Jack hated the beaming thing. Not doing it, so much, just saying it. "Beam us down, Hermiod." Yeah, he hated that.
As Carter radioed the ship to confirm their safe arrival, Jack pivoted slowly. The air was cool but a little humid, the forest that surrounded the cleared area dark green and lush. It was a bright sunny morning, which seemed to highlight the emptiness of the little settlement. The houses were big white tent-like oblongs, with outdoor cooking pits and work areas. There were small vegetable plots all around the village, and in the sensor sweep they had seen that this valley opened into a plain with acres of various crops. And all of it empty, abandoned. Judging by the still-present stench of rotting food, it was recently abandoned.
Standing next to Jack, Daniel said quietly, "Doesn't look good."
"No. No, it doesn't," Jack agreed. After three years cut off from Earth in the Pegasus Galaxy, his expectations for the Atlantis expedition's status had been low. At worst, he figured they were all dead. Actually, on the thirty day journey out on the new Asgard/Earth hybrid starship Daedalus, he had come up with a lot of at-worsts, to the point where he was just hoping there hadn't been any cannibalism.
They had found Atlantis, the ancient city floating like a giant snowflake Christmas ornament in the ocean that covered two-thirds of this planet's surface. But the city was protected by some kind of forceshield that defied even the Daedalus' high-powered Asgard scanners, and there had been no answers to their repeated attempts to communicate. The scan of the mainland had found this place, an apparently once-thriving settlement. It wasn't thriving anymore.
The unnatural quiet made Jack's nerves buzz. Teal'c and Mitchell were spreading out to survey the area and Jack started down the packed dirt street, Carter and Daniel trailing after him. He could only see one wooden building, near the center of the village. It was big and low, and looked a little like a Japanese house, with a pitched roof with curved rafters and big wooden sliding doors. Daniel veered off toward it immediately.
Jack moved toward the nearest tent, wrinkling his nose. He could smell fruit gone rotten, and the sour odor of garbage. The cooking area had a stone hearth, and there was a smashed pottery bowl lying near it, the blue shards coated with the spoiled remnants of a grainy porridge. Carved wooden utensils were scattered around with some more pottery containers, several of them broken and leaking rotted food. Jack grimaced. It looked like someone had shown up in the middle of dinner preparations and kicked the place apart.
He stepped to the tent entrance, ducking his head to look inside. It was trashed, the floor strewn with blankets and clothing, upended baskets, more smashed pottery, and a beautifully carved and painted box, broken into four pieces. Jack stepped out, frowning, as Carter ducked out of the tent across the way. "Looks like the whole place was ransacked, and not very long ago," she commented grimly.
"Yeah. No bodies." He made his way toward the central building, pausing to look into the tents on the way. It was the same story in every one.
"I wonder what they were looking for," Carter muttered behind him. "Whoever they were."
Jack didn't want to speculate. He reached the building and went up the steps, ducking his head under the low lintel. Inside it was just one big room, with grass mats and colorfully woven carpets on the floor, with leaves and a little dirt blown in. The walls were painted with abstract designs, all different colors. He turned and caught sight of something that stopped him in his tracks. One wall was a mural of Atlantis, floating on the sea, birds flitting around-- No, those were little square aircraft flying around the towers. Like the Ancient ship they had found on Maybourne's planet. On the far end of the mural, the sunlit city and the blue sky faded to the black of space, with a planet and what looked a whole hell of a lot like an orbiting stargate.
"Whoa," Carter said softly, regarding the mural with lifted brows.
"No kidding," Jack agreed, baffled.
"Jack." Daniel stood across the room in front of a set of wooden shelves and cabinets.
"Daniel." Jack pointed to the mural, crossing the room to Daniel's side, his attention still on it. "Do your cultural thing and explain what the hell--" Then he saw what had caught Daniel's attention.
Stuck to a board inside the cabinet were dozens of photos. It took Jack a moment to realize what he was looking at, to see the familiar uniforms mixed in with clothing that looked like homespun cloth and leather with soft natural dyes. "Damn," he said under his breath. They had found the expedition.
These looked like candid photos from a party, maybe several parties. The backgrounds he recognized immediately: they were the white tent-houses outside, the painted walls of this room. Studying the photos, he barely noticed Mitchell wander in behind him.
"The expedition members live in the city," Daniel said, half to himself, "but maintain a close relationship to the natives of this village. Close enough to exchange gifts, to have joint celebrations, to catalog the village's achievements." He tapped a section of photos that were mostly natives: men and women proudly posing with baskets full of grain or vegetables, carcasses of some deer-like animal, really big fish, or what were obviously brand new babies.
Then Carter pressed her hand to her mouth. She blinked and laughed a little in relief. "There's Rodney. Rodney McKay."
Jack leaned in to look. "And Sheppard. And Ford." The photo showed four people sitting on a bench. McKay was on one end, looking very typically McKay, one hand raised to gesture, mouth open in mid-word. Sheppard was on the other end of the bench, looking towards McKay with a grin. Lieutenant Ford was sitting next to McKay, his head tipped back, laughing. Between he and Sheppard was a lovely young woman with dark reddish hair, wearing the softly colored native clothing. There was a couple of native kids sitting on the ground in front of their feet, looking up at the adults with happy smiles.
"I don't see Sumner," Jack said, scanning the photos quickly. "That can't be good." There were so many expedition members pictured here, Marines, scientists, techs. All familiar faces, since he had read through the files again on the way out here. Then he pulled his cap off, wiping the sweat off his forehead in relief. There was Elizabeth Weir, standing with a group of older women, some expedition, some native, all laughing. Then Elizabeth again, posing with a broadly smiling Carson Beckett, with McKay, then a couple of her with another science team member...Grodin, that was it. And with Sheppard, in what was obviously a "let's get one of you two together" photo, with Elizabeth smiling, her arm tucked in his as if to keep him from escaping. The photographer had actually caught Sheppard in an unguarded moment, and he looked almost shy and deceptively young. Jack didn't remember him as having a lot of unguarded moments.
There were several of Sheppard, standing with more of the natives, with McKay, with Stackhouse, Ford, Markham, with the gorgeous woman from the first photo, and this time she was wearing an Atlantis military uniform jacket. All photos of Sheppard seemed to be accompanied by native children, gazing adoringly in hero worship. That was a feature in all the photos of military personnel. Yeah, Jack thought, resigned. He could tell these had been taken at different times, chronicling several different events. Sumner's absence couldn't mean anything good.
At least most of the others were still alive. Or had been when the photos were taken.
"Hey, did you see this?" Mitchell asked, pushing one of the cabinets further open. Jack saw a flat screen monitor hooked to some weird half-assed combination of Earth and Ancient technology. "Any idea what it is?"
"It's a DVD player, cobbled together from a couple of different sources, one of which was possibly an expedition laptop," Daniel explained, most of his attention still on the photos. "There are disks and other media in the cabinet next to it. That's what I meant by 'gifts.' Play the one in the machine, you'll see why I'm sure it originally came from Earth." Daniel carefully peeled a photo off the wall, rubbing his thumb over the back. "It's hard to tell with this acid-free paper, but some of these are fairly recent. Less than a year, easily." He looked around with a thoughtful frown. "This place hasn't been empty long. Maybe only a couple of weeks."
A couple of weeks, Jack thought, bleakly. The trip out here had taken longer than it should have, when they had had to stop dead in space to make repairs to the hyperdrive. If all these people were alive and well up to that point, and they had missed some disaster by the amount of time it had taken them to stop and repair the ship.... Goddammit.
Mitchell was still fiddling with the player, and Jack flinched when it switched on at high volume. Mitchell hurriedly tapped a key to mute the sound, and Jack leaned around him to look at the screen. It was playing a movie, the first Star Wars. "Right, Earth," he agreed.
Mitchell shut the player down, then looked at Carter, who was still staring at the photos, her eyes suspiciously bright. "Oh, come on," he said, "These people could be off...harvesting something. Or maybe they're nomadic, and travel around to different places through the year."
Daniel lifted a doubtful brow. "And Atlantis is nomadic too? That's why they're not answering our comm?"
"And before they left they trashed all their belongings?" Carter added grimly.
"Fine, be that way." Mitchell closed the player's cabinet carefully, like there was still somebody around to care. "I'm an optimist."
Jack wished he was an optimist. Mostly he wanted to find whoever or whatever had trashed this village, and kill the hell out of it.
Teal'c's voice crackled over their radios. "Samantha Carter? There is something here you should see."
Carter stepped back from the little hut, frowning. "These readings show naquadah traces, all over this area. Whatever they were running here, it took a lot of power."
Jack eyed the little hut thoughtfully. It was situated on a rocky flat just outside the village, and had obviously been built specifically to protect whatever was inside. It was only waist-high for one thing, and built of mortared stone with a heavy wooden roof. But the inside was lined with some kind of thin coppery material that Carter said was definitely an Ancient alloy, and the scatter of random parts left inside was another combination of Ancient and Earth-based technology. "So you don't think they were just powering the village? Recharging the batteries on that home entertainment system in the community building? Hairdryers, toasters, that kind of thing?"
"No, sir." Carter put her scanner away with a frown. "There doesn't seem to be much else in the village to power, and it doesn't take a naquadah generator to recharge batteries, though they must have been using it for that too."
"There were empty shelves in that cabinet," Daniel pointed out. "If they were in as close contact with Atlantis as it looked, they must have had a comm system in there as well."
Carter shook her head. "We're talking about an enormous amount of power here. Enough to run a small city. Whatever they were running with it, I think it sat right here, and somebody took it when they took the generator."
They all stood around and stared at the empty hut for a moment. "Great," Jack said finally. "So somebody came along and smashed the crap out of the place, and also took their stuff." He had a really bad feeling that they would see the same thing in Atlantis, if they could ever get past the shield: empty rooms, ransacked possessions, broken equipment.
"At least we haven't found any bodies," Mitchell said, kicking absently at a tuft of grass. "That's got to be good."
"That's what worries me more than anything else, actually," Daniel said, brow furrowed as he turned back to face the village.
"What?" Jack demanded. He was curious to see if Daniel would admit to getting a vibe off this place, not unlike the one thrumming through his consciousness at the moment. The one that said, you're too late, dumbass. Three years and you're fourteen days too late.
Daniel shook his head, pressing his lips together. "I don't know."
Jack turned to Teal'c. "What do you think?"
Teal'c was standing a short distance away holding his staff weapon, contemplating the village. "I wish that the ship had not encountered the hyperdrive malfunction, O'Neill."
Jack sighed. "Yeah. That's what I think, too."
Carter's comm signaled for her attention and she touched her headset, frowning. After a moment her brows lifted and she reported, "Novak and Hermiod are picking up some fluctuating readings about fifty kilometers to the south. It might be people, or it might just be large animals. There's something in the area that's preventing them from getting a sensor lock."
Everybody perked up except Jack and Teal'c. Jack had always known they were the realists of the bunch. "Right. Teal'c, Mitchell, check it out. Have Daedalus drop you back off here when you're done," he said, managing to avoid the beaming word again.
"Jack, I'd like to go," Daniel said. "If those are some of the people who lived in this settlement, I'd like to be the first to make contact."
Jack didn't see why not. He figured Daniel would be making contact with a herd of alien deer or the equivalent. "Okay. Mitchell, you're with us."
Teal'c gave a nod of acknowledgement, and in a few moments he and Daniel vanished in the blue-white light.
Jack stood there, looking at the distant jungle, thinking about sending some two hundred civilian and military personnel off to what was for all practical purposes exile in another galaxy, to be prevented from going after them by various political and practical pressures, for them to hang on this long, then.... He realized Carter and Mitchell were both watching him. "Well." He clapped his hands together briskly, and then ran out of steam. This was one of the times being in charge sucked.
"We should search the village more thoroughly," Carter prompted helpfully. "There might be some clue to what happened in one of the huts."
Mitchell pretended to be enthusiastic. "That's right. We should do that."
"Right." Jack rubbed his face. They weren't going to find any clues, but they might as well be organized about it. "We'll divide it up into a grid, and take it in sections."
Daniel tramped through the grass and brush, following Teal'c along the fringe of a tall forest, the trees similar to California redwoods. Daniel was beginning to regret volunteering to investigate this sensor hit. The countryside seemed teeming with life, and it was looking more and more like the sensor anomalies were just large animals. And if they didn't find a way to get inside Atlantis soon, he was going to go crazy. Right here and now, stark raving mad. The city of the Ancients, moments away, and they couldn't -- he couldn't -- get in.
"Perhaps we should have stayed with the others," Teal'c said, apparently able to sense Daniel's rising insanity.
Daniel swore under his breath. Unable to contain his frustration, he gestured helplessly. "I keep getting this close, and then--"
Teal'c stopped, holding up a hand for quiet, and Daniel froze in reflex.
Something moved in the brush, under the shadow of the trees, and Daniel aimed his P-90 as Teal'c leveled his staff weapon. Teal'c began to move forward, cautiously, and Daniel drew even with him.
They were moving further under the tree canopy, at the edge of the green filtered light. Whatever it was seemed to be staying in the fringe of brush and small saplings, where the cover was better.
"Come out," Teal'c said suddenly. "We mean you no harm."
A small figure started out of the brush some distance away, froze for an arrested moment, then bolted.
"It is a human boy," Teal'c said, and jogged after him.
Daniel hurried to follow, calling, "Hey, wait, wait! We're not going to hurt you! We just want to talk--"
"Drop your weapons!"
Daniel jolted to an abrupt halt as people popped up out of the brush all around them. They were men and women, dressed like the natives from the photos in the village, in leather and softly-dyed cloth. The weapons they held were a mix of primitive but skillfully crafted bows and spears, and military-issue pistols and P-90s. "Whoa, whoa," Daniel said, holding up his hands. "We're actually not pointing our weapons, so--"
"Quiet," one of the men snapped. "Surrender and you will not be harmed."
Daniel exchanged a quick look with Teal'c, offering him a half shrug. He didn't want to fight these people, he wanted to talk to them. Teal'c gave him the eyebrow tilt of reluctant agreement.
Two of the men came forward cautiously, and quickly searched them, taking their radios and everything that might conceivably be a weapon. The man searching Daniel found the photo he had removed from the village community center and tucked absently into a pocket. He stared at Daniel accusingly and retreated to hand it to the leader. "Yes, we were at your village," Daniel said evenly. "Who are you?"
The boy who had lured them into the trap stepped forward, watching them warily. "We're Athosians."
"Do not speak to them, Wex," one of the women told him. "They only talk to trick you."
"We don't, actually." Daniel looked around again. "I'm Daniel Jackson, and this is Teal'c. We're peaceful explorers, here to search for a group of our people. I believe you know them."
There were incredulous snorts and a few angry mutters. "You see?" the woman said.
"Look, we're not trying to trick you." Daniel was beginning to think the expedition had had some massive falling out with their Athosian allies, despite the evidence of accord in the photos. "We really don't understand what...." He trailed off as another figure appeared, approaching through the undergrowth. He could see it was a man dressed in the military gray of the Atlantis expedition uniform, wearing a tac vest and carrying a P-90.
He stepped out of the brush and Daniel felt his jaw drop. This was Stackhouse, Sergeant Stackhouse. His face was newly familiar from the review of the expedition's files.
Stackhouse saw Daniel and Teal'c and stopped dead, his expression of startled recognition mirroring Daniel's. Then his face went closed and hard. He moved to the side of the man who seemed to be the Athosian leader, giving him a grim smile. "Good job, guys. Very good job."
Baffled, Daniel said, "Sergeant Stackhouse?"
Stackhouse ignored him, and one of the Athosians explained, "It was like the others. They came in a beam of white light, like a Wraith culling beam."
"That's Asgard technology," Stackhouse told him. He threw a glance at Teal'c. "Watch out for the big guy. He's a Jaffa, stronger and faster than a normal human."
Teal'c gave him a serene nod in acknowledgement.
Stackhouse turned without further comment and started away, following a narrow path through the vegetation. The men surrounding them indicated they should follow. Daniel did, willingly. He was determined to get to the bottom of this and he had no intention of letting the one surviving expedition member they had found so far get out of his sight. "Stackhouse, where are the others?" he called after him.
Everyone ignored him. The boy, Wex, pushed forward to walk beside Stackhouse. Daniel heard him ask, "Sergeant, what is Asgard?"
Stackhouse absently ruffled the boy's hair. "They're aliens. Little ones, that don't eat people."
Okay. Daniel didn't like what that definition implied about human/alien relations in the Pegasus Galaxy. He tried, "Sergeant Stackhouse, you obviously know who we are. What happened here? What is--"
Stackhouse interrupted, "You're lucky you bastards captured Bates; he would've just shot you."
Daniel gestured helplessly. "What bastards?"
"Their uniforms say 'SG-1,' like in the stories. Did the stories lie?" Wex persisted.
"No, the stories didn't lie," Stackhouse said. There was a wealth of bitterness in those words. "Things just...changed, while we were gone. And we didn't know."
Daniel let out a frustrated breath. He told Teal'c, "I think something went wrong with the Daedalus' hyperdrive and we're in a parallel universe."
Teal'c gave him a skeptical eyebrow. "That is unlikely. I feel the explanation will not be so simple."
"And do you have any idea what that explanation might entail?" Daniel asked pointedly.
"I do not," Teal'c admitted.
As Jack had predicted, they weren't finding anything at the village. And he was getting really tired of looking at people's destroyed stuff. To add to the happy atmosphere, the Daedalus had reported still no success at communicating with Atlantis or getting a peek through the shields with the sensors.
He sat down on a rock outside the last hut, the smooth surface of it suggesting it had been used for that purpose by the previous inhabitants. They could search this place until they went crazy, the key to the mystery was in Atlantis.
"Sir." Carter popped out of the nearest hut, frowning at her scanner. "I'm getting some weird energy readings here. It's almost like--"
Jack came to his feet, staring over her shoulder. The air had just rippled a few hundred feet above the huts, and there was suddenly a small Ancient gateship hovering there. "A cloaked ship, maybe?"
Carter turned, following his gaze. "Yes, just like that."
Mitchell ducked out of the hut he had been searching and Jack motioned him to stay put. He considered the angle. He didn't think whoever was piloting the ship had seen Carter and Mitchell. He had been the only one in the open when it uncloaked, and Carter was hidden behind the bulk of the hut. "Mitchell, Carter. Hide."
They both vanished back into the huts. Jack stepped into the open and watched the ship set down in a clear space about fifty yards away, a little cloud of dust stirred up by the drive. The ramp opened smoothly. But the two men who walked out to confront him weren't familiar faces, and the dull green uniforms they wore weren't the ones assigned to the expedition. The patches weren't familiar either, though he couldn't read them at this distance. This is...unexpected. "Hi there," Jack called out, putting a jovial smile on his face.
They moved toward him, both pointing pistols, watching him like he might suddenly grow an extra head, or whip out a Goa'uld ribbon device. One said, "Where are the others?"
"They--" Jack winced. "--beamed up. To get some stuff. For searching. Oh, the hell with this."
Carter correctly interpreted that and ducked out of the hut to stun both men with her zat. They hit the ground with satisfying thumps. She came to stand next to Jack, as Mitchell emerged from cover and went over to collect the weapons.
"They've both got zats, and a pistol," Mitchell reported, handing those off to Jack. "The expedition didn't have zats, did they?"
"They're not Goa'uld," Carter added, eyeing them dubiously. "And those aren't Atlantis uniforms. And I don't remember them from the files."
"This patch says 'Iapetus.'" Mitchell nodded toward the patch above the breast pocket on the nearest unconcious man's uniform. His expression was baffled. "Do we have a ship called Iapetus? 'Cause if we do, you guys have been holding out on me."
"We don't." Carter's face was etched with worry. "If the only Terrans in this galaxy are supposed to be us and the expedition, where the hell did these guys come from?"
Mitchell regarded their prisoners with a grimace. "I've got a bad feeling about this, General."
Jack was looking at the little Ancient ship. Bad feeling, no kidding. He had the bad feeling he really needed to be in Atlantis now. Right now. He said, "And I've got a really bad idea."
Stackhouse and the Athosians led them deeper into the forest, into a darker old-growth area, where the ground was thickly padded with lichen. No one had tried to injure them or even threaten them, despite the obvious anger of the Athosians. Daniel kept making attempts to talk to Stackhouse but had been completely ignored.
They stepped through something that made Daniel's skin tingle and abruptly they were standing in front of a large rock face. Beneath it was the entrance to a cave, the irregular opening surrounded by square blocks that were obviously man-made. Daniel stopped, blinking. He exchanged a thoughtful look with Teal'c, and said to the Athosians, "You have a cloak. Is it naquadah-powered?" That explained the empty little hut lined with Ancient metal. The contents hadn't been taken by the invaders, but brought here, to hide the refugees. "And a shield generator?" It would explain why the sensor sweeps hadn't detected any human presence.
Several of the Athosians threw him sour looks, but no one answered, and Stackhouse led the way down a set of rock-cut steps and into the cave.
The wide passage was cool and lit by strings of emergency lights. Daniel could smell cooking odors and incense, hear voices. The passage opened up into a large room, with several archways leading into other corridors. In the center was a dais, but instead of an altar or anything else Daniel might have expected, it seemed to be set up as a command center, with a couple of laptop computers and several pieces of Ancient equipment he didn't recognize. Without thinking, he started toward it, and an Athosian stepped in front of him. "Sorry, sorry." Daniel held up his hands placatingly. "I just got overexcited."
"Daniel Jackson," Teal'c said quietly.
Daniel turned to see people emerging from the other passages, more Athosians, including children and several elderly people. There were a lot of teenagers, most of them with paint daubed on their faces, and they looked like a different cultural group from the Athosians. Then Daniel spotted the men and women in tan and blue Atlantis expedition science team uniforms making their way into the room and thought Thank God. The profound relief made him a little dizzy. He recognized faces: Kate Heightmeyer, Carson Beckett, Dr. Kavanagh, Dr. Biro, Dr. Sayyar....
"Teal'c, Dr. Jackson."
Daniel started at the familiar voice and whipped around. "Dr. Weir. Elizabeth."
She stood framed in the other archway. She wore the familiar red and gray uniform shirt and pants, though it was dusty and one sleeve was torn. She was also wearing a gunbelt and a holstered pistol. Folding her arms, she lifted a brow, eyeing them dispassionately. She said, "I'm very disappointed to see you here."
Jack set the gateship down gently on the giant pier. Up close, the city was damn impressive, as well as freaking huge. The limitless sea framed the pier, the expanse of it like the deck of a giant aircraft carrier. The towers formed a looming backdrop, beautiful, alien, and strangely delicate. He had been tempted to swing around the central section and get a better view, but the people on the comm were already screaming about shooting him down, so he decided reluctantly not to push his luck. They had let him pass through the shield, but he supposed that was because they wanted their ship back.
He lowered the ramp to find a squad of men in the Iapetus uniforms aiming enough weapons to hold off a ship full of Jaffa. Jack smiled amiably and strolled out.
The man in the lead stared at him incredulously, his face doing several complicated things, then finally settling on a confident smile. "General O'Neill. I didn't expect to see you here."
"I bet not." Jack had never seen the guy before in his life. He was about Mitchell's age, maybe a little older, heavy-set, hard-featured, with buzz-cut blond hair. "And you are...?"
"Colonel Donner." He motioned for the others to lower their weapons. They did, though nobody looked friendly.
"I see." He didn't, really, but he saw no reason to tell this joker that. Jack took a deep breath, pretended to admire the view of the limitless ocean. The strong breeze was clean and fresh, barely touched with sea salt. "I can't stay long. George is expecting me back for lunch. If I don't show up, he might get antsy." Jack shrugged noncommittally. "Drop naquadah bombs, that kind of thing."
Donner's expression was politely skeptical. "George?"
"Up in the ship." He pointed up, for emphasis. He didn't want to name names, or be specific about the ship. Not just yet. Not until he figured out what the hell was going on. "I sent your guys -- the two who came with this ship -- up there to visit."
The expression became considerably less skeptical. "I see."
"You might find an attack difficult, considering the city's defenses."
Jack gave him a thin smile. "You haven't seen my ship."
Donner's eyes narrowed, then he let that pass. "Who is George, by the way?"
"He's a...space pirate." Jack nodded, highly satisfied with that explanation. "We met up, decided to take the ship out."
Donner waited for more. When nothing was forthcoming, he prompted, "To the Pegasus Galaxy, to look for the Atlantis expedition."
They eyed each other for a long moment. Jack put on a fake smile. "So. Whatcha doing?"
Donner's smile was even faker than Jack's. "We've been assigned here to claim the Ancient technology in this city, for the benefit of humanity."
"Humanity." Jack nodded. "Where's Liz?"
Donner's brows lifted. "Liz?"
"Dr. Elizabeth Weir. You know, the other person assigned to claim the Ancient technology for the benefit of humanity."
Donner put on a serious expression. "Major Sheppard led a mutiny. We think he killed Weir. Either that, or some of his people are holding her prisoner somewhere on the planet."
Jack put on a serious expression too, trying to look like he bought it. He thought of the photo of Weir and Sheppard, her arm confidently tucked into his, and doubted it a lot. Also, Donner was giving off an "I'm a lying bastard" vibe like nobody's business. "I'd like to see him."
They always took John through the hall where the others were being held. It was probably supposed to be demoralizing, but they were using the open storage bays along the corridor as cells, with forcefields to seal the openings, so John could see everybody as he passed by. This gave him the opportunity to check that Halling was still alive, and to do a quick headcount of the Marines, making sure they were all still there. He was pretty certain that if Donner decided to execute anyone else, John would get a front row seat at it. Pretty certain. It didn't stop him from counting.
It was warmer up here, which was always something of a relief. They were keeping John in Steve's old cell most of the time, and it was below the waterline, cold and damp now that the city's environmental controls were out. He was barefoot, just wearing a shirt and pants, and the chill wasn't helping his collection of bruises and strained muscles, or his cracked ribs. He had to pace most of the time, just to stay mobile, not that sitting or lying on the floor was a comfortable option.
Bates was always standing in the front of his cell, close enough to make the forcefield buzz and shimmer. John called, "Still trying to switch sides? How's that going for you?"
Bates gave him a stony glare and a one-fingered salute. John couldn't return the gesture, since his hands were manacled in front of him. He gave Bates a smirk instead; supplying the guards with more evidence that he and Bates hated each other might help Bates' plan, but John kind of doubted it, mostly because he thought Bates' plan sucked. If Bates wanted to convince Donner that he was a traitor, he probably should have surrendered as soon as they were cornered, instead of taking two taser darts in the back while still trying to strangle an Iapetus crewman. The sudden switch to "no, really, I want to join you" wasn't fooling anybody.
The Marines shoved to their feet as John passed. He swept the cell with a look, not noticing any missing faces. None of them spoke, but after John passed by, there was a loud crash and a violent fizzling discharge as something struck the forcefield. One of John's guards flinched, then covered for it by shoving John in the shoulder. "Crazy bastards," the guard muttered.
"That's the way I like 'em," John said, loud enough for the Marines to hear.
Nearing Halling's cell, John saw someone had been working on him again. His right eye was swollen shut and that side of his face livid with new bruises. He was sitting cross-legged in the center of the cell, in a meditation position; but as John drew even with him, Halling opened his one good eye and nodded gravely.
The room they used for questioning was at the end of the corridor. It was an interior room, with soft bronze wall panels and milky crystal light-pillars banded with copper. It had a big sturdy table, made of some material that looked like turquoise; no one knew what the Ancients had intended it for, but the expedition had used it as extra space when taking inventory in the nearby armory.
As his guards shoved him inside, the first thing John noticed was that the Iapetus' doctor wasn't there; he tried not to hope that meant today's torture session was cancelled. Donner was present, his usual smug bastard self, and Captain Gaines was hovering behind him, already mouth-breathing. Even before the Iapetus had revealed its true intentions, John had thought Gaines was a little nuts. Even Rodney, usually oblivious to social niceties in people he didn't give a crap about, had said that the guy was creepy. Then John realized the third officer waiting in the room was General O'Neill.
After everything else, it shouldn't have been another punch to the gut, but somehow it was. John looked away, smiling grimly to himself. Oh yeah, a lifetime of cynicism and distrust of authority figures, completely justified. And the situation had just gotten that much worse. Earth couldn't dial in to the gate with the crystal missing, so O'Neill must have come in another ship. That's about all we needed.
John was re-calculating the odds, based on the assumption that whatever ship the SGC had sent had roughly the same crew complement as the Iapetus, as Donner said, "Major Sheppard, I believe you know General O'Neill."
John regarded him steadily. "Uh huh. I'd salute, but there's chains and everything."
"No problem," O'Neill said evenly.
"Like what we've done with the place?" John had to ask.
O'Neill shrugged. "I was just relieved there hadn't been any cannibalism."
John remembered when he had thought O'Neill's uniquely batshit way of interacting with the world was kind of cool. Not so much, at the moment. "We talked about cannibalism, but we thought we'd better use up the MREs first, or it would look bad."
Donner ignored him, turning to O'Neill. "Well. You've seen him."
"Did you want me to leave?" O'Neill seemed genuinely baffled by this. "I thought I'd just hang out with you today."
Donner looked like he was struggling not to grit his teeth. "Didn't you have a lunch appointment?"
O'Neill gave an unconcerned wave. "Oh, I'll have to call George. Tell him not to expect me."
George? John wondered. Donner and O'Neill were staring at each other, apparently engaged in a battle of wills conducted via blandly innocuous expressions. It surprised him, a little. So the SGC and the NID are fighting over who gets to execute us for treason. That's...really sick.
Donner was an inhumanly ruthless manipulative bastard, but John was putting his money on the guy who had held off several dozen Goa'uld invasions of Earth with a three person team and one P-90.
After a moment, Donner's eyes went hooded and he glanced over at Gaines, who took the hint and stepped forward.
The wound on Gaines' neck, just visible under his uniform collar, marked the one time John had seriously lost it. It had been stupid; he hadn't killed Gaines, and now the manacles on his wrists had a shorter chain, and they never took them off. All it had bought John was fleeting satisfaction, and an infection complete with low grade fever from the shackle galls. And the guards were a lot more careful around him, too. Gaines said, casually, "Most of the questioning we do is just a formality, now. We know he killed Sumner and Weir."
John eyed him, supposing that was for O'Neill's benefit. They knew Elizabeth was with the Athosians. And while Sumner's death was the one murder John had actually admitted to, it was the one Donner couldn't seem to care less about. "And Bob," John added. "But he tried to eat me, so that relationship was never going to work out."
Gaines' eyes narrowed, but he didn't go for the bait. "Where's the gate crystal?" he asked.
John looked bored. "I don't know." This was definitely a show for O'Neill, though the general was looking around the room as if he was bored too.
Donner prompted, "When you found the ZPM, why didn't you dial Earth immediately?"
John let out his breath. Apparently they were going to rehash the whole thing. "We did all this before. Can't you just give the general the recordings?"
"We could ask someone else," Donner said, evenly.
John knew what that meant. "There were hive ships coming for us. Dr. McKay thought there was a good chance the ZPM would be completely depleted by dialing Earth. We had to choose between one possible dial-out to Earth, and enough power for weapons and shields for five years. We went with the weapons and shields."
John saw O'Neill's expression shift at the words "hive ship" but he couldn't tell why. O'Neill must know all about it, if Donner had sent any kind of report back to Earth. Just to drive his point home, Gaines added, "And dialing Earth meant you couldn't keep the Ancient technology here for yourselves."
"Right," John agreed solemnly. "We were going to sell it for goats and toba root, which is the primary currency of our trading partners."
Gaines flushed, an unhealthy redness that spread up his throat to his face, and John knew he was talking himself into an extended session here. But he couldn't stop; making Gaines look stupid in front of O'Neill was the most chance he had had at payback in days.
Then Donner interposed, "What was McKay trying to do when the lab explosion occurred?"
John kept his bored expression. "I told you, he was trying to blow up your ship using the discharger at the end of that pier." That question worried him far more than the random murder and fraternization accusations. "I don't know what went wrong." John had been trying hard not to think about what Rodney had been doing, because the last thing he wanted was to give any hint that that's where Gaines should be directing his questions. But late one night when he was lying on the cold cell floor not sleeping, John had figured it out. Rodney hadn't been trying to blow up the Iapetus; the ship had been in the process of lifting off from the pier, and it had been far too late for that. And he couldn't see Rodney wasting that much equipment and supplies unless it was really important. Which made John think that the point had been to actually destroy lab 7, to keep anybody from poking around and discovering what Rodney had been building in there.
"The lab explosion killed McKay and a couple of other scientists, and affected Atlantis' power systems," Donner explained to O'Neill. "We've been trying to make repairs." He added, as if the thought had just occurred to him. "Perhaps your people could help us. If you could let me know what personnel you brought....?"
O'Neill flicked a look at him that seemed to clearly say that he couldn't be bothered to play that game any more. Then he asked John, "How did Sumner die?"
John froze, caught by surprise. He had heard this from Donner and Gaines so much it didn't even sting any more. But hearing it from O'Neill would be different. He fixed his eyes on the wall past O'Neill's shoulder, and said evenly, "He was being taken by a Wraith, so I shot him."
"You can repeat that story all you like, but we know what really happened," Gaines said, but it was lame, and John had gotten really good at tuning out that kind of thing.
O'Neill had taken in John's answer without any change of expression. Now he only said, "Taken by a what?"
"You don't know about the Wraith?" Startled, John focused on him. Atlantis hadn't had longrange sensors for two weeks; it was part of the calculated risk of hamstringing the city's systems, but an unsuspecting Earth ship in orbit hadn't been part of the calculation. "Is your ship cloaked?"
Something in John's voice must have gotten the point across. O'Neill turned to Donner and Gaines. His eyes were unreadable but the rest of him looked really pissed off.
"I would have mentioned it eventually," Donner said, smiling. He shrugged slightly. "They're aliens, technologically advanced. Humans are their primary food source."
O'Neill said, "Sounds like I need to call my ship."
Donner lifted a brow.
O'Neill's voice hardened. "Now."
John felt a little tightness inside his chest ease. O'Neill had believed him about the necessity of cloaking the ship, at least.
Killing each other was one thing. John had eventual plans for Donner and Gaines that involved a trip to an orbital stargate sans puddlejumper, but leaving a shipload of random SGC personnel for the Wraith was something else.
Donner gave O'Neill a gracious nod. "Fine. I'll take you to our comm system."
O'Neill threw an opaque look at John, then let Donner lead him out.
John watched them go. Gaines, of course, was staying behind.
The guards knew the drill as well as John did, and backed away from him. Gaines started to pace slowly and John let his breath out, going for the bored look again, because it really irritated Gaines.
Elaborately casual, Gaines said, "We found your Athosian girlfriend."
That was new. "I don't have an Athosian girlfriend." And Teyla was too good to get caught. God, John hoped so. He told himself that if they had caught her, they would be dragging her in here right now.
"Whatever you call it," Gaines said, suddenly sounding genuinely furious. "The alien bitch you had the temerity to put into a uniform."
Arguing Teyla's qualifications would be as pointless as talking to a Wraith. "I thought you were all convinced I was sleeping with Dr. Weir." At first John had thought these questions were tactical, in some way he just didn't get. Now he just figured that Gaines had a really involved fantasy life wherein John and whoever John might be sleeping with now featured prominently.
Gaines sneered, "Now everybody knows that's why Weir wanted you here in the first place. But she must have been upset when you brought in a native slut."
John rolled his eyes. He knew from experience this could go on forever. "If you've got her, where is she?"
Gaines circled John, stopping behind him. "She'll be here eventually. But I thought I'd give my men a little R&R first."
John felt warm breath on his neck as Gaines stepped closer, and he couldn't stop himself from tensing. That particular mix of aftershave and synthetic gun oil, with sour sweat underneath, now triggered a deeply homicidal adrenalin rush. He said, "Subtle just doesn't do it for you, does it. You should really see a doctor about that."
Gaines was overconfident, the doctor wasn't in the room, and the guards were just far enough away. John shifted to the balls of his feet. Then the lights flickered.
It made John remember what he was fighting for here, that there were reasons to stay alive. He let his breath out, pushing the rage down.
Gaines put a hand on John's neck, hot on his chilled skin, and he couldn't help twitching away. "Oh, I like subtle fine."
John heard a metallic click behind him, and just had time to think, Oh crap, here we go.
John hit the floor, his brain whiting out for an instant, and then the pain hit.
Spasms racked his body, the manacles digging into his already abraded wrists, agony radiating out from the spot on his back where the device had touched him. Gaines had actually explained what it was and what it was doing to John's nervous system the first time he had used it, but John hadn't really been in any shape to retain information at that point. It was something Goa'uld, that's all he could remember.
The spasms stopped and John slumped, still half-curled into a fetal position, panting.
The guards dragged John off the floor, dumping him face first onto the table. He was too stunned to move, and he could hear Gaines laughing with the guards, waiting for him to start twitching. But they don't have Teyla. If they had caught her, Gaines would be doing this to her, and making John watch. They didn't have Teyla, and they thought Rodney was dead.
The lights flickered again, and Gaines and Donner and the others were too ignorant to know what that meant. That deep inside Atlantis, something was changing.
Whatever Rodney's plan was, John was going to be disappointed if there wasn't a death ray.
They had taken Jack's radio for "security" reasons, and Donner insisted the nearest comm system capable of transmitting to an orbiting ship was in the gateroom, which was a million flights of stairs up in the central tower, because the "mutineers" had managed to shut down most of the auxiliary systems, including the elevators. Jack knew he was being sidelined away from Sheppard, but he had to warn the Daedalus about the Wraith, which fricking ate people and that was really all he needed at this point in his career. And his knees hurt on these damn stairs. And Donner was a goddamn bastard, and Gaines was the kind of officer that always made Jack want to count the female airmen to make sure none of them were tied up in a closet anywhere. And he kept seeing little examples of what Atlantis' normal everyday life had been like that made him want to pound Donner's head against the nearest pretty copper-colored wall until something cracked. Things like a whiteboard tacked up in a stairwell with scribbled notes about scheduling personal transport to the mainland and the Marines vs. Archeology volleyball game scores and whoever had borrowed the potometer please return it to Dr. Ivanov in Biology Lab 4 immediately.
They reached the gateroom, which was huge and loaded with Ancient tech, with galleries of work areas looking down on the gate well and embarkation floor, and the whole place was just so damn pretty and indefensible and delicate, with stained glass, for Christ's sake. Daniel would go crazy, Jack thought. Like a kid in candyland.
More Iapetus crew were there, manning stations, or poking at them trying to make them work. Donner ordered, "Open a passage in the shield. General O'Neill needs to call his ship."
The guy at the console stared at Jack, startled and wary, but said, "Yes, sir."
Waiting impatiently, Jack's eye fell on a clipboard left abandoned on the powerless console he was standing next to. It was a printed duty roster for offworld recon teams, with the initials EW below Sheppard's signature. It just pissed Jack off all the more, for some reason. Mutineers my ass.
The crewman reported that the shield was open and Donner pointed Jack toward the comm system, then stood by smiling insufferably while Jack called Daedalus.
Novak's voice answered his hail immediately, and Jack told her, "This is O'Neill. Turn the cloak on. And if any alien ships show up, don't be friendly. There's a technologically-advanced species out there called the Wraith, and they think we're lunch." He added casually, "This is my check-in," and he held the connection.
After a long moment, it was Hermiod's voice that replied, "It is done, O'Neill."
"Right." He couldn't ask about Daniel and Teal'c's status, not without tipping Donner to their presence on the continent, but Daedalus would know now to pass on the warning about the Wraith. Jack cut the connection.
Donner said, "You never told me what your intentions here were, General. I assume your statement about being retired and taking up a career as a space pirate was a joke."
Jack lifted his brows. "And here I thought the NID was better informed than that." Donner didn't blink, so Jack guessed they were still keeping up the polite fictions that this mission had been authorized and that anybody in the Pentagon had a clue the Iapetus even existed. "I've been ordered to take all the expedition members you're holding into custody," he said finally. "So, round 'em up, and we'll just be going."
Donner's brow furrowed, as if he was trying to decide if Jack was kidding or not. "I don't think so, General."
Yeah, I didn't think it would be that easy, either, but it was worth a shot. "I want to talk to Sheppard again."
Donner's frown was real now. "Why?"
"I didn't finish the first time."
They stared at each other, Donner obviously weighing the option of tossing Jack in the cell next to Sheppard's and possibly getting the crap blasted out of him by a hybrid Asgard warship when Jack missed his next check-in. Then Donner finally said, "Very well."
The white light faded and Sam found herself standing in a darkened corridor. She raised her P-90 and pivoted, checking out the immediate area. No movement, no sound, no sign anyone had detected her arrival. "Good job, Hermiod," she muttered to herself. Then it hit her that she was actually standing in Atlantis.
Knowing she was probably smiling like a goof, she reached out and touched the wall. It was made of something that looked like burnished copper, shaped into square panels, trimmed with azure. Atlantis. Wow.
Hermiod had gotten an all too brief sensor view of the city, in the few moments the shield had been open for the transmission. The city systems seemed to be inactive except for the shields and minor internal power outputs, which Hermiod had said were probably doors, lights, and so on. But there had been an anomalous power reading near the base of one of the uninhabited towers, and that's where Sam had had Hermiod send her; she could check it out while she was waiting for another signal from Jack.
Sam took her scanner out of her tac vest and started down the corridor. When they had come up with this plan they had known that there would only be time to safely beam one person; she had had to fight Cameron for it, and he had been demanding a rematch with rock-paper-scissors up until the moment Hermiod had hit the button. If Daniel had been there, Sam would have probably had to use a zat on him.
She just hoped Daniel was all right. He and Teal'c had missed their last check-in, and Cameron was planning to take a search team after them. Jack's brief warning about hostile aliens hadn't been encouraging, either.
She passed doors leading into rooms chock-full of tempting equipment, powered down and covered by silky dust-sheets. But she had started to smell the acrid taint of burned electronics and that particular odor that Ancient control crystals gave off when they were broken or blasted, and it drew her further down the passage.
She came to an empty opening in the wall, the door that had once sealed it in pieces in the corridor. On the opposite wall, the bronze panels were seared black.
So what happened here? Sam thought, taking a cautious look inside. It had been a lab, and equipment, burned and blasted into unrecognizability, lay scattered everywhere. She stepped inside, feeling gritty burned residue and shattered glass crunch under her boots. A little further in, there was a smashed laptop, the Atlantis expedition seal still visible on the partially melted case, and Sam winced.
As she moved forward, the readings kept getting stronger. The thing that intrigued her was that if Hermiod was right about the state of the city's systems, then the Iapetus' crew might not have the ability to detect this energy. Daedalus had state of the art Asgard sensors, and Sam was willing to bet the other ship's stolen technology just wasn't as good. Not good enough to see through an Ancient cloaking device, which is what she was beginning to think this was.
Sam took her other hand off the P-90 to adjust the scanner's setting, and that was when a voice behind her said calmly, "Drop the device, and your weapons, and put your hands behind your head."
Uh oh. Sam turned. It was a woman, pointing a P-90 at her. But she was dressed in an Atlantis expedition uniform.
Sam eyed her, then decided it was worth taking the chance. She could grab for her own P-90, but they would probably just end up shooting each other. She set the scanner down on what was left of a metal table, unclipped the P-90 and set it and her zat aside, then put her hands up. "Look, I see you've got an Atlantis patch on your uniform, so I'm assuming you're not with the Iapetus, so--" Sam paused, reconsidering. She didn't remember this woman from the files, either in military operations or science and tech, and her face was striking enough that she would have been hard to overlook. But she was still familiar.... "Wait, I saw you in the photos, the ones in the community center in the village. You're from there?"
The woman's eyes went hooded. "You will be quiet, and come with me."
If this woman led her to other expedition members, it would be worth it. "Okay. Where?"
The woman jerked her chin and Sam looked at the far wall. "It's cloaked?" she asked, frowning. "Using the Ancient technology?"
"Move forward. The door will be there."
Sam moved, more intrigued than worried for the moment. As she was about to run into the burned wall, she felt a cold tingle on her skin, and she was suddenly facing a darkened passage, the walls bare silvery metal, lined with green bubbling crystal conduit. "Huh. Nice," she commented.
"Keep moving," the woman said.
Sam did, hearing the invisible door slide shut behind her. There was a room at the end of the passage, but it was too dark to make out much. "I'm Colonel Samantha Carter. What's your name?" she asked.
There was a hesitation. Then reluctantly, "I am Teyla Emmagen. Stop, please."
Sam stopped. There was another dark passage branching into this one, narrower and more cramped with conduit, and she could see a short person-- No, it was a kid, a teenage boy, standing in the shadows. He stepped forward, watching her warily. He was wearing clothes similar to the villagers in the photographs, and looked about fifteen or sixteen.
Emmagen said, politely and sincerely, "Jinto will take your vest. If you touch him, I will shoot you in the head."
"I won't touch him," Sam promised.
He came forward and waited while Sam took off her tac vest. As she handed it to him, Emmagen said, "Go into the lab and get her weapons, Jinto. Use the lifesigns detector."
As the boy moved away, an accented voice said, "I'm not sure it was good idea to bring her to our secret lair."
Sam turned, startled and relieved. "Is that Dr. Zelenka?" The Czech scientist was standing in the open room, watching her gravely. Someone walked in behind him and Sam stared. "Rodney!" He looked different, healthier, like he had lost weight but put on muscle. He wore the blue and tan science uniform, minus the jacket. He was glaring at her, but with Rodney McKay that didn't mean he wasn't glad to see you. "I'm so glad you're okay. What happened? How long have you been hiding down here?"
But Rodney ignored her, looking at Zelenka. "We need a hostage," he snapped. "We've got two ships to worry about now, in case you haven't noticed."
"Hostage?" Sam felt her jaw drop. She really couldn't have been more surprised if he had said "vampire." "Rodney, I'm not your enemy."
That made him look at her. Eyes narrowed, he said grimly, "Colonel Carter, all my friends are either locked in little cells, running for their lives, or dead. You're not one of them."
"Rodney, we just got here. And we didn't come to take over, or hurt anybody. We came to...." Sam gestured helplessly. "Rescue you, if you needed it. Bring you supplies, take you home, find out what happened. We have nothing to do with that other ship. It's--"
"It's NID, Colonel," Rodney cut her off, waving a hand impatiently. He lifted his chin, eyeing her. "I'm assuming the only reason the SGC is here is to get your cut of the spoils."
"It's not NID," Sam said. "It's the Trust. We got that out of the two men who came to the village with the Ancient ship. They're doing this without authorization from the Pentagon. We thought they were wiped out, but in the confusion after the war with the Orii there's been a resurgence--" She shook her head. She had a sudden vivid picture of what must have happened here, and it made her ill. "God, Rodney, they showed up and told you the same thing I just did, didn't they? That they were here to help you. And you let them into the city."
Rodney's mouth twisted. "You're very convincing. But then, so were they."
Zelenka tugged at Rodney's arm and said gently, "Rodney, we have work. Nothing changes this. Talk to her later."
"Right, right." Rodney rubbed his eyes, and that was when Sam noticed how white-faced and exhausted he was. Then he turned, heading back down the other passage.
"Rodney, let me help you!" Sam called after him. "I don't know what you're doing but--"
"Colonel." Zelenka took a step forward, regarding her evenly. She realized he was different, too. The fuzzy mane of hair was the same, and he hadn't changed physically, but there was steel under the surface now. It hadn't been there before; or maybe there had been no opportunity to notice it then, in the safe confines of the SGC and the Antarctic base. "They killed three of our Marines and Lieutenant Ford, before they bothered to believe the Major that he did not know where Elizabeth had taken the science team. They killed all four members of our Athosian recon team before they bothered to believe that Halling did not know where the Athosians had hidden our people." Zelenka took his glasses off and polished them on the tail of his dusty uniform shirt. "I would like very much to believe you. But I cannot, and Rodney cannot. So please wait here quietly, or our friend Teyla will have to shoot you."
Sam took a deep breath, and made herself relax. Arguing with them wouldn't help. She would just have to wait until Rodney was more willing to listen. "Right. I'm sorry, Dr. Zelenka."
"So am I," he told her, and walked away.
At least they let Sam watch. Of course, not being able to wade in and get knee-deep in more Ancient technology than she had ever seen in her life was almost more painful than not watching.
She was sitting at the back of a slightly elevated platform that looked down on a large circular space a few feet below. Despite its size, the well was crammed with equipment: miles of conduit, crystals mounted into objects she could only guess the purpose of, tiny holo-projectors. The air was warm from the high-intensity lights focused on the work space, the light glinting off the bronze-metallic walls. And Rodney was pacing the platform like a tiger in a too-small cage, radiating impatience and barely suppressed fury. Dr. Zelenka was sitting off to the side with five expedition laptops, typing nearly constantly, taking readings, making adjustments to various programs. Miko was down in the well, moving carefully and precisely, connecting bits of conduit and fine metallic wires.
"Oh, hey, Deona?" Sam shifted impatiently, glancing at the young Athosian woman who was guarding her. Deona wore dark-colored leather pants and a tight gray bodice; the outfit looked as if it had been made in an attempt to copy an Atlantean military uniform. "You don't know what those round things with the knobs are, do you?" Deona had been polite but reserved. Jinto, the teenager, sat further away, watching her warily. There were two other Athosian women here, almost as young as Jinto, who were back in the maze of corridors guarding the entrance from the lab. Despite their age, they were sharply competent and handled their weapons like seasoned troopers. "They could be power transformers, but I'm not--"
"Why are you different?" Deona asked suddenly.
Sam blinked, startled out of her Ancient tech fugue state. "Huh?"
Deona regarded her seriously. "You are not like the other Iapetus people. You talk to me as if you expect me to answer."
"Well, I'm not from the Iapetus. In fact, the SGC -- the group I belong to -- have a long history of fighting with the group who sent the Iapetus."
"But Teyla and our friends do not believe that."
"No, they don't," Sam agreed, resigned. "And frankly, if I was in your situation, I'm not sure I would, either." Sam watched her a moment, frowning. "I take it the Iapetus crew were rude to the Athosians, when they first arrived here?"
"Sergeant Stackhouse, my team leader, said that their behavior was inappropriate. He spoke to the Major about it." Deona shrugged one shoulder, never taking her eyes off Sam, the P-90's aim never wavering. She put the same awe into the words "the Major" that Sam had heard new SGC recruits use when saying "General O'Neill." "Others told me that when the Atlanteans first came, Sergeant Bates did not trust us. But he never...spoke like that. No one here did."
Sam grimaced. She could imagine. "The Iapetus was sent by an organization called The Trust. They believe in taking technology from other advanced races, but they don't believe in forming alliances or friendships with them. I guess now that extends to humans from other cultures."
Deona's mouth twisted. "The Iapetians were here two days, pretending to be friends. Then they shot Dr. Baroukel. Sergeant Bates tried to arrest the man who had done it, but the Iapetians refused, and tried to take more scientists prisoner, saying they were being 'taken into custody.' The security detail prevented this, and then the Iapetians tried to attack the security detail, and Dr. Simpson used a Wraith stun grenade to prevent that. Then the Iapetians said the Atlanteans were outlaws, and they would be killed or taken away, and the fighting started."
Sam nodded slowly, trying to remember all the names from the files. "Dr. Baroukel.... He was an archeologist? Algerian, an older man, heavy-set?"
"Yes, an archeologist." Deona nodded. "His accent was different from the others."
"He worked at Area 51 once, if I'm remembering right. He might have recognized someone from the Iapetus as being NID, or as a suspected Trust member." Sam let her breath out. "He was probably killed because he was about to warn everyone." She looked at Deona for a moment. "How did you come to be here? Were you trapped, when the others escaped?" She had heard just enough to know that when the alarm had been raised, most of the science team had managed to get away on the little Ancient ships that the expedition called puddlejumpers. It had been part of a standard emergency evacuation plan, the ships taking people off balconies and open spaces all over the center section of the city. The Trust had been occupied with trying to secure the gateroom, not realizing the expedition members were escaping from other places.
Deona hesitated a moment, then said, "Itasa, Calena, and I were sent to make certain Dr. Zelenka and his staff escaped. But Teyla came with Jinto and Dr. McKay, and Dr. McKay said the Major and Halling and several of the Marines had become trapped and caught. It was always part of the emergency plan, for Dr. McKay and the Major and some others to stay and conceal themselves, and retake the city. Dr. McKay asked us to help, to take the place of the Major and the others. We agreed, and Dr. Zelenka said he would stay too, and Miko wanted to stay also, and we sent the others away with Dr. Kinsey, who has the gene of the Ancestors and could fly the jumper, though not very well."
Sam looked at Rodney. He was standing with arms folded, giving off irritated energy, like a naquadah generator about to overload. She smiled a little. "Dr. McKay has changed, since he's been here."
"He has always been this way, since I have known him. He shouts frequently." Deona added with devastating acumen, "But that is only because he wants us to live."
Almost there, Rodney told himself, massaging his temples. Almost there.
The timing was insane. Maybe he was insane.
That would explain a lot, actually.
Miko was climbing around down in the well, barefoot, her hair carefully tied back, her pantslegs and sleeves rolled up. She was attaching the control leads she had painstakingly made over the past two weeks, stepping carefully over the guts of consoles and the clumps of raw control crystals. Zelenka was sitting at the edge of the well, the laptops that held the schematics arranged around him, looking things up for her when she needed assistance or directions, making the final changes to the programs, running one last simulation. Miko was moving slowly, but Radek and Rodney couldn't get down in there and help her, there was just no damn room for them. This was a job only Miko and her tiny little fingers had the delicacy and precision to accomplish.
Rodney knew that, and he was definitely not going to flail hysterically and scream from frustration.
If he had had any concept that he would have had to finish this with an invasion force breathing down his neck, he would have selected a bigger room. But the section behind lab 7 had been easily concealed and handy, and had seemed perfect. But he, Zelenka, and Miko had crammed what should have been another three months worth of solid work into two weeks, and there had been no time to fit things neatly into consoles and cases, no time to add most of the functions he had originally planned. It wasn't going to be the full auxiliary control center that he had envisioned when he had started this project last year.
Emergencies and the daily grind of just trying to stay alive had caused this project to be backburnered too many times. And he knew some of those crystals weren't going to survive a second activation. He just hoped all their estimates based on his calculations were right, and he wouldn't blow the city's power grid or burn out the ATA.
And Sam Carter, sitting in the back of the platform, guarded by Deona, kept talking. Not loud enough to bother Miko, or disturb Radek, but still, talking.
At least now she was talking to Deona. Earlier, it had been: "You know, I'm sure I could help-- Right, I should shut up, sorry. Ooh! What's that? Oh. Sorry. I have candy in my tac vest. Nestle's Crunch. Sorry."
Reminding Rodney that she was there, that he wasn't fighting Wraith or Genii or one of the myriad of forces in the Pegasus Galaxy that had decided to devote all their attention and energy to destroying those pesky people living in the Ancient city. That they were fighting Earth too, now. And if the NID had wanted to execute half the expedition for treason just because they might have had an opportunity to report in and had decided to spend that power on, you know, survival and not revealing Earth to the Wraith, then they were sure as hell going to kill everybody after he did this.
Once he initiated all the control sequences, it would still take fifteen plus hours before he could start Phase II. Until then, they were just going to have to stay alive. Somehow. And he couldn't even be certain Elizabeth and the others had been receiving his transmissions. The modulation he was using to get the signal through the shield without the Iapetus picking it up was uncertain at best, and he couldn't receive anything back.
Teyla returned from checking their perimeter and stepped up beside Rodney, cradling her P-90. He hadn't seen her sleep since the Major and the others had been captured, since Elizabeth had fled the city with the rest of the science team. He knew she hadn't slept, because he hadn't slept either. He lapsed into stunned unconsciousness occasionally, but it wasn't exactly restful. Teyla glanced back at Carter, then at Rodney, asking softly, "She was your friend?"
"We worked together a few times." Rodney shook his head, realizing he was clenching his fists, and made himself stop. He didn't want to think about Carter. "O'Neill is up there with Donner. That's what worries me." He had been able to tap into the security cameras the NID had been installing around the city, enough to keep tabs on the important movements. And to see who was taken out of the cells for "questioning," and what condition they returned in.
This is the plan, he told himself again, ignoring the sour sickness in his stomach. They had all agreed, any premature rescue attempts would just alert the NID to their presence in the city, and get everyone captured or killed, and doom the others hiding out on the mainland. As far as they knew now, the NID had no idea they were here. The morgue freezers were in this section, and Rodney had salted the lab explosion with three bodies the Athosian women had been able to drag over here, liberally strewing around uniform jackets and other pieces of identification. He had made sure the remains were too charred to conflict with the material evidence.
The power drains for his initial testing were causing the lights to flicker, but those fumble-fingered brain-damaged missing links the NID laughingly called scientists who had been trying to reset the power grid (or possibly blow the city up, there were days when Rodney couldn't tell) thought they were causing it.
Teyla's forehead creased in a frown. "This is the O'Neill from the mission reports? The leader of your people who sent the expedition here?"
"Yes, that one, famed in song and story." Rodney's mouth twisted bitterly and he waved his hands. "The guy who wafts around the SGC pretending to be too insane to find the stargate, who's single-handedly saved the Earth several hundred times and has the Asgard eating out of his hand." He turned to her, frowning. "And you know that thing that the Major does, where you can't tell if he's thinking or watching imaginary invisible people move around the room? O'Neill does that too. It's freakish." He rolled his eyes. "Of course, considering Dr. Jackson's adventures with Ascension, O'Neill's invisible people might not be imaginary." Rodney rubbed his face, realizing he was starting to ramble. "It was O'Neill's experiences with Ancient technology that led to the discovery of the Ancient gene; once we reactivate the primary power, this city might just roll over and beg for him."
Teyla's expression had hardened, and she looked toward Carter again. "It is a great betrayal. You did everything they asked and more, and this is how they repay you--"
"Teyla--" Rodney shook his head helplessly. He didn't want to talk about the betrayal part. Getting through the next five minutes was hard enough, he couldn't deal with thinking about the future yet. That everything they thought they had been fighting for was an illusion. That all they had was each other.
Teyla watched him for a long moment, her face shadowed. "I fear I am not helping you as Major Sheppard would wish. I am never certain when to shout and when to be soothing," she admitted.
Rodney folded his arms, sighing. "I'm not sure how he knows which to do, either. There might be an algorithm-- Just try switching back and forth at random." He still remembered the science team's initial reaction to finding out that a) life-sucking alien vampires ruled Pegasus and humans were their only food source, b) Colonel Sumner and several other members of their military escort were already MIA, c) Beckett had lab cultures that were older than the Lieutenant d) and the Major was That Guy. That Guy who had joined the expedition at the last minute, who looked more like a model for International Male than a military officer, who was only here because he had the Ancient gene. That Guy who had never seen a stargate before. Then everybody had come back from the hive ship except Sumner and one of the Athosians, and that and a thousand other life or death situations had made That Guy into Major Oh Thank God He's Here. He took a sharp breath. "They had him up there again today. Every time they take him out of that cell, I think about Ford, and--"
"Don't," Teyla said sharply. "They will keep the Major alive. They hope to use him against Dr. Weir."
Rodney waved it away. "You're right, you're right, I know that." And he didn't have time for an anxiety attack, not now. He resisted the urge to make Teyla go over the rest of the plan again. She and Deona had been ready for their part for days; Rodney had made them make flow charts, diagrams, and timetables, all the things Sheppard would never have bothered with, just to make certain they knew exactly what to do. He had refused point-blank to send the other two girls and Jinto with them; he didn't care how good they were, those kids had only been in the city for training, and he wasn't sending teenagers off to get shot.
Blinking, Zelenka looked up from his laptops, his face shadowed by exhaustion. "Rodney, I think.... I think we are done."
Miko was standing in the center of the well, her face flushed, carefully straightening the control leads where they led into the three metal panels that lay across the floor. She wiped her hands on her pants. "I have followed the schematic exactly, Dr. McKay," she said, her voice hoarse from disuse. "We are ready."
Rodney took a deep breath. Now if the damn thing would just let him use it. And everyone was looking at him like they were expecting some kind of group hug or something. He checked his watch automatically, though he knew the time to the second. "Miko, get out of the way. Radek, send the last transmission to the mainland."
"These people have been out here too long," one of the guards said, sounding disgusted.
Slowly pacing a circuit of his cell, the floor cold on his bare feet, the manacles chill against his abraded skin, John squinted up at the bright light overhead. The guard sergeant had shown up a few minutes ago, which meant they would be moving him again soon. It was unusual for that to happen twice in a day, but maybe O'Neill being here had changed Donner's plans.
The sergeant shrugged, saying, "It's the Ancient gene, and that artificial gene drug they were giving themselves. It's why our people that have the gene haven't been able to get things working again. Dr. Bergstrom says the city's imprinted on the expedition, and it'll take time before anybody else can control it."
John smirked to himself. Dr. Bergstrom was getting really good at excuses. The city wouldn't work for them because the Iapetus' scientists couldn't figure out how to get the power grid online. John just wasn't sure if Bergstrom was lying because he was embarrassed at his lack of progress or if he was afraid of Donner's reaction to the truth. John couldn't sympathize; in Bergstrom's shoes, John would have found a way to frag Donner the first time he saw him beam somebody into vacuum.
The Asgard beaming technology had been unsettling enough at first, just because it had looked too much like a Wraith culling beam. Then Donner had used it to execute three Marines, beaming them into space, then back to the gateroom. John had begged for them, but it hadn't done any good. That was when Donner had finally believed that he didn't know where Elizabeth was, that that part of the plan had been entirely up to her and the Athosians on the mainland. It hadn't stopped him from killing Ford. After that, Donner had moved on to the Athosian gate team, to try to force Halling to give up information he didn't have.
The guards were still talking. It was getting annoying. The younger one, trying to sound like he had a clue what he was babbling about, said, "They've been jacked into this place so long, they're not normal anymore."
The sergeant added, "That's not the worst of it. I've talked to the guys who've been going through their reports. There's things there that would turn your stomach."
"Yeah." John rolled his neck, easing the tension. "You should have been here when I nearly got turned into an Iratus bug."
The younger guard threw a look at the sergeant, and apparently realized from his expression that John wasn't making that one up. He tried to laugh it off, not very successfully. "No, really," John said, deadpan. He paused to look the guy up and down, slowly and deliberately, making his eyes a little too intent. "You should have been here."
That cut down on the chatter.
When the Iapetus had arrived, John had thought the worst thing he would have to deal with immediately was an inquiry into Colonel Sumner's death. Things like paperwork that wasn't up to date due to the last round of emergencies, the uniform of the day being whatever people had left that didn't have gaping holes in it, Marines fraternizing with scientists all over the place, and Private Benson's marriage to Halling's cousin Iosia and the subsequent pregnancy all seemed inconsequential compared to the threat of invasion by life-sucking aliens.
The sergeant touched his radio, then told the guards, "Bring him."
They switched off the forcefield and unlocked the cell door.
They took John up a level to the foyer where the corridor with the other cells connected. There were two other corridor entrances here, and one of the transporters, though the power had been cut to those since the attack. Donner, Gaines, and O'Neill were waiting.
"So what was the mutiny about?" O'Neill said, as if they had been having this conversation all along. "Liz having people flogged, hanged from the mainmast, that kind of thing?"
"Just call me Fletcher Christian." John really wasn't in the mood for games.
Donner seemed to agree. He looked at O'Neill like he would much rather shoot him. "We think Weir refused to go along with their plan to keep the Ancient technology away from Earth."
"Right, trading it for goats." O'Neill nodded solemnly, watching Donner. "So they wrestled with this for three years, and it all just happened to come to a head right before you arrived?"
John still didn't get the point of the mutiny story or why they kept trotting it out for O'Neill, unless they just liked handing the general straight lines. It was like Donner was trying to avoid some issue that O'Neill was trying to force.
"The entire expedition was out of control," Gaines said, looking deliberately at John. John stared at the ceiling, putting on his "fuck off" expression. "No discipline, letting the natives have access to everything on the base, including classified material. And fraternization, with the natives, with each other--"
"Could you not stare at my ass when you say that?" John asked him.
Gaines went red and added a sneer. "And maybe Weir got tired of you in her bed and found a Marine to fuck? Is that what--"
"Hey. You. Shithead." O'Neill's voice was quiet, but it was the quiet voice of imminent death. He suddenly had Gaines' complete attention. "You don't talk about her like that."
There was an unvoiced or I'll kill you that seemed to echo in the room. Red-faced, Gaines took a step forward. O'Neill tilted his head slightly, inviting Gaines to give it his best shot.
"Captain Gaines," Donner said warningly.
The power fluctuated then, more than a flicker this time, the lights dimming, then slowly regaining their former intensity.
John looked automatically at the nearest green bubble pillar to see if was fluctuating too. Then he noticed the floor suddenly felt warm against his bare feet. Really warm. "Huh," he said aloud, startled. Then the sensation climbed his body, too fast to react to, and when it reached his head John folded up and hit the floor.
The warmth curled around his spine, from the base of his skull all the way down, easing the knots in his back, the sore and strained muscles, the sharp pain through his ribs, and he felt himself slip into friendly darkness.
It was like being in the Ancient weapons chair, the unique sensation of something tickling parts of his brain that he didn't have access to. But he was just lying on the floor, his eyes open, staring at nothing. He couldn't see schematics, but the warmth intensified and he started to feel the streams of numbers and words in Ancient pricking each nerve ending.
Then Rodney's voice, uncertain, with a little thread a panic through it: Okay, okay, I think it's working. I'm definitely getting something here.
John tried to call out to him, or think out to him, but it was impossibly weird, as if he was part of the data itself.
And now I'm hearing voices. That can't be-- Wait-- Major, is that you? You can feel this?
John tried again to get a view from the sensors, but the data wouldn't become visual. But somehow he knew where Rodney was, what he was doing. He thought, Oh, now that's cool.
Rodney had blown up lab 7 to conceal the entrance to the auxiliary control room that the Ancient tech team had been building near there for the past year. John couldn't believe that Rodney had finished it; the last time John had seen it, it had looked as much like the Operations Tower's control gallery as a Radio Shack in downtown Detroit.
At least he could hear Rodney clearly, and Rodney could apparently hear him, sort of. Rodney thought, God, that's-- I hadn't expected that. Rerouting the weapons chair functions must have caused the ATA-- The power conduits in the floor must be somehow transmitting this. Major, do you have control?
John tried one of the easiest weapons chair functions, initiating an automatic diagnostic of the shields. Nothing happened, the input continuing without interruption. So that would be a big no, he thought, hoping Rodney got the message. This was a bizarre method of communication; he hadn't seen Rodney since Donner had seized control of Atlantis, and there were so many things he wanted to ask, needed to know. Who was alive and who wasn't, if Rodney had been able to get a message out to Elizabeth and the others. But he couldn't seem to get any of that across.
Rodney was telling him, Right, yes, I was afraid of that. It's connecting to you but without the control leads built into the chair, you can't transmit commands to it. I'll have to do this. John felt the panic threaded through the connection start to escalate. But I'm not sure how to manipulate the data.
Rodney had never been able to use the weapons chair. It just didn't respond to people with the ATA therapy, only the natural gene. That was part of the point of building an auxiliary control center for Atlantis, to try to make some of the city's higher level defensive and offensive functions usable by people who didn't have the natural gene. They hadn't built a new chair, just a new access for the one that was already there, connecting to its systems across the power conduits. Not sure how he knew to do this, John nudged Rodney in the right direction, toward the streams of information coming from nearly every active piece of equipment in the city.
Oh. Wow. That's-- The holo-projectors are working, I've got the visuals. Now what?
This was one of the freakiest non-painful things John had ever experienced. He still couldn't see anything except a blurry view of the corridor, but he now had the visual sensor data in his head, as if his brain was processing what Rodney was seeing. The Iapetus was in a near polar orbit, a ninety-eight minute circuit, and at this moment it was at the furthest point from Atlantis. The ship was cloaked, but the shortrange sensors had been automatically tracking it for days, monitoring its progress by subtle power signatures that leaked past the cloak. The sensors said the ship was in communication range, but too far away to beam down reinforcements, or beam anybody out of the city. Perfect, John thought. The sensors had lost their view of the SGC ship when it cloaked, and were still scanning for it.
Rodney was getting agitated again, so John focused on trying to help him. He tried to get across that it was like the jumper. Sometimes you just had to stop trying to fly it and let it fly you.
That doesn't help, Rodney snapped.
John made it like one of their early flying lessons, but without the yelling, recriminations, and fear of crashing. He visualized the cockpit of the jumper, as if he was leaning over to correct Rodney's touch on the controls.
Right, right, yes. I think I see....
Rodney began to manipulate the streams, pulling out the information he needed, with only the occasional push from John. John still didn't seem to be able to communicate anything outside the task at hand and something told him Rodney was having the same problem; it was weirdly like being in some sort of restricted virtual reality. Only this reality was actually real and it was their last chance; if they screwed it up, they were dead.
But no pressure, was Rodney's annoyed thought.
John tried to broadcast reassurance. He felt a flicker of cold as Rodney accessed the controls for the distant Lagrangian Point satellite, as if John had actually been the satellite for an instant, or as if the data from it was tainted with the cold of vacuum...restore power to grid, cut communications, initiate voluntary quarantine procedures, reactivate transporters, initialize ATA....
Rodney's thoughts were tingeing on the elated, and John knew they were nearly done. John sent him a mental was it good for you?
Oh, hah hah. I just hope--
"--is he dead--"
"--voluntary eye movement--"
John was lying on the corridor floor, wincing away from the penlight the Iapetus's doctor was shining into his eyes. "Ow. Get the hell off me," he gasped.
Evil Doctor backed off, and John sneezed, then rolled awkwardly up on one elbow, grimacing as the manacles dug into his wrists and his cracked ribs protested.
Donner and Gaines were standing over him, but O'Neill was crouched behind them, one hand resting on the floor. He pushed to his feet suddenly, his expression a combination of startled, weirded out, and speculative. He felt that, John thought in sudden alarm. I hope he didn't hear it. John had Rodney's whole plan in his head now, in detail, with schematics, timetables, and velocity calculations.
"Well? Was it you, Sheppard?" Donner demanded.
John squinted up at him. "Was it me what?"
Donner's eyes narrowed suspiciously. "Are you causing these power fluctuations throughout the city?"
John gave him a derisive eyebrow lift. "The ATA doesn't work like that. You have to be in the same room, or in physical contact with it." Unless you were in the weapons chair, or apparently Rodney's homemade version of it, then you were in physical contact with the ATA, tied in to every part of the city through the crystalline power grid. Including the conduits running through the floor in this foyer. "You've got to learn this stuff, if you're going to be overlord of Atlantis."
Donner didn't buy it. "Then what just happened?"
"I don't know. I was with you the whole time."
Donner stepped back, touching his headset, frowning. Then he jerked his head at the guards. "Take him back to his cell." He fixed a look on O'Neill. "We're going back to the gateroom, general."
"No, I think I'll hang out here," O'Neill said easily. "Stairs. I might slow you down."
Donner's eyes narrowed. He obviously knew a threat when he heard it. He told Gaines, "You stay with him," and started away down the corridor, the guard sergeant and the doctor following him.
Gaines aimed a kick at John's side. John rolled and jerked his knee up, managing to catch it on his thigh instead of in his injured ribs. "Get up," Gaines snapped.
John eyed him. He knew he needed to stall. For some inscrutable reason of his own, O'Neill had started to stroll casually around the foyer in a way that was giving the three guards mild panic attacks. "Make me."
Gaines' face went cold, then eager.
Then every door in the foyer slid shut, closing them in, and the quarantine klaxon wailed. The guards flinched and even O'Neill stopped, looking up uncertainly. Gaines stepped back, frowning, muttering, "What the hell--"
Behind Gaines and the guards, John saw the stained glass door of the transporter light up. Yeah, distraction, now. He scissored his legs and caught Gaines by the knee.
Gaines hit the floor with a thump and John lunged for his sidearm, dragging it awkwardly out of the holster with his manacled hands. But Gaines twisted, landing a punch to the side of John's head. John lost his grip on the gun but managed to fling it out of Gaines' reach. Gaines didn't go for it, lurching after John, grabbing his arms, trying to pin him down.
John twisted and rolled, getting a brief glimpse of the open transporter door, Teyla slamming somebody in the head with a P-90, and O'Neill tackling the nearest guard. Gunfire stuttered, piercingly loud in the enclosed space, but John was too occupied to see who was shooting. Gaines jammed a knee into John's cracked ribs and John choked on a yell, the pain taking his breath, twisting through his gut. Gaines leaned over him, the better to enjoy it, and John slammed his manacled fists into his throat with everything he had left. He felt something crack.
Gaines fell back, choking, and John rolled over awkwardly, gritting his teeth against the pain cramping his midsection. Kneeling up, he slammed an elbow into Gaines' throat.
That finished it. His eyes wild, Gaines convulsed, blood frothing from his lips, and finally went still.
John shoved away from him, breathing hard. All three guards were on the floor, unmoving, and O'Neill had somebody's zat, but Deona and Teyla were covering him with P-90s. Teyla snapped, "Drop the weapon."
O'Neill stared at her like her request was a surprise. "Hey, no, I'm on your side."
Teyla watched him narrowly. "I am afraid I do not believe you."
John said, "Deona, get the keys." He took a deep breath, pushing down the pain, glad there was nothing in his stomach to throw up. His ribs weren't just cracked now, they were broken. Deona stepped back to the first guard's unconscious body and started to search him, her eyes flicking from the doors to O'Neill, and keeping one hand on her weapon. She found the key and tossed it into John's lap.
"No, really, I came here to help," O'Neill was saying persuasively. "I was going to go back in time a couple of weeks and get here before they did, but the Ancient ship I stole didn't work that way." He regarded Teyla's unsympathetic expression for a moment, then added, "Maybe that doesn't come standard."
"We only had one of those. I crashed in it and died," John contributed, fumbling with the key. It finally clicked over and the first manacle released. Gritting his teeth, John pried it off to see the skin underneath was red and abraded where it wasn't deeply bruised. Okay, ow. It looked worse than he had thought it was going to. He started on the other one.
"Those time travel things are dangerous," O'Neill agreed. "You got to watch it when--"
"Dr. McKay said you would be this way." Teyla was giving O'Neill the stony death glare. "Drop the weapon."
"Oh, well, if McKay said it-- Okay, okay, here you go." He set the zat on the floor, and kicked it away. Teyla knelt to carefully collect it.
John got the last manacle off, then managed to shove himself to his feet without staggering into the wall. Breathing hurt, and the blood pounded in his head, but he didn't have time to collapse.
Deona shifted to cover O'Neill. Teyla stepped up to John, handed him one of the guards' P-90s, then pulled his head down to touch foreheads in the Athosian embrace. She was trembling a little. John said, "Still not dead."
She stepped back, all business again. "We have to reach the control gallery. Rodney will bring weapons and special radios when he finishes the--"
"I got it all when he did the weapons chair thing." On the other side of the door to the makeshift prison corridor, the guards were banging stupidly on the impervious Ancient metal. "Grenades?"
Teyla pulled two out of her tac vest, handing them over. "Get the door," he told her. He threw a look at O'Neill. "Deona, keep an eye on him."
"Oh, come on." O'Neill folded his arms, looking annoyed. "Seriously, I'm on your side."
John stepped to the opposite side of the door to the prisoners' corridor and gave Teyla a nod. Her expression set, Teyla pushed the second crystal into the wall console. The door slid partly open.
John shot the Iapetus crewman dumb enough to shove through the narrow opening, then tossed a stun grenade over the man's collapsing body. Teyla made the door shut again, just muffling the boom as the grenade went off. The intense burst of sound and light would knock the guards flat.
"I hope the forcefields over the cells will shield the occupants a little," Teyla said dubiously, tilting her head to listen through the thick metal.
"I don't think they're going to mind that much," John told her. "Let's get in there."
The door slid open again to reveal the wide corridor filled with an acrid chemical haze, groaning guards sprawled on the floor. John ducked in, started to reach down for the nearest man's weapon. He remembered that was a bad idea when pain stabbed him across the midsection. He hissed, grabbing the edge of the door.
"I will do it," Teyla said hastily, stepping past him.
Gritting his teeth, John managed to straighten up and shove himself off the door frame. Trying to breathe shallowly, he went to the forcefield control unit that the NID had installed against the dark copper wall and started to hit shutdown sequences.
Bates staggered out of his cell first, saying, "It's about damn time." He leaned against the wall near John, still woozy from even the limited effect of the stun grenade.
Teyla, still stripping the fallen guards of weapons and ammo, paused to throw a holstered pistol at his head. "We worked as fast as we could, Sergeant," she said calmly. "There was much to be done."
Bates caught the pistol, shucking the holster and automatically checking to see if it was loaded. "I wasn't criticizing, Teyla."
"It sounded as if you were, Sergeant. In fact--"
"Teyla, Bates," John said. Oh yeah, it was good to be home. "Shut up."
The Marines had been further down the corridor, more sheltered from the grenade, and each group surged out of their cells. Several split off to watch the door at the opposite end of the corridor, the others hurrying to help Teyla with the guards, taking their weapons and dragging them into the nearest cell.
Yamato dumped one crewman and kicked him in the back. His young face contorted with fury, he said, "We ought to just shoot these bastards."
"After what they did to our guys, to Lieutenant Ford, all you want to do is shoot 'em?" Ramirez laughed bitterly, shoving extra clips into his pockets. "That's a failure of imagination, man."
Opening the last forcefield, the one on Halling's cell, John wasn't inclined to argue. All he said was, "We can't waste the ammo."
It was at that point that everybody noticed O'Neill, standing in the doorway to the foyer, Deona still watching him carefully. Everybody froze for an instant. O'Neill lifted his brows. "What did they do?"
The question had been addressed to Ramirez, who looked uncertainly at John. John made his voice as laconic as he could, saying, "They beamed them into space, then back to the gate room. One at a time."
O'Neill didn't say anything.
Bates pushed off the wall, acknowledging O'Neill warily. "General." Then he stepped close to John, snarling, "What the hell is he doing here, Major?"
John started to reactivate the field on the cell now occupied by a tumbled pile of Iapetus crewmen. "The SGC is here with another ship."
Bates stared at him for a stricken moment, struggling to keep his expression under control. "I can't-- That's all we need."
"Tell me about it," John snapped.
He didn't need Bates to tell him how screwed they were. Three years here and he had never felt this alone and hung out to dry before.
Bates drew back, his face hardening. "What's the plan, sir?"
The others were watching worriedly. "The city's in lockdown." John faced them, resisting the urge to lean against the wall, keeping the pain off his face. "If we're lucky and Elizabeth's been getting Rodney's messages, the jumpers are on their way back with reinforcements. We're going to the gate room to make sure they can get through the shield."
A familiar voice said, "Yes, but don't take that as an implied endorsement to riddle the control gallery with bullets and render it inoperable." Rodney strode in from the transporter foyer, hauling an overstuffed pack, three P-90s slung around his neck.
John lifted a brow, his mouth quirking. "Come on, Rodney, we haven't shot up the gate room in months." Being with Rodney and Teyla again felt so damn normal, like the last two weeks just hadn't happened. For an instant he expected to hear Ford's voice, to see him moving among the Marines, but maybe that was just the fever talking.
"Dr. McKay." O'Neill eyed Rodney deliberately. "Seeing you armed is...really frightening."
"Speaking of the other reason this already insane situation is about to spiral even further into disaster," Rodney said, glaring at the general as he handed the P-90s off to Benson and Ramirez. Moving down the corridor to John, Rodney greeted him by dragging a bag of radios and headsets out of the pack and shoving it into his arms. "I used an Ancient scrambler to adjust these so the NID won't be able to pick up our traffic."
"Good," John said fervently, fishing out one and passing the bag to Bates. The NID being able to listen to their communications had made the whole evacuation plan that much more difficult.
Bates moved off to pass out the radios. "Major Sheppard, Dr. McKay," Halling said, limping down the corridor, his arm slung across Audley's shoulders. John couldn't believe the guy was still on his feet at all. Teyla came to help him, and Halling did the forehead touch with her, asking, "Jinto is well?"
"He is with Dr. Zelenka and the others," Teyla assured him. "They will come to the gate room once we have secured it."
Rodney was still digging in the pack. He handed John a crumpled tac vest, then passed the pack to Yamato, who crouched down on the floor with it, emptying out ammo and more pistols. Rodney looked at John, asking, "The messy dead guy I tripped over coming out of the transporter -- that was you, I take it?"
"Yeah. That was Gaines." John got the new headset on and put the base unit in the vest pocket. Bates heard him and looked toward the transporter foyer, a cold smile flickering briefly. Gaines hadn't made any friends here.
Rodney nodded to himself, as if checking something off on a mental list. "Good." He and John just stared at each other for a moment. Rodney's face was tight and pale from exhaustion, and John knew that somehow he had seen what had happened in the gate room after they were captured, maybe through the security cameras the NID had installed. Collapse later, John reminded himself, and started to struggle awkwardly into the vest.
Rodney watched him suspiciously. "Are you hurt?"
John gave him a warning glare. "No."
"Yes, very convincing," Rodney huffed. Then he flicked a look toward O'Neill. He took John's arm and turned him so their backs were to the general. Lowering his voice carefully, Rodney said, "I've got Samantha Carter locked up down in auxiliary control."
John paused, vest half on. He lifted his brows. "Huh."
"She beamed down when they opened the shield for O'Neill to contact his ship," Rodney explained, reaching over to yank the vest up onto John's shoulders. "They were probably planning to slip someone in with every transmission he made. Jinto and the Athosian Wonder Twins are keeping an eye on her."
John winced with the effort of getting the vest on and cinched it as tight as he could. It helped, sort of. "Did you get a lock on their ship?"
"Not before I had to shut down. But the sensors collected readings before it cloaked, enough to let me fine tune once we get back on the control gallery." Rodney hesitated, grimacing. "Are we going to...." He made a little 'poof' gesture with both hands, illustrative of something going boom.
John knew he should play cold bastard here, but what he ended up saying was, "I'd kind of rather not."
Rodney's mouth twisted downward. "If we have a choice. And preferably a choice that doesn't involve prison, more prison, forced labor in a secret government lab, and executions."
"Yeah, there's that," John agreed wearily. They hadn't had any real choice since the Iapetus crew had shot Baroukel, since Donner had revealed that his real purpose here was to investigate and arrest them for treason.
"Hey, can those bastards up in the operations tower see us?" Bates demanded suddenly.
"Oh, that's right," Rodney said witheringly, turning to Bates. "While I was locking down the entire city and rendering their stranglehold on our systems useless, I forgot about the security cameras which I've been using to spy on them all this time. Silly me."
"Yeah, and I remember what I didn't miss being locked up alone all this time." Bates jerked his head toward O'Neill. "Major, what about him?"
John didn't want O'Neill out of his sight. The guy was just that dangerous, and he had the Ancient gene. With the power back online and the ATA available, it was too risky. "He's coming with us."
O'Neill had been looking around in an absent-minded way that didn't disguise how carefully he was watching Bates and John. Now he grimaced. "Oh, good. Got to love those stairs."
"We're not taking the stairs."
"Just don't throw anybody off the balcony again," Rodney said as they waited outside the transporter. He stared at John accusingly. "It clogs up the intakes for the desalinization plant."
"Get over it, Rodney," John told him, glaring back. "That only happened once."
They were hitting the gate room from three points. John, Teyla, Benson, Yamato, and Mathers were taking the transporter directly to the control gallery. Two other groups, one led by Bates and the other by Ramirez, had just transported ahead to other locations in the Operations Tower, ready to come in through the two lower level accesses to the stargate's embarkation floor. Having the gate out of commission made things a little easier; John didn't have to worry about reinforcements gating in, or anybody gating out, or trying to kill them with the blowback from an initiating wormhole.
Rodney would follow them to the control gallery with the rest of the group, including O'Neill. John had left Deona in charge of watching him, with two Marines to back her up, and Halling to back them up. John had taken her aside to warn her not to be fooled by the "harmless kindly old General O'Neill" act, but also to do her best not to shoot him.
We don't own this city, Elizabeth had said, right before everything went to hell, and we haven't asserted any right to own it. But they don't have the right to treat us like criminals for following our mandate in the way we all agreed was best. Maybe they could bargain with the SGC. Somehow. Just secure the damn city, John told himself. Worry about everything else later.
John heard the clicks on his radio, telling him the others were ready. "They're in position. Let's go," he said, and stepped into the transporter with the others.
"I'm still on your side," O'Neill said, craning his neck to watch as the transporter door slid shut.
"He is persistent," Teyla commented, pressing her lips together in the way that was the Athosian equivalent of an eyeroll.
Yeah, that's exactly what worries me. "And you don't know the half of it," he told her. There were murmurs of agreement from the Marines, and John knew he wasn't the only one to have visions of the SGC hounding them across Pegasus. He said, "In three. One, two--" and hit the location on the console.
The doors opened and John spun out, shooting the two startled crewmen just turning to face them. Teyla got the next one and John threw a smoke grenade over the gallery railing as Benson, Yamato, and Mathers spilled out of the transporter behind him. Confused shouts rang out from the gate well, then more gunfire.
John shot another crewman and ducked around a support pillar as two techs flung themselves to the floor in surrender. The gate room lights were on but all the consoles were locked and dark. The Marines spread out along the gallery in the opposite direction, clearing the cubbies and enclosed areas. John kicked a pistol away from a fallen crewman's hand and Teyla moved to cover the techs.
The smoke hanging over the gate well was clearing and John spared a glance down into it, spotting five more Iapetus crewmen sprawled on the floor. He couldn't tell if one was Donner. The Marines in the other two teams had secured both doorways, and Bates climbed the gallery stairs, watchfully surveying the room.
John reached the glass wall of Elizabeth's office, stepping past the doorway to make sure nobody was hiding in the blind corner. He looked at Benson on the far side of the gallery and got an all-clear. John said into his headset, "Rodney, we're clear, get up here."
The answer came immediately, "On our way."
John paced over to the two Iapetus technicians lying on the floor. He said, loud enough to carry, "Sergeant Bates, did we find Colonel Donner yet?"
"No, sir, we did not," Bates replied.
John circled the techs deliberately. "Huh. I guess that's bad news for you guys."
One of them said, "We're not going to tell you anything."
John lifted his brows, recognizing him as Dr. Bergstrom, Donner's Ancient tech expert. He exchanged a thoughtful look with Teyla. "I didn't say we were going to ask you questions."
From down the gallery, Rodney, Halling, and the others stepped out of the transporter, O'Neill strolling along with Deona in watchful attendance. "You guys were right, that was easier than the stairs," he commented.
Rodney spotted Bergstrom as he strode past, heading for the main console, and sneered, "Bergstrom, you pathetic excuse for a scientist, if we had the gate crystal I'd be dialing up the nearest planet to a hive ship and you'd be the blue plate special." He put a laptop on the console and opened it. "Do the honors, Major."
"The power system has failed completely," Bergstrom snapped, glaring up at them from his position on the floor. "You won't be able to...."
He trailed off as John leaned over, taking one hand off his P-90 to touch the console. The Ancient metal warmed under his skin, the crystal touchpads, screens, and readouts coming to life. The light spread from console to console, until the holographic sensor screen fizzed into life above the gallery. "Come on, Rodney. A planet near a hive ship?" John thought the angry cop/scary cop act would be pretty effective on Bergstrom. Especially considering it wasn't really an act. "We can do better than that."
"Of course we can, but I don't want any jumper pods damaged. And there's only a few left of those head-exploding neurosurgery drones." Rodney's hands played rapidly over the keyboard. As the laptop connected into the system, the Ancient console's interior sensor screens leapt to life, lines of data showing pockets of Iapetus crewmen trapped all over the city.
"Nice," John commented, tapping one of the screens. A group had apparently just tried to break out of the messhall by cutting into a wall panel, and had succeeded in getting three people shocked unconscious and one man killed. "There's Beckett's retrovirus collection."
"And we're reading four cloaked jumpers heading in from the mainland, ETA five minutes. Excellent." Rodney turned around, folding his arms and eyeing Bergstrom with thoughtful malice. "Retroviruses. Well, that does have the virtue of being exquisitely slow. Well, Bergstrom, what kind of malformed alien hybrid would you like to be for your last moments? An Iratus bug? A Fermian Acid Creature? Or some sort of fungus?" He snapped his fingers, as if the thought had just occurred to him. "It's too bad we don't have Colonel Donner here to express our wholely justified pique."
Bergstrom was beginning to sweat. He said through gritted teeth, "You wouldn't do that, not to your own people."
Rodney snorted. John lifted a brow and said, "Yeah, that's what we thought about you."
Bergstrom looked at O'Neill, who was leaning against the glass wall of Elizabeth's office. He said, "Personally, I'd go with the fungus."
Bergstrom's expression wavered, but it was the other tech who said hurriedly, "We detected some strange energy readings down on level twenty-seven, in the area where the power was supposed to be offline. Colonel Donner went to investigate."
John frowned. "What's on level twenty-seven?"
Rodney's expression froze. He straightened up, turning to the sensor screens. "Radek and Miko."
John stared at him. "They were down there?"
Rodney gestured erratically. "The changes we made caused some damage to the grid in that area, systems we need to control the satellite. They were going to bypass the damaged section on the control boards-- If there was signal leakage--"
John was already moving for the transporter. "Bates, Benson, Ramirez, get--"
There was a commotion down the gallery as the transporter lit up. Mathers turned to cover it, then jerked his weapon up as Zelenka stumbled out. "Major! Rodney!" He hurried toward them, flustered and angry. His nose was bleeding, as if he had taken a hard blow to the face. "We were found. I shot the man with Donner, but he took Miko."
John swore under his breath. Bates was on the radio, already scrambling the Marines, sending them to the transporters on this level. Donner had to realize the city was under lockdown; if one of the guards in the prisoners' corridor had managed to call him with a warning before the stun grenade had taken them out.... John turned back to Rodney. "He's going to try to beam up to his ship. Can we raise our forceshield?"
Rodney waved his hands. "We have to wait for the jumpers, or the timing for everything else will be off. And it doesn't matter, the Iapetus is still out of range."
"Yeah, but he might not realize that," John pointed out.
Rodney looked at John, frowning. "Right, right. And he'll have to come up here so they can get a lock on him. With all our systems online, there's too much interference in the lower parts of the city."
Teyla stepped forward. "And he may not know we have taken the gate room. If--"
"Major." It was Yamato's voice on the radio. He sounded grim. "We found him. He just came out of the east side transporter on the gate well level."
"He's got Miko?" John asked. He was peripherally aware of everyone going quiet, of Teyla moving to the stairs down to the embarkation floor, of Rodney and Zelenka watching him intently.
"Yes, sir. He has a pistol to her head."
"He'll be heading for the gate well doorway. Let him come in." John started for the stairs.
He was on the third step and was dealing with the realization that walking down stairs used muscles that no longer worked for him without a lot of pain, when Donner appeared in the lower level access doorway.
He had an arm around Miko's throat, a 9mm shoved against her temple. She looked flushed and frightened, but unhurt. Donner said evenly, "Stay back, or I believe you know what I'll have to do."
Bates and several Marines had already spread out across the floor, covering him. But Donner didn't need to move any further into the room. He was standing about where Ford had been, when the Iapetus had beamed him back to the gate room to finish dying.
"Yeah, we know," John said, and kept moving down the stairs, the pain washing him with waves of hot and cold, sweat soaking his thin shirt. Maybe he should have fired from the gallery, but the bad angle would have made it that much more chancy. He didn't have a choice anymore; it was too late to order Bates to take the shot without alerting Donner.
"Hey, Donner!" O'Neill shouted from the gallery railing. "This is over. You know there's no way in hell you're getting away with this. Let the woman go and I'll put in a good word at your trial."
Donner didn't look up at him, didn't move the pistol. "I wouldn't be here if I wasn't dedicated to my cause, general. I'll take my chances."
"Dedicated to your cause?" O'Neill's voice was acid. "That would be the selling cool alien stuff to the highest bidder cause? Or the killing people who get in your way cause? I get confused sometimes."
But Donner wasn't watching O'Neill, he was watching John. John had time to hope that maybe he looked as bad as he felt, that Donner wouldn't see him as a threat. "You think you're going to wait us out until the Iapetus is in position to beam you out of here?" he said, and his voice came out as an uneven rasp. He reached the last step and managed not to swear in relief. "That's a long forty-five minutes."
Donner's expression shifted. Maybe he hadn't realized just how long he had to wait, but John still didn't think he would give up.
Miko said softly, "I'm sorry, Dr. McKay," but her eyes behind her big glasses were on John, alert and waiting. The seminar for the science team on what to do if you were taken hostage was paying off, even though John had really had offworld situations and Genii assassins in mind.
"Miko, keep quiet," Rodney snapped. He had followed John down the stairs, and Teyla moved out onto the embarkation floor, silently flanking him.
Donner jerked Miko back a couple of steps, though he had to know there were Marines waiting in the doorway behind him. "Stay where you are!" he snapped.
John stopped. He had the right distance now, and Miko was holding very still, keeping her head angled away from Donner's body and out of the line of fire. John chewed his lower lip, focusing down on the shot and nothing else.
From the gallery, O'Neill said, "Come on, Donner, don't be a bigger moron than--" He hesitated. "Crap. Not now, Hermi--"
O'Neill vanished in a sudden blaze of white light.
Teyla gasped, and John's brain stuttered from Wraith to Asgard. Keeping his P-90 trained on Donner, he said through gritted teeth, "Rodney, I thought you said the Iapetus was too far away!"
"It is!" Rodney snapped. "That had to be the SGC ship. But the Iapetus couldn't pick out individuals without a radio lock-- If the SGC ship has more accurate sensors--"
Donner swore, shoved Miko away and bolted for the door behind him. Miko threw herself flat and John and Teyla both fired.
The light blazed again and Donner vanished. "Son of a bitch!" John shouted. This was getting ridiculous. "Can we raise the shield yet?"
Zelenka was already up on the control gallery at the defense systems console, tapping the crystal pads rapidly. He shook his head wildly, hair flying. "Last three jumpers are just passing through the zone-- In ten seconds I can--"
Rodney stepped past John, catching Miko's arm and hauling her to her feet. "Try modulating the--"
John heard Teyla cry out, Rodney shout in alarm. This time, it was the gate room that vanished in a blaze of white light.
John was suddenly standing in a big room, with blinking and humming equipment in the walls, surrounded by heavily armed SFs. His ears popped and he knew they were in a pressurized space, that this was the SGC ship in orbit. Miko yelped and Rodney stepped back, bumping into John, muttering, "Oh God." Teyla threw him a desperate look.
John couldn't see Donner, but O'Neill was standing with the SFs, arms folded, looking thoughtful. They hadn't gotten anybody else, just the four of them. John grabbed Miko's jacket and pushed her behind him and Rodney, thinking the jumpers should be clear; Zelenka will have the shield up.
Someone rapped out, "Drop your weapons!"
John looked at Teyla, in time to see her eyes flick around the room. He said, "Put it down, Teyla."
Her face twisted and John could have read her mind: we were so close, we were there. Making her expression blank, Teyla unclipped the P-90 and put it on the deck, then carefully laid her sidearm next to it. John lowered his weapon to the floor by the strap, swaying as he tried to straighten up. Rodney grabbed his arm and pulled him upright. Blood was pounding in John's head and it was suddenly hard to stay focused. He managed to say to O'Neill, "The rest of us are unarmed."
"Yeah, I know." O'Neill turned as the SFs moved aside. John was startled to see General Hammond step forward to stand next to O'Neill. Did they bring everybody in the SGC? His face grave, Hammond said, "Major Sheppard, Dr. McKay." He nodded to Teyla and Miko. "Ladies. We're not your enemies."
Rodney snorted, throwing a nervous look around. John didn't buy it either. He said, "Our friends don't usually take us prisoner, general."
Someone said, "Sir, we're in position."
John's adrenaline ramped back up. Rodney said, "In position for what?"
Hammond told him, "We're beaming you back to the planet, to Dr. Weir's camp."
Rodney twitched, staring suspiciously. "Wait, how do you know--"
O'Neill interrupted, "Colonel Mitchell found it, searching for some of our missing people. We can't get past the shield and the cloak and whatever the hell else you people have going down there, but we know about where it is." He crooked a finger. "Major Sheppard, come here."
Crap, John thought. He met O'Neill's eyes. "You'll send them to Dr. Weir?"
O'Neill's gaze didn't waver. "Yeah. I need to make a point to Liz."
John believed him. He stepped forward.
Teyla looked furious, Miko aghast, and Rodney homicidal. He started to shout, "You can't--" Then the white light flashed and they were gone.
Then something else happened really fast. John felt a flush of dizziness as all the blood seemed to rush from his head. Then the room went dark and he started to fall.
Rodney looked around wildly. They were standing in an open grassy field, near the edge of a tall lush forest, under a bright afternoon sky, and the Major wasn't with them. "No! Dammit--" He fumbled his radio out of his pocket, changing the scrambler back to their regular frequency, the one Elizabeth's group would still be using. If Elizabeth's group was anywhere around here. If they hadn't just been beamed down into the middle of nowhere, as some sort of tactic to force the Major to... Oh, God, he didn't have a clue what they were going to do.
"Dr. McKay--" Miko began, horrified. "Our plans, the satellite--"
"What will they do?" Teyla demanded.
Rodney waved an arm for them both to shut up, shouting into his radio. "Elizabeth, anybody, come in, this is McKay!"
"Dr. McKay? Where are you?" It was Peter Grodin's voice.
Rodney grimaced in relief. "We're outside your shield perimeter. We need to get in, now, and I mean right now, and contact Bates in Atlantis! The SGC ship has Major Sheppard."
Nothing was going the way Jack had planned. He headed down the corridor to Daedalus' bridge, his grim expression causing crewmen to skitter out of his way.
Not that it had been a plan, exactly. After Hermiod had seen the shield was down and snatched him out of Atlantis prematurely, he had had all of about ten seconds to make a decision how to handle this.
That thing that had surged through the floor, the Ancient Technology Activation, had been damn weird, and far stronger than anything he had felt in the Antarctic base weapons chair. The rush of data and words had been too fast, too faint, like a radio frequency he wasn't quite tuned into. But he had gotten the impression of something out in the deep cold of space, something huge and deadly and Ancient in both senses of the word, responding to Atlantis' call like a guard dog coming to heel.
When it got here, whatever the hell it was, Jack thought the Iapetus was probably toast.
He wasn't sure he wanted that. Not just yet, anyway. He had Donner locked up in the brig, but if Jack was going to use this to wipe the Trust out permanently, he needed evidence and witnesses to testify, not little bits of radioactive debris.
Jack reached the bridge, with its wide Star Trek-like viewport, blinky lights and screens, and earnest airmen working at consoles. General Hammond turned in the command chair to say, "It's Dr. Jackson, calling from Dr. Weir's camp."
"Finally," Jack muttered, as the operator at the comm station hurriedly made way for him. "What the hell has he been doing down there." He sat down, considered for a moment, then opened an in-ship channel to Novak down in the transporter area. "Novak, this is O'Neill. Can Hermiod...beam Daniel and Teal'c out of there, using the radio frequency or something?"
There was a pause as Novak conferred with their Asgard advisor. "No, sir. Hermiod says something has changed in the past few minutes down there. There's something that's blocking our ability to get a fix on anyone, even if they're standing outside the shield area."
Jack grimaced. "Crap. That's McKay. I should have grabbed him too." He signed off from Novak and hit the comm button for the outside channel. "Daniel."
"Jack." There was a world of reproof in that single word. "What are you doing?"
Jack let out his breath. "I'm trying to solve our little problem, here, Daniel. How's it going down there?"
"Dr. Weir wants to talk to Major Sheppard."
"Of course she does." Jack pressed a hand to the growing spot of pain in his left temple. "She can't, right now."
There was a long, and somehow accusing, silence. "And why is that, Jack?"
"He's in the infirmary." Jack winced in anticipation. Sheppard collapsing on the deck hadn't been part of the plan either. "In surgery. And it's not as bad as it sounds."
"Is he going to be all right?"
"Yeah. He had internal bleeding from being whacked around too much. Dr. Lam is working on him with the special Asgard medical doohickeys. She said he'll be fine."
Daniel took a sharp breath. "Right. Let me convey that information."
Jack could hear Daniel's voice, muffled by distance, as he lowered the radio and spoke to someone in the background. His explanation was greeted with dead silence. Jack didn't think that was a good sign. Then there was a yelp and a sudden flurry of thumps and yelling.
I knew they weren't going to take it well, Jack thought sourly. He heard Daniel remonstrating with someone and a woman, possibly Liz, shouting "Rodney!" in an imperative tone. There were more thumps as someone picked up the comm again, and Jack demanded, "Daniel? What was that?"
"That was Rodney McKay tackling me over a rock to try to get the radio." Daniel sounded a little breathless. "I think he wanted to express his feelings to you personally." There were faint voices in the background. Daniel muttered, "Oh, that's great," then said, "Jack, Dr. Weir would like to ask you if you've heard from Sam lately?"
"Ah." Jack rubbed his eyes, so he couldn't see General Hammond frowning at him, in that "why did I bring you with me" way again.
"Uh huh. Apparently she was found by Dr. McKay's group when she beamed into Atlantis, and they've been holding her there."
"They didn't give me any hint that they caught Carter." Jack couldn't help adding in admiration, "Slick little bastards."
He heard Daniel telling someone, "He said 'ah.' No, I don't know what that means." Then Daniel came back to the channel. "Well, they're going off to talk now. Hold it." There was more background chatter, a different voice this time. Daniel returned to say, "The problem is that Atlantis is under the control of Sergeant Bates, and Dr. Grodin here has just told me that without Dr. Weir or Major Sheppard there to keep things under control, that may be a problem."
"Crap." Jack thought about what he had seen of Bates in Atlantis. Not much. He had got the impression that Bates was kind of mouthy but still firmly under Sheppard's control. And Jack hadn't known the guy when he had been in the SGC. "I'll ask around up here, see if we have any crew who knows him personally."
Daniel grunted in acknowledgement, and Jack was probably just imagining the fact that the noise seem to convey doubt of Jack's ability to do that, given how he had handled everything else. "You knew about the executions, right?" Daniel asked, sounding distracted and thoughtful.
"Yeah, I heard about that." Jack needed to get more information about it. He wanted Donner tried for every single murder, in every court that might possibly have jurisdiction. He wondered if native residents of another galaxy acting as independent civilian contractors of a multi-national expedition would fall under the purview of the United Nations. Hell, Liz would probably know.
"Jack, if we don't do something, this situation could get-- Wait, Dr. Weir's coming back." There was talking in the background, more abrupt this time. Daniel said, "Jack? I have a proposal from Dr. Weir. If you return Major Sheppard, she'll release Sam and Teal'c."
"What about you?"
"What?" Daniel sounded honestly startled by the question. "Oh, I'm staying."
Jack heard another voice in the distance, informing someone, "He still says he's staying." Yeah, Jack thought, That's why we brought zats. He said aloud, "What about the fact that we don't need to be trading people back and forth because we're all on the same side?"
"I tried that already."
"No go, huh?"
"Right. Let me talk to Liz."
"'Liz' does not want to talk to you. And I note, that while Teal'c and I aren't allowed to leave or wander their camp freely, there haven't been any beatings and torture--"
Jack rolled his eyes. "Look, Daniel, try to hold off on the Stockholm Syndrome long enough to convince Liz that I am not the one behind all this."
"Well, Jack, what do you think I'm doing?" Daniel was definitely getting huffy. "And it might be better if you let General Hammond handle any further negotiations."
Someone in the background asked, "General Hammond is in command?"
Daniel paused to answer, "Yes. He and Jack sit on the bridge and call each other 'general' and Jack tries to backseat drive the ship." He came back to the radio to add, "Look, Dr. Weir said she'll talk to you when you return Sheppard, and not before."
"Oh, come on--"
Daniel's voice sounded muffled as he said, "Oh, I have to give back the radio now?" Then the connection cut.
"Daniel?" No answer, just the dead channel. "Crap." Jack closed the comm, grimacing. He told Hammond, "If Patty Hearst down there could just convince Liz to talk to me--"
"You shouldn't have tried to keep Sheppard," Hammond said, shaking his head. "They obviously took that as an attack."
Jack shrugged, rubbing at a scratch on the console. "I thought it would be easier to talk things out if he was up here. And couldn't escape. These people are great at escaping. They should teach courses. And those were the scariest Marines I've ever seen." He gestured vaguely. "And they have tiny little local Amazon women."
Hammond was looking at him doubtfully.
Jack spread his hands. "I swear. The one with Sheppard, that barely comes up to my shoulder. I saw her wrestle a Trust goon to the ground and beat him unconscious with the butt of a P-90. Teal'c should've been there. He would've loved it."
Hammond hmphed and then eyed him for a moment. "And your real reason for keeping Sheppard is?"
Jack let his breath out, and came clean. "I didn't want to lose them," he admitted. "From what I could tell, the Trust has them convinced that they've all been tried and convicted of treason in absentia, that Atlantis is considered to be under martial law, except without the law part, and I don't know what the hell else. Donner killed people to prove it, including Lieutenant Ford. But he never got the gate crystal, and I'm sure McKay or Liz has it stashed somewhere."
Hammond nodded slowly. "You're afraid they'll leave through the gate, run to their alpha site?"
"Yeah. Like I said, great at escaping." Jack shook his head. "But I'm betting they won't go without Sheppard."
Hammond considered that. "Do you have any idea what you're going to say to Dr. Weir when you do talk to her?"
"No." Reluctantly, Jack told him, "Daniel actually thinks you should do that."
Hammond turned back to face the viewport. "I'm flying the ship. We agreed on that."
"Sir?" One of the techs looked up from a console, reporting, "Energy signatures indicate we've found the Iapetus."
"You just like shooting things," Jack accused. "If you say 'fire photon torpedoes,' I'm leaving."
Hammond didn't deny it.
John vaguely remembered falling down on the deck, choking and tasting blood, somebody holding his shoulders and shouting for a medic.
He came to briefly, flat on his back on a gurney with someone sticking a needle in his arm and a young woman doctor asking him questions. He gave her name, rank, and serial number, just to be an asshole. Whatever was in the first hypo made him loopy enough that when they started trying to do other things like take his clothes and stick in more needles he lost it and tried to fight. Or tried to struggle, since the loopiness and not being able to sit up didn't give him much of a chance. But he did kick an orderly and bite an SF, before somebody managed to stab him in the ass with another hypo and the world went dark again.
He woke up later to realize he was on some serious drugs, and that something fairly dramatic had happened involving very bright lights and people in surgical masks. There was another floaty indeterminate period of lying in the bed, forgetting where he was and what had happened. He kept wondering where Beckett was, why he couldn't hear any familiar voices, or the distant sound of waves washing against the city's feet. If anybody had told him three years ago that one of the most welcome sights he could wake up to would be a burly Scottish doctor looming over him with a needle in his hand, he would never have believed it. Then he would notice that the ceiling overhead was gray metal and not soft copper-bronze and remember that he wasn't in Atlantis and that things were probably about to go from worse to much worse.
He faded off for a while after that, until someone shook him awake and he opened his eyes to see it was General O'Neill. "Sheppard, how crazy is Bates?"
John laughed. He was on better painkillers than Beckett had ever given him, he could tell. "He's a paranoid bastard. Heightmeyer says we have the working relationship of two wolverines tied in a sack and thrown off a cliff." John's eyelids were already trying to close again.
"Hey, hey, I need a little more than that," O'Neill persisted.
"We watched eight of our people get executed," John managed, "And he wasn't exactly a happy guy before that."
"Right," O'Neill muttered. "Go back to sleep."
The next time he woke there were two people standing over him arguing:
"I know, I'm the bad guy here, but I've got to take him."
"Colonel Mitchell, I can't release a patient in his condition!" That was the woman doctor.
John managed to get his eyes open. He was in a bed in a small cabin with an array of blinking equipment that looked medical, the hatch open to what sounded like the larger part of an infirmary. He wasn't tied down, but when he managed to lift his head he saw that there were two SFs stationed just outside the hatch. Great.
"Well, you're going to have to. These are General O'Neill's orders, and if he has to come down here again--"
"Yes? Is that supposed to be some kind of threat? What exactly will General O'Neill do if he has to come down here again?"
"Okay, he'll mostly yell at me, but look, this situation has gotten extremely complicated. I need him now, or--"
John moved a little, trying to decide how he felt past the cushioning effect of the drugs. Everything ached, but it was on an order of magnitude less than before. There were bandages around his wrists, and his ribs didn't hurt as much, but that side of his body felt tight and tender. He lifted the sheet and the neck of the white patient gown and saw he had a neat laser incision scar, very red against his skin. Words washed over him, the doctor and the big guy who was apparently Colonel Mitchell arguing, trying to tell him things, but it was hard to focus. Then the doctor stormed off and Mitchell was leaning over him, saying, "Major, I need you to get dressed and come with me. Quick, before she gets back."
John managed to heave himself upright. He wanted out of the infirmary and Mitchell wanted to take him out, so that seemed like a good compromise for the moment. There was a hovering nurse but John pulled the IV out before she could reach for it and slung himself out of bed. He stayed upright with the bed for support, but he was shaking from the effort. The two SFs stepped into the room, eyeing him suspiciously, but it hardly mattered. John didn't think he could make a break for it unless it was a really clever plan that involved falling down a lot.
Mitchell handed him a bundle, asking, "These were all the clothes you had?"
"Yeah. They thought I might kill myself with my underwear." John grabbed the pants and got them on without falling over, stripped off the patient gown and pulled his shirt on. Not being nearly naked was an improvement, and his clothes were clean. The smell of the detergent was weirdly familiar and unfamiliar; the Ancient laundry machines didn't need soap and they had used the expedition's supply as a trade item, long ago.
The doctor appeared again, standing in the doorway. She folded her arms and looked furious.
"You called Jack, didn't you?" Mitchell said, watching her warily.
"I don't give a crap what he says. I--"
"Carolyn, dammit," Mitchell said in frustration. "Atlantis is arming weapons. They're down there playing good cop/bad cop, only the bad cop is running an Ancient city full of energy drones. You know, those things that blow up Goa'uld motherships? We can't screw around here."
John was guessing he hadn't hallucinated the visit from O'Neill. You go, Bates, he thought.
"Mitchell, look at him, I can't--"
Mitchell persisted, "We can't be in a three-cornered shooting war. If we all blow up, that kind of makes your point moot, doesn't it?"
She glared at him for a moment, then flung her arms in the air. "All right, fine!"
"Thank you!" Mitchell turned to John. "Major, let's go."
John made it two steps then lost his balance, barely catching himself on the foot of the bed. Mitchell grabbed his arm and John hunched over, instinctively trying to protect his injured side from the punch he was expecting. But Mitchell only pulled him upright, catching him around the waist and hauling John's other arm over his shoulder. John swallowed in a suddenly dry throat. He was freaked out enough that he really didn't like being touched by someone he didn't know and didn't trust, and Mitchell was being careful with him, which freaked him out even more.
They got out into the corridor, and the deck shuddered under their feet. Mitchell flung a hand out to steady them against the wall. "That's the Iapetus," he said. "Resisting arrest with large-scale energy weapons."
John had thought for an instant it was the satellite. He had completely lost track of time. He wondered what Elizabeth and Rodney and the others had decided to do.
Threatening to fire the drones from Atlantis probably wasn't a bluff. Zelenka was still there, and he could coach one of the Marines who had the gene or the ATA therapy in how to use Rodney's homemade weapons chair. But they had to use the drones sparingly, since the science team hadn't managed to figure out how to manufacture more yet. Better for Bates to stall and wait for the satellite to arrive.
They went down a maze of metal corridors, their progress punctuated by the occasional rumble of an impact. Then a door slid open to reveal the hold John and the others had been beamed into from the gate room.
John thought that maybe it would have been a better idea to side with the angry doctor. He was glad for the fuzzy distance of the drugs; he felt his heart beat faster, but it was like he was observing some sort of outside phenomena, not feeling it.
The room was empty now, except for a woman officer at one console and, if John wasn't hallucinating, a naked alien at another. He grimaced. He had only seen pictures of Asgard. They were a lot creepier in person.
Mitchell asked, "Where are we sending him, to Atlantis or to the continent?"
"To the continent," the woman looked up, smiling brightly. "They say they have a doctor there."
"So...not out into space, then?" John asked, blinking in surprise.
"Jesus," Mitchell said, and it sounded entirely heartfelt. He told the operator, "He can't walk. I'm beaming down with him."
She hesitated, asking uncertainly, "Um, has General O'Neill okayed that, sir?"
"Of course not," Mitchell told her. He added persuasively, "But Hermiod'll beam us, won't you, Hermiod?"
The Asgard looked at them with narrow creepy eyes. "If you like."
Jack was pacing the bridge near the communications console. The Iapetus was firing everything it had, and airmen were scrambling to defend the Daedalus and return fire, monitoring consoles, shouting out information, tracking missiles, shooting really big guns. Hammond was in the center of it all, calmly giving orders. Jack was jealous as hell.
Frustrated, he hit the comm button and called the transporter area again. "Mitchell, did Sheppard arrive safely?"
It was Novak who answered, "Yes, sir. We have a confirmed arrival."
Novak's voice had a hint of important information being withheld. Jack dropped into the seat, demanding suspiciously, "Where's Colonel Mitchell?"
"Well, sir, he....Um."
Hermiod's laconic voice came over the channel, explaining, "Colonel Mitchell felt the other human needed assistance, and accompanied him."
"He-- Gah!" Jack gritted his teeth. "Can you get Mitchell back?"
Jack heard Hermiod say, "He is angry." Then Novak came back on. "No, sir. Their shield has been extended to cover that area."
"For the love of-- Dammit!" Jack cut off the comm and stared at it in helpless frustration. "Now they're all down there. How did that happen?" he said to Hammond.
"Now you know how I felt all those years," Hammond answered, not sympathetically.
"It's a good thing we're not actually holding anybody hostage, because apparently we're crap at it."
Hammond lifted a brow. "'We'?"
Jack thought it over, tapping his fingers on the console, then shook his head. "I should go down there. Talk to Liz. I could get all this sorted out like that." He snapped his fingers.
Hammond regarded him with a good deal of skepticism. "You could stop calling her Liz. She hates that."
"Still." Jack thumped the console decisively. "I'm going to try to get a hold of Daniel and see if he can talk her into letting me go down there."
Hammond nodded, waited, then apparently decided he was going to have to point out the flaw in this plan. "So they'll have all of SG-1, then."
"Well, yeah." Jack pointed at the main sensor screen. "There's a big missile coming."
Hammond lowered his brows. "Are you doing this or am I?"
John winced away from the light, head swimming with sudden vertigo from the combination of drugs and transport beam. Then they were standing in a clearing, surrounded by huge trees, the tall reddish trunks stretching up to a dark green canopy. It was late in the day, nearly twilight, and the air was damp and too cool on his already chilled skin. He didn't have a clue where they were, except the forest looked similar to stretches of growth he had seen deep in the mainland's interior. Mitchell began, "Well, there should be--"
Something shifted at the edge of the clearing and they were suddenly surrounded by Athosians, all pointing weapons. Mitchell held up his free hand. "Whoa, whoa, everybody's cool here. Let's not shoot, now."
Stackhouse stepped out of the trees, carefully covering Mitchell, saying, "Major, you okay?"
John felt his brain trying to kick into gear. "Yeah. Where's--"
Rodney crashed out of the brush and, wisely, Mitchell let go of John. Rodney grabbed him, and John was getting really tired of being passed around like a groupie at a Grateful Dead concert. But then Rodney was clutching him to his chest and John realized he might actually, finally, be safe. That everybody might be safe. He relaxed, letting Rodney support him. Then Rodney blew out his ear drum by bellowing, "Carson! Where the hell are you?" at the top of his very powerful lungs.
"Rodney, shut up." John pushed away, enough to sort of stand on his own, swaying a little.
Patting him down, checking for open wounds, Rodney demanded, "Are you all right?" He glared at Mitchell furiously. "What did they do to you?"
"Painkillers," John said, batting Rodney's hands away.
Rodney stared at him. "You need painkillers?"
"No, I have too many already." John put the heel of his hand to his forehead and thought Wake up, now. To Mitchell, he said, "I can't let you go back, Colonel."
"I know." Mitchell folded his arms and smiled. "I figured I'd just hang out here with Daniel and Teal'c."
John nodded to Stackhouse. "Sounds like a good plan."
As Stackhouse and some of the Athosians took him away, Rodney said, "He's got an SG-1 patch. Must be new." He looked at John, frowning, "Why did they send him with you?"
"They didn't. He came so I wouldn't think they were going to kill me." John took a deep breath, trying to clear his head. The air smelled mossy, of damp earth and wet leaves. He resisted the urge to just sink down into the grass. "What's the ETA on the satellite?"
Rodney didn't need to check his watch. "Twenty-seven minutes and counting."
"Crap," John muttered. He needed to talk to Elizabeth.
Jack was pacing the back of the bridge, having been ordered out of the front section by an annoyed Hammond, when an airman said, "It's Colonel Carter on the comm, sir, calling from Atlantis."
Jack barely gave the tech time to get out of the way before he threw himself down in the comm console's seat. "Carter, you okay?"
"Oh, sure, sir." She sounded delighted to be there. "I'm up on the control gallery in the gate room. Did you see this place? Isn't it fantastic?"
Jack shook his head, rolling his eyes. He had wondered if Grodin had been jerking Daniel's chain, trying to put on the right pressure at the right moment. Now that Weir's group had Sheppard back, there was no reason to continue to try to make Jack think Bates might go psycho and shoot Carter. "Yeah, I saw it. Any chance I could talk to Bates?"
"Um, let me check.... Apparently not, sir." There were muted voices in the background. Jack rubbed his eyes wearily. He knew how this was going to go. "But Dr. Zelenka wants you to check out something that should be in your outer sensor range about now."
Jack frowned. Maybe he didn't know how this was going to go. "What are we--" He looked up as Hammond said, "What in the world is that?"
The Daedalus' sensor screen was displaying a three-dimensional image of something that looked a little like a giant Christmas snowflake, except the spires sticking out of it looked deadly rather than festive. Jack squinted at the sensor readings, startled at the size of the thing. It had a bigger mass than the Daedalus and the Iapetus put together. Everybody was quiet as they stared at it. From the back, one of the techs said softly, "Power readings are off the scale."
"It was cloaked?" Hammond asked quietly.
"Yes, sir," someone answered. "It just appeared on our sensors. And we must be well within its weapons range."
From the comm, Carter explained, "It's an Ancient weapons platform, sir." She sounded impressed. She must be getting a view of it on Atlantis' control screens. "Dr. Zelenka tells me it's usually in a Lagrangian point orbit, but Rodney initiated a control sequence to bring it into range of the Iapetus. They were planning to use it to destroy the ship."
"Right." Jack nodded to himself. He knew he was looking at the giant cold presence he had felt briefly through the ATA surge. That explains a lot. "So it's like the Ancient Deathstar."
"Not really, sir," Carter corrected. "In the sense of blowing things up, maybe. Not planets certainly, but-- You get the idea."
Yeah, Jack did. Atlantis had just put its cards on the table. And they were really big cards.
"It was set to fire at anything in orbit," Carter was saying. "Sergeant Bates says that that control sequence has been temporarily disengaged, under Dr. Weir's orders."
Jack snorted. "Tell Bates to tell Liz that we get the hint."
One of the airmen said, "General Hammond, sir, the Iapetus is offering to surrender."
Jack exchanged a look with Hammond. "Yeah, I bet they are."
John's memories of the time immediately after beaming down were a little hazy. While he had still been talking to Elizabeth about the rather important question of whether to halt the satellite's pre-programmed firing sequence or not, Carson Beckett had managed to pin him to a tree and use an Ancient medical scanner on him. Beckett had grudgingly admitted that the surgery had been necessary, and had been performed as well as could be expected. And there must have been some kind of back and forth via radio between Beckett and the doctor aboard the Daedalus earlier, because Beckett had added, "There was an awful young woman up on that ship that had the temerity to try to lecture me on trauma. I've seen more trauma in the last three years than she's had hot dinners!"
But one thing he remembered very clearly: On the way to the caves, Elizabeth had said, "There's something I need to tell you." She took a deep breath. "We saw what happened. The executions in the gate room, then some of what they did to you and Halling. They filmed and transmitted it." She shook her head, her mouth set grimly. "At least we knew you and the others were still alive."
John wasn't sure how he felt about that, but that might be the drugs. He asked, "They were asking for you to surrender?"
"Yes." Her expression was weary. "And if it hadn't been for Rodney's messages, and knowing that our plan was going as well as it could, I would have."
John knew how he felt about that. "That would have really pissed me off."
Elizabeth smiled ruefully. "That's what I thought."
They had decided to halt the firing sequence, which had involved Rodney typing frantically on a laptop connected to half a dozen Ancient devices, while snarling at Zelenka over a scrambled comm channel and at Kavanagh and Simpson in person. While that was going on, Elizabeth, Teyla, and Beckett had still been discussing how to respond to the SGC ship. John had tried to follow the conversation but ended up falling asleep with his head in Miko's lap. Carson must have been waiting for his opportunity, because John had woken six hours later with an IV.
"Can I take this off?" John asked now, annoyed with having to carry around the bag and getting the tubing caught on rocks. "It's almost empty."
"Leave the bloody thing alone, Major," Beckett told him with some asperity. "It's not that much of an inconvenience to someone who should be flat on his back in an infirmary."
They were still in the caves, in the big main room where the science team had set up their equipment, getting ready for a meeting. John rolled his eyes and dropped the bag on the dais beside him. "Fine." The effect of the drugs was gone now, and the ache and soreness was a fair trade for a clear head. Mostly. "Where's Elizabeth?"
"She's talking to Jackson again," Rodney said, most of his attention on his laptop. The heads of department for all areas of the science team were here, along with Selana and the other Athosians on their governing council. They also had a scrambled channel open to Atlantis, to the control gallery, so Bates, Zelenka, and Halling could participate. And pretty much everyone who wasn't guarding their SGC guests or watching the perimeter defenses was listening in, either from out in the passages or by radio.
The big room was lit by battery lamps, and vines grew down through cracks in the rock and supplies were stacked against the walls, leather and cloth bags, and field packs and storage crates from the jumpers. The place smelled Athosian, of incense and the river reeds they made into baskets, of home and safety and Atlantis as it had been before the Iapetus had arrived. John hadn't realized where the expedition had gone to ground until he had seen the cave entrance. Last year they had decided that the Athosians needed evacuations points for the village, as another measure against attack by the Wraith. They had found these caves using the Ancient sensors, but decided they were too far away to be much use in an emergency. John had a vague memory of Selana explaining that they had gone to one of the nearer points first, then used the jumpers to transfer everyone here, securing it with the village's shield and naquadah generator.
Bates had finished his report on Atlantis' status earlier, telling them that the Iapetus crewmembers who were trapped in the city had all been rounded up now. The Operations Tower was secure, but he was waiting to do full city sweeps until they could send him more people. Zelenka had said power and shields were stable, and Rodney had added bitterly, "Of course, the clean-up is going to be insane. After Bergstrom had the run of the place, the labs probably look like Genghis Khan blew through with a Panzer division."
Everyone was talking quietly now, just waiting. Sitting near John, Teyla hesitated, then asked, "There is no family relationship between you and O'Neill?"
John stared at her blankly. "No. Why?"
Rodney snorted and shut the laptop. "Teyla thinks Earth has a secret breeding program for Stargate personnel that causes high incidences of the Ancient gene and also insanity. And after she saw how Jackson and Mitchell look alike--"
"I do not think that," Teyla interrupted firmly. "I merely said it was odd that-- Here is Dr. Weir now."
Elizabeth came in, gesturing for them to keep their seats. She sat down on the steps of the dais next to Rodney, taking a deep breath. "Well, I think you all know about the repeated request we've had from the Daedalus. General O'Neill wants to come down here and meet with me in person."
"Alone?" Teyla asked, her brow furrowed.
"It demonstrates trust in us, at least," Selana pointed out.
Teyla gave her a look. "You did not meet him. It may demonstrate trust, or simply confidence in his ability to sway our opinion."
"He's gone into worse situations than this alone," John put in.
"Right," Rodney agreed. "It usually ends with large objects -- ships, cities, planets -- being blown up."
"Yes, but they were evil planets." John glanced around, taking in the room. It was late at night, well after midnight Atlantis Standard Time, but he didn't think the exhaustion and the wide-eyed shocky expressions were because of that. It had been a rough two weeks for everyone, from the excitement of being "rescued" to suddenly finding themselves running for their lives. John wasn't exactly a trusting person, but he had been taken in just like everybody else. Donner had seemed exactly like what they had been expecting, the Iapetus like every dream of help from home come to life. It hadn't been until after everything started to go to hell that John had realized that Donner had been just saying what they had all wanted to hear.
It was Kavanagh who asked, "Do we have any direct proof that the SGC didn't participate in the attack? That their arrival is just a coincidence?"
Elizabeth spread her hands. "Dr. Jackson maintains that the SGC knew nothing about this when the Daedalus left Earth, that Iapetus was sent here by an illegal organization called the Trust, possibly with the collusion of some renegade members of the NID." She shrugged, smiling a little ironically. "Technically, Daniel's our hostage, but he keeps trying to make helpful suggestions."
"He's pointless as a hostage," Rodney snapped. "He knows how to Ascend. If we kill him, he'll just come back."
"For God's sakes, Rodney," Beckett said in exasperation. "He was an Ascendant, not a vampire."
"We're not killing anybody, Rodney," Elizabeth said firmly. "We know that Colonel Mitchell, Teal'c, and Colonel Carter all tell the same story." She admitted, "I'm inclined to believe them. Especially Dr. Jackson."
"I'm not sure the SGC's arrival was a coincidence," John said. The whole room stared at him, and he added, "The NID had to have people on the inside, or they wouldn't have known how to find us."
"You mean they found out the SGC was planning this trip, and tried to beat them here," Rodney finished, eyes narrowing thoughtfully.
"Right." And John tended to believe Jackson too. He didn't know him personally at all, except as the guy who figured out Atlantis' gate address, who had wanted to come on the expedition and hadn't been allowed to because O'Neill thought he was too valuable to the SGC. From the mission reports, he knew Jackson could potentially be as dangerous as the general. But he was also, clearly and at times literally, a throw-your-body-on-the-bomb idealist. It was even harder to imagine the guy from those reports playing along with this invasion than it was O'Neill or the others. "O'Neill and Hammond could have kept us if they wanted to, could have kept me, and negotiated that way. But they didn't."
"I know all that, but--" Rodney threw his hands in the air, frustrated. "We're going to feel really stupid if this is 'let's make the suckers trust us, version 2.0!'"
There was a murmur of agreement from around the room.
"I know the feeling," Elizabeth said. She tapped her fingers on her arm thoughtfully. "Jack O'Neill wants our trust; I think I know a way he can earn it."
It was just before morning planetside when Jack beamed down. He ended up in a grassy field, at the edge of a dense forest.The sky was purple-gray with dawn and a cool breeze drew whispers out of the leaves.
He wandered around a little, swishing through the wet grass, waiting for them to decide that he was alone, that if they came out nobody was going to shoot them or snatch them up with an Asgard beam. He felt oddly like he was trying to coax wounded animals out of hiding.
He had wandered over toward the woods, standing in the green darkness at the edge of the trees, when someone stepped out of the shadows. It was the little Amazon woman, her arms folded over a P-90. "Hey there," Jack said. "Teyla, is it?"
"Yes. Please come this way." She turned, moving off into the forest.
Jack followed. Sheppard was waiting just under the trees. He was unarmed, but there were at least a dozen others here, too far away in the dimness for Jack to recognize any faces.
"Major. How's it going?" Jack didn't make any effort to be quiet, and his footsteps sounded loud and crunchy compared to the near silence of the other people moving through here. The gray and black uniforms, the softly colored Athosian clothing fading into the green shadows.
"Better than this time yesterday." Sheppard fell in beside him, leading him further into the forest, Teyla trailing along behind them.
"Get things settled in the city?" Jack asked.
"Liz ready to come back to the fold, so we can all be one big happy SGC family again?"
Jack thought he heard Teyla snort. Sheppard's mouth quirked, and he said, "I just work here, sir."
"Uh huh." He was going to have to wait to hear it from Liz, whatever it was.
There was artificial light through the trees ahead, the white of battery lamps, and they were approaching a large clearing. Jack could tell their escort was falling back, probably to take up positions on the perimeter. But as they neared the edge of the trees, they suddenly had an escort of children, dressed like refugees from a leatherpunk Robin Hood movie, their faces painted with white designs. Most of them hung back in the foliage, keeping a cautious distance, except for one no taller than Jack's elbow, who came right up to walk alongside him, staring up at him with big-eyed curiosity.
"Lots of kids out this morning," Jack commented.
"We brought them back from M76-677," Sheppard explained. "They had a ZPM, and a shield, but it wasn't big enough to protect more than a small population, so they were committing ritual suicide once they hit twenty-five. We talked them into coming here, used their ZPM to fight off the Wraith attacks. Rodney was able to get their shield to run off a naquadah generator, to protect the area around the Athosian village." Sheppard didn't make any signal that Jack saw, but the kids suddenly faded into the trees, all but the little one trotting along beside Jack.
The kid tugged on his jacket and said, "Our legends tell of a time when new people from Earth will come, bringing chocolate and popcorn and new DVDs."
Jack automatically felt his pockets. "I have gum," he offered.
"Nian, go with the others," Teyla ordered sternly. Nian reluctantly headed off and Jack suspected there was a "don't ask strange men for candy" talk in the kid's future.
They reached the clearing, and Jack saw a large rock outcrop, sheltered by the trees, with what looked like a partially man-made cave entrance nestled in the center. Two of the little Ancient ships were parked on the flat ground in front of it and there were a few Athosians, a couple of Marines, and several people in tan science uniforms loading supplies into the back of one. On the other side of the clearing there was a fire, with a couple of metal pots warming in the coals, with a few Athosians and Sergeant Stackhouse standing around it, chatting. Also in the group was Teal'c and Mitchell. Jack could smell the wood smoke and something suspiciously like oatmeal.
Jack stopped at the edge of the trees, because there was something he wanted to take care of, and it would be best to do it in relative privacy, with only Teyla and maybe a couple of kids hiding in the bushes to hear. Jack said, "There's one thing I wanted to say before we go on, about Sumner."
Sheppard went still, his face blank. Teyla hesitated, fell back an uncertain step, as if torn between the need to give them privacy and the instinct to watch Sheppard's back.
Jack just said, "I fought the Goa'uld, son, long before we knew there was a way to pry the bastards out of a host. I know what a mercy killing is." He walked on into the clearing.
Sheppard and Teyla didn't follow immediately, and Jack walked over to the group at the fire. Stackhouse saluted and backed off. The Athosians started to follow his lead, including the young man who was tending the fire, and Jack waved a hand for them to stay. He didn't want to be responsible for getting breakfast burned.
Teal'c looked serene as usual and Mitchell had the audacity to grin at him. "Everything okay?" Jack asked, though he was pretty sure it was.
"We have had a most uneventful time here, O'Neill," Teal'c said. There was definitely a "you dragged me all the way out here and I didn't get to shoot anything" undertone. "Everything is well on the ship?"
"Less uneventful, but fine." He eyed Mitchell. "You. Later."
"Sorry, sir." Mitchell didn't look sorry.
"Yeah. Sure." Jack glanced around. "Where's Daniel? Off chaining himself to a tree?"
"He was talking to Dr. Weir." Mitchell looked back toward the cave. "Here they come."
Jack looked around to see Daniel and finally, Elizabeth Weir, strolling out of the cave. She was wearing the red and gray Atlantis uniform, with a knitted sweater over it against the cool morning air. McKay and Beckett, the medical doctor, walked out behind them. Sheppard and Teyla came out of the trees to join the group, hanging back with McKay and Beckett, and Jack wandered over to meet Liz.
"Hi, Liz. Just thought I'd drop by," he said. Everybody in the clearing had stopped what they were doing to watch, both Athosians and expedition members.
She regarded him thoughtfully. "It would have been nice if you had come a little earlier. A couple of years earlier."
"Yeah, well, I wanted to make a dramatic entrance." Jack shrugged, but he knew it was going to be okay, now. He knew how she sounded when she was negotiating with an enemy, and this wasn't it. "I wrote a speech and everything."
One corner of her mouth turned up. "No, you didn't."
"No. But I could have." Jack jerked his head vaguely in the direction of Atlantis. "Looks like you did pretty well here."
She lifted her brows. "Major Sheppard told me you anticipated cannibalism."
"Only a little," Jack admitted. Daniel was staring at him with the "I can't take you anywhere" expression. Jack clapped his hands together briskly. "We okay now?"
"No." She folded her arms.
"Oh." Jack put his hands in his pockets. At least she was still smiling. "Thanks for not blowing us up with the Ancient Deathstar."
"You're welcome. It was a group decision."
Jack nodded. "So. What'll it take?"
She said, firmly, "I'd like you to leave."
"Ouch," Jack commented. He felt Daniel stir in silent protest beside him. "Forever?" Jack asked, a little wistfully.
That made her smile again. "No. But when you return, I'd like you to bring Dr. Nguyen, and any other members of the multi-national Atlantis committee you can convince to come, so I can report to them in person."
"Ah. That's...not unreasonable." Jack was pretty sure he could swing that.
She took a deep breath, and added, "I'd also like you to leave Dr. Jackson here, as our guest, until you return. I have some other conditions, but that's the major one. I can also send some initial data back with you for the SGC and the committee, on our findings here and our situation, and the Wraith threat."
Jack looked at Daniel, frowning. "Oh, whose idea was that?"
Daniel lifted his brows in reproof. "Jack."
"Jack." Daniel glared.
Jack tilted his head back, stared at the sky, and winced. "Oh, fine." He glared at Daniel again. "Don't you dare look smug."
Daniel hid the smug by pretending to be affronted.
Jack added reluctantly, "We have to take the Iapetus crew back, anyway. That's going to make things a little crowded onboard."
Liz glanced back at Sheppard. "We have sixty-seven more of them for you to take off our hands, in the city."
"Very crowded." Jack nodded. He glared at Daniel again, but yeah, he thought he could work with this. They could be back in a little over a month, and it would give the expedition some time to recover, and Daniel could see the city thoroughly. Maybe that would do it and he wouldn't keep agitating to be assigned here. Probably not, Jack thought wearily. He turned back to Liz with a sigh. "I have some cargo I can offload. Mostly food, medical supplies. Ammo, in case you're attacked by the Coast Guard or the Department of the Interior while my back is turned." He made a mental note to canvas the crew for any candy, junk food, and DVDs they had brought for the trip.
Liz inclined her head. "That would be very welcome." She glanced at Daniel, smiled faintly. "I thought we might fly back over to the city now. You'll need to pick up Colonel Carter, and I thought you and the rest of SG-1 might like a tour of the Operations Tower, at least."
"Oh." Daniel suddenly looked like he was twelve, and had just been offered a trip to Disneyland. "Now?"