down the horizon. The stars were so close and bright, they already spangled the indigo arch of the sky in defiance of the primary‘s light.

"Amber waves of grain," Teyla whispered.

Rodney gave her a strange look. "Where did you hear that, Teyla?"

She frowned. "I don't know."

"Yeah, that's what I was thinking, though," Ford said, still smiling.

"Look, we're losing the light," Sheppard said. "I think we should move away from the Stargate in case any hostiles saw it activate, then make camp for the night."

"I agree," Teyla said.

The grass brushed against their legs as they hiked away from the gate, knee high and brittle. Seed heads bobbled at the top of each stem. They'd be picking them out of their bootlaces later. Sheppard wondered if it was an edible grain and if it was, did that mean the planet was uninhabited, since he saw no sign of cultivation.

"We have come here at the end of the growing season," Teyla commented. "Yet I see no sign of any gathering. Perhaps this planet has no people."

Sheppard gave her a sharp look. She must have been thinking the same things. But that was twice, first with Ford and then with him. Maybe that facility for getting into someone's head made her a good trade negotiator, but at the same time it made him uncomfortable. He didn't want to share the darker corners of his psyche with anyone. It was just coincidence, he assured himself. Teyla was perceptive, not a mind reader.

They made a dry, dark camp, no fire, under the crest of a hill that gave them some protection from a rising wind and a direct sight line on the Stargate.

Sheppard took the first watch while the others bedded down. He'd already decided they'd leave Rodney off the watch rotation for the night. Ford could handle second watch and Teyla liked rising early. Rodney had been pulling 36 and 40 hour marathons in his lab, working on the ZPM: he needed the extra rest. Sheppard hoped the man would be a little less cranky come morning if he got it. Sleep deprived Rodney had that extra level of deliberate nastiness to his insults that sometimes pricked Ford on the raw, though Teyla seemed to see through it. Sheppard enjoyed Rodney himself, but he didn't want his lieutenant and his scientist at each other's throats.

The wind picked up, turning raw, rushing through the grass, carrying the hoot of a distant animal. Sheppard shivered and pulled his jacket closer over his shoulders. Teyla had worried they would start a grass fire, so he had agreed to a dark camp. Now he wished they'd made a fire to repel anything looking for a late night snack.

The others were still lumps of darkness outlined by starshine. Night in the Pegasus was never dark, there were too many stars too closely packed together. Earth's sky had been dark and empty by comparison.

His eyes had long since adapted to that; Sheppard didn't bother with his nightvision goggles. Better to be still and listen, learning the sounds of this place, so that a change would alert him.

If he tipped his head up he could see the brilliance of the stars, bright against the darkness, so very close, so many more than Earth's night sky ever held. This planet was much deeper in the Pegasus Galaxy than Earth was in the Milky Way. There were so many, all so close, and they were all wrong. Sheppard realized he might never again look up at Orion the Hunter or watch the Southern Cross rise. He'd never know if there were myths that traced this night sky.

Absently, he calculated how many nights he'd looked up at the sky on an alien planet since arriving on Atlantis. Numbers, though, couldn't quantify the loneliness of an unfamiliar sky.

He'd wanted this. Like flight. He'd always needed to keep the world at bay. He‘d meant to leave everything behind. Instead, he'd trapped himself in a choking noose of responsibility.

Ford rolled over in his sleeping bag and mumbled, "...ntares, Vega, Sirius, McDonald's."

An hour later, he woke Ford to take his watch and settled himself. Sleep sucked him under before he even had his bag zipped closed. This time something was different.

He dreamed.

White line to infinity, two lane highway rushing under the wheels of a rattling pickup truck as he drove, one hand on the wheel, the other holding a hamburger he didn't remember stopping to buy. A McDonald's bag rested on the duct-taped bench seat beside him and the radio played Hotel California. Endless fields of wheat stretched from horizon to horizon and somehow, he knew he was driving across Canada before he took the American NID's job at Area 51.

Not him. Her.

She walked through the City of the Ancestors and where she passed it woke, lights greeting her, doors opening in invitation, power thrumming through its walls, through the very air. It was alive and it was hers as it would never be anyone else's, no matter how many others there were. She felt the interface click into place, linking her into its systems, and saw herself, a shadow of someone else through its systems: tall, spiky black hair, hazel eyes startled and dark.

Not her. Him.

Her hand at his throat and he knew it finally—the Maw—the endless cold dissolution of self that froze the adrenaline in his veins, that turned his breath to ice in his lungs, that consumed the soul. He'd pulled the trigger for Sumner to save him from that; glimpsed the starving emptiness opening behind those pale, old man's eyes, but he was too late. It took Sumner. It found him. Because everything fails, everyone dies, the universe eats itself and there is worse.

There is worse than death and it is touching him, whispering blue to him, showing him the hole that is the fear; there is the cold and the hunger, the need that never ends, the want that is never filled. It is the Maw that devours everything, everything he is, the scream in his throat, the battered bird beat of his heart, everything.

It doesn't matter if he lives, he's looked into the Maw and it's in him now, in the hollows and the voids. It is waiting.

Rodney McKay woke flailing at the inside of his sleeping bag, desperate with the taste of Sheppard's dread still on his tongue. He managed to unzip the top half and sat up, scrubbing at his mouth with the heel of his hand.

He turned his head and stared accusingly at Sheppard. John's face was a pale blur in the colorless predawn light, wide awake and staring back at Rodney from dark eyes. A little way away, Teyla had sat up too. She looked disturbed and uncomfortable.

"What the hell was that?" Rodney demanded in a rasp. He wondered if he'd been screaming in his sleep. He hadn't made a sound in the dream, but Sheppard wouldn't—maybe hadn't—and he'd been Sheppard in the dream. Nightmare. Only nightmares were things that hadn't happened and that had.

Sheppard never betrayed much feeling—on the surface.

Rodney stared. His thoughts ticked over. He didn't spend a lot of time analyzing people, most of them were predictably boring, but Sheppard was different and not because he understood Rodney, either. Sheppard acted like a such a lightweight around everyone else that no one had considered what he really thought or felt, not even Elizabeth. Rodney didn't know why Sheppard kept himself wrapped so tight, unless he felt he had to as a military commander, but it didn‘t seem healthy. If that dream was any indication, it was damned unhealthy. How did Sheppard even sleep with that in his head? Had the Keeper made Sheppard feel that or did it come straight from his subconscious? No one had given much thought to how killing Sumner and waking the Wraith had affected Sheppard, but it had. It had to have.

"What was what?" Ford asked from Rodney's other side.

Rodney's heart was settling back into a normal rhythm. He could still taste the bile at the back of his throat, but he knew who he was now. He shook his head. That had been his dream, not a glimpse into Sheppard's probably massively screwed up psyche, not matter how real it had felt.

"What a shitty, shitty dream," he said.

Sheppard laughed dryly. "You too?"

"I, too, was unsettled by my dreams," Teyla admitted.

Rodney settled back into his bag, grimacing as a rock shifted to poke into his shoulder blade. How many PhDs did he have and he still ended up sleeping on the ground? The universe was manifestly unfair.

Teyla was sliding out of her bag. "I will take over the watch, Aiden."

"Teyla," Sheppard said, his voice quiet but urgent. "Was it Wraith?"

Rodney tensed.

Teyla shook her head slowly. "No, merely a strange dream. I do not feel the Wraith here, perhaps because there is no one left to cull."

The tension slid away, but Rodney still stared up at the sky, his eyes wide open. His stomach kept doing slow rolls; he remembered the Keeper's mouth stretched wide and red, the counter pressure of the trigger under Sheppard's finger as he slowly squeezed it and the cold, blue touch of something worse than just death seeping into every cell.

He listened as Ford crawled back into his sleeping bag and thought he could have taken the last watch as easily as Teyla. He was wide awake.

The sky was lightening at one horizon. He considered whether it would be accurate to term that direction east simply because the sun rose there. What if this planet rotated in a different direction than Earth? Did it still count? He decided it was a subjective term not tied to actual direction. The sun rose in the east, therefore where the sun rose was the east. Nice circular logic.

Ford could sleep anywhere, at the drop of hat. He was snoring softly already. Rodney could hear Sheppard breathing too. It wasn't the breathing of a man asleep.

Rodney rolled onto his side and looked. John was watching him.

"Rodney," he said quietly, "did you ever drive a blue Ford pickup from Canada to Nevada?"

Rodney's breath stuttered in his chest, out of rhythm with the sudden mad pace of his heart.

"I—I—I—That was really—oh shit." He really had dreamed John Sheppard's memory. Some sort of psychic connection—just the words made Rodney's teeth ache, defying hard science—had opened between them. Crap. He couldn't imagine Sheppard would be any more thrilled by this than him.

Yet there was something seductive about the whole idea, wasn't there? He was tired and it didn't seem that wrong to share another piece of himself with John or John to share with him. They'd trusted each other from the beginning, hadn't they?

"What did you dream?" John whispered.

Rodney rolled his head away and stared at the sky. Dawn was fading the stars away.

"Rodney."

He licked his lips.

"The Keeper."

Silence like a stone dropped between them. Even John's breath had stopped. Rodney shuddered.

"You couldn't—"

"The Maw."

John drew in a harsh breath, then spoke, "Jesus. I'm sorry," as though he'd imposed it on Rodney. He sounded ashamed. He sounded like he was shaking. His face had gone blank, no masks, expression smoothed away.

Teyla would have found John's hand and held it. Rodney didn't know what to do. He fell back on what he did know.

"Have you ever had any sort of telepathic experience before? This could be part of the ATA gene's effects we haven't seen before. You're the next thing to an Ancient compared to the rest of us, of course you'd be the one to display it first. For all we know all the Ancients were telepaths. Maybe being on Atlantis and using your ATA gene all the time is stimulating other aspects or maybe there is some field on this planet. This could be incredible. We'll have to get Carson in on it and I really have to take a series of energy readings, because if it is this planet— "

Sheppard sat up and dragged his sleeping bag closer to Rodney's. "Is this some Ancients' thing, something because of the ATA gene?" He kept his voice low, but he still sounded irritated. Success. One distracted Major. Rodney smiled, feeling pleased and smug.

"How am I supposed to know? We have to duplicate the effect and run tests before I can even begin to come up with a theory," Rodney said, remembering to keep his voice low at the last second. He propped himself up on an elbow. "And, by the way, your dream sucked."

Sheppard scrubbed at his chin. His beard stubble rasped under his fingers. "Damn it anyway." A look of playful humor crossed his face, but it came with an effort. "Looks like I did get the better deal. McDonald's and a road trip beat out Wraith anytime."

"Yeah, they do," Rodney agreed. If John preferred to gloss it all over, who was he to contradict him? If it got the man through the days and nights, that had to be good enough. They didn't have time to spare worrying over the cost he might pay for that repression some day. They'd all be lucky to have a some day. The Wraith were coming.

He frowned, remembering something.

"Teyla."

Sheppard looked at him inquiringly.

Teyla joined them on silent feet, coming to a stop at the foots of their two bedrolls. She sank down in a tailor's squat smoothly. "I, too, dreamed, Major," she murmured, "and I have no ATA gene. I saw myself as you, when you arrived on Atlantis. I felt your connection to the city."

Sheppard hid his eyes under his raised forearm. "Great," he drawled, "both of you are wandering around my head. I suppose Ford is, too."

Rodney knew Teyla's smooth face had creased into a smile, though she faced away from him.

"Is it so terrible a place?"

Sheppard shrugged. "It's mine."

Teyla patted Sheppard's foot wordlessly, then rose fluidly to her feet and returned to her watch post.

"Maybe it's just this world," Rodney offered. "We'll go back through the gate and this will go away. Or it's just a product of stress, a mutual delusion and nothing more. Folie à deux or ménage or whatever."

"Stop trying to make me feel better," Sheppard replied, but reluctant amusement colored his tone.

Rodney sank back to the ground. "Yes sir, yes sir, Major Sheppard, sir," he whispered.

"I heard that."

"You were meant to."

Rodney tipped his head back and watched as milky light washed the dimmer stars from the sky. He found and named new constellations from those that remained. Sheppard didn't speak again, but Rodney felt him move restlessly, and guessed he couldn't sleep after that either.

~~~~~

Ford dropped his water bottle. He stared at it and then at his fingers in perplexity.

"Problem?" Sheppard asked, joining him. Whatever had been bothering him the night before, along with Dr. McKay and even Teyla, he'd put it away. A familiar, amused smirk lit the Major's narrow face. His black sunglasses hid his eyes. His hair looked even more on end than usual, but then Ford had never seen Sheppard do more than shove his fingers through it before he was fully awake.

Sheppard tended to forget to shave too, adding to his jaded, unkempt look. It was hard to even imagine Major Sheppard as a cadet, spit polished and eager. The Air Force Academy must have been hell for him.

"Ford?"

Ford gave his hand a shake, trying to extinguish the tingling in his fingertips.

"My pack strap must be pinching off my circulation," he said. "My fingers are asleep."

He bent and scooped up the water bottle with his other hand.

"Okay," Sheppard said. He sped up and fell in step with Dr. McKay again, shoulders almost bumping.

Ford grinned.

Dr. McKay flailed his hands. His voice drifted back.

"Don't tell me you can't do this, Major, you don't need a chess board. I've told you my move, so just quit stalling."

"Fine. Queen's Knight to King's Rook five. Check."

"What? No, no, that isn't possi— I hate you."

"I'm not going to play any more if you're mean, Rodney."

"Fine, fine."

They crested the next hill in parallel. A tree-shaded river valley lay before them, greener than the hills, the river itself a carelessly twisted, quicksilver rope. Beyond the river, no greenery, only ruins.

A sand colored city, broken and barren. Spired and great like Atlantis once, long since fallen. The shattered remains clawed against the cloudless sky. Topless towers.

Sheppard frowned. One hand rested on the butt of his P90, long fingers tapping against the matte black plastic. "Looks like it was bombed."

"I think it's safe to say the Wraith were here," Dr. McKay said.

Sheppard glanced at him.

"Oh, I don't know, Rodney. It could all be a big disguise meant to discourage looters."

"Paranoid. You know, I can make that appointment with Heightmeyer for you if you're too shy."

"I wouldn't want to horn in on your time with your 'girlfriend'," Sheppard replied, smirking again. "You have been on the same missions as the rest of us, right?"

"Good point. Genii. Giant underground bunkers. Lying alien priestesses." He glanced around. "Okay."

Ford tugged his cap lower. The afternoon sun soaked into his back and shoulders and glared off the river.

Dr. McKay produced a hand held scanner. His head bent over the read out. Sunburn pinked the nape of his neck.

"Unless there is some kind of shield, we've got nothing," he said. "I'd get a bigger energy reading from the battery of '72 Pinto."

Sheppard read the scanner over Dr. McKay's shoulder.

"Crap. Batting a thousand here."

Teyla shaded her eyes.

"I think there may be something in the city, Major," she said.

Sheppard looked up. His brows arched. "Something?"

"It was white."

"Animal?"

"I'm not sure," Teyla admitted. "I caught merely a glimpse."

Sheppard watched the city through his binoculars for five minutes. "Nothing. Feeling nervous, Teyla?"

"No." Her composure didn't waver.

"I say we check it out."

Sheppard started down the hill. He looked back. "Coming?"

Sand rasped underneath their boots walking into the city, loud, echoing. Sheppard led them toward the center. They found the control tower cracked open like a broken tooth. It had burned.

"Well, that's it."

McKay spun, his hand going to his P90. "I saw something."

"McKay," Sheppard warned.

"I saw something," McKay insisted.

White flashed along the top of broken wall. Ford jerked up his weapon, aiming, but it was gone.

Another glimpse of white slunk between two still standing buildings. It moved like a dog on its hind legs.

"Okay, let's all just stay calm."

A hooting call rose from the city. The little hairs along Ford's arm lifted. Another hoot followed. It echoed. More followed, coming closer.

"Calm?" McKay's voice spiked upward. "I'm calm. I'm the picture of calm. What are those things?"

"Bad, I'm thinking," Sheppard said. "Let's get out of here."

"Oh, now you want to leave, that's great, that's fine," McKay complained as they withdrew. "You couldn't have thought of that before some weird things started stalking us?"

"They haven't hurt us yet." Sheppard was going for calm and in command, but McKay wasn't paying any attention.

"Yet," McKay echoed. "Shit!"

It dropped onto Ford's shoulders from a roof, hammering him to the ground. Red sparks of pain jolted through his head as his jaw hit the ground. He scrabbled for his P90, but it was pinned under his chest.

He heaved, trying to throw it off. Too heavy. Jesus, it was heavy; it was pressing the air out of his lungs.

The familiar rattle of another P90 echoed off the stone. The thing on his back—it should have felt warm, but it wasn't; it was cold and corpse-heavy—jerked. It fell away from him, wheezing a high note.

Ford gasped for air that abruptly reeked of chlorine. His throat burned.

Teyla and McKay were both firing. Gunfire and high, fluting hoots bounced off the stone, threatening to deafen him. Sheppard was shouting.

"Ford! Stay down!"

He stayed down, scraping forward on elbows and knees. A vise closed around his ankle, jerking Ford back. Bullets sprayed over his head, ricochets whining too close for comfort. Tiny shards of stone peppered through his BDUs, stinging. He heard the thing wheeze and hoot behind him again.

He rolled onto his back and got his first good look at the thing that had attacked him.

It was naked, sexless, bleeding mustard yellow from two bullet wounds in its shoulders. Lamprey mouth raw and toothed in a eyeless face; head dotted with dished hollows that had to be sound sensors. Delicate gray membranes fluttered in the center of each one. The appendage clamped around his ankle had three thick, boneless digits. His bones were grinding under the pressure it exerted. Ford yelled and kicked at it with his free leg.

Bipedal, but it crouched on all fours, spidery limbs splayed for balance. It had too many joints. Ford's gut screamed wrong wrong wrong just from looking at it. His kick barely rocked it.

Ford prayed and cursed as it yanked him closer. His hands found the P90 still on its retractable sling. Instinct took over. He emptied a clip into the thing's gaping mouth. Bullets from Sheppard's gun slammed into its chest.

Ford kicked again and it let go.

He scooted back until he ran into Sheppard's legs.

"Okay there, Ford?" Sheppard asked.

"Yes sir."

Another of the things tumbled off a wall in comparative silence. McKay was reloading while Teyla was firing bursts of three instead of spraying their surroundings on auto.

"Why did we have to explore the city?" McKay was yelling. "I told you there wasn't anything to find! Now we're all going to end up feeding a bunch of rejects from a Clive Barker movie."

Sheppard's eyes were focused past him. He raised his P90. "McKay! Move!"

McKay dove to the side as Sheppard fired. Full auto fire. Two of the things running at them fell. The third one kept coming. Booming, hollow hoots came from its throat. McKay hit the ground, fell to the side and fired at it.

A chorus of hoots rose from everywhere around them.

Sheppard's hand closed on the neck of Ford's flak vest and lifted. Ford staggered and got his feet under him. His ankle screamed when his weight settled on it.

"We get out of here now. Everybody run."

Sheppard grabbed the back of Ford's equipment belt and began dragging him down the street.

McKay was on his feet again, trotting with them, while Teyla covered their backs. His brown hair stuck up in little, sweat sticky clumps and he had a smear of pale dirt over his jaw. He glared at Sheppard.

"Run? Run? Have you looked at those things, Major? Flo Jo couldn't outrun those things!"

"Then you better beat her time, because we're going to run out of ammo before this place runs out of them," Sheppard shouted back at McKay.

The hooting was closer.

"Damn it," McKay snapped. He locked his arm around Ford's waist and started hauling him forward.

"What— "

"You and the lieutenant couldn't win the three-legged race at a country fair."

"Shut up!" Teyla yelled at them both.

"What?" the two men chorused, glaring at her.

It had no effect. She had her back to them, watching the street and roof tops for movement. "No eyes."

Sheppard wiped at his face. "Right, right."

McKay stared at the dead thing, suddenly interested. "Of course, they're vectoring on sound. No, not just sound. Voices. They didn't show up until we started talking, did they? I wonder if that's a natural development or— "

"McKay," Sheppard hissed. "Shut up and go!"

Ford forced himself to put his weight on the ankle and ran. Sheppard and McKay couldn't afford to be tied up carrying him. The hoots were louder.

Teyla began firing again. Emptying her clip. Ford cringed inside. Teyla never used auto fire on anything but Wraith.

Sheppard let go, turning on his heel.

"Keep going!" he ordered. "Both of you, just keep going!"

McKay's arm was still supporting Ford. They ran.

Behind them, Sheppard's P90 joined Teyla's. Ford wished he'd left his clips with them.

~~~~~

Rodney kept supporting Ford's weight until they reached the river. Brush caught at their clothes and skin. One of the things hooted close behind them. They moved with no words, shedding their packs on the shore. Ford went into the muddy, green-tinged water without pause. Rodney grimaced at the algae rimmed bank, but slid and splashed into the river after Ford.

The water ran deep and fast, plucking and pulling at them. Rodney went under once. Have I mentioned I'm not the world's—any world's—best swimmer? Almost like he heard Rodney, Ford was there, pulling him to the surface and stroking for the far shore.

They crawled out far down stream of where they had plunged in. Rodney sprawled on his belly, spitting up every mouthful of river water he'd swallowed.

Mud squished through his fingers.

Ford struggled up the bank, using the bared roots of tree for hand holds. Rodney rolled onto his back. He studied the far shore, looking for any of the things. One appeared out of the thick brush, pacing along the water's edge. It walked on its back legs, the fore limbs dangling. Its head swung from side to side. Listening. Rodney held his breath.

Some time during their run, Sheppard and Teyla's guns had gone silent.

He tipped his head back and met Ford's dark, worried gaze. One shaking finger pointed at the place the thing had disappeared. Ford's face set.

Rodney clambered up the bank on hands and knees. He wanted to go back for John and Teyla too, but John expected them to head for the gate. He knew they were alive.

Only that certainty held him back from hysterics.

Teyla, John, you better make it back to the damned Stargate, he thought as he climbed to his feet. He tamped down a wild laugh, imagining John grinning that mad, feral grin of his. What did Rodney think he could do to him if he was dead?

Rodney wiped a water weed off his hand onto his muddy BDUs then dragged Ford to his feet. He began making a list of insults he would throw at John as soon as he saw him again.

~~~~~

Teyla balanced the P90 on her thigh, knees bent, back to the wall, sitting on her heels. A dark smear of her blood marked where she'd pressed against the rough stone briefly. She tried to quiet her breathing.

A rush of steps settled her heartbeat.

Sheppard vaulted over the low wall, landing in a crouch. His eyes flicked to the circular bite just below her shoulder, where blood streaked her bare skin. Teyla flexed the muscle, answering his unspoken question: it was painful but not debilitating. The creature had already released her when Sheppard's bullets tore its head off.

Another one ululated nearby. The answering cries spread over the dead city, rising into a united, high fluting chorus that sent stabbing pains through Teyla's temples. Sheppard winced too.

They were shuffling around the corpse of the one that bit her, just on the other side of the wall. The chemical stink of its blood filled her lungs. The piping cries mixed with the rubber squeak of their three-toed feet.

Sheppard touched her shoulder. The warmth of his fingers against her bare skin connected them.

He held up a black egg shape. A flashbang grenade.

Teyla stared at him wide-eyed.

He gestured and she understood as though he'd spoken. Close your eyes, cover your ears.

She nodded.

Sheppard pulled the pin and flipped the flashbang over the wall into the pack of things. It clattered against the stone.

One, two, three.

Teyla squeezed her eyes shut.

Four.

She let the P90 dangle from its retractable sling and clapped her hands over her ears.

Five.

Light and sound, slamming through her eyelids, through her hands and ears. She was up and sprinting with Sheppard beside her in the vortex of noise from the grenade. She felt deaf. It didn't matter. She knew which way they were going. She could sense Sheppard running easily beside her.

The things behind them were too traumatized and confused to give chase.

On the shadowed stone wall, gray mold bloomed over the dark blood stain and spread.

If they had looked back, they would have seen the same mold consume the dead thing that had bit Teyla. The others fled from it, but by nightfall, even their ululating cries had been silenced.


Part III: Didn't Feel a Thing


"AR-1 inbound," Ops Control announced through the radio earpiece.

Carson Beckett surveyed his infirmary, ready to scramble his emergency team for the gate room. Exam room, operating, ICU, isolation and quarantine were all prepared. Four gurneys were set up to be wheeled to the gate room if necessary. Dr. Biro and the rest of the medical team were waiting. They were ready.

"We have them. Shutting down the gate."

Carson waited for the command: Medical team to the gate room. It didn't come.

Elizabeth's voice murmured through his earpiece.

"Brace yourself, Carson. They're on their way."

He relaxed minutely. The team couldn't have encountered too much trouble if they were mobile enough to find the infirmary on their own.

AR-1 stumbled into the infirmary five minutes later, muddy, bloody, limping and laughing. Carson shook his head. Two of them looked like they'd been rolling in pig sty. Teyla had a dirty bandage knotted around her upper arm. Sheppard had a bruise on his cheekbone. Except for the mud, Rodney looked best of them all. He and Sheppard were bickering again.

"Mad buggers," Carson muttered. He pointed to the examination tables.

Major Sheppard was supporting Lt. Ford, laughing, head turned to insist something to Rodney. "Nanes. They were Nanes."

"They were not Nanes. Nanes were mute— "

"Hah, you did read it— "

"What, are you five? That's not the point, the point is the Big Uglies in no way resemble Nanes and I refuse to call them that," Rodney argued. "Do you even remember the book?"

Sheppard rolled his eyes. He steered Ford to one of the examination tables then faced Rodney.

"Obviously. As matter of fact, I read it while I was stationed at McMurdo."

"Nothing better to do while you were in exile, hunh?"

"I liked it there," Sheppard said sulkily.

"What are these Nanes?" Teyla asked. She let Carson steer her to another exam table and sat on the edge.

"Nanes were these bioengineered bad things from a classic science fiction story," Sheppard explained. "They were big and mean and white, just like those things back on MX9-M45."

"I see," Teyla said, amused.

Ford bent and began unpicking the laces on his combat boot.

"Classic, pfft," Rodney muttered.

Sheppard grinned.

"You read it."

"I once read a copy of Sword of Desire I swiped out of General Hammond's secretary's desk, but that doesn't make it any good."

"I don't want to know why, do I?"

"The mountain was on lockdown and I got stuck in his office waiting room. Long story."

"I definitely don't want to hear."

"They all end the same boring way. SG-1 saved the planet again."

Sheppard and Rodney grinned at each other.

"Equipment off," Carson said to them.

Obediently they shed their gear, dropping it thudding to the floor. Except the guns, those were set down carefully.

"Well, I'm still calling them Nanes," Sheppard said.

"Fine, fine."

"On to the table, laddie," Carson told him. He peeled the bandage back from Teyla's arm and frowned. "Is this a bite?"

"Yes. One of the… Nanes."

He patted her arm. "Well, I'll get it cleaned up and stitched," Carson assured her. "There won't even be a scar."

He glared at Sheppard, who was still standing by Rodney's table, debating whether Niven or Bear was the better author, as he retrieved a suture kit. "Someone should have cleaned that wound earlier."

Sheppard gave him a long-lashed, innocent look that Carson didn‘t buy for an instant.

"We were in a little hurry, Doc."

"Hmph. Table, laddie. I need a blood sample from all of you."

Rodney scrunched his face. "Ghoul. You should have enough of our blood to bathe in by now."

"Now," Carson insisted.

Sheppard saluted sloppily. His usual grace was absent as he tripped over his own pack on the floor. The pack slid across the floor with a thump. Sheppard looked ready to fall, but Rodney's hand snapped out and caught Sheppard's. Instead, his hip hit the side of the table, but he caught his balance.

"Whoa," he slurred, rocking back on his heels, "more tired than I thought."

"So sit down already," Carson said a trifle snippily.

"Good thing your boots have steel toes, sir," Ford commented.

"Yeah," Sheppard said airily as he finally seated himself at one of the tables, "didn't feel a thing." He rubbed his hip tentatively and looked faintly perplexed. "Not a thing."

~~~~~

"I'm sorry, Dr. Beckett," Anneke said. "It looks like the blood samples were all contaminated. I should have been more careful."

"It's all right, m'dear," he said. He looked at the vials of blood and cringed, imagining Rodney's complaints when he asked for second sample. A skim of gray mold rested on the surface of each sample.

~~~~~

"Radek, I need you to—Radek?" Rodney lifted his head and looked around the darkened lab. "Miko?"

No one answered. The lab was empty except for him.

He checked his watch.

04:23.

He'd been so intent on his calculations for the power routing to the gate he'd lost track of time again and never heard everyone else leave. If they could just improve the efficiency, they could dial Earth for at least a few seconds. Long enough to send an SOS, though realistically it would more likely be a 'we who are about to die salute you'. Realistically, Rodney knew that warning Earth of the Wraith threat might be all the Atlantis expedition could accomplish.

The minutes ticked by.

04:24.

04:25.

Rodney licked his lips. His mouth tasted like undercooked bread. He needed coffee. He just felt too tired to go for it.

Much too tired to go on with his work. The numbers were too important to chance a careless mistake. His eyes were dry, afterimages of Ancient text and number streams burnt into them permanently.

04:29.

The vision in his left eye grayed out.

Pins and needles pricked at the left side of his face. Rodney seriously thought of radioing Carson, even knowing how the Scot would complain over his usual hypochondria. This wasn't the usual. He was probably stroking out right this instant. Miko would come into the lab in the morning and find him on the floor dead or drooling and paralyzed, a brain damaged idiot.

Okay, he was going to panic now. He couldn't feel his face anymore.

04:30.

The lab doors slid open. Rodney jerked his head toward them. The vertebrae in his neck creaked in protest.

"Don't you ever sleep?" John complained as he strolled into the lab. He wore his usual non-mission wear, black pullover and gray BDUs. His hands were shoved in the pockets. He cocked his head when Rodney didn't reply immediately, just stared. His brows drew together. "Are you okay? McKay?"

"M'fath'thnum."

His lips weren't working right. He was sweating and trembling. He was more afraid of being trapped in an incontinent, mindless husk, his mind gone, than he was of the Wraith or Goa'uld. In his eyes, his intellect was all that excused Rodney McKay in a society that demanded physical perfection or overwhelming charm to be accepted. The terror of losing that showed on his face.

His nose was running embarrassingly.

"McKay?"

All he could do was stare entreatingly. John saw and understood somehow.

"We're going to the infirmary," John said. His hands came out of his pockets and he bolted across the lab. "Can you move?"

Rodney nodded emphatically, coming to his feet. The chair rolled back wildly. John's hands were on his elbows, holding him up. John's worried eyes were intent on him. They stayed on him until they reached the infirmary, even while John radioed for Carson.

John stayed as Carson staggered in, wearing a wrinkled lab coat over his pajamas and grumbling. The pins and needles sensation was back. Better than numbness, Rodney tried to explain when he could enunciate again. Carson began a series of tests, while shaking his head.

The feeling returned to Rodney's face after another half hour. By then, he was thoroughly embarrassed by his panic and had begun to insist he was perfectly fine.

"So, he's okay?" John demanded.

Carson shrugged.

"Great, I've been sitting here holding McKay's hand like he was about to die and there's nothing wrong with him?"

"You haven't been holding my hand," Rodney objected.

John waved him off.

"I have a meeting with Weir in—" he checked his watch, "—two hours."

Rodney felt a stab of guilt. John had given up sleep he needed to stay in the infirmary with him. It wasn't the first time. Rodney never thanked him for it, of course. That wasn't the way it worked between them.

Carson held his hand up.

"Hold up, Major, " Carson said.

"What?"

"I need some more of your blood while you're here." He waved at the exam table next to Rodney's. "Hop up."

"I told you he's vampire," Rodney declared, while pointing at Carson.

John objected, "You already took a sample."

"Oh, there was a wee bit of problem with that. Some mold of Dr. Selig's got in the samples. Daft bugger needs to be more careful."

John looked reluctant but acquiesced, rolling up his sleeve for Carson.

"So, what we're ye doing down at Rodney's lab in the middle of the night, Major?" Carson asked as he swabbed a patch of skin on John's arm. His question took in John's mussed more than usual hair, unshaven jaw and the inside out seams of his pullover.

John rubbed tiredly at the side of his head where his hair was still matted down from sleeping. He shrugged. "I just woke up and realized Rodney was probably still in his lab unless someone had dragged him out," he muttered.

"Aw, he cares," Rodney said.

John twitched, either at that truth or from the needle Carson had slid under his skin. "Careful, damn it."

"His bedside manner compares unfavorably with Torquemada's, doesn't it?" Rodney said.

John smiled.

"Makes me glad I'm not the one who is going to be stuck here for twelve more hours of observation."

Rodney groaned.

~~~~~

Sheppard slouched almost sideways in his chair at the table. His concession to appearances had been to turn his sweater right side out and shave. Bates was in Rodney's usual chair, shipshape and perfect as a boot camp DI, running down the morning security briefing. The upper half of the Stargate ring was just visible over Bates' shoulders. Sheppard listened with half his attention, his eyes slitted and mostly focused on the cup of ersatz coffee Ford had brought him.

He had his hand wrapped around the stainless steel. He missed the ceramic mug with the Air Force logo he'd had at McMurdo. Coffee stayed hot longer in it.

This was still hot; steam was coming off it.

He couldn't feel it.

Not good. On top of that, he had a throbbing headache.

Numbness. He might play stupid half the time, but he wasn't. Sheppard's mind went to Rodney's lab episode and even Ford's fingers the day before. He hid a grimace. He'd have to go back to the infirmary after the briefing and find out exactly what Beckett had uncovered, then explain why he wanted to know.

Once he did that, Beckett would ground him and he could look forward to a long day of tests spent in the company of one loudly unhappy Canadian scientist.

Well, if it got too bad, he'd rat out Ford. He should anyway. Ford was part of the team, a good kid, and Sheppard liked him, but he didn't worry about him the way he did McKay. Ford wasn't a friend the way McKay was; military strictures meant he couldn't be.

McKay was different. He amused Sheppard, made him feel furious and protective in turns and all at once sometimes. When a situation went bad, McKay didn't care how sarcastic Sheppard got; it never bothered him. He got the jokes and the math and that sarcasm was Sheppard‘s way of coping. Sheppard wasn't used to anyone really understanding any of that. There was even a sneaky pleasure to confounding McKay with his own intelligence, enough that Sheppard regularly broke his own low profile rules to do so. Sometimes even, when McKay invited him to play with the Ancient technology, Sheppard remembered what life was like before experience rubbed the shine off. Plus, McKay wasn't military, wasn't under his command except in the field, and had even less respect for arbitrary rules than Sheppard did himself.

Rodney had scared him in the lab with his panicked eyes and slurred words. It had been a hell of a relief when he started speaking clearly again, but Sheppard's stomach still twisted at the memory. He hated that. By the time he ended up in Antarctica, he'd learned his lesson—never let anyone too close. Care, but not too much, because then you might need them and people—inevitably—failed you. People, even good people, people he liked, were better kept at a distance. He'd perfected that trick too. As long as you smiled and went along, made it easy for everyone around you, no one ever looked deeper or even noticed when you were gone.

Keep it superficial was his motto.

Except with Rodney McKay, who didn't give a damn about getting along with anyone and waltzed past every defense Sheppard had before he'd even noticed.

Now he cared more than was good for him.

Teyla was watching him.

He sent her a lazy smile. She looked good. The white gauze bandage on her arm glowed against bare skin.

Easy to smile at Teyla because he simply liked her. She didn't want to sleep with him and he could live with that. Maybe she didn't even do guys. Sheppard didn't care beyond the requisite male regret over any missed opportunity. Teyla didn't have an image of who he was supposed to be. Not like his girlfriends back on Earth, who got fed up with his lack of ambition. Not like Weir, who wanted a hero.

Teyla saw through the smiles. Smart girl. Not many did.

He sipped the hot drink and let Bates bring up the ammo problem.

Weir was still listening to Bates and making notes in a laptop.

"We need to start thinking about conserving our ordnance."

They were burning through their ammunition at twice the original expedition spec's worst case scenario. They could trade for food and live with running out of coffee and chocolate, but not bullets. With every mission it seemed like they lost something important—because everything from a spent clip to a baseball cap was irreplaceable in the Pegasus Galaxy.

"Especially for the P90s," Bates went on. "We brought three pallets of ammunition for them, along with reloads for our sidearms and explosives. The nine millimeter is holding out, but in another two months—at the rate we're using rounds—we'll be using the P90s as clubs."

Elizabeth leveled a look at Sheppard.

"Major?"

"That's the optimistic estimate," Sheppard admitted.

They were lucky the ammunition had held out this long. All they'd really faced were skirmishes, shooting their way out of ambushes or holding actions while they retreated to the gate. A single, real engagement could see them fire every round they'd brought to Atlantis.

He rubbed his thumb up and down the side of his cup. It tingled, nothing more.

"We might have to resort to hand loads, if we can find someone to trade for gunpowder and find a way to manufacture casings," he said. "The logistics are a nightmare. The Genii are the only group we've seen with anything approaching the technological infrastructure to manufacture reliable ammunition to the spec we'd need."

Elizabeth absently, lightly drummed her fingers on the laptop's keyboard. She looked thoughtful and poised, but it was her diplomat's mask, and Sheppard had learned it meant she was really at a loss.

Ford leaned forward over the table. "The Ancients had to have some sort of small arms. We haven't found an armory yet in the city. We could extend our searches and focus on finding one."

Elizabeth nodded.

"That's a good idea. Major, you have Marines assigned to the groups surveying the closed parts of the city. You should instruct them to look for anything of that nature the scientific community might not recognize."

"I'll do that," Sheppard said.

"Very well," she said. "I'll leave it to you and Sgt. Bates to work out a rationing system until we find some other solution." She looked down at the laptop screen. "Moving on, John, we need to look into trading for more pharmaceuticals, as well as food."

"What kinds?"

"Dr. Beckett has a list. He says he can synthesize some of the drugs we need if he's supplied with the basic antibiotic and antiviral compounds. Native sedatives and painkillers, too. There have been… some inventory discrepancies."

"I can investigate," Bates offered.

Elizabeth sighed. "I'd like to keep this as discreet as possible."

"What's missing?" Sheppard asked.

"According to Dr. Beckett and Dr. Biro, Oxycontin, Dexedrine, and a bottle of sleeping pills."

Sheppard glanced at Bates. "Set up a fiber optic surveillance camera with a view of the pharmacy, Sergeant. That's what Security did at McMurdo. Or so I heard." There had been a nice little blackmarket at the Antarctic base. Half the pilots flying supply runs were smuggling something in from Christchurch. Sheppard had steered clear. He hadn't needed the trouble after what happened in Afghanistan. His career might have been dead at that point, but he was still flying. He'd stayed clean. "If someone has a habit, they'll be back for more. There's nowhere else on Atlantis to get a fix. You can catch them then."

Bates nodded.

Elizabeth was watching him. She'd read his file, black mark and all. Sheppard refused to drop his gaze. "You're the one in charge, Elizabeth," he said. "What do we do when we catch someone?"

"Whoever it is will have to start treatment with Dr. Beckett and Kate Heightmeyer. If that fails, we offer them a choice of joining the Athosians on the landmass—provided they and the Athosians agree—or solitary exile with regular supply drops. Once we re-establish contact with Earth, we would return them there."

"Well, it sounds like you have a plan," he said, slouching lower in his chair. He sipped his faux coffee. It tasted like burned cloves and black tea. At least it had a natural caffeine equivalent. Given a few decades you might get used it.

"My people would give shelter to anyone who asked, but they would be required to live by our laws," Teyla said.

Elizabeth nodded. "Fair enough."

Teyla folded her hands on the table before her. She angled her head, addressing Elizabeth.

"Medicines are even more valuable as trade than food," she said. "What could you offer in return for what are usually rare and perishable goods?"

"Percentages," Sheppard offered. "A partnership. In return for the raw materials, we give back a percentage of the processed medicines. We're not going to make it here without allies." He looked sheepish. "Hell, I was ready to trade the Genii C4. Medicine has to be better than that, right?"

Elizabeth almost laughed. He could tell.

"Yes, John. It's not a bad idea."

"Okay, I'll keep it in mind if we ever encounter anyone friendly."

Ford laughed. Sheppard slid his eyes toward him, rueful and amused.

"Laugh, gentlemen, but try not to make us any more enemies, please."

They nodded in tandem, smiling.

"We'll be leaving McKay here from now on, then?" Sheppard joked.

"That's up to you, John. You chose him for your team. How is Rodney?"

"Beckett couldn't find anything obvious wrong with him—"

Sheppard jerked as the feeling came back into his hand. Pins, needles, knives and hot. He dropped the cup, splashing dark liquid over the table. The cup rolled to the floor with a clang.

Teyla and Ford both jolted. Ford gasped. Teyla folded her hand into a fist against the same pain Sheppard felt. He heard someone yelp. "Ow, ow, ow. Hot. Hey, what just happened?" It sounded strangely like Rodney.

"Major, are you all right?" Elizabeth asked.

He hissed out an affirmative, shaking his hand to ease the pain. "Nothing serious."

Then he shook his head. Something was wrong. First his hip had been numb the day before. Now his hand. Rodney's face. He looked at Ford. Ford's fingers had been 'asleep' while they were on MX9-M45. He didn't know about Teyla, but she was reticent by nature. He'd bet it was affecting her too.

Like the dreams on MX9-M45 had.

He looked to the side at Ford.

"You felt that?"

Ford nodded, looking down at his own pale palm as though expecting to find a burn there.

"I did as well," Teyla said. She opened her fist, mimicking Ford.

"So did I," Rodney whined.

What—,' Sheppard shaped the word but didn't speak. He'd just heard Rodney, only Rodney was in the infirmary.

"Hey, try to keep up, Major. Obviously, this is something like the shared dream state back on MX9-M45, only conscious. Telepathy. The Wraith have it. So do the Nox and the Tollan. You must be familiar with the concept."

"But we're not the Nox or whoever," Sheppard argued.

"It proves it's possible."

"It could be kind of cool," Ford said, "if you think about it."

Rodney snorted dismissively. "Cool? Lieutenant, this is extraordinary. We need to get down to the lab and find out how we're doing this. It may be some side effect of using the ATA gene."

"Perhaps it could be useful against the Wraith?" Teyla speculated.

Sheppard lifted his eyebrows at her.

"Major!"

His attention jerked back to the conference room and Elizabeth. Teyla and Ford turned in a synchronized movement to look at her along with him. Two extra images of Elizabeth overlaid his own vision briefly, a tri-binocular effect that made his stomach swim.

Elizabeth looked worried and irritated.

"Yes?" he said cautiously.

"What is wrong with you?"

"Me?"

"All three of you," she amended.

Bates tensed. Sheppard silently tasked Teyla to deal with him if he moved. It came so easily, communicating with her, and he realized they'd already been doing it on MX9-M45 too.

With a shrug, he decided to be honest.

"We, ah, seem to be hearing each other."

"In our minds," Teyla clarified when Elizabeth looked mystified.

Bates pushed his chair back from the table.

"Without talking," Ford added.

"Tell her it's telepathy," Rodney said.

"Rodney, too," Sheppard said. He winced. This might get annoying. Ignoring Rodney had just became that much harder. How did you tune out someone in your head?

"You tune me out?" Rodney sounded hurt.

He didn't really; he just put everything Rodney said through a filter to remove the bitching.

"Major Sheppard!"

He refocused, feeling guilty. "Sorry, just, Rodney was… talking." He glimpsed Bates tensing and kept his movements casual and slow as he bent to pick up the cup. Bates' expression said Sheppard had grown a second head or something equally bizarre.

"Three heads," Ford joked.

Sheppard glared.

"Care to share, John?" Elizabeth asked, noticing the glare.

"Not really."

She pushed her chair back and rose. "Well, this is a new development." An eyebrow rose. "This is a new development?"

"It is to me," Ford said.

"Not really," Sheppard contradicted. "I think Teyla and I were doing it back on the Nane planet. We had some mixed up dreams."

"You didn't think to mention this in the mission debrief?" Elizabeth demanded.

He lifted his shoulders. "We had some bad dreams. Name me anyone on Atlantis that doesn't—then you can send them straight to Heightmeyer."

"This is more than bad dreams, John! This is some sort of alien influence on your minds. I think that rates a mention."

"In retrospect," Teyla said. "Yet it does not seem like a bad thing to me. The Major and I worked very well together yesterday, as did Doctor McKay and Lt. Ford."

Ford nodded his agreement.

"I want all three of you down in the infirmary immediately."

Teyla and Ford both looked at Sheppard. He didn't shift his gaze from Elizabeth's tense form.

"Go."

They rose smoothly. It only took Sheppard's thought for the Ancients' technology to open the stained glass door before them.

"Elizabeth, this isn't a—"

"Sgt. Bates, please escort Major Sheppard to the infirmary," she snapped.

Sheppard narrowed his eyes. "Stand down, Bates."

A muscle twitched in Bates' jaw. "Sir."

Sheppard got to his feet and faced Elizabeth across the table. "Don't—"

"You could be a threat to all of Atlantis," she said. "We don't know what's happening to you and your team."

"My God, you should see the size of the needle the Marquis de Quack means to stick in me. Neanderthal sadist. Ow. Ow, ow, ow. Do I look like a pincushion? What part of 'I don't like pain' did he not get?" Rodney commented from the infirmary.

"Shut up," Sheppard hissed mentally.

He leaned forward to make his point.

"And you don't know that it's any kind of threat. All it means is I get to hear Rodney whine about the size of the needle Beckett means to use on him or that Teyla has cramps—" He twitched. "Okay, too much information. I didn't want to know that. Ever."

"Definitely too much information," Rodney agreed.

Ford chimed in, "You should ask Dr. Beckett for something, Teyla."

Teyla maintained a dignified mental silence.

"Major, just go."

"Sir, let it go," Ford urged him. "You're putting the sergeant in a tight place. Dr. Weir doesn't know better, but you're Air Force. Don't make him choose who to obey."

Ford was right.

"Whatever you say, Dr. Weir," Sheppard drawled. "You can let Beckett know we're on our way."

The conference room door, like every other one in Atlantis, opened and closed for him instantly as he strolled out.


Part IV: Eaten Alive


Elizabeth stared at the plastic airlocks that had been fitted to the sliding doors into the isolation bay. Beyond the clear glass, Lt. Ford looked up and waved at her. She forced herself to smile and wave back.

Teyla paced between the beds. John sprawled like a broken scarecrow on one of them, an arm thrown over his eyes, while Rodney perched on the next one. Rodney's hands flew, accompanying some rant that Elizabeth couldn't hear.

Rodney's mouth didn't move. She checked the volume on the audio pickup and found it turned to maximum. None of them were speaking.

But watching them, she knew they were all communicating.

She shivered.

~~~~~

"Anneke thought the samples had been accidentally contaminated," Carson said. "I should have double checked right then, damn it."

"What is it?" Elizabeth asked.

His expressive face, chronically beard darkened, set in grim lines.

"Is it viral?" she asked. "Is it producing the telepathy?"

"As for that, I don't know," he replied. "It's not a virus or bacterium." He opened a laptop and retrieved a file, before turning the screen to her. "It's in their blood. None of us has seen anything like it."

Elizabeth stared at the display, at a loss. Urchin spiked spheres floated among blood platelets on the screen. "This is in their blood?"

"It's a propagule," Carson said. "A spore, haploid monokaryon… maybe. Maybe it's more like a slime mold or an oomycete once it's in the body. It isn't really like anything from Earth. The team brought back samples of it from MX9-M41. They probably aspirated some of them while they were there."

The planet of wet socks, Sheppard had called it, where they'd recovered a severely depleted ZPM. What else had they unknowingly brought back with them?

"What is it doing?" she asked.

Carson glanced at the four people in isolation. Sheppard was sitting up now, facing Rodney and nodding in a agreement with something. Teyla sketched a gesture, an example perhaps, but again, there were no words. Ford watched them back through the windows. He's on watch, Elizabeth thought. She'd seen it at Cheyenne Mountain, the way SGC teams that survived intact were so tightly bonded that their first loyalties were to each other above all else. SG-1 was the ultimate example, but Sheppard's team had already acted the same way after only a few months. They were already so tightly bound together, even before this, that there would never be room for anyone else.

"It's already done it," Carson said bitterly. "If I had only caught it to begin with, maybe I could come up with a treatment. Antibiotics, anti-fungals, chemo, radiation—something could have killed it while it was still just in their blood streams instead of—"

He braced himself over the table, bare forearms tense and shoulders tight, his head hanging. His eyes were squeezed shut. Then he pushed himself away, his anger translating into sudden, violent motion.

"Carson?"

He strode over and yanked an opaque curtain over the window into the iso bay. Then he triggered several displays on the Ancient machinery of the infirmary. Elizabeth recognized stylized diagrams of the human body. Four sets of two side by side against a black background, one a pleasant blue green, the other so threaded through with orange and red lines that it glowed.

Carson gestured. "Healthy human body. Infected human body."

Elizabeth swallowed hard.

"Is it infectious? Are we looking at an epidemic?"

"Dr. Biro theorizes they were exposed to the spores on the planet. Right now, there are no spores, so no one else has been infected. I think, I think, mind you, that the thing could spread through exposure to their blood too. We're lucky Anneke is a careful technician."

"Lucky," Elizabeth echoed while staring in cold horror at the glowing images.

The display responded to another command from Carson by enhancing and zooming in to the cellular level. Thread-like lines of orange tinted cells ran between the healthy blue-green ones. They were only a single cell thick, elongating and branching everywhere, infiltrating along the muscles, lymph and circulatory systems, and paralleling the nerves. Blocks of it had formed in their brains.

"It looks like hyphae according to our mycologist," Carson said. He stared at the display. The light from it reflected in his pale eyes. "Mycellium. He theorizes it's actually incorporating their DNA into its own. The last samples I took from Ford showed nuclei from Sheppard, McKay and Teyla along with samples of three other alien bionts existing separately within its cells. That's something like the coenocytic fungi operate on Earth. The nuclei all continue functioning separately instead of merging. It makes it incredibly resistant to fungicides."

He looked at her.

"Not that I could administer any at this point. It's infiltrated everywhere. The toxic side effects of that much material decaying within their systems would be lethal anyway. Right now, it's acting almost like a saprobic symbiont, digesting decaying cells and waste products."

She glanced toward the now concealed iso bay. "So it isn't going to kill them?"

Carson ran his hand over his hair and sighed.

"Of course it's going to kill them."

~~~~~

Carson squared his shoulders and entered the iso bay.

The airlock hissed softly and three pairs of eyes zeroed onto him.

Sheppard might have been asleep. Either that or he'd simply been shutting the others out. He sat up on the bed, casually draped his forearms over his bent knees and eyed Carson.

Carson was wearing a red Hazmat suit.

"Okay, I'm going to assume this isn't good news," Sheppard drawled.

Rodney gave the doctor a jaundiced look. "We're dead," he declared. His lips folded into a tight, ugly line slanting to one side.

Ford, standing by the curtained window into the main infirmary, looked worried too, without the element of Rodney's anger.

Teyla folded her hands in her lap and gave Carson an encouraging smile. Usually, that smile left him a little tongue-tied. This time, it pained him.

"You've picked up a wee hitchhiker from MX9-M41. It seems to only spread through aspirated spores or blood contact so no one else has picked it up—"

"The mushroom planet?" Ford asked.

"That might be more accurate than you'd think," Carson muttered.

Rodney folded his arms over his chest and lifted his chin, a vaguely defensive posture that screamed 'Emperor Napoleon is waiting impatiently'.

"I bled on MX9-M45," Teyla said.

"The Nane," John added. He narrowed his eyes, then turned to look at her. "It backed right off after biting you."

Teyla's eyes darkened at the memory.

"It did."

Carson looked at the gauze wound round Teyla's arm, just visible under the sleeve of the white scrub top she wore. He'd worn gloves to clean and suture it.

"Great, not only are we infected with something, we've managed to do a Typhoid Mary on a whole other planet," Rodney commented.

"Well, we'll make a note not to go back there either," Carson said.

"What is it, Doc?" Ford asked seriously.

Carson shifted uncomfortably.

"Well, it looks a trifle like a fungus in some aspects—"

"Alien Athlete's Foot," John muttered.

Rodney rolled his eyes. "It's affecting our nervous systems, isn't it, Carson? That's what that episode I had last night was. What else is it doing?"

Rodney's eyes slid toward Sheppard. "Yes," Rodney hissed at him. "Besides that."

Carson hesitated, confused by Rodney's apparent non sequitur. Sheppard and Rodney were intent on each other. They were 'talking' mentally, he realized, and hid a shudder.

Sheppard opened his hand in an ambiguous gesture. He turned his gaze back to Carson.

"Just go ahead, Dr. Beckett," he said.

"It's generated a parallel neural tissue network that's gradually absorbing —"

"I don't like the sound of that."

"No kidding, Major," Rodney responded. "Could you shut up? I'd like to know exactly how I'm going to die."

"No one said we're going to die." Sheppard looked at Carson and swallowed. "Yet."

"The transient effects, the numbness and headaches, are the result of, that is, a breakdown… It happens when there is a hiatus between the organism absorbing and replacing function in a nerve plexus."

"I'm really going to die." Rodney frowned petulantly. "This is unfair. Why couldn't this happen to Kavanagh?"

"Hey, what about the rest of us?" Sheppard snapped, obviously perturbed by the idea of something alien replacing his nervous system. He looked apologetic within a breath of his outburst, however. The unease was quickly pushed behind his usual, unconcerned pose.

Rodney gave Sheppard his patented 'Are you being deliberately stupid?' look. "Why couldn't this happen to Kavanagh and not any of us, okay? Though, to be fair, I am the most valuable person on this team. Just the loss to astrophysics alone will be incalculable. I'll never conclude my Unified Field Theory or see my cat again."

Sheppard nodded while Rodney spoke, smiling in mock agreement.

"That would just be a tragedy."

"Exactly. Think of the things I might have accomplished," Rodney said emphatically.

Sheppard's hazel eyes gleamed.

"I'm sure your cat will be devastated."

Carson had been grateful when Sheppard was added to the Atlantis mission roster. It meant Rodney and all the other scientists stopped pestering him to use his ATA gene. He'd thought the smart ass Air Force major a wee bit flighty but it turned out there was more to the man than pure Ancient genes and fast reflexes. Sheppard's unlikely friendship with Rodney McKay proved that.

But John Sheppard didn't give himself away. Even now, he appeared relaxed and unaffected, more interested in teasing Rodney than listening to Carson. It distracted everyone.

Carson cleared his throat.

Sheppard raised an eyebrow at him.

"Elizabeth has authorized sending a MALP through to MX9-M41 to find out more about the organism."

"How generous."

"She needs us," Rodney stated.

Sheppard chuckled. "That's true," he said. He slumped back on the bed and smiled sardonically at the ceiling. "But we're still screwed."

Carson said, "We'll find something. There's no point to losing hope yet. If the MALP can't find something, we'll send a team through in Hazmat suits. We're not giving up."

Rodney laughed scornfully and turned away. "Right."

"Dr. Beckett," Teyla said, that lovely, exotic face filled with concern for him, "you will be careful?"

It twisted at Carson's gut, that care. It wasn't just Teyla Emmagen, it was each of them. Every life on Atlantis was precious. They'd lost too many already.

"Of course I will." His voice cracked. "Teyla." They'd go on without AR-1 if it came to that, Elizabeth was too good a leader to let it break them. But it would be harder to hope.

"Atlantis can't afford to lose anyone else, Beckett," Sheppard declared. He was looking at the ceiling, seeing something else. His expression set into self-derision. "Don't take any stupid chances for us."

"I'll do my job," Carson snapped back, frustrated with the eerie calm all four of them were displaying. Even Rodney's little rant had been pro forma.

Sheppard had closed his eyes while Carson explained what else they knew or theorized about the organism. His attention seemed turned inward. Rodney picked at everything Carson postulated, until Carson had to hold his temper in tight check. He reminded himself of what they were all facing.

"You will let my people know?" Teyla asked.

Carson nodded, suddenly unable to speak.

"All of you, if you want to send a message to your families, in case… I know Elizabeth would make sure it got to them," he promised, hoping he wasn't lying. There were always security considerations in relation to the Stargate program. That presumed they'd any of them make it back to the Earth.

"I wrote a letter to my grandparents before we left Earth," Ford said. He smiled, obviously thinking of them. "It's in my personnel file. Everyone said there was a chance we wouldn't make it back."

Rodney laughed. "I didn't leave anything. What's the point now? 'Dear Jeannie, I'm dying of an alien fungus in another galaxy. Which is too bad, because I won't be around to have the life sucked out of me when the Wraith get here. Have a nice life. Hope the Goa'uld haven't taken over Earth while we've been gone.'"

Sheppard chuckled but said nothing, his eyes still closed, like his expression. Carson didn't understand the man at all.

"Major?" Ford asked.

Eyes still closed, Sheppard muttered, "No."

"No?" Rodney echoed. His head snapped to the side, to stare at Sheppard's set visage. "I would have thought a guy like you would have an entire list of girlfriends and family—"

Sheppard's eyes snapped open. He glared at Rodney and gritted out, "No. One."

"Okay," Rodney said.

Sheppard closed his eyes again.

"Touchy."

"McKay."

"Shutting up."

Rodney's expression said that that wouldn't be the end of it. Carson felt a moment's sympathy for Sheppard. Rodney wouldn't give up until he'd winkled out whatever Sheppard had under that usually devil-may-care exterior. Normally, Rodney took little interest in the people around him, but Sheppard was a mystery.

Rodney could never leave a mystery alone.

Carson took pity on the man's privacy and spoke, hoping to distract Rodney.

"What happens when it matures in your bodies… well…" He stopped, regretting the impulse already and ducked his head.

"Go ahead, Carson," Rodney said.

The weary tone made Carson look at him. "I'm sorry," he said.

Rodney flapped his hand.

"Just… tell us, damn it."

"Right now, it's acting like a symbiont, but it's not, it's an opportunist. When the colonies in your bodies are mature," Carson said in a rush, "we think it will digest the host material—"

"You mean us," Rodney interrupted flatly.

"—to provide itself with raw material to produce its fruiting body. That will be the phase that generates the worst danger of contagion, since it's the spores that spread the organism."

Carson stopped.

The four of them stared at him silently.

"It's eating us from the inside out," Ford summed up.

Carson looked at them helplessly.

"Why can't you just kill it? Give us something."

Sheppard rubbed his hand over his face. He obviously understood.

As did Rodney, who twitched.

"Lieutenant, were you listening at all?" he snapped. "This thing has replaced our nervous systems. People really don't do well without those, since they, oh, you know, handle a few minor matters like telling your heart and lungs to work."

Ford flinched.

"Oh."

"Rodney," Sheppard said to stop him.

Rodney grimaced at him.

"Aiden—" Carson started.

Ford walked to the opposite end of the iso bay and stood with his back to all of them. His back was stiff.

The acid had drained from Rodney's tone when he spoke again.

"It's in our brains by now, isn't it, Carson?"

He looked at Carson, who nodded slowly.

Rodney's words picked up speed, sparked by speculating about the underlying principles of a fascinating new thing. "The cell colonies are identical and resonate with each other in some fashion. That must facilitate the telepathy we're experiencing. I wonder if… We know the Wraith have a hive mind… it could work in the same way." His voice trailed off, abandoning the speculation as his enthusiasm guttered out, smothered by the implications.

"Hive mind? Nice, Rodney, you've made the one thing fun about this seem creepier than ever," Sheppard remarked.

The other three were silent. The soft shush shuff of the recirculating air from the ventilators filled the air.

"We're doing everything we can," Carson said.

Rodney unfolded his arms. "I suppose we're stuck in here for the time being? Of course we are. I think the condemned men—and woman—deserve a last meal. How about getting us something to eat? I could starve to death before this thing can kill me. And a laptop. I might as well get some work done while I still can. Oh, and write a letter to the SGC, telling them how much I hate them all."

"Forget that, Rodney," Sheppard said. "Just tell General O'Neill 'wish you were here'."

Rodney snorted.

Carson started to withdraw.

"I'll see you get meals from the mess and something to distract you from…"

"Impending certain death?" Sheppard joked, raising his eyebrow.

"Like we weren't used to that anyway," Rodney muttered.

"Be nice, Rodney."

"Why should I? I wasn't before. Plus, I'm dying. Dying people should get to be as mean as they want."

Sheppard shook his head.

"At least you're not alone, Rodney," Carson offered.

"Strangely, that comforts me not at all," Rodney sneered.

Sheppard laughed.


Part V: One Way


Elizabeth leaned over the control station and stared at the image the MALP telemetry was transmitting through the open wormhole. The picture joggled. She frowned at it. There was no color.

"Miller, is there something wrong with the color?" she asked.

"No, ma'am, I don't believe so," he said swiftly.

"Run a diagnostic anyway."

"The picture's fine, Dr. Weir," Sheppard radioed from the iso bay.

It had been 'Dr. Weir' since she ordered him into the infirmary. It wasn't just her. Sheppard had retreated into military courtesy and formality with everyone outside the iso bay. She didn't need to have Kate Heightmeyer's degree to know he was distancing himself.

A real-time relay of everything the MALP transmitted was being sent to the single laptop in the iso bay. They all hoped that the team would see or think of something helpful. At worst, Carson had opined, it gave them some distraction from the same four walls and ceiling.

Elizabeth was frankly surprised John and Rodney hadn't staged a break out. She'd observed them egg each other on into the most ridiculous situations, often for the sheer fun of competition. Unless they were busy enabling each other's reckless risks. Either way, if they weren't flat on their backs and unconscious, they would break whatever rules they could to get out of the infirmary.

That they hadn't argued for release or broken any of the rules signaled a substantial alteration of their personalities. All four of them had been entirely too passive since going into quarantine. Their mutual telepathy seemed to have disconnected them from everyone else.

"That's what it looks like. Not much color. Just gray and… gray."

"Or brown," Rodney corrected.

"And brown."

She could imagine John's amiable shrug. If she wanted, she could bring up a split screen image from the cameras in the iso bay and see him. She stayed her hand. In the last day, watching Sheppard and the others had become… disturbing. When they weren't interacting with someone outside the room, the members of AR-1 were too still. They didn't speak, didn't look at one another, didn't even betray any expression. They took turns at the single laptop they'd been given for use, but worked on the same file—one of Rodney's that the other three shouldn't have been even close to understanding. Zelenka could barely follow Rodney's theoretical work.

The MALP trundled forward. Cameras scanned the infrared spectrum. Readings from a dozen different sensors scrolled the control room monitors.

"The spores probably came off one of the monoliths," Rodney said. "Can you steer the MALP to the closest one?"

"On it," Miller said before Elizabeth could say anything. The MALP turned until its main camera found a monolith in the distance. It began moving toward it.

"Dr. McKay blew the dust from one of them all over Major Sheppard," Lt. Ford commented.

"Walking in it was probably enough, Ford," Sheppard said in the small silence that followed.

"We only have thirty-one more minutes of open gate time," Elizabeth reminded Miller. "Can you pick up speed?"

The camera lurched as the MALP accelerated.

"Redlining, ma'am," Miller said.

She patted his shoulder absently, watching the screen before them. Her mouth opened a little as the MALP neared the monolith and its true size became apparent.

"Kind of impressive, isn't it?" Sheppard said.

"Very," she admitted.

Selig lumbered over, his broad dark face alight with a grin. He studied the image of the monolith. "Incredible," he murmured. "Just incredible. That is, it's amazing, that's a fruiting body. The size, though, nothing on Earth or any other planet in the Ancients' database or SGC records has compared. Truly magnificent."

"Yeah, but knowing you're going to turn into one of those or something similar just ruins the whole scientific curiosity satisfied vibe," Sheppard remarked.

Selig chuckled. "I can see how that would happen, Major. You might exercise a little more caution in the future."

Sheppard's sarcastic "No, really?" made even Elizabeth smile, but Selig was right.

The xenoscience mavens repeatedly bemoaned the cavalier way teams just marched through the gates with nothing more than a preliminary scan by a MALP to tell them if a world was dangerous. They were careless, so had the SGC been, and for the same reasons. They weighed the risk of ignoring protocol against the need to find an energy source or a weapon to stave off the Goa'uld and now the Wraith and chanced their hand with every mission.

Something had gone wrong on MX9-M41, more than just the odds catching up with them. Something had changed that world.

All the gate addresses in the Milky Way led to terrestrial type worlds. Here in the Pegasus Galaxy they sometimes opened into orbital gates instead, but those were usually near—celestially speaking—an inhabitable planet. The Ancients hadn't built their gates anywhere they couldn't seed a human population. Few of those worlds harbored any serious biological threat. The few times the SGC ran into something, it had been as artificial as the nanovirus the Atlantis scientists found down in the labs.

Ten thousand years had passed since the Ancients sank Atlantis and fled the Wraith back to the Milky Way. The Ancients weren't infallible; they'd fallen to the Plague at Vis Uban and failed against the Wraith. They needed to stop relying exclusively on their database. Otherwise, something like this was going to happen again. They were going to stroll onto a world where something had changed radically and die.

They were insanely lucky it hadn't happened already and that included the real possibility they were going to lose AR-1 to this thing. Insanely lucky it hadn't spread through Atlantis' tiny population before they'd even known Sheppard's team was sick. They relied too much on the city's own security protocols, but Atlantis' sensors hadn't recognized the fungus as a threat. Maybe the city would respond when the organism killed them and tried to spread itself. Possibly it wouldn't, it was an alien technology that didn't have enough power to run half the time.

Elizabeth nodded to herself, making a mental note. They should have recognized there would be slips. They had to do better.

Selig directed Miller to maneuver the MALP and consulted with Nina Mizaki and Dr. Kunasaki, who were both working in the botanists' lab. Their soft words held little hope for the four people in the iso bay. Someone brought Elizabeth a cup of Athosian tea. She drank it absently, barely wincing at the taste. The quiet got to her and she retreated into her office, burying herself in the minutiae of the expedition's paperwork until the doors slid open and Selig loomed inside.

She looked up.

"The gate window closes in ten minutes," he said. "We're bringing the MALP through into a modified quarantine space. Dr. Zelenka and Dr. McKay assure us the Ancients' force field will contain any spores or contaminants on it. We'll sterilize it with fungicides and radiation once we've retrieved the samples."

Elizabeth shook her head.

"MALPs are valuable but not worth the risk. Once you have the samples, dial the gate and let the energy backwash destroy it," she said. "We cannot take the chance of even one spore escaping quarantine."

Selig nodded slowly.

"Spores can endure vast periods of inactivity, even vacuum," he agreed quietly. "You are, I think, wise." He turned and lumbered toward the door, then paused there. "Major Sheppard and the others are aware of their probable fate, yes?"

"Yes," she answered.

Selig bowed his head. His shoulders hunched, heavy muscle rolling under his scientists' blue shirt.

"The risk of exposure from Major Sheppard's team is much greater than from the MALP. The organism colonizing them will sporulate eventually."

"Yes, I know. So do they."

"Do you have a plan?"

"Dr. Beckett, Sgt. Bates and I have discussed the options for Major Sheppard's team," she replied.

Selig gave her a grim, accessing look. "I'm going to suit up." He shook his head. "I don't envy you, Dr. Weir."

He exited quietly. Elizabeth automatically saved her work and closed the file, before leaving her office to observe the MALP's return. The area in front of the ring was swathed in clear plastic. The harsh drone of the air scrubbers maintaining negative pressure inside the quarantine zone echoed from the ceiling. A dim, sparking green dome of energy encompassed the gate room floor—the Ancients' quarantine force field that Zelenka had managed to activate.

Down on the floor, even through the blur of the plastic, Selig's massive form stood out from the rest of the scientists in their red Hazmat suits. Four of Bates' Marines were there too, their P90s swathed in plastic. Beside Selig, she recognized Carson.

The doctor looked up and met her eyes. His face looked haggard and strained, lit and shadowed from within by the suit hood's small internal light.

Sgt. Bates joined her at the small overlook balcony as the outgoing wormhole collapsed.

"Ma'am."

"Sergeant."

They waited, watching the empty circle of the ring through the blur of plastic. Doctors Zelenka, Metharom and Huffman had sworn the jury-rigged auto-dial would allow the MALP to activate the DHD on the planet and dial an incoming wormhole. If it didn't, they'd send someone through in a Hazmat suit to dial home.

Bates stood with his hands locked behind him. Parade rest. Elizabeth studied him out of the corner of her eye. Would he be happier if Sheppard was replaced? The two of them frequently clashed and not in the friendly way the Major contended with Rodney.

That thought was unfair to Bates. She had deliberately engineered some of the conflict between Sheppard and Bates herself in order to keep her own authority over the expedition secure. She wasn't proud of that, but the easy alliance between John and Rodney meant the scientists would follow John's orders, sometimes over hers. She needed Bates to balance out the equation, to ameliorate John's military power base.

"Off world activation," Peter Grodin called out. "Gate address MX9-M41. Confirmed MALP IDC."

"Deactivate the gate shield," Elizabeth commanded. "Miller, bring the MALP through. Slowly."

It crept out of the shimmering event horizon onto the plastic and halted. The team of scientists swarmed over it, retrieving the samples and placing them in secure containers.

She touched the radio headset they all wore.

"Dr. Selig, how soon do you think you will have some answers?"

Selig didn't look up from his work.

"Tonight, tomorrow, ten years from now, this is a completely alien organism you're asking me to analyze," Selig replied.

"Tomorrow."

She nodded to Bates before starting back to her office.

"I've put guards outside the infirmary, Dr. Weir," Bates said quietly.

Elizabeth paused.

"Why?"

"A precaution," Bates stated.

Bates knew McKay and Sheppard's style too.

"Well. Thank you for informing me, Sergeant."

"Major Sheppard's orders," Bates added.

He knew what she'd been doing, she realized. He'd allowed. Now, he was telling her he wouldn't any longer. She had to stop underestimating Bates' intelligence just because he was in the military. No one had been sent on this expedition who wasn't sharp and adaptable. Look at John, who turned out to be a Mensa level math prodigy under the insubordinate cowboy exterior.

John, who had probably seen what she was doing too, but hadn't cared enough to call her on it.

Bates was going to be much harder to handle than John.

Elizabeth frowned.

"When?"

"Fifteen minutes ago," Bates said.

"Oh."

She wondered why Sheppard would enlist Bates to keep himself in the iso bay and disliked every possibility.

In her office, with the doors shut, she activated the radio again.

"Major."

"We're listening, Dr. Weir."

"What's the problem?"

No answer. She wondered if the radio had failed.

"Major Sheppard?"

A exhaled breath told her the radio was operating.

"We all want to go back MX9-M41."

"Want?" Elizabeth echoed.

"Want like McKay had the doors ready to open and we had to tackle Teyla."

"What about you?" she asked.

Again, a pause ate at her nerves.

"I'm pretty sure a gun would stop me," Sheppard said at last. He added dryly, "One way or the other."


Part VI: Interlock


Skrichik. Skrichikit. Skrichik. Skrichikit.

The rake scraped through the ragged, crispy leaves. The handle was smooth under his hands, the grain of the wood running its length just raised enough to feel under his fingertips. The leaves wanted to scatter over the winter dormant lawn, drifts of raw umber, tarnished gold, blackened bronze and ash gray. He could smell the peculiar scent of must and wet that went with them.

Another scented drifted from inside the house. Cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice and pumpkin warm baked from the oven. Nothing was better than his gran's pumpkin pie with the spiced cookie crust.

His mouth watered.

She would give him a slice when he came inside, topped with a mound of thick whipped cream, so rich it left a buttery skim in his mouth after each bite.

He looked down at the leaves, shuffling his feet through them. Some were exactly the shade of gran's pie, orange-brown and speckled with dark spices.

~~~~~

"They don't seem to be suffering," Elizabeth commented.

The surveillance cameras in the iso bay showed the same scene as the day before and the one before that. The beds had been pushed to the sides of the room, clearing a space in the center. Sheppard, McKay, Teyla and Ford sat in the open space, knees just brushing, facing each other but eyes closed.

Carson checked the monitor and shook his head.

"You know them, Elizabeth. You know that that isn't right," he said.

She watched and waited. None of them moved. The minutes ticked away. She swallowed the ache in her throat.

"Okay," she admitted.

She didn't know Teyla or Ford as well as she wished, but she'd spent the last year working with John and Rodney. John moved, he did, he flew. The confinement should have had him in a temper, crawling the walls, demanding answers from someone. He shouldn't have been sitting in a half-lotus with the Zen calm of a Buddhist monk. If John's stillness disturbed her, Rodney's scared her. Rodney buzzed like a hummingbird, he jittered and fidgeted and panicked and never gave up until he'd saved them all. To see him just sit and wait for the end made her hurt inside.

"Do you know— "

"I don't know anything," Carson said. "I just don't. They're not in pain. I asked Rodney." He smiled weakly. "He asked me if I really thought he wouldn't mention it if he was hurting."

Elizabeth ducked her head.

Carson's smile faded away.

"It took me yelling at him for five minutes to even notice me."

~~~~~

 
Crick crick crack. Crick crick crunch. Crick crack crick. Crunch.

The leaves crackled under her feet and she went still, cringing. They were round like coins, silvery on one side and pale green on the top. The color stayed the same even after they fell at the end of harvest season.

The sharp, medicinal smell of them intensified each time she stepped on them. A clever tracker would notice. But the leaf fall was thick this season and she could find no path without them.

She hunched her shoulders against the gathering chill. Nightfall approached. That would be good. All the children would return to the village for dinner and she could slip out of the blue lit wood without them catching her.

She wished Halling back from the hunt. He wouldn't let the others force her to always be the runner in Wraith and Runner. They said she had her father's Gift, she should be able to sense them. Maybe she didn't have the Gift of Emmagens; she couldn't sense the hunters behind her.

They weren't really Wraith, but they would hurt her if they caught her.

She turned toward the village and saw a dark shape from the corner of her eye. She ran, to a chorus of, "Get her, get her, get her!"

~~~~~

Radek Zelenka looked at the equations on the screen of the laptop on the dark conference table. It contained the files Rodney had been working on while in quarantine. The day before, Rodney had stopped typing, closed the last file and downloaded the contents to Radek's e-mail.

He'd been reading since morning. He'd brought his laptop with him to talk to Weir. He could just follow the math, because it was so perfect and lucid, but he couldn't have formulated it.

Rodney was an ass, but a brilliant one. The work, theoretical and applied, would let them charge the depleted ZPMs. All that was left was the engineering. Rodney's notes ended with the injunction, 'If you over-degreed imbeciles can't do that much, you're all hopeless. Try not to blow up the city, Slinky.' Which was a fond good-bye, coming from Rodney.

He pushed his glasses up his nose.

"Dr. Zelenka?" Weir asked.

"Is good work," he said sadly. "Is brilliant work…" He sighed. "We will maybe re-charge the ZPMs. Be safe from the Wraith because of this work." His hands moved over the cover of the laptop, unconsciously smoothing the metal.

"That is good news," Weir murmured.

"Yes," Radek agreed. He closed the laptop. His flyaway hair flipped down into his eyes. He blew it away. "Yes, good news. "

Weir smiled at him, the strain never disappearing from her eyes. She was too beautiful a woman to look so very tired, he thought.

"Can you start work tomorrow?" she asked. "While Rodney is still… "

Radek nodded rapidly. He knew what she hadn't meant to say. They should begin while they could still consult Rodney. Everyone on Atlantis knew that no one had found a cure for whatever had Rodney and the others locked in isolation for the last week.

"Yes, tomorrow," he agreed.

"You'll be taking over as Chief Scientist, Dr. Zelenka," she said gently.

Radek wanted to shake his head. No. He didn't want the job. He didn't want the responsibility that he saw eating away at Rodney whenever the other scientist stopped his constant movement or fell silent for a moment. He wanted to refuse, but he nodded instead.

"On Rodney's recommendation, seconded by Major Sheppard," Weir told him. She sighed. "We talked it over months ago, Dr. Zelenka, while contingency planning. Sgt. Bates will take over Major Sheppard's responsibilities. I'm sure you'll be able to work with him."

Unsaid but understood, none of us have any choice.

Radek nodded. He pulled the laptop closer, possessive of it.

"Yes, yes, " he said hurriedly. "No problems."

"Good."

He got to his feet then picked up the laptop, holding it close. Comfort and protection, only the shield of science didn't always save everyone.

"Going now," he mumbled, knowing his accent had probably thickened so much Weir wouldn't even understand.

Weir waved him away, going back to her own never ending work.

Radek hurried out.

Omar Haddad was a bad Muslim. Radek was going to find him and make him share the bottle of whiskey he knew the engineer had smuggled with him from Earth. Rodney and the others deserved to be toasted once with something better than the paint-thinner his still provided.

Then he would begin the work Rodney had bequeathed him.

~~~~~

Crunch shush, crunch shush, crunch shush. The streetlights were on early, casting circles of golden light on the snowy sidewalks and gutters. Between them, though, the shadows were sharper and deeper and the snow looked almost luminescent blue.

He shuffled along, head down, shoulders hunched.

The cretins followed behind him, hooting and taunting. He ignored them. The last time he'd told them they resembled a pack of monkeys with the exception of the literal shitslinging he had had two teeth loosened, his nose broken and all of his books dumped in the river.

He'd learned the best thing he could do was ignore them.

Until they egged themselves into doing more than jeering.

As the cries of "Get the geek, get the geek, get the geek," started echoing off the windows of the closed store, he began to run, dirty city snow crunching under his feet.

~~~~~

"In small words, please, Dr. Selig."

"The planet is covered with a single organism. We theorize that it has actually tapped deep under the planetary crust to provide itself with energy since there is nothing organic left to consume. The geyser activity is artificial; it's keeping the atmosphere wet and cloudy, because that's what it likes."

Down the table, Nina Mizaki took over.

"The monoliths are fruiting bodies, as we first theorized. Their size was our first clue to dating them. They're at least five thousand years old and still growing. The organism itself probably arrived on the planet two to three thousand years before maturing enough to beginning trying to reproduce."

She smiled excitedly.

"It's just a baby, really. Those monoliths won't be large enough to launch its spores extra atmosphere for another twenty thousand years." She mimed an explosive movement upward. "Then they'll drift until they reach another planet to begin the cycle again."

Bates looked a little sick.

"It eats planets," he said.

The scientists looked startled by Bates' lack of enthusiasm.

"Um, well, essentially," Nina admitted.

Elizabeth caught her eye. "Please, go on."

"The spores are exquisite examples of function. There are several layers involved, surrounding the genetic information. The endosporium is barely a molecule thick, but as it develops it is protected by a perisporium, a secondary membrane that sloughs off as the spore matures," she continued excitedly. "The brown episporiums we've seen on the spore on the planet surround that and are decorated with these marvelous spikes made to pierce any cell it comes into contact with. They're essentially a protective shell, yes?

"On terrestrial fungi, the mesosporium occurs between the endosporium and the episporium, but the samples we've looked at have a similar layer occurring beneath the episporium. It's this layer that is vacuum resistant, sealing the contents against any hostile environment."

Nina stopped and took a breath, still looking happy with all the fascinating discoveries.

"There is also an equivalent of an exosporium, that covers the episporium and is pierced by the spikes. The exosporium is very sticky yet acidic. "

"These things are made by nature to catch like a burr and stick," Selig added.

Nina nodded fast. "Exactly. Form and function."

Selig took up the narrative again.

"The organism has spread all over that planet. The MALP used a portable sonar imager to give us picture of what's under the soil crust and there is a net of hyphae going miles deep. Or, mycellium as some of my colleagues would insist on characterizing it, since diploidization is occurring."

Dr. Kunasaki interrupted, "But it isn't mycellium or hyphae, as I've repeatedly told you, James. It much more resembles neural tissue. There are electrical or chemical reactions zipping through the entire underground network. Stop trying to make this into a terrene analog and describe what is there."

Nina glared at Kunasaki.

"Yes, Yukio, we know it's alien, but we're trying to explain it to—to—" her hand flapped at Bates, who bared his teeth, "—to laymen."

Yukio Kunasaki folded her arms in front of her and looked sulky.

"Characterizing this organism as a singleton is inaccurate. It's much more like a colony of lichen, not a single biont."

"If you accept the theory of lichen as a colony organism, which not all of us do!" snapped Nina.

"Do we need to recap a semantic disagreement at this point?" Selig asked.

The two women looked abashed.

Selig gave Elizabeth an apologetic look.

"Biont is just another term used to describe something when we can't decide whether it is individual in a biological sense or not. It's a nasty, almost philosophical question that doesn't apply to the problem we were trying to solve."

"Have you solved that problem, Dr. Selig?" Elizabeth asked.

He shook his head.

"No."

"Then I suggest you write up your findings, file them, and move on to some work that will materially benefit Atlantis. This meeting is over."

She gave them all a look that clearly dismissed them.

Kunasaki paused as she gathered up her papers and tablet computer.

"Yes?" Elizabeth asked, pushing back her exhaustion. They might need Kunasaki soon. Once John was gone, Carson and Kunasaki would be the last members of the expedition possessing a naturally occurring ATA gene. Even with Carson's gene therapy providing some of the other scientists with it artificially, they'd relied on John, because everything Ancient responded to him effortlessly.

"I'm sorry, Dr. Weir," Kunasaki said softly.

Elizabeth made herself smile.

"I know that you all are doing your best," she said. "We all are."

It just wasn't good enough, which wasn't something she would ever say out loud to an emotionally vulnerable scientist.

"I just wanted to say."

"Thank you. Good night."

Kunasaki took the hint and left.

Elizabeth was left staring at Bates.

"Tomorrow," she said tiredly. "Tomorrow."

"Yes, ma'am."

She was horrified by the compassion she saw in Bates' eyes then.

~~~~~

Rattle patter thud. Rattle patter thud. Rattle patter thud. Rattle patter thud.

The shovels made a sliding sound cutting into the soft pile of earth. He concentrated on it and not the other noise, the sound of loose soil falling into a hole. Breathing hurt. He squinted his eyes tighter, making the whole world blur.

Andy's hand was tight around his arm, holding on as if his brother thought he would bolt away.

Don't cry, he told himself. Dad hates it when you cry.

His mother was crying. Dad just stood there, stiff and straight in his dress uniform. A lot of guys from Dad's unit were standing at attention too. Even the general and his wife were there.

He didn't care. He didn't care, he told himself.

The general was telling Dad and Mom how sorry he was for their loss. He patted John on the head, squeezed Andy's shoulder, and mumbled something about brave boys. John didn't blink.

Inside, he was so angry it shook him.

~~~~~

Elizabeth found her way to the infirmary late, long after everyone but the control room night shift had succumbed to sleep or locked themselves in their labs to work all night. No one was in the corridors to see her, at least.

She found Carson where she'd expected, slumped down in a chair before the monitor showing the iso bay. She didn't let herself look.

"Carson," she murmured, just touching his shoulder. "Carson."

"Wh—?"

He blinked awake, checked the monitor, then looked up at her.

"Elizabeth. What brings you down here?"

"I need something to sleep."

He studied her with a doctor's eyes instead a friend's, weighing her before sighing. "All right. This once," he said. "But you'll tell me why first, since I know you won't talk to Kate."

"Leaders can't be seen to have weaknesses," she said.

He went into the pharmacy supply room. She turned his chair away from the monitor and sat, allowing herself to sink back and rest her head.

"But that's not why you can't sleep tonight," Carson said, returning with a vial containing just two pills. He handed it to her. "One should be enough. If you need more after tomorrow night, come back to me and I'll examine you for an organic problem."

She slid the vial into her jacket.

"Now talk to me."

She averted her face.

"Tomorrow, Carson. We can't afford to go on trying to find a solution that doesn't exist."

"I wish I could argue with you," he said.

She squeezed her eyes shut. So relieved. She'd been afraid he would argue it with her.

"I've been watching them every day, Elizabeth, and they aren't who they were any more. I don't think we could bring them back." He paused. "I don't think they would want to come back from wherever this has taken them."

"I can't allow that thing inside them to mature and possibly contaminate even part of Atlantis, Carson," she said.

He squeezed her shoulder.

"It feels like I'm going to kill them."

"It's not you."

"Gating them back to MX9-M41 and leaving them there isn't killing them?"

"No."

She laughed softly.

"So why can't I sleep?"

He didn't answer.

"I hate this place," she whispered. "We're trapped and it's killing us one by one. The nanovirus, the Genii, the Wraith and now this. We should never have come."

~~~~~

Shush shuff. Shush shuff. Shush shuff. John listened to the soft rush of air being pushed into the iso bay by the recirculator with his eyes still closed, letting it soothe him.

Teyla opened her eyes first. She met John's gaze when he pulled out of his memory. He forced a fake smile, then wondered why he bothered. She knew it wasn't real.

Rodney's eyes opened next. He looked at Teyla then gave a jerky nod. "I guess we have more in common than I'd thought."

The sound of his voice, any voice, startled John. He wasn't sure when they'd stopped talking out loud. He wasn't certain when they'd slipped into each other's memories, either. Time seemed to be getting away from him. At some point they'd silently agreed to push the beds against the walls and sit down on the floor facing each other. He wondered what Beckett and Weir made of that.

He wondered, but didn't really care.

Aiden's eyes opened last, as Teyla smiled at Rodney. "Hey."

"Hey," John echoed. God, his voice was hoarse. He cleared his throat and coughed, abruptly aware of a liquid, unpleasant sensation in his lungs. "That pie… "

"Best pie ever," Aiden said.

"Major," Rodney murmured.

"Yeah?"

"Fraternal or identical?"

"Fraternal," John replied reluctantly. He focused on the iso bay's window, on the wrinkles in the institutional green curtain yanked over it. The glass reflected his face a blur, the flash of the horizontal bars of light from the walls obscuring his expression.

Displaying amazing tact for him, Rodney didn't ask anything else. He didn't need to, did he? He'd been in John's mind.

Teyla took John's hand in hers.

John looked at their fingers clasped together, the contrast between the size of his hand and hers, the strength in both, and sighed. Their different calluses—from stick fighting and piloting—caught against each other. In the web between thumb and forefinger, silvery, delicate threads traced just under her skin. Mycellium. They seemed to move with her pulse—or his—writhing closer to the surface.

He watched with numb interest as the threads on Teyla's hand slid out her pores and wound into his own hand, into the fine tracery of the same under his skin.

Everything that was Teyla came with that meshing.

Blindly, John stretched out his other hand, groping for contact. He didn't want this, except some part of him did. Maybe it was him, maybe it was whatever they were becoming. He couldn't fight it. He found Rodney's face. It took only a touch to merge. Then Aiden joined them, his hands finding Teyla's and Rodney's.

It was easy to let go.

John let them in and they were one.


Part VII: Half in Love


They sent another MALP through the Stargate to MX9-M41 in the morning. They couldn't afford to lose another one, but Elizabeth authorized it anyway. She couldn't risk sending anyone with AR-1, though Carson had volunteered, yet she couldn't let them go alone and unmarked either. The cameras on the MALP would transmit as long as the gate was open, go into hibernation once it closed and restart if they dialed again.

They were going to lock out MX9-M41's gate address from the control room computers. The MALP and its cameras would sleep forever.

She had ordered everyone she could out of the gate room. That left Elizabeth herself standing with Bates and Zelenka as Carson and a group of Marines in Hazmat suits escorted Sheppard's team, also in Hazmat suits, in.

Rodney, Teyla and Ford immediately walked to the gate. In stride. Watery ripples of light played over them. There, they waited, ignoring everyone in the gate room. Not ignoring, Elizabeth corrected herself. Oblivious. Intent. They were leaning toward the event horizon.

She tried to find something to say when Sheppard stopped in front of her.

"John…"

She remembered seeing him in Antarctica the first time, O'Neill's almost innocent helicopter pilot, looking a little dazed and disbelieving, as the Ancients' equipment just sang for him. She'd been the one who insisted the expedition needed him, pushed O'Neill to pressure him to come, the one who brought Sheppard away from the clean cold of the ice… to this. The blue light from the wormhole reflected from the clear face shield of Sheppard's suit hood and glinted off the pale, twisting tracery that had crawled over half his face. One eye had gone opaque, but the other remained the same, a clear sharp hazel.

Elizabeth focused on that eye, trying to see John Sheppard still inside, well aware all the innocence had been seared away well before the mission to MX9-M41.

His mouth twisted up into a lopsided smile that was shockingly like Rodney's.

"Dr. Weir," he said. His voice rasped from disuse. His gaze drifted past her to the gate, expression peaceful.

Elizabeth maintained her negotiator's calm with an effort. She wanted him to rage and that was unfair. They should be grateful John and the others were able to accept this with equanimity. She should be, but she couldn't, not inside.

"The MALP is loaded with MREs and water," she told him.

"I included some auto-injectors preloaded with morphine," Carson added quietly. "If… well." Carson shrugged.

From the gate, without looking away from it, Ford said, "We don't think we'll need them."

Sheppard gazed past them at the gate, his brows faintly drawn together. "It might interrupt the joining."

Elizabeth closed her hands into fists.

"All right." She swallowed. "I am sorry. If there was—"

Sheppard held up his gloved hand. "Dr. Weir. We want to go back."

Words failed her.

"Because of the 'joining'?" Carson asked. Expedition CMO or not, Carson too was a researcher at heart. He couldn't help asking questions, even now.

Sheppard ducked his head. That was a John Sheppard move, boyish and touchingly sincere. But when he raised his head, all Elizabeth could see was the blind eye and all she heard was an alien.

"It's… perfect."

Despite herself, Elizabeth almost stepped back from him. She didn't know this man who wanted what was killing him.

Sheppard's attention switched to Bates. "Remember what I said, okay? Cut the scientists some slack and they'll come through for you. Listen to Dr. Zelenka."

Bates eyed him, then nodded and came to attention. "Yes sir."

"Thank you, Major," Zelenka murmured quietly in his native Czech. "Good-bye."

Sheppard cocked his head.

Zelenka made little flapping, pushing motions with his hands. "Good-bye, go, go now. We see it is what you want. We will be fine."

That slow, almost wicked John Sheppard smile lit his face. His eyebrow rose, then he nodded, still smiling. "You will be."

Zelenka smiled back wistfully.

Sheppard nodded at Zelenka. He sketched a salute that took in Elizabeth and Bates then turned from them. His attention was already on the event horizon again before he walked away.

"Good-bye," Elizabeth called as Sheppard reached the rest of his team.

They took each other's hands and stepped through the event horizon without looking back.

Elizabeth forced her eyes away from the gate. As she did, she saw that the balconies and walkways above the gate room floor were packed with scientists and marines side by side. Despite her orders, they had come as a gesture of respect, to watch Sheppard's team go.

Zelenka touched her arm.

"It was better this way, to see them go, for all of us," he said.

Even Bates seemed to agree.

Elizabeth just wished she could wash away the memory of John's hazel eye frosting over as he walked toward the Stargate. Instead, she made her way to the control room. As she walked up the steps with the Ancients' language inscribed in glowing characters on the face of each riser, Bates paced beside her, prepared to steady her if she faltered. She had to stop halfway up, painfully reminded of how those steps lit the first time John walked up them.

She tamped down the memory and continued.

Zelenka had already darted ahead.

"Camera," he told Miller. "Activate it."

Miller's hands moved with deceptive ease over the mixture of Ancient technology and human tech that had been integrated into the city's control systems. A laptop screen came to life with a jittery, pixilated image of MX9-M41. On one side, a glimpse of the curve of the gate ring situated them.

AR-1 stood before it.

Elizabeth approached reluctantly.

The control room's windows opened on a sky bluer than any earthly sky, still streaked with dawn's colors. The light washed out the laptop's screen. Elizabeth hadn't noticed the sunrise. That seemed wrong.

Zelenka positioned the laptop to keep the glare off.

"Do we have a sound pickup?" Elizabeth asked.

"Yes, is active," Zelenka told her. He watched the screen intently.

On it, Sheppard and his team were methodically removing the Hazmat suits, revealing that they'd dressed in scrub pants and t-shirts beneath. When they were done, they each walked away from the Stargate in a different direction without exchanging a look or a word.

"Damn," Miller murmured. "Who do I keep the camera on?" He glanced up at Elizabeth.

"Follow Dr. McKay," Zelenka told him when Elizabeth didn't speak. "He's closest."

Miller glanced up at her. She nodded. The camera panned and focused on Rodney's staggering, uneven progress away from the gate.

~~~~~

His lungs were full of something that squirmed and twisted. Breathing didn't hurt, but he could feel the mass moving inside with each inhalation. Rodney ignored it the way he ignored the gray creeping into the edge of his vision. He stumbled more than once as he walked away from the Stargate; his feet no longer had any feeling. He didn't notice. Instinct pushed him forward. It was necessary to be a certain distance from the others.

Physical distance didn't interrupt what bound him to the others. He was aware that John had been blind since just before they walked through the Stargate. He heard the song Aiden sang to himself. He tasted the salt blood running down the back of Teyla's throat. They felt his thoughts slowing and scattering from oxygen deprivation. They were moving away but they were still with him.

He reached the proper point and stopped, swaying in place.

Time. It was time.

He was aware of the life that was the planet. It echoed through his flesh.

He sank down to his knees, dropping forward until his hands rested on the pale ground cover and his head hung. He labored for enough breath to stay conscious.

The tendrils under the skin on his hands and arms writhed.

He watched in fascination as they breached his skin, stretching longer and longer to plunge into the ground. Blood ran from his pores, shocking color dropping in splats onto the cool gray.

Mold formed on the surface of each drop as it hit, eating the red.

Rodney heaved and choked. The mass in his lungs moved, forcing its way up and out. Black tinged the edges of his vision. The mold began forming on his skin, speckles of gray growing into patches. No more air. The tendrils wormed from his mouth and his nostrils, reaching for the ground too.

He crumpled forward. The threads connecting him to the planet were soft under his face, still warm from his body and wet with his blood.

A last flash of lucidity made him try to push himself away, but his body was already melting away from him as his mind sank into the other.

~~~~~

Miller gagged quietly.

"Garbage can," Zelenka snapped, pulling him away from the control console before he could empty his stomach on it.

Grodin looked up from his console, curious and alarmed. Elizabeth gestured for him to stay where he was, while Zelenka slid into Miller's seat and panned the MALP's camera ninety degrees.

"They will have spaced themselves from each other evenly," Zelenka predicted as he zoomed the picture in on John Sheppard.

"How do you know?" Elizabeth asked. She had to force herself to remain professional. Asking questions helped.

"Analysis of the MALP imagery from the second reconnaissance," Zelenka said confidently. "Distance between the monoliths occurs following an exact ratio."

~~~~~

Something slow, letting go, he could taste it in his mouth. His eyes were gone. Instinct that wasn't his guided his steps to the place.

Panic flared with an emotion that tasted of sarcasm.

Is this really how you want to die?

Rodney, melting away from their minds, fresh water pouring into a salt ocean.

It wasn't dying.

It was, this was, this imperative. Clear in the darkness and silence calling for them. A cellular demand that consciousness could recognize but not grasp.

It was breathing.

Wet, wet air that he drank in. Held his breath, held, held.

Yielded.

John slipped under the water and dissolved.

~~~~~

Elizabeth tightened her hand on the back of the chair Zelenka had taken over. He was intent on the laptop. Miller took one look at the screen and hunched over his garbage can again, bringing up a thin string of bile. The acid reek wrenched at Elizabeth's own equilibrium.

"Peter," she managed to say. "Get someone to take over this station. Miller, go to your quarters and clean up. If you haven't recovered in an hour, go to the infirmary."

"Yes, Dr. Weir," he said shakily.

"Take the wastebasket with you."

Grodin had another member of the control room staff take his own station and joined them at Miller's console. He glanced at the monitor and blanched.

"Is that bone?" he exclaimed.

She couldn't help it; she turned away, gagging, one hand over her mouth.

~~~~~

She was drowning.

Teyla held her breath, but it was too much, she convulsed on a cough, bringing up more blood that slid, slick wet hot back down her throat.

Her hair matted against her face, caught on her lips and over her eyes. She let her head hang, swaying where she stood.

She folded her arms and clutched at her elbows.

Animal instinct made her fight it. She was a warrior. She didn't surrender… But it called, a siren's harmony that held John and Rodney's voices already. She was tired, tired of being alone, of standing against.

Blood tide spilled from her lips, red tears, saline seas, an inevitable flood that bore her away, into the all.

~~~~~

"Six minutes forty-six seconds left until the gate closes," Peter told Zelenka.

Zelenka panned the MALP's camera again, too intent to look up. "Unnecessary," he muttered. He raked his hair off his face with one hand, still typing commands with the other.

Elizabeth closed her eyes. She snapped them open immediately. A crimson image hung behind her eyelids. Teyla, dressed in blood, gray rising up to absorb her.

~~~~~

He reached the right place, turned and looked at the still shimmering Stargate.

A surging need to finish flooded through him.

Aiden smiled.

It was a song, a heartbeat synched to the sidereal period of the planet instead of the solar. He remembered the sun on Earth… so far away… warm on his face. His lifted his face to the pearl clouded sky, dreaming the feel of it on his skin, not feeling the wet touch of the damp air.

His eyes closed.

Sun on the water, tide tugging him out and out and down, down, down until he was unraveled, undone, unbecome.

Unending and finally unaware.

~~~~~

"Turn it off," she choked out, unable to watch the dissolution continue to the end. "No one sees this without my express authorization."

Zelenka's hands froze over the keyboard. His breath hitched.

Elizabeth reached past him and switched off the monitor.

"Shut down the gate."

Elizabeth leveled her gaze at Peter.

"Shut it down."

She waited, looking blindly at the gray-black face of the monitor. The water ripple reflection of the Stargate gleamed over the matte screen.

Peter went to the command console, reached past his replacement's shoulder and silently pressed the control that deactivated the gate.

The reflection disappeared.

The ring in the gate room stood empty.

Zelenka hunched over, not looking at her.

Peter wouldn't meet her eyes.

Elizabeth straightened her shoulders.

"It's over."

~~~~~

Song and stars, drifting, stasis. Gravity, heat, gas. Finding, falling, becoming. Warmth, nourishment, extension, being, becoming. Radiation, rotation, magnetism, becoming. Atomic, mineral, chemical, being. Electricity, oxygen burn, spark, being. Thought, conscious, dream, knowing. Slow song, planetary, turning, energy point, vacuum cold, rhythm. Growth, cycle, completion, being. Reduction, voyaging, drifting.

Carbon. Organics. Taste analyze. Adenine. Guanine. Cytosine. Thymine.

Bond. Sugar to phosphate. Build. Adenine. Guanine. Cytosine. Uracil. Acid, protein, enzyme, other. Breakdown.

Memory.

Consciousness. Self. Other.

Join.

Joy.

Joy: ringing, singing, speed and wonder and acceptance and so much knowledge, so beautiful, precise patterns resolving from chaos, vast, complete, exact, encompassing, laughing, tender, swift, wild, sweet as pain relieved, and together, one, joined: joy.

Time. Other. Solitude.

Separation.

Sorrow.



Part VIII: Out of an Unlikely Garden


John washed to the shore of consciousness shipwrecked and alone. He slowly drew the jigsaw bits of himself back together, rolled onto his back and stared at the gray sky.

Dreaming endless inward all. It was too far from human to hold onto.

It ran between the fingers of his memory, gone before he could hold it in his mind.

He held his hand up before his eyes, silhouetted against the sky's glare, remembering wonder. He opened and closed his hand, amazed by it, tendon, muscle, bone and nerve.

Carbon. The word rolled around his head like a loose pinball. Then more words careening into each other. DNA. Flesh. Nerves. Body. Meaning wanted to slide away. Words were no good.

Every movement felt foreign. New. He remembered being complete.

Whole.

Now he was alone, wet, naked and half a second from screaming.

He was alone with just the flotsam and jetsam of concepts his brain could no longer process.

He curled onto his side, clutching his arms around his knees, squeezing his eyes shut. Shudders ran through him over and over. He'd been remade, knit up from a double helix strand, all of him poured back into a lonely, newborn shell of blood and bone.

There was no comfort.

A rhythmic whimper pulled him away from the edge of catatonia. It hitched, cut off, then returned as a howling scream that had John rolling to his knees. He groped for a weapon that wasn't there, then scrambled toward Teyla and Aiden.

Aiden's wail sawed through the air. A flailing fist knocked Teyla away from him. John expected to feel the pain of a split lip if not a broken cheekbone. It wasn't there. She wasn't there. Teyla sprawled back, blood rich and red on her lip, but she wasn't in John's mind.

Aiden kept thrashing, yelling wordlessly.

John couldn't find his own voice.

A heavy hand settled onto his shoulder, so unexpected that John jerked away in a panic. Rodney fell without the support. John scrambled around, staring at him. He hadn't known Rodney was there.

Rodney stared back, blue eyes dilated dark. His mouth opened and closed.

Aiden's cries tapered away. He pulled himself into a tight, fetal ball. Teyla knelt by him, but didn't touch him.

Rodney's Adam's apple bobbed as he swallowed. He licked his lips.

"We—"

John winced. They weren't a we, they'd been one and it was gone. Voice could never replace it. He raised a shaking hand to his throat, wondering if he could even speak.

Rodney cleared his throat.

"Major—"

He squeezed his eyes closed for a heartbeat then forced his voice to work.

"Yeah."

"Oh, thank God," Rodney said fast.

"You—?" John asked, "Are you okay?"

Rodney laughed. "Major, we're all naked here after being absorbed and spat back out by a sentient planet. I find that, personally, a little traumatizing."

John shrugged.

"We're not dead."

"Okay, good point," Rodney admitted. "I thought you were going to flip out like Ford."

"Maybe later."

"Definitely later."

John nodded. "It's a date."

"Because I'm really having a hard time with this."

Rodney wasn't the only one. Aiden's reaction looked pretty attractive. John wouldn't mind curling up and letting someone else deal with everything for once. A hard time, yeah, you could say he was having a hard time too.

They'd been turned inside out. Left naked in ways that had nothing to do with skin. Every secret shared. It bothered him more than he could ever express, more than the alien had, knowing the others the way he did now, knowing they knew him the same way. It felt fundamentally wrong. Humans weren't meant to share so much.

"We should dial Atlantis," Teyla said, her voice hoarse and uneven, startling them both.

She still knelt near Aiden—Ford, John corrected himself ruthlessly—yet he'd managed to forget her, focusing on the familiar exchange with Rodney. He had to get his head together. He had to start distancing himself again.

"Yeah," he agreed.

He slid his gaze her way, then averted it politely despite knowing quite clearly that Athosians didn't have nudity taboos. A flicker of memory provided him with Teyla's amusement over the whole idea. Athosians wore clothes because the climate had demanded it, as did trading with other cultures.

Rodney stared without the slightest shame.

John's legs wobbled uncertainly when he got to his feet. He lightly slapped the back of Rodney's head as he passed.

Rodney's head snapped up and he glared, fingering the back of his head. "Hey, what did you—?"

The MALP was only a few feet away, still sitting safely just beyond the danger zone of an opening event horizon. Reaching it left him lightheaded and unsteady. John leaned against it a good five minutes before pulling himself together enough to draw on one of the loose Hazmat suits they'd abandoned on arriving.

His mind went to the possibility that Atlantis wouldn't let them through the Stargate. They'd have to gate to another planet, one with coordinates they knew. Open a gate from there, then somehow convince Atlantis they were who they were and that they could safely return.

No gear. No weapons. Jesus, John thought to himself. They were screwed if they encountered any sort of hostiles. They couldn't stay on MX9-M41, either. He knew that the way he knew how to breathe. So, gate to one of the planets they'd been considering for an Alpha site and dial Atlantis from there? Except too many of them had shown signs of Wraith activity… The Nane planet, maybe.

"Major?" Rodney called.

John braced himself against the MALP. His head was pounding.

"John?"

Rodney's voice made him think. How long had it been since they'd eaten or had anything to drink? How long had they been on MX9-M41?

"I'm okay," he muttered.

"You don't look it."

He peered at the MALP and found the attached chronometer. The numbers blurred briefly. Three days had passed.

Okay. They needed food. Then they could think.

John fumbled open the pack strapped to the top of the MALP. MREs. Water. Powerbars. Thank you, Elizabeth, not every administrator of a beleaguered expedition would have wasted valuable supplies on people who were supposed to die. He opened a bottle of water, swallowed and pulled out the powerbars.

Raisin, peanut butter, oatmeal, chocolate chip. John smiled as he picked out the chocolate chip.

"McKay," he called. "Heads up."

"Wha—?"

He tossed the powerbar.

Rodney fumbled and caught it.

"Chow."

"Good idea."

John tossed Teyla the raisin, debated and then tossed the peanut butter to Ford, who had finally sat up. He still wasn't meeting anyone's eyes. John understood. He didn't want to look at the others either. It made him feel bruised and bereft.

He ate the last powerbar, savoring the taste and the immediate energy it provided. The other three joined him at the MALP as he finished and he passed the water bottles out.

He stared down at the ground, at the fine, whitish mat of threads under his bare feet, while the others dressed in the Hazmat suits.

They'd been part of that. His mind recoiled from the memory and he shook. Teyla reached toward him, to steady him and he flinched—not from her touch, but from the separateness of it, the reminder of what they'd lost. He hadn't wanted it, but he already missed it.

The thought that he could walk to a monolith, suck in a lung full of spores and lie down until the planet took him again occurred. He didn't know he'd begun shaking again until Rodney's hands on his arms were all that kept him from sliding down to the ground.

He wouldn't look up.

"We could…"

Rodney shook him. John raised his eyes. The shock on his friend's face shamed him. Rodney dropped his eyes. John's legs did give away then. He ended up sitting down, propped against the MALP's tire, knees bent and folded close to his chest. Rodney ended on his knees before him.

Rodney's hands rested, limp, on his own thighs. John missed the way his fingers had bit into his arms. He felt so disconnected. Rodney's touch had grounded him.

"We can't," Rodney hissed.

He wanted to, John thought dizzily. Rodney wanted to go back to it. They both wanted the pure communication they'd shared and the…peace…that followed. Rodney knew exactly what John had meant because he wanted it too. They were both still half in love with the experience and the weakness scared them.

Rodney stared into John's eyes until John nodded. Lotus dreams were for people who weren't responsible for the lives of almost two hundred scientists and military marooned in a hostile galaxy. They didn't get to have what they wanted. They had to do their duty.

"Major?" Ford exclaimed.

Teyla crouched next to him, mocha eyes filled with worry. John rocked his head back against the MALP tire and managed a weak smile.

"Just a delayed reaction."

Rodney nodded, a series of quick jerks of his head, relief softening his grim expression. "How about some more water?"

Teyla handed him a bottle. He offered it to John after drinking. John took it without comment. The downward sweep of Teyla's eyelashes hid her eyes, but her mouth turned down. She'd seen through the lie.

She didn't call them on it.

"Jo—Sir, what do we tell everybody?" Ford asked.

What had happened. How could they ever articulate that to anyone who hadn't experienced joining with the entity that occupied all of MX9-M41? Their minds had locked into each other then touched something so alien it shredded his brain even now. But they had been part of it too, welcomed, enfolded, known and accepted in a way that religion only promised waited after death.

Then again, they had died. John didn't want to think about that either, though it lurked at the fringes of his thoughts, a gibbering, hysterical realization. He pushed it away. When in doubt, play to the façade.

John finished the water and shrugged.

"We're fine, we didn't die, we want to come home?"

"Yeah, that'll convince Elizabeth to deactivate the shield," Rodney said. Condensation turned his eyelashes dark and clumpy, emphasizing the color of his eyes as he rolled them.

"You got a better idea?" John asked, curious.

Rodney blinked and looked nonplussed. John raised an eyebrow.

"No, I got nothing," Rodney admitted.

"Then we go with my plan."

"This, this is so not a plan," Rodney said. "Maybe you should mention the first contact. We know we're dealing with a sentient now. That ought to intrigue someone like Elizabeth, right? Err, but maybe we should wait, because she might think we're compromised if we talk about being part of it." He nodded. "Yes, we should definitely wait until we're back."

John got to his feet.

"Okay, guess it's time to do this," he said. "We haven't got our IDCs, so, Ford, you and Rodney'll want to get the MALP's radio and camera working so we can transmit."

He headed for the DHD.

"This isn't going to work," Rodney said gloomily.

John was pretty much afraid of that.

~~~~~

Elizabeth had forced herself to go to the mess for lunch instead of remaining in her office. People needed to see her. The room went unnaturally quiet when she arrived.

Yukio Kunasaki greeted her quietly however and conversation slowly picked up. Quieter than usual, but all of Atlantis had been subdued the last three days. Rumors about the last recording from the MALP on MX9-M41 were making the rounds, but Elizabeth had no intention of ever letting anyone else see that.

People needed to see her, but she didn't need to talk to them, so she seated herself alone in front of the windows. The view would help compensate for the food.

The soup of the day was thick and slick, a deep purple-red, and tasted like okra with cheese and sugar. Private Rochefort made it from a squash-like plant that grew wild and prolific on the landmass. After a few spoonfuls, the color defeated her and Elizabeth settled for a slice of Athosian bread with honey and more tea.

She had almost finished when the gate room alarm went off.

Every head in the mess jerked up. Faces turned to her. Elizabeth rose, moving swiftly and with purpose but not panic for the nearest transporter. She ignored the questions in every set of eyes on her.

The radio transponder in her ear whispered.

"Dr. Weir, we have an unauthorized off world gate activation."

She touched the mic switch.

"I'm on my way. Raise the shield."

"Done."

"Alert Sgt. Bates, ask him to meet me—"

"Already on his way," Peter said.

She arrived in the control room moments later, glad for the transporters that saved her from sprinting down hallways and up stairs. Her eyes went to the gate ring. The rippling blue of the event horizon seemed to wait placidly behind the dim sparkle of the shield.

Bates' Marine guards were watching the gate. Bates had already arrived and stood at loose attention, hands clasped behind his back. He nodded to her.

"Has anything tried to come through?" she asked Peter.

He shook his head. "Nothing yet."

Elizabeth looked at the Stargate again, frowning. "Gates don't open for no reason. Sergeant, I want you to put all your men on alert."

"Already done, ma'am," Bates assured her.

Peter bent closer to the read out displayed before him. "Dr. Weir?"

"Yes?"

"We're receiving a video and audio transmission on a MALP frequency." He looked up at her, wide eyed. "I think it's from the MALP on MX9-M41."

She squeezed her eyes shut. She'd never wanted to hear that designator again.

"How could it dial the gate?"

Peter shook his head. "It couldn't. The jury-rigged auto-dialer was on the MALP you ordered destroyed."

"Damn it."

She flexed her hands.

"All right. Let me see this transmission."

"On screen three," Peter told her.

Elizabeth looked over. Bates followed her gaze. She saw his dark eyes widen though his face remained impassive.

A dark hazel eye peered into the camera pickup from too close. It was familiar as the voice that accompanied it.

"McKay, have you got this thing working or not?"

"See the little red light, Major?"

"No, McKay, of course I don't see it. It's only right in front of me."

"Well, we're transmitting live."

The eye shrank as it drew back from the camera, resolving into the gaunt, pale visage of John Sheppard. Wet black hair clung to his skull. He said, "So they should be hearing us?"

"In all our scintillating glory," Rodney McKay replied.

Elizabeth clutched at her elbows, knowing her fingers were shining white at the joints against the red fabric of her pullover. It couldn't be. It couldn't.

John gave a feeble sort of wave. Rodney sidled into the picture and bobbed his head in a fast, birdlike motion. His smile didn't look any better than John's. It might have been an artifact of the jittery, poor image, but both men looked unsteady and more than a little shocky.

Ford and Teyla joined the two men in the camera picture, looking equally terrible and wonderful.

Elizabeth groped for and found a chair. She sat down gracelessly.

John nodded at Rodney and said, "Atlantis, this is AR-1. We'd like to come home."

~~~~~

"Come on, Elizabeth," John wheedled while staring into the camera as earnestly as he could. "McKay's going through the MREs so fast I'm getting a Donner Party vibe here."

Rodney flipped him off, but didn't look up from consuming one of those MREs.

"Just drop the shield, let us through and then Carson can lock us down in quarantine for as long as it takes for him to convince you we're all fine," John snapped. "I'm wet and I'm tired and we can't stay here forever, understand?"

"What are you saying?" Elizabeth asked.

He took a deep breath.

"You can keep us from gating into Atlantis, but if you do, we'll end up dialing up another planet. We can't stay here."

"Is that a threat, John?"

"What?" He gaped then shook his head. "No. No, yes, I don't know. I know you're making the call for Atlantis' sake. I get that." He leaned closer to the camera, dropping his voice. "I'm saying I won't stand by and watch my team really die here."

"You're saying that if we don't bring you back here, we'll be responsible if you are still infected and spread this organism to other worlds," Elizabeth said.

John folded his arms over his chest.

"I guess so." He lifted his eyebrow. "It's your call."

~~~~~

Insufferable bastard.

Insubordinate, cocky, annoying idiot, Elizabeth thought to herself, biting the inside of her lip. Right then, he reminded her of General O'Neill. John usually acted more cooperative than O'Neill did, but it was an act.

She switched off her radio mic and looked at Carson then Zelenka and Bates.

"Is it them?"

Carson nodded immediately, but she had to weigh his belief against the soft heart that made him want to believe in miracles.

"Perhaps," Zelenka said. He shrugged. "No one understands the thing that killed them, so maybe it did not kill them, yes?"

"Sergeant?"

Bates expression didn't give away much.

"Sounds like Major Sheppard to me," he said eventually. A quirk of his brow told how little Bates thought of that. "We have to operate on the assumption they're compromised."

It was still and always her decision. She lifted her chin and said, "Carson, prepare to isolate them."

Bates stiffened but didn't protest.

She addressed Zelenka next. "Dr. Zelenka, could you activate the biohazard force field again?"

Zelenka nodded and darted off without waiting. Bates followed him.

Elizabeth turned back to the monitor and reactivated the radio.

"All right, Major Sheppard. In a few minutes, when we're ready, you and your team can come through. You'll go directly into isolation. You will cooperate with Dr. Beckett and anyone else, you will all prepare complete reports and be debriefed. If you aren't who you claim to be, I will have you gated into vacuum over a dead moon. Understood?"

On the screen, John grinned happily and tossed off a careless version of a salute. "You've got it, Dr. Weir."

The microphone picked up his next words too.

"You can stuff your face later, McKay. Teyla, Ford, let's go."

A quiet, sizzling noise started up, rising from the floor of the gate room. Zelenka sprinted into the control room, panting slightly.

"Biohazard shield is working," he reported.

"Very well," Elizabeth said. "Major Sheppard, bring your team through."

"On our way. Thanks, Elizabeth."

"Don't thank me yet," she said to herself.

John vanished from the MALP camera's view.

Elizabeth walked over to the balcony overlooking the gate room. The pellucid flux of the open wormhole held her gaze until it parted around the red clad forms of Sheppard, Teyla, Rodney and Ford.

Who stopped under the P90s aimed at them by Bates' Marines.

"Wonderful," Rodney griped.

John smiled blindingly. "They're just really happy to see us."


Part IX: Life in Solitary


Elizabeth laced her fingers together and studied the four of them over the three-sided conference table.

"It was sentient?" she asked again.

Rodney nodded. "Yes, yes, it was—is," he blurted out. "Just very, very different." His hands began moving as he struggled to convey that difference. Three weeks in isolation, while Carson and the other scientists ran every test they could imagine on them, had left Rodney and John pale and all of them restless. "Very, ah, different…"

He started to look at John, then firmed his mouth and stared straight ahead.

"It didn't mean any harm," Ford said softly. He was still subdued and a little hollow eyed. No more fast, white grins as he laughed silently at John and Rodney's shenanigans during the debriefing.

No more shenanigans between any of them.

Teyla's solemn gaze seemed aimed just to the left of anyone speaking to her. Her face was a burnished mask of melancholy.

John slouched in his seat and met Elizabeth's eyes if she looked at him long enough, but his head never swiveled toward Rodney. Not once.

"It thought it was alone," Teyla said.

John drummed his hand on the tabletop. Tipped his head. Narrowed his eyes. Made a face Elizabeth couldn't interpret at all. Said, "It didn't know."

Rodney nodded firmly. "It didn't."

"But if you could just explain how you communicated with it—" Elizabeth tried again.

"We can't," John interrupted flatly.

He got to his feet abruptly.

"Look, it's over. Carson's cleared us, right? There's nothing the entity on MX9-M41 can offer us, nothing it wants. Just let us forget about it."

His eyes flicked over Teyla, Ford and finally Rodney, fast, then away with a skittishness Elizabeth hadn't observed in him since they left the SGC.

"I haven't got anything more to say, so if you don't mind…?" He jerked his chin toward the door.

Elizabeth sighed.

"Go on."

John was out the door before she finished speaking.

Ford managed a nod and a mumbled, "Ma'am," before bolting out in the wake of his CO.

"Look, Elizabeth," Rodney said, "it's not that we don't want to tell you. We can't. Words are… words don't work. It's like if I say 'salt'. You only know what I mean because you already know 'salt'. We can show you the symbols, but not what they symbolize."

He dropped his eyes and glared at the tabletop.

"I'm sorry I keep asking you."

Rodney shrugged. "I'd be curious too."

Teyla spoke. "Before, it was. That was sufficient."

"It's own universe," Rodney added.

"And now?" Elizabeth asked.

She couldn't help her worries. The fungus had been dangerous enough as a mindless organism spreading naturally. The news that the organism comprised the entire planet and was self-aware changed the situation for the worse. A sentient being with the resources and ability to literally remake human bodies from sample DNA could pose a threat to the entire Pegasus Galaxy. She wanted some idea of what it might do with the new knowledge it had gleaned from Sheppard's team. She grasped that she could only guess at its motivations, that she was trying to interpret it through a purely human lens, but that didn't help. Especially when even the four who had been in contact with it couldn't describe its thought processes. It was so damned frustrating.

She had to admit to a certain envy too. She was the diplomat, the expedition leader, she'd wanted adventure, new worlds, new knowledge. Instead, she had become a bureaucratic administrator scrambling to hold everything together. Others went out and met new and strange aliens or plumbed the secrets of the Ancients. She did paperwork.

Of course, paperwork didn't kill you in a hideous fashion so far from home you couldn't pick out the distant light of your home star in the night sky.

"Is it a threat?"

"A threat?" Rodney echoed. Two lines formed between his brows. He looked baffled by the question, as though it was so stupid he couldn't even entertain it. "What—? No. No. You mean does it have some evil plan of galactic domination or want to eat everyone's planets? No."

He pushed back from the table and bounced to his feet, hands moving emphatically.

"Look, Elizabeth, this is not some 1950s B-movie Blob out to take over, can you possibly grasp that?"

"It's my job to be cautious—"

"It's John's job to cautious!"

Elizabeth blinked at Rodney.

"Not that he is," Rodney said. "The man has a seriously deficient sense of self-preservation." He glared at the table truculently.

"The Major takes his duty seriously," Teyla said. She stood too. "Dr. Weir. " She smiled and inclined her head. "That which dwells on MX9-M41 is no threat to anyone. Sometimes you have to trust your instincts."

Rodney glanced at Teyla then away. "I'm going down to the lab. Apparently, even Zelenka is too thick to grasp the simple beauty of the way the Ancients tapped subspace to charge the ZPMs. At least he hasn't descended to insisting my calculations are wrong, because they aren't. The equipment's faulty."

Elizabeth let him go.

~~~~~

Elizabeth made a point of finding Teyla. The Athosian woman was alone in the dining hall, lingering over a tray of forgotten food, gazing unfocused out the ceiling high wall of windows at the ocean. She looked no different on the surface.

"Teyla," she greeted her as she took a seat opposite.

She'd surprised her. The fork forgotten in Teyla's hand dipped while her eyes widened.

"Dr. Weir."

"How are you?"

Teyla set the fork down and smiled slightly. "Well."

"I notice that you and the rest of the team seem to be almost avoiding each other," Elizabeth said. It was blunt, but she needed to know if the team was still functional. As a leader herself, Teyla would understand that, while John would try to cover for 'his' people even if there was a problem.

Teyla nodded. "Yes."

"Is there a problem?"

"No," Teyla said after considering it. "Time changes everyone and when we have changed enough, it will no longer be so painful to be separate."

Elizabeth contemplated that. They had described the telepathic link and the merge into the planetary organism's mind awkwardly, unable to find words that communicated the experience. She'd gathered that the connection between them had progressed much farther than words, to emotions and memories. Teyla and the others had known each other on a level humans had dreamed of forever.

"Perfect knowledge," she said.

Teyla nodded. "Perfect knowledge," she repeated wistfully, "can be uncomfortable."

"I see."

Teyla still smiled, but shook her head. She slid her chair back. "Only a shattered piece of the whole," she disagreed without heat as she rose. "Excuse me." She took her tray and walked away.

Straight-backed, head high and alone.

~~~~~

Ford inventoried the weapons lockers. They didn't need it; Bates didn't let things slip and the Major, despite his lackadaisical act, wouldn't tolerate sloppiness or missing gear either. He did it because the routine was soothing and normal; the same on Atlantis as back at the SGC or any Marine base he'd been stationed at before that.

Bates showed up when he was halfway through. He took in what Ford was doing, gave a small nod and left him to it.

Ford shook the tightness out of his shoulders and went on. He'd almost asked if he could sit in on the enlisteds' weekly poker game. Bates would have agreed, but it would have been wrong to intrude. He was an officer.

Nothing had changed, he told himself.

In his quarters, he stripped down all his gear, cleaning and oiling it, then reassembling the P90 and the Beretta. There was a smooth wear mark on the black plastic stock of the P90, where it rubbed against a D-ring on his gear vest. Ford stroked his thumb over it.

He wasn't like the Major. He'd never much liked being alone. He liked being part of something, a group, a family. Joining the Marines, the SGC, and the Atlantis expedition had all been part of that for him. Opening up and sharing hadn't been so hard for him.

It was hard for him now.

He knew things that the others hadn't ever wanted anyone to know. The little darknesses and old sadnesses, the moments precious and private, the half acknowledged needs that would never be acted on. He knew who they wanted and who they thought they couldn't have and why. Worse, he knew that Teyla and Doctor McKay and the Major had little pieces of him left in their memories, too.

He thought there might be pieces of the other left behind too, that strange song sung so slow Ford would live out his entire life between the beats.

He'd been a note in that song.

He could have listened to it forever.

He rubbed his thumb over the wear mark on the P90 and sighed, then put it away with the rest of his gear.

~~~~~

Usually it was Sheppard who found Rodney, but this time it would have to be the other way around. His Major—and if Sheppard could think of Rodney as his scientist, then Rodney could return the sentiment—wasn't dealing half as well with what had happened as he wanted everyone to think.

For once, Rodney understood exactly what was going on under the messy dark hair.

John was the most guarded human being Rodney had ever met. No one in Atlantis had even had a hint. He was that good at deflecting.

But he hadn't been able to deflect Rodney or Teyla and Ford when the telepathy kicked in and no matter how good it felt at the time, it hadn't been consensual. They hadn't been in their right minds. He'd bet that in John's mind, in retrospect, the whole thing felt like rape.

He remembered falling into John's mind, almost against his will, against John's will, unable to stop even as he knew it was a violation. What did that make him? But there had been no choice for any of them.

Rodney had to live with how it had all felt then and how he felt about it now. So did they all. He figured Ford and Teyla would make peace with themselves. John might not, if someone didn't give him a wake up call. Which left Rodney to do it, because no one else had a clue what to do for him.

He hoped like hell he didn't botch it up, because John deserved better than a socially inept scientist who had always thought this sort of thing a ridiculous waste of time before.

Radek provided him with half a bottle of good whiskey along with a muttered explanation about toasts, Omar and something in Czech Rodney really didn't want translated since it culminated with Radek throwing his arms around him and squeezing hard enough to make him squeak. He fled the lab with the bottle after warning Radek that this didn't mean he wouldn't call him an idiot the next time he did something Rodney considered moronic.

Like hugging him.

What the hell was that?

Rodney shook his head.

He found John in the Jumper Bay and ignored the narrow eyed glare sent his way.

"So," he said, settling into the co-pilot's seat of Jumper One, "having a good sulk?"

"Jesus, McKay, do you ever quit?" John replied. He let his head drop back against the seat with a soft thud.

"Let's see… that would be a big no."

John rolled his head to the side. He snorted. "Learn."

Rodney smiled smugly.

"No."

John indicated the bottle. "So where'd you get the booze?"

"Radek."

Dark brows pulled together in a frown. "It's not that donkey piss he's brewing in that still of his, is it?"

Rodney looked at the bottle and frowned too. "It better not be. I let him hug me."

John grinned lazily.

"Shut up," Rodney snapped. "Bastard."

"I didn't say anything."

Rodney glared at him. John looked innocent. Finally, Rodney rolled his eyes and offered the bottle. "Here."

John took the bottle. After a swallow, he raised his eyebrows. "Nice."

Rodney snapped his fingers.

"Hand it over."

John watched him carefully wipe the bottle's mouth with a tissue before trying it. His brows arched but he said nothing. It looked like he was biting his lip. Rodney ignored him.

If they just didn't think about it, they could still be normal together. Maybe that was the key—to not think about it, because it would take them over otherwise.

The whiskey went down smooth and smoky. He looked out the front of the jumper at the towering walls of the bay, then down as John lifted the bottle out of his hand. His gaze followed the bottle back to John's face as he drank again. Apparently, he wasn't afraid of Rodney's germs. His throat worked as he swallowed.

Rodney watched him for a moment, watched his eyes close, then faced forward again. Thought about wanting things you couldn't let yourself have, even when you knew all you had to do was reach out your hand. I never get what I want. Surfaces were deceiving. So were memories.

"You know none of us would ever tell—"

"Rodney, just don't." John exhaled with a shudder. "It was me too."

"Yeah, but—"

"I'll deal with it."

Rodney looked at him. John met his eyes.

"Okay." He could wait until they were both stronger for anything else. John wasn't running away. It felt like they'd found a fragile equilibrium. He wasn't going to push too hard and mess that up.

They moved into the rear cargo section, slumping down onto the grated floor opposite each other and shared the bottle back and forth several more times. Rodney didn't bother wiping it again, imagining he could feel the warmth where John's mouth had been on the glass.

"Do you…" Rodney stopped. "Back on the planet, when we…"

"What?" John asked softly.

"Do you think it will be lonely?"

John rolled the bottle between his palms.

"I mean before, it was alone, but it didn't know it was alone, so it wasn't lonely," Rodney tried to explain. "But now, it knows it isn't alone, except it is again, because we left, so… now it knows."

"I don't know, McKay."

"Elizabeth wanted to know if it was a threat."

John looked past him and shrugged.

"Does this conversation make any sense?" Rodney asked.

"Are we drunk?"

Rodney eyed the remaining inch of amber whiskey in the bottle sadly. "Not enough."

"Not enough," John repeated, nodding. He looked desperately tired.

"I said it was like salt," Rodney said suddenly.

John jerked his head up and stared.

"It wasn't. It was like the taste of apples," he explained. "Except, I think we were the apple."

John parted his lips.

"Rodney…"

"We damned it. What's the punishment for that?"

John set the bottle down and met his eyes.

"Life in solitary."

He shouldn't know what that look meant. No one should know so much and still be so damned alone again.

I never knew what I wanted.

Rodney looked away.

John's hand caught his and pressed the bottle into it.

"Drink up," he said hoarsely. "We'll live."

As if that was enough.