Heading down the corridor toward Atlantis' mess hall, Cameron swung around the corner in time to hear Dr. Simpson talking to Ramirez, one of the Marines. She was saying, "--for dinner tonight, if you're off duty?"
"Sure, honey," he told her. Then he saw Cameron and stiffened, staring at the wall. "I mean, Doctor. Ma'am. Doctor."
Simpson threw a dark look at Cameron, and walked away.
"I am not a narc," Cameron muttered, and turned into the mess hall.
The big room was all metallic colors and stained glass, with a waterfall fountain and tall windows looking out onto a view of the city's fairytale towers and the brilliant blue sea. It was also noisy with expedition members, kids, Athosians, and the other Pegasus Galaxy refugees who had ended up here one way or another. The mix of military and science team uniforms, and the leather and soft colors of the natives' attire, gave the place an eclectic look the SGC could only match when the Asgard, a bunch of Jaffa, and the Nox all came to visit at once.
Then Cameron spotted Daniel Jackson at one of the tables, picking at a plate of something that looked like lumpy green stewed fruit, reading a file off his tablet PC. Cameron went over to sit down across from him. Daniel acknowledged his existence with a grunt and a slight motion of his fork. Cameron rolled his eyes, reached out and took hold of the tablet, drawing it away across the table until Daniel looked up with an annoyed frown. Cameron said, "I need your advice."
Daniel lifted his brows warily. "Sure you do."
"No, man, I'm serious." Cameron kept two fingers on the tablet, pinning it to the table. "I'm trying to get these people to accept me. Am I doing something wrong?"
Daniel tugged at the tablet. "What do you mean?"
Cameron made an impatient gesture. "I think it's partly the sex thing."
Daniel paused, then nodded seriously and pursed his lips. "And that is?"
Cameron shook his head helplessly. "You know, they've been out here alone for three years. Fraternization, who cares? Everybody's sleeping with everybody else in a big happy consensual whatever, I don't care. But I think they think I'm taking notes to report it all to the general."
Daniel looked vaguely puzzled. "What general?"
Cameron rubbed his forehead. Even after this long, the fact that SG-1 was a military unit on paper and an autonomous collective in practice still occasionally startled him. "That bossy guy, who tells us what to do all the time?"
Daniel nodded understanding. "Oh, you mean Jack."
Cameron spread his hands on the table, incredulous. "Can you imagine what he'd do if I showed up with a list of who's sleeping with who here?"
"No. Well, he might yell 'gah!' and wave his hands," Daniel admitted.
"If I was him I'd belt me across the room." In a way, Cameron could see where the Atlanteans were coming from. He would bet money Private Benson wasn't the only one by far who was for all intents and purposes married to an Athosian, he was just the only one who had demanded to make it official. For the military side, the paperwork on that was going to be interesting to sort out, but Cameron couldn't see that any of it was going to be a serious problem; the SGC had experts at that kind of thing. As for the rest, General O'Neill was so the wrong guy to give a crap about what anybody did in their off time. "It's just frustrating."
Daniel shrugged, a movement accomplished mostly with his eyebrows. "I think the problem is that you represent an authority they haven't had to deal with in three years, and they aren't sure what to expect from you. Atlantis has evolved a somewhat different organizational structure through trial and error, and they're understandably protective of it. They don't want outsiders trying to force them into actions they already know won't work." He poked through the plate of stewed fruit thoughtfully, then took a bite. "This isn't bad, you should try it."
"What structure?" Cameron asked, frowning. "Dr. Weir is still in charge. I mean, I can tell that."
Daniel nodded. "Dr. Weir may have the final word, but the senior staff, along with Teyla, Halling, and the other Athosian leaders, act as a ruling counsel. For decisions that affect the entire population, the people living in the city take a vote and the mainland settlement uses traditional Athosian methods to reach a consensus. It's a democratic form of government operating in a society with what is essentially a feudal structure. There's a fortress that protects the agrarian settlement, which in turn supports the fortress with food production and goods for trade. It's fascinating."
Cameron considered that for a moment. "And where does Sheppard fit in?"
Daniel stirred his coffee, and smiled. "He's the warlord."
Cameron sat back, not exactly happy with the answer. The Atlantean comm system chose that moment to come on, and the announcer said, "Good morning, this is Radio Free Atlantis with your community announcements. It's day six with no safety perimeter violations, Ancient technology-related accidents, or invasions! Give yourselves a hand! And we continue to welcome our new SGC overlords."
People at nearby tables looked at Cameron and Daniel, some laughed, and the refugees and Athosians turned to the expedition members for an explanation of the joke. Cameron groaned and rubbed his face to conceal his expression. "I hate this guy."
Daniel took the opportunity to draw the tablet back across the table, paging down the file display. "Humor is a sign of healing," he said pointedly.
The announcement continued, "Dr. Jackson has been voted 'Best Hostage Ever.' Congratulations to Dr. Jackson."
Without looking up from the recaptured tablet, Daniel waved a hand. There was more laughter and scattered applause from around the room.
Cameron gave him a sour look. "That's easy for you to say. They like you."
"Transport for today's mainland settlement clean-up project begins at 0800. If you've been assigned to that project, please report to the jumper bay on time. Oh, and Biology Lab 4 is still looking for that potometer." Cameron checked his watch. He was going out again today with the large group of Athosians, expedition members, and the older Dead End Kids, to work on cleaning up the settlement. So far it was mostly hauling garbage and sorting debris, but it felt good to be doing something direct and immediate to undo the damage the Trust had done, and he liked working with the others. The Dead End Kids especially were like working with Peter Pan's Lost Boys, only more heavily armed.
Daniel frowned absently. "I thought you were getting along with Sheppard."
Cameron leaned back with a sigh. "Yeah, I think so, but he's a real hard guy to get a read off. I can't really tell what he thinks."
Daniel quirked a brow at him and went back to reading. Then Cameron saw Sheppard, McKay, and Teyla taking seats at a table across the room, closer to the serving line. He tapped his fingers decisively, pushing to his feet. "Hey, I'm going to try to snag a seat at the cool kids table. Later."
Daniel waved a fork in absent farewell.
Cameron went through the line to pick up his tray. The selections included packaged oatmeal and Jell-O from the Daedalus' supply drop, as well as the local stewed fruit, so he took one serving of each, then managed to wander casually over to Sheppard's table. Sergeant Bates had also joined the group. Cameron asked, "Hey, mind if I have a seat?"
"Go ahead," Sheppard said with a nod. He was dressed in ragged jeans, a faded gray t-shirt, and a too-large BDU jacket with a Marine corporal's insignia. Bates had the right insignia, and the right pants, but his jacket's nameplate read "Stackhouse." The supplies the Daedalus had brought had all been food, medical, ammo and weapons; nobody had thought about bringing uniforms, since they hadn't had a clue if they would even find anybody alive or not.
Cameron took a seat, nodding to the others. Teyla nodded back with a reserved expression, Bates eyed him watchfully, and McKay just looked annoyed before he turned to Sheppard and said, "Can we have Chuck killed?" He pointed his fork in the general direction of the comm system, which was still broadcasting the announcements.
"I'll put him on the list right after you," Bates said.
McKay sneered at him. "Oh look, I'm so terrified my Jell-O is quivering."
"Let's wait on killing off the annoying personnel until after the next mission, okay?" Sheppard said easily, picking through the contents of his tray with the air of searching for something edible and not finding it.
Score, Cameron thought. He tried for casual. "There's a mission coming up?"
Bates, McKay, and Teyla all immediately looked cagey. Sheppard shrugged, still poking at his oatmeal. "In the next couple of days. Just training."
Cameron took a bite of the fruit. Daniel was right, it wasn't bad. Though if it was all you had, he could see how it would get old quickly. "Training?" he prompted. He didn't think he had quite pulled off the casual thing, because Bates, McKay, and Teyla were all watching him narrowly.
"Itasa and Calena, plus a couple of scientists." Sheppard took a bite, brows drawn together. Apparently oblivious to the suspicion radiating from the rest of the table, he added, "We need to fill up the empty slots on the gate teams."
"Right." Cameron had had a chance to look at some of the reports, and Atlantis was practically Grand Central Station. Under normal conditions, it maintained a full schedule of exploration missions, research missions to places found during the exploration missions, missions to deliver and pick up various goods in a large trading network, humanitarian missions to various allies and to other random people they ran into on the exploration missions. And they were apparently conducting an undeclared guerilla gate-war with some people called the Genii. That was a pretty full plate. Cameron decided to put his cards on the table. "Need any help?"
Teyla's eyes got narrow, Bates looked sour with suspicion, and Cameron was pretty sure McKay kicked Sheppard under the table.
Sheppard flicked an annoyed look at McKay, then turned back to the food. He shrugged one shoulder. "It's a planet with a small trading market and a big Ancient ruin."
Cameron nodded. He hadn't missed the fact that Sheppard hadn't exactly answered his question. Instead of pressing it, he took a run at it from another direction. He ate some more fruit and oatmeal, and said, "General O'Neill comes up with the planetside training for our teams. There's always one last exercise where the trainees are made to think it's a real situation, usually a foothold in the SGC with mind-controlling aliens or all of us snaked, or something." A faint line appeared between Sheppard's brows, and Cameron suspected that meant he was intrigued.
The expedition had a whole reference database prepared by the SGC, but the chances were that when Sheppard had abruptly found himself not only CO but leading and organizing offworld teams, he had concentrated on the reports of situations encountered and possible gate warfare tactics, and not the training that he didn't have time to do. All the Marines and some of the scientists had had SGC offworld experience anyway, and the Athosians used the gate from the time they were kids, so that had only left Sheppard and a few others to learn on the job. With calculated intent, Cameron added, "The last time, Sam got to hold Teal'c and Dr. Lam and half the scientists hostage, O'Neill was a Goa'uld and had General Landry executed in the gateroom, and I shot Daniel in the butt with an intar." Thinking it over, he admitted, "That one got a little out of hand."
The line deepened between Sheppard's brows and he chewed his lower lip. It was hard to tell, but Cameron suspected he was trying hard to conceal the fact that he thought it sounded like the most fun thing ever. Distracted from their "Jesus don't let Mitchell come on the mission" agenda, Bates looked reminiscent and Teyla's brows were lifted, as if she were considering possibilities. She shook her head regretfully and said, "But we could not do that."
McKay snorted, eyeing Mitchell suspiciously. "In that we'd end up killing each other and setting off the self-destruct on the city? No."
"No." Sheppard sighed, and took a bite of fruit. "So, you want to try out a jumper on the way to the mainland this morning?" he asked Cameron.
Bates frowned, but it was McKay who said in exasperation, "Why do we need to do that? He's only here until the Daedalus returns."
Sheppard gave him a look. "Yeah, and if the Wraith or another Trust ship shows up in the meantime, we're going to feel really stupid that we didn't show the only other combat fighter pilot how to fly a jumper."
McKay looked sour. "Well, when you put it that way."
Cameron nodded slowly, chewed some more fruit, pretending to consider it while thinking woohoo!. "Sure."
The others were starting to look relieved. Then Sheppard said, "And if you ever wanted to come on a mission with us, it's always good to have another pilot."
Bates choked on a badly-timed bite and Teyla gave him a helpful whack on the back that should have knocked out a tooth. McKay dropped his fork and rubbed his face, apparently in despair and resignation.
Cameron realized suddenly that he wasn't the one being teased. He had the idea Sheppard was what his grandma would call "a handful." He grinned. "Yeah, that would be cool."
John propped himself against a tree, panting. The last goat paused to give him a challenging glare, then loped off through the undergrowth. "Yeah, fuck you too," John muttered.
He was in the woods to the south of the settlement, under the bright morning sun, and he could hear the others shouting to each other as they chased goats in the next copse. Before abandoning the place, the Athosians had turned the goats loose in the woods so they could forage for food. As things had turned out, it had been a lucky idea, since if the Iapetans had found them at the settlement they would have probably slaughtered the entire herd. But after an hour of chasing the things through the woods, John thought it would have been easier to just get new goats.
Still, he would rather be chasing goats than looking at the growing garbage heap that was all that remained of three years hard work on the settlement. The Trust had trashed the place completely while searching the tent-huts and the community buildings for any hint to where the Atlanteans had gone to ground. The supreme act of malice had been in destroying the stores of grain and seed, dried meat, fruit preserves and pickled vegetables. The long-term food stores out here were mostly for convenience and to provide an emergency winter supply if the Mainland lost contact with Atlantis for any length of time. The Athosians had expected to lose everything in their refrigerated storage when they disconnected the naquadah generator to take with them during their evacuation, but they hadn't expected their enemies to deliberately ruin the dry stores. "If they had stolen it, it would at least be understandable," Halling had said, staring bleakly at the ruined mess in the wreckage of the stone storage building. "This..."
John had shrugged and looked away. The sick smell of rot was turning his stomach, and he tried not to calculate how many man-hours all that ruined food represented. The Iapetans had done the same to the long-term frozen and vacuum-sealed stores in Atlantis. "They just wanted to make sure anybody who escaped wouldn't have supplies."
Fortunately, the Iapetans had missed the fact that the fields that looked empty and fallow were actually planted with toba root. It didn't show much of anything above the ground until right before it was ready to harvest. Everybody had gone on the toba root diet for months during the food shortages of their first year; John really wasn't looking forward to it again. But it meant they weren't completely dependant on the Daedalus.
If the Daedalus returned with more supplies and some members of the International Atlantis committee, and not an invasion force. But at the moment, John wasn't betting on the invasion force.
John heard someone jogging up behind him, and looked back as Mitchell fetched up against another tree. Mitchell eyed him worriedly. "You okay?"
John realized he was still breathing hard and clutching his tree. "Yeah. I'm just out of shape." Two weeks in a cell, and the whole internal bleeding thing, had taken a lot out of him. John knew he was better than he had been last week at this time, but it still pissed him off. He slid down to sit on the heavy roots at the tree's base. "I quit."
"No, no, we covered that," Mitchell said, collapsing on the grass, propping himself up on his arms. "You can't quit."
John lifted a brow, keeping a straight face. "I meant the goat."
"Oh yeah, screw the goat." Mitchell made a throwaway gesture. He lay back, looking up at the spreading green canopy overhead. John looked up too. The leaves were translucent, heavily veined, and the bright sunlight glowed through them, producing a rainbow's worth of shades of green and gold. The breeze was cool and fresh, making the big trees rustle gently. Mitchell said, "This place takes it out of you, but I bet it can sure give it back, too."
John thought again that if the SGC wanted him out of here, Mitchell wouldn't have been a bad replacement. But Mitchell had been pretty damn clear that he didn't want the assignment, and John knew he wouldn't have any input in the decision. "Why do you want to go on the training mission?"
Mitchell snorted. "I'm not going to say it's 'cause I'm bored, because chasing stray goats with you guys has been the experience of a lifetime."
John grinned at the shifting colors in the leaves overhead. "I bet."
Mitchell said, more seriously, "You know, I'm willing to dig ditches and haul garbage here if that's what's needed. But there's a lot of people to do that already, and I think what you really need right now is gate team personnel."
He's not wrong about that. John tried to figure out why he was still reluctant to have Mitchell along. There was no way they would have gotten all the Nones to the gate in time if Mitchell and Jackson hadn't come on their last mission. And he liked Mitchell, and he kind of trusted him, too.
And maybe John was just resisting the inevitable. John knew the Athosians and the refugees were relieved that the strange new people from Earth were gone, with their factions and infighting that made it impossible to tell friend from enemy. Most of them just assumed that things would go back to the way they were. Even the science team seemed to think that things would continue much as they had before. Everybody was still afraid of a second invasion attempt, that either O'Neill was lying or that the Pentagon would override him and decide to take Atlantis by force and ask questions later. But they weren't thinking about the implications of a peaceful reconnection.
Because it's not their asses on the line, John thought, then, wow, you're not bitter or anything. And maybe it was time to stop being stupid and just get ready for the inevitable.
Mitchell was still waiting, and John took a breath to tell him. Then a goat walked up and flung itself down between them with a disgruntled air, its long pink tongue lolling.
Mitchell snorted. "Well, that was easy."
"Yeah," John said. "Hey, want to come along on the next mission?"
The next new volunteer showed up at dinner.
Things were running late in the messhall because of the Mainland teams all getting back at different times. Afterward, John walked out on the messhall balcony with his coffee. Mostly just to admire the sunset, but also to enjoy the coffee in private; the Daedalus hadn't brought a huge supply and, many of the Athosians having developed a taste for it, it was going fast. After a few minutes, the doors slid open for someone else, and Ronon stepped up to the balcony railing.
"Hey." John gave the guy a nod. Ronon had gone out with the clean-up crews every day, working hard, and Halling had reported that while he wasn't exactly a gregarious man, he was fitting in as well as could be reasonably expected for a longtime Runner.
They had tried to send Ronon home to Sateda, but when the MALP had rolled through the gate, the footage had shown a ruined cityscape. Ronon's planet had been culled to extinction.
Mitchell had been standing next to John when the transmission had come in, and had muttered, "That's a fucking nightmare."
John had just nodded grimly. It was the gate traveler's worst fear, to dial home and find the bad guys had been there while you were gone.
Now Ronon eyed him for a long moment, shifted impatiently, then said, "You're taking Mitchell and Jackson on your mission."
John took a cautious sip of coffee. "Looks like it." Jackson wanted to see the Ancient site they were using as a training ground. Or to be more accurate, Jackson wanted to see pretty much every Ancient site they had found in Pegasus. Since John had agreed to bring Mitchell, it had seemed pointless not to let him come along too. And Ronon looked a lot like a man with something to get off his chest.
Ronon looked away, his big hands working on the railing. "They come from your homeworld, but they're your enemies. Jackson's supposed to be a hostage."
"We're working it out, but for now, yeah." John watched him carefully. Ronon was doing pretty good for a former Runner, but the others they had found had been crazy, and Ronon had been out there much longer than any of them.
"You don't accept them either, but you're letting them go through the gate with you."
John suddenly had a clearer picture of what this was about. "But they're having to work for it."
Ronon burst out, "If you don't let me show that I can be useful, how can I work for it? I'm not a farmer."
John leaned his hip against the railing. "Look. You were out there alone a long time. You know how dangerous it can be to trust strangers."
Ronon made a frustrated gesture back toward the messhall. "You take in strangers all the time. There are people here from a dozen different planets."
John nodded. "And they all go out to the Mainland and do the work that's there, and prove they can be trusted. And most of them aren't exactly strangers. They're kids, or they're people we already knew, who asked for refuge here when their planet got culled. Mitchell and Jackson aren't strangers either. Mitchell joined the SGC after we left, but the others know Dr. Jackson, and he vouches for Mitchell."
Ronon took a sharp breath, still exasperated. John started to wonder how old he was. Younger than he had looked at first, more than a few years shy of thirty. And such a big chunk of his life had been spent in running and hiding. He was acting like a loner, but a loner would have left already. John thought Ronon wanted to belong somewhere, anywhere, so bad he could taste it, but that he no longer had any idea of how to go about it. "You have to understand how badly we got burned, by people we should have been able to trust. It's not personal."
Ronon shoved back his hair back and said roughly, "I don't have anybody to vouch for me."
John looked away. There wasn't a lot you could say to that. Ronon didn't have anybody, period.
And John knew he didn't have time to take things slow, anymore. If -- when -- if the SGC put a new CO in here, he wouldn't understand Runners, and Ronon's request to join either gate operations or security would get shuffled right into the trashcan. "You want to be on a gateteam?"
Ronon hesitated, eyeing him. "Yes."
"You'll follow orders. My orders. If you don't, I'll shoot you. It's what we do to...people who don't follow orders." If they did, it would be a first, but Ronon didn't have to know that. Nobody had ever done anything meriting a worse punishment than extra PT or digging latrines on the Mainland or being confined to quarters without a laptop. As threats, John didn't think Ronon would be impressed.
Ronon evidently felt it was a fair offer. "Okay," he said seriously.
John sighed, and finished his coffee.
"So." Elizabeth spread her hands on the conference table. "You really think that after two weeks here, Ronon Dex feels any loyalty to this city?"
John shrugged. "Of course not. He wants to belong here, because we're available, we're not crazy, and we're willing to have him." They were in the operations gallery conference room, having the pre-mission meeting. Or the pre-pre-mission meeting, since Elizabeth had wanted to go over the roster with John and Bates alone before they opened the meeting to the rest of the team. "That's as good a reason as any."
"And he was apparently a soldier on Sateda," Elizabeth said, looking at the notes on her laptop screen. "I can see why he feels he could make a better contribution on the military side than on the Mainland."
John was expecting an argument from Bates, because he was pretty much always expecting an argument from Bates. But Bates just shrugged and said, "From what Dex has told us, he's got training from a more modern military than anything else we've seen so far, including the Genii. If there's any chance we can integrate him into a team, we should take it."
Elizabeth nodded, lifting her brows. "I agree. We're not in any position to turn away someone with potentially valuable experience. We'll just have to give him the opportunity and see how he handles it. Now," Her voice turned thoughtful. "I expected that we'd be sending Dr. Jackson out on missions sooner or later, but are you sure that bringing Colonel Mitchell along is a good idea?"
John leaned back in his chair. "Mitchell helps train new SGC personnel. It's a waste not to take advantage of that while he's here."
This time he wasn't disappointed. Bates' expression was saturnine. "That's assuming we can trust either of them."
"That's the assumption we decided to make when we allowed them to go on the mission to the Nones," Elizabeth reminded him.
"I was out of the loop on that decision," Bates reminded her pointedly.
"Look, what exactly do you think they're going to do?" John asked in exasperation. "We'll have seven trainees and an Ancient site that could use some more exploration. There's nothing there that they could do anything to that could hurt us."
Bates tapped the table, leaning forward. "The hell there isn't. There's you. There's McKay, there's Teyla." His expression was deadly serious. "Even if there's no plan to stage an invasion, eliminating key personnel is a good way to soften this place up."
"You and I both know, they don't need to soften this place up," John said, deliberately holding his gaze. "All they need to do is wait."
Bates grimaced and looked away.
Elizabeth looked from John to Bates, then sighed and shut her laptop with a snap. With rueful exasperation, she said, "And on that happy note, let's start the pre-mission briefing."
They gated to PX6-201, where it was mid-morning under a yellow-tinted sky, streaked with gray clouds to the west. The air was humid but cool and the breeze held a promise of rain. The stargate overlooked a big shallow river valley with deep mossy green grass, and there were forested hills in the distance.
John looked over the group. Teyla was squinting up at the clouds, frowning a little. Ronon was checking their surroundings, narrow-eyed. So was Mitchell, while Jackson and Rodney were already getting their scanning equipment out of their packs. The trainees were looking around with interest. The three scientists -- Jahnavi, Wately, and Panshin, all from Ancient Tech -- had never been offworld before. The Athosians -- a young man named Raning and the twins, Itasa and Calena -- had been offworld plenty, before and after coming to live on Atlantica, trading and exploring with their people. All three had already had weapons and unarmed combat training, plus Athosian stick fighting class, and had been helping Bates' security force. John knew Raning was around twenty and the twins were around seventeen, give or take the difference in Athos' rotation. He had figured out a way to tell the twins apart for the mission by noting that Itasa was wearing a blue stretchy top under a gray leather jacket, and Calena had a green stretchy top and a slightly longer jacket with brown patches. John said, "Itasa, you're on our six."
"Yes, Major." She nodded sharply.
Rodney eyed the scientists with a sort of grim resignation. "All right, you three. Yes, you. No, I'm not talking to the Athosians, they already have survival skills. Your duty on this mission is to do exactly what I say and try not to get killed. The former is more important than the latter, of course, though if we lose one of you it comes out of my back salary and Elizabeth has given me to understand that I'll forfeit the last of my coffee ration. I think we all know what that means."
Jahnavi and Wately looked wary but unsurprised. Panshin tried to sidle around and unobtrusively hide behind John. Jackson eyed Rodney with thoughtful concentration. Rodney glared at him, and snapped, "Nobody asked for your opinion."
Teyla's brows quirked as she hid a smile. Mitchell was looking away with the air of someone who was determined not to be trapped in the middle. Ronon just looked like he thought they were all crazy. John sighed. He could tell right now it was going to be a long day. He put his sunglasses on and said, "Let's get moving, kids."
The planet was uninhabited, but it did have a trading village, used by several low-tech planets in a trading network of agricultural products. It was a circle of small thatched-roofed huts about a mile from the gate, with bins to hold grain and vegetables and pens for goats and other animals. It was usually only occupied for a few weeks or so throughout the year, depending on the trading schedules of the planets in the network. John was a little surprised to see five life signs show up on the handheld detector, but when they approached cautiously, he saw it was just the Sendarans, one of the cultures participating in the co-op.
"Major Sheppard, Teyla Emmagan," the head trader Tharis hailed them as they walked into the circle of huts. Tharis' helpers, three teenage boys and a girl, all came out to stare with wide-eyed curiosity at the people with guns. One of the boys turned to the others, and John heard him whisper, "Atlanteans." Tharis said hopefully, "You're looking for trade?"
"Not really." John craned his neck to see what Tharis had in the bins in the hut. They only traded with the people here occasionally, when they had found the village occupied and open for business. The Sendarans and the others who used this place dealt in smaller amounts of staples than Atlantis needed, though they were a good source of fancy fruit and luxury goods. "We're just here to look at the Ancient city again."
"Yes, perhaps some other time," Teyla said, giving Tharis her professional trader smile.
Tharis made an expansive gesture toward the hut. "We have berries, berel and ranga, and cholu powder. Most of the cholu is committed to traders from Enar, who should be here soon, but I have three extra sacks." He lifted his brows.
Rodney, up to now occupied with his scanner and ignoring everyone, looked up. "Ooh. I don't suppose--"
"No," John said, a little too sharply. The other scientists had perked up too. The young Athosians were too experienced at trading to react outwardly, but John could suddenly feel their hopeful eyes boring into the back of his skull. "We have to go. We have a lot of ground to cover today."
"Perhaps next time," Teyla said more politely.
John led the way out of the village, heading down the grassy hill toward the end of the valley.
"What's cholu powder?" Jackson asked, when they were out of earshot of the Sendarans.
"It is a very prized commodity, very expensive," Teyla said regretfully. "Those three sacks would cost us as much as thirty bushels of grain or seed. With our trade goods destroyed, we simply cannot afford it."
"But a little does go a long way," Rodney added, sounding fondly reminiscent.
Before Mitchell and Jackson decided they were talking about the Pegasus Galaxy's answer to crack, John said, "It's a flavoring, for cakes and pastries, kind of like cinnamon. It won't grow in the climate near the settlement." It was pissing him off all over again, that they had been accused of profiting off the Ancient technology, and now they couldn't frigging afford the equivalent of a case of vanilla extract for the next birthday or holiday.
Mitchell threw a look back at the village, frowning a little. "What do you normally use for trade?"
"The labs make topical antibiotics, antiseptics, other medicines," Teyla explained. "All the boxes we had for trade were destroyed."
"How did they know--" Jackson began thoughtfully, then cut himself off. "Never mind."
"Yes, we took them on a tour," Rodney said, his voice bitter. "It was flattering how they asked so many pertinent questions about how we had established our trade economy. Of course, that was before they started shooting and torturing--"
"Rodney," John said, but he was suddenly too tired to put much of an edge in his voice. Rehashing every aspect of a disaster just made Rodney feel better. But John was already doing enough rehashing in his head, he couldn't take it in stereo.
He didn't expect Rodney to shut up, but Rodney did.
The Ancient site was only about a mile past the village, on a plateau at the edge of the valley. The stone remnants went on and on, pylons and ruined courts, half-collapsed rooms. Cameron had seen his share of Ancient ruins in the Milky Way, but never anything this big. And according to Sheppard and the others, this one just wasn't that exciting compared to what they had found elsewhere.
They had been working for a couple of hours now. Sheppard had taken Ronon and the young Athosians up on the hill to teach them how to set up a perimeter. McKay had the three trainee scientists in the next court, critiquing their technique as they opened up a blocked chamber, with Teyla to watch their backs while they were distracted.
Daniel had surveyed the scene, then told Cameron, "I'm going to check out this other room."
"You don't want to stay and help with this?" Cameron had asked. The sealed doorway had seemed pretty intriguing.
Daniel had smiled a little and lowered his voice carefully. "That door's been cleared by an archeology team already. McKay's testing them. I don't want to get in the way."
So they had gone next door, where Daniel could poke around undisturbed. Watching him probing the dirt at the base of a column, Cameron said, "I know it would have been the wrong thing to offer to buy the cholu powder."
Daniel gave him the squinty brows-lowered expression. "Yes, it would." He scraped cautiously at the dirt again. "Besides, what would you have paid for it with?"
"I got some Snickers bars and an iPod." Cameron shrugged, absently scanning the hills past the broken remnants of the wall. "I was saving it for an emergency."
Daniel shook his head. "I don't think they would accept it, at this point." He sat back on his heels, absently wiping his hands off on his pants. "Did you know that when the Athosians evacuated from Athos, they were only able to bring a small amount of supplies? With the occasional influxes of temporary refugees, Atlantis has supported anywhere from four to six hundred people over these past three years, and the Ancients didn't leave behind any secret food sources or advanced farming equipment."
Cameron kept his eyes on the hill. "Yeah, I know. To go from that level of self-sufficiency to needing basic supplies from us has got to burn." It all had to burn. We gave them a tour, McKay had said. No wonder Sheppard seemed to shuttle between pissed off and depressed, when he wasn't putting on an "everything's fine" show for the others.
And there wasn't a damn thing Cameron could do about it, except what they were already doing. After the past couple of weeks here, getting to know the place, it wasn't as if he wanted to live in Atlantis. But he did want to come back here as a welcome guest. Bring cool stuff from Earth, toys and movies and the new hybrid Asgard tech that they could put to such good use here. Watch Carter get so excited over the Ancient tech she practically glowed. Watch the Atlanteans deal with General O'Neill's propensity for picking up and fiddling with everything in a room, and his ability to make a beeline for the most dangerous object. And see Teal'c looking at the towers with that "I am stoic and not at all finding this awesome" expression. Cameron sighed. At this point, it could still go either way.
Daniel squinted up at him again, distracted, a smudge of dirt on his forehead. "What?"
Cameron shook his head. "Nothing."
The traders from Enar arrived, and for practice, John had the team react like it was a hostile raiding party, and go for cover.
Stretched out in the high grass with Ronon, John watched the trading village, where the Enarians picked up their goods, stood around and talked for a while, then headed back to the gate. The Sendarans started to pack up almost immediately afterward; that must have been their last trading contact for this season.
John watched the three science trainees through the binoculars to make sure they stayed down, and that Itasa, Calena, and Raning didn't get too close and scare the traders in their enthusiasm. Teyla and Mitchell were with Rodney and Jackson, continuing the serious work in the ruin.
John became aware that Ronon was staring at him. "What?" he said finally.
"You could have taken those traders," Ronon said, in a tone that was hard to read.
"Yeah, but we don't do that." John slid a look at him. He didn't feel the need to point out that the idea of attacking unarmed civilians who were just minding their own business violated all kinds of principles, expedition and Athosian; he thought Ronon was doing some testing of his own, here. "Do you?"
Ronon shrugged a little. "I did what I had to. I stole from gardens, fields. I tried to stay away from people. Mostly succeeded."
John turned that over for a moment, what Ronon had and hadn't said. "Well, you don't have to do that anymore."
Maybe Ronon hadn't been expecting that response, because he blinked and a startled expression crossed his face, as if it was surprising him all over again that he wasn't running. That it still hadn't completely sunk in yet that he had a place to belong now, and that he was going home to a meal and a warm bed. Then he sunk down into the grass a little more and grunted noncommittally.
It wasn't until they were about to leave that the trouble started.
It was getting on toward evening, and the sky was now completely overcast. The trainees were tired from practicing guarding and being guarded all day, and the weather was turning cold. On their way back, John decided to break them up into two groups and practice approaching the gate without being seen. He gave Teyla the three trainee scientists and Raning, with Mitchell to keep an eye out while she was distracted with teaching, and John kept the twins and Ronon. He kept Rodney and Jackson by default too, since they didn't want to play and God knew neither one of them needed any more experience trying to get through a guarded stargate than they already had.
John posted his group on a hill in the valley, and Teyla took hers up through the trees and underbrush along the rim. The twins had fun trying to spot Teyla's group, with and without the binoculars, and Ronon actually commented with grudging admiration, "She's really good."
John was about ready to tell them to pack it in, when thunder rolled across the valley. "Big storm," Ronon commented, studying the approaching clouds uneasily.
It was getting awfully dark toward the far end of the valley. John clicked his headset. "Teyla, let's get out of here before the storm hits."
"We are almost at the gate, Major," Teyla replied. "We will meet you there."
John looked back to where Rodney and Jackson were sitting in the grass with their equipment, both typing earnestly and ignoring each other. "Come on, kids, time to go."
"What?" Rodney looked up, frowning.
"Go," John prompted, pushing to his feet and rolling his neck to ease the tension. "Home. Hot shower. Dinner."
"Oh, right. Finally." Rodney closed his laptop. Jackson looked up, blinking, and packed his tablet.
They started across the valley, John keeping up a fast pace. The rain started when they were halfway there, accompanied by swearing from Rodney, and more thunder rolled across the valley, sending a burst of static through their radios.
They were at the bottom of the gate's hill when John heard the hail start, like a rush of suddenly heavy raindrops, crossing the field toward them. He muttered, "Crap." There was no reason for all of them to get pounded, and he hit his headset, "Teyla, go ahead and dial, we'll be right behind you."
Her reply came with a burst of static, "Yes, Major. Dr. Jahnavi, please dial the gate and send our IDC."
Mitchell broke in to ask, "Major, should I wait for you?"
John replied, "Negative, Colonel, we're only about a minute behind you."
John heard Teyla's acknowledgement as her group got their clearance and went through the gate.
The tiny pellets were bouncing off their jackets and tac vests, but none of them had head protection, and it fricking hurt. Still, John knew they were lucky; if the hail had reached golfball or baseball size, they could be in a lot of trouble right now.
As they reached the top of the hill, John looked up in time to see the wormhole close. He swore again, and behind him Rodney said sourly, "Oh, that's perfect."
They reached the gate, and Jackson went to the DHD, hitting the symbols for Atlantis' address. Lightning flared, whiting out the sky, making the naquadah in the gate reflect a weird red glow for an instant.
If John hadn't been courting a concussion from the hail at this point, he might have wondered where the red in the reflection had come from; there was nothing of that color within eyeshot. But the wormhole formed, Rodney sent their IDC and got clearance, and they jogged through.
Cameron walked into Atlantis' gateroom, shedding water and hail, and automatically doing a quick headcount. Three scientists and two Athosians, check, he thought, backing away from the wormhole to leave room for Sheppard's group to get through.
Weir was coming down the steps from the gallery and Bates was already on the floor, demanding, "Where are the others?"
"Right behind us, Sergeant," Teyla answered with a faint trace of irritation in her voice, shaking ice pellets out of her hair.
But no one was coming through the wormhole. Cameron tapped his headset, listening for their traffic. He heard someone shout, "Come on!" then the radio cut off. "Sheppard, come in," Cameron said automatically. "What's your--"
The wormhole popped like a bubble, closing and vanishing. "What the hell--" Cameron took a step forward.
Wately, Panshin, and Jahnavi, checking over their equipment, all looked up, startled. Raning looked from Cameron to Teyla, eyes wide.
"Must have been the storm," Cameron muttered, though he had no idea how it could affect the wormhole. It usually took something close to cataclysmic to make the Ancient technology take notice. "Give 'em a minute to dial back."
"We know, Colonel," Bates said, folding his arms.
And they waited.
It was a moonless night on PX6-201 and the weather had turned cold, the wind across the stargate's hill chilly and biting. Cameron paced in the freezing mud, between the DHD and the edge of the big battery lamps the team of Marines had set up. They had a jumper in the air, scanning for life signs, but there was nothing, not in the valley or the surrounding hills, and it was widening its search pattern now. Three teams on foot were criss-crossing the valley, Cameron could see their handlights and hear the traffic on his headset. They were searching for evidence that wouldn't show up on the life signs detector; Cameron just hoped like hell they didn't find any bodies. "Where the hell are they?" he said aloud.
"That's what I'd like to know." Bates was watching him, arms folded.
Cameron snorted. "Don't look at me like that, Sergeant. You know this wasn't a plan." They had waited for fifteen minutes, then dialed back to the planet. There had been nothing to find but an empty hill. Weir had ordered the jumper through immediately, but they had had to wait for the rain to slack off before they could start the ground search.
Bates' smile was cold. "Because if I knew it was, you'd be dead."
Cameron rolled his eyes. Bates was a bastard with PTSD written all over him, and Cameron didn't make the mistake of thinking he was all talk. But he wasn't the dangerous one. If it had been Sheppard out here hovering on the brink of deciding that Cameron had conspired to take out half a gate team, Cameron would have worried.
At the moment, Cameron was more concerned about whether Sheppard and the others were still alive. Daniel Jackson, trouble magnet, he thought. Dammit.
Teyla was ignoring both Mitchell and Bates for the moment. She had made a careful search of the ground, but the rain had washed any tracks off the slope of the hill. She hadn't expected this, anymore than the others had. We were careful, we did nothing foolish, she thought, the bitterness as cold as the wind sweeping up the dark valley.
Bates strode across to her, interrupting her thoughts, saying, "Are you sure--"
"Yes, Sergeant, I am sure Jackson and Mitchell gave no indication that they were planning this," Teyla said tightly. She pushed to her feet, her boots squelching in the mud. "If they were."
"Jackson would have had to get control of them somehow, take them to another planet--"
Teyla didn't bother to conceal her skepticism. "All of them?"
Bates looked down the valley, toward the lights of the search parties. "If he was working with Ronon."
That gave her pause. She thought it over, but shook her head. "I find that unlikely. Why would Ronon ally with them against the rest of us? He wanted a home, and he was given one. He wanted a place among us as a fighter, and he was well on the way to achieving that. Why betray us to two men who could offer him nothing?"
"They could offer him a place on Earth, safe from the Wraith." Bates' expression grew even more saturnine. "You know people do worse for less motivation every day."
Teyla frowned down at the mud. Perhaps it was a possibility. Ronon had said he wanted to fight the Wraith, and she had truly thought he had burned for the chance to strike back at them, the chance that Atlantis offered. But you know so little of him. Ronon hadn't seemed like an accomplished liar, but the Ancestors knew she and all of them had been fooled before. She hesitated. "Do you truly think this is what happened?"
Bates took a deep breath. "Maybe. No." He said flatly, "The simplest explanation is always the right one, isn't it."
Teyla's mouth set in a hard line. "The Wraith."
"One dart with a culling beam is all it would take."
The image leapt unbidden to her mind. All of them, distracted by the storm, waiting for the gate to dial, the beam sweeping up the hill... No. I will not believe it. "I sensed no Wraith here before I left." She paced away a few steps, thinking. "Perhaps before they could dial out, another wormhole opened, and someone else came through. A raiding party, after the Sendaran traders but too late to catch them."
Bates looked at the gate, eyes narrowed. "It's...possible. The raiders would have to get control of the team, dial out and force them through the gate -- or shoot them all and take the bodies -- all in the fifteen minutes before we decided to dial back." He shook his head. "And we're not finding any cartridge casings, so nobody got off a shot."
Teyla let out her breath. Her scenario was no more likely than his, and had all the same logical faults.
Then Mitchell paced toward them, saying, "If you two are done with the paranoia, can we look at the third option we've all already thought of? The one where they dial, and whatever caused the gate to close suddenly screws with the DHD, changing the address. They end up on a planet with a broken DHD, or in some other situation where they can't dial back immediately."
An orbital gate. Teyla felt sick. But she lifted a brow at Bates. "Well?"
He let out his breath. "Right. Let's get Zelenka out here."
John stepped through the gate expecting to walk into Atlantis' gateroom. He stumbled, for a moment blinded by sunlight. "What the hell--" he gasped. They were outside, under a clear afternoon sky, standing on a stone gate platform.
Shocked, Rodney said, "Major--"
At the foot of the steps were at least a dozen SFs. The Trust, John thought, and jerked up his P-90, his heart solid ice in his chest. But that was Colonel Carter and Teal'c standing at the bottom of the ramp. Behind them, across a green field, he could make out artillery emplacements. Just beyond them were a set of Quonset huts, and a taller square building that looked like it was made of concrete blocks. This isn't possible.
"What the hell did you dial?" Rodney was aiming his sidearm at the group at the bottom of the ramp, but he threw a death-glare at Jackson. He switched the glare to John. "Why did you let him dial?"
"It wasn't him, Rodney, I saw the address," John said tightly. He knew Jackson could be a great liar when he wanted to, but the worry on his face was convincing. And John had seen the symbols light up, Jackson had dialed Atlantis.
"The address was right?" Rodney shouted.
Rodney's jaw set. "Then we're screwed!"
"I know that!" John snapped back.
Jackson was pointing his P-90 at Carter, watching her warily. "What is this? And who are you? We know Samantha Carter and Teal'c are on the Daedalus heading back to Earth."
Carter lifted her hands. "Daniel, it really is me, just not the me you know. I can explain-- Wait, is that Rodney McKay?" Her expression turned incredulous. "Where did you come from? You can't be from Atlantis--"
"We can't?" Jackson lifted his brows. "Where are we?"
She said, "This is the Alpha site, in the Pegasus Galaxy. Our version of the Pegasus Galaxy. This is a parallel universe."
Universe, John thought, a sick sensation settling in his stomach. Crap. He spared an instant to look at the others. Ronon had his eyes and his weapon directed at the SFs, his body tense, his face the grimace of a trapped wolf, but part of his attention was on John, waiting for orders. It was a hell of a way to find out Ronon could be relied on not to go off half-cocked. At John's side, Itasa and Calena were holding their weapons steady, doing a good job of not freaking out, or at least not showing it.
At the bottom of the steps, Teal'c was watching them closely, waiting for someone to make a move.
"Of course it's a parallel universe," Rodney snarled. "How do we know you aren't Jaffa?" Teal'c lifted a brow, and Rodney added, "Except for him."
"We're not Jaffa," Carter said patiently. "The Goa'uld were defeated here, as I'm assuming they were in your universe. Look, we're experiencing an anomaly that's causing gate teams from multiple parallel universes to arrive here instead of in their own universe. We already have two SG-1s here, if that's convincing."
"This does look like a standard Alpha site," Jackson admitted, though he still sounded wary. "She's telling the truth about that."
John didn't miss the "about that" but Carter nodded. She said, "We're working on the problem, though I think you guys are about to win the 'most unusual team' award." She looked from Ronon to the twins, her expression dubious. "Are you still using Atlantis in your universe? We had to abandon our version." Then she focused on John. "Wait, is that Colonel Sheppard?"
John had a truly nightmarish moment where he thought maybe a parallel universe version of his father was actually here. That would have put the cap on this whole experience. Then he realized she was talking to him. John wet his lips and said, "It's Major Sheppard, Colonel."
"Oh, I see. Right." She shook her head slightly. "Look, before I explain further, why don't you put your guns down."
Jackson was looking at John, his eyes urgent, as if trying to communicate telepathically. The SFs were still aiming their weapons at them, and Teal'c's dangerously watchful silence seemed to crank up a notch without him moving a muscle.
Rodney looked from Carter to John, his eyes wide.
If this was a trick... If this was a trick, they were screwed anyway. John said, "Okay. Let's lower our weapons."
Rodney, Jackson, and the twins lowered their guns immediately. Ronon hesitated, his gaze going to John. John held his eyes for a long moment. Then Ronon snarled under his breath and lowered his gun.
Carter let her breath out, and Teal'c lifted a brow in approval.
It ended up being something of a trade. All the SFs plus Colonel Carter proved they weren't human Jaffa by showing unmarked midsections, and then John's team gave up their guns, knives, ammo, C4, and radios. It wasn't a great trade, but at least it showed an attempt to be accommodating on Carter's part. And John knew the twins had at least one concealed hold-out weapon each and he was certain Ronon did, too.
The SFs looked through their packs, but didn't take anything, and didn't try to take or mess with Rodney's laptop or Jackson's tablet. Then they were led across the field, past the artillery emplacements, which didn't seem to be manned at the moment.
As they passed the Quonset huts, Rodney demanded, "What about entropic cascade failure? Is anyone else experiencing--"
Carter told him, "That isn't a problem. Apparently the proximity of the other intersecting universes to this one is preventing it from occurring."
She added, "We think a black hole is causing an effect on the subspace matter stream, that any wormhole passing close enough to it is being drawn into the singularity and rerouted here."
"What happened to Atlantis?" John asked, before Rodney could ask another question. "Your Atlantis."
"They never found a ZPM." Carter glanced back at him, her expression opaque. "We had to evacuate it using the Daedalus."
They reached the concrete building, passing through the wide doorway. Inside was as gray as the outside, a big utilitarian foyer with a couple of Marines on guard. Cable was strung up for power and lights, and plastic crates were stacked against the far wall. A thick heavy blast door shielded another foyer with a corridor leading further inside, and a well with stairs going up and down. John had never been to Earth's Alpha Site in their own universe, never even had a clue it existed until he had started reading the SGC reports, so he had no idea how different or the same this was.
"It's a little quiet, isn't it?" Jackson said, as Carter started toward the stairwell. He stopped, looking around. "At least compared to Earth's Alpha Site. I assume you're not using it as active lab space."
She stopped, giving him a brief smile. "No, not right now. We only have a small complement here, just trying to keep a foothold in Pegasus." In the bright fluorescent light, John realized she did look different from their Colonel Carter. She didn't look older, but she felt older, as if some of their Carter's energy and enthusiasm was missing from this model.
"I see." Jackson watched her thoughtfully. "Is Jack here? This universe's Jack, or any variation thereof?"
Carter shook her head, her smile turning tight. "No, he's in the Milky Way. I'm afraid I can't tell you any more until we do the standard medical exams."
Itasa and Calena both stiffened, both looked at John. Itasa was stone-faced but Calena shifted uneasily. They were barely seventeen, and the Iapetans had given them reason to fear people in these uniforms. John said, "They're kind of young, so I'll need to be with them."
"Major Sheppard is like a father to us," Itasa said, eyeing Carter coldly. Calena nodded. John winced inwardly, but it was the right thing to say, and in line with one of the top ten rules for gateteams: don't let yourself be separated; if necessary, claim a family relationship with your team leader.
Carter blinked, and seemed to make a mental adjustment. She smiled reassuringly at the two girls. "We can arrange that."
Rodney cleared his throat. "Ah, not that Major Sheppard is like a father to me, but--"
John amended, "Actually, all of us need to stay together."
John thought their Colonel Carter would have taken the opening to make a smart remark, to make them feel more at ease by starting a characteristic fight with Rodney. This Carter just nodded, turning toward the stairs again. "We can arrange that too."
"How very accommodating," Jackson said under his breath, just loud enough for John to hear.
The infirmary looked pretty normal, again as far as John could tell. A big concrete-walled room with a mix of the normal treatment tables, metal shelves, and cardboard boxes of supplies, with some of the weird Asgard medical equipment John had seen aboard the Daedalus when he was a hostage. The place did look understaffed; John only saw two doctors and three nurses.
John and Jackson went first, each sitting on a treatment table while the others waited on folding chairs out of the way. Ronon didn't sit, just leaned against the wall and warily surveyed the two SFs posted at the doors. The twins still looked worried, sitting on either side of Rodney, who looked deeply suspicious. Carter hung around, as if waiting for the results of the exam, but she didn't say much.
John's doctor was a small woman, pretty, with straight brown hair tied back and a brisk competent air. She said, "Hello, I don't know if we've met in your reality; I'm Dr. Janet Frasier." She gave him a wry wince. "Apparently I'm dead in the other two realities. If I'm dead in yours, please don't tell me. It's getting depressing."
"Major Sheppard," John said automatically, "And, uh, okay." He didn't recall her name offhand, though it wasn't like he knew many people in the SGC. Then he saw the way Jackson was watching her, from his treatment table across the room, and thought maybe she was dead, back on their Earth.
Eyeing the scanner she was holding, John suddenly realized that his current medical profile might not match the one they had, and he wasn't sure what allowances they were willing to make for other dimensional issues. "When you check my DNA, you're going to find--"
"Traces of the Iratus bug DNA. That happened over here, too." She smiled.
"Right." John didn't know whether to be reassured by that or not. "If he's still a bug, don't--"
"He's not." She lifted her brows, still scanning. Then she asked, "Who are the two girls?"
"They're Athosians." John was willing to admit it might look a little odd, from the SGC's perspective. "We're training them for a gate team."
She looked up, startled. "They're a little young, aren't they?"
The Wraith wouldn't think so, John thought grimly. Yeah, in a fair universe, the twins should be planning the Athosian equivalent of their prom, but instead they were learning to defend themselves and their people, and that was just the way it was. He just said, "We don't have a lot of choice."
She studied him a moment, her frown turning concerned. "Why?" she asked softly. "What happened?" Carter had stepped up behind her, listening with a politely blank expression.
John took a deep breath. "We'd been in Atlantis for three years with no contact from Earth, until a few weeks ago. Then we were attacked by a Trust ship, posing as a rescue mission. They killed some of our people." John cleared his throat. Ford. "Dr. Jackson came with the real rescue ship."
"It's a difficult situation," Jackson added from the other table, where he was getting his blood drawn. "The Trust destroyed food stores, looted the labs, wrecked the Athosian settlement and the refugee housing. With the Wraith cullings, Atlantis has a lot of refugees to take care of, and people used to looking to it for help. We don't have a ZPM on our Earth, so we can't gate supplies or personnel to Atlantis. Their ZPM has a limited capacity, and can't dial Earth without being completely depleted."
John grimaced internally, wishing he hadn't gone into quite that much detail. But he saw Jackson was watching Carter with sharp attention, and wondered if it had been deliberate. Carter was looking away, her face tight.
"I see," Frasier said, and she didn't look happy. "Well, let's get on with this."
All the exams went fine. Frasier did the exams for the twins, which was a relief to both of them, and to John, who was able to fulfill his chaperone duties from a distance. Ronon had been briefed on the necessity of post-mission physicals, but he would have expected to get one from Beckett or Sayyar or Biro, not a total stranger in a different reality. Still, he did pretty well, just watching the doctor the entire time with a challenging grin that was closer to a teeth-bared half-snarl.
The medical check finished, Carter took them back down the corridor. Four SFs followed as she led them down another set of steps to an underground level. The ceilings were lower and it gave John the creeps, though it wasn't damp, and there was the same gray-painted concrete as on the upper floors. They passed through a larger lounge area, with chairs and folding tables. And Carter hadn't been lying about this either, because sitting around talking were at least two assorted versions of SG-1.
They were all unarmed, one set wearing black SGC BDUs, the other set desert camouflage. They all turned to stare. The Jacksons looked curious, the Teal'cs thoughtful. One of the Carters, the one in desert camo, had long hair tied back and glasses. She waved in a friendly way, and called out, "Hi! I'm Dr. Carter and she's Major Carter. That's how we're telling us apart." One of the Mitchells nodded a greeting, and the desert camo Mitchell said, "Hey, one more Daniel and you guys can all play Bridge with yourselves." They all looked very neat and efficient. John knew his team looked like they had escaped from a post-apocalyptic scenario, half in shabby gray BDUs, half in leather and Athosian homespun. Except for Jackson, who was wearing a full set of green SGC BDUs, which just made their group look even more eclectic.
Carter took them down another corridor, then to a room with bare concrete walls and two sets of bunk beds. There was another door in the far wall, which Ronon immediately opened. It led to a bathroom with a shower stall. Carter gestured to the bunk beds and said, "Sorry, we prepared only for four person teams. And I'm afraid you're going to have to stay locked in until we get the full results of the medical exams. I'll send someone with more towels and bedding, and some dry clothes."
Grimacing in frustration, Rodney said, "And you're going to want my help, right? With getting us back to our own reality? Can you tell me what--"
She lifted her hands placatingly. "I'm going to need you and the other Carters. But you understand we have to get the medical results first." She nodded to them and stepped out. John craned his neck as the door closed, spotting the two SFs stationed outside.
The lock clicked.
"Fine," Rodney snapped. He pulled the life signs detector out of his pack and checked the screen. John leaned over to look. The detector was only registering around fifty life signs, scattered around on this level and the four directly above. Rodney's mouth twisted. "We better make certain..."
"Yeah," John agreed.
John and Jackson searched the room for cameras or listening devices, with Rodney going over it again to look for things they wouldn't recognize. They didn't find any, though Rodney pointed out grimly that they could only see so far up the air vent. "And," he added with sour emphasis, "They have to know we're going to look."
John paced, frustrated. There was a little side table, with a few dog-eared magazines, and he stopped to pick them up. The titles weren't familiar, though they all looked reassuringly Earth-like. It would have been nearly impossible for aliens to fake all those photos and the text, and the latest date was only a couple of months ago. It would have been very reassuring, except for one glaring inconsistency John could name right off the bat. "Rodney, you sent the IDC. Was there a confirmation?"
"Of course there was a confirmation." Rodney folded his arms, his mouth twisted. "That's what's scaring the hell out of me. Why did they confirm? If they had said, 'sorry, don't step through the wormhole because it's currently attached to the incorrect dimension--'"
"Something's wrong," Jackson said, sitting down on the opposite bunk.
Rodney flung his arms in the air, rounding on him. "Oh, really. What could it be? Let me think--"
"With Sam," Jackson said, pointedly. "That Sam."
"Are we prisoners?" Ronon demanded.
"We don't know yet." John hadn't had much of a chance to talk to their Colonel Carter when all of SG-1 had been on Atlantis. She had been working mostly with Rodney, touring the city, checking out the labs... That's it. "She didn't ask any questions about Atlantis."
"That's right." Rodney frowned. "That's a little odd for her, isn't it?"
"It's a lot odd," Jackson said, staring absently at the far wall. "But it's not quite what I meant. In this reality, I'm sure she's already visited Atlantis; it was obvious this Earth had been able to reach it much sooner than we were able to get to you. But when I asked her about Jack... From her expression, I expected her to say he was dead." He shook his head. "She's hiding something."
"Like what?" Rodney said warily. "This is a Goa'uld trick? Other dimensional Goa'uld?"
"None of them were Jaffa. Except Teal'c. And there are two other SG-1s sitting out there," John reminded him.
Jackson nodded. "If it's a trick, they're part of it. Teal'c, and Sam if she's had the same experiences as our Sam, would be able to tell if there was a Goa'uld presence here. Of course, they could be under some sort of coercion or mind control, or there are aliens who have these devices that--"
Ronon bared his teeth in annoyance. "I don't understand anything that's going on."
Rodney and Jackson both launched into competing explanations of parallel universes, with Rodney pulling out a pen and drawing on the wall.
John sat down on the bunk, feeling helpless. The twins sat on either side of him. He said, glumly, "This is not how your first mission was supposed to go."
Itasa shrugged, and Calena pointed out, "But this is much better experience than just learning how to guard scientists."
That was one way to put it.
As promised, an SF brought them a big bundle of towels, extra blankets, and clothing. "Thanks," John said, watching him warily.
"You're welcome, sir," the SF said a little stiffly, backing out of the room as if he expected to be jumped.
The clothes were black SGC BDUs, pants and t-shirts, brand new. The sizes were wrong, but it would at least give some of them a change of clothing if they had to stay here for any length of time. John really hoped that didn't happen.
"If they aren't alien pod people, we have to make sure we take these back with us," Rodney said, thumbing through the pile. "And if we have access to any MREs or packaged food, make sure you fill your packs. And if they let us near a lab, keep an eye out for--"
That was a little too much for John's last nerve. "What, you don't want to steal the towels?" he snapped. "We don't need their charity, Rodney."
"Oh the hell with that!" Rodney waved a hand in exasperation. "It's not charity, it's scavenging, and we should take whatever we can get."
John swore under his breath. He turned away, leaning his elbows on the top bunk, and set his jaw. "Whatever, go ahead." But he couldn't help adding, "The furniture's not nailed down."
And Rodney, being Rodney, couldn't ignore that bait. "Oh, what, the fact that we look like nuclear holocaust survivors is supposed to be your fault? How, exactly?"
John gritted his teeth, and said, "It's my responsibility."
"No, it's not! All right, yes it is, but you can't seriously believe-- Wait, what is this about? You being a good provider?" Maybe realizing this wasn't a direction he wanted the argument to go in, Rodney stepped back, lifting his chin. "And you need to calm down because you're upsetting the girls."
John looked around, suddenly self-conscious. The twins were staring with wide eyes. Leaning against the other bunk, Ronon was watching them, brows lifted. Dr. Jackson was squinting at the wall, lips pursed, with an expression of concentration. John suspected he was trying to keep from laughing. John shifted uncomfortably and said, "Sorry."
"Fine, whatever, fine. Just start thinking about what we're going to do if this turns out to be--" Rodney cut himself off, turning away angrily and grabbing his pack.
John suddenly got what this was really about, or at least Rodney's side of it. "Rodney, they aren't Goa'uld. We'd know by now."
"Oh, that's comforting!" Rodney stamped to the bathroom and went inside, slamming the door.
The twins shifted uneasily, and Ronon glared at the floor. John sat down on the bottom bunk again, picking up a magazine at random. It was in Spanish, a sports magazine about the international soccer league. After a moment, Jackson said, "I've been reading your reports. He was abducted through a Quantum Mirror, by a Goa'uld-controlled Atlantis expedition."
John let out his breath. "Yeah. I was too, a different one. But...I was out of it, most of the time."
Jackson smiled ruefully. "And you don't have the luxury of locking yourself in the bathroom."
John tossed the magazine back on the table. "I'll do it when we get back to Atlantis."
Ronon said, "What's a Goa'uld?"
John sighed. He asked Jackson, "You want to field that?"
"Uh, yes." Jackson reached for his pack. "I have a multi-media presentation."
Hours later, they all had time to clean up and dry their clothes, to polish off all the snack food left in their packs, and for John to go crazy from being locked up with no information. Banging on the door and asking the SFs what was going on didn't do any good, even when a second pair of SFs relieved the first. If John heard "We don't know, sir," one more time he was going to go...crazier than he already was.
Not that long ago, John had spent two weeks chained up alone in Steve's old cell, below Atlantis' waterline. Even with the company, this wasn't exactly his idea of a good time.
Jackson worked on his tablet and Rodney worked on his laptop. John read all the magazines, including all the ads. The twins cleaned out their packs, cleaned out John's pack, and tried to talk Ronon into letting them go through his pack, prompting Ronon to retreat to an upper bunk and stuff the pack protectively under his head. They sewed up rips in John's t-shirt and Ronon's jacket, looked through Dr. Jackson's notebook, read over Rodney's shoulder until he turned red and threatened to have an aneurism, and redid each other's hair three times. Ronon was obviously fighting off a case of stir-crazy too, but seemed to feel obligated to hold it together because of the twins, though he wouldn't let them do his hair.
"They've had more than enough time to get our test results back," Jackson said at one point, still typing.
"We know that," Rodney snapped, also typing. "You realize they've left us here to die."
Jackson frowned at his screen. "I think that's a little premature."
"Oh, you do," Rodney sneered.
Jackson lifted his head to frown at Rodney. "Yes, I do."
John, who was reading ads for time shares in Reno, said, "Rodney, Dr. Jackson," in what he thought was a perfectly even, reasonable tone, and not at all like he might snap and try to kill everybody in the room.
Everything went quiet for a moment. Ronon peered suspiciously over the edge of the bunk. The twins both looked up, cocking their heads. Dr. Jackson lifted his brows, and said, "Sorry," and Rodney lifted his chin, and said, "Fine," and then they both went back to typing.
After that, in a last ditch effort to save his sanity, John started to teach himself, the twins, and a reluctant Ronon Spanish from the soccer magazine.
Finally, they heard someone coming down the corridor. It was a Lieutenant Morrison, coming to tell them that they had passed their medical checks, and that they could leave their "quarters" as long as they stayed down on this level. John figured they would wait until they could ditch the guy, then search around and see what they could find.
Morrison led them back to the lounge area. John thought the other two SG-1s would be there, and was hoping to compare stories with them, see if they had managed to find out anything else about what was going on in this universe. But the tables were empty. John asked, "Where are the others? The SG-1s we saw here?" Looking down the corridor, he could see the two SFs who had been guarding their door were now guarding the stairwell.
"They're up in the commissary, sir," Morrison said.
There was a moment of silence, as the difference between "up in the commissary" and "down on this level" dawned on everybody. "How nice for them," Rodney said, acid in his voice.
Morrison looked a little uncomfortable. "Because of your situation, the Colonel didn't feel she could authorize access for the upper levels. Someone will bring you some MREs--"
"No thanks, lieutenant, we wouldn't want you to go to any trouble," John said, drawing the words out just enough to make Morrison look even more uncomfortable.
"Our 'situation,'" Jackson repeated, eyeing Morrison. He made it sound like he had never heard the word in this context before and wanted a definition. "Just exactly what is our 'situation?'"
As if repeating orders verbatim, Morrison said, "The fact that your Atlantis isn't under SGC jurisdiction. It could be compromised."
Rodney's mouth twisted in pure contempt. "Yes, we admit it, we're under the sway of teenage Athosian Amazon women." He gestured to Itasa, standing at his elbow and watching Morrison critically. "Meet our new overlords."
Morrison's face hardened but he ignored Rodney, turning to Jackson. "Dr. Jackson, Colonel Carter wanted to invite you to dinner with her and the other members of SG-1. She thought you might like to meet your counterparts."
Jackson blinked, somehow managing to convey that this was a level of rudeness so profound he found it a little shocking. "No, thank you," he said, his voice dry.
"Yes, sir." Morrison nodded, and said, "If you need anything, just let one of the SFs know."
"Yeah, we'll do that," John said easily.
They watched Morrison cross the room and go up the stairs.
"That was unnecessarily rude," Jackson commented, setting his pack down on the table and rummaging through it. They hadn't wanted to leave anything in their quarters, just in case someone took the opportunity to do some snooping.
Itasa eyed him, saying skeptically, "You are saying that if we visited your people in our own universe, we would be treated differently."
"Yes, I am saying that." Jackson frowned. "I'm wondering--"
"If they wanted to get you alone," John finished, looking absently around the mostly bare room. There was a sink with some cabinets, and that was about it for amenities.
Jackson lifted his brows. "Exactly."
Rodney made an exasperated gesture, but he looked more weary than pissed. "But that doesn't make any sense. They have us trapped in here, away from the gate. If they wanted him, they could just come down here and grab him." Sounding bitter, he added, "They haven't shown any indication that they're the slightest bit interested in us."
"Yeah." John let his breath out. It didn't make sense. Either these people were telling the truth, or...something. But he kept feeling like it was the something. "Let's take a look around on this level."
That turned out to be a bust. There was nothing down here but living quarters, single rooms and bunkrooms, a gym, a locker room with showers, a public restroom, all of it empty. It didn't look unused, it just looked as if everyone had moved out, cleaned up, and left it waiting for the next group to be assigned here.
They went back to the lounge and sat at one of the tables, staring glumly at each other. Jackson said finally, "It could be worse."
Rodney nodded reluctant agreement, and jerked his head at John. "In the other parallel universes we've been to, he's always a Jaffa."
John propped his head on his hand, and pointed out, "So are you."
"How does that work?" Ronon asked, frowning.
"You really don't want to know," John told him.
Calena seconded, "It is disgusting."
It was dawn on PX6-201 now, a bright sunny cold dawn, and Cameron's eyes were gritty from lack of sleep. The DHD's column was open and Zelenka was sitting on a tarp beside it, his laptop connected into the device's innards with multiple lengths of clear conduit. Bates and a couple of the Marines were standing nearby, huddled over coffee, and Teyla was pacing.
When Zelenka had arrived last night with another group of scientists, he had told Teyla, "You know, Rodney will be very angry when I rescue him. He likes to do these things for himself."
She had smiled, a little reassured. "He will learn to live with it."
Cameron hoped Zelenka was right, because the missing team sure as hell wasn't anywhere within a few hundred miles of this gate. The jumper's search had been exhaustive, and the ground search teams hadn't found anything either. Since returning to Atlantis wasn't an option while Zelenka was working with the DHD, the search teams were camped out down at the base of the hill.
Nobody had gotten much rest. Cameron had caught some sleep in the jumper last night, purely by accident. He had sat down in the portside jump seat for a minute and woke up an hour later face down on the laptop that was hooked into the data port there, with key imprints on his face. He would have felt really stupid, if he hadn't found Bates just outside, leaning against the open hatch, dozing.
Then Zelenka said, "I think I found it." Cameron hurriedly gathered around with the others. Zelenka was staring down at his laptop. "Our dial-ins and dial-outs have re-ordered the buffer, but this has to be the instance when Major Sheppard and the others dialed."
"How can you tell?" Cameron asked, leaning down to squint at the screen.
"Because it's the one with huge anomaly." Zelenka waved a hand, stopping them before they could ask. "The DHD has recorded an enormous amount of data, I'll have to take it back to my lab to analyze. But these readings here," he pointed to several lines of the incomprehensible mishmash on the screen, "This indicates a powerful gravitational field, a black hole. I think we are dealing with a wormhole passing too close to a singularity -- either in this universe or one close by. But there is something funny, here. It may not be an accident."
Bates frowned. Teyla cocked a brow at Cameron. He told her, "I have no idea either." He asked Zelenka, "Can we just dial to where they are?"
"Not yet. They may not be in this universe anymore." Zelenka tapped his chin thoughtfully, while Teyla stared, and Cameron groaned under his breath. He should have known. Daniel had been falling into other universes long before Cameron had known there was a Stargate Program, long before Atlantis was a gleam in Weir's eye. Zelenka added, "But with this, I think I can find the address they were re-routed to."
"Another universe," Teyla said, a grim expression not quite hiding her fear. "Like the Quantum Mirror."
"Yeah." Bates straightened up, looking away, running a hand over his face. "They could be in a hell of a lot of trouble."
John sat around, because there wasn't much else to do. Rodney and Jackson, by complaining to the SFs, managed to force Lieutenant Morrison to come down three more times to answer Rodney's demands to help with the fix for the singularity, but it came to nothing. No one wanted their help, no one wanted to talk to them, no one wanted anything.
The hell of it was, John knew they could get up that stairway if they wanted to, take out the SFs, get their weapons. But then what? Demand at gunpoint to be let in on the brainstorming session that was going on up there? That wouldn't get them anywhere. And Carter had to know that they could get past her guards; if she had really thought they would try something, if they had reason to try something besides general frustration with the situation, she would have left them locked up.
So far there was zero indication that there was anything going on here other than what they had been told. John was tempted to let Jackson go up there, but the invitation hadn't been repeated. They weren't prisoners; they were just being ignored, as if their help wasn't wanted or needed. We kept our Atlantis, John thought, feeling bitter again. So screw you people.
And speaking of Atlantis... They're probably going nuts. John knew he would be. Half a team had never disappeared when they were barely a minute from walking through the gate, on an empty planet, not under fire. From Atlantis' perspective, it would look like an event straight out of a Bermuda Triangle story. He hoped they didn't think it was the Wraith. Hell, he hoped Bates didn't decide it was something Mitchell and Jackson had cooked up together, and kill Mitchell before Elizabeth could stop him.
They ate MREs out of their packs for dinner, and Rodney found a coffee maker under the sink cabinet, with packets of coffee, tea, sugar, and powered creamer. He and John stared each other down while Jackson made coffee, since stealing the extra packets had somehow become this huge issue even though John thought that deep down he actually didn't give a shit about it. Or maybe he did. He was so pissed off at everything right now he couldn't really tell.
Calena discovered that with the help of one of Rodney's screwdrivers, she could take a chair apart and use the legs as bantos rods. John made a mental note to tell Teyla, knowing she would get a kick out of it, if he ever saw Teyla again. The SG-1s didn't come back, and there wasn't even a ball in the gym, so John couldn't entertain himself by trying to teach Ronon how to play basketball.
Then the lights flickered and every other fixture went off. Working on his tablet, Jackson glanced up, one eyebrow cocked in surprise. Rodney looked around, incredulous, and said, "Are they kidding?"
"Must be time for lights out." John rubbed the bridge of his nose, trying not to find this yet another reason to seethe with useless anger. "They're conserving power."
"Yes, I understand that, but we're still sitting here..." Rodney sat back in his chair, shaking his head in exasperation. "Oh, the hell with it."
Everybody was tired anyway; they had had a full day of work on PX6-201, plus a full day of boredom and tension here. They ended up going back to their cell/quarters.
John took the first watch, sitting back against the wall beside the door, which was cracked open just enough to let him see down the empty corridor.
The place was dead silent, though he knew the SFs were still stationed at the stairwell. It was weirdly familiar, the painted concrete and whisper of air conditioning, the fluorescent lights at half strength, washing the corridor in intermittent shadow. It made John feel like he was back on Earth. In a creepy abandoned building, where everyone had been eaten by zombies. He rolled his eyes at himself. The life signs detector showed there were still people on the levels above them, just not very many.
After a time, Ronon dropped soundlessly out of the upper bunk and came to the doorway to take his turn. John showed him the life signs detector, which should still work as long as it was in close proximity to someone with the Ancient gene. Ronon shrugged noncommittally, and took John's place at the door.
The twins were in one lower bunk, Jackson in the other upper, and Rodney in the other lower. John thought about trying to climb up to take Ronon's spot, in the dark, with the possibility of stepping on Itasa or Calena. Deciding it wasn't worth it, he took half of Rodney's bunk, shoving him over to make room.
Rodney made muffled noises indicating outrage, but moved over anyway, grudgingly giving up a whole twelve inches of mattress. John managed to fit his body into the space. He didn't bother to fight for more, thinking he wouldn't sleep much, but it was more comfortable wedged into the bunk than it was sitting on one of the plastic chairs or the cold concrete floor. Rodney twitched around a little, then shifted over, warm against John's back. Then John felt a weird fumbling touch in the vicinity of his rib cage. John lifted his head, whispering, "What?"
"Nothing, go to sleep," Rodney whispered back.
John settled back down. After a moment, Rodney poked him in the kidney, hard.
"Rodney, stop it," John said tightly, every nerve tense. Another poke. "I'm serious."
"Guys," Jackson said from the upper bunk, "I just wanted to point out that I am awake up here..."
"Rodney thinks I've been replaced by my Jaffa duplicate," John said, before it could get any worse.
"Oh, I do not," Rodney snapped, annoyed. There was a moment of waiting silence. "All right, fine, show me your stomach."
"God dammit," John commented, and rolled half over, pulling his shirt up.
Rodney sat up, flicking on a pocket flashlight. He flashed it over John's midsection, then flicked it off. "Thank you," he said stiffly.
"Do you want to see my stomach?" Ronon asked from the doorway, a dry note in his voice. It was possibly the first flash of humor John had seen from Ronon. John heard a muffled snort from the direction of the twins.
"You wish," Rodney snarled, and rolled over.
At least in the confusion, John managed to lay claim to another four inches of mattress.
John was just drifting off when someone tapped the toe of his boot. He opened his eyes to see Ronon crouched nearby, the light from the life signs detector illuminating his face. John rolled off the bunk into a crouch, leaning over to look at the screen. Five life signs, coming down the stairs.
But whoever it was wasn't bothering to be quiet, and John heard voices and the crackle of a radio.
They got ready for anything from an arrest to being ignored again, but it was Lieutenant Morrison coming to tell them that Colonel Carter and the others had figured out the way to send them back.
Morrison took them upstairs, to a room with some consoles and a video screen showing a view of the gate. It was dark outside, and the area around the gate platform was lit by floodlights. Though John had no idea what time it actually was here, his body thought it was around 0400. There was some activity outside, SFs on watch and a few civilians in lab coats working on some equipment. John couldn't get a good look, because with the two SG-1s already present, plus this universe's Colonel Carter and Teal'c, plus Lieutenant Morrison, plus John's motley band, the room was a little crowded.
Colonel Carter was saying, "Basically all we had to do was reverse the process. We created another wormhole close to the black hole, then detonated a warhead inside it. The blast has reopened the singularity. I know each of you gated in from a different point, but now that the convergence effect has been reversed, we can dial those different points and create wormholes that will follow the inter-universal paths already created by your trips here."
Rodney stared at her, lip curled in disgust. "Please, it took you all this time to come up with that? With two extra copies of yourself to help? You have got to be kidding me."
She set her jaw. "Look, McKay--"
John missed most of the conversation because in the middle of it Morrison suddenly said they could have their weapons back. He hadn't been expecting that, and though it wasn't as bad as it would have been before the Daedalus' supply drop, the thought of losing five P-90s, plus ammo, assorted sidearms, and Ronon's energy gun had been making him sick. Morrison and a couple of SFs carried out the weapons, for John's team and the SG-1s. With everybody trying to sort out what belonged to who, John was too occupied to listen to Rodney arguing with Colonel Carter.
He had managed to identify all their equipment and was making sure his P-90 hadn't been tampered with when Dr. Carter, the one in desert camo, leaned over and whispered, "I can understand your situation, really. I sympathize."
"Thanks," John said, trying to sidle away from her. The sympathy was nice, but they were so close to getting out of here he could taste it, and he really didn't want to talk about Atlantis' problems with a stranger from another reality.
She nodded. "When you're dealing with a base in isolation like that, you have to do what you can to protect the population. I've often thought that the pressure on the military to--"
"Dr. Carter, we need to get going." Desert Camo Mitchell caught her arm and hauled her away.
Calena, standing at John's side and stuffing ammo into her pockets, said, "What did she mean?"
John shrugged, his brow furrowed. "I don't know." Maybe her Atlantis had been attacked by the Trust, too. Whatever, he didn't have leisure to worry about it.
The SG-1 in desert camo was going first, and Morrison and the two SFs led them out of the room, heading down the stairs and outside to the gate. That gave them a little breathing room, and John looked around, making sure everybody had their gear. Rodney was still arguing with Colonel Carter, the twins were checking their weapons, Ronon looked edgy, and the SG-1 in black BDUs was ignoring them. John missed his Dr. Jackson for a second, but then saw him near the doorway, sitting on his heels to sort through his pack.
John could see the desert camo SG-1 on the viewscreen, walking out to the gate with Morrison. Everything looked fine, except his nerves were jumping for some reason. John looked at the other SG-1, and said, mostly to Mitchell, "So they let you guys help with the singularity...thing?"
No answer. None of them turned to look at him. Okay, John thought sourly. I didn't know our leprosy was showing. He added more deliberately, "Because we've been stuck down in the basement without a clue what was going on up here."
Still no answer. John was debating whether it was worth it to start a fight at this point and reflecting that insubordination committed against superior officers from other realities wouldn't actually count, when Itasa said, "He is not as attractive as our version of Colonel Mitchell." Her voice was clear, precise, and pitched to carry.
"No, he is not," Calena agreed on cue, sounding only mildly interested.
Itasa inspected her fingernails. "I cannot tell why."
Calena stared at the back of Mitchell's head. "It is the squinty effect, I think."
A red flush was steadily rising up Mitchell's neck. His Major Carter and Dr. Jackson were looking at the floor as if it was fascinating, though one corner of Carter's mouth crept upward. His Teal'c was staring off to one side with a serene expression.
"I have always thought personality was a large factor in attractiveness," Itasa added mercilessly.
"Sheppard," Ronon said suddenly, standing at John's elbow. "Something's wrong with my...gun."
"Your what?" John looked up at him, startled. Ronon barely let anybody look at his gun. Beckett had practically had to sedate him so they could make certain it hadn't been booby-trapped with any Wraith transponders.
"Yeah, here, look." Ronon drew him away from the others, turning their backs toward the rest of the room. John tensed, every nerve coming alert, knowing something was wrong and hoping this didn't look as fake and awkward as it seemed. Ronon leaned down, pretending to show John something on the weapon's firing mechanism, and whispered, "That's not Jackson. Not the one that came with us."
John looked at the gun, not at their Dr. Jackson, who was standing near the doorway. It would be really nice if Ronon was making a mistake. The guy had only known them all for a couple of weeks, anyway. "How do you know?"
"He doesn't smell right." John flicked a baffled glance up at him, and Ronon looked annoyed. He explained, "Before we came up here, he smelled like us. After they gave us our weapons, he smelled like some kind of perfume. Faint, but there."
"Perfume? Aftershave?" And John had it. Their Dr. Jackson, living in Atlantis, was using their Athosian-made soaps, just like they all were. But the Dr. Jackson from this reality probably hadn't considered that when planning to switch places with his counterpart. They kept us isolated, locked up underground with no information, woke us up after only a few hours sleep, brought us to a crowded room, made sure we were distracted, disoriented. That invitation earlier for Jackson to come up to the commissary. They wanted a closer look at him, to make sure they could match his clothes, his gear. "Right."
The other SG-1's reluctant attention was still on the twins, who were continuing their discussion of that Mitchell's appearance and probable personal habits, comparing him unfavorably with the version they knew. This universe's Teal'c was standing across the room, near the door, near the fake version of Dr. Jackson. Colonel Carter was near the monitors, arguing with Rodney. On the viewscreens, the gate had been dialed, and the desert camo SG-1 were walking into the wormhole.
John started toward Colonel Carter and Rodney, easy and casual, aware of Ronon easing away, putting his back to the wall. John said, "Rodney, come on, take it easy," and instead of reaching for Rodney, he grabbed Carter.
He jerked her in front of him, getting an arm around her throat, putting his pistol to her head. Teal'c -- both of them -- was the only one fast enough to draw a weapon. John said, "Drop it, Teal'c, or she's dead."
Ronon had his weapon up and ready, covering the whole room. Itasa and Calena instantly moved back, jerking their P-90s up, covering the other SG-1 but keeping out of Ronon's line of fire. Rodney scrambled around behind John, drawing his sidearm, wide-eyed, demanding, "What the hell--"
Colonel Carter, her voice rough from anger more than anything else, said, "You won't do it, Sheppard."
John said, deliberately, "Oh yeah, I will. You aren't my Colonel Carter."
The other SG-1 and had whipped around to face them, putting their backs to the opposite wall, P-90s lifted. If somebody started shooting, this would be over in an instant and there wouldn't be many survivors. Watching John with narrow eyes, Mitchell said, "What the hell are you doing, Sheppard?"
John smiled. "It looks like these folks just switched Dr. Jacksons on us. Since we were happy with the one we had, I think I'd like to get him back before we go. And besides, we don't leave our people behind, especially in other universes."
Evil Jackson lifted his hands, stepping forward slowly. If there was a difference between him and their Dr. Jackson, it was hard to tell. John thought their Jackson's uniform should have been more rumpled from sleeping in it, that maybe he hadn't been wearing his bandana and his vest in quite this way. But that might just be his imagination. Evil Jackson said calmly, "It's a mistake. No, just calm down, let her go and--"
John felt Colonel Carter, shift, testing his hold, and tightened his grip on her. "Okay. Tell me what we had for breakfast yesterday."
Evil Jackson stared. "What?"
John lifted a brow. He felt Colonel Carter tense even more, and knew he was right. "It's a simple question. If you're the Dr. Jackson that left Atlantis with us, then you know what we all had for breakfast."
"Yeah, that is a simple question," Mitchell said. His P-90 was still pointed at John, but he was eyeing Fake Jackson now. "Why don't you answer it?"
"Fine." Fake Jackson shrugged. "We had MREs."
Behind John, Rodney snorted. "We wish."
"Good guess," John said, "but wrong." He let Carter feel the gun muzzle against her forehead. "Where's our Jackson?"
Evil Jackson raised his hands. His face grim and resigned, he said, "Sam, it's over."
Teal'c turned first, covering Evil Teal'c. Mitchell exchanged looks with Major Carter and Other Jackson, then lowered his P-90 a little, so it wasn't quite trained on John. Mitchell demanded, "What the hell is going on here?"
Rodney stepped around John to glare at Colonel Carter. "What did you want with our Jackson when you already have one, because trust me, one's enough. He's still only a social scientist and he hasn't had time to look over even one tenth of our data. If you were going to kidnap one of us, you would have been better off with me."
"Yes, Major, I do not understand the point of this trick," Itasa said, keeping her P-90 trained on evil Teal'c. "Unless the goal was not to steal Dr. Jackson--"
"But to infiltrate Atlantis," John finished. That had to be it. You thought you were pissed off before. He said to Colonel Carter, "I'm guessing you were planning to talk us into taking at least one of you back with us, just temporarily. But when you saw we had Jackson with us--"
"What were you after?" Rodney interrupted, angry and beginning to turn red. "The database? Sabotage? What? You've got an Atlantis in this universe, or at least you had one, so what--"
"Hold it." Across the room, Major Carter was frowning thoughtfully. "Rodney, they told us their Atlantis never had a ZPM; do you have one?"
In the sudden silence, John thought, she's right. They're after the ZPM; it's the only thing we have they wouldn't have been able to get from their Atlantis. It took a lot of effort not to just shoot Evil Carter through the head right then. Rodney shouted, furious, "You were going to steal our ZPM? You bastards! How could you-- Sheppard wouldn't even let me take the extra instant coffee!"
"All of our people, including many children, depend on that ZPM for their lives," Calena said, teeth gritted.
"It is beneath contempt," the Teal'c in black BDUs said, speaking for the first time. His lip was curled in pure disgust. "The vile act of a coward."
"It was necessary to defend Earth," Evil Teal'c said. But he didn't look at his counterpart.
"Defend Earth from what?" Mitchell demanded, looking from Evil Jackson to Evil Carter. "You told us your Ori war was over."
"We drove them off, but we didn't defeat them," Evil Carter bit the words out. "We need that ZPM to destroy the supergate, to make certain the Ori can't attack the Milky Way again."
"That's your reason? Just in case the Ori attack again?" Other Jackson said incredulously, staring at his counterpart. "How the hell can you justify this? It's insane."
"We know they'll attack again," Evil Carter said. "It's just a matter of time."
"That doesn't justify this." Mitchell looked at the viewscreens, the gate lit by floodlights, scientists still gathered around the DHD. "Did you send that other team home, or did you just kill them?"
John's gut went cold; he hadn't thought of that, and he should have. But Evil Jackson said quickly, "We're not murderers. We sent them back to their universe, just as we said we would."
Rodney rounded on Evil Jackson, still furious. "Oh, you're not murderers? That ZPM is the only thing between us and the Wraith! If you'd taken it, you would have killed four hundred people! Hell, it would have been kinder to shoot all of us in the head, and frankly, I'd prefer that to being jammed into a cocoon and getting my life sucked out while I listen to my friends screaming in agony all around me!"
In the resulting silence, John thought, Go, Rodney. Good Teal'c cocked his head at Evil Teal'c, his expression even more contemptuous.
"We had to do it," Evil Carter said finally, her voice bitter. "You can't blame us for trying."
"Oh, I really can," John told her. "And if Jackson's hurt, you're dead."
They stunned Evil Carter, Evil Teal'c, and Evil Jackson with zats, then John and Mitchell went looking for Real Jackson while the others stayed to hold the monitor room. John thought they had an uneasy alliance at best. He didn't quite trust other SG-1 and he knew they sure as hell didn't trust his team. And this version of Mitchell seemed like kind of an uptight bastard.
With the life signs detector, they found Jackson locked up in a storage room a corridor away, bound with plastic handcuffs and gagged. John pulled the gag off first. Jackson coughed, and said in a rasp, "I take it he didn't fool you?"
"Not so much. And I wasn't thrilled with the idea of explaining to General O'Neill how I accidentally left you in another universe." John didn't figure that would have gone well at all. He drew his knife to cut through the handcuff tie on Jackson's wrists. "And just to check, what did we have for breakfast before we left for the mission?"
"Oatmeal, red Jell-O, and stewed bergam fruit," Jackson said, and coughed again.
"Yuck," Mitchell commented, cutting through the tie on Jackson's ankles.
"It's better than it sounds," Jackson assured him hoarsely. He added, "When everyone was distracted, I saw my counterpart out in the corridor. He motioned for me to come toward him, as if he wanted to tell me something. I fell for it, and someone grabbed me from behind. What did they want?"
"The ZPM," John told him.
Jackson stared. "How could they? Didn't they realize--"
"That's what we said." John helped Jackson to his feet, but Jackson swayed, pressing a hand to his temple. John noticed the red marks on his neck above his t-shirt. "You okay? Somebody choked you out?"
"Yeah." Jackson winced, and coughed again. "I'm fine."
He didn't sound fine. John's tension ramped up another notch. They still had to get out of here and now Jackson might need a doctor.
Other Mitchell pushed to his feet, watching them critically. "They told us you guys had mutinied and abandoned Earth during the Ori war."
John's whole body went tight. Wow, that's insult added to injury. He said, shortly, "No."
"Our Ori war is over. Obviously, we won," Jackson said. He added pointedly, "But we weren't able to reach Atlantis until after it had been attacked by a Trust ship. We abandoned them. It was unavoidable, but it happened, and we have a lot to make up for."
It was starting to get emotional. John winced, and just said, "We need to get out of here."
They got back to the monitor room without running into any SFs. Ronon and Good Teal'c were eyeing each other warily, while the twins and Other Jackson finished tying up the still unconscious members of evil SG-1. Major Carter and Rodney were typing at the terminals, lines of data crossing the screens. She was saying to Rodney, "In our universe, and the universe the other SG-1 was from, Atlantis has been evacuated and we're operating from the Alpha site. We didn't have ZPMs for them to steal. They must have kept us around as window dressing, waiting for a team from an active Atlantis to show up."
Rodney snarled back, "How the hell could you believe we left Earth to the Ori, after you people abandoned us to the Trust--"
She threw him a glare. "God, Rodney, that wasn't even us, and I said I was sorry--"
"Rodney!" John interrupted. "What have we got?"
Still seething, Rodney studied the screens. "From what I can tell, she wasn't lying about sending that other SG-1 back. If we can just get out to the gate, the reversed convergence should still be effecting the wormhole, and both our groups should be able to dial back to our points of origin in our own universes. I'm not certain how she managed to redirect us when we dialed to Atlantis from PX6-201, and why it grabbed us and not Teyla's group. It could have been a virus she uploaded to the DHD network, maybe something set to search for dialouts to Atlantis' address, or to an Alpha site address. Otherwise they would have been picking up dialouts from random traders, Wraith, and everything else."
Major Carter switched to another terminal, saying, "We don't know that they didn't. It looks like they could reverse the convergence whenever they wanted, so they could just send the traders home, and kill the Wraith." She winced. "Hopefully not vice versa. And whoa, we've got more trouble." She looked back at John and Mitchell. "They have a ship in orbit. It's too far out to get a good look at it with these sensors, but from the energy profile, it might be a hatak."
Before John could ask what the hell a hatak was, Rodney snapped, "That's impossible! A hatak wouldn't have an intergalactic drive."
She shook her head impatiently. "In our universe, we've modified captured Goa'uld ships with Asgard drives, to replace all the BC-303s we lost during the Ori war. They must have done the same thing. And if it's similar to our modified ships, it'll have an Asgard transport beam. If they realize what we're doing and can get a fix on us, they could beam us up."
"Dammit." Rodney pushed away from the console. "We're screwed! Again!"
"We're not screwed," Mitchell said, before John could.
"We just need to get to the gate." John turned to look down at the members of evil SG-1. They were wearing green BDUs. It was probably a deliberate choice, to match the set that Real Dr. Jackson was wearing and make the switch faster. Mitchell stepped up beside him, looking down at the unconscious figures. John asked, "You thinking what I'm thinking?"
Mitchell nodded. "It would be better if we had the whole set. I can wear Jackson's BDUs, but I never saw my duplicate. If he's not on the planet--"
"Yeah, we can't chance it." John's brow furrowed. "If you walk out there posing as him, and he's dead or back on Earth--"
Rodney turned to stare at them, catching on. "Are you crazy? That's a terrible plan!"
"You got a better one?" Mitchell demanded.
Rodney groaned. "No."
"You got a better plan?" Cameron was asking Bates, on PX6-201.
"No." Bates set his jaw. "But we know this isn't any DHD error. Somebody did this deliberately, and we could be playing right into their hands."
Cameron shook his head, impatient. "Dr. Zelenka said this subroutine virus thing whatever the hell it is was only set to run once. They aren't expecting anybody else to come through from this address." Zelenka thought the virus had been uploaded to a whole series of addresses, but that it had only been intended to run once. As if whoever had done it had only been planning to grab one set of gate travelers per universe.
Bates gave Cameron a narrow-eyed look. "I'm not saying we shouldn't go, I'm saying you shouldn't."
Cameron stared. Oh, the hell with this. "What? Sergeant, is that a joke? You don't seriously think I still had something to do with this? Just how the hell am I supposed to arrange an inter-dimensional kidnapping--"
"Not that," Bates said, still watching him. "If we don't come back with Jackson, then you have to be around to tell the SGC what happened here. If the Daedalus gets back and Dr. Weir has to give them this story, do you really think they're going to buy it?"
"He is right," Teyla said, sounding reluctant to agree with Bates even on principle. "It was implicit in the agreement Dr. Weir made that we would let no harm come to Dr. Jackson or you while you were with us. If it looks as though we did this deliberately, you know how your people would react."
Cameron looked away, swearing under his breath. Okay, so Bates had a point. But... He jerked his head toward one of Zelenka's assistants, carefully recording the scene with a small video camera. "O'Neill will believe Dr. Weir, because she'll have the DV the techs have been taking to help prove it. And I have to go." Bates started shaking his head, and Teyla looked annoyed. Cameron finished, "Because I should be there now. I shouldn't have gone through the gate with you, I should have waited for Jackson, because that's my damn job, and I shouldn't have been so careless just because this place looked safe."
Bates looked away, and Teyla's expression went bleak. After a moment, she said, "As I should be with Major Sheppard and Dr. McKay."
Cameron remembered then that she had been on Sheppard's gate team, with Lieutenant Ford. That she would have gone on missions with them for three years, and now she was standing here looking like the team's last survivor. That Bates was missing team members, too. Cameron had seen enough of that during the Ori war to know what it did to people. He let his breath out. "Then you know what I'm saying."
Bates swore. "Great. If we're going to be stupid, let's go all the way. But we have to send a MALP first. We have to make sure there's a valid destination on the other end of this thing."
John and the others started out to the gate, walking past the guards in the foyer and out the door, and through the floodlit field toward the platform. The night was cool and humid and there was a low layer of ground mist -- too low to provide any cover if this went wrong. Major Carter and Teal'c had changed into the green BDUs of the Evil Carter and Evil Teal'c of this universe. It would look like they were leading John's team plus Mitchell and Jackson from the remaining SG-1 to the gate. It wasn't a great idea, but John just hoped it would get them out there before Morrison or anybody else realized what was wrong.
"This is a terrible plan," Rodney was still saying, "What the hell are we going to tell them, that the other Carter and Teal'c are in the bathroom and will be along in a minute--"
Teeth gritted, John told him, "We know, Rodney, just go with it."
As they reached the artillery emplacements, Lieutenant Morrison met them. He looked puzzled, but not suspicious. He asked, "Colonel Carter?"
"We're sending the Atlantis team back now," Major Carter said, her expression confident and her voice firm. "Colonel Mitchell and Dr. Jackson wanted to observe the process."
"Yes, we did," Other Jackson added, nodding. Real Dr. Jackson was standing in the back, with the collar of his jacket pulled up to hide the red marks on his throat. Major Carter didn't make the mistake of slowing down, and as they kept moving, Morrison started to walk with her.
It might have worked. If Morrison hadn't stopped suddenly, one hand on his radio, just as half a dozen SFs burst out of the concrete building behind them. "Crap," John muttered, turning to cover their six with his P-90. Beside him, Mitchell added grimly, "You said it."
Teal'c dropped Morrison with a blast from a zat and they ran for the gate. The scientists scattered as Ronon picked off SFs with his energy gun, more accurate at a distance than the zats. John had told him to set it on stun and just hoped he had obeyed. He didn't want to escalate this any further than it already was, because he had the gut feeling Evil Carter wouldn't hesitate to retaliate.
They reached the DHD, and Teal'c, Ronon, and the twins turned to cover the approach from the field as John, Mitchell, Other Jackson, and Major Carter drove off the last SFs. Back in the monitor room, they had flipped a coin to see who would go first, and lucky for once, John had won. Real Jackson stumbled, supporting himself on the DHD's rim, as Rodney reached to hit the first symbol for PX6-201's address. Just then the gate lit up, the wormhole whooshing into life as someone dialed in. "Dammit," Rodney yelled.
We're seriously screwed, John thought, right before a zat blast hit him.
John came to, face down in wet alien grass that smelled like rosemary. For a moment he couldn't move. Various muscle groups were twitching at random, seizing up with a tight burst of pain and then releasing. Too much of the Goa'uld pain thingy over the past month, plus being shot with a zat, and maybe you got this. I should ask General O'Neill, he thought, dizzy and sick, trying to dig his fingers into the grass. If anybody would know, it would be him. Then he remembered they were screwed.
Somebody was standing nearby, saying, "The MALP that came through is a standard SGC model, but no one answered our radio traffic. The wormhole stayed open for close to ten minutes, then shut down. The readings say it was part of the convergence effect, but we didn't get a point of origin."
"Right," Carter said, sounding pissed. "The MALP's camera is pointing right down here. They probably got a look at all this and decided not to come through. Dammit, that could have been the one."
The one, John thought, They're still looking, and we're just in the way. He shoved himself up to his elbows and managed a bleary look around. They had been dragged about forty yards from the gate, and were under the stark white light of the floodlights, surrounded by SFs. John was missing his tac vest, his weapons. His t-shirt was untucked and his jacket pulled half off, as if he had been searched. Everybody who was on John's side was sprawled around him in similar condition, still shaking off the stun; Ronon and Good Teal'c were the only ones sitting up. They had their hands on their heads, and there were SFs standing over them, P-90s aimed. Ronon's expression was feral and Teal'c just looked disgruntled.
Colonel Carter was standing nearby, with Evil Teal'c and Evil Jackson. It was weird and disorienting, with their alternate versions still sprawled around on the ground.
John bit his lip, searching for options. These people had no reason to keep them alive; they needed them out of the way so they could keep trolling for gate teams with access to ZPMs. But maybe all his recent experience begging for people's lives could come in handy. To Colonel Carter, he said, "You don't have to kill the girls and Ronon, and you know it. Nobody from an SGC team is going to recognize them. And Rodney can help you. He knows where there might be ZPMs in this galaxy."
John heard the twins gasp in tandem protest. From a couple of feet away, Rodney, sounding sick and muzzy from the stun, said, "I do not, and the only way I'd help you people is over my dead--" He groaned. "Okay, dammit, I see what you're trying to do."
"We're not murderers," Evil Carter snapped, taking a couple of steps toward him.
On the grass nearby, Major Carter groaned and shoved herself into a sitting position. Sounding exasperated, she said, "Could you stop deluding yourself? Unless you run into a Pegasus galaxy with half a dozen ZPMs to spare, you're risking the destruction of another universe's Atlantis. And its Earth, if the Wraith take control of the Atlantis stargate. You're hanging those people out dry to save yourself."
Still woozy, Other Mitchell said, "Listen to...yourself, Carter. You don't want to do this. You can't want to do this."
Her voice hard, Evil Carter said, "I'm doing what I have to do. And this is none of your concern; we'll send you back to your own world as soon as we're done here." She told Morrison. "Take them over there."
The SFs prodded Other SG-1 to get up, making them move a few yards away. John felt cold settle in the pit of his stomach. If somebody were to give the order 'shoot all the Atlanteans,' it would be real easy to do it now without hitting anybody else.
Real Dr. Jackson peered up at Evil Carter, straightening his glasses. His voice still raspy, he said, "Just out of curiosity, what were you going to do with me?"
It was Evil Jackson who answered, "Once I returned with the ZPM, we would have sent you back."
"Oh, good," Rodney said, his voice acidly ironic. He rolled over, trying to sit up. "I'm sure our version of SG-1 would have appreciated that, when they finally managed to sort out his desiccated corpse from all the others."
John pushed himself up, bracing himself on his arms, still feeling his muscles tremble with weakness. "If you don't want to kill us, then let us go."
Evil Carter looked down at him. Her face was set, he couldn't tell what she was thinking. John knew he and Ronon were too dangerous to keep around, but would she kill the twins and Rodney, just to get them out of the way? He knew the Carter from their universe wouldn't, and he didn't think the one from Other SG-1, over there kneeling on the ground with her hands on her head and looking pissed off, would either. But this one he wasn't sure of. Evil Carter said, "We can't do that."
"God, why us?" Rodney lifted his hands in helpless exasperation. "Go persecute some other Atlantis, one that has regular contact with Earth, supplies, a ship. One that has a chance of surviving this!"
"We can't," she said again. "We're running out of time."
Rodney protested, "But--"
"The Wraith." It was Ronon, watching Evil Carter with a deeply cynical expression. "All these weapons, a ship. This is what they look for."
John watched Evil Carter's face, saw the flicker in her expression. "He's right, isn't he? You're running out of time because the Wraith are coming here."
Evil Jackson said, "Our ship detected a Wraith scoutship in this system ten days ago. They fired on it, but it escaped."
"Then there's a hive ship on it's way here," Rodney grated out the words. "You can't let them take this place, take your ship. It's loaded with Asgard technology, the transport beam, the shields, the cloak, the intergalactic drive. That technology isn't protected by the ATA gene; the Wraith can use it. How can you be so stupid?"
"I know that, McKay, believe me, I know." Evil Carter looked at John again. "Would your Atlantis trade the ZPM to get you back? All of you?"
John knew he was smiling, knew it was more like a teeth-bared snarl, but he couldn't stop himself. "We don't negotiate with Wraith, or terrorists."
"We're not--" Evil Carter cut the words off, took a deep breath. "From what you've said, they're not in any position to be picky. And it sounds like they can't afford to lose any more personnel."
John shook his head, holding her gaze. "They won't trade for me, because they know what I'd do to them once I got back."
From behind him, Itasa said, "The Genii have tried to hold our people hostage. Each time, it comes to nothing but dead Genii. Sometimes many dead Genii."
Then from the sidelines, Evil Teal'c said, "That was not the plan we discussed." He sounded calm, the way Teal'c always sounded, but something in his voice made Evil Carter twitch.
"Sam, this isn't working," Evil Jackson said, and he just sounded tired.
Evil Carter looked at her Jackson, her face still hard. "We could send you back alone. You tell them that the others didn't make it." She flicked a look at John. "When he brings back the ZPM, we'll let you go."
Oh yeah, I was hoping she wouldn't think of that. John kept his contemptuous expression, not letting his fear show. "They wouldn't believe him. They'd think he killed us, or stranded us somewhere. They'd lock him up and sure as hell never let him near the ZPM."
"He's right," Real Jackson said quickly. "We're still negotiating a resolution after the Trust attack. Atlantis hasn't agreed to reconnect with Earth yet. It's a very tense situation and they don't trust me."
Evil Carter eyed him skeptically. "They don't trust you, but they let you come with them on gate team missions, fully armed."
"That was a...uh." Real Jackson grimaced. "Uh oh." Crap, John thought, sick with desperation.
Rodney glared at them both. "Please remember who said that was a bad idea."
Evil Carter looked at Evil Jackson. "Will you do it?"
Evil Jackson nodded slowly. "As long as we send them back when it's over."
Dammit, Cameron thought. He hated hostage situations. He was in the pilot's seat of the jumper, cloaked and hovering a couple hundred yards above the field. They were listening in on the conversations through the open radio channels of the SFs.
When the MALP had showed them what was going on at the destination point, they had piled into the jumper and slipped through the wormhole. Teyla had talked Bates into staying behind with some of the Marines, to cover the gate in case this turned into an attempt at a full scale inter-universe invasion.
Cameron shook his head. "They are serious about this. And if they realize we're here, they're just going to try to force us to trade the ZPM."
Teyla nodded, her face grim. "They seem committed to this insane course."
In the port jump seat, Zelenka said, "But with this jumper's energy drones, we can destroy the hatak." He shrugged, thinking it over. "Or threaten to. We could hold it hostage."
Cameron considered it, but if the people down there didn't cave immediately, it just opened them up to a whole lot of bad possibilities. "There's that, but the hatak has its shields up. We can pound it until they give way, that's not a problem. But if we turn this into a shooting war--"
Teyla's mouth set in a hard line. "They can threaten to kill our people, one by one. It gives us no advantage."
Cameron let out his breath. "It all depends on how crazy they are, if they panic, and it looks like they're pretty damn crazy. To keep going on this, even after they know the Wraith have located their position..."
Teyla's frown was turning thoughtful. "If the Wraith arrived, do you think they would abandon their plan?"
Cameron shrugged. "They'd have to. I sure as hell would. From what I've seen in your reports, that hatak wouldn't stand up to a Wraith cruiser for two minutes, Asgard-augmented shields or not. And they can't risk getting it captured, and if it's destroyed, they're screwed. They'd have to bug out, and fast." He thought about the Carter down on the planet, how she kept saying they weren't murderers, kept trying to justify this. That the Teal'c and Jackson down there were obviously having doubts. "It would give them a reason to stop, to say they failed, without having to say they were wrong."
"To save face," Teyla said, lifting her brows. She looked at Zelenka.
"Exactly." Cameron looked at Zelenka too. "I don't suppose there's a way..."
"I can think of at least one way," Zelenka said, brow furrowed in thought, turning back to his laptop.
In the field, things weren't going well. One of the SFs reached down to grab Real Jackson's arm, meaning to drag him to his feet and back to the building. Apparently having a limit to his patience and still pissed about being choked unconscious, Jackson punched him in the groin. The guy collapsed, Jackson lunged for his weapon, and John surged to his feet and threw himself at the nearest SF. The whole field went crazy and John wrestled away the man's P-9O -- just in time to get stunned again.
The SFs' body must have blocked some of it. John came to what had to be only a few minutes later, his head in Calena's lap. He felt like he had been hit by a truck and dragged down a gravel road. Calena was trying to whisper something to him, and it took him a minute to understand her. She was saying, "Something is happening to their ship."
"Huh?" With her help, John managed to sit up. He took a bleary look around. His team was on the ground again, including Real Jackson. There were several SFs sprawled unconscious near Ronon, but it didn't look like they had managed to shift the balance of power any.
Rodney lay nearby, clutching his head. "Migraine," he gasped. "Stupid Goa'uld technology."
One hand on his headset, Morrison was saying, "Colonel Carter, whatever it is, it just fired on the Perseus again. Nothing is showing on their sensors."
"Dammit." Colonel Carter turned, staring down at John. "Let me guess, a cloaked gateship. It came through the gate after that MALP."
"Puddlejumper," John corrected automatically, trying to get his brain restarted. He dug his fingers into the grass to stay upright. The gate opening, the MALP. If that was Atlantis...
Then the radios crackled, a broadcast on all channels, and from the base units all around them, John heard Mitchell's voice say, "Hey down there, I've got a trade for you. You can let our people -- and anybody else's people you happen to have -- go, and I won't finish blowing up your hatak, here. If I'm remembering right, Ancient energy drones tear through Goa'uld shielding like hot lead through butter."
"Oh, thank God," Rodney muttered.
Startled, Evil Carter said, "Mitchell."
John smiled tightly. "Yeah, that one's with us."
She grimaced, keyed her radio, and said, "If you fire on the hatak again--"
Morrison broke in, "Colonel, the Perseus just reported picking up a Wraith transmission. They can only partially translate it, but it's from a hiveship."
Evil Carter's face went still. She keyed her radio and walked away a few steps. She must be confirming it with the hatak. John exchanged a look with Rodney. Wraith. And they were trapped outside. Ronon was struggling to sit up, and Itasa dragged herself over next to Calena and took her sister's hand.
Real Jackson rolled over and sat up, calling to Evil Carter, "You need your hatak, we need our jumper. Why don't we just call this off?"
Evil Jackson stepped forward, adding, "Sam, it's over. We have to get out of here. We can't let the Wraith get the hatak's Asgard drive, you know that."
Evil Carter turned around. Watching her, John saw the moment when she made the decision, and the relief in her eyes. She let her breath out. "You're right. We'll evacuate."
Evil Jackson started toward the building at a run. Evil Teal'c said, "It is for the best."
Evil Carter grimaced, looking down at John. "What are you going to--"
"Just let us go." He managed to shove himself to his feet, swaying. "The jumper will pick us up." He would rather take his chances with the Wraith attack than these people.
She hesitated another moment, then said, "You're free to go." She nodded to the SFs, and they backed off. Everybody started to scramble to their feet, including Other SG-1.
Rodney staggered upright, wincing. "What about your systems inside? The Wraith can--"
"We have a self-destruct." Evil Carter turned to Other SG-1, saying to Mitchell, "You can come with us. We'll get you back to your own universe as soon as we can."
Major Carter shook her head. "We have to use this gate to return to our universe. The convergence effect is tied to this point."
Evil Carter said, "We'll think of something, I promise you."
John saw Mitchell hesitate, saw the look on Major Carter's face. He knew they hadn't enjoyed being at Evil Carter's mercy anymore than he had, and they had every reason not to trust her. He said, "Or you can take your chances with us."
Mitchell hesitated again, and John couldn't blame him for that one, either. Mitchell said, "You're staying here?"
John nodded. "Until we can use the gate. If it looks like there's nothing left here, the Wraith won't stay."
Mitchell kept his expression opaque. "Okay, we're with you."
Colonel Carter gave him a look like she thought he might regret it. John rolled his eyes. She said to Mitchell, "It's your choice," and started away after the others.
John turned to look for their weapons. They were in a pile a short distance away, and Ronon and the girls were already digging their stuff out of it. "Major!" Itasa hurried toward him, carrying John's tac vest, his P-90, and holding out his headset. John hooked it over his ear and heard, "Sheppard, come in, this is Mitchell. What's your situation?"
John was too exhausted even to feel relief. He just said, "This is Sheppard. We're clear."
High above them John saw the jumper decloak, circling in for a landing. "We're not going to die," Rodney said, struggling into his tac vest and grabbing his pack. "At least not just yet."
The jumper slowed for a landing, the ramp already opening as it settled onto the grass. Ramirez, Yamato, and Raning leapt out to cover them as they made a run for it. John reached it first and swung around to the side, waving the others in. The other SG-1 piled in last, and John stepped in after them, hitting the lever to close the hatch.
The inside was crowded. There were two more Marines, two Athosians, all heavily armed and edgy. John pushed through to the cockpit, saying, "We need to get clear, they're setting a self-destruct on the base."
"Copy that." Mitchell was in the pilot's seat, and turned sharply back to the console. Zelenka was in the port jump seat with a laptop, and Teyla was in the co-pilot's seat.
She pushed to her feet, her face tense and worried. "Are you all right?"
"We're fine. They didn't--" John stopped when Teyla reached him and pulled his head down, bringing their foreheads together.
She was trembling and John was suddenly having a moment. Everyone else in the jumper was quiet. She said, "I thought I had lost all of you."
"It's okay," John managed, pulling away. He rubbed his eyes, tensing up, remembering the other SG-1 was watching.
Teyla reached for Rodney, doing the forehead touch with him. "They wanted the ZPM," Rodney told her, exhausted and shaky. "They didn't care if taking it killed all of us. They wouldn't listen. They wanted--"
"We know, we heard them over the comm," she said, her voice soothing.
John stepped into the cockpit, holding onto the edge of the hatch. The jumper had already lifted off, so smoothly he hadn't felt it. That made a nice change from their self-taught Marine pilots. Mitchell was taking them into the upper atmosphere, the sky giving way to the starfield. John asked, "What's the ETA on the hiveship?"
Mitchell said, "There's no hiveship. We made it up."
Huh? John blinked, and squinted at the HUD. The sensors were picking up the hatak in orbit, but nothing else. "You made it up?" he repeated.
"We had a copy of a Wraith transmission stored in the communications system, for comparison," Zelenka explained, looking up at John with a grin. "I sent it to bounce off a planet further out, so it appeared as if it was coming from deep space."
John turned that over for a moment. Then he stepped forward and sat down heavily in the co-pilot's chair. It was an effort not to blurt out something really stupid, like I love you guys. "Good job," he managed to say mildly.
Rodney stepped into the hatchway, glaring, mostly at Zelenka. "You made it up."
"Of course." Zelenka nodded. "You are still horrible person, Rodney, but I am glad you're not dead."
Rodney rolled his eyes. "I'm touched." He turned back into the rear cabin. "Where the hell is the Tylenol?"
"There's no Wraith?" Other Mitchell said, coming to stand in the hatchway.
"Nope, we made it up." In the pilot's seat, Mitchell turned around and did a double-take at his duplicate. He lifted his brows, looking a little freaked out. "Okay, this is weird."
"You get used to it." Other Mitchell shifted out of the way as Teyla led Real Dr. Jackson into the cockpit. She was saying, "You do not look well, Dr. Jackson. You must sit down."
"Daniel, what--" Mitchell hesitated, eyeing him suspiciously. He asked John, "That is the Daniel I came with, right?"
Real Jackson collapsed into the jump seat, sighing. "Yes, that's me. You can tell, because I'm the one who got a little strangled."
Mitchell muttered something uncomplimentary about their captors. John mentally told the HUD to switch to lifesigns, and to give him a view of the buildings below. He saw a group of signs disappear in a clump. "They're beaming up from inside the building."
"Maybe." Mitchell turned back the console, studying the image thoughtfully. "Might have a set of rings inside, if they're using a lot of these captured hataks."
"Rings?" John frowned.
"Goa'uld beaming device," Mitchell explained.
John looked up to see Other Mitchell watching them just a little incredulously. Jackson was drinking from the water bottle Teyla had handed him, Mitchell was cycling through the HUD displays. Zelenka had stepped into the back, and was having some sort of argument about his method for finding them with Rodney, who was still demanding Tylenol. The twins were telling the others what had happened, while Ronon kept a suspicious eye on the other SG-1. John had to admit, with the edgy PTSD Marines and the Athosians with long hair and leather outfits, they were probably a pretty odd group. And possibly looked more like space pirates than an SGC unit. Other Mitchell said, "So that stuff about Jackson being a hostage wasn't true."
Jackson capped the bottle, coughing. "No, that was true. I'm a hostage." He looked up at Teyla. "Thank you."
She smiled. "You are very welcome."
Other Mitchell looked at Mitchell, who shrugged and said, "It's complicated."
"Unlike some people, we're just not that great at the whole hostage thing," John told him, not bothering to try to hide the sarcasm.
"Whoa, there we go," Mitchell said, and the HUD focused in on the surface. The sensor outline of the base was dissolving in a wash of red energy. "I'm not reading any radiation. Looks like we can land once the heat dies down a little."
"Good." John changed the HUD back to long range, in time to see the blip representing the hatak accelerate into hyper and disappear. Bye, don't let the door hit you in the ass on the way out, he thought. "Wake me up when it's time to go back to our universe," he said, leaning his head back and closing his eyes.
That had been mostly for effect, and because he didn't want to talk anymore. But within a minute John was sound asleep.
Cameron landed near the stargate, lit now only by the jumper's exterior lights. The floodlights were out, dead now that the base was a smoking crater at the other end of the field. He hit the release for the ramp, pushing to his feet as everybody in the back started to pile out.
He thought about waking Sheppard, but the guy looked like he had the first time Cameron had seen him in the Daedalus' sick bay: pale and fragile, bones too close to the skin. He had had trouble believing then that this was the guy who had held the military command of Atlantis for three years, shoved into the position over the dead body of his CO. Now he believed it, he just thought Sheppard needed a vacation.
From the hatchway, Teyla whispered, "Let him sleep."
Cameron nodded and followed her outside. Ronon and the twins were at the head of the ramp, guarding the jumper, and the others had already spread out to form a loose perimeter.
McKay, Zelenka, and Major Carter were checking over the DHD, while Other Teal'c, Other Jackson, and Cameron's duplicate waited nearby. Daniel was standing near the jumper, watching. Weird, Cameron thought. With Teyla, he stopped next to Daniel. Cameron said, "Can't wait to tell Sam about this."
Daniel gave him the hairy eyeball. "Yes, I'm sure she'll be thrilled."
"I meant the parallel universes part. You know she loves that." Cameron watched the activity at the DHD for a moment, the familiar but unfamiliar faces. How much stranger had it been for Daniel, facing a group of people identical to his long-time teammates who were intent on holding him prisoner. "So what went wrong here? What pushed these people to try something like this?"
Daniel sighed. "Desperation."
Cameron snorted skeptically. "I remember being pretty damn desperate during the Ori war, but I don't remember anybody saying, 'hey, let's kidnap people from other realities and steal their stuff.'"
Teyla was listening with a thoughtful expression. She said, "We have come across many worlds that were pushed to extremes by the Wraith. Some have turned on each other, or other worlds. But many have not."
"There's that." Daniel shrugged, looking weary. "I don't know."
The wormhole whooshed into existence, and McKay waved an arm toward it peremptorily. Major Carter keyed her radio, probably to send her IDC and confirm they had the right universe. After a moment, she flashed a thumb's up. Zelenka took a bow and McKay glared at him.
The other Mitchell looked around, then walked over to them. He said, "Where's Sheppard? I just wanted to...say thanks."
Her voice cool, Teyla said, "He is resting. I will tell him later."
Cameron thought his duplicate looked a little guilty and wondered if the guy had a reason. Confirming that thought, Daniel said critically, "You could have been more helpful."
"Yeah, we could have," the guy admitted. "We knew something was wrong, we just didn't know what." He eyed them both for a moment. "You didn't have to help us get home."
Daniel held his gaze. "Yes, actually, we did."
Other Mitchell gave them a nod and a grim smile, and headed for the gate.
They got back to Atlantis in time for dinner, and Sheppard didn't wake up until the jumper slid into the gate room.